Les Granges, August 2008

Located about 70 miles north of Marseille in the Haute Provence region of Southern France, Olly Penrice's Les Granges Astronomy Centre always looked interesting and worth a visit. And in August 2008 I and a group of friends spent a week there. We were almost too fortunate with the weather. The early part of the week we were blessed with lovely clear skies, but extreme heat as well - mid 30's (C) in the shade! But this meant that the nights were comfortably warm as well. Comfortable for mosquitoes too, so (at least for me) repellent spray was an absolute must! Later in the week we had one cloudy night, and the change in weather brought cooler conditions. I've since heard from Olly that he found a water butt teeming with mosquito larvae, now ditched, so no more mozzies!

With four of us imaging, equipment was always going to be in short supply, so I just managed to squeeze my modified EQ3-2 mount and William Optics ZS66 telescope into my weight allowance along with my SBIG ST10 camera and filter wheel (and laptop!) The mount carried the equipment, albeit well out of balance in declination when using the ZS66, and guided satisfactorily using a #909 clone. Thanks to Olly for the loan of a balance weight - if I'd brought one I would have been well over the airline limit! 

The first night (2nd - 3rd August) saw the equipment set up and tested, and my first main target was the dark lane of nebulosity B169-71 in Cepheus (about 3 degrees North West of the better known IC1396) Early hours of 3rd with the ST10 on the ZS66 at prime focus, guiding with the AO-8 unit, Luminance 7 x 10 minutes, RGB each 6 x 3 minutes binned 2x2

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Following the successful imaging of the above nebula, M31 was beckoning, so off with the AO-8 and on with the AP reducer to fit it into the field of view and reach focus. ST10 with the ZS66 reduced, Luminance 5 x 5 minutes, RGB each 5 x 2 minutes. Quite pleasing considering the relatively short sub frames. I was quite pleased with the direct mount guiding too, particularly as when I compare the image to a Skymap frame the true focal length was around 340 mm!

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One of the party had brought his Astrotrac with him, and with it set up on Olly's spare undriven mount on the night of 3rd - 4th August, I was able to fit my Canon 350D to it with its 18 mm lens and get some Milky Way shots, all of which showed up some of the better known targets. 




The most southerly part visible appeared through a col across the valley from the farmhouse. Even though the site was some 70 miles North of Marseille and Aix, nevertheless light pollution was very evident. But a pleasing shot anyway. Larger image.






Moving up the sky, the Cygnus region was next on the list. Larger image.




Finally the region around Cassiopeia. In all cases, I used 5 x 5 minute RAW frames, processed in Deep sky Stacker and Photoshop. Larger image.

I returned to my EQ3-2 mount for the following two nights (4th and 5th) and targeted the area containing M8 and M20 in Sagittarius with my SBIG camera and 135 mm camera lens at f 5. Luminance 12 x 5 minutes, RGB each 6 x 2 minutes binned 2x2.

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Then on to Gamma Cygni, again with the 135 mm lens. This time I used narrow band filters, with exposures Luminance (H-alpha) 6 x 10 minutes, O3, S2 each 5 x 4 minutes binned 2x2. Some of the Ha was used as Red in the final composite.

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I imaged two targets with the 135 mm lens on the night of 6th, but realised too late that I had inadvertently moved the lens stop to f9, so all the frames were too dim to produce successful images - a wasted night :-(


The night of 7th August was, alas, cloudy. But we couldn't really complain - we had so far been very lucky. And the night of 8th again was clear and I moved on to Olly's 4" Genesis refractor on his EQ6 Pro mount. The first target was M17 with the ST10, AO-8 and narrowband filters. Luminance 6 x 10 minutes Ha, GB each 6 x 4 minutes O3 and S2, Ha again used to provide Red. (See here for a flight of fancy!)

This image was 'Picture of the Month' in the November 2008 'Astronomy Now' magazine

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After M17 I moved over to an interesting area in Cassiopeia containing several open clusters in an almost straight line centred on NGC 7788. Luminance 8 x 2 minutes, RGB each 6 x 2 minutes. This image appeared in the September 2008 issue of Practical Astronomer.

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Of course there is more to staying at Les Granges than 'just' astronomy! The house is located in beautiful countryside, quite remote and very French!

This photo shows the farmhouse and positions of the telescope roll off sheds. the EQ3 position is at the upper end of the complex, and is of course my own mount - covered with a large plastic bag hence the white appearance! Olly's undriven EQ5 type mount (seen above with the Astrotrac) is behind the outhouse close to the Genesis.

Here are the two main imaging stations, the Televue Genesis on the EQ6 mount and the 'Classic' 10" LX200.




And the undriven mount with the Astrotrac and a fine body of men!

Olly also has a very good 20" Dobsonian, affectionately known as 'Sir Isaac'. But in a major oversight I never got a photograph of it, although I had some excellent views through it.


Here is the upper station, reserved for visitor's equipment, with my little EQ3-2 mount, and Sir Isaac's shed just below.



And the view looking South. Although the hills appear intrusive, in practice they were not a problem and fine views of the Scorpius and Sagittarius areas of the Milky Way were available.




The fence to the North of the viewing stations, in particular the visitor's area, is there partly for shelter from any wind, but also to mask off any glare from a few lights in the village of Etoile St Cyrice just a few hundred metres from the farmhouse. No light pollution as far as the sky is concerned, but enough to spoil well adapted night vision.



An attractive little village, dominated by quite a large church, (just out of view to the left of the main picture)

I couldn't resist this while out taking pics of the area. This is a Swallowtail butterfly, scarce in the UK, but there were plenty around Les Granges!

Etoile St. Cyrice is situated a few miles to the West of the mediaeval town of Orpierre, which is dominated by high rocky (limestone?) outcrops, and very popular with tourists, particularly climbers and walkers. So the town has large car parking areas for both cars and buses.

This magnificent pinnacle is the most obvious landmark, but the other side of the valley running into the hills was the main magnet for climbers

The town also boasts a substantial camp/caravan site and a large outdoor swimming pool. We visited it, but didn't swim there - costume rules were particularly specific and we didn't have the correct form! But several miles away there is a beautifully situated large reservoir open for watersports and well visited by boaters and swimmers alike. Quite warm enough in August, though probably rather cold in the earlier and later seasons!

Numerous interesting buildings and back lanes in the town, many of them hundreds of years old.


The hilly country in this area is stunning! Although most of the lower hills are tree covered, they rise to over 1000 metres, with the French Maritime Alps in the distance. This photograph was taken from a pass, the Col de St Jean, 1158 metres high, looking towards the Alps from the South West. The outcrop above Orpierre can just be seen at the very right of the picture.  





But when not out sightseeing, while conserving energies for a night's astronomy, holidaying at Les Granges is very relaxing!





Although Les Granges is offered as self catering, there was always the option of evening meals provided by the establishment! Sometimes in the house, on this occasion a delicious barbeque outside.



Thanks to Olly and Monique for their hospitality (and Provençal cuisine). We'll be back!


Olly is always looking to improve his equipment.

But no, Olly, you can't have my ST10!