Best Astronomical Experience of 2011

This year began with an effort to get into astrophotography while fully appreciating the limitations of m my Celestron  Advanced GoTo mount. There was no way I would be able to use my 9.25 tube from my observatory deep in suburban London, Ontario.  I was able to find another RASC member who had a larger mount but wanted more image scale for his own astrophotoraphy endeavours. I came  away from this trade with a nice Stellarvue 102mm ED refractor. It just loves riding on the mount.

Next up was the discovery of a Stellarvue 80/9D at KW Telescope and a quick trip to save this refractor from living alone away from its own kind. With these two siblings both liking the mount, it was time to introduce them to the third member of the Stellarvue family, my long underused 70mm ED. Scope wise I was now set! (Are those just not the most fatal last words for an astronomer and gear head?)

An intensive bit of camera shopping on Kijiji that yielded a nice Canon XSi at a very reasonable price.  London RASC members were able to help out with some software drivers and a quick visit to the Canon site had me using live view on my observatory (shed ) computer in no time!

Just to keep busy, I also decided to rebuild my Meade Starfinder 16 inch Dobsonian . I stole every good idea I found on the internet and tried to incorporate them in the undocumented and somewhat flexible design of my scope.  Rather than just buy new material, I decided to recycle plywood airline shipping crates as my primary source of material as well as some bits of plywood I had sitting around the house.  This lead to figuring out ways of using the available materials rather than buying new materials. Other than the cost of aluminum tube for truss poles (68.00), fasteners from Lee Valley Tools (38.00) and treating myself to a focuser upgrade from Astromart(60.00) and some counter weight (15.00).  I spent a lot of time, but not much cash on the conversion. The old sonotube was donated to a club member to serve as a mandrel for a scope project. I find the converted Dobsonian attracts as much attention from wood workers as it does astronomers when it is on display.

Summer brought some success with astrophotography but it also highlighted how critical good mount alignment needed to be to achieve good unguided photos. I am still learning this process of astrophotography with digital cameras but at this point, I feel that the combination of digital photography and well constructed GoTo mounts will be the future direction of amateur astronomy from urban areas.  Cameras can “see” through light pollution better than the human eye and there is no reason not to use them.

The warm months also highlighted the conundrum that faces each of us when we go to the telescope and must decide if the night will be devoted to visual observation or if the camera will do the seeing for us. I still have this problem where I feel I am giving up one for the other,  feeling guilty on both accounts

Summer also brought the beginning of the establishment of London RASC’s first observatory at the Fingal dark site. Footings and piers were poured for two roll off roof observatories as well as a free standing pier for member’s mounts.  Hopefully this project will be completed by the summer of 2012.

My best astronomical experience came in two parts:

The first part happened early in the year when seeing was particularly good and I was on one of those "highs" where you just want to share what you are seeing with someone. I decided to enlist the two boys up the street from me, who had never been to my observatory, to come over and have a look. After a short discussion with their mother, both of them with their mother and younger brother in tow came to have a look. There were the usual gasps and astonishment of what they were seeing on the surface of the moon.  Soon they were gone as the next day was a school day.

The second part came in the fall of the year, just after school started. The older boy who had been over showed up with his younger brother and he had a question: could I help him out with his astronomy project for school?  It took a bit of coaxing to narrow down the scope of the project from the whole of the universe down to just one of the things that really interested him: nebulae. A little more chatting and he was thrilled that M42 was something that had a lot of information for him to glean on the internet I was able to provide him with just enough charts and a book to get him started. Three weeks later, the material came back to me from a fellow who was quite satisfied with his mark on the project. 

All in all, 2011 was a great year!