Imaging Excursion to Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
July 5 – 13, 2002

George Whitney and I packed up the trailer and relocated the newly downsized Whitney Repository to do a bit of imaging in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania. We’d read and heard from fellow imagers as well as visual observers about Cherry Springs State Park, indicating this as one of the darkest sites in the east. The park was recently designated a ‘dark sky park’ in a new program being instituted across the country. What this meant in this case is that the site has free camping in the field next to your equipment over new moon periods. The park is also being promoted to the general public and both weekends we were encamped found visitors coming in at designated times.
MI-250 mount
We found this part of Pennsylvania surprisingly rural, out in the middle of nowhere actually. Hunting, fishing, hiking, viewing wildlife, astronomy to a small degree, ATV riding in warm weather and snowmobiling in cold, appear to be the primary recreation pursuits in the area. The nearest town of consequence was Coudersport (yes, The Coudersport, home of Adelphia, a company in big trouble these days) about 15 miles from our site. The Park offers two chemical toilets, several post mounted cooking grills, a pavilion structure that can be utilized by reservation, water at certain locations and little more in form of amenities. We found an outlet behind the restroom building that was live and used this to charge our deep cycle batteries. We’d transported a small, extremely quiet, Honda generator we purchased just for the purpose of charging and used it some as well. If you want to get away from landlines and cell phones, this is a good place to do it; there is no cell phone reception at the site. Across from the park is a small grass airstrip that is still in use. There’s a post-mounted telephone there, the only public phone for miles around as far as we could tell.
Our pre-trip research indicated there’s a camp area about 20 minutes away where you can take a shower for a few bucks (there are state parks, large and small everywhere in this area). Upon investigation, we found a private campground about 8 miles away where you could shower for $3.00. We found the $3 and time to make the drive well worth the effort after a long night; this was the nearest shower from our location.
As the new moon occurred at 06:27 on Wednesday (July 10th), both weekends were fairly active and the number of astronomers present surprised us the Friday we arrived, perhaps 30 or 40 set ups of various equipment types at all levels of excellence. This wasn’t a formalized, advertised star party and as our goal was imaging, we hoped it would be less active and quiet. This looks like ‘big dob’ country and there were many dedicated dob observers that we later found are regulars.
The first night upon arrival, Friday, July 5th found decent sky conditions. We were set up before dark and had completed a lengthy, precision drift polar alignment on the mounts around midnight. At this point we were ready to break out the autoguiders, load film in the cameras and start to image. One significant problem arose however; we left Portland at 03:00, drove 577 miles in just under twelve hours and I was so tired after pre-trip preparations, the early start and arrival set up, I needed to get some sleep. Over the next few days I came to regret this decision.
Before going on I should point out that this trip was the ‘official’ debut of George’s new ‘super-system’. This consists of an AP 1200 Goto mount (this monster has a conservative 150 pound payload), a side-by- side mounting system with an Astro-Physics 155 EDF f7 triplet refractor on one side and a A-P 105mm Traveler, an f6 Christen triplet, on the other. This assembly, along with my MI-250 Goto, also mounting two f8 refractors at 130mm & 78mm, became the focal point of the area and we had many visitors. We came to realize that those ‘crazy guys from Maine’ were being discussed and known in the camping area (they must have been talking about George ). We were asked repeatedly if all ‘that equipment’ came out of ‘that’ trailer. When the Whitney Repository comes to town folks take notice…...

Everybody’s aware of the recent, large Canadian forest fire and the smoke and haze generated by this event. Well, we felt like we were in the middle of it and lost the sky conditions Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Tuesday brought heavy rain and high winds all day and into early Wednesday. Things were shaping up like another exercise in futility (certainly not our first debacle after considerable expenditure of time and treasure). I wasn’t too pleased and mentioned to George (while hanging out in the rain) that if the forecast didn’t call for clearing I was going to pack up and head northeast. We drove into New York State on Tuesday, watched a couple of movies at the local theatre and checked out the area. Stopping at a Radio Shack, I purchased a weather radio so we could remain updated. Lo and behold, Wednesday’s forecast indicated a Canadian cold front sweeping the area and taking along with it all the cloud cover and moisture. Wednesday through the weekend was calling for clear and cold nights. We decided to hang out and see….
As poor as the sky looked Wednesday morning, by mid afternoon it looked equally good. A potentially nice evening was shaping up and once again we got out the autoguiders and other miscellaneous equipment, ran the cables and implemented the plethora of odds and ends in preparation to image. Wednesday night was fairly good but not remarkable by any means. The transparency was so-so and the site was moderately dark. We were ready and after re-checking our polar alignment, set up and started a shot. George was using two Pentax 6X7 cameras, one through each OTA, and had a medium format Bronica piggybacked with a 200mm lens. I had two-Pentax 6X7’s piggybacked, one each with a 90mm & 165mm lens, a 6X7 mounted through my 130mm refractor and a Nikon F3-35mm through my Takahashi FS78 shooting at f6 with the focal reducer. Both mounts had eFinders for tracking with our SBIG, STV’s. We were a couple of shooting machines… Astronomical twilight ended about 22:45 on July 11th. So between then and roughly 03:30, when twilight commences in anticipation of sunrise, you have a relatively short, five-hour window in which to image whatever objects you choose. George and I always plan ahead by creating photographic lists and star charts of objects with transit times matched to our focal lengths. As most of you probably realize from experience, preparation previous to the session can make the execution much easier and simplified. Doing things during daylight is one thing but at night things can be perceived much differently and being prepared as much as possible helps. Wednesday night I got off three exposures on the four cameras on my mount. This doesn’t include shots from the tripod fixed 35mm camera I was doing some playing around with (check my web site, I uploaded several star trail shots under my ‘Milky Way’ section from this night and the next). I believe George got off four exposures in total. Doesn’t sound like much does it? Well as an example, once I finally got my autoguider calibrated and tracking (this is a story in itself, many thanks to George-my hero- for his assistance) I exposed for 30, 60 & 75 minutes. The first shot centered on the star Sadr in Cygnus, which has a good bit of nebulosity around it and allowed my 90mm camera to capture all the stars of the constellation Cygnus. Shots two and three were of NGC7822, a vast, faint (probably too faint as it turns out) emission nebula in Cepheus. After the end of the 75 minute third shot I capped off and went to sleep around 03:30.

Thursday, July 12, 2002 – ‘A Date that Shall Live In Infamy’
Actually, infamy isn’t the correct word, try ‘magnificent’…. Thursday night was one of the finest evenings for astronomy that I’ve experienced; certainly the best combined sky conditions under which I’ve imaged. Key West skies are better with sub-arc second seeing, but this night, taking into consideration all factors, wind (or lack of), transparency, darkness magnitude, ambient light, etc., it was terrific.
This site is noted as having magnitude seven sky conditions; this night was all that and perhaps better. If you wish to take the time, the STV can provide much information about the conditions on any given night. My interest is to set up and shoot to utilize the maximum exposure time possible, so neither of us spent time trying use the STV’s to find out how many arc seconds the seeing may have been. Many of the big dob guys indicated that this was perhaps the best night they’ve experienced at the site and they’re regulars.
Campsite at Cherry Springs

So, as twilight faded and the evening commenced, George and I set up our illuminated reticle eyepieces and Power Mates to once again re-check our drift alignment in preparation for imaging; this is a daily task. Sagittarius, with many objects of interest, was low in the south just east of the meridian along with Scorpius, splitting the meridian at end of twilight, and became the first, early evening exposure. It was here that we learned of a problematic site issue…. I exposed for 44 minutes using NGC6526, a faint nebula between M8 and M20 as a center. During this time, 31 aircraft entered the field of view of our cameras; the site is clearly in the air traffic patterns for aircraft going east. You can hat trick one, perhaps two telescopes and wait for the offending perpetrator to pass, but it’s a near impossibility for one person to hat trick four cameras at once unaided without bumping or disturbing the mount. So, I held a black cover (my empty binocular case) over my primary telescope and let the other cameras continue to expose. Upon review of the shots, many aircraft do appear in the field, however, all four shots are excellent and although I haven’t worked on them all at this writing, have removed the aircraft streaks through the magic of Photoshop 7. Eight planes were imaged in the 165mm lens shot to give you some idea.
For the next exposure, Number 2, I revisited the constellation Cygnus, using the star Sadr as the center point. The MI-250 was slewed over and the framing composed, the STV was calibrated and starting tracking. This process and re-setting the autoguider can take as long as 30 minutes at times, but if things go well, it may only be a matter of minutes. According to my notes, (you can be assured that keeping good notes is an important facet in imaging in my view and the key to what’s what when the film is processed. As I use a laptop linked to my mount, all I need do is type the information onto a Word file as time permits in the field leaving no dependence on memory. My log generally indicates any problems and events of note, like the bonehead who was driving out with his lights on intermittently for example), I acquired the new target, advanced the cameras and calibrated the STV to start guiding the new shot in just over eleven minutes. This Cygnus exposure was for 75 minutes and provided both prime focus exposures came out as planned, would provide two positives at 30 and 75 minutes each, which I deemed sufficient to capture the nebulosity under the sky conditions when combined (called stacking) and enhanced.
Shots 3 and 4 were of IC1805 & IC1848, nebulae commonly referred to as the ‘Heart & Soul’ in Perseus. My f8 refractor provided a field of view too small to risk trying to shoot both at once, so I shot centered on each object for one hour. Of course the 90mm & 165mm at f5.6 were more than sufficient to capture the entire area in the field of view. The 4th exposure was stopped at 03:37; I capped off the equipment, covered what was required and was in the tent a bit after 04:00 to get some sleep. George completed his preparations and went to bed right around the same time.
Friday, July 12th was the last imaging evening planned for this outing. We intended to shoot if the weather held, get what sleep we could, break camp, pack up and head home around noon on Saturday. Unlike our usual (generally not so good) luck, the revised weather forecast indicated another good night Friday with clouds rolling in Saturday, so this was one time that the weather cooperated with our planning for a change. We’d been up in essence two nights consecutively after seven fairly unrestful nights in the tent and by Friday evening were showing signs of fatigue. The day was nice and we made the usual preparations we could to get ready for sunset.
MI-250 mount
I checked my drift alignment and was ready to start an exposure by end of twilight. Cygnus was a few hours from zenith so I determined to shoot an elusive object that I’d always wished to image, The Veil Nebula. As many observers know, the Veil is a faint, remarkable but irregular nebula and best viewed with an OIII or other filter visually. We always refer to it as the Veil, but other common names include the Cirrus, Filamentary or Lace-Work Nebula. The field of view for my f8 prime focus 6X7 camera, (approximately 198 X 231 arc-minutes), indicated nearly all would fit in the frame except for a small section. However, George and I have come to learn that as much of an asset as The Sky, (Level 4, Release 5) is, it often misrepresents objects size and often proves unreliable for frame composition. I centered the target using the computer read out as a guide and started the exposure. Shot 1 was started at 22:57 and exposed for 60 minutes. Upon completion, I advanced the film, started the STV tracking after re-acquisition of the same guide star, and exposed Shot 2 for 90 minutes. CCD imagers claim that film is dead and digital is ‘where it’s at’. However, after starting the exposure I laid back in my lawn chair, wrapped up in a blanket in a position where I could watch the autoguider readings and looked up into the beauty of the Summer Milky Way; imaging just doesn’t get any better than this in my view. The night was superb.
For Shots 3 and 4 the mount was slewed back to Perseus and IC1805 & IC1848, the Heart and Soul, were revisited for another image to be stacked with the first. Both exposures were at 45 minutes, after which the equipment was capped off, covered, etc., and I was in the tent by 03:30. George shot a bit longer and got to bed before 04:00 when the morning twilight was clearly noticeable.
I was up before 08:00 and had the usual visitors coming into camp looking over the equipment and asking how we did imaging during the evening. I started to dismount my telescopes and disassemble the mount in preparation to packing up. George soon exited the tent and started doing the same. We kept to our schedule to within a few minutes of the planned departure and started the 12-hour drive home in our typical astroimaging, lethargic state.
We would highly recommend Cherry Springs State Park for observing or imaging and plan to go back as our schedules permit. All things considered, it’s worth the journey from Maine if you can stay multiple nights. Feel free to contact George or I should you wish to learn more about the site and area. We can put you in touch with some great folks that organize star parties and events at the area facilities and a few we met that are in the employ of the State of Pennsylvania for the parks. All are really helpful and nice folks. This concludes the outline of one of our typical imaging trips. We shot three nights out of eight under decent conditions and where this may not sound all that great, it’s better than our usual average. You can travel wherever you wish in search of dark skies, but astronomy can be a humbling experience whenever the weather doesn’t cooperate, no matter how well you plan. I consider this trip a success and after processing received around 31-6X7 positives from three cameras, 11-35mm prime focus shots from the FS78 and a varied lot of 35mm special effects and daylight shots taken during the week from the two rolls exposed. Of the guided shots, this should produce about six or eight prime focus and wide field final images when stacked and enhanced.

Kiro - July 2002

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