Category: Travel

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 darkness chasing 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 supposed to be 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.


Chasing darkness on La Palma

All of my previous dark-sky expeditions were organized in 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 huge part of the Messier catalogue. 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 few days, preferably somewhere south and even more preferably under dark skies. Googling yielded in brilliant idea – La Palma, Canary Islands. This island belongs to 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 altitude nearly 2500 meters above the sea level. On the whole island there are strict rules for the 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. Dark sky is probably the same touristic attraction on La Palma like the beaches on Greek islands.


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.


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.