In my earlier book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, this section was titled "Photography." Oh, how things have changed over the last 8 years! These days it is hard to find good film to use to photograph terrestrial objects, much less celestial ones. CATs are still taking pictures of the universe, but they are now doing it with sophisticated CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras. The digital picture-taking revolution has hit amateur astronomy with a vengeance, and SCTs are at the forefront.
There is no doubt that digital picture-taking techniques have made the difficult art of astrophotography a little easier; at least you do not have to wait until film is developed to find out whether any of your shots turned out. Taking longexposure pictures of the deep sky is still a difficult and sometimes maddening pursuit, however. Is an SCT a good telescope to use for digital astrophotography? You betcha.
Although almost any telescope can be adapted for imaging, the SCT is one of the few instruments that will not require sometimes-extensive modifications before picture taking can begin. Newtonian reflecting telescopes, for example, may require their primary mirrors be moved up the tube before a camera can even be focused. The SCT may need the addition of a few accessories before it is ready to take pictures of the sky, but it does not require any major alterations. Tom Johnson, Celestron's founder, designed his Schmidt Cassegrains for astrophotography from the beginning, and Meade and Celestron have continued to pay due attention to astronomical picture taking. Attach a modern CCD camera such as Meade's color DSI (Deep Space Imager) to an SCT, and even a novice can start capturing pleasing shots of the universe's distant wonders almost immediately.
"Deep space pictures of galaxies, nebulas, and star clusters from your first night out!" That may sound like a late-night TV commercial pitch, but anyone who has taken a little time to familiarize themselves with the basic operation of the SCT can get impressive astroimages from night one with modern digital cameras. There is very little to do beyond pushing a couple of buttons to get the scope pointed at your targets and focusing the telescope carefully. Meade's DSI software—like most imaging programs—is full featured but can be operated on a very basic, automated level. You can set up the program to take short images so you will not have to guide out drive errors, stack these images into the equivalent of one long exposure, and keep doing that until you tell it to stop. Just push the "go" button and wander around the field looking through friends' telescopes and scanning the sky with your binoculars while your scope and camera do their thing. After 15 minutes, wander back to the telescope and computer. Staring back at you from the monitor might be the Whirlpool Galaxy in all its glory (Plate 2). No, this image may not be as spectacular as the magnificent pictures in Astronomy or Sky & Telescope, but it will excite you.
Now, this may not say much about your skills as an astrophotographer. What it does say worlds about is the ease of astronomical picture taking offered by the SCT and modern CCD cameras.
Plate 2. (Whirlpool Galaxy) M51, a beautiful face-on spiral galaxy in the constellation Canes Venatici, is a prime target for CAT users. Credit: Author.
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