Day 1 of the SouthWest Astrophotography Seminar

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The SouthWest Astrophotography Seminar in Tucson, Arizona, attracted some 130 attendees interested in learning more about capturing celestial objects. // All images: Astronomy: Michael E. Bakich
It’s the first day of the SouthWest Astrophotography Seminar (SWAP) in Tucson, Arizona. Approximately 130 dedicated imagers have gathered at the Hotel Tucson City Center InnSuites to teach and learn techniques that will produce better celestial images. Promptly at 10 a.m., one of the conference’s organizers, Warren Keller, led off with introductory remarks.

Next up was Dennis Conti. It was his idea that formed the basis for the first day’s activities. Called “Birds of a Feather” sessions, each 75-minute span would be a focused group on one subject: Alignment/Collimation, Focusing, Guiding, Lunar Imaging, Planetary Imaging, Deep-Sky Imaging, Solar Imaging, Remote Imaging, Paramount/SkyX, and PixInsightPhotoshop. Throughout the day, sessions were repeated several times.

California amateur astronomer Ken Crawford conducted the "Deep-Sky Imaging" session. Participants had questions related to telescopes, cameras, and especially software.
My first session was the Deep-Sky Imaging workshop. Longtime Astronomy contributor Ken Crawford acted as our moderator. Along with Crawford and myself, 10 other imagers joined our group.

Our first activity was to introduce ourselves and share a bit about our imaging experience and interests. The time people have been involved ranged from six months of experience to 15 years, and equipment spanned 4-inch refractors to 17-inch corrected Dall-Kirkham reflectors. Galaxies? Check. Wide field? Check. What a diverse group!

The initial discussion was about software. Several attendees chipped in about selection, specific uses, and whether or not one software platform will do, or are multiple programs necessary. Taking dark and flat frames, eliminating bad pixels (including rows of them on CCD chips), adjusting curves and histograms, optimum imaging time, and when to perform certain processing techniques were all covered.

That led to a discussion of star colors and star sizes. Questions included: How do you maintain the integrity of bright stars when the centers are oversaturated? What’s the best way to even out the colors? And what are people using to scale star images (making the bright stars more like point sources)? The discussion was lively with full participation, and the 75 minutes seemed to fly by.

Longtime Astronomy contributor Christopher Go conducted the "Planetary Imaging" session. He explained both his personal imaging workflow and his work with the Hubble Space Telescope.
The next session I attended was the "Planetary Imaging" group moderated by top-notch imager Christopher Go from Cebu, Philippines. He, I, and 11 others engaged in a marvelous question-and-answer session. To begin the discussion, Go summarized his imaging workflow and how he’s had to maximize his limited time. He also said that he is more concerned with producing images for scientific use than just pretty pictures. That said, if you’ve seen his images, you know he also devotes some time to processing.

He fielded more questions about his workflow, which, it was obvious, others would like to emulate. Go is a big fan of Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes (SCTs) and says they are seriously underrated as far as planetary imaging is concerned. Then he quickly summarized the software he uses. He also reviewed some of the time he was awarded on the Hubble Space Telescope and showed everyone one of his results: Ganymede superimposed on the Great Red Spot (GRS). Go and the team he was on actually were measuring wind speeds in the GRS, and he said they were horrified when they saw Ganymede there.

At home, Go uses a 14-inch Celestron SCT with an Astro-Physics variable Barlow lens that he sets to increase the focal ratio by 1.4 times. To that, he attaches a Celestron Skyris camera. He’s used others, but said that he prefers the Skyris because it offers slightly better contrast. One of the cool things I learned is, as far as impacts on Jupiter, amateur astronomers are really the only ones discovering them. Go will be covering most of the topics we chatted about in more detail during his two talks on Friday the 31st. I think it’s safe to say that most of the attendees at our table will be there.

Bob Denny, owner of DC-3 Dreams, moderated the "Remote Observing" session. This one was all about cutting-edge technology.
My third and final session, hosted by DC-3 Dreams owner Bob Denny, was "Remote Imaging." This group totaled 11 attendees. Denny started by giving his definition of “remote”: Can you run out and fix a problem? If you can, it’s not remote. He then described the different stages of remote observing, from total desktop control where the user is logged in all the time to totally autonomous systems.

The group first discussed dome and roll-off roof enclosures and advantages and disadvantages to each design. Next up was the topic of safe shutdowns depending on a variety of conditions from sudden storms to power outages. Denny made the point that equipment is expensive, so don’t try to save a few bucks by going with a cheap remote setup. Someone brought up the problem of lightning strikes, and responses ranged from proper grounding to uninterruptible power supplies to using fiber optics for data transfer.

The next question was: If the observatory isn’t in a city (and who wants one there?), how do you get reliable Internet service? One possible solution, depending on where your observatory is, may be the incorporation of 4G data transfer. People using it report high reliability and good bandwidth. Questions involving other automated processes followed one after the other. This was a lively panel!

In summary, the Birds of a Feather format for today’s discussions worked extremely well. People remained interested, engaged, and open throughout. Kudos to Crawford, Go, and Denny for leading the three sessions I attended. And I know by talking to others that the sessions I didn’t get to went equally well. Tomorrow we meet at the Convention Center downtown, and the presentations will be in a more familiar lecture format. I’ll be there!

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