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19 Telescopes and What to Do?

The iTelescope facility in Siding Spring Australia  

iTelescope.net offers rentals of robotic telescopes of all sizes. Currently there are 9 telescopes in Australia, 3 in Spain, 6 telescopes in New Mexico, and one in California. To use them, all you need is an account and a web browser.

by Greg Crinklaw, developer of SkyTools

A few months ago I was surfing the web and I stumbled across something that rocked my world: iTelescope.net. Like others, I have long dreamed of having my own observatory with a state of the art imaging system. I've looked at land in the mountain area of New Mexico where I live and I've watched for deals on everything from domes to cameras. People talk about how expensive astronomy is as a hobby, but the cost of a plot of land, utilities, dome, 24-inch astrograph, and top of the line CCD camera are in a whole different league. Oh, but think of the projects I could do! Well, maybe someday. 

So there I was looking at a web site and being faced with the realization that I could have all of that now, and so much more. I signed up and suddenly had 19 telescopes available to me all over the world, but I didn't know where to start. There were so many telescopes in so many configurations! So I did what anyone would do--I started playing around. I was the proverbial kid in a candy store. But after my first month of observing I realized that I had spent over $150 and I only had a few fuzzy images to show for it.

C/2104 Q2 (Lovejoy) w/ iTelescope T3 My first image of a comet over the internet. It is a stack of 4x120 second exposures of C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). I used a 150mm APO refractor with an SBIG ST-8300C One Shot Color CCD, located at New Mexico Skies, ironically just a few miles from my home. This is a great starter system. It is inexpensive and very easy to use. 

I know it's not very impressive, but it was a start. This is the sort of image that anyone can get with very little effort.

Planning is the Key

Not only did I now have all of these telescopes available, with different capabilities and fields of view, but I also had access to all of the astronomical objects in the southern hemisphere. Planning had never been more important. The basic questions are similar to using a telescope in your back yard or garden: what can I observe? When should I observe an object for the best results? Only now there were more dimensions, and things were turned around a bit: I picked a target, but which telescope in which hemisphere is best?

I naturally turn to SkyTools to answer questions like these. When I wanted to image a comet I opened the observing list of observable comets and picked one that looked good. It was only a matter of switching between observatories to find the one with the best view. It was a large comet, so  I previewed it in the telescopes with larger fields of view until I settled on one. Finally, with the location and telescope decided, I used the Nightly Planner to determine which night would be good and what local time I should start imaging. It only took a few minutes. 

Getting Off to a Good Start

Robotic telescopes have been in development for 30 years, but they are only now coming into their own. The hardware has been around for some time, but what makes them practical is the pipeline of impressive automation software, including the basic control system, autofocus, and pointing corrections via star field recognition. At the far end of that pipeline is image processing, where the raw images are transformed into astrometry, photometry, or works of art. But I am always surprised by how little thought and attention is given to the front end of that same pipeline. There are books and websites devoted to processing your images, but observers are left on their own when it comes to choosing suitable targets and deciding when to observe. Planetarium programs display the sky, but they were not designed for planning. The result is that many people fall into the familiar trap of observing the same bright Messiers again and again and even then their own images are not nearly as spectacular as today's APOD

Getting a Good Start with iTelescope.net

NGC 6369  iTelescope T31I recently started a special project to observe Planetary Nebulae. I needed objects with high surface brightness within a narrow range of diameters. Naturally I again turned to SkyTools, where I used the Database Power Search to make a list of potential targets that met my criteria. I put these in an observing list and downloaded a DSS image for each one. I made my final selections based on their appearance, culling the list down to a reasonable size. Each month I load the final list into the Nightly Planner to determine which objects I should observe and assign an appropriate telescope. Finally, I reserve time on each telescope when the objects will achieve the maximum SNR for each filter. The processing will come later. For now I want to ensure that I get the best data I can. 

It's all about Blood, Sweat, and SNR

Once you spend any time doing astro-imaging you discover that it is all about the SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio) and hours spent processing. To make your image of M42 look better, you need to spend more time observing so that you can stack more images to beat down the noise (get a higher total SNR). But if you are going to be paying for your observing time by the minute, it is more important than ever to maximize the SNR in each individual image. You can do this by paying more attention to the airmass of your object, the brightness of the sky during the night, and choosing your filter order more appropriately--things SkyTools is designed to help you with.

I have seen it suggested that planning your astrophotography is as simple as plotting how high your target is in the sky in your favorite planetarium program. To my way of thinking, if you are going to spend hours slaving over the processing to get your final image just right, then you should start by putting some effort into getting the most SNR possible out of your observations to begin with.

It's been said that a great astrophoto is 50% SNR and 50% processing; SkyTools will get you half way there.

It all starts with SkyTools 3.

Read more about SkyTools 3

Download the complete iTelescope data for SkyTools 3 Pro