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$300 Astrophotography Bundle Challenge

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#1 hcsceo

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 06:31 PM

So I'm basically bored and need a project. My son is 9 and "ready" for his first scope. He spends a lot of time with me when I'm imaging and I'm sure it is boring to sit there and watch dots on the computer screen when he could be looking around himself. When I say drift alignment he is ready to head for the hills. So I've come up with a challenge for myself to put together a $300 imaging setup for him. Now he won't be imaging for a good while but I've always had it in the back of my mind that astrophotography doesn't have to be expensive. So for others that might be worried this hobby is too expensive you might watch here. I'll use some DIY and parts I have laying around, etc. I'll try and list the fair values for materials or items I have. My goal is simple.. Create a package that can photo all Messier objects and planetary for under $300. I'd like to be guiding for that also. Any ideas for low cost stuff would be great. I'll update this first post with the items as I get them. This challenge will NOT include the computer and all software used will be freeware, shareware, or open source. I'm assuming that if you are reading this thread you have a computer capable of processing.

I decided to start with a scope. I figured it was probably the single largest purchase. If I was going to get to guiding I would need a computer scope. I also decided that a refractor would be the best for a beginner. No collimation to worry about and easy to use. I found a gently used ETX80 on Ebay for $145 shipped. It meets my goals for a computer scope and a refractor. It stores easily in a backpack so it'll be easy to keep in a closet. It should be here in time to get under the tree for him. Up next will probably be a DIY wedge. Any ideas for a low cost imager would be appreciated.

$300 Challenge Items
Meade ETX-80 AT TC Astro Telescope $145 Ebay shipped
Xbox 360 Live Vision Guide Camera $10 Gamestop

#2 Jared

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 07:03 PM

The last time I tried to figure out the least expensive package that would allow deep sky guided astrophotography, I came out around $3,000 rather than $300. That was assuming new equipment rather than used, but even so I don't see how you'll be able to get it to $300. You'll need:
  • Scope
  • Mount
  • Tripod
  • Camera
  • Software for calibration
  • Software for post processing
  • Field Flattener
  • Cable release (if it's a DSLR)
  • Guide scope/Finder
  • Guide camera
  • Glue, duct tape, fasteners of various kinds, and plenty of creativity
Even with some do-it-yourself solutions like you are proposing (for the wedge, as an example), I'm not certain how you can keep it down around $300. A decent tripod--even one to hold an 80mm scope--is going to run $200+. That, along with the proposed scope, would already put you over budget and you wouldn't even have a camera, guide scope (or finder), guide camera, or software.

I can imagine with some creative solutions and looking at used equipment that you could come up with something workable in the $1,000 to $1,500 range for a total system cost, but I don't see how to get it much below that without the project moving from the "challenging" category into the "frustrating failure" category. Regardless of age of the astronomer, it takes a reasonable amount of tracking accuracy and platform stability to get a basic image of each of the Messier items. Frankly, I think it might be a better idea to get your son started with some visual observing with a 6" Dob or even with some binocular viewing. I know that nobody wants to hear that advice since it's not glamorous and exciting, but it is quite practical. If you son has his heart set on astrophotography, then I would recommend star trails, piggyback photography, constellations, or even something like the Vixen Polarie. He'll be more successful and you'll stay closer to your budget.

#3 Dwight J

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 07:05 PM

Keeping with the Meade theme, why not a DSI color. Sell for around $100 or so but they go fast.

#4 Midnight Dan

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 07:54 PM

Moon? No problem. A few of the brighter Messiers - also no problem. ALL the Messier objects? And guiding? Complete package including scope, mount, camera and guider? For $300? This will be interesting indeed.
:gotpopcorn:

-Dan

#5 Raginar

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 08:40 PM

Someone on here was doing something very smiliar with an ETX. I think you'll need a guider though at the very least. So if you could find a DSI-c (see Mike7Mak's photos) and a finder-guider rig... you could make it happen.

I agree though; it's gonna be tough.

#6 shawnhar

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 08:58 PM

Challenge Accepted!
Although...you ain't gettin' guiding for 300 bucks unless you find some old lady selling her passed husband's gear.

EQ Mount that will track - 125$
http://www.cloudynig...ct=69637&sor...

80-200 F4.5-5.6 SIGMA MACRO AIS (52) 35MM SLR MANUAL FOCUS ZOOM TELEPHOTO LENS - 17$
http://www.keh.com/c...1/sku-NK0900...

Nikon lens to EOS Adapter - 16$
http://www.amazon.co...a/dp/B001G4QXLE

Canon Eos-30d - 150$ - but it don't work right...
http://www.adorama.c...MCFQeynQod4x...
I found a Canon EOS XS for 125 on local cragslist but I had to look for about 6 months.

That setup will capture all of the Messiers at 200mm but planets will have no detail, you could swap the lens for a scope, but finding a scope for 40 bucks will be hard. At 200mm you can get the polar alignment good enough to get 2 or 3 minute exposures.

The little ETX cannot be auto-guided and you will have nothing but heartache if you try to hang a DSLR off the back of it. I have also read it has issues in polar mode with a wedge, the motors were not designed for that kind of stress, or the little plastic gears.

That's all I got...anyone got a better idea?

#7 herrindude

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 09:16 PM

I got a Meade dsi color i,m not using, you pay shipping and its yours, pm me for contact info.

#8 Mkofski

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 09:42 PM

Here is a Canon 10D for well under $100. http://www.cloudynig...ct=69621&sor...

#9 hcsceo

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 10:56 PM

Yeah I had thought of a used dslr and that 10d would work great however I need to keep the setup as light as possible since we are dealing with plastic gears in the etx mount. The Meade Dsi color was high on my list for this setup due to the size and used pricepoint. I believe with a t thread adapter this will screw right to the back of the ETX80. Thanks Herrindude, PM sent!

So this leaves guiding. Right now I'm leaning to a webcam and finderscope combo. I've got a spare 9x50. My first guider was this combo and it worked fine on my C6-N. I dropped about 50% of my subs but it worked. I'm going to look for some other smaller finders that might work. Fyi for those wondering you can autoguide the etx80. I do believe it might require a hand controller upgrade.

#10 kcgolden

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Posted 27 November 2012 - 01:15 PM

hcsceo,

I see that you are in Austin which makes your challenge a little easier. Have you been out to Mansfield Dam with the Austin Dam Astronomers? If not, look up their yahoo group and join up. There's a guy that is a regular at the Dam who puts together these amazing electronic eyepieces made from cheap security cams he buys overseas. I'm not sure if you'll stay under $300 but you might get pretty close if you check him out (he doesn't sell them but you can see how he does it). His name is Johnny. Join the yahoo group to find out when they're going out next.

#11 hcsceo

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Posted 27 November 2012 - 02:46 PM

Thanks Kelsey, I haven't had a chance to get out to Mansfield yet. I am part of the yahoo group however I've never posted. I need to get out there one night for. This setup will be perfect for a trip like that. On the security cameras... I have one on my C8 and really like it a lot. I use it primarily to align the scope remotely and check for cloud cover. They are very sensitive and work reasonably well. I was hoping to grab a little more quality pics from this setup however and still keep it low cost and the Meade DSI Color is a good start to that.

OK so today I ran out and purchased an XBox 360 Live Vision camera from Gamestop for $10 used. It's one of the few low cost CCD type webcams still readily available. I've modified it by removing the IR blocking filter, base, and 4 LED ready lights. This is a very easy DIY modification that anyone could do. I still need to add a little fan to the rear to keep the CCD cool. My previous guide camera was a Logitech 4000 CCD webcam mounted to a 9x50 Finderscope. With that I also removed the IR filter to make it more sensitive in low light. It worked well at F5 so I'm hoping to have the same result with this camera. I have a 9x50 ready to go so I need to get the two mated. I'll figure out a good price for the 9x50 I have and add that to my list also.

#12 Jeff in Austin

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Posted 27 November 2012 - 08:02 PM

One other thought for a guide scope - there are some c-mount lenses on ebay that sell for as little as $20 delivered from H.K. China. F.L's from 8 to 100 mm. Very small and light.

#13 hcsceo

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Posted 27 November 2012 - 09:44 PM

Thanks Jeff. I'm going to look into that. If I can find a way to mount the webcam to it that would be perfect. If I had a plate that was c mount threaded I could mount the ccd board right to it in the other side. The weight of a standard 9x50 finder scope is concerning me with the etx mount.

I should be outside. It's a beautiful night.

#14 hcsceo

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Posted 28 November 2012 - 06:23 PM

Ok I'm going to go down the C mount lens path. This should make a very light guide scope. I found this website today Webcam C Mount which looks perfect. I also managed to score a Logitech Quickcam 4000 which is exactly what I had before so I know the sensitivity of the CCD. Best part was $7.95 on a buy it now on ebay! I need to calculate the MM lens I should get for the C mount. Any ideas? I'm thinking 50mm. I'm going to try and do a FOV calculation on both my 9x50 and a 50mm cmount.

#15 Jeff in Austin

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Posted 28 November 2012 - 08:45 PM

Lots of ideas and adapters at Scopestuff for c mount and the DSI camera.

Link here

(I'm not connected with them but sure do like the next day service to Austin!)

#16 jgraham

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Posted 28 November 2012 - 09:30 PM

I've actually done a lot of imaging with the ETX-60 and -80. The color DSI does okay, the Pro with a low profile face plate from ScopeStuff does better. I use a Pro III for luminance and a color III for color (duh). The stock ETX mount does not work well on a wedge, there's too much flex in the polar shaft. That's okay, with the tracking quality you are limited to 10-15 second exposures which works very well with the altaz mode. I'm away from home right now, when I get back I'll post a couple of example images. It is amazing what you can do with these little scopes, a lot of patience, and a little luck.

#17 hcsceo

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 12:08 AM

Thanks Jeff I love scopestuff. The DSI will connect to the scope in prime. I think I'm good there. The c mount lens will go on the guide camera/webcam. All the little bits should be here shortly.

John, I'd love to see those photos and thanks for the advice on the wedge.

Ok so the scope came in... I'm not sure what I was expecting. Somehow I thought it would be better quality than it is. Functionally it does what it's supposed to do. Easy align on two stars and find targets. Moon was very bright so the first two stars were difficult from my location. Deneb was just behind some leaves so I guessed and calibrated on it. Calibration stars were 10-15 degrees off in altitude. i wish meade made a red dot or some crosshairs/gunsight to fit in the eyepiece holder to help with alignment. The compass/bubble level is worthless. The slews were VERY loud and I didn't expect that however they got on my three targets no issue. I was actually concerned my neighbors would come out. I chose Jupiter, moon, and Orion. Is it me or is the meade controller difficult to use? It's not intuitive at all. I finally figured it out and I suppose it will be fine. The views were nice. I could clearly see three bands on jupiter and orion was clear with slight aversion. A moonless night should provide nice views. Focus popped right in.... after 140000 turns of the knob. Is this a cruel joke meade played on us? You really do a lot of cranking. Go between Barlow and no Barlow and get ready to crank all over again. Speaking of the Barlow.. Wow I thought someone had me looking through a coke bottle! Finally the mount is very shaky. A deep exhale will send the shivers through it. So will it work for AP? Hmmmmmm. I think so? The key here is keeping the weight down and a lot of luck. If it were "my" scope and not a gift for my son I'd take the mount apart and try and improve it but for him and most beginners I don't see this as an option. So we'll keep plugging along and see how it goes.

#18 hcsceo

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Posted 04 December 2012 - 10:32 PM

Well darn it. I can't update the first post with more totals. Anyway here is an update. I got in the Logitech Pro 4000. It was not the CCD version but the CMOS version. There is no way to tell which you have till you take it apart. So I opted not to use it. I have now modified the Xbox live CCD camera to accept a C mount lens. The focal flange distance for C Mount is 17.5mm. I haven't measured it yet but I can tell I'm about right with the two 5mm spacers I have installed. Here is a picture of the modified camera. It is very small and light and will take a c mount lens or nosepiece. I'm looking for a lens now. Lots of used c mount lenses to choose from. I'm looking for one that gives me the same pixel ratio my last setup did.

Posted Image

#19 jgraham

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Posted 04 December 2012 - 11:16 PM

As I mentioned above, I've done quite a bit of imaging with my ETX-60 and a bit with my ETX-80. The ETX-60 is so easy to use I've spent most of my time with this little scope. Here are a couple of examples that I happen to have on the computer I'm using right now. These three examples were all taken on the evening of January 18th, 2012 (local time).

-----------------------------

Moon - 1/29/2012 0h UT ETX-60
Telescope: Meade ETX-60, #497 Controller, #884 tripod, AC adapter
Luminance: 50x0.0005sec, Meade DSI Pro III, Baader Semi-Apo Filter
Color: None
Guide scope: None
Software: Envisage, Registax 6, Photoshop

Since it only takes a few minutes to get my ETX-60 set up and ready for imaging I had a bit of time to burn waiting for it to get fully dark, so I slewed over to the moon and took a quick set of images. Aligning and combining the images in real-time works fine, but to get the best results I saved all of the uncombined source images and stacked them offline using Registax to take care of the little bit of field rotation.

Attached Files



#20 jgraham

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Posted 04 December 2012 - 11:18 PM

M35 – Open Cluster in Gemini ETX-60
Telescope: Meade ETX-60, #497 Controller, #884 tripod, AC adapter
Luminance: 28x5sec, Meade DSI Pro III, Baader Semi-Apo Filter
Color: 16x10sec, Meade DSI III, Baader Semi-Apo Filter
Guide scope: None
Software: Envisage, Autostar Imaging Processing, Photoshop

M35 is a rich patch of stardust lying in western Gemini. The object is a great match for the wide field of the little ETX-60. Note the open cluster NGC2158 just to the right of M35.

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#21 jgraham

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Posted 04 December 2012 - 11:18 PM

M42/43 – The Orion Nebula, ETX-60
Telescope: Meade ETX-60, #497 Controller, #884 tripod, AC adapter
Luminance: 23x5sec, Meade DSI Pro III, Baader Semi-Apo Filter
Color: 12x10sec, Meade DSI III, Baader Semi-Apo Filter
Guide scope: None
Software: Envisage, Autostar Imaging Processing, Photoshop

This is my best picture of M42/43 yet with my little ETX-60. I caught just a bit of the outer loop (swinging around to the lower left) as well as NGC1977 (upper right). The Baader Semi-Apo filter did a great job reducing the violet halo around the brighter stars.

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#22 jgraham

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Posted 04 December 2012 - 11:26 PM

This is my favorite picture of my ETX-60 configured for imaging. This was taken after a particularly brutal night of bitter cold and heavy frost. I'll set my ETX-60 out on nights that I wouldn't risk cold-soaking my Atlas EQ-G. The ETX-60 is a surprisingly tough little scope. The real trick to making this work is a lightweight, sensitive camera along with a little luck and a lot of patience.

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#23 hcsceo

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 09:05 AM

John thanks for the pics. Those help me a lot. Looks like you have the 497 on there and the same backpack tripod I do. Like you I am excited to have a scope I can setup quickly when weather conditions are changing during the night. My C8 although not large by any means takes a good while to setup for imaging.

#24 jgraham

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 10:57 AM

Yeppers. I mixed and matched controllers to put the #497 on my ETX-60. I control everything from inside my house and the #497 is much easier to use that way. I have also used the #494 'remotely' kinda sorta; I extended the handset cable with a 14' Ethernet cable so that it would reach inside my house. :) Be warned; 14' is as long as you can go before you get a motor fault on startup.

Oh yeah, speaking of setup time... with the ETX-60 in altaz mode there's no polar alignment or guiding to fool with. You're generally limited to 5-15 second exposures anyway, so this kinda forces you to keep things simple.


#25 hcsceo

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 05:36 PM

John thanks for that info. I'm still going to chase guiding only cause I feel like I'm going to need to get to 1 minute subs in order to get the entire range of Messier objects. My biggest concern is the RA axis and the plastic bushings. I guess we'll see how it goes. I'll run some PEC graphs. I suspect it is going to take some modifications to work correctly. I'm still shooting for $300 with guiding but I believe the 497 controller might put me over. If I had to do it over I might have tried to find a ETX90 with 497 for around $200. Even then I'd be really pinched to make $300 but at least I wouldn't have an RA issue to deal with. Everything depends on the camera selection at this point and what kind of deal I'm able to get. Honestly I need to be at $50 for imager and $50 for 497 controller to make this happen. That will take an amazing used deals on both the imager and controller.

OK guys I had a chance to check the flange distance on the Xbox Live Webcam converted to C Mount and I'm right at 17mm with 2-5mm adapters. The C Mount specs at 17.5mm so I should be good with infinity focus here. Now for the lens. I'm going to need about 100mm in focal length to get this going right. That should put me at about 10 arc seconds per pixel which is double the ETX80/DSI of 5 arc seconds per pixel. I've run this as high as 3 times with no issues on other setups so this gives me a little headroom for a better imager if one comes available.

I've got the mount for the guider all figured out. It will be made out of aluminum and should work fairly well. It will allow me to move the guidescope in AZ to help find stars. I figure the entire setup... Aluminum mount, Guide Camera, and Guide Lens should be below 1/4 pound. I'm thinking about removing the built in Barlow and mechanics to save some weight. It's not a good barlow anyway so I don't see myself using it. I figure I'll be close to a wash in weight if I do this.






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