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Extreme Nomadic Astrophotograpy

Posted: October 6th, 2011


I don't know if this is "extreme"... To some, this story may just sound nuts. Others, I think they understand perfectly what I'm talking about and have their share of stories even much more extreme than this one... Yeah.. I think sometimes I've gone to extremes way beyond than what I'm about to relate, but the title seemed catchy enough, and so it'll stay :-)

...

Well, it's no secret anymore that a few colleagues (Bob Caton, Al Howard, Eric Zbinden and myself) have invested over 125 hours of imaging (and probably even more of driving combined) in producing a macro-mosaic that will be displayed at this year's Advanced Imaging Conference 2011.


Bob Caton standing in front of the huge light box

Despite we haven't started to process the data just yet, what has been done so far is quite a feat. Still, two days ago I realized that the green data for one of the frames assigned to me was just rubbish (I'll spare the details), so here I am sitting, Thursday October 6th, loading up my car, because tonight, with a big bright Moon that sets at 3am, I have the very last chance to head up to a dark location and capture the minimum 2 hours of green data that I need - from 3am to 5am - otherwise the project will not see the light in time for AIC.

Yes, I work tomorrow. And yes, I'm tired and sure enough, ready to go to bed... otherwise... And although the forecast is for clear skies, temperatures in the mid 30s are expected (hey, those of you up north, this is California and it's only early October... ok? ;-), and extreme high humidity. I would never go out to capture data for a 3-5am session only, but if I don't do it, all the hours already invested would have been worthless, meaning the image will never make it on time for the AIC event.

Where to go? I could go Montebello, an easy 30 minutes drive from home, but the skies really have little to do with the skies we all have taken the data. Sure, it's "just" color data, but still. That would also mean breaking the Montebello OSP rules, which dictate that we can be there for astronomy up until 2am and no later than that!

I could go Henry Coe... This target will be up at the zenith between 3-5am and Coe's skies would likely be sufficient for green data, but let's face it, Coe can feel spooky at times when you're up there all alone (or in the company of mountain lions), and the of arriving at Coe around 2am, under near freezing temps and over 95% humidity, just is NOT my idea of having fun. Or I could go to the DARC Observatory, a rather safe and not spooky at all site,  but the 2 hours drive that requires to get there - or better said, to get back home - would conflict with my schedule: I would get out of there not earlier than 5:30am, meaning getting at home - after fighting morning rush hour traffic - around 7:30 or later, and my kids would be late for school...

So the choice is between Spooky Coe or Bright Sky Montebello (and risk my access to the site if caught there after 2am). Since I don't want to break any rules that would compromise my access - or anyone else's - to Montebello, I guess the choice is clear, and in about 2 hours I'll leave for Henry Coe State Park, and deal with the spookiness, the cold and the humidity all night long pretty much until sunrise. That of course, assuming my access to the overflow parking lot is not stopped by a gate I cannot (legally) unlock, as I haven't been there in months!

Now, I mentioned earlier that having to leave at midnight to a far dark location and fight with the cold, humidity, and yeah, spookiness, is anything but fun, but here's the thing... Despite it would be very very nice to simply hit a few buttons from home and capture the data remotely while I just go to sleep, as many people do nowadays, nomadic imaging is not only about the data, the processing or the presentation, but also about the adventure and a million other things. And despite the difficulties, the inconveniences, the lack of sleep, the expense (gas is not cheap!) and everything else that comes with it... At least today, in the end, it makes it all much more worthy, at least to me, and I wouldn't change that for the world.

And trust me when I tell you that Eric and Al also had their share of issues, such as driving 2 hours to DARC and then being able to capture data for barely one hour due to clouds, then drive 2 hours back home late at night, tired and all...

Maybe to some people - not everyone! - astrophotography does taste better when you actually have to sweat it, I don't know... I still dream about a remote observatory, don't get me wrong. But that won't stop me from taking trips to dark sites. The best image cannot compare to being under the stars.

And in the end, if everything goes according to plan, I'll get that green data and on November 4th, there'll be a giant lightbox at the AIC for everyone to, hopefully, enjoy.

Well, everyone but myself, as, things being what they are, and despite I haven't missed one AIC ever since I'm into this hobby, this year my "astro budget" has severely reached its limit and I cannot afford the registration fee for this year's AIC. Either way, if you go AIC this year, I hope you enjoy the exhibit and maybe remember that getting all the data wasn't all that easy :-) ...



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