Thursday, August 25, 2016

Approaching Syzygy!

For those of you who have not seen the word syzygy before, in astronomy it is an alignment of 3 bodies in space - say for an eclipse or planetary transit. In today's case, this coming weekend on Friday AND Saturday nights (evening of the 26th and 27th of August) Jupiter, Venus and Earth will align. From our observing viewpoint on the Earth, Venus and Jupiter will align to a tenth of a degree on Saturday for some longitudes of the United States. By the time it gets dark in Arizona, It will be a little wider, as Venus will have already passed its big brother planet. But still, On Friday they will be within a degree of each other, and much closer Saturday, so certainly worth a look low to the west if it is clear.

And note too that while Venus and Jupiter look extremely close in the sky, physically they are no closer than normal. It is only from the Earth's viewpoint they even LOOK close. From us, Venus will be 144 million miles (233 million km), with Jupiter being 592 million miles (956 million km) distant. So Jupiter and Venus, while looking to nearly collide are actually 448 million miles apart! I'm sure some doomsayers will claim catastrophic things will happen, but nothing will, other than an interesting appearance in the sky! So syzygy will occur - the alignment of Earth, Venus and Jupiter!

If I may digress for a minute - the first time I heard the word was at the University of Iowa - not unusual in an astronomy department. But where it came up was in one of the first applications of a computer password - back in 1974, passwords were new sorts of things, and my boss thought that the word syzygy would be a great password. Turns out using it was a failure because most of the grad students, or for that matter, anyone who needed access to the system computer couldn't spell it correctly! Funny how you remember things like that from 40 years ago!

Anyway, with our currently clear weather, I went exploring for a place with good western horizons, and yet, providing some scenery to provide a nice backdrop for the conjunction (another word for a celestial alignment). As I've done before, I headed southwest of Tucson and south of "Three Points" on the Sasabe Road to put the profile of Kitt Peak National Observatory in the foreground. Arriving early to make sure I would find the perfect location to observe, the clouds that were there around sunset provided a spectacular display of color and crepuscular rays projecting into the sky, shown at left. The profile of Kitt Peak can be spotted about a forth of the way in from the left.

With the bright sky, I had trouble picking even the brilliant Venus out of the sky. I finally realized my new phone had a compass app, so used that and realized I was still too far north - the Venus/Jupiter pairing would occur almost due west, and Kitt Peak was still south of west for where I was located. Heading south a couple miles I relaxed in another potential spot till Venus was finally spotted, right above the Observatory profile. Unfortunately, as they set they move to the right for us in the northern hemisphere, so needed to fine-tune my position about a half mile back to the north. By now, Venus could be seen with the naked eye, and as it descended, I made one more adjustment of a couple hundred yards more to the north and then parked. From this final spot, Venus would just miss the Observatory to the right (north), but by Saturday (if I return) as Venus approaches Jupiter, both will perfectly set over the Observatory...

Finally I pulled out the tripods and a pair of camera lenses (the 70-200 zoom and the 300mm) I'd assembled during twilight. I had almost forgotten about Mercury being in the shot with the 200mm, so first went after that dim one down in the haze, shown and labeled at left. Also visible in the twilight is Beta Virginis, the second-brightest star in the constellation Virgo - the only non-planetary object I spotted...

Switching to the 300mm (I was using the full-frame sensor of the Canon 6D, so has a wider field with these lenses than my older APS sensor cameras), I then shot just Jupiter and Venus over the Observatory profile. Of course, Beta Virginis is still visible, as is the familiar (to me) outline of the observatory, from the solar telescopes at left to the flat-topped 90" of the UA and the big NOAO 4-meter telescope at right. As I had thought, Jupiter set adjacent to the 36" Spacewatch Telescope - pretty much right where I wanted it. Venus will move to the left to join it in a couple days and the pair will be perfectly positioned if the weather cooperates. An influx of moisture raises the chance of rain to 20% Friday and Saturday, so we'll see if I get to record the close approach those days - stay tuned!

Mars between Saturn at top and Antares below
After the planets to the west had set, I moved my attention to the planets to the south.  Mars and Saturn have been dominating the ecliptic to the south all summer, but now Mars was on the move.  As I mentioned in the post a few days ago, after the Earth has passed Mars, it is again in prograde motion, and its motion can be seen even by eye from day-to-day.  Drawing a line between Saturn and Antares, on Tuesday Mars was short (west) of the line.  Tonight (Wednesday), it was well past that line!  I was thinking I could show the motion even in a 135mm lens shooting at half hour intervals.  It was visible, but just barely, so don't show it here.  What I did do was take a trio of 2 minute exposures (yes, 6 minutes total at F/4 and ISO 2,000) and show the stacked results here, with some levels adjustment to optimize the view of one of my favorite spots in the sky.  Note also that the 135 lens was from my old Nikon optics collection from film days, using an adaptor for the Canon EF mount.

Since I'm still exploring the limits of the "newish" Canon 6D, I thought I'd push it a little bit. Since I was about 12 miles east of the Observatory, I kept the 135mm lens on the 6D at F/4 and pointed it at the barely visible outline of the mountaintop. Pushing the ISO to the ungodly 25,600, I was surprised to clearly see the noisy but easily visible outline of the Observatory at a 30 second exposure. Lowering it to a more reasonable ISO 2500 and upping the exposure to 2 minutes, a much more pleasing view was recorded. Cropped to provide a full-resolution image, you can see the coarseness of the high amplification at left, and the smoother but longer exposure at right...

I hate to leave an inviting dark sky, but finally headed home about 9:30 and was home 45 minutes later. Not a bad excursion, now knowing I've got a spot identified for a ringside seat to the planetary show this weekend if the weather cooperates!

Monday, August 22, 2016

More Buds N' Bugs!

Even as our monsoon season winds down, we've still got some flowering cacti. I've still got a couple buds from the Cereus repandus on the east side of the house that will go off in a couple days, and the Fall barrel cacti are blooming. We've got a pair of fishhook barrel cacti in front of the house - while they look very similar, even down to the orange flowers, one of them blooms in April, the other in August.

I've had a small potted barrel in the back yard, and just this year started blooming with the most beautiful deep red flowers. I believe the generic name is Ferocactus wislizeni. At left are the buds about a week short of blooming - well protected by the dangerous-looking spines of the cacti. At right are the open blooms this weekend - here a close-up taken with the macro lens - a 7 frame focus stack. Each of the 7 frames were focused at a slightly different position to extend the depth of sharpness through the area of interest. Here you can see most everything is sharp - even the pollen scattered about the flower petals... This is nearly at the full camera resolution - about the best I can do without adding extension tubes for additional magnification...

3D - Parallel View
3D - "Cross-eyed" View
Of course a pair of lovely blooms is worthy of a 3D stereo pair. Unfortunately, the use of anaglyph glasses transforms the flower into a gaudy bluish-purple flower and I'm not even going to show it here. So I'll have to resort to the old-school method of viewing the stereo images like I used to present! Here you don't need any equipment at all, but it helps to be able to have nimble eyes! At left is the "parallel view" pair. Look across the room, then down to the image to look at the left image with your left eye, and right image with your right. Your brain will put them together to make a 3D image!

Similarly, the right image is a "cross-eyed" view. Clicking the image you will notice that this is a larger size. In the parallel view, you typically can't "uncross" your eyes to view images larger than your eye separation, but if you cross your eyes, to look at the right image with left eye, and left image with your right, you can get more resolution as you don't have the same limitations! You can practice with the thumbnails here before clicking to load the full-size images - good luck! At least they are in natural color!

And now for the fun stuff! On Saturday, I set up the camera after taking the above shots for a time-lapse. Since I was lazy and didn't set up till after lunch, it shows the flowers closing, though you see the evidence of bees swimming through the forest of anthers in the flower! At an image every 2 minutes, you don't see a lot of pollinator action, more the evidence of them being there as the flower parts move around. Five and a half hours of flower action played back here at 10 frames per second... Check it out!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

All Six Visible Planets - For A Limited Time!

We enjoyed some cool, partly cloudy skies this evening, so I stepped outside to check the twilight planets. And what a view! Low in the west, the trio of Venus, Mercury and Jupiter continue to impress. Just last weekend, the trio barely fit into the widest field of my 70-200 zoom lens. Tonight they easily fit into it set to 120mm, and the view will improve even more into next weekend. On Friday and Saturday (26th and 27th of August), Venus will be passing Jupiter and will be only .1 degree (1/5th of the Moon's diameter!) for a short time! The closest approach favors the east coast - by sunset here in Arizona on Saturday, Venus will already be past its closest approach, but perhaps observable during the day, if that gives you any ideas! Mercury continues to be the most difficult of the 3 to see, but it usually pops out as twilight continues to darken. If you try, make sure you have a good western horizon to see it before it sets! Make sure you click the image to see the planets better, and use the right image with labels for identification.

And, of course, that isn't all the show! To the south, Mars and Saturn continue to intrude into the constellation Scorpius. Mars is on the move again as Earth has passed it in its orbit. Just 6 weeks ago I imaged it well west of Scorpius. Now, as it has resumed prograde motion across the sky, it will pass the reddish star Antares in a couple days. Interestingly, the name Antares from the Greek is approximately "rival to Mars", and the colors closely resemble each other. If you go out to look, note that Mars does not twinkle, though Antares will. That is because the extended disks of the planets are less affected by atmospheric turbulence than the point sources of stars. Do get out and look for these guys and the twinkling effect. Saturn, in the outer reaches of the Solar System, moves much more slowly, so is tougher to see daily motion.

Note that in the title, I noted "All 6 visible planets", but only mention 5 here. The 6th one? Well, most of you see it every day - our own planet Earth! While Uranus is occasionally visible to the naked eye from a dark site, it isn't counted as a visible planet. So do get out and check out all 6 while they remain in the evening sky!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

One Night To Shine!

3D anaglyph image!
3D anaglyph image!
Since July and August weather doesn't agree with astronomy (it is our monsoon season, threatening rain most days), one of my favorite activities is chasing the blooms, flowers and pollinators of the array of Cereus repandus cacti we've got growing on the east side of our house. Clicking the above link will take you to some of our earlier posts of these amazing flowers. If the 15cm (6"!) diameter, night-blooming flowers aren't enough to keep your interest, the specialty pollinators that come out at night to feed are amazing too! These top two images here are recent bloomers, shown here as anaglyphs - get out your red/blue glasses to see them in 3D stereo! The right image is unusual - normally as soon as the sun hits them they are on their way to closing - I've got a time-lapse of that!

Days to blooming!
For my one-eyed readers, or those of you who don't have any anaglyph glasses, you can enjoy this image at left. There are usually a pair of blooming seasons per summer - the first one in May with a few blossoms, but the real blooming session appears to be in late July and August, at least in my yard with my variety. We missed the first blooming season when we were in Illinois for a couple weeks, and the latter season was while Melinda was taking the tour of health facilities around Tucson... Fortunately, I would come home late each night to do cat chores, so usually came upon the flowers already open. Interestingly this second season, the flowers either seemed to be 7 or 8 feet off the ground, or down a foot off the dirt, so would either have to get out stepstool and the tall tripod, or lie down on the ground. Fortunately, there was one blossom at the perfect 4 foot (1.2 meter) level that I waited to bloom. Also, once the flower bud was first spotted - a little nub less than 5mm (1/4") across, I started regularly imaging it until it bloomed, as shown at right...

So from the afternoon shot taken earlier in the day, I knew this bloom would blossom that night. I didn't get home till well after 1130, and sure enough it was already wide open and I arranged my camera (Canon XSi - 'cause of the on-camera flash, macro and  about 5cm of extension tubes). Focusing quickly on the center green stigma of the flower - I could see that the pollinating moths had already visited. How could I tell? Well the Stigma was already covered with pollen and some of the hairs and "feathers" of the rustic sphinx moths that normally visited. Look at the image at left, and the same image at full camera resolution at right. While the anthers are still relatively loaded with pollen, with the stigma loaded up (they must be sticky to hold on to pollen and moth hairs) you can see it had been visited the previous 90 minutes the flower had likely been open.

So what does it look like before the moths visit? Glad you asked as a few days earlier I caught one just as it opened before 11pm. Shown at left you can see the stigma is a clean green with anthers fully loaded with pollen just waiting for a passing moth to brush some across it. By early in the morning, I went out to shoot a corresponding macro shot of the stigma after a long night of visiting pollinators. Shown at right is the above flower at 5am. Compared to the images in the preceding paragraph, it looks absolutely furry from moth hairs, and the anthers are pretty much denuded of pollen...

So who did we attract as pollinators this time? Between about midnight to 5am I took pictures every 20 seconds, hoping to accidently capture some pollinators. The 830 frames show exactly 4 visits by rustic sphinx moths, though you will see that one likely visited twice making only 3 moths visiting overnight (also not counting the moths arriving before midnight. In the images at left and right, each of these moths stayed for 2 exposures taken at 20 second intervals, so about a half minute. This is the moth pair I'm thinking is a second visit by the same moth. Only 7 minutes between visits, you can also spot a pair of gaps in it's left wing, more visible in the left hand image of each.

Here at left is the first moth visit recorded after midnight - 1236 by my camera clock. Note that the wing edges are very clean and the colors pretty bright - likely indicating a young moth. Then after the same moth visit from the preceding paragraph, at right is the last one, coming by at 3am for a visit. Even though much of the image is out-of-focus, you can see the left wing has some sizeable chunks out of it - indicating an older specimen perhaps, and certainly making identification easier had it made more visits... Unfortunately, there are no more buds indicating any flowers coming up, so the blooming season might be over...

Still these are always interesting to observe - the proboscis longer than the body allows feeding on nectar far down the throat of the flower. Had I time to stay up and monitor the camera/flower, I could have manually taken many more of the moth visits, though usually depend on the intervalometer to take frames at regular intervals. The moths don't seem too upset by the flash - last year managed 6 frames of the same moth over its 33 second visit.  Also interesting this blooming session was the complete lack of honeybees.  In times past the last few hours of the predawn hours were swarmed with bees, but not one to be spotted this time...

So after the flower blooms? After closing early in the morning after it blooms, it shrivels and dries out. At left is an image a day later, then again 3 days after the blooming. Note on the bottom image there is a little crack on the stem near the base. By just touching it, I managed to break off the flower, leaving the stem behind. Most of the flowers do that after blooming, the stump remaining turns into a fruit. After the flower broke off at right, the stigma hangs out by its long stem. Slicing the flower lengthwise shows the remaining flower parts, including the anthers, filament threads and flower petals...

As I said, you've got to make your own fun during the monsoon nights while you can't be observing. Fortunately these sorts of things are available to distract me from the cloudy skies!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Before The Big Blow!

We happened to see the weather report this evening at 5:30 - there was rain on the other side of the Rincons, and some on the other side of the Catalinas, moving away from us. It had been clear all day and looked to be a clear evening. But just before sunset, there appeared to be some active clouds, so I got out a camera and took some images for a time0lapse clip - here every 6 seconds, and played back at 10/second.  Except for the first cloud taken with a 300mm, all the rest were taken with the Canon 70-200 at various focal lengths. Here is the clip:

Like I said, they appeared REALLY active, and those dark clouds moving in at the end also brought some lightning and distant thunder too! Before the possible storm came in, I thought of trying to shoot the evening planets to the west - what, you didn't know about them? Well, Jupiter is low in the west, but Venus is coming up behind the sun (well past superior conjunction), and Mercury is visible too for a day or two before it dives down to pass in front of the sun (inferior conjunction). I hadn't seen the later two for a while, so walked down the block to avoid some power lines.

Sure enough, they were pretty easily visible. Venus is hard to miss, and Jupiter was about to get eaten by the front of clouds moving in, and finally Mercury was spotted just before the 3 planets were reduced to 2 planets visible. Shown at left is the image I got - click it to load the full-size. For a cheat-sheet, you can click the right hand image with labels to better locate them. Taken with the 70-200 at 70mm with the XSi (APS sensor) with 1 second exposure at F/6.3.

After walking the block back home, I swapped out for the kit lens and went back out to try to shoot the incoming storm. Wow, what a show! Before the rain hit, I shot a number of 15-second exposures from the cul-de-sac towards the Catalinas where lightning looked more numerous. Truth be told, this is a combo of 3 consecutive frames - exciting stuff, but needed to run for cover when the big drops started landing. It dumped a good half inch, so was glad to document the storm coming in. You can't always do astronomy, especially during the monsoon season, but you gotta always try to have fun whatever you do!


The word came out on Tuesday (thanks to the IAU telegrams I get at work via e-mail) - this year's Perseid meteor shower might show enhancements due to Jupiter perturbing the dust streams released from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle (the source of the Perseid meteors) closer to Earth's orbit. In addition, we might encounter the narrower streams of dust released in the comet's one-orbit (1862), four (1479) and seven-orbit (1079) passes through the inner solar system. Predictions favored Thursday night about 9pm - a little early for the desert southwest as the radiant would still be low or below the horizon. In addition, the bright moon would be up till a little after midnight. Oh, and we're having a more-than-active monsoon system and there was a 40% chance of rain that night!

But even with Melinda still in the hospital, I got thinking about the chance to go out and see some meteors in a dark sky. While normally just the dark sky is enough to get me out, but add the natural fireworks, and wowser - more fun than humans should be allowed to have!

Fortunately, Melinda was released on Wednesday, and after a night at home with the both of us, I felt comfortable leaving her in sister Maj's care for a few hours. Plus, with the late moonset, I wouldn't be leaving the house till after 11, normally after she is tucked into bed. Oh, and the weather - there were a few clouds into the sunset, but it was mostly clear - the trip was on!

I figure if you are headed to dark sky, go all the way, so headed west (fewer clouds in that direction at sunset) towards Kitt Peak. Once there, I could set up at the base of the mountain, or head up to my little observing site near milepost 9. Once I arrived, there were a collection of a few cars at the base, so I headed up the mountain where I encountered no one - likely turned back by the "road closed" sign, which I ignored... I did pass some places were gravel was washed over the road - indicating to me that heavy rains had been here a day or two before - perhaps an ominous warning. Sure enough, when arriving at the observing spot on the SW corner of the mountain, there were alternating periods of clouds, fog and clear as they formed right at the 6,000 foot level! I set up anyway, and here show the interesting juxtaposition of stars, clouds and fog over the site. Then, a few minutes later, I captured my first Perseid just over the hill to the east. Both of these are ultra-wide-angle shots with the 14mm Rokinon lens on the full-frame Canon 6D sensor. While sky coverage is huge, any meteors are going to be tiny!

But after a few minutes it got to be frustrating as time was wasted waiting for clear spots to return. I moved everything back in the van and moved down to a pullout near the 4500 elevation level near milepost 5. Here conditions were near perfect. I re-set up the pics I had started at the higher site - with an 85mm (re-purposed Nikon lens on the Canon 6D!). I centered the trio of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) and the cluster NGC 752. Then you cross your fingers for a meteor or two! Well, in the 5th exposure of 30 one-minute exposures, my stars aligned and got my one shot, shown at left. At center is the orange-y star Beta Andromeda, with the fuzzy objects as above, clockwise from upper right.

Likely the brightest meteor I captured is shown at right, cropped from a shot with the 16mm (Nikon again) fisheye in Pisces. What the camera captures here that was not obvious to the naked eye was the gentle glow of the zodiacal band crossing from bottom center to upper right, contrasted with the rising Winter Milky Way.

That also explains why, in my next set of exposures with a 50mm lens (again, a fast Nikon from the film days) of the Taurus area seems to be awfully bright as the normal glow of the Milky Way is "contaminated" by the Zodiacal glow and also likely some sky glow from Tucson over the hill... In this shot at left, the Pleiades and Hyades clusters are at right, and the red smudge at top center is the California Nebula hydrogen cloud. Not bad for a 60 second exposure!

I also ran a second camera, Melinda's T1i - newer and likely less noise than my XSi... I ran it most of the time with the all-sky lens, an 8mm (again, Nikon) at F/2.8.  But like I pointed out before, with the ultra-wides, the meteors are so small they tend to get lost. Check out the shot at right - the standard untracked 2 minute exposure. While it looks clear of meteors, there is a little one to the right of the Pleiades at far right! It seems that even at F/2.8, short focal length lenses are at a disadvantage of capturing meteors. It seems longer, fast lenses have an advantage...

The last thing I want to say about the Perseid display is that it was amazing how many of them seemed to come in pairs! At least a half dozen times while I was out, I'd see one flash, then a second one right next to it a second or two later! I can't explain it other than the statistics of small numbers... As for the overall display - it seemed that if you were at the right place, the 240/hour that was predicted was realized in some places in Europe. See the sites here for visual observations, and look at this one the Japanese did for radio observations (meteors create an ionized trail that temporarily reflect radio waves). I didn't do a count, since I was preoccupied with cameras, but given that so many came within seconds of each other, it was certainly way over the standard 80-100/hour, IMO...

Shortly before twilight was to start, clouds started forming just over my head to the west, so took that as a sign it was time to go! I packed in record time and hit the road about 4am and was walking back to bed right at 5am. Two full hours of sleep and it was time to do the cat chores and get Melinda packed up for her morning cancer center appointments! Sleep is for wimps! Anyway, I slept well the next night and almost feel back to normal today - happy for a few hours under some dark skies!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Final Detour?

In our last post from a week ago, Melinda had been released to a "skilled nursing facility" for some physical rehab to get back her strength and stamina. She didn't really care for the place, so we got out as soon as she passed the PT goals after about a week there. That was this last Monday - 8 August, about noon.

So it was with some concern that about 8 hours later, she was complaining of weakness and lack of energy - generic complaints, but was it worth another trip to the ER? Her blood pressure wasn't particularly low, and her heart rate has been higher than normal since her last round of tachycardia - nothing unusual there. We called the on-call oncologist at the cancer center for his opinion and he supported the decision to go, so called 911 for the second time in 18 days...

So another trip to the ER - more blood tests than last time, but not as much excitement as her BP and HR weren't too unusual. But the preliminary tests showed her hemoglobin was a third of normal, as if her blood volume was way down - no wonder she was so tired! After some quick tests to look for internal bleeding (sonograms and CT scan) they gave her a transfusion of packed red blood cells - eventually giving a second unit by Tuesday morning. A day and night of observation and the emergency seems to have passed... The official diagnosis is "pernicious anemia", a shortage of red blood cells from a lack of vitamin B12. Whether there were some complications from her radiation treatments just ending a week ago remains to be seen, but today before releasing her she got a B12 shot and off to home she goes.

So she is again resting at home, glad to be feeling better and be around the cats. We'll be getting home health care nurses checking up on us and also continuing to get physical therapy at home till she is stronger. For now, with a little assistance, she is going down the hall to the bathroom using her walker. Sister Maj is here helping out and is shown at left with Melinda. Hopefully that last trip was the final detour to staying home - seems like forever we've been camping out at medical facilities - 2 days short of 3 weeks!