Having lived in Colorado, I thought I knew what dark skies looked like. In truth, I had no idea. Until I moved to New Zealand. How dark is it here? Well, in most places, on a partly cloudy night, the clouds show up as slightly grey, a bit lighter than the clear sky. Here in NZ, the clouds are completely black (because there is little/no light reflecting off them) and the night sky is actually a bit light (from starlight). The Milky Way is bright enough to cast shadows on the ground.
One of the great things about living in New Zealand are the dark skies. With very little light pollution, the stars are bright in the night sky. And one of the best places to see them is at Lake Tekapo, which is part of the gold-rated Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. And that is where we decided on our first Kiwi vacation.
After I got my imaging telescope (AstroTech AT6-RC), I started targeting deep-sky targets. It took a while to get the whole process dialed in properly. Things like proper load balancing, polar alignment, calibration, getting all the cables hooked up, calibrating the guider, setting the focus (quite a complicated task when you cannot see your target through the viewfinder or LiveView), finding your target, framing, determining each frame parameter (e.g. required exposure length, ISO), and then hoping no clouds come in and ruin it all. Then there’s the additional task of making sure you have a library of dark and flat frames built up for processing. And processing itself is quite lengthy. The initial calibration and stacking of the frames is a pretty automated process but can take anywhere from 2-6 hours, depending on the amount of data. Then comes the actual processing, which requires painstaking attention to each part of the final image. But when you realize that the final product is of an object thousands or millions of light-years away in space, it’s all worth it.
After trying out some astrophotography with the Celestron NexStar 8SE, I hankered for something better. While the NexStar got me started, the alt-az mount isn’t really sufficient for long-exposure imaging, which is the key to capturing faint objects like galaxies and nebulae. So I invested in an AstroTech AT6-RC (a 6-inch Ritchey-Chretien) on an Orion Sirius EQ-G equatorial mount. Not top-of-the-line, but still a good setup that would last a while.
I have always been fascinated by space. Ever since I was a little kid, I could stare for hours at images of galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. I truly identified with this:
Without a wish, without a will
I stood upon that silent hill
And stared into the sky until
My eyes were blind with stars and still
I stared into the sky
The Song of Honour, Ralph Hodgson