The Great Lick Refractor - Dark Sky Photography
  • The Great Lick Refractor

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In 2017, we are capturing the cosmos using a Canon 6D DSLR camera attached to the 129 year old Great Lick Refractor -- a 36 inch refracting telescope at the Lick Observatory atop 4,265 ft. Mount Hamilton, near San Jose, California.  This project was funded by Kickstarter (The Great Lick Refractor) on March 20th, 2017, and will consist of 3 or 4 trips to the telescope throughout the year to use the power of its massive lens.  The experience and findings will be shown below.

Night 1 - March 31st, 2017

Finally we caught a break during a week of on and off rain, and sunny clear skies prevailed on this day, however, the wind was still strong, and would prove to be a challenge throughout the night.

This being the second time we've imaged through this telescope (we first tested this method for 3 hours in November 2016), we were hoping to gain more bonafide knowledge of its astrophotography capabilities through the only way possible -- trial and error. As many of you may know, aside from some preliminary calculations on can make - some definite, some approximate - trial and error is a key component to mastering any astrophotography setup, and so we is what we've set out to do with the Great Refractor. We know its 129 year old lens isn't perfect, and we know that using its effective focal length of ~17,000 mm won't produce pin-pointed stars are we've seen with our much small 8 inch, 1000 mm reflecting telescope, but we do know that at 36 inches, this thing has light gathering power like we've never seen, and the fact that we can put a modern day DSLR camera on the end of a 57 foot long, 129 year old telescope, is just awesome!

Now back to the weather... at dusk the skies were clear, but the wind was gusting to 20 - 30 mph, which shook the dome from time to time. These are the obstacles you have to battle doing astrophotography. Nothing new, except for the much more limited time we had on this gigantic beast as opposed to endless nights under dark skies everywhere with personal gear.

As the first quarter moon began to set below the view of the telescope, we pointed at Messier 1 -- a supernova remnant which was before just a tiny spec when we used our 8 inch telescope, but the Great Refractor would have it filling up the whole frame. 

  • Raw image file of M1

    Raw image file of M1

    ISO 20000, 45s

  • Same single image with a touch of editing to show contrast

    Same single image with a touch of editing to show contrast

    ISO 20000, 45s

The Canon 6D does really well at high ISO, and we didn't have much time with this object as it was quickly setting below our field of view, so a whopping ISO 20000 was used with 45 second exposures. The Great Refractor has a tracking motor, but no autoguider, so we were happy to get such long exposures without have the stars trail. One thing that is hard to get used to, though, is the stars not being pin-pointed -- no matter how much the focus is adjusted.  It's just the nature of this telescope. The ~17,000 mm focal length is "zoomed in" beyond anything we're ever seen, and we just have to get used to it.

As the night went on, we targeted the Eskimo Nebula (NGC 2392), some other objects which didn't work out, and ended the night on Jupiter. With the wind still blowing mightily, we took video of Jupiter. Here is some footage of the giant planet:

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