Using A Remote Telescope With Telescope Live
There’s been a particularly bad run of weather currently in Britain. I know that we’re famous for it, but it’s really been taking the cake right now. So when I was approached by Telescope Live to use some of their kit for a bit I couldn’t say no.
I was aware of remote telescope services already. I had even looked into one before but was quickly dissuaded by the price tag. Alex, from the Telescope Live team, made himself known, we had a call. Long story short you’re now reading a blog post about that experience. In this article I’m going to try and convey what to expect when you sign up to and begin using remote telescopes. Some of the best gear we can have access to, in some of the most pristine and darkest skies going. A way to access horizons and hemispheres we don’t usually get the chance to see.
What is Telescope Live?
So as eluded to above, Telescope Live is a remote imaging platform. This is basically a place where you ‘rent’ time on large ‘best-in-class’ telescopes to do your astrophotography or scientific observations on.
This supplier had a particularly juicy buffet on offer for the aspiring remote observer. Many large telescopes. One of which is 30” in diameter. That’s 60cm. There were also smaller and wider Takahashi scopes and mid-range Newtonians.
The website www.telescope.live is a really fluid and easy to use site. Though I was told they’re going to be giving it a visual overhaul soon. I found it straight forward to navigate without any pesky menus hidden in menus that were then found in a unassuming place on the screen. Great UI.
There’s a free trial option as well, where you can get 20 credits (equivalent to £20). Though keep reading as I’ll tell you a way to double that amount.
No doubt a service like this lives and dies by the equipment on offer. You’re not going to be finding a Sky-Watcher OTA or a ZWO camera here. Those may be desirable for us amateurs but they just don’t make the grade for this operation.
With Telescope Live you’ll be finding Planewave CDK telescopes, Takahasi Refractors and FLI cameras. Married to these are Paramount and Mathis mounts. Finally they’re equipped with a full suite of Astrodon filters. Talk about big bucks. Research grade equipment.
I mainly used a 24” Planewave CDK telescope in Chile. I found this to be the most reliable for the images I was chasing, as well as reasonably priced. More on that later though.
- Planewave CDK
- 610mm (24”) aperture
- 3962mm Focal Length (f/6.5)
- Mathis MI-1000/1250
- FLI PL 9000
- 12um Pixels
- 3056 x 3056 resolution
Now I don’t really want to focus on price tags too much. But the camera alone is 3x the price of my entire imaging setup. However the quality is fantastic. Here’s a sample image they supply with this equipment.
This is a single 10 minute image of the Helix Nebula in Hydrogen-Alpha. If it seems like I’m excited, it’s because I am.
Using The Telescopes
Okay enough building up. As I mentioned, I was given some time on the telescopes. Any of my choice. I was given some credits and told to have fun – and I did.
The most sensible thing for me is to shoot in the Southern Hemisphere. That place is a dark endless void of mystery to me. Though I did find several targets I’d love to image. Pencil Nebula, Cat’s Paw, Lobster Nebula. Things like that. However none of the telescopes could sight it unfortunately.
Instead I resolved to get a photo of a target I always wanted to image. Since many years ago when I saw Trevor Jones of AstroBackyard image it. That’s M20 – the Trifid Nebula. I ended up actually overexposing it. But I still enjoyed it!
However in this article I’m going to be showing the steps to image NGC 300 – the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy.
Making A Plan
Making a plan is as simple as pressing a button to make a request. From there, you enter in the catalogue number of whatever it is you’re wanting to observe. They accept almost any catalogue number you can think of so chances are high you’ll find your target.
Choosing A Telescope
From there, you select a telescope. It lists only the scopes that can see the target above 30′ elevation. There are other algorithms that go into it, but I’m not going to pretend that I know them. It also lists the cost per minute of using that telescope. The CDK 24” I used had a cost of 2.5 credits/minute.
I chose this telescope as it had the most versatile exposure times available. You can find this information out by clicking the small I in the list, and then clicking ‘More Info’. I had learned from the Trifid that 180s exposures were too much. So I halved that to 90 seconds for NGC300.
Create Imaging Plan
Telescope Live gives you two options when it comes to the imaging plan. You can choose Astrophotography mode which is slightly simplified. You can access the LRGB, Ha, OIII and SII filters. Designate exposure times (or set it to a different exposure per filter), binning, and number of frames.
Advanced mode gives you access to all filters and much more control on your imaging series. I didn’t use this one as I didn’t feel it necessary. Astrophotography mode worked fine for me. I’m after a pretty picture at the end of the day.
From there you can set your scheduling. You can manually select a time in the calendar, or just denote how much Moon you’re willing to accept (you get Moon discounts too), and let the automated scheduler do its thing. Again, I let the automated scheduler handle it for me. I really went easy mode.
After that you click submit and sit back, relax and wait for the email.
Receiving Your Images
Once your imaging plan has been completed, calibrated and the files are ready to download. You’ll receive an email notifying you. From there you can gleefully go back to Telescope Live and find your completed request on the dashboard.
From there, go to the My Observation Requests tab, click the three dot menu and hit download. Wait a bit for it to zip it all up and then download.
It is possible to download the individual calibration frames if you so desire. But from what I was told by Alex, this isn’t generally required as new calibration frames are shot weekly and flats are shot in real time. This counts as the overhead costs you’ll see.
From there, stack if you’ve ordered more than one image per channel and then edit them as you would with your normal mono workflow. I found the data to be of superb quality. Even when I had overexposed them. Of course having more than one or two frames per channel will improve your image vastly. I simply didn’t want to pay for that as I was trying to get as much variety as I could.
Antoine at Galactic Hunter made a very detailed image of the Bug Nebulae with his credits. Just to show you what power stacking multiple images from high quality gear can do.
I went simply with a standard LRGB Ha workflow. Yes I chose Hydrogen-Alpha in a Galaxy. The Southen Pinwheel Galaxy is large enough and faces us correctly enough to see nebulae forming regions within it. It’s these signs you want to see when deciding whether to add Ha to a galaxy image.
I shot 2x 600s Hydrogen-Alpha images and stacked them. I definitely had the sort of detail I was hoping for.
NGC300 – The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy
As the name implies this target is located in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a large spiral, almost face on galaxy. I actually prefer this one to the ‘Northern’ Pinwheel Galaxy (M101). Though I have the added benefit of actually imaging M101 – which I did.
- Constellation: Sculptor
- RA: 00h 54m 53.5s
- Dec: -37° 41′ 04”
- Mag: 9
- Size: 21′.9 x 15′.5
The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy is actually part of a local group called the Sculptor Group. I thought I could see other galaxies dotted about in the field of view when I was editing and looking at this image.
It’s such a beautiful target. Such soft details and colours, yet explosive star forming nebulous regions that are visible to us from about 6 million light years away. It’s when I think of the sheer distances involved, and what we can image on Earth I get super excited about our hobby.
The image here is a combined total of 32 minutes exposure time. 20 minutes of that was taken up with Hydrogen-Alpha alone! The broadband channels are 3 minutes stacks each. It really isn’t a lot of data.
It’s a testament to what nice dark skies and enormous instruments, as well as some of the highest quality cameras can achieve. It’s only because of Telescope Live that I was able to experience this sort of thrill. Yes, this image cost 80 credits in total and that’s quite pricey. But it’s certainly an experience.
Sense Of Achievement?
So whilst Telescope Live really does give you access to some horrendously high quality gear. It never suggests itself to be a replacement to our garden variety telescopes. Speaking to Alex, the contact who approached me, about a bad, impostor feeling I had when using the service, he explained it clearly to me.
I told him that I didn’t feel like any of these images were mine. It wasn’t taken with my gear and such. Whilst the photos were certainly mine in the sense of I chose the target, the plan and did the editing. They didn’t feel like mine because I didn’t set up the equipment.
He, in turn, replied to me and told me that Telescope Live is an opportunity to use top tier equipment. Rather than a replacement. It’s a treat to us amateurs and a conduit to access the darkest skies from Earth in some of the most pristine conditions.
“Yes of course, the way we proposition it though is that it’s not actually supposed to replace the home hobby, capturing your own photos is incredibly rewarding and we can’t take that away nor are we looking to. What we’re offering is access to skies that most people will never have the opportunity to access, furthermore to equipment that is just out of reach… While I agree it doesn’t have a sense of your own images/work, from an image capture point of view this experience can’t be gained anywhere else”.
Alexander Curry, Customer Engagement & Experience
When I looked again at the images I had requested, they began to slowly become mine. The Trifid Nebulae however still remains quite the imposter as I can feasibly image that myself.
However the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy is something I will never image most likely. Especially not with the calibre equipment on offer from Telescope Live.
Telescope Live was certainly an experience. I will continue to use it when I have spare credits or when I can afford to get some.
Speaking of credits, I promised you a way to double your beginning stake. If you use the giftcode ASTROFARSO then you’ll receive an additional 20 credits, for a total of 40.
It has its place. It will never replace the sense of awe and wonder I get from hauling my own equipment out and setting up. Meticulously faffing over manually focusing, bahtinov masks and troubleshooting any problems arise… Because to me, that’s part of the challenge and the appeal of astrophotography. It makes the end result that much sweeter.
However, as explained earlier Telescope Live doesn’t want to replace my Sky-Watcher Evostar 80ED. Or my mount, or my 9 year old DSLR. This service seeks to enhance our hobby. Or allow us a way to indulge our vices – our lust for aperture or dark skies – or simply a way to satiate our need for fresh photons when a particularly bad weather run happens. Otherwise known as the standard in Britain.
Go take the 40 credits and see for yourself. They offer samples and templates for what you can use your initial 20 credits on, or you can do half the data I shot on NGC300. They also offer community projects where they give you presets at lower costs. Telescope Live also offers editing workshops and classes.
Now this isn’t an advert. I don’t receive any affiliate income or credits, nor have I been paid to say anything. I had some time on the telescopes and I bought some more credits (cheeky 70% sale when I joined). This conclusion is my own.
Try it out. It’s certainly an experience.
Until next time, clear skies everyone. Keep looking up and keep them cameras clicking.