Menke Scientific, Ltd.

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Starlight Farm Observatory

Our observatory is located in Barnesville, MD, about 35 miles from downtown Washington DC.  Unfortunately, encroaching development has reduced the typical “good” night visibility to about magnitude 3.5 to the North, and about 2.5 to the East.  The best nights are perhaps 0.5 magnitude better, but the majority of nights are worse.  Seeing is generally only fair (typical of the Mid-Atlantic States).

The main observatory is a PD-10 that replaced our 1974 homemade metal observatory.  The dome sits about 400 feet from our office and contains a PC connected to our 10-Megabit network.  The observatory is remote controlled using Digital Dome Works.  We operate the dome, scope, CCD camera, and other devices (including an in-dome video camera) using PCAnywhere® over the network.

Our telescope, a 6-inch, f/12 Astrophysics refractor, is an unusual design.  It has two internal flat mirrors that serve to shorten the tube length and make the scope more convenient to use. The optics are the same as the “Super Planetary” that AP made several years ago.  This scope is literally “one of a kind” that we were fortunate enough to purchase from one of our dome customers.

The 6” scope is mounted on a superb Astrophysics 1200 GTO mount. The mount has a very low periodic error of about 2-3 a-s peak to peak (uncorrected).  We use a variety of software to operate the scope, including TheSky® and Digital Sky Voice™.

We can also use the scope with an Optec Maxfield reducing lens to operate at f/4 or a Barlow lens to operate at f/21.6.  The scope has several finders, including the 1x wide field and a standard 7x50 finder.  To allow more precise visual positioning of the scope (especially on parts of the moon), we constructed a 3” f/9 refractor.  Its lens is an inexpensive Sky Instruments “Antares” objective held in a tube made of plastic plumbing pipe and scrap PVC.

The pier is unusual, as well.  It is a 10-inch diameter, 1/4 wall steel pipe resting on the observatory pad (i.e., not in a separate footing), held down with three tension rods.  The pier and mount will tilt approximately 2 a-s when a person moves from one side of the observatory to the other.  This is not a problem, however, because while taking long images, no one is moving around in the dome — the observer is either sitting at the in-dome computer, or in the office, running the equipment remotely.   We use this method to demonstrate that sometimes one does not need a pier that goes to bedrock!

We use the scope visually primarily for planetary and lunar observing.  Because of our sky conditions, visual astronomy is limited, so we more often take images with an SBIG ST7 CCD camera.  When working at f/12, the camera gives about 1 a-s resolution per pixel, which is about equal to the theoretical resolving power of a six-inch scope.  We use CCDOPS or MaximDL/CCD™ to operate the camera and perform image processing. 

Using this camera and scope, we have taken many planetary, solar, and lunar pictures.  We have also done a wide variety of deep sky imaging (so far, only in black and white).  Thanks to the CCD camera and the ability to remove light pollution, we have taken pictures of deep sky objects even where the background light is 20 times brighter than the object.  The results may not be quite as good as Hubble images, but the difference is that WE did it!