Discover the Virtual Telescope!

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , on January 30, 2010 by astronomymike

During a recent online astronomy event (see my One People, One Sky blog), I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to the wonderful world of remote telescope astrophotography. The northern hemisphere event (Big Dipper) was hosted by Dr. Gianluca Masi via his Virtual Telecope project from the Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory in Italy.

Following this event, I joined the Virtual Telescope Project Group on Facebook and was promptly invited to join their Discover The Virtual Telescope event on January 27th (28th here in NZ).

After logging in to the online event, I was delighted to see a number of familiar names from the Astronomers Without Borders and Sidewalk Astronomers groups already participating in the chat session with each other and Gianluca. These sort of events really show what a small world this really is! I’ve only been doing amateur astronomy for a year now, and already I have made numerous friends across the globe who share the same passion.

Anyway, back to the event. Unfortunately, Mother Nature struck again, and the skies above Bellatrix Observatory were cloudy. However, Gianluca is a wonderful presenter and did a number of demonstrations by webcam and screenshots of the software used to select targets for imaging, controlling the telescope and exposure settings for the camera to take your own images remotely from virtually anywhere in the world. What a great setup, and Gianluca deserves a lot of credit for what he has achieved in setting this all up.

The software to control the telescope (TheSky 6 Pro) is very easy to use, as is the camera control software (CCDSoft). The user (you!) gets exclusive, real-time remote control of everything, and there are options to use it by yourself or in ‘assisted’ mode where an astronomer will help you through the process of capturing and acquiring your images.

What really surprised me during the presentation was discovering that the Virtual Telescope project is a labour of love for Gianluca – this is not a huge profit-making venture, as a quick look at his pricing will confirm. He simply wants to give ordinary folks like you and me the opportunity to capture the beauty of the skies through a state-of-the-art observatory-grade telescope and camera. If your interests are more scientific (for example photometry), they cater for that too! If you compare pricing with other remote observatory facilities, such as LightBuckets, you’ll see that Virtual Telescope is not in it to get rich quick – they only want to cover fixed costs (such as broadband, electricity and equipment) and a little to put food on the table.

If you want to try this out for yourself, Gianluca has put together some extremely generous introductory prices, starting at 10 euros for 1.5 hours of telescope time!

Currently, they are planning to install another impressive telescope and camera system, which will make the facilities available to even more people without creating a strain on the professional activities of the observatory. Donations are very, very welcome!

If you missed the live “Discover the Virtual Telescope” event, don’t worry – there’s another one coming on February 4, 2010 from 8:30pm-10:30pm Universal Time (this is the same thing as GMT, so here in NZ it will be February 5, 2010 from 9:30am-11:30am). I thoroughly recommend that you join the event by visiting the Virtual Telescope website then and learn what it’s all about. You don’t have to participate in the chat session if you don’t want to – you can just sit back and watch Gianluca’s presentation if you prefer.

Clear skies!
– Mike

Stardate 2010

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , on January 29, 2010 by astronomymike

The annual Stardate events, held in the North and South Islands of NZ during January, are probably the most popular amateur astronomy get-togethers of the year, and this year was no exception, despite the lousy weather.

I attended the Stardate North Island event, run by the Phoenix Astronomical Society, which was held at a Christian camp in the Tukituki Valley, near Havelock North in Hawkes Bay on January 14-18th. Leading up to Stardate, the Hawkes Bay had been suffering drought conditions, with little rain for the previous 2 months, but a few days out from the event, the forecast was for rain over the entire 4 days! As I drove up from just south of Foxton on the Friday, the clouds got progressively thicker and darker…not a good sign. By Dannevirke the drizzly rain had definitely set in, and when I arrived at the camp it was obvious that none of the telescopes would be coming out to play tonight!

Fortunately the organisers always ensure there are a good selection of talks and presentations to attend, and this year was no exception. On Friday night John Drummond from Gisborne gave an eye-opening presentation on the ~270m asteroid ‘Apophis’ which astronomers had earlier predicted had a reasonably high chance of hitting Earth in 2029. Fortunately, following subsequent measurements, that threat has now been downgraded and is highly unlikely to occur. However, there is a small chance that during the 2029 encounter, the asteroid may pass through a small gravitational ‘keyhole’ close to Earth that will change its trajectory and place it on a direct impact path with Earth in 2036. Given that this keyhole is only 600m wide, this is unlikely to occur, and the chances of a 2036 impact are currently set at 1 in 250,000.

Following that, John then showed a slideshow of the first and second place-getters for the 2009 RASNZ Astrophotography Section images. Some great shots there, but a little disappointing that there were no entries for some of the divisions. Hopefully there will be renewed interest in 2010.

The remainder of Friday night was taken up with a choice of a late night movie (The Moon?), talking with friends or socialising at the “Hotel Manawatu”, run by Ian Cooper from Palmerston North, which was essentially 2 gazebos tied together and a large plastic table with camp chairs, but it certainly had some late closings over the weekend!

Dawn broke on Saturday to the sound of rain again. The telescope trail (where everyone gathers around the telescopes and the owners give a brief talk about them) was naturally postponed, but the Kids Astronomy session and all the afternoon presentations went ahead as planned. The talks included DSLR Astrophotography (Cameron Jack, Wellington), Film Astrophotography (aka ‘Is Film Really Dead?’ by Ian Cooper, Palmerston North), an update on what the various spacecraft out there are up to (Edwin Rod, Wellington), and a report from Gary Sparks, Napier on the NASA International Space Camp that he and young Rhiannon McNish attended.

Saturday night’s guest speaker was Dee Friesen from Albuquerque Astronomical Society, New Mexico. Apparently he talked about northern hemisphere observing, their IYA activities and educational outreach programs. I say ‘apparently’ because I never got to see the presentation…nor Cameron Jack’s Journey to the Centre of the Almanac and John Drummond’s The Dragon That Ate The Sun that followed it, as I went for a ‘short nap’ after dinner and didn’t wake up until about 10pm! Sad but true. Rain on a tin roof has always had that effect on me.

Sunday morning’s All Star Football match was postponed/cancelled due to the rain, as was the telescope trail again. An attempt to have the Kids Astronomy session outdoors with an interactive solar system during a ‘break in the rain’ resulted in kids and adults running for cover when the biggest deluge of the weekend hit.

Sunday afternoon included sessions from John Drummond and John Burt about the construction of their respective observatories. Some very useful tips and pointers in amongst all of that, and I was particularly interested in these presentations, as I intend building my own in the next wee while.

Unfortunately I had to head home on Sunday afternoon, and missed the remainder of the talks, as well as the sunshine that came out about half an hour before I left! Apparently it cleared quite nicely later and the telescope trail went ahead, and some viewing was even had during the evening! Never mind, you can’t control Mother Nature, and I had a great time anyway. I got to meet up with friends as well as meeting people that I only knew through email or the internet before, so it wasn’t a waste of time, that’s for sure!

Clear skies!
– Mike

One Sky, One People (Part 2)

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2010 by astronomymike


Well, last night was the second part of the two-part Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) project – Big Dipper to Southern Cross (you can read about Part One here), and it started at 1:30am NZ local time. I think I finally fell into bed at about 4am, but it was well worth the lack of beauty sleep (although my wife may disagree…I probably need as much as I can get!). This was the southern hemisphere event (my neck of the woods, so to speak), so I could hardly bail out early could I?!!! 🙂

Unlike the northern hemisphere event, the primary video server was up and running, which was thankfully one less drama for the team to have to deal with. Terry Bridges was the host astronomer/telescope operator and was operating the GRAS telescope in South Australia from Canada, whilst Gianluca Masi from Italy worked frantically in the background to download the telescope images, process them and post them onto the Virtual Telescope website for all participants to see. Quite mind-boggling the technology that must be involved in making all this happen, and the end result was a credit to all involved.

Live chat was working overtime and, as with the northern hemisphere event, everyone was made to feel welcome. What a fantastic display of ‘togetherness’ this whole event has been! True allegiance to the AWB catchphrase ‘One People, One Sky’. Here’s a prime example of it in action – when I logged into the live chat and introduced myself as being from Levin, NZ, Terry instantly welcomed me via the video feed and commented on our Levin StarGazers award for the IYA2009 100 Hours of Astronomy event we held back in April. How wonderful to be recognised from the other side of the world! I was blown away by that, as I had never met Terry before last night.

Terry was kept busy selecting targets and setting up the telescope remotely to take images, as well as keeping an eye on the live chat. Some of the wonderful objects imaged live last night were 47 Tuc (a fantastic southern hemisphere globular cluster), the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud and M42 (Orion Nebula) to name a few, and Gianluca was doing a fantastic job in the background getting the images processed and onto the Virtual Telescope website.

This was truly a fantastic worldwide event and I have made several new friends simply by joining in and participating. My hat is off to all involved in setting up and running the event – Thilina Heenatigala, Gianluca Masi, Terry Bridges and many others…you should be justifiably proud of what you have achieved!!! My sincerest thanks for inviting me to join you.

Incidentally, if you want to rent one of the GRAS remote telescopes for free to try your hand at imaging, there is a fantastic limited-time offer of free credit available through Astronomy.FM! Check it out.

Clear skies!
– Mike

The Moon in 3-D!

Posted in Images with tags , , , , , , , on January 10, 2010 by astronomymike

My sincere thanks to Maurice Collins for giving me the idea of creating my own 3-D anaglyphs of the Moon on his excellent Moon Science website.

Strictly speaking, these 3-D images are ‘cheating’ a little, as I don’t have enough lunar images yet to be able to create the required ‘stereo pairs’. Instead, I have used a single image and some free software to create a pseudo-stereo pair. The process I used was to import and calibrate one of my images in LTVT, saving this image as the ‘left’ image of the stereo pair. Then I changed the sub-observer longitude in LTVT so the image would be slightly rotated away from the viewer and moved it to the left, thus creating a ‘right’ image for the stereo pair. Once that was done, I used the free 3-D Anaglyph Maker software to create the anaglyph.

You can view the 3-D images in my 3-D Anaglyph Gallery.
NOTE: You will need a pair of 3-D glasses to view these images in 3-D!

Clear skies!
– Mike

One Sky, One People

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , on January 9, 2010 by astronomymike

In my News Flash post a couple of days ago, I told you of an upcoming 2-day event from the Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) project – Big Dipper to Southern Cross. The event allows people from both hemispheres to view the night sky from a telescope hosted in the opposite hemisphere and interact via live chat with people from all over the world.

I have just finished participating in the first half of the event, hosted in the northern hemisphere by the Bellatrix Observatory in Italy (via Virtual Telescope). Despite a few inital ‘problems’ (such as the planned video server crashing at the last minute and requiring a quick change to UStream, and clouds & rain over the observatory), the AWB/Virtual Telescope team coped extremely well with getting the show back on the road very quickly. Unfortunately, there is nothing anyone can do about changing the weather, so the host astronomer/telescope operator (Gianluca Masi) put ‘Plan B’ into action and presented previously-taken images from the northern hemisphere.

According to Gianluca at the end of his 2 hour presentation, there were about 3000 unique visits to the broadcast over the whole period, which is highly satisfying for all involved. The ‘live chat’ function was well-used and around 200 people were logged on for most of the event. There was a real feeling of friendliness and sharing during the chat, and it was obvious there were seasoned astronomers as well as ‘newbies’ present, but no-one was made to feel stupid or that their questions were irrelevant. The touchy subject of which OS is best did raise its head when I announced to the group that my XP laptop had ‘blue-screened’ and I was now using my PC instead, but it was all in jest and good-natured ribbing :).

There were many beautiful images presented by Gianluca along with an explanation of each one and a planetarium software view (The Sky 6?) of its location in the sky. All-in-all it was a wonderful experience, and I am thoroughly looking forward to the second half of the event, which is being hosted by the GRAS Remote Telescope in Southern Australia at 1230 UT (Universal Time) on Sunday Jan 10. In case you don’t know, ‘Universal Time’ is effectively the same thing as ‘GMT’, so you should be able to work out for yourselves what your local time will be for the event. Here in NZ it will be 1:30am Monday morning.

I encourage anyone reading this to join the event and have a look at what our southern hemisphere night skies have to offer! Simply go to at the date and time above to join in the fun!

Clear skies!
– Mike

Image Galleries Added!

Posted in Images with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2010 by astronomymike

I’ve now added some image gallery pages (see the sidebar links). You can now browse my Lunar Mosaics, Lunar Close-ups, LTVT-Rectified Images and Planet Images.

Hope you enjoy!

Clear skies! – Mike

News Flash!

Posted in News & Events with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2010 by astronomymike

The AWB Remote Observing project has announced “Big Dipper to Southern Cross”, a two-night event on 8 and 10 January 2010 bringing the north and south hemispheres together to make “one sky, one people.” Telescopes in each hemisphere will highlight the beauties of their night sky, giving those in the opposite hemisphere an opportunity to enjoy them as well. Chat will be available between participants and with the telescope operator. Join in with others from around the world or just watch.

Northern Hemisphere – Virtual Telescope (Italy)

Virtual Telescope from Italy will broadcast images and narrative live, allowing people around the world to share in viewing and imaging the best northern celestial objects.

Date – Friday 8th of January 2010

Time – 20:00 UT – 22:00 UT

Southern Hemisphere – GRAS (Australia)

The brilliance and special objects of the southern sky will be captured by the GRAS Remote Telescope in Southern Australia.

Date – Sunday 10th of January 2010

Time – 12:30UT – 14:30 UT

For more information see the Big Dipper to Southern Cross event page.