My Polar Alignment Methods [Telescope Setup]

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy_RRRT
Messier 51 or M51 or Whirlpool Galaxy. Telescope: RRRT (Fan Mountain) Camera: SBIG STX-16803 Exposure: Red: 14 @ 2 min Blue: 14 @ 2 min Visible: 14 @ 2 min Total – 84 minutes exposure

When I search the internet for deep space photos like this, I am marveled by what many amateurs are able to accomplish. Individuals like Trevor of Astrobackyard have technical tools to help them setup their telescopes. They achieve pin point stars and magnificant details. I on the other hand am plodding along with what feels like antiquated equipment. All this to simply learn the craft. Shame on me or bravo! There’s a lot of video and articles on drift polar alignment, so I’ll link some of them and spare you the extra repetitive and gory details.

Tripod Setup

I’ve found this step to be one of the most important first steps to take. A solid surface is what I look for when placing my tripod. I even carry three wood planks if I can’t find one. If you’ve ever tried walking through mud without sinking, then you’ll understand why I carry them. Now that the desired location is identified, the tripod is extended and placed. If your tripod is like mine, it will have an N marking the direction is should face. Southern hemisphere dwellers, I would guess your tripod has an S. I actually have no idea if there’s a difference. So how do you know where north is? You could see where the Sun sets and roughly determine where north is, or you could buy/dowload (to your phone) a compass. Believe it or not this is good enough for casual viewing of night sky objects. Try to take long exposure astrophotography in this way and you quickly learn why this hobby creates love/hate relationships.

Finding True North
Google Pixel Really Blue using the NOAA Magnetic Field Calculator to determine true north

A few polar alignment tricks I’ve found to work great. First I use NOAA Magnetic Field Calculator to find true north. Yes it will show you two north arrows. One is true north and the other is the magnetic north. By the way this a mobile phone web app. This app alone reduced my polar alignment process by 30 minutes. It’s very accurate and free to use! So long as the government is funded. A special thanks to 45 for making my polar alignment process longer during the government shutdown. Ok cool…now it’s pointing north. Then what?

Level the Tripod

The Pleiades

No good or great polar alignment was ever achieved, purposly, without leveling the tripod. When I purchased my Orion Astroview 6, the mount came with a bubble level pressed into the base. I made the mistake over the last 2 years thinking this was accurate. I struggled with photos like this on with elongated stars thinking it was something else creating this look. So I’ve learned how to fix the stars during post processing and I maxed out my exposure time to 10 seconds. It worked but my goal is to not have to fix them.

Once I discovered the problem with my mount, I pickup a level I had in my tool box and manually leveled each of the 3 tripod legs. It’s not magic and takes a few minutes to do. The nice thing about this and the previous step is that they can be completed in daylight. Your entire telescope rig can be polar aligned before the first star appears in the night sky.

Drift Polar Alignment

Drift Alignment Before
Drift Alignment Before

Forrest Tanaka has a YouTube Channel with several very detailed videos on astrophotography. This video has what you need to do a drift polar alignment. Also this link has additional YouTube videos for your enjoyment. For me, when I used a compass to find north, I still need to drift align for more accuracy. The drift looked like the picture above. The V shape means that the scope is not aligned and I’ve got to adjust the azimuth and/or altitude of the mount. The goal is to achieve the picture below.

Drift Alignment After
Drift Alignment After

Since I’m not changing latitudes often and with the use of the NOAA Magnetic Field Calculator, drift alignment for me is simply a quick 5 to 10 minute verifcation of my polar alignment. This used to take 30 minutes or more depending on how far off my alignment began. Drift polar alignment is a tedious process so the additional tools help. I hope to rival even the expensive GoTo Mounts with this process and create similar photos as the more experienced and well equipped astrophotographers.

If you have any cool polar alignment techniques, I would love to hear about them. Thanks for your support and clear skies!