Astronomy: A Chronology

I caught the Astronomy bug back in the Spring of 2001. It all started with a trip to Scotland and a visit to a life long family friend Brian Turner ( who incidentally is the brother of Eric Turner, one of the co-founders of the what has now become the Society of Popular Astronomy.) The night skies in Perthshire, Eastern Scotland, when not cloudy, are dark, dark dark!!

Many a 2am night was spent looking up at the stars wondering what the name for ‘That big bright bugger’ over there was. I brought a copy of Redshift 3, the only star charting program that you could buy in PC World at the time. Although being very pretty, Redshift was a terrible piece of software for the beginner and I never really got the hang of it…..But I was hooked!

With this new found interest, I popped into see Steve Rogers of SW Optics In Truro, and said I had £300 to spend on a GoTo telescope. I walked out 20 minutes later with a big box marked ETX70 under my arm. Now those that know Cornwall well, will know that this part of the country is the worst place in Southern England for visual astronomy because it’s always cloudy at night. But I got lucky that Summer, and within a week I was slewing here there and everywhere.

I soon found the limitations of the front garden and decided that I needed to be in a flat field, preferably on the top of a hill somewhere. My first stoke of luck was a lay-by at Trehane, Nr Trispen. I had a 360 degree horizon view of sky and for most of the Summer was spent exploring the Milky Way and hopping from Star field to Star field. Then disaster struck! I brought a lead that allowed my laptop to talk to the ETX hand set, and ‘Bang’…..Dead scope. Steve at Swoptics sent the scope back to Meade, who promptly sent it back to him saying the batteries were flat. They obviously were not, so it went back to Meade again. After a few weeks of waiting, and no fixed scope, Steve graciously offered me my money back…..This was the true test of my new found interest, and on a whim, I slapped my credit card on his counter and said ‘I’ll have one of those, ‘pointing to an LX90. Ten minutes later and £1700 the lighter, I walked, or rather staggered, out of Steve’s shop with three very heavy boxes.

We are now into early October, and I will never forget setting up this 200mm aperture beast of a scope up on the first clear night night with it. The Cornish skies were still playing ball (Yes I know it sounds too good to be true), and I slewed it towards Saturn…low in the Eastern Sky. My very first planet. I could see rings, and a gap between those rings – the Cassini division. This sight was a defining moment. I knew there and then that this was going to something that would fascinate me for the rest of my life. WOW!

A few weeks later I joined The Roseland Observatory, which then, was a like minded group of fascinated observers, who met in a dilapidated farmers shed near St Austell. The club’s founder was a guy called Brian Sheen, an unusual character to say the least. If you live in St Austell, you’ve probably heard of him!!

It was over the next year that my astronomical interest turned towards Astrophotography, partly because of another club member called Paul Hughes. He was also struggling with an LX90 and a 35mm film camera. Both of us gently made slow progress over the next year of so, trying to grab the occasional image when the Cornish Cloud blanket was absent.

Now being really hooked, my credit card took another hammering, with the purchase of an SBIG 2000XM CCD camera. The next 18 months saw only two images of M13 with the new camera. However these were very disappointing. The LX90 isn’t really a suitable instrument for serious CCD work and I had all sorts of problems getting it to guide consistently.

With a lot of reading and surfing other imagers sites on the web, now was the time to really bite the bullet and go for broke. A trip to Astrofest confirmed my decision to acquire a Losmandy G11 mount and a TMB 80mm APO to go on it. However, problems of having to travel to a dark field site, I was no more successful in building an image portfolio. By the Summer of 2005, I had only taken one decent image in 15 months. It was either give up astronomy and take up geology, or bite the bullet and build a fixed observatory at home.

The DBO was conceived, born and completed during July and August of 2005. Building the DBO was the best decision I could have made, and by the end of 2005 I was taking an average of two images a month.

In 2011, I moved my observatory to a dark field site near Redruth. It grew in size too, from a diminutive 8x6ft up to 12×9 ft and with a much more useful roll-off roof. I also aquired a Altair Astro 254mm F/8 Ritchey-Chrétien reflector which has opened up a whole new world of observational astronomy.

In 2020 a number of friends started to get back into astrophotography. Camera technology has changed so much in the 15 years since my first CCD camera all those years ago. Now they are much more sensitive and far less noisy, that I got the imaging bug back and invested in a ZWO ASI 1600MM Pro camera and a couple of EAF focusers for both the scopes. Software technology has also improved. Integrated image capture and control software will now point your scope, platesolve it to within a few arc seconds of the target, auto focus the image and run whatever sequence of exposures you want.

In 2021 my loyal and faithful Losmandy G11 died. We were still in COVID so supplies of a replacement were really thin on the ground. I wanted an EQ8 with the encoders, but no-one had any on the shelf so I settled on an iOptron CEM120 EC . I would have prefered the EC2 with encoders on both axis, but the EC variant was all that was available. In the end the RA encoder works really well.

That year I gave spectroscopy a go and invested in an ALPY 600 with the guiding and calibrations units. I really enjoyed the challenge, but the weather in Cornwall had other ideas and the number of clear nights where you could string a couple of hours together, were few and far between. The photography ( of the terrestrial kind) bug caught me again, so astronomy took another back seat for a while.

Then at the back end of 2022 I wanted to get back into astronomy again, but this time find something that you could do any day – well if the Sun shines that is. So I took up Solar observations made with a piece of paper and a pencil. The Sun tends to be visible many more times than we get a clear night, so if I could observe more often, this would continue to keep me interested.

In 2023, the DBO’s roof started to become really difficult to open again, so the DBO3 as born. I did away with the roll off roof altogether and constructed an epoxy coated foam roll off shed. This is really working well and is even quicker to open up than all previous versions.