Monday, January 8, 2018

A very cool new tool to assist in observing our Sun (It became a testimonial)

January 5th, 2018 - It was so cold outside. How cold was it? It was so cold, my Ha solar telescope would not "tune" to the bandwidth needed to bring out the features of the Sun. You could see the Sun, but no prominences, filaments, plages, or spicule's. You may ask "how could that be"? That's because my Lunt 60mm pressure tuned Ha telescope uses air spaced etalons. When it get's too cold the air density changes enough that it prevents the scope from getting "on band".  To overcome this problem, I would need to invest in a heat controlled solar filter from DayStar. To dig deeper in the science behind all of that may be a topic for a future blog. 
So what was I doing out there anyway? I was testing a new product by Orion. It is lightweight (6 pounds) solar mount. The mount uses a combination of GPS and a video camera sensor to find the Sun and track it accurately. Click on the following link and watch it work: Orion Solar Starseeker Tracking AZ Mount
You probably are now asking; "Phil, you have been doing this a long time. Why do you need an automated device to find the Sun"? The answer is, I don't, I am pretty good a getting the Sun into the eyepiece. However, there are  three very compelling benefits:
  1. It is difficult to polar align a mount and solar scope during the day time. Not being perfectly polar aligned causes the Sun to drift out of view over a period of time (from seconds to minutes) depending on how accurate the alignment. For simply viewing, close is good enough. Making some minor adjustments while viewing is no big deal. This is true if it is just me doing the viewing. However, during public solar observing outreach events like HAL does regularly at Robinson Nature Center in Columbia Maryland, I find myself continually having to jump in to see that the scope has drifted and the Sun is no longer in the "sweet spot" or may have moved out of view altogether. This helps to explain why the folks sometimes are underwhelmed by what they are not seeing. Time to jump in and get the Sun back in center of the eyepiece. This new mount uses the built in camera sensor to keep the Sun centered with absolutely no polar alignment necessary.
  2. Continuing on with the "drifting" issue... Solar imaging is also a challenge while the Sun is drifting. If the intent is to "stack" or combine pictures to bring maximum detail, having the Sun in the same spot in the frame is a big plus (or at least close). When the Sun is drifting as multiple pictures are being captured, it becomes very difficult for the post processing tools to match pixels. When attempting to bring out very faint and fine details like prominence structure, the quality can be significantly reduced or maybe missed altogether in the final product. Once again, the built in camera sensor tracking the Sun and keeping the image centered is fantastic.
  3. In 2013 I made the decision to invest in a Lunt 60mm Ha solar telescope because I wanted very high quality and maximum portability. The telescope's relatively small format allows me to carry it, eyepieces, and various accessories in a customized backpack. The tracking mount I currently use does not travel in a very portable fashion. It includes a tripod, a German equatorial head, a counter weight shaft, counter weights, a 6 volt external battery pack, a hand controller, and cables. It is lightweight for what it is, but not practical to travel with on an airplane or pack into a vehicle for a family vacation when the trunk is packed with luggage. When I do travel out of town with the solar scope, I travel with a simple tripod and mounting head. No tracking and no imaging (other than a quick snap shot maybe). It is simple and portable. But not the same experience as when using a tracking mount. 

The Orion Starseeker setup is so compact and efficient, I am able to pack the entire system along with the Solar Scope and accessories in the backpack. The light weight tripod straps to the outside of the backpack.

This is possible because the mount is completely self contained. There are no counter weights, no cables, and no exterior battery pack. The system runs on eight AA batteries which are contained right in the mounting head. It's amazing. The entire backpack weighs just 25 pounds and I have an entire Solar viewing system enclosed. I even have the ability to pack the camera inside the backpack and the lightweight laptop computer in the front pouch which will allow me to have a full solar imaging system in the backpack and ready to travel. This will bring the weight to approximately 30 pounds. Still not too bad.

Yes, I not only tested the Orion Mount in the parking lot of Company Seven Astro Optics on a blustery 14 degree day with wind chill into the single digits, I purchased it. The system sells for around $350, which is also a very good value for the benefits it provides.

Time will tell how it hold us under regular usage. It is specified to hold a telescope and accessories up to 7 pounds. My solar telescope with an eyepiece and in the "double-stack" configuration weighs in at 10 pounds". I am hoping that they spec'd the system conservatively and the gears will hold up. Check back at this time next year and let's see how it is doing. Also, the setup is so lightweight that it is easy to bump or move it out of place while adjusting the scopes pressure tuner. (The tuner was also a little stiffer than normal because it was freezing cold outside). It was just as easy to move it back into place without a problem. If I want greater stability I can take the head assembly off of the very lightweight aluminum tripod that it comes with and put it right on to my much more substantive carbon fiber tripod. Portability will not be sacrificed. It will just add a little more weight.

I am very excited to run this new setup through its paces. I am also looking forward for the temperature to return to a point where the telescope will "tune" properly and I don't have to be wearing a full winter get-up to look at and image the hottest object in our solar system.

Clear Skies!