Shooting Stars Has a Different Meaning This Year

Well, it would just seem wrong to report on vacation without something about meteorites. But, the fact of the matter is we did nothing meteorite related on vacation this year. We are so busy with meteorites the rest of the time that we have taken a big break from them for our autumn trips.

I have spent the last several month doing some unusual things with meteorites. We had one individual that wanted cubes of a dozen different meteorites so that marbles could be produced from them. I know some of the readers may not relate to this but it is hard to find that many stones that have a perfect crack or fracture free area that will make them safe for hard grinding in a sphere making machine. It might at first seem to be easy to find a cubic inch of perfect meteorite. But to find over a dozen form different falls as the order ended up being got tough. You can forget about most of the normal NWA type stones they have cracks and flaws or they are smaller individuals. I did not want to cut up some of the really nice material at first but ended up cutting some to get enough different stones. I thought when the order came in that it would just take a few hours to produce the cubes.  It actually took me a very long hard fifteen hour day to get them all cut and evened up. It was an interesting challenge and as I look back now that I am removed from the situation something I will remember for a long time with some pride.

These are two of the meteorites that made the cut so to speak for the marble project. Nice solid stones with not cracks and very attractive.

The side benefit of that project was dozens of pieces of meteorite that are now ready for cut down further for sell. All the edges and trims are ready to slice and dice into pieces for the business.

Right on the heels of that order was an order for a large slice to be used in classroom demonstration. It was an order well outside of the size I usually have to cut. But, we had been holding onto a 19 kg stone for a while and it was a solid piece. It was too large for my biggest saw to cut all the way through in a single pass. I had to  take off an end piece in a single slice. Then make a steel angle wall that the flat surface created by removing the endpiece could rest against.  Now I could rotate the large stone through the blade while it was aligned and supported by my barrier. I was able to take two more slices off the stone each getting bigger. Now I could make the actual slice for the customer. I tell you supporting by hand a 19 kg stone and holding it firmly against a side barrier and also pushing and rotating it in a saw for the time that it takes to make four cuts was a work out. It took about two hours to make the cuts and I was covered in brown sticky  meteorite mud from head to toe. The garage was covered in splash from the saw out several feet. And all my machine tools had to be cleaned of mud, but I ended up with a large slice for the customer plus three smaller ones and an endpiece off a stone that needed to be cut. Especially after all the years we had been holding on to it.

The next challenge was to grind and polish the large slice. It was way too big for my rotating lap. The vibrating lap is 28 inches in diameter so it was large enough but it would take forever to do there and the poor slice would have to run in a wet environment for about two weeks on each side. So what to do. I drew from my mirror grinding past and set up a steel plate and grinding grits and got a comfortable chair and proceeded to grind the faces smooth. This worked ok but was going to take a long time. As I was working I thought I could use my diamond lapping disks as subdiameter grinders like is done on large telescope mirror grinding and the diamond would work much faster then the aluminum oxide.

I held the slice in place so it could not slide around and using my 180 grit diamond lapping disk I quickly ground the surfaces flat. It took a few hours but the results were very good. The customer had told us little except it was for hand examination in a public demonstration setting. So I chose to smooth one side to a nice satin sheen that showed off the chondrules well and to high polish the other side. But how to polish it was the issue. But, it was not much of a problem as it turned out. I took long strips of my diamond impregnated polishing film and laid them side by side and taped them down with a thin layer of cushioning underneath and began polishing. It took a couple more hours but the results were impressive. The slice was mirror bright and I hoped large enough for the customer’s needs.

Paul told me later that the man was very happy so I am too. Days of cleaning and windowing and polishing meteorites fill some of my weeks but I have been carving out a lot of time over the last six month to get ready for the big Astrophotography Vacation of 2013.

Paul and I have been doing astrophotography for nearly 20 years together. But, with growing kids and bills to pay both of us put it on hold for several years. We started in March and April getting equipment and making things we needed and testing in the back yard. All to get ready for the first week of October.

Armed with a new laptop computer loaded with astrophotography software and Photoshop and a big hard drive I was ready. I had researched storage batteries, and we had gotten 75 amp hour AGM batteries that we were confident would last the night with all the stuff we were going to run off them. I had a new scope for just photography. We got dual axis motor mounts with GoTo capability and computer control. We picked what turned out to be one of the most popular and wonderful autoguiding set ups around. We bought smaller scopes to use for the autoguiding.

I think we were both determined to do this right finally and for me that meant no garage machined substitutes for economy. I had built clockwork trackers for twenty years and they were just not going to get me where I wanted to go now in astrophotography. But a fast astrograph scope on a state of the art computer guided mount would I hoped. But, I know enough to know that astrophotography has a way of becoming a black hole that could demand more and more when ever your glance wondered to one side. So for now I would try to contain myself to a single scope for as many objects as I could capture. It would be great for medium size objects. At 10 inches of aperture lots of light grasp. Fast so shorter exposures  on tough objects and longer exposures too with the autoguiding as precise as it is. But, it would not get the objects that are really large completely in a picture. The Andromeda Galaxy a longtime goal was not going to be possible except in pieces put together as a mosaic. But, other lifetime goals to photograph were going to be within its range.

Paul and I made a trip to a container store and got some plastic tubs to hold the growing list of essentials for our trip. We got heavy duty plastic tubs with lids to make into power distribution boxes. After a long day’s work I got a 1 to 4 12v automotive power adapter, my 300 watt 12v DC to 110 AC  inverter and input plugs and an on/off switch and fuse mounted in the tub ready to provide power from the main battery to all my devices out in the desert.

Paul built a similar power box for himself designed to meet his needs and desires. It was fun to see how we approached the same problem with different solutions. We both began writing long lists of things we could not survive without. The lack of a single special cable and something would not work that was essential. I am not used to being so regimented and having to meets such standards of remembering things. As it turned out we forgot nothing that was essential and had enough extra to overcome many difficulties that arose.

Finally, the day arrived and we headed out to six days of astrophotography with a clear understanding on both our parts that we were not interested in meteorites this trip. It was astronomy alone. We even were heading to a facility dedicated to only astronomy to do our work. At large observing site with observatory building everywhere and concrete pads with electricity for those that need it and for us an area where the motorhome could be parked and where we could set up to take pictures without any white lights at all.

And thus begins the trip to perdition and back again. We have never had a trip with so many ups and downs. Never a trip where the downs were as deep and the triumphs so high.

We parked, aligned the motorhome to allow us to view the part of the sky we were interested in mostly and we set up the scopes. Everything perfect. Tables arranged so we could work without disturbing the other and yet so we could talk and enjoy the nights.

There was this cloud on the mountain to the south of us. We were watching it as the afternoon got late on to evening. It was slowly coming our way. The reports were that we would have a couple nights of wind and maybe tonight would be OK. The wind coming the next day they said. Well the sun went down and we were about to start work. It was dark but only for a moment. All of a sudden there was a beam of light a billion candle power bright shining right in my eyes. It was coming from a house of one of the people living next to the no light facility and it was aimed right at where we had parked.

My temperature was rising along with my frustration and after a few minutes I took the scope off my mount and carried it to the other side of the motorhome where the light was blocked. Then with no real regard for the weight. I put my mount with counterweights and all on my shoulder and carried it in the dark to the other side as well. Suffered later for that. I gradually moved the battery and power box and card table and computer over as well. I put the scope back on and balanced it. Realigned to the north celestial pole and tried to get started again in the shadow behind the motorhome. Just then my glasses broke. The scew came out of the left lens and I was without vision that would be very useful. The zipper on the side of my cold weather suit broke and came open from the waist down one leg to the ankle. So I duct taped it up and would fix it in the morning along with my glasses.

Remember that cloud I mentioned. Well, it had decided to stall right over us and dump more dew than I have ever seen. Just as I am get back ready to go things begin fogging up and getting wet. In an hour I am so wet that I am scared I will get shocked to death when I turn off the inverter. I am wiping off the lens of the guide scope so often I can not get any decent length exposures.

Paul has stayed on the other side of the motorhome and the light went out just about as I got reset up. For a moment I wondered if it had been worth moving. The answer came soon as the light came back on and the words “motion sensor” came to both our minds. This was going to be a recurring event all week. He fought it out and got some images since he had not lost time moving his equipment. But, the dew finally won and we covered the scopes shut down the power and called it a night.

The next day brought us wind. It was kind of a continuous breeze all day and we hoped it was like what we had experienced many times before. A wind that would settle down after dark when the air cooled off. But, as we sat at our computers with red screens glowing the wind was not settling down. It was growing in fury, until it was roaring down the hill behind us like a relentless freight train. About half the exposures I took were bad because of the wind blowing around my scope. And all the exposures were short only 30 seconds. Being a short Newtonian with a big aperture it was like the windsock at an airport. The wind blew into it and buffeted it around so that stars were blobs of light instead of pin points. We took images in the hope that some would be good and we would have something to work on the next day to practice processing.

The wind was not going to be stopping the weather report said, instead it was going to get worse. Gusts to 45 miles an hour and sustained winds of 25-35 miles an hour as I remember for our third day. Discouragement was knocking hard at the door of my heart. But, I tried to keep a good hope.

I fixed my glasses with a twist tie from our loaf of bread, using it to hold the frame around the lenses tight. I used another to hold the broken end of the long zipper closed so the teeth could not disengage again. I would permanently fix both at home. Problems were by no means over yet.

For then the worst happened. We had been sitting at the table in the motorhome working on the images we did get and had just taken a break. Paul was outside going down to the group house when as I watched out the window of the motorhome a gust blew his scope over. I yelled for him from inside but as I got outside he was already there administering what first aid he could.

Our covers are water proof and dust proof and yet breath to prevent moisture from being trapped so rather than bring the cold camera in and promote dew and condensation issues he had left it attached. The T-adapter had snapped apart and saved the camera but the scope was not as lucky. The big dew shield and hood was smashed. It could be reshaped at home and made to work out in the field but it was not the worst part. The objective lens was all out of whack and misaligned. But, he dared not try and work on it in the field. How would he take pictures now?

He had gotten a very good reviewed telephoto lens for his Canon and the camera was still working though he would have to use his other T-ring adapter. So he worked on figuring out how to mount the camera within the rings of the scope cage and aiming it to the same place as the guidescope. His finder had taken the most damage with its mounting rings really mushed out of shape and two of the adjustment screws broken clean off.

His scope has a much smaller profile then mine I would have expected mine to go over first but mine is significantly heavier so I guess that kept mine upright. We did not even try to go out that night as the wind ripped past us and roared around us.

Paul fought some focus and other problems through the forth night which was quite still but had intermittent clouds. We were able to shoot though holes in the clouds and I got some good shots that night. We decided that with all the difficulties we had had so far we had better stay up. The plan had been to get up late for after sleeping in one of the nights and shoot the object that rose before dawn. We might not get the next night to do that. So we shot Orion and all its wonderful objects and the Pleiades and finally went to bed at 5:30 am.

This is the great shot Paul got with his camera lens of the whole area of Orion.

Here is the image of the Flame Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula that I took.

The batteries had certainly had the capacity we hoped. We had run them for like 11 hours and they were still going fine. We processed images after waking up and Paul had gotten a great shot of the whole Orion area with the lens he had been able to use on his Canon. But it was not the telephoto. So early afternoon was brain storming time to figure out how to mount and support and control zoom and focus drift on a long heavy telephoto lens. He needed to try it for astrophotography. We put all the dovetail mounting plates and 1/4 20 screw adapters we had into making a set up that ultimately let him take some remarkable images the last evening. Velcro strapping  to further secure it and padding to keep from scratching it; the lenses was on the scope cage.

Night five was a perfect night.  Paul shot the Andromeda Galaxy with long exposures and lots of them. Later he shot The Great Orion Nebula and the area of the Horsehead and Flame nebulas around Alnitak the left most of the three stars in Orion’s Belt.

Here is Paul’s wonderful shot of The Great Andromeda Galaxy.

I shot the portion of Andromeda that would fit in the frame of my scope. Unfortunately it was not focused perfect and it is not as nice as Paul’s since it is just a section of the middle. I took images of several other objects as I waited for another chance at Orion. I had gotten good shots the night before but looked forward to taking others framed differently. I had images of the Pleiades and the Iris Nebula and the Lagoon and Trifid. And just off from those last two I had gotten a good number of images of M17 another nebula. It was not the best time of year for those they were all low and in the glow of the city to the south of us but they were objects I could shoot early before other things came over the motorhome that blocked not just the billion watt light but also the eastern sky.

We stayed up until the same time again and got 12 or more hours out of the batteries which we recharged each day. We processed images and Paul’s Andromeda was among the nicest I have ever seen, same for his Orion area shot.

I have spent my life wanting to get a great shot of the Great Orion Nebula. And I did as I sat there in the dark with the computer screen covered in red plastic and the programs that will run in red doing that. I about fell off my chair when the first of my two minute ISO 800 images of Orion came up. I had one minute ISO 1600 shots the night before and though the depth is theoretically the same the first one from the second good night was so wonderful I will remember seeing it for ever. Paul and I almost gasped at what appeared on the computer screen. Now my problem is to learn how to process out the tremendous amount of data I have so it looks the best it can. That is the hard work for me. Paul will always be better at that and certainly has been so far. But, I hope you enjoy this shot.

We did no meteorite related stuff on this vacation. But, we began satisfying a long held desire to photograph some of the wonders of the universe that we have enjoyed through visual telescopes for decades.

Time to go clean some more meteorites so we have them to sell to others who love the things of the universe beyond our homeworld.

About the Author

James Tobin
The Meteorite Exchange, Inc. was born in 1996 with meteorite.com and Meteorite Times Magazine in 2002. Still enthusiastic about meteorites and all things related to them, we hunt, collect, cut and prepare specimens. We travel to gem shows and enjoy meteorites as much now as in the beginning. Please feel free to share any comments you have on this or any of our other sites.
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