We know that amateur astronomers have a tough time in the northeast consistently viewing the heavens. What if you had access to the dark skies over west Texas from your home computer? What if you could join a free monthly guided tour of deep sky objects from the comfort of your home? What if you’re a budding astrophotographer or an expert in deep sky imaging but can’t travel far? The answer to all these questions is the newly unveiled AAA Gateway Remote Telescope (GRT).
Check out the GRT and more details on aaa.org. Through an arrangement with amateur astronomer John Kasianowicz, the AAA has exclusive access to an excellent high-end telescope, camera and mount at the Dark Sky Observatory remote facility in Ft. Davis, TX (see the GRT page for a list of equipment). It shares the same clear sky as McDonald Observatory. We went one step further and attached our own small refractor (donated by member Antoine Ribaut) and one-shot color (OSC) camera to John’s mount, now we have two telescopes to choose from for imaging and live-streaming.
The telescope rig is accessed on-line via the NINA astrophotography imaging program. We’ll be able to photograph deep sky objects and present live-stream views of what the telescopes can see from a latitude of 30 degrees North.
We have four tiers of participation available so every member can join the project. Observers can join for free and attend on-line lectures and demos with real-time viewing. Data Subscribers can download all the data obtained by both telescopes and process at their own pace. We’ll also be offering AAA Classes in Image Processing to help. Target Selectors can pick an object each month that will be photographed when it’s at its peak location in the sky. Selectors can also download everything available to Subscribers. Telescope Operators will be able to “fly” the scopes, choose their own objects to photograph, image the Selectors targets and help with the live-stream programs. Operators have access to all data gathered by the telescopes. (Limited number of Operator spots left).
The top three tiers are available at prices that are very competitive with commercial on-line remote telescope. In addition, these two telescopes are exclusive to the AAA and participating members. The fees exist to help cover the pier rental fee at the DSO facility.
This idea started from a conversation between AAA President Alfredo Viegas, Stan Honda and other members of the Astrophotography group at NEAF (Northeast Astronomy Forum) this past April. What if AAA had its own remote telescope? We had plenty of input on equipment and a few ideas on locations. A committee was formed that included Tinchi Lee and Antoine Ribaut, two members who operate remote telescopes in New Mexico and Chile, respectively.
Our initial thoughts were that this would take about a year to gather the funds and determine the right type of equipment. In the summer, Alfredo saw an item on the Cloudy Nights astronomy forum that offered free access to a high-end rig in Texas. This turned out to be John Kasianowicz, who has two other rigs at the DSO site. He was hoping for an astronomy club that could make use of an Astrophysics 175mm (AP 175) telescope for imaging and outreach.
We decided this was a great offer. AAA just needed to be responsible for the pier rental fee charged by DSO. The AP 175 has a Finger Lakes Instrumentation MicroLine 16200 CCD camera attached to it. It is a mono-type sensor, you need to image through red, green and blue filters to get a full color image. This camera also has narrow-band filters for hydrogen-alpha, silicon (SII) and oxygen (OIII) wavelengths. We thought that novice astrophotographers might find this process too difficult at first. We investigated small refractors and one-shot color cameras.
Antoine offered to donate his Astro-Tech 60mm telescope to the project, that he won in a star party raffle. We decided on the ZWO ASI 2600 OSC camera would make a good match to that focal length.
At the end of August, Antoine and Stan traveled to Texas to meet John at the DSO site. John was doing maintenance on his rigs and offered to help us install the AT-60 scope and camera. On the second night we achieved sharp focus and Linda Thomas-Fowler, who operates remotely John’s rigs, took a single 600 second frame of the North American Nebula. Despite the fairly large moon, it looked great.
Intense work by the remote telescope committee has brought us to this point, where we can start imaging targets under the dark west Texas sky. So check out the Gateway page on the AAA website to learn more. And if you’d like to help on the Remote Telescope Committee, email [email protected].
Stan Honda is a AAA Board Member and helps organize the Astrophotography Google Group.