Category: Travel

Chasing darkness in Switzerland 2021 – Flims Laax

I haven’t been able to photograph the stars for a very long time. I live in a valley where many rivers flow, which brings a lot of moisture into the air. This moisture condenses, which forms either fog or clouds. I was sick of this weather and decided to climb above the clouds and finally take some pictures. Like last year I chose Berghaus Nagens in Flims/Laax ski resort and combine this trip with a skiing vacation. So, how was it? Well, I have bad luck this year. I got only a single cloudless night out of five. Moreover, it was the last one. So, I was not able to photograph the whole night and around midnight I had to pack the gear.

There is a time wrap made by GoPro Hero 8 Black. A view to the south direction. Orion is rising, snowcats are preparing the slopes and the only light pollution comes from city Milan, which is 100 km away.

The primary target was a very difficult one – IC 2118 Witch Head Nebula. This reflection nebula is illuminated by the supergiant star Rigel (right leg of the Orion constellation). The dark skies are the essence and the Askar mini telescope did the job. However, I was surprised how terrible was the chromatic aberration. This can be partially corrected in postprocessing, but not fully. I think I will have to find a better scope.

LensAskar FMA180 F4.5
CameraCanon EOS 6Da
MountiOptron Skyguider Pro
Exposure35x180s, ISO 1600
Date2021-12-30

Before the Orion constellation rose up, I captured the M45 Pleiades. It’s an integration of 63 frames each 2 minutes long. Here, the dark skies reveal some dark nebulae in the visual surroundings of the star cluster. Again, I was quite disappointed by the chromatic aberration of the Askar telescope.

LensAskar FMA180 F4.5
CameraCanon EOS 6Da
MountiOptron Skyguider Pro
Exposure62x120s, ISO 1600
Date2021-12-30

Chasing the darkness in Greece on Crete

This year we made our traditional summer vacation in Greece a bit earlier. The main reason was the cheap plane tickets to Crete. The destination was given, what remained was to specify the precise location. My friends recommended the southeast coast, so I started to search and found a house with a suitable terrace in the abandoned village Chametoulo. According to the light pollution map, the location should be perfect. We arrived at night, parked in front of the village, and moved all our stuff to the house through very narrow, steep streets. The first thing, which struck my eyes, was the presence of several LED powerful street lamps. WHY? Why there are street lamps in the empty village? Who pays for the electricity? Anyway, the terrace was partially covered and protected from the street lamps. On the other hand, it was very dark anywhere you look. I measured the SQM and directly at the zenith reached 21.55, which is a very good value. I started to get excited, but during our stay, my excitement was turned into frustration. It was very windy all the time. Some days it was less windy, but still, the conditions were far from being optimal. Fortunately, I took two rigs with me. The classical 150/600 mm Newtonian, sitting on RST 135 mount. The second one I tried in the winter – the pocket astrophotography rig. Askar F4.5 180 mm refractor, coupled with Canon 6D astro-modified and all this on extremely portable iOptron SkyGuider Pro. The Newtonian was totally unusable in the wind, but tiny Askar had no problems at all and I took roughly 1300 photos with Canon 6D camera.

Here is village Chametoulo during the day:

And here is village Chametoulo during the night:

Here is the double rig. I attached a 20 l canister to the tripod holding the RST 135 and 150/600 Newtonian to minimize the vibration due to the wind, but unfortunately, it didn’t help.

In the end, I managed to capture a couple of galaxies: M101 Pinwheel, M31 Andromeda, but otherwise, I gave up with 150/600 mm Newtonian. The smaller rig based on iOptron SkyGuider Pro performed much better. My primary target was Rho Ophiuchi @180 mm focal length. Then I captured the most interesting nebulae in constellations Serpens and Sagittarius – Lagoon, Trifid, Eagle, and Omega nebulae. Then I moved to the constellation Cygnus and capture it with many different focal lengths. And finally, I made a stop at the constellation Cassiopeia to compose the Heart, Soul nebulae with the Double Cluster NGC 869 and 884.

The Milky Way was not possible to photograph directly from the house, due to the street lamps in the village. I had to take a car and drive a bit to get to the South Coast Viewpoint:

Technical details:

LensSamyang 24 mm f1.4 @ f2.8
CameraCanon EOS 6Da
MountiOptron Skyguider Pro
Exposure16x15s, ISO 1600
Date2021-07-14


Chasing darkness in Switzerland – Flims Laax

I got a fantastic idea to combine our ski vacation with chasing darkness and creating some spectacular wide-angle astrophotography. I started to search for a hotel, preferably at the top of the mountain, where would be very low light pollution. I found one – Berghaus Nagens in ski resort Flims-Laax. According to the light pollution map, there should be ideal conditions given by the altitude 2000 meters above the sea level, leaving the bright villages in the valley. The hotel has a south-oriented terrace, which should be also optimal to capture the most interesting deep space objects. I knew that to take even the portable telescope together with ski equipment is not feasible, so I took just an astro-modified Canon EOS 6D, two lenses, a tripod, and a portable mount. During our trip to Kythira, I used Baader Nanotracker, which did the job, but I was struggling a lot with polar alignment, so I decided on an upgrade. Specifically, I purchased iOptron Skyguider Pro. It is still very portable, but almost like a real equatorial mount with integrated polar scope.  

So, I booked the hotel, packed ski, previously mentioned astro-equipment, and left for a couple of days towards a new experience. The arrival is quite strict – you have to be at the bottom gondola station between 15:00 and 15:30, to take the lift up. If you miss this gondola, you will not get up. Fortunately, we managed and even first evening we saw few stars in holes between the clouds. The next night the weather improved, but the clouds were still making serious astrophotography nearly impossible. Last two nights the sky cleared and even the Orion arm of the Milky Way was visible by the naked eye. I grabbed a sky quality meter and measured only 21.0, which is not that spectacular. The problem was not caused by the light from the hotel’s restaurant (they switched the lights off at 23:00), but the reason is that we were surrounded by slopes, which have to prepare and the Pistenbullys making the job done have extremely powerful headlights. I can imagine that as soon the ski season is over and the snow melts away, the conditions will be excellent. In the end, I took only two pictures 24 mm and 50 mm of the constellation Orion. Such poor performance can be explained by the extreme weather conditions (freezing -15°C) and my complete tiredness after the whole day of skiing. It’s definitely easier to spend a whole day on the beach and in the evening do some astrophotography because your body is charged by solar power.

Anyway, these few days were mainly about skiing and we enjoined that very much. I cannot imagine a better place for this purpose. One can simply put the ski on at 8:00 be alone on the very well-prepared slopes. Berghaus Nagens is therefore 100% recommendable.

Technical details:

LensSamyang 24 mm f1.4 @ f2.8
CameraCanon EOS 6Da
MountiOptron Skyguider Pro
Exposure46x15s, ISO 1600
Date2021-02-14

Technical details:

LensSigma 50 mm f1.4 Art@ f2.0
CameraCanon EOS 6Da
MountiOptron Skyguider Pro
Exposure44x30s, ISO 1600
Date2021-02-13

Chasing darkness on Kythira

Even across the Covid pandemic in 2020, we managed to organize the second trip to chase the darkness. As usual, our summer vacation took place in Greece, this time on the island Kythira. Based on the search on the light-pollution map, I concluded that the best would be the south-west side of the island. I found Vanis house in this location and booked it. The place was fantastic. Westside is obviously optimal for observation of the sunsets – and they were magical.

After the sunset, the Milky Way showed up and it was spectacular. Measured SQM reached 21.5, which means it was one of the darkest locations I have ever been to. My primary target was the Milky Way and I managed to capture it really well. Detailed pictures are in a separate post, but here is the view south during a moonless night.

Milky Way in fron of Vanis House
Vanis House – Waxing Crescent and Milky Way

Besides the Milky Way, I also took my portable Newtonian and captured a few deep space objects. I have to say that our vacation was not just about astrophotography, but also about enjoying the Greek sun, beautiful beaches, tasting delicious food, and simply relaxing. Conclusions: I love Kythira!

View from Vanis House
Avlemonas
Kaladi beach – the most beautiful beach on the island
Paralia Kalami

Chasing darkness on Fuerteventura

This year was a special year. The pandemic outbreak ruined my first attempt of chasing the darkness on the Canary Islands in May. I didn’t give up and as soon the restrictions were released, I purchased plane tickets to Fuerteventura again. We rented a house via AirBnB on the south side of the island, in the middle of nowhere, where the light pollution was minimal (measured SQM 21.2).

The island lies on the 28th parallel, which makes the core of the Milky Way pretty up in the sky. And this was exactly my primary astrophotographic target. I packed recently astro-modified Canon 6D, nifty-fifty 50 mm f1.8 lens and headed south. The aim was to capture the Antares region together with the core of the Milky Way and in the end, I somehow managed.  However, the lens disappointed me a lot, because it suffers from comatic and chromatic aberrations, combined with astigmatism. The stars in the corners are not round, even if the lens is slowed down to f 3.5. I was trying nearly every evening to recapture the Milky Way, but I was fighting with the weather (it was very windy) and with the equipment (polar alignment, shutter release, drained batteries), but I somehow managed to generate at least one decent picture of the desired target. Lessons learned – I need a better 50 mm lens.

Technical details:

LensCanon EF 50 mm f1.8
F-stop2.8
Focal length50 mm
MountBaader NanoTracker
CameraCanon EOS 6D Astro modified
Exposure14x20s, ISO 1600
Date2020-07-22

I also packed 150mm Newtonian, together with my new mount Rainbow Astro RS135. This mount is simply excellent and very portable. I still have Avalon M-Zero, but it is significantly heavier, therefore if I travel with Avalon, I have to order a second suitcase and to travel with two suitcases is not that convenient. Rainbow Astro occupies only half of my luggage, so there was a space for some T-shirts. I must say, that the Avalon is a better mount for tracking and there is no need to do a meridian flip, but the portability is for me more important. The primary target was the Lobster nebula, but I managed to capture some DSOs around Antares and in the core of the Milky Way (Lagoon, Trifid, M4, M6, M7, M24, IC4304).

The conclusion: the weather was much better than in La Palma last year. Every night was cloudless, but it was windy. Fortunately not every day, so in the end, it was a quite successful trip.


Chasing darkness in Greece – Karpathos

Like every summer, I packed the telescope, mount, camera and many accessories and flew to Greece. This time we went to Karpathos, the island not spoiled by massive tourism and light pollution. Long story short, the skies were amazing, but every single night, except one, was extremely windy. It was a torture – to see millions of stars and not be able to photograph them. There is no surprise that Karpathos is beloved by windsurfers and kite surfers. In the end I captured only the Iris Nebula and the Double Cluster. I talked to locals and they told me that the wind should stop at the end of September, so probably I picked the wrong time.

On the other hand I was able to do a wide angle astrophotography of the Milky Way. SQM reached 21.5, galactic core was so bright and I think the photos of the Milky Way are quite decent. This time I changed the setup and purchased Canon EOS 6D, which is one of the best cameras for this purpose. Moreover, there are many second hand 6Ds, because mirrorless mania arrived. 6D combined with Samyang 14 mm f2.8 offers excellent performance for this purpose.

Karpathos offers other beauties, for example very beautiful beaches, mountains, delicious food friendly people and many more.

Our house Elaeon with remarkable dark skies – SQM 21.5
Olympos
Apela beach
Avalon M-Zero and TS 6" Newtonian
Avalon M-Zero and TS 6″ Newtonian at Elaeon

Chasing darkness on La Palma

All of my previous dark-sky expeditions were organized in the summer-autumn part of the year. At this part of the year shines the galactic core of the Milky Way during the night (only if the sky is dark enough) and there are many deep space objects available. During my expedition to Milos, I managed to capture a huge part of the Messier catalog. However, there are some deep space objects, which are badly visible from my home and which have to be captured in the spring. I was researching where can I spend a few days, preferably somewhere south and even more preferably under dark skies. Googling yielded in the brilliant idea – La Palma, Canary Islands. This island belongs to the three most prominent spots on Earth for astronomy (together with Mauna Kea in Hawaii and European Southern Observatory in Chile). The observatory on La Palma is called Roque de Los Muchachos and currently, there is the largest optical, single-aperture telescope on this Planet (The Gran Telescopio Canarias). The observatory is built on the highest mountain of the island at an altitude nearly 2500 meters above sea level. On the whole island, there are strict rules for street illumination, therefore the dark skies are not the privilege of the highest mountains, but nearly everywhere are the conditions great, maybe except two big towns – Santa Cruz de La Palma and Los Llanos. The dark sky is probably the same touristic attraction on La Palma as the beaches on the Greek islands.

Theoretically, La Palma should be a paradise for astrophotographers. How was it in the reality? Well, I was not lucky at all with the weather. I got only one clear night out of ten. During the day it was nice and sunny, but nearly every evening the clouds rolled in and I was able to photograph only dark clouds. According to the weather statistics, there should be only one rainy day in May in La Palma. Moreover, cloud cover should be present only 30% of the month, the rest should be sunny. Hmm, probably we hit the 30% spot in the calendar.

On the other hand, the island is beautiful and offers many other activities, like hiking, whale watching, sightseeing, etc. People are friendly, nature breathtaking, food delicious and vine excellent. From this point of view, it was fantastic. In the end, I was able to capture two deep space objects, which have very low southern declination (not far from the horizon) if observed from Central Europe. Specifically, they were M68 globular cluster in constellation Hydra and M83 Southern Pinwheel Galaxy also in constellation Hydra. These two objects were on my “must capture” list, so in the end, it was not so bad.

Roque de los Muchachos
Roque de los Muchachos
The Gran Telescopio Canarias
MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov) telescope
Typical evening weather on La Palma in May
Volcán Teneguía
Volcán Teneguía

Puerto de Sto. Domingo
Salinas de Fuencaliente
Mirador de las Mimbreras

Chasing darkness in Schwarzwald

My second expedition after the dark skies (this year) led us to Germany, specifically to Black Forest (Schwarzwald) in the state of Baden-Württemberg. We rented a small cabin for a weekend and I took the same equipment which I took to Milos, i.e. telescope newton 150/600 mm, mount iOptron CEM25P and ZWO 071 Pro camera.

As soon got dark, the Milky Way showed up. I measured SQM and it reached 21.1, which is not spectacular, but far better compared what I have at home.

The equipment was working perfectly, but the dew started to form on the secondary mirror, because the cabin is close to river Breg, which means a lot of humidity. I never had dew problems with Newtonian telescope up to now. Lessons learned – I need a dew shield. I managed to capture only M74 Galaxy and M78 Nebula.

Anyway, I also managed to capture wide angle photos with my Pen-F and Fish eye lens.

Here are the star trails – exposure 30x30s:

And here is the Milky Way – exposure 1x30s ISO 3200 f1.8:


Chasing darkness in Greece – Milos

My second expedition after dark skies led us to beautiful island Milos. It’s mid-size island in Aegean see and it belongs to group of islands called Cyclades. The port and whole night life (bars, restaurants, discotheques) are located on the northern part of the island. We stayed on the other part of the island, where are empty, not organized beaches and mainly very low light pollution. To travel there is not straight forward, because Milos has very small airport. Therefore we had to fly to Santorini Island and from there take a ferry to Milos.

We found very lovely small house called Vila Kipos (AirBnB link) at remote part of the island. The place was decent for astrophotography. I measured SQM and it reached 21.3, which is not fully perfect, because the property is next to a road, and there are street lamps. However, it’s significantly better than what I have at home (SQM 19.9 – 20.4). There are much darker places on the island, but it would require batteries and to spend whole night in the nature. To photograph deep space directly next to the house, in which you stay, has significant advantages – electricity is available and the rig can photograph outside whole night and you can sleep inside.

The weather was excellent. Only two days out of 16 was windy or cloudy. Literarily, I had a deep space harvest. I managed to capture in two weeks as many pictures as during the whole last year. Initially I was bit afraid of these wires, which are in the south direction, but fortunately all the objects of my interest were above. I didn’t expect that I will manage to capture nearly all Messier’s summer objects in southern skies. Specifically, I captured M4, M6, M7, M8, M9, M17, M18, M19, M20, M21, M22, M23, M24, M25, M28, M30, M31, M33, M45, M54, M55, M56, M62, M69, M70, M73, M75, M80 and M107. Moreover, I captured NGC6822, NGC6871, NGC6888, NGC6939, NGC6946, NGC7000, NGC7293IC5146, IC1396 and B347.

We took a short walk 1 km direction west, the street lamps disappeared and SQM reached 21.5. The Milky Way was so bright that it nearly casted shadows. These are the optimal conditions to test my new fish eye lens (Olympus Zuiko 8mm F1.8 ED PRO). Focused on Mars, ISO 800, Exposure 25s.

The nearest source of light pollution direction south is Crete, which is 120 km away. Anyway, the picture could have been better and probably I should have used higher ISO. Therefore it is not going to beat the Milky Way picture from last year.

Well, it was not just about taking astrophotos, but also about nice and empty beaches, snorkeling in crystal clear water, very delicious food and in general relaxing and charging our human batteries. I miss the Greece already and I cannot wait till I will go there again.

Kleftiko beach

Kipos beach

Sarakiniko beach


Travel


Chasing the darkness in Greece on small island Gavdos

I was always dreaming about dark skies, because I live in sub-urban area with relatively strong light pollution. Two friends returned from Gavdos where they spent their summer vacation and told me that they have never seen so many stars in the sky – at that moment I was tempted. One year later I decided to combine our summer vacation (mid Semptember) with chasing of the dark skies. Swimming, snorkeling, hiking during the day and photographing, observing during the night.

We have been to Greece already, so we knew what to expect – beautiful beaches, people with great hospitality and tourists everywhere. But Gavdos is something different. It is a small island south from Crete. The island is the southernmost point of the entire European continent, which is optimal for astrophotography, because the deep space objects, which are near to the horizon in Switzerland, are 12° upper in the sky. Only few people live on Gavdos, which means there is no light pollution compared to other Greek islands. There are neither big hotels, discotheques nor organized beaches. On the other hand there are places where you can sleep and there are many taverns where you can get something delicious. Moreover in all taverns is a Wi-Fi. Electricity is mostly produced by the solar panels and stored in the batteries and some taverns use generators, so there is electricity available whole night. This means you don’t have to carry heavy batteries to power the mount or camera cooling with you.

It’s not so straight forward to get there. We flew to Heraklion (Crete capital), hired a car and drove to Paleiochora. Crete is quite big island and it took us 3-4 hours to drive from Heraklion to Paleiochora. From there we took a 6-hours ferry to Gavdos. The ferry arrives to Karaves – small harbor, where is a tavern and mini-market. Some info about the accommodation on Gavdos can be found here. We stayed at Metochi – small houses with the restaurant. The owner Maria was excellent host and she was always smiling and charged by positive energy. Every evening, when we were returning from the restaurant back to our house, we saw millions of stars. The Milky Way was so bright! I have never seen so many stars in my life. It was something spectacular.

I was thinking a lot what equipment shall I take with me to Gavdos. The telescope must be portable and has to fit in my backpack, so the Newtonian is not a good option. Refractors with slightly bigger aperture are long, therefore also not so suitable. I did the research and found interesting small reflector – 6″ (150 mm) Ritchey-Chrétien. It’s small and when I removed the focuser, it fits in my Lowepro Pro Trekker 450 AW bag even with camera, finder, autoguider and with all the cables. It has only one disadvantage – it’s quite slow with focal ratio f9. This can be improved with the focal reducer Astro Physics CCDT67. The focal ratio drops from f9 to acceptable f6. It’s still not as fast as my Newtonians, but the main thing is that it’s portable and inexpensive. Some review of this telescope can be found here or here.

Second part is the camera. My Moravian G2-8300 is an excellent camera, but together with the filter wheel, it has 2.5 kg, thus not optimal for traveling. I was searching for something lighter, with the same size of the chip and, of course, with the cooling. I found ZWO Color CMOS Camera ASI 1600MC-Cool. This camera has approximately the same quantum efficiency, but it has only 400 grams!

The last part of the gear is the mount. Here it was quite simple to decide and I purchased iOptron CEM25P lightweight equatorial mount with low periodic error and suitable payload capacity.

So, I had in hand luggage 13 kg (fortunately they never check the weight of the hand luggage) and my suit case had 31 kg and I managed to pass all security checks.

Back to Gavdos, I placed my portable astrophotographical equipment behind the house and took some pictures. Unfortunately, the weather was not so optimal. The skies were clear every night, but most of the time was very windy and I mean really very windy. I was able to photograph only 3 nights. This was quite disappointing, but I managed to capture Helix and Trifid Nebula.

Since we had a car, it was easy to travel around and every day we visited new beaches. Some of them are not accessible by car, so you have to hike an hour or two. But it’s worth it. For instance beach Potamos is one of the nicest beaches I have visited in my life and we were nearly alone there.

Beach Lakoudi is also nice and there we were completely alone.

Beach Tripiti is the southernmost place of Europe

The beaches are beautiful, but they were not the main reason why we traveled to Gavdos. To be under such clear skies and not to take a picture of the Milky Way would be shame. At the highest point of the island, there is a lighthouse – Faros. The lighthouse is not functioning anymore, but there is a museum and tavern. So, one can with the glass of wine or beer enjoy beautiful sunset.

If you stay a bit longer, the Milky Way shows its beauty. The conditions are excellent for such wide angle photography, because 200 km south there is nothing but the sea.

The picture was taken by Olympus PEN-F, lens Olympus ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO @ 12 mm, f/2.8, ISO 1600, exposure 20s. The crop factor is 2, which means that equivalent focal length for full frame sensor is 24 mm. This focal lenght is not so great for Milky Way, but the optical quality is remarkable. Comatic aberration is gently visible in upper left corner and there is no chromatic aberration. Well done Olympus! One of the main advantages of this camera is the weight. The camera with the lens has only 0.8 kg, which is exactly the half of the weight compare to my previous setup Canon EOS 40D with Tokina 11-20 F/2.8.

Just to conclude the post, we really loved Gavdos and we would definitely come back. The island has its own magic. It was pure relax there and I miss it. I can only recommend to everyone to go to Gavdos, not just due to the clear and not polluted skies, but also due to specific atmosphere of unspoiled nature.

On our way back we stayed couple of nights on Crete. The Moon started to shine, so I decided to take a picture of this white monster with my portable setup. Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes are not so great for the Moon or planets, due to big central obstruction caused by the secondary mirror. Some say, these telescopes are not suitable at all for this purpose. However, the picture is very sharp. I must say that it’s much better compared to pictures I made in Switzerland with significantly bigger telescopes and smaller central obstruction. This is caused by the seeing – in Greece the atmosphere is more steady compared to Swiss skies. Conclusions – it always doesn’t depend on your equipment, the nature has to cooperate as well.