Astrophotography On The Go: When Failure Is Not An Option
During the last new Moon weekend, I broke one of my own rules — and lost an entire night of clear and perfect skies.
It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, it doesn’t matter how “smart” you are: We make rules for a reason, and when we break those rules, we often pay the price. It’s all the more humiliating because I preach this particular rule incessantly, especially when preparing for a major star party. It’s also not the only time I’ve broken my rule, which indicates that as simple as it is, it’s an easy one to break.
Here’s the rule: Whenever you are traveling to an imaging site, always try everything at home first. Always.
I dearly love to travel to do astrophotography. Nightscapes from the Grand Canyon are amazing enough, for example, but I’ll also bring a mount and a telescope for a night of deep-sky imaging if I can. I also usually go to a few star parties every year to show off mounts from one of my employers, Software Bisque.
One early lesson I learned the hard way while traveling is that checklists aren’t as effective as they sound. If you forget to put something on the checklist, you’ve still forgotten it! So I always set up the entire system in my back yard: mount, telescope, camera, telescope, laptop, the whole nine yards.
Even if my skies can’t do the rig justice, I’ll run it at home all night and make sure all is well. Will my new batteries last? Are any of the cables flaking out? Then when everything has passed the test, I’ll box it all up, add a spare USB cables for every type I need, and I’m ready to go. Sometimes I’ll have two kits, and I can’t be lazy about it: two mounts set up, both computers exercised.
A corollary to this rule is this: Don’t ever, ever, ever update your software before a trip after you’ve already tested everything.
“But it’s a patch with bug fixes!”
No, it’s not — it’s a trap! It’s not really a trap, of course, but you should think of it that way. After all, if everything works, what bugs need fixing? Something has changed, and you don’t know if it will affect you until you’ve tried it. Trying it after dark in a remote location for the first time is a great way to raise your blood pressure. As a software developer, it pains me to point this out, but upgrading your Windows or MacOS operating systems counts as an update — don’t do it!
It should also go without saying, but whenever you obtain a new system, set everything up in your living room or in the daylight. Have you seen those movies where the soldier puts together their gun while blindfolded? You, my friend, are an astrophotography soldier, and you need to learn your gear well enough to diagnose problems, replace cables, and even locate and free up tangled cords in the dark. Remember, you have a black box of black cables that connect to other black boxes attached to black parts, all of which you’ll be dealing with in the black of night. A little practice certainly can’t hurt.
Live and Learn
Here’s one of my own overconfidence stories: Just before the 2020 Winter Star Party, I had been working on a new plug-in for the Canon EOS Ra. I’d been using the camera on my desk, exercising it with the new software and inspecting the images. So when I was packing for the star party, I figured, I shoot with a Canon DSLR all the time, this is just a different model, right?
What I forgot was the USB cable was now a USB C cable on the newer camera, and the short cable I had used on my desk wouldn’t reach the mount’s USB hub when it was on the back of the telescope! I was lucky — I was able to have a set of six-foot USB C cables delivered the next day to my hotel room. If I’d tried that camera at least once outside at home, I would have realized my cable deficiency. What if I’d been somewhere remote? It might have completely wasted the trip.
Another tale of warning: It’s tempting to assemble as much of your kit as possible, load it, and transport it partially assembled. But partially assembled kits are fragile, especially if you leave cables plugged in. Cables are so easy to snag and when tugged or sheared, they can easily dislodge a circuit board. Trust me — and curses to that guy in a white pickup truck who cut me off and made me slam on my brakes!
When flying, I also advise you to ship everything unless you can take it as carry on. X-rays of sophisticated astrophotography gear can look terrifying to an uninitiated TSA agent. I had an expensive refractor disassembled and then cross threaded by TSA agents as they tried putting it back together. I also had a high-end mount, shipped with the gears disengaged, that showed up with the gears fully engaged and a nice note that my belongings had been inspected for my safety — and potentially ruined. UPS is cheap compared to equipment, and you can ship to UPS stores or directly to your hotel.
There’s one exception to the rule of bringing spare parts: batteries. You can also buy a deep cycle marine battery and give it away for free to someone locally cheaper than you can ship lithium batteries. In fact, the last couple of times I even tried, I was told point blank you need a special license to ship high-capacity batteries. Another option is to take along a battery charger, which is light and takes up little space while flying.
Still, imaging while traveling has been deeply rewarding for me. But it’s also worth noting that more than half of my own astrophotography experience has been at home, under terrible skies near full Moon. This is the perfect learning environment, and it’s closer to your toolbox and your bin of spare parts. Even if you aren’t traveling, test and practice under hazy skies. Then, when that one special night comes along, you’ll be ready and free from disappointment.