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Rent-a-Scope Astrophotography Service

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My Adventures in Deep-Sky Photography & Rent-a-Scope
By Andrew Soh

Few weeks prior to that watershed evening, I decided that I wanted to move on from imaging the Moon and planets to deep-sky objects. So I expanded my astro-imaging inventory by adding a Taurus Tracker III, GA-4 illuminated guiding adaptor, Stiletto IV focuser, Canon 300D camera, DSI Pro, and Borg Helical Focuser to my Orion ED100 and Vixen Sphinx mount. 'That should get me started!' I thought na•vely. With all my gear and tons of enthusiasm, I made my way to the dark observing site for my first deep-sky astrophotography experience. The sky was clear, seeing was great, and I quickly proceeded to set up my mount, scope and imaging train. 'Quickly' being relative in this case, as I was still not very familiar with the different screws, connections and alignments (despite practicing it during daylight), it took about an hour before everything was in its proper place. Finally, I was ready to go. So I tried to grab my Starbook, then realized with horror that I had left it at home! For those who have not had the opportunity to own a state-of-the art Vixen Sphinx mount, let me enlighten you to the fact that the mount does not work at all without the Starbook, not even manually! I stood stunned for a moment, and then decided to tear down the imaging train to do some visual observing. I managed to look at a few objects at low power by releasing the clutches of the mount and slew to the objects by pushing the optical tube. The session ended quickly within the next few minutes and I packed up to go.

The following week, I made it a point to load the Starbook into the car FIRST, before the other equipment. I also had a check-list, about 20 items in all, and double-confirmed that everything was in the car before I moved off. The sky was clear again and I was determined to shoot some deep-sky pictures that night! After setting up all the equipment, I switched on the 17AH Power Tank and waited for the mount to initialize. Nothing happened. I checked to see if I had mistakenly switched the Power Tank to 'charge' mode, no such luck. I tried everything possible to coerce the Power Tank to deliver some juice, but it just stayed flat and dead. For those who have not had the opportunity to own a state-of-the art Vixen Sphinx mount, let me enlighten you to the fact that the mount does not work at all without a power source! Once again, I packed up and returned home to a nice bath and soft sofa.

Another week had passed, and once more (again), I loaded the equipment into the car, checked the list, and made sure that the Power Tank was fully charged and tested. 'Third time lucky!', I thought to myself as I hummed a happy tune while driving to the observing site. The equipment was all set up, everything was complete, the Power Tank powered up, alignment done and target acquired. Finally, I am READY! Then the clouds came. Not just one or two puffy little clouds, but an army of clouds rolled in from the west, blanketing the sky as I was about to push the shuttle release! I cried. Not that anyone saw me, but it was real tears. I barely had enough time to pack everything back into the car before the rains poured. I did not hum my way back home that night.

Coming back to that particular evening - the observing site was relatively crowded that night, the skies being exceptionally clear and stable. I setup my equipment expediently (considering the many practice sessions I had, this came as no surprise), the Power Tank, the mount and camera was working flawlessly. I settled down quickly to start my imaging. Below, I present to you one of my first attempts at deep-sky astrophotography (that is, the one without the star trails!):

What is it? Honestly, I'm not sure. I was too busy fiddling with the various screws, controls, and trying to eliminate the star trails, I forgot what I was imaging. But alas! It was my first deep-sky photo of somewhere in Scorpio, and it adorned the wall of my living room for a few months before I took it down.

"Andrew, there is no short-cut. You need to put time and effort into this. Astronomy is all about patience as you have no control over the many variables. You have to waitÉ for the scope to cool down... for the mount to stabilizeÉ for the right weather... for the right seeing conditionsÉ for the right time for the object to be in the skyÉ and for the AP scope to land on your doorstep." Wise words indeed! By now, I hope I have given you a taste of the effort involved in astro-imaging. In summary, there is no short-cut, until probably now.

'Rent-a-scope' is exactly what it is not! You do not rent a telescope for 2 weeks, do some observing with it, and then return it. In fact, after many sessions, I have not even seen (much less touch) any of the telescope or equipment personally! So what did I pay for? In one word ? Service. Yes, it's like paying for an expert to set up the mount (a Paramount, at that!), align it, set up the scope ("What would you like, sir? A Mewlon 300, a Sky 90 or an Epsilon 250?"), balance, calibrate, fix the imaging train, and test it for me. All I had to do was to walk up to him and tell him where I wanted to telescope to point to. Like a real expert in person, I could specify "M42" or simply "Orion Nebula" and the software will understand what I wanted and slew to it, exactly (just like the 'Find' function in my own home planetarium software). The 'expert' would also focus the image for me. I can then center the image, and start to capture my images. Did I mention that I am doing all these while in the comfort of my own home? Oh, and that I do not have to sit and stare at the computer monitor while all of these is going on? I can also tell the system to logoff automatically after the images are captured, which means I start the process and switch off my computer. Later anytime in the day, or the next day, I retrieve the images from the server and do my voodoo image processing ('vodoo' in this case means I try anything and everything that my software is capable of to get the nicest image to show my friends!). It's so easy I feel almost guilty about it! Wait! There's more! I don't have to pack up after I have finished! For me, that's a real bonus! And the result is my first picture using Rent-a-Scope:

It's a far cry from my previous image. In this case, this is a picture of the Horsehead nebula. I know that because the system records the name as my filename, so I never forget what a particular picture is about!

So much for the hard sell. Before you jump into the website with your credit card in hand, here are some lessons which I learnt the hard way that you might be interested in:
  1. Go through the website (www.arnierosner.com) and read everything. Yes, everything. Some of the useful facts are scattered here and there, even if the title of the page may indicate something else. If you find something important, like 'specifications', bookmark it immediately! This is really important! The design of the web pages is not immediately intuitive (sorry, Arnie) and certain pages which I browsed yesterday I have difficulty finding it again today.

  2. Download the video demos (https://www.arnierosner.com/are/Rent-a-scope/Demonstrations/demonstrations.html) and view them at least twice, taking notes as you go along. Pay particular attention to the five videos under 'Telescope Operation'. Why? Because you are charged for each minute you logon into the system. Each time you go "HmmÉ I wonder what this button does?" there goes another dollar or two! Also, it's not courteous to hog the computer while someone else is waiting in line. The objective of using this system should be to "enter, shoot and exit" as fast as you can.
  3. Now, you can queue up with your credit card. If you have not signed up before, note that you do not have an instant account. At least mine didn't (happens with non-US credit cards sometimes). So give yourself some time - I had my account activated within 24 hours.

  4. Make use of the waiting time for your account activation to do some planning. Like I said, every minute you spend in the system thinking about what you want to image is money wasted. I use 'The Sky' and 'Starry Night Pro'. Make sure you turn on the field of view function (more information in the web site). Note that not all versions of the software include this function (The Sky Student version does not have this function, for example). Set the location to the coordinates of the telescope, or if you are lazy like me, just select 'Santa Fe, New Mexico'.

  5. Run the planetarium software to select a good time to image (no moon, object at least 20 degrees above horizon, and most importantly, and the object is not approaching the meridian ? you cannot image past the meridian: it's a Paramount thing).

  6. Before you login, check the skies at the telescope site first. The login page has a real-time infrared cloud map to show you potential cloud covers near the site, and you are also provided with a link to a webcam picture showing what the sky is like currently. I use this periodically to determine if I should come back later, do a quickie or abort a long exposure (to save money, of course!). Although I must say, the clouds clear up pretty quickly! Don't even try to login if the skies look like this in the webcam(moon and clouds):

  1. Now you are ready to login. The procedures and steps required are fully explained in the video demos and I will not attempt to repeat them here. Suffice it to say that you should be realistic about the amount of time you use (for budget planning purposes). Even if you take a single one-minute shot, it still requires about 4 to 10 minutes of login time, depending on slew time (whether the telescope was originally pointing to the same or opposite side of the sky of your intended target), internet speed (always use broadband if possible to speed up screen loading), fussiness on centering (each time you center the image, the telescope & mount takes some time to settle down), auto-guiding (forget about auto-guiding if the exposure is less than 3 minutes), and color or B&W mode (color mode takes more time as you have additional parameters to specify). Do not attempt to download the files while you are logged into the system. Open another browser window using the link provided when you have started your imaging and download at leisure after you have finished taking your images and logged off. Access time to the file server is not charged. In this regard, use a browser that allows a tab function so you do not have a lot of windows cluttering your screen. I use Firefox but this is my personal preference. I also noticed that the website is optimized for Portrait viewing, which makes sense since you would like to print the screenshot of your parameters to avoid copying by hand the various parameters while the clock is ticking. If you have a LCD monitor that is able to rotate 90 degrees to a portrait mode (I use a Compaq 1720, which I believe is out of production already), use it!

  2. Having your pictures is not enough. Chances are you still need to process them. Get a copy of Maxim/DL or download their free 30-day trial. I'm using the 30-day free trial version and I liked it so much I can see myself buying the full version once the 30-days are up (26 days left!). However, I will still keep my IRIS and PixInsight LE for other more specialized tasks.

  3. Finally, if you encounter any problems, log out and take up Arnie's offer of 24x7 service via phone or email. My experience is that emails are replied within 2 minutes unless he is busy with something else. He is always helpful and entertains all sort of questions (except maybe on his personal life), even newbie questions!

What are some of the things I dislike about Rent-a-scope? Well, I mentioned earlier that the website is not logically organized. That can make searching for a particular piece of information a real challenge. Depending on your financial circumstances and astrophotography expertise, you may find the service cost-effective, or incredibly expensive. In the long run, it works out to US$1 per minute. A 60 minute H-alpha exposure would cost you $60, add another 60-minute exposure of OIII, and you are looking at $120 for one picture! If you have already invested in most high end equipment in the imaging train, then this service is probably not for you. However, if you are just starting out or own some relatively inexpensive imaging equipment, then you may use this service to try it out before you buy your own. Unlike your own equipment, there is no way that I know of to rotate the frame remotely. This means you have to use a larger frame and then crop and rotate it to get the object in the desired orientation. Like all rental services, you have to wait if there is high demand. Based on my experience so far, the waiting time can vary from 2 minutes to 30 minutes. Although there are five scopes to choose from (in reality only four are available because one is heavily utilized for research), they offer different field of views and one has to be patient to wait for a particular scope to be available. Situated in the Northern Hemisphere, the scopes cannot reach the Southern Skies (although one Southern Scope is currently being tested and would be available soon), so don't plan on imaging anything too far South. As you can see, these dislikes are more of minor irritations and you can work around the limitations without too much effort (except for the cost and the location of the scopes). Proper planning and having contingency objects to image (with different scopes for different FOVs) would increase your chances of a fruitful session.

Ok, so what's the final take on this Rent-a-Scope? I wrote in the testimonial at their website that it radically changed my observing habits. Previously, each time I look through the scope and see a wonderful image, I would reach for the camera and paraphernalia. Now, I use more time to observe visually. Only when I had my fill visually and still have enough time and energy left would I do some imaging 'by the way'. There is no rush... no cursing at passing clouds... and finally, no frustrations. Everything is supposed to be the way it should be? Astronomy is fun again!

[Declaration - I am not connected in any way to Rent-a-Scope except as a happy customer.]


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