Tag: Chasing darkness

Chasing the darkness in Namibia 2022

As a passionate astrophotographer, I have been dreaming about the southern sky. Obviously, the best conditions are in Chile, the home of ESO European Southern Observatory. I read a couple of the travel blogs from Chile and yes this is the place to be with a telescope. However, I live in Central Europe, and getting to Chile is not that straightforward. Once I was browsing through the APOD (astronomy picture of the day) and found a beautiful picture of the Rho Ophiuchi. By reading the credits, I found out that this picture was taken in Namibia, specifically in the Kalahari desert. Well, I was hooked. I found out that astro-tourism is a regular business in Namibia. There are many farms offering telescopes/mounts to rent. The weather in winter (May – September) is basically guaranteed (here is the webpage with records of the cloud cover). Moreover, it’s very dry, so the sky is transparent. In other words, the conditions for astrophotography are excellent. I quickly started to search for accommodation during the next new Moon phase. A couple of farms were already booked out, but I found a place at Kiripotib astro farm. I cannot describe how lucky I was. The farm Kiripotib is run by a couple Hans and Claudia von Hase, very nice and friendly people. Not just them, but their whole stuff – Abigale, Caterina, Mike, and others were very polite. The farm has two seasons. Summer (European winter) is a gliding season. There are two runways directly next to the farm. Winter (European summer) is an astro-season. For this purpose, there are 12 platforms and one roll-off roof observatory roughly 300 m from the farm. The platforms are equipped with 220 V sockets and each has a solid pier, wind protection, a table, and chairs. Basically, all that is required for serious astrophotography. Moreover, there is a wifi coverage there. The signal is not strong, but I was able to download a driver directly at the platform. For each new Moon phase, a guide comes from Germany to take care of the visitors to make sure that the rented equipment will be properly installed. For our stay, Stefan Lenz was our guide. He is a very experienced astrophotographer who won APOD last year.

As you can see, I gave up on the Newtonian portable telescope and replaced it with a refractor. The reason is that I bought a new camera for this trip. Specifically, ZWO ASI 2600MM, which has very small pixels. I was not able to get the stars round at the edges even with a perfectly collimated telescope, no matter which coma corrector I used. I simply gave up and ordered SharpStar 94 EPDH with a focal reducer. I sacrificed the aperture, but the stars are small and round in any corner of an APS-C sensor. I also took the portable refractor WO RedCat 51, combined with ZWO ASI 071MC. I wanted to rent the Newtonian telescope at Kiripotib, but it was already booked, so the only option was to rent Meade 10″ ACF. Stefan helped me to set it up and I used this scope mainly for galaxies like NGC 5128 Centaurus A Galaxy or NGC 6744 Galaxy or the planet Saturn.

A typical day at Kiripotib looks like that: late breakfast at 10:30. After breakfast one can take a nap or try pro process the pictures which were taken the previous day. In the afternoon coffee with a cake is served at 14:00. There are many things to do after the cake. For example, one can hike to the aloe trees:

Or to take a biking trip and meet the wildlife.

The dinner is served at 18:00 and around 19:00 it was already getting dark. A short walk to the platform and the show can start. The Milky Way was rising from the east. Honestly, I haven’t seen such a bright core in my life. It was a stunning view and I managed to capture the whole arc. However, everything didn’t go according to plan. First two nights I was struggling with my new laptop. The default power mode of Windows 11 is set to go to sleep after 20 minutes even if plugged in. Since I was managing 3 mounts, it took me a while to figure it out. Another problem was the polar alignment. In the northern hemisphere, we have Polaris. It is a very bright star, which can be located easily. However, in the southern hemisphere, there is Sigma Octantis, which should serve the purpose. But it is not a bright star and there are many similar stars, having the same brightness. For RST 135 mount I took PoleMaster. With this device it was doable, but it took me an hour to find the pattern. The situation was much more challenging with the iOptron Skyguider Pro. When I looked through the polar scope, I was completely unable to find the Sigma Octantis. The first two nights I was just guessing where the Southern celestial pole is. Hint for anyone who wants to do astrophotography in the Southern hemisphere for the first time: get prepared for the struggle with the polar alignment! Fortunately, I had the old ASIAir with me. There is a simple procedure for the polar alignment by plate solving of two pictures mutually rotated. This was a life-saving feature. The third issue I had was the automatic focuser. I knew that the refractors suffer from a focal drift if the temperature changes. Therefore, I equipped the SharpStar with ZWO electronic focuser. However, one needs to set up how many steps will be used for the focus sweep. I set up too small steps and in some cases, the perfect V-curve was not found, so some pictures were not sharp. I found a tutorial on YouTube on how to set it up properly. After solving all these issues I was finally ready for serious astrophotography. The primary target was obviously the Eta Carina nebula – a highlight of the Southern hemisphere. Secondary targets were NGC 5128 Centaurus A galaxy, NGC 6744 galaxy, NGC 6752 Globular Cluster, IC 2944 Running Chicken Nebula, NGC 5139 Omega Centauri, NGC 292 Small Magellanic Cloud, IC 4628 Prawn Nebula, NGC 2060 Tarantula Nebula, Norma Star Cloud, IC 2602 Southern Pleiades, Vela Supernova Remnant, NGC 6357 Lobster Nebula NGC 6334 Cat’s Paw Nebula, NGC 6188 Rim Nebula. One night I left the tripod with Canon EOS 6D + Samyang 24mm@f2.8 in front of the platform, set iso 1600, exposure 120s, and let it shoot until the battery died. It made 135 photos and by combining them I got such lovely star trails:

It was a very intensive 9 nights not disturbed by the clouds, wind, or light pollution. The conditions significantly exceeded my expectations. I have to admit that I did astrophotography for the first time in the proper place. There are still some deep-space objects on my list, so there is a reason to come back next year.

Final day and packing the rigs. Stefan came to help me 🙂

On the last day I took a picture of the house where we stayed with the Milky Way in the background:

Namibia is not just an astrotourism, but most people visit Namibia for a different reasons. There is Etosha Nationalpark in the northern part of Namibia where wild animals can be seen, Fish River Canyon (Southern Namibia) is the largest canyon in Africa. There are definitely many places to visit. Unfortunately, we had only 3 days to travel around, so we decided to hire a car and make a trip to Sossusvlei. It was a very spectacular place. The deep blue color of the sky is mixed with the orange dunes.

Conclusions

There are still some deep space objects in the Southern sky, which I haven’t captured. Moreover, there are many places in Namibia, which I want to visit. We will definitely come back.


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 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 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

M68 Globular Cluster

Messier 68 is a globular cluster located in constellation Hydra. The cluster contains more than 100,000 stars and it is approximately 33,000 light-years away from Earth. The best time for observation is between March and July. Observers from Central Europe have disadvantage, because M68 doesn’t raise much above the horizon. Therefore this cluster was one of my primary targets on La Palma, where M68 is much better visible. However, the weather was bad and I only got 40 minutes between the clouds.

Technical details:

TelescopeNewton 150/600 mm
Aperture150 mm
Focal length630 mm
MountAvalon M-Zero
AutoguidingZWO 174MM, Guidescope 30 mm
CameraZWO 071 Pro @-10°C
CorrectorExplore Scientific HR
FiltersAstronomik L-1 - UV IR Block Filter
Exposure19x120s, Gain 94, bin 1x1,
Date2019-04-30

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