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ObservatoryFeb20104

The Cabin in the Sky Observatory is located in the South Okanagan region of South-Central British Columbia, under very dark and dry skies, next to our dream rural vacation get-away, our Cabin in the Sky.

Please click on the buttons on the right to checkout blogs of my experiences at the observatory (including a slowly growing portfolio of deep-sky imagery), a brief history of how this observatory came to be, including the fateful path by which my obsession led to a wondrous change in the life of my family, and a brief photo-history of the construction of the observatory structure.

Construction of the observatory structure took place over the summer and fall of 2009, installation of the equipment took place February 22 2010, and commissioning and first-light on May 12/13 2010. My telescope is a PlaneWave CDK17, and the mount is a Paramount ME - dream equipment, by any standard! In the summer of 2012 I acquired a new dream camera, the Apogee U16M with a 10-position filter wheel, along with a new set of filters: the Astrodon E-series LRGB and their complete set of 3-nm bandpass narrowband filters (Ha, SII, OIII, NII). Also in summer 2012 I undertook a major upgrade of the observatory control systems by installing ACP Observatory Control Software, which now automates control of TheSkyX for the mount, MaxIm DL for the camera, and FocusMax for focuser control. With the new camera I finally switched over to off-axis guiding (having previously used the on-camera guide chip in the SBIG STL-4020M), installing an Astrodon MOAG along with a Starlight Xpress Lodestar guide camera. Other control software includes TPoint and PrecisionPEC. The CCDWare package provides me with another set of very useful software tools. A LAN allows remote control of the observatory computer from the vacation house, which is especially handy on our cold winter nights! Another very welcome development from the summer of 2012 was that I finally installed a Boltwood Cloud Sensor II - even though I only image while on-site ;). The fact is that it's awfully tempting to try to catch some sleep on those long nights of imaging, but I'd never been able to sleep soundly, always worrying that bad weather would sneak up on my vulnerable equipment. After installing the cloud sensor, with alarms that can wake the dead in the advent of high wind, rain, or cloud, I sleep like a log! Completing my collection of astronomical sofware is PixInsight, which provides an image-processing environment of unprecedented sophistication and power. Yes, PixInsight has a steep learning curve, but the effort pays off in ways that one can scarcely imagine when relying on Photoshop and other lesser tools.

In addition to my hobby as an amateur astronomer, laid out on these pages, I teach Introduction to Astronomy at Simon Fraser University, where I also host Starry Nights @ SFU, a program of public "star parties" and other events held on the Burnaby campus, which are free and open to everyone, whether from SFU or the greater community. I am also spearheading development of a Teaching Observatory and Science Outreach Centre at SFU. In 2009 we hosted over 3,500 guests at a wide variety of astronomy events. A major effort was hosting over 2,150 grade-school age kids accompanied by over 300 teachers/parents/guardians, from more than 70 school and community groups, at daytime astronomy workshops. As part of this outreach program, we donated almost 100 starter telescopes to these workshop groups, and to individual families whose children attended a workshop, followed by four SFU star parties. These programs are continuing, and as of early 2012 we have hosted a total of over 6,000 people at our astronomy workshops, star parties, public lectures, and theme nights! in 2012 one can expect some major new developments in this program, and on the SFU Burnaby campus! For more information on SFU's astronomy outreach programs, please check the Starry Nights @ SFU website. IMG4578

While there is quite a bit of overlap between my astronomical hobby time and my astronomical teaching and outreach work (including some early imaging that I did at home with the SFU equipment, to learn how, before plunging in and purchasing my own high-end gear), the site you are on now is devoted to my personal astronomy obsession.

Astronomy is far more than a hobby: it provides a profoundly affecting way to directly experience the cosmos, to personally connect to events that span the furthest realms of time and space. This spiritual sensibility (using that adjective in a decidely irreligious context) was burned into me in my early teen years, my first period of deep immersion in astronomy. I worked my way up then to a Criterion 6" reflector and spent countless hours with it in all seasons (including the dead of winter!), star hopping in search of those deep-sky objects that could be glimpsed from heavily light-polluted city skies (one block from Montreal's Decarie expressway, no less).

Over the past few years, my passion for astronomy has been reignitied and fired by the breathtaking possibilities of a new era of astronomical photography. Stunning advances in modern telescope designs, large-capacity precision mounts, dedicated CCD cameras, and advanced software, provide the modern amateur astronomer with a vastly deeper and richer dimension to the experience of the cosmos than I ever dreamt was possible when I first caught the bug as a kid. The depth and range of these new experiences are seen in the "amateur" images that appear as regular features on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), and as in magazines like Canada's own SkyNews (which has an on-line Photo of the Week), Sky&Telescope, and Astronomy. The most gifted astro-photographers possess subtle aesthetic and artistic sensibilities, a mastery of advanced technology, and considerable scientific knowledge, and use these talents to produce portfolios of dozens, even hundreds, of images, each of astounding depth, colour, insight, and inspiration. "Amateur" can only describe gifted individuals like these when used in the classical sense, for someone who achieves great skill simply for the love of a pursuit.

From the first moment that I experienced the cosmos photographically, with my first image (of the Orion Nebula), I was swept away by the possibilities. This has developed into an obsession. I constantly think ahead to and plan for my next photographic encounter with a cosmic treasure at my observatory. I crave the special quiet time for solitary contemplation, under deep skies strewn with stars, that comes when all the preparatory work is done, with the control software directing the telescope, mount, and camera, unattended for long periods. I work relentlessly to develop my image processing technique, and I study the photographs of others to seek aethestic and technical insight. And I'm striving to produce my own portfolio of cosmic imagery, aiming high to fulfill a dream that goes back my to first days as an amateur astronomer. Over the past five years, since I began this quest, I have learned alot, which in this context includes a very good understanding of the considerable distance that I still have to cover between where I am now, and where I want to be. But, after a very long hiatus, I'm back, in deep, and for the long haul.

About the Cabin in the Sky Observatory!

A life-long dream come true!

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Copyright 2014 Howard Trottier

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