Bertha has Brain Damage


After hours of work, including a session to 1:00 am to guide it to over 40 stars in the SmartMount process, Bertha's AutoStar II handset died. The garbage characters continued, and after trying to reload the firmware, which failed, I was unable to revive her by pressing the "safe mode" keys on the handset, as the handset was no longer working. Fortunately I signed up for SkyAssurance from Meade, so its a free replacement, but Bertha will be done for about two weeks until the new AutoStar II handset arrives. Murphy strikes again.

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Size and Space


I received an awesome email today from a great friend who knew I would appreciate the pictures. I thought it would be great to reuse the photos here and share some perspective on our solar system and beyond.

Inner Solar System
Inner Solar System
The first picture shows us the inner solar system, plus the strange addition of the dwarf planet Pluto. The image gives us a great perspective on why Venus is often called Earth's sister planet, as they are both relatively the same size, with Venus having a diameter 86% of Earth's. Mars weighs in at 53% of Earth's diameter and only about 11% of Earth's mass. Little Mercury follows up behind with roughly 38% of Earth's diameter and only 6% of her mass.

 

Outer Solar System
Outer Solar System
Looking outward, we see the gas giants with Jupiter showing us why it is the biggest planet in the solar system. With a diameter over 11 times the size of Earth, and 318 times her mass. Saturn, the second largest planet in the solar system, has a diameter 9.4 times that of Earth, but because the gas that makes up Saturn is so light, it has only 95 times the mass of Earth. Since we know that Bertha can see Uranus, what does Bertha actually see? Well, Uranus is 4 times the size of Earth. That's a big, ah...planet. What makes it tough to see though is that it's 19 times farther away from the sun than Earth, so that makes the apparent size of Uranus much smaller. (that's a relief, huh?) Moving further out and away from anatomically-oriented space objects, we find the last gas giant, Neptune, at roughly 3.9 times the size of Earth. It's even hard to see is that it's 30 times further away from the sun, or 4.5 billion km away.

Solar System
Solar System
Putting it all together, the sun certainly makes Earth look like the Little Blue Marble it was called back in the 60's. Little Mercury is a tiny spec compared to our central fire ball.

Sun and Arcturus
Sun and Arcturus
Let's take a look at how our star stacks up against other stars we can see. What makes this picture so interesting is that I was using Arcturus last night to align Bertha, switching between Polaris and Arcturus. As you can see by the picture, Arcturus is about 10 times bigger than our sun but its luminosity is about 100 times greater. One of the closest giant stars, it's 36 light years away and is the fourth brightest star in our night sky. Sirius, or the Dog Star, the brightest star in our night sky, is twice the size of our sun and about 20 times brighter. The reason it is brighter than Arcturus is that it's only about 8.7 light years away.

 

Betelgeuse and Antares
Betelgeuse and Antares
But Arcturus isn't nearly the biggest thing we can see. Take a look at the right shoulder of Orion and you'll see the red colored Betelgeuse. This star is 1000 times bigger than our sun and 13,000 times brighter. But, it gets even better. Antares is a class M supergiant star, with a diameter of approximately 700 times that of the sun.  If it were placed in the center of our solar system, its outer surface would lie between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Antares is approximately 520 light years from our solar system. Its visual luminosity is about 10,000 times that of the Sun, but because the star radiates a considerable part of its energy in the infrared part of the spectrum, the bolometric luminosity equals roughly 65,000 times that of the Sun!

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Dang Weather!


After finally fixing the problem with the wedge, and actually getting the scope roughly aligned, I realized that I would need to engage the "SmartMount" function to get the tracking to where I needed it to be. This function, built into the scope, selects roughly 40 stars that you align to, one at a time, and tell the scope when you're "dead center". This refines the tracking of the scope, as it learns any errors that are present in the gears and tracking.

However, thanks to Mother Nature, I haven't had any clear skies to try the procedure. This picture shows the

Dome and Grey Skies
Dome and Grey Skies
dome from the backyard, and the absence of blue skies should be a clue. Even the Bel Tor Clear Sky Clock says the sky should be "average", or 3 out 5 in terms of seeing conditions. But I just looked up and saw nothing but yuck. Hopefully in the next few days a glimmer of clear skies will occur and I can continue working on Bertha's tracking and accuracy.

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Polar Alignment Issue Resolved


After weeks of trying to figure out why I couldn't align Bertha on the wedge, I decided to take a fresh look at the problem in the daylight. I wanted to see if I could track down the source of why I was unable to move the scope on the wedge far enough to align it with Polaris in the polar home position. As I turned the horizontal adjustment knob, I noticed that I only had a few degrees of movement, yet the groves on the base of the pier seemed to allow it to move much further.

Base of Wedge and Mounting Bolts
Base of Wedge and Mounting Bolts
In frustration, I grabbed the Allen wrench that came with the wedge and loosened the mounting bolts that held the wedge to the pier. I turned the horizontal adjustment knob again, and to my surprise, the scope had all the movement I needed.

In the end, what I learned was that in my concern over the scope falling off the pier, I had tightened the three mounting bolts on the base of the wedge too tightly. I had aligned the base to the pier very carefully, assuming I had the pier pointed at Celestial North. However, given that I did a "gun site" alignment with a laser level on Polaris, which is 390 light years away, there's no wonder why I was off a few degrees. By tightening the bolts too much, I had reduced the movement capabilities of a very capable wedge, and there was my problem.

After loosening the bolts, I was able to steal a few minutes of somewhat clear skies to attempt a true polar alignment. I only had a chance to do the two star alignment before the clouds blew back in, but I'm confident I will be able to get Bertha aligned properly now. Fortunately my friends at LVAAS came to the rescue and provided excellent advice and guidance on how to polar align the scope. As you can see by this photo,

Alignment of Wedge to Pier
Alignment of Wedge to Pier
which shows the location of the wedge in relation to the pier AFTER alignment, I was way off course without being able to move the wedge. Now with the scope in the right position, I should be able to begin a formal drift alignment procedure.

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Bertha's Arrival


It was about time to show Bertha in her new home. Sitting atop her 11' pier and on her wedge, she's ready and should be able to view the great adventures of the sky. I say "should" only because the art of getting a solid polar alignment is being far more difficult that I expected. When installing the pier, I used a laser level to align the angle of the pier with Polaris, and verified the alignment with a compass adjusted for the 12 degree offset from magnetic North. I was expecting a very easy alignment, but that certainly isn't the case.

What I'm discovering is that I can't seem to move the wedge far enough to align the scope on Polaris, which of course throws everything off. I'm hoping for clearer skies soon to try again, so that I'm able to capture the astroimages I'm dreaming of sharing. Any advice on polar alignment, please let me know!

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

First Light!


Yesterday was an exciting day for the observatory. The carpet was finished on Saturday, so on Sunday I was finally able to install the rest of the pier and get Bertha INSTALLED! Last night was officially First Light, with Andrea and I observing Saturn and several of the 28 moons at 11:24 PM. I'm working on getting some new astrophotos to post, but at least we're finally up and operational. Yeah!

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Painting the Space Ship


As the observatory began to take shape, I entered it one evening before the walls were painted to see what ideas might come to mind in terms of how we should paint the interior. When I closed the door, I discovered that since it is an exterior insulated door, that with it closed, there was no sound at all from the house heard inside the observatory. It gave me the impression that I was really in another place, perhaps even another world. As hokey as that sounds, it seemed like the inside should be finished like a space ship, rather than "just" another room in the house. A Google session or two later and we came up with a plan.

Taking a hint from the International Space Station, we took some hints from images like these:

File:Interior of Harmony Node.jpg 

 

The result was an idea that Tanya, of Cook Varkony Studios, created which was to paint panels on the walls by taping off squares and using the metallic paint we bought for the room.

Tanya Painting the Panels
Tanya Painting the Panels
She made the panels in the first floor of the observatory and painted the same matching pewter color in the area on the second floor.

Getting us up to the second floor was now the challenge. After the walls were painted, it was time to install the spiral stairs. The process so far has been pretty straight-forward. First the center pole is temporarily installed and plumbed. Then the bracket holding the pole on the top is removed and each of the stair treads is lowered into place.

Spiral Stairs
Spiral Stairs
The hand rail in this picture is not in place. It still needs to be shaped to match the pitch of the stairs and then screwed to each baluster.

Fortunately Matt Green was able to help me again, as the treads were a bit difficult to install by myself. Although the directions said to install the wooden treads after the steps were installed, I changed it around and installed them first. It turned out to be a much better idea. I also discovered that the steel pier would be dangerously in the way, so instead of being a right-hand up set of stars, they are now left-hand up. I cut off the last baluster and will cut off the overhanging handrail to match as well, so people can sneak up the steps from the side.

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Pier Building


We're getting very close to getting Bertha in her new home and ready for action. Thanks to the generous help AGAIN from my friend Matt Green, the first section of the pier has been cut and welded into place. The design of the pier is a bit unusual in that it is very tall and cannot be anchored into the ground. The observatory floor is actually what would be the fourth floor of the house, and given that the walls are 12' tall, we had to build another level up from the third floor to be able to see out of the dome. Given that the scope is then 11' or so off the floor, a multi-segment pier was needed. The drawing below illustrates how the sections are tied together:

Observatory Design
Observatory Design

The pier is divided into three pieces. The top two pieces are from Pier-Tech. This is the Pier-Tech 2 / Pier-Tech 1 Telescope Pier Combo. The top section telescopes 20", while maintaining polar alignment. The section section is the Pier Tech 1 component, which is stationary. The maximum length of the Pier Tech 1 is 48", so we were 5'-6" short. Various material choices were considered, but I decided on 1/4" steel from Nivert Metal Supply. I ordered the steel on a Monday afternoon and they delivered it cut and ready to go on Thursday, with a 40' truck. The bottom portion of the pier is 8" x 8" x 1/4" steel tubing. To distribute the weight across the observatory floor, a 4' x 4' x 1/4" steel plate was welded to the bottom of the pier. I then drilled holes every 12" - 16" to secure the plate to the floor.

 

Pier-Tech 2 Telescopic Pier
Pier-Tech 2 Telescopic Pier
Pier-Tech 1 Sub Pier
Pier-Tech 1 Sub Pier
Steel Tube
Steel Tube

 

This is how the pieces will look all together:

Total Pier
Total Pier

 

To construct the steel portion of the pier, we first had to cut off about 4" as I had not accounted for a gap of 2" between each section of the pier. My assumption was that the pieces would be bolted together, but the actual design suggests a 2" gap to allow for leveling and adjustments. Fortunately cutting through steel is not a problem for Matt, who brought his grinder and expertise.

Matt Shortening the Pier
Matt Shortening the Pier
We carried the 130lb steel tube down from the attic and outside to the driveway. We setup a portable work bench and Matt made it look easy. He cut through all four sides of the tube and then ground the edges smooth with a slight bevel to help hold the weld. We then carried the steel back up stairs and after catching our breath and hoping we wouldn't need to call 911, decided that was all we needed to do for one day.

On Thursday, Matt came back with his welding gear, and we began the adventure of welding the pier to the steel plate.

Matt Ready to Weld
Matt Ready to Weld
Matt was able to borrow a friend's portable MIG welder that simply plugs into a 110 outlet. Knowing that the process would kick off a bunch of smoke, I closed the door to the observatory and opened up the shutter on the dome. This gave us a great chimney effect and pulled the smoke right out of the room.

Matt Welding the Pier
Matt Welding the Pier

We had three problems to solve before we could weld the pier. First, all of the components from Pier-Tech are aluminum, and while there are some ways to weld steel to aluminum, those were not options for us. We solved this problem by getting a 12" x 12" x 1/4" steel plate to weld to the top of the steel tube and then we would sandwich it with bolts to the aluminum plate of the Pier-Tech 1. Matt was able to drill the holes using a magnetic drill to make the holes for the bolts. He also had the forethought to make a hole in the center of the plate so I could add sand later if needed.

Second, we had to align the pier to North, or actually on the North Celestial Pole. To do this, I taped a laser level to my camera tripod and locked in all movement of the tripod except for vertical adjustment. I then aimed the laser at Polaris, and then tilted the tripod down through the hole in the observatory floor above the pier, marking the line on the lower floor where the steel plate is located. I then double-checked the alignment by placing a compass that was adjusted for the 12 degree offset between North and the Celestial North Pole. The laser line was right over the mark on the compass, so I knew I was certainly close enough to make any other adjustments with the wedge once the scope was mounted.

The third problem was to make sure the pier was plumb, as any tilt would be exaggerated over the 12' length.

The Finished Product
The Finished Product
Using a 4' level, I held it against two sides while Matt tacked down the pier. Of course I screwed that part up, so Matt had to cut one of the welds and do it again. Fortunately he found enough patience to tolerate my goof and didn't weld my feet to the floor. We then lifted the steel tube and the plate onto a couple 2" x 4"s to keep the heat from the welding process off the floor. Matt expertly welded the pier to the plate and now it's ready to go.

I did a few tests of pier stability by placing a glass measuring cup half-filled with water on the top plate of the pier. I walked around on the ground floor of the observatory, and also on the steel plate. I saw a good deal of movement in the water, so I decided to go ahead and add the sand to the inside of the steel pier. I added about 3.5 bags of sand, and it is much more stable. The vibrations seem to settle down almost instantly now, which should prove very helpful when the rest of the pier and the scope are mounted.

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Comet Lulin


While this doesn't really qualify as the observatory's entry for its first light, I couldn't resist checking out Comet Lulin with a pair of binoculars on a tripod. I had my tripod in the observatory because Matt Green and I lined up the pier and sighted it with a laser level mounted on the tripod. I lined up Polaris with the level, and then swung the head of the tripod down the hole to locate "North" for the base of the pier.

Looking at Comet Lulin through a pair of 10x50 binoculars was less than amazing. It was basically a little grey spot in space, just a few degrees South of Saturn in Leo. But at any rate, I found it, and observed it while standing in the observatory. Bertha is happily nestled on the floor in the family room, enjoying the fire my good wife just built and watching her crochet hats. Bertha wasn't any help tonight, but hopefully will soon be in her new home.

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)

Giants in the Observatory


Things are looking up, literally, in the observatory. Today is the final day of sanding and touch-ups on the observatory walls, which is being done by Smith and Nelson Drywall.

Jared sanding the Observatory
Jared sanding the Observatory
Here we see a giant named Jared sanding the ceiling in the entrance of the observatory. Immediately to his left is where the half-spiral stairs are going. The square hole in the top of the picture is where the pier is going to come through the floor above and mounted onto another steel pier to be install at Jared's feet. The crew from Smith and Nelson have done an excellent job with the drywall in the addition and especially the observatory. There are many nooks and crannies that had to be dealt with in order to finish that area, and they did a great job. I can't wait to see it painted.

Speaking of painting, Tanya, from Cook Varkony Studios, LLC, continues to spend her days and nights here busting her hump along with us to get the job done.

Tanya painting the night sky
Tanya painting the night sky
She and PJ have designed what will be a spectacular finish for the warm room outside the observatory. She and PJ painted the rich blue that I mentioned before, and then hand painted dark night-time clouds into it as well. Later today the "Disney Magic" will happen, as Tanya plans on starting her work on the stars in the ceiling as well. I can only image how truly awesome this will look. The walls will be finished with a designer technique to make them look like parchment, as in old star charts.

 

  • Currently 0.00/5
Rating: 0.00/5 (0 votes cast)