Thursday, January 12, 2017

Astrophotography updates, buying problems for myself

New optics!


The main scope (for imaging) is an Astro-Tech AT6IN, and the new tracking scope is an Orion ShortTube-80, or ST80. There's a dozen versions of the ST80 of different names, all made by Synta for the various retailers.

I wanted something with a wider field of view, in this case the focal length is 610mm. Where the previous scope (a Celestron C6 SCT) rendered about 1.1 arc-seconds/pixel on my Fuji X-T1 camera, this renders closer to 1.5. In other words, it sees more sky.

This offers a few advantages:
  • Tracking does not need to be as precise (we'll get to how much...)
  • I can image larger objects, such as the Pleiades, Rosette, and Horsehead/Flame nebula
  • Being the same aperture (6") but wider, that also means it's getting much more light every second the shutter is open.
How much more? If the previous scope was more or less F6.3, and this is F4, that's about 2.5x more light. So if I needed a 60 second exposure before, this would need a 24 second exposure. 

And now I'm going to tell you why this was a terrible decision.

A short focal length Newtonian is a mess. It naturally has a ridiculous amount of comatic abberation, which is inherent in all large optics, but is exaggerated the shorter the focal length. Without a corrector this scope is basically worthless.

The coma corrector (made by GSO) mostly helps this...but your collimation (having all the optics at perfect angles to each other so that the light path is focused evenly/flatly on the image sensor) has to be really, really perfect. I've seen some estimates that at F/4 the image breakdown occurs when the light path deviates by as little as 0.45mm from accurate.

0.45mm. Let that sink in. You know how wide the bullseye is on a typical laser collimator? About 4mm. Part of that is because the output optic for a typical laser diode is 3mm.

So what you're doing is taking a really nice, wide angle image that should be able to get beautifully sharp and subjecting it to something that will begin breaking down at a level of accuracy that is 8-9x more accurate than the equipment you're going to calibrate it with.

Now suppose you're like me, and are the type that will stretch a thin film over your collimator so that you can see when the return light path, which is focused to much smaller than the exit light path, makes a nice bullseye in the exit path. Assuming you also loaded your collimator in a lathe at some point and centered that path to within a few mm at 50ft, you're probably able to get it within the margin of error.

If.

If the rest of your optics are aligned correctly, which... mine were not. Worse, they were not able to be: if you have a closer look at the image above you'll spot some extra holes where the secondary is mounted. My secondary mirror was too far down the tube to align correctly. Yay.

And then it still won't be good enough.

You'll hang a heavy imaging train off the side of the scope, which will cause the focuser to flex off of center on its mount. Your imaging train will have to be especially awkward because there's a heavy corrector optic in it, which then has a spacing of about 75-80mm (mine does best at 78mm) before it finds an imaging plane, which is probably a mirrorless camera or DSLR. This will shift things out of alignment by a couple mm. Which is enough to notice.

I think Newtonians might just be a bad idea anyway.

Once you've done all of this, you'll have a system which is very out of balance for the mount. The camera will sit at a different axis from the finder and tracking scopes (otherwise it will be in their way). You could add weights opposite of the focusing assembly, but of course this stresses the mount even more.

So...now what?

I don't know. I'm going to keep playing with it for the moment, and try not to get any farther down the rabbit hole unless I think I can make it truly work out. I have managed to take a couple ok-ish images with it, but far short of what I think my setup could otherwise do:

Pleiades, stack of several 180s exposures from the Astro-Tech AT6IN and Fuji X-T1. Of course from my fully light polluted Central Florida skies.

I like the wider field of view very much. Note: this was taken when I was still trying to get the coma corrector spaced out just right, so it shows worse on here than it is in some of my tests.

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