A Tale of Two Observatories: Darby Falls and Magellan
Submitted: Monday, 29th January 2007 by Matthew Kendall
I thoughts I’d do a write up of my family’s recent 3 day country sojourn where we visited two observatories and got to see each strut its stuff, there was tremendous viewing and a few surprises along the way from this impromptu holiday.
Well Friday morning we headed off for a spur of the moment long weekend, destination Cowra – Prison Break Memorabilia, Japanese Gardens, Lavender Farms and a stones throw to Darby Falls observatory – as featured in this months Sky and Space.
Darby Falls – Big scopes, Dark Skies, Informed Hosts – Viewing for the Masses!
Mark Monk runs Darby Falls seven days a week from 8:30 – 11pm. This place caters for groups from 1 to 50, with visual astronomy of a handful of the night’s best viewing objects on the menu. Mark is a hospitable guy, with a well run greeting and get you ready for a good nights viewing.
On day one we looked at Comet McNaught for about 15 minutes then were seated for a re-run of the John Dobson TV show that aired a few months ago whilst the skies get suitably dark. From there it was all go into viewing with a ED 80 on a 10” SCT, and Mark’s 40 and 50 cm Dobs.
I had pretty high expectations as Mark walked us through a few major constellations with a laser pointer Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, then this is Sirius, this is Betelgeuse, this is Sirius’ Spectra on the 10” SCT, then this is the Sword of Orion (M42) on the 40 cm Dob, this is the Tarantella on the 50 cm Dob, here is a cluster of galaxies, here is Saturn then here is light pollution – switch on 500 Watt flood lights and good bye!
I’d like to give you a feel for viewing conditions and how I found the night. We visited twice, and on both nights there we were in luck – new moon and great viewing; I’d say 7 out of 10 Friday and 8 out of 10 on Saturday. Better still there were tremendous views of Comet McNaught, with the tail stretching at least 7 degrees and clear views of its being stretched by the solar wind.
Let’s walk through those five points. I thought the bino viewing standards where top notch home made jobs, and were very under-utilised by most everyone except me and my kids.
The Dobs really worked well on faint nebulae and galaxies – they were more impressive then I’d imagined for my first dark sky, big scope venture.
I pondered how good Mark’s binoculars where looking a McNaught and M42, so I went out and checked with my Binoculars in the car. Sorry Mark but my $220 triplets eat yours alive – its just chalk and cheese how sharp the focus, the excellent contrast and great viewing from my Chinese version.
The Dobs were the Highlight and Mark informed me he adjusted them using his eyewear for perfect viewing from those with glasses or perfect eyesight. Only it didn’t – I have almost perfect eyesight, -0.25 in both eyes and with glasses M42 simply didn’t look focused. Now Mark didn’t want anyone changing the focus of his Dob’s (a please don’t touch anything – just look in the eyepiece). Well I adjusted these lads to best focus and to but it bluntly M42 looks far sharper in my C9.25 then his mega beasts! The same for Saturn – I asked Mark to show Saturn and how well his 50cm could resolve the Cassini division at 100 power using a Nagler eye piece. Simply put it couldn’t and worse Alpha Centuri was very hard to see as a double star!
This blew me away – such a powerful instrument and such problematic focus. A 10:1 focuser might have helped, but I ponder there is a substantial collimation issue here.
The massive dobs which looked like Canons were easy to guide and had sidereal tracking to keep an object in view. But there tracking performance in this regard was sub par. The group was only 14 people but by the time the sixth person was viewing there say “the object is out of view” and Mark would come over and re-orientate the scope and say somebody must have knocked the scope. So Mark was constantly re-orientating the dobs. Later in the night when there was a pause in the queues, I observed the tracking in the dobs, a star moved out of the field of view in well under 15 minutes. So I’d say the tracking has a simple problem too.
Noting all the issues I came back on Saturday with only my boys too see if the same occurred. We spent longer looking at McNaught using the bino’s in there viewers – then straight into star gazing with a group of 8 other new arrivals.
Mark ran through pretty much the same introduction, banter and selection of viewing objects and its canned pretty well. I noticed the focus and tracking issues where still there but the dobs ate very faint objects well!
So it was a more than satisfactory visit, but I’d felt that it was geared for the masses and the potentially excellent equipment was operationally well below par in the tracking and collimation – which greatly surprised me.
Magellan Observatory – Darker Skies, Tremendous Host and Superb Scopes
My wife suggested we stay for an even longer weekend end and choose another observatory. I rang Zane at Magellan which was about 2 hours away, with Farm stay accommodations and luck was with us for availability.
Well we settled in around 4pm and hoped for the clouds to disappear. At 9pm Zane came round and took us to the observatory where it was blowing a gale and we got excellent views of McNaught – the only patch of sky not covered by clouds. The kids except for my youngest went home to read about ferrets (Zane has two and my kids were enraptured), spot roos and rabbits and play table tennis. I took a nice bottle of Pinot Noir up to the observatory and talked shop with Zane until about 11pm, and I can say I really learnt a lot about mounts and imaging.
Let me distinguish between Darby Falls and Magellan; Darby Falls caters for big groups in an open setting with some impressive looking home made equipment and great SCTs and refractors, Magellan screams serious amateur astro-photography for folk really wanting to experience top quality OTA’s (about 8 serious scopes from 5” to 54 cm!) very high quality mounts (mainly Losmandy G11 and Takashi EMM200 for the smaller scope) and CCDs (several S-BIG) housed in 2 metre and the 60 cm F3.7 Dob computerised using Argo Navis in a separate 4 metre fibre glass dome.
Magellan came across as the overly quiet achiever with a serious lot more to offer, everything screamed quality, usability and performance. Darby looked good, Magellan was great. Mark had a decent agenda to walk a crowd trough, Zane really listened and talked to you and made astronomy come alive.
Well at 11pm we looked outside and the clouds had cleared, so Zane took me through what the 60 cm Dob could do with an Argo Navis system. Well if yesterday the 50 cm had let me a bit down, this scope totally had me in awe! After a 1 minute, push to, two star align every goto was perfect and tracking stayed perfect. The dome kept a howling gale off us and was lovely and dark, you at most had to climb a 3 steep ladder (vs Darby falls 7 foot off the ground on a ladder), the 10:1 focuser on this dob was silky smooth. But how were the optics?
Surperb. M46, M42, Tarantella, 47 Tuc etc just came alive and literally blew me away, I felt like I had Hubble in my hands. Zane asked if I wanted to drive his baby and what I wanted to see. I kept saying no you choose – impress me on some hard targets that are worth seeing. Well it was effortless (apart from Zane having to push the 1 tonne dome around – its not motorised but one person can do it). And I was impressed more than words can convey, everything was clear, bright and had so much depth it literally blew me away! I can’t easily convey how good the viewing and this equipment was!
Zane told me his guests are a mixture serious international astro-photographers and locals who want to try their own gear on his mounts and CCDs. Let me stress everything about Magellan was top notch – no just the biggest scope, all the gear looked really thoughtfully put together and perfectly suited for serious visual or astro-imaging use. Zane showed me several of his efforts and they were amongst the best I have seen in Australia – really top notch.
The whole family want to go there again soon – especially me! I have asked Zane into running some how to courses for me in astrophotography. I want to fast path my getting up to speed in taking great imagers and I’ve realised I can slowly get my own gear – which is perfect for my budget and local, but why not leverage a broad variety of really good gear and be taught by a very experienced, great guy who is offering very attractive rates?
Hands down winner Magellan - the night’s company, insights and viewing cost me far less than Darby Falls and was an order of magnitude or two better!