Beginners Guide to Using SSON

It is easy to set up a schedule to take images of objects using our Observation Request Form. This form contains an extensive list of catalogs with hundreds of thousands of objects that you can choose to observe. You can also set a specific RA and DEC coordinate in the sky to have the telescope slew to and track instead of selecting an object from the catalogs. You can set multiple exposure times, series of exposures separated by fixed times, specific dates and times to run, multiple filters, and more.

When planning your imaging sessions you should be aware of the general specifications of our observatory systems to make the best use of your time and to get the results you desire. You can refer to the specifications for each observatory at the following observatory site pages on our web site:

  • Sierra Stars Observatory 0.61-meter telescope
  • Gemini Telescope/Winer Observatory 0.51-meter telescope
  • Warrumbungle 0.51-meter telescope

Planning Imaging Sessions

To make the best use of your valuable imaging time you should have a plan for how you want to schedule your images. Before you set a schedule request you should at least be aware of some basic information about your intended object or the coordinates you set to point a telescope such as:

  • Is the object visible during the dark hours between the end and beginning of astronomical twilight at the time of year you want to schedule images?
  • Is the object positioned better for a Southern or a Northern Hemisphere observatory to acquire your images?
  • What is the phase of the Moon during the observing run and how close is your object to it? How will this affect your image data?

The position of an object in the sky, the local time, and the date together determine which objects you might consider for a specific observing run. Ideally, you want to image objects when they are as high in the sky as possible to look though the least amount of atmosphere and attain the best seeing for that night. The highest point in the sky an object can reach at any location is when it transits (crosses) the meridian. After crossing the meridian, an object gradually gets lower again in the sky. The good news is that the SSON master scheduling program automatically schedules the timing of your images during the optimal time for a selected night. In other words the scheduling program sets your images to be taken as close to transit as possible.

You also should concentrate on objects that transit high enough in the sky at the latitude of the observatory site you choose for imaging. For example, an object that never transits higher than 25 degrees altitude above the southern horizon for an observatory located in the Northern Hemisphere is a good candidate to image with a Southern Hemisphere observatory where the same object would appear high in the sky.

You can easily avoid making basic mistakes with a little planning before submitting your observation requests. Using online or computer planetarium programs you can quickly check whether an object will be OK to image for a given date and observatory location.

Also, check out the SNR and Exposure Times Guide for more information to help you plan your imaging sessions.

Other Things to Consider

The SSON telescopes are powerful scientific astronomical imaging systems designed to provide a relatively wide field of view, excellent quantum efficiency, low noise and excellent photometric capabilities. These characteristics open up many observing possibilities to our users. You should also consider the following points for planning your observing session.

  • Typically, the SSON telescopes with highly sensitive CCD cameras are not able to take exposures of very bright objects such as the major planets, the brightest stars, and the moon.
  • When doing photometry work determine what signal to noise ratio (SNR) you want to achieve for your project and set your exposure times accordingly. Keep in mind that exposure times to attain a desired SNR vary for each telescope and filter. High precision photometry typically requires a SNR of 100 or more, while you can get accurate astrometry at much lower SNRs (10 or lower). Most software packages with photometry capabilities will calculate the SNR of objects in your images. For planning purposes, you can use some of the CCD SNR calculators found online beforehand.
  • The maximum exposure time you can set for images is 300 seconds (5 minutes) on the current telescopes within the SSON network. To attain greater integration (exposure) times you can stack your images using one of the many available commercial or free software packages. You can stack as many images as you want to create total exposure times as great as you want. The CCD cameras on SSON telescopes generate very low noise. Thus stacking images greatly increases the SNR while adding little additional noise.
  • Finally stacking images with shorter exposure times produces better FWHM (full width at half maximum) star images and helps keep brighter objects from “blooming” (filling the pixel wells and overflowing) enabling better photometry of brighter objects.
  • Calibration frames (images) are critical for getting the best quality, least noisy, data from your images and for creating the best esthetically appealing images for show as well. By default, we apply the calibration frames to your images saving you a great deal of time and bandwidth. This service greatly streamlines your image taking process and saves you steps that can introduce errors if you make mistakes.

Many of the best high-quality color images you see in Astronomy magazine, Sky and Telescope magazine and web sites online, are created using filtered images and combining them with one of the many available image processing software programs. One of the most popular and effective color image processing techniques is called LRGB for Luminance, Red, Green, and Blue color processing in which clear, red filter, green filter, and blue filter images are combined together to produce a color image. The B, V, and R filters on the SSO telescope approximate well with B, G, and R filters respectively and together with using our Clear (no filter) setting produce excellent LRGB color processing results.

Doing Science

Many SSON users user our remote observatories for scientific projects. Doing science can be very fulfilling and rewarding. You can discover new things, analyze existing systems, and simply experiment and explore using the SSON telescopes. There are many potential projects that come to mind including the following abbreviated list.

  • Look for and discover new asteroids (and possibly even comets). Check out the Minor Planet Center (MPC) for more details.
  • Determine the light curves (and shape!) of asteroids. Check out the Minor Planet Observer.
  • Variable star observations. Check out the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) and the British Astronomical Association (BAA) as great places to start.