The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Dark Sky, A Portal into Mind and Meaning.
The observatory is fifty feet to the south of the two story house. An eight-foot round dome sits on top of a square ten feet by ten feet building. The walls are stuccoed the same color as the house. The roof is sealed with a color the same as the house roof. The door and trim is near the trim colors of the house although a bit more grey. To the west of the dome twenty feet away is a prow shaped wind barrier made of cement seven feet high protecting a fourteen inch diameter cement telescope pier. All the cement is the same color as the cement foundation of the house which is satisfyingly close to the color of the red rocks and dirt it rests upon. They are simple constructions but somehow at the same time they are complexly attractive icons presenting a standing invitation.
I have called the observatory a “portal to the heavens” and that description is often enthusiastically accepted. From friends to the public, people express eagerness to see it. A couple of times I have been photographed and interviewed by Utah’s newspapers and was featured in a short film.
I wonder what exactly that attraction is. What do people expect to see? What do they want from it? Why do they ask me to come and see it? The location has to be part of it. Just outside of Capitol Reef National Park the area was originally considered to be part of the Park. In almost any other place it would be a monument or a park. Surrounded by red rock cliffs and high alpine plateaus in a rural area where dark skies at night still rule, a lot of people want to come here anyway. Getting away from the city and into the country with a chance to see the stars and Milky Way is a natural attraction, something I think that is similar to an instinct. It is, after all, what we were presented for the vast majority of our human history. Until just a hundred years ago there were no electric lights anywhere to light up the night sky and hide the stars.
The observatory threw every thing wrong that could go wrong at me and I have not been able to get an image since early November. The first sets of color captures combined in such a horrible way that it made me wonder if I new which filter was which in the filter wheel. That is a tricky thing to figure out remotely. Turns out I had it right and the inability to make a workable RGB image remains unexplained. I even had a long online chat with the software developer of CCDStack. He had some usual good ideas that were subtle and subtler but no basic explanation of where things went off the rails. So, as is always a good idea, I just started over. I used 360 second 2X2 RGB frames with new calibration subs and masters. The LUM frames were not great but were workable with 10 minute unbinned subs, all unguided. The usable frames came to a total of 13.3 hours of exposure. I also re-ran, a couple of times, the mount tracking protocols including a 100 star T-Point calibration and a new PEC correction. Even if you don’t understand what all this means you get the point that running this thing is technical and demanding for the mere layman such as me.
On a clear, moonless night, 7,000 feet high on the Colorado Plateau, I stand in my backyard in Torrey, Utah looking at the heavens. When I shift my gaze to the ground, I realize I can see my shadow. I move my arm about to see if a shadow is really what I was seeing. The shadow moves. The night seems inky dark. There is no artificial light anywhere. I laugh under my breath. How could there be a shadow? The only light is coming from the summer Milky Way arcing overhead.
I don’t believe there are many people who have seen their shadow by starlight and that is a shame. In most of the country and much of the world people live in places where the skyglow caused by errant urban light makes it impossible to see the Milky Way. When I was born there were slightly fewer than 3 billion people on the planet. Now there are almost 8 billion and it shows in the sky. Satellite photos of the earth at night taken over the past decades show the expansion of light creeping like a fungus growing in a petri dish. As Joni Mitchell sang in my youth, Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. That dark sky over my head in Torrey is becoming a lost resource. Another vanishing piece of wildness.
My father has been an avid amateur astronomer and astro-photographer since the early 1980’s. The technology of telescopes was improving fast in those days, prices were starting to come down, and Dad was an early adapter of the new technologies. In 1986 when Halley’s comet was making its once every 75 year rounds past Earth, Dad invited a buddy and me to join him in the dark skies of southern Utah to take a look through his telescope. We went to Canyonlands, south of Moab. Standing outside his motorhome the night was thick with dark, the Milky Way swept overhead, and Halley’s hung in the middle of the south sky with its tail pointing up and away to the northwest. The view through the telescope did not disappoint and my buddy and I laughed as we tried and failed to keep the comet in the telescope’s crosshairs. I could see the attraction to Dad’s hobby but I was busy with a budding family and career and did not see the telescope again until 20 years later. By then Dad had reconverted in a fundamental way to religion and there was a growing distance between us. “I still have that old telescope, the orange tube C8,” he told me. “You can take it if you want to.” That was all the instruction I got, but I took him up on the offer.
Cepheus is looking bad in the depiction Stellarium uses in their Western constellation art. The picture shows an old man sitting around in his bathrobe. It could be me in this pandemic if I had more hair. I would be offended if I were him. That depiction is way too close to the truth, too exposing, not nearly romantic enough. It is the women in his life making the big splash. He is just a geezer hanging out in lazy togs for everyone to see, reminding people innocently passing by, if they will listen, that he prefers to be called King. There you are old dad, taking up space in the sky, trying to think somehow you might be important. An old man’s lament.
I switched the observatory camera from the original CCD SBIG ST-10XME to my modified CMOS Canon 500D/T1i. Replacing the observatory camera was more work, of course, than envisioned. The Canon sensor is set back compared to the SBIG’s and there was not enough range for the TEC-140 telescope to get focused. Jeff Dickerman, the super helpful president at Optec, made me a new adapter to go with another receiver that shortened the camera train enough to get easily into focus. I then rediscovered (I had forgotten but found my own online forum entry!) that CCDAutoPIlot had to turn off the feature on TheSkyX that would record both RAW and FITS files and records only the FITS files. It turns out the DeepSkyStacker can work with FITS and convert the RAW files that create them in color. But I had over time come up with a dark library in RAW frames for the Canon so I could temperature match with the light frames. I don’t have such with FITS files. But if I want to use the observatory automation of CCDAutoPilot, which I do, I will need a new FITS library at a range of temperatures to do it right.
Then I had trouble with setting exposure with CCDAutoPilot on the Canon images. I’m telling a lot of technical info here, but it took a lot of wrestling directly with complex technology to get through all the unforeseen obstacles. The Canon CMOS sensor uses a 2X2 Bayer matrix to record color. Two cells of the matrix are green, the other two are red and blue each. CCD’s, like my SBIG camera,have individual sensors not organized in a matrix. In something to do with the CMOS Bayer matrix, CCDAutoPilot only sees one cell as exposed, and it was saturated, while the other three were only about one-fifth exposed. It averages them in a meaningless way and it seems hit or miss if CCDAutoPilot can get the exposure close enough to get flats. Sometimes it gives up, sometime it settles on something. Focusing is tough too, as is plate solving. CCDAutoPilot did not have a solution as you can see on their forum here, but John Smith, the creator of the software, encouraged me to investigate on my own further. You are getting in pretty deep when the software designer basically gives up and says good luck.
Weirdly, after all that, I did come up with the image below.
The Trifid Nebula is one of the most popular objects to be viewed and photographed by amateurs like me, but if you are in mid North America you have to be quick, it isn’t up for long. In mid-August it doesn’t get fully dark where my observatory is in Torrey, Utah until 10 PM. At that time the nebula is due south, right at the meridian, and at its highest point in the sky for the night at a low 26 degrees altitude (90 degrees is straight up). Boulder Mountain is south of Torrey and it is as dark as it gets in that direction, so it is a good place and time to photograph the object. But by 1 AM the Trifid is getting below 20 degrees altitude, getting close to the mountain and running into too much atmospheric interference near the horizon. The trick is to get some moonless, cloudless nights at these few critical hours. Mid-August worked out this year.
It is obvious that one butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the planet is not going to change the weather. Such a thing is the proverbial gnat fart in a hurricane. That is how I feel when it comes to boycotting the big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google. What is my tiny effort going to do against their immense wealth and power?
But their immense wealth and power is the problem. Amazon is choking out America’s bookstores, publishers and retailers. Yes, they make lower prices for consumers but thinkers like writer, attorney and professor at Columbia Law School Tim Wu and Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, know that there is more to the dangers of monopoly power than price. This old investment professional is worried that there are only about half as many public small-cap companies as there were twenty years ago. I am worried that Google and Facebook are almost completely choking out journalism and the democratically critical Fourth Estate. Economy like ecology like democracy requires diversity to thrive and survive. We are starting to recognize that all this free and cheap internet service like Google, Facebook and Amazon offer is actually very expensive and diminishing. Continue reading →
I’m working on weaning myself as much as practical from social media. I have previously written how the largest corporations today, primarily all internet related, are dangerously sucking all the oxygen out of the economy. I don’t want to be a part of that travesty if I can help it.
I have been posting my astrophotos on Facebook where I get by far the most response. But I want to lay lower playing that game. I have ad blockers and add-ins that keep me from being tracked, but I want to spend less and less actual time there. I also use DuckDuckGo to search instead of Google, have dropped my Amazon Prime, and the only Apple product I use is an old iPad to stream Spotify. It’s a start.
As part of that start I want to post my astrophotos here instead of Facebook. I may not get as much attention. I hope to be grown up enough to be fine with that.
Here is one of my latest images. You can click on it to go to my astrophoto gallery on this same website to see a larger version and to find brief technical information about how it was acquired.
I recently sent this letter to my daughter, Kristen, of adventures and unexpected lessons from the observatory.
Mounting the beast (Celestron C-14)
I had an experience this week that is sticking with me as a terrific little metaphor. I am the student. The thing has cast a spell. I am pondering how to take in the message.
Last Friday Kirsten [my wife] went to NYC to the annual Torrey House distributor conference and to see her dad and sister. While she was gone I scooted down to Torrey to see if I could install one of my dad’s telescopes in the observatory, one that I had not used before. It is his most powerful scope and it is a big beast. I didn’t know if I would even be able to lift it up to the mount, slightly over my head, into its dovetail fitting. I could have used help, but Torrey is far away and I have already imposed on a willing neighbor there too much. I put on some old work gloves. I hefted the thing up, got the dovetail started, but then it jammed. Before my muscles gave out I set the scope back down and waited a while. The gloves left incongruous dust prints on the pristine instrument. Throughout the day I tried 7 more times and went to bed that night thinking I should lift weights more. I thought about it and the next morning tried a new angle. On the second try I finally got it. I sat down to marvel at myself while I gave the mount the command to move to its home position. As it did so I laughed as I realized I had put the beast on upside down.
The Veil Nebula, sometimes called “The Witch’s Broom” is in the constellation Cygnus. Some 5,000 years ago, give or take, a star went supernova and this image is a piece of the remnant. The full circle of the remnant takes up about a three degree circle in the sky equaling a space about six times the diameter of the moon. With instruction manuals, trial and error and plenty of help from experts on amateur forums, I point the observatory telescope to a pre-identified place using sophisticated, automated equipment and capture the sub images. William Herschel, on the other hand, made his own telescope and found the object for the first time in 1784. No digital cameras were involved.