Winter in the Western Cape, South Africa, leaves less opportunity for me to do deep-sky observing. It’s supposed to be our rainy season and I am accustomed to my telescope going into semi hibernation. I love the rain and we need the rain but when clouds gather just to show they have enough muscle to cover the entire heaven and I feel no raindrops falling on my head, I get really depressed.
There is some consolation in the fact that these days one can observe online as well. I have become a member of Slooh which feels like the most straight forward online telescope system for an enthusiastic amateur like me. I took baby steps at first and signed up as a crew member, which means I did not get to control the robotic telescopes but could observe the objects reserved by Slooh apprentices and astronomers in real time. Apprentice and Astronomer members pay a subscription and crew members go along for the ride. Now a month later I’ve decided to take my second step and updated my account to an Apprentice. I will now get to reserve time on the telescopes and do settings and very cool stuff. Mostly I’ll still go along for the ride. Honestly the less I have to fiddle with alignments and settings when observing, the better.
Usually when I go online I have access to content instantly but reality soon dawned when I realized that Slooh telescopes are live and have weather issues just like anywhere else. At least Slooh’s website has so much interesting stuff to explore while waiting for the dots on the telescope page to turn green for go.
Instead of doing astrophotography I sketch. Doing sketches while observing through a remote robotic telescope seems like crooking big time. Most of the rules that apply when I’m observing through my telescope fall by the wayside. How can I determine co-ordinates when the stars do not drift across to the west in the eyepiece like they do in my uncomputerised telescope Trying to determine star colours seem to be less obvious through the Canary Island telescopes but nebulae are so much easier to sketch when not having to nudge the telescope at the same time.
I always keep a log of every observation – even when online. I know I will not be able to submit my online observations to the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa for I am such a goody two shoes and that would be like lip syncing. On the other hand, I am observing in real time but just without bug spray and I will be taking my online adventures into account when I tally the grand total of my deep sky observations.
Bingo – To be able to complete my notes I scoured the internet for hours to find specs on Slooh’s telescopes. I almost joined a forum of disgruntled people who could not find any specs and were accusing Slooh of being a scam. Luckily I went onto the website again to see whether Canary Two had come online and this time I noticed a cheeky arrow over a pink button on the telescope page. It’s amazing how much more info one can find if you know where to look. Each location also has a webcam and from that footage I can sort of guess atmospheric conditions. Apparently if the stars seem elongated, the wind is blowing a gust!
To get the most from of an online session I try to get as close to the real thing as possible: lights off when I’m visiting Canary Island, curtains drawn for Chile. I use my regular sketch pad with red light and have coffee from a flask. By adjusting my computer’s display I can become relatively dark adapted.
Doing Astronomy online is a far cry from looking directly through my own telescope. I thought there would be no accelerated heartbeat, no oohs or wows until my first observation of a red dwarf thanks to Slooh’s Chile One. “Kapteyn’s Star” was absolutely breathtaking through the 14” Smidt Cassegrain. Mostly when I observe galaxies I see small smudges but one Slooh astronomer member opened up a new universe for me when he reserved time to observe NGC 1433 on Chile One. WOW!
Thanks to Slooh, apprentices and astronomers for giving us this wonderful opportunity and for sharing their observing time.