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getting organized

by Roger Herzler


Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork... In astronomy and astrophotography, having a well organized and up to date planning system can turn a unorganized observing trip into a well-planned and enjoyable event. Being out of sorts when you get to your observing site is an especially big deal if you have to travel a long ways to get there. For example, here in light cluttered San Diego County, you really only get to dark skies if you travel 1.5 hours or more to our lovely deserts. This being the case, good organization and planning can be the difference between wasting a lot of petrol and time and experiencing some wonderful sights that you knew would be there.

Organizing for the astronomical observing trip. There are some common steps that should be taken for astrophotography and just plain observing. The first step should be to ask "what is up right now?" In other words, what can I take the opportunity to see? This is very rudimentary, but often missed by the observer (I know that I have gotten out to beautiful dark skies when I first started and looked up just to say "now what?"). In an effort to plan your trip there are a few tools that are invaluable.

First, have a good celestial chart. Having one that rotates to represent the view of the sky is a good idea so that you can see what will really be available for you to see at the time of night you are looking.

Second, purchase a subscription in Astronomy or Sky and Telescope magazines (Hint: join a astronomy club, and you can get them a lot cheaper than you otherwise would. If you don't have a group in your area, sign on with the Astronomical League as a Member at Large for $10 a year). These magazines always have a bulletin and fold-out in them with not only a reasonable starchart inside (it won't be as detailed as purchasing one from a shop) but also a calendar of astronomical events occurring for that month. With this kind of knowledge, you're ready to plan your trip around the biggest events, like a large meteor shower or planet occulation by the Moon.

Third, and by no means required for good observing, is the astronomical software package that can display the sky at any time during the night. The good programs allow you to print off a copy of the screen so that you can take it with you (unless your blessed with a laptop). I cannot speak for a lot of programs as I have really only used one of them, but they are worth the money spent. The program that I have tested and worked with is SkyMap by Chris Marriott. This program is extremely comprehensive. It has a fully stocked listing of stars which go out well beyond the magnitude limit of my little 4.5" scope. It also has the means by which you can display the sky facing all directions- North, South, East, West, and any time of night. Do you want to know where the Moon will be in the sky two weeks from now and what it's phase will be? No problem...simply press the fast forward buttons that allow you to shoot ahead by minutes, hours, days, or months. It also has a real time mode that will display how the sky looks at your time (and location) and updates as the minutes go by. I highly recommend this program. SkyMap 4.0 is due to be released January 1998 for a price tag of around $79.99. The version that I have tested, 3.12, ran for $49.95. The next version is supposed to have several enhancements, including access to Hubble photographs of deep-sky targets.

Planning for astrophotography. The planning for shooting photography of the stars should start with all of the above, but it can't just end there. With the added equipment of cameras, film, etc, comes a little additional preparation.

First, do you have enough film to photograph the targets that you want to shoot. This is very basic, but I have run out of film shooting pictures and not had any to take what I thought would have been some great photos. Do you have the film for different types of exposures? For example, will you be doing 30 minute star trails in which a high speed film like 1000ASA would be overexposed?

Second, does my camera take batteries, and how upset would I be if they didn't work? Bottomline, you should always have a second set. For those of you in colder climates, be ready for your camera to give up on you due to cold weather, so make sure you have a spare set.

Third, you just got your photos back from the lab, and you notice that some of them look great, but then again, some of them don't. Then you look at your trusty photo log in which you put all of the details of your great pictures. You know what the exposure time was, aperture, and what film you used, making sure that next time you go out, you've got it made, and you get great shots from the start. "But I don't have a photo log" you say. No problem, I've posted the one that I use on the Internet, so take a look and feel free to print it out.

Lastly, do you have any special photographic needs? Will you be shooting any pictures of objects in which filters should be used? This must be taken into consideration when going out.

In conclusion. Proper planning will insure that you not only get to observe what you want, but that you get the pictures that you want as well. You'll find this kind of preparation well worth it!

Clear skies,


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