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Hunting for Dark Skies in the Desert

Despite living in a famously bright city that never sleeps, Orion customers Antoine & Dalia have discovered that with a little bit of dedication and patience, there are dark skies to be found. This dynamic duo go out of their way to search out starry skies beyond the reach of light pollution that plagues their home in the middle of Las Vegas. Antoine and Dalia's website, galactic-hunter.com, is filled with the amazing results of their efforts - gorgeous astrophotos that show a very different kind of lightshow than what you'd find in a casino. We invited Antoine & Dalia to share some of their experiences with the Orion Community, and we bet you'll enjoy their story as much as we did.

Featured Customer Antoine and Dalia
Orion customers Antoine & Dalia capture gorgeous astrophotos from dark desert skies outside Las Vegas.

We recently caught up with Antoine and Dalia and asked them to share a few of their experiences with the Orion Community:

How did you first become interested in astronomy?
My wife and I became interested in astronomy at different times. I (Antoine) became infatuated when I was about 8 years old. I was at an outdoor wedding party with my parents and we were about to head home because it was nighttime already. We were looking at the stars when an elderly man came out of nowhere, and pointed at a very bright star then said to me, "that's Venus". My dad and I didn't believe him, until he started naming several constellations. I was amazed that I saw my first planet, especially since I had no idea that planets were visible with the naked eye at the time! 15 years later, Dalia and I were in a convertible car in the countryside of France. She lived in Vegas all of her life and she was amazed to see so many stars in my hometown. That night was the night of the Perseid meteor shower. We saw hundreds of meteors and that's how she fell in love with astronomy.

What is it about astronomy that excites you?
The infinite size of space. Knowing that after seeing and imaging hundreds, thousands of different targets, there will always be more.

What is your favorite object or type of object to view?
Antoine - Mine is a classic: the Andromeda Galaxy. The reason for that is because it took me weeks to find it in the first place. At the time I was using Orion's 20x80 binoculars, and I used to drive out to the desert by myself, with the goal of seeing my first galaxy with my own eyes. The problem is that I never brought my laptop and did not have any app on my phone to help me star hop. Also there is no service in the desert. I went there a few times without finding it, until that one night where my binoculars pointed right at the Galaxy. I was amazed. Now every time I look at it, it brings me back those memories of my very first "hunt".
Dalia - Recently, I've really been into Jupiter. The planets really make me feel powerful knowing where I am in space. Jupiter's stripes were what hit me the most. I'd never been so astounded that I could make them out, because up until then I never truly understood there's more out there. It's an actual celestial body floating out there, just like us.

What is your favorite object or type of object to photograph through a telescope?
We are in love with nebulae. Galaxies are awesome, clusters are cool, but nebulae are the mothers of our stars. Most of them are a challenge with an unmodified DSLR, but the editing is always fun. There is nothing better than seeing the clouds of gases of a beautiful nebula appear on your computer screen after stacking/aligning your photos.

Are there any celestial objects that are on your "challenge list"?
We're really impatient to image NGC 2359: Thor's Helmet Nebula. A group of kids with trucks came to our desert spot and stayed for hours when we were just starting imaging the nebula a few months ago, and the light from their vehicles ruined all of our shots, so the helmet went to the garbage. Next time, we will make sure to image NGC 2359 in complete darkness. There is also M82, the Cigar Galaxy, which we can't wait to image, the only time we did it was when we had a simple tripod and DSLR, so we're pretty impatient to use the big gun this time!

What Orion gear do you use?
We use the amazing Orion 8" f/3.9 Newtonian Astrograph as our imaging telescope. It is mounted on the Orion Atlas EQ-G Computerized GoTo Mount. We are able to easily collimate our telescope in seconds with the Orion LaserMate Deluxe II Telescope Laser Collimator. In order to attach the DSLR camera to the scope, we use the Orion T-Ring for Canon EOS Camera as well as a Baader MPCC Mark III Multi-Purpose Coma Corrector to take care of the coma. Our 50mm Guide scope, as well as our autoguider, is from Orion's Magnificent Mini AutoGuider Package. For visual, we have a 32mm eyepiece, a 5mm Orion Edge On Planetary Eyepiece, and we also use the Orion 1.25" Shorty 2x Barlow Lens, which comes with a Camera T-adapter for imaging planets. Lastly, we also have the Orion 20x80 Astronomy Binoculars, mounted on the Orion Paragon HD-F2 Heavy Duty Tripod.

How do you satisfy your astronomy cravings while living in an area with a substantial amount of light pollution like Las Vegas?
It's really hard. We are lucky to be surrounded by desert, and to have a lot of cloudless nights here in Nevada. There is not much we can do without driving away for a long time. That's why we go to the desert so much, when the moon isn't there, we can't let a perfect night pass by without going imaging or stargazing. That's not easy on gas, but it's what we like after all.

Has astronomy as a hobby changed your life in any way?
Antoine - Yes I believe so, I rarely have patience for anything, but when you have to sit in your car for 4-5 hours while you are imaging, with nothing to keep you entertained in the middle of nowhere, well you don't have a choice but to become patient. Also, getting to know how to master all of our equipment makes us feel like we can do the same with anything that seems complicated in life.
Dalia - I feel like it's affected me by giving me a way to connect with Antoine in a way we weren't connected before. I have always enjoyed space, but he was in love with space, and as his new love, I didn't want to stand in the way of that, I wanted to be a part of it!

Share one of your most interesting or memorable stargazing experiences.
Here is one of our most memorable and terrifying stargazing experiences: On the night of November 07, 2015, we went to our usual desert spot. We were imaging the Milky Way when all of a sudden, we see some kind of huge meteor in the distance. It was very slow and was turning at weird angles so we knew it could not be a meteor even though it looked exactly like one. Our next best guess was that it was a rocket from NASA or SpaceX, but there is no way they would launch one in Nevada, plus the fact that it was turning at such odd angles made no sense. We got really scared. A full minute or two later, the little "comet" exploded, and a huge blue and white cloud filled a big portion of the sky. At that point, we really started to wonder if that wasn't some Alien "thing". That was the only thing that made a bit of sense, and again, there is no service in the desert so we couldn't use the internet. It continued to explode until it turned again and disappeared. The blue smoked stayed for 30 minutes or more. We rushed home to search it, and it was all over the news. It was actually a missile launch test from the Navy. Four states including Nevada saw it. Our sight was just much more impressive because we were in an area free of light pollution. What's crazy is that this would probably be the very last thing you would see if a nuclear missile was coming right at us.

Your website, galactic-hunter.com, is a treasure trove of beautiful astrophotos and videos. What inspired you to create your own astronomy website?
When we started the YouTube channel, we thought that we would get a new image per episode, so by episode XXX (30), we would have all 110 Messier objects. We quickly realized that we just can't wait for the next episode in order to capture a new target. Our thirst for imaging is pretty strong, and each episode takes us a long time to write/film/edit. We then decided to create a website so our followers could see our new work in between our episodes. It is also a way for us to include our landscape photos, which would not be fit for a deep sky episode. There is also a shop section of our own amateur work because most wall art you can find online is almost always from Hubble or it is digital art. Even though I love the images Hubble gets, some specific deep sky objects look more real and sometimes more impressive with amateur equipment. For example, I am not a fan of Hubble's Orion Nebula, I prefer the amateur ones I see on forums or my own. The website is also a way to track my own progression with the Messier table.

Tell us a bit more about the grid of Messier Object astrophotos and solar system objects on galactic-hunter.com. Do you plan to fill the grid with a photo of each object? If so, that's an impressive goal!
Exactly! The grid will be complete in several months. We are not that good at planetary imaging yet, as we are more focused on Deep Sky objects, but our goal is to complete the whole grid with our telescope. A lot of targets are actually already captured from when we only had a DSLR and tripod, such as M81, M82, M31? but we prefer to leave them transparent until we have an image we are really proud of. The only fear we have is to be left with a dozen clusters left. We really love galaxies and nebulae, but clusters are often pretty similar to each other, so we hope to not have them all left for the end?

What advice would you give to beginners who are interested in astronomy and astrophotography?
1- You don't need to have a ton of money to get started into the hobby. Our first purchase (20x80 binoculars and tripod) was inexpensive and it opened our eyes to (literally) whole new worlds! We were students when we first started, we decided to upgrade to our current setup and our savings went in it, but we don't regret it one bit!
2- Don't feel discouraged if you have problems along the way. We had several "fails" since we started. For example, we imaged M45 for 5 hours, only to realize after 3 hours that the cap on the guide scope was still on. That's 3 hours trashed. 3 hours that we spent on the processing to obtain this beautiful image of the Pleiades, which was only 2 hours of exposure. That's also a fail we'll never recreate. A few nights were also ruined by bad planning and the clouds, or forgetting a piece of equipment at home. In short, you will have nights ruined, and that's normal, but you will likely never redo those mistakes again.
3- Your progress depends on how much effort you put into it. We live in a small apartment with no backyard, in the middle of Vegas. There is no way we can image from here. From our first time going out with our gear to our most recent time, we drove an hour back and forth to the desert 38 times in order to get this much progress that fast. That's 76 hours of driving without counting the hours of mounting the equipment every time (and the 4-5 hours standing there in the dark with no internet). If you are giving it 100%, then you can expect to learn fast!

How did the two of you became a stargazing "dynamic duo"?
When it comes to Astronomy, we became a dynamic duo when we realized that Las Vegas was surrounded by desert. Even though we knew we liked astronomy, we never had any hopes of going out to look at the stars because we live in the heart of one of the most light-polluted cities in the world. The day we found a light pollution map online, we were both so surprised that a green/blue zone was about an hour away from us that we decided to drive there right away. We already had bought the Orion binoculars to look at the moon from our apartment, so we brought it with us to our first adventure in the desert. We parked in a really rocky spot, and we got out of the car. We were both speechless when we looked at the sky, the Milky Way was right above us and it was just a magical moment. We put the binoculars on the tripod, and set up two chairs we brought. We could still see the huge light pollution dome from Vegas towards the North. We stayed there, looking at the sky with the binoculars, with no idea where to point them at, until? a pack of coyotes surrounded us and started howling. It was very scary, we were trying to put everything back in the car as fast as we could. I know coyotes don't usually attack humans for no reason, but seeing their glowing pair of eyes all around us was really scary. We threw the 2 chairs in the trunk and drove away fast. It may have been the scariest few minutes we had, but that's a night we'll never forget. Imaging the sky from a backyard would be awesome, but imaging in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, is something else. We had quite a few memorable experiences over time. One night, when trying to find the Christmas Tree nebula with our tripod and binoculars, a group of kangaroo mice came very close to us, grabbed a couple of our Oreos from the box that was on the ground, and ran away on two legs. It was hilarious to watch. More recently, a camel spider decided to come chill near our Atlas EQ-G mount (filmed in episode 2 of Galactic Hunter)? it was terrifying as we are both afraid of spiders. Stargazing in the desert creates a lot of memories.



All astrophotos were captured using:

  • Orion 8" f/3.9 Newtonian Astrograph Reflector Telescope (8297)
  • Orion Atlas EQ-G Computerized GoTo Mount (9996)
  • Orion T-Ring for Canon EOS Camera (5224)
  • Baader MPCC Mark III Multi-Purpose Coma Corrector (8657)
  • Orion 50mm Mini Guide Scope (8891)
  • Orion StarShoot Autoguider (52064)
  • M101
    M101, captured by Antoine & Dalia Grelin
    M16
    M16, captured by Antoine & Dalia Grelin
    M42
    M42, captured by Antoine & Dalia Grelin
    M45
    M45, captured by Antoine & Dalia Grelin
    M95
    M95, captured by Antoine & Dalia Grelin