Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sunset, Moonset and a Surprise Guest!

Post number 1,001, so the pressure is off - back to being mediocre! Just kidding, but if this post seems weirder than most - I can blame it on the drugs - had some oral surgery this morning, and even now 10 hours later - I still don't have much feeling in my jaw... Long story short, while flossing about a month ago, a crown popped off, taking the lil' stump with it, so need gum and bone trimmed back ("crown lengthening")for a new crown to grab on to... This post is from images collected last (Tuesday) night...

It had been a while since I've been on a photo outing, and the confluence of later sunsets these days, finishing medical appointments on time, and getting chores done early, I loaded up and headed out to Gates Pass to catch the sunset last night. Melinda held down the fort at home, and my trip west got stuck in "rush hour" traffic slowdowns, but pulled into the last parking spot at Gates Pass about 15 minutes before sunset.

With the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in full swing, I expected a full crowd, though most of the people I talked to were local - just out for your standard spectacular Arizona sunset! With the sun still up, my first goal was if there were any 3D shots of interest. There were! Get out your red/blue anaglyph 3D glasses for these. Both were taken from or a few yards from the parking lot, they show a couple "hyperstereo" images, where the baseline was significantly more than your eye separation - in these cases 5 feet or so. The shot at left was nearly down-sun shooting into the hills of saguaro cacti, and at right, the ridgeline of the Pass with a few sunset watchers in residence.  One more anaglyph down below!

The sunset finally came - a "standard" Arizona one where it was way too brilliant to look at unfiltered, even as the last shards of the disk sat atop the horizon. Shooting with the 300mm, the last little remnants are visible on distant mountains, but no green flash made an appearance.

A couple months ago, the sun would have set considerably to the left, where from Gates Pass, Kitt Peak is conveniently located. Imaged with the same 300mm lens, here the National Observatory is located. Interesting from this lower viewpoint, the 4 meter telescope is nearly eclipsed by the lower (in elevation) but nearer peak of the Coyote range, seen just to the right of the big 4 meter. Also, even though the sun had just set from my viewpoint, you can see a golden glow in the foreground - likely the still-above-the-horizon sun illuminating some intervening haze.

Here is a wider view showing the western horizon, from the sunset point to Kitt Peat at the far left. The view from atop Gates Pass is dominated by flat plains and mountain ranges that just from them. Here is the Avra Valley is an interesting sight - large square bodies of water - seen here with the glow of twilight reflected from them. I was able to talk to some folks who brought them up in conversation. They are "recharge ponds". A couple decades ago when we first got Central Arizona Project (CAP) water from the Colorado River, the water corroded pipes as the different chemistry of river water differed significantly from ground water (think - shades of Flint, Michigan!). So now, at least a large part of CAP water is allowed to percolate through the ground to the aquifer, where it is pumped and used to supply Tucson with water... Not an ideal solution for a large desert city, but there it is...

As I returned to the car for a change of gear, I noticed the lights of Tucson coming up in the little notch visible to the east - hey, another 3D opportunity! While there isn't a lot of detail visible in the cacti, I like being able to see down the canyon as it opens out into the Tucson Valley in this hyperstereo with about a 10 foot baseline.

Now it was time for the after-show! Back nearly a week ago at our Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) meeting, Erich Karcoschka (you gotta hang on his every word!) mentioned that this time of the year the ecliptic rises nearly vertically, and with the moon actually north of the ecliptic, here in the mid-northern latitudes, we get to see something unusual - a skinny crescent moon that "holds water". In other words, the moon is nearly directly over the now-set sun and cusps are nearly horizontal, making a cup that would hold water! Also, the just-over 34 hour moon would have very bright earthshine - seen from the moon, the "full" earth would illuminate even the dark side of the moon. Sure enough, as it darkened, the crescent appeared with brilliant earthshine, shown at left.  The bright star at the very top of the frame is Lambda Aquarii.

But wait - there's more! I happened to look at Heavens-Above at their sky map to note the position of the moon and sun as they set and noticed that there would be a little "guest" next to the moon - the outermost planet Neptune! The little plot is shown at right above - it appeared to be close enough to be easy to catch, so had to give it a go!

I hadn't planned on bringing any hefty mounts for tracking with telephotos, so crossed my fingers that I could use the little Polarie tracking mount with my heavy 70-200 zoom (used for the above moon shot). Now with it set to 200mm for maximum reach, I took a few exposures up to 8 seconds in hopes of catching the outermost planet. I wasn't sure which it was at the camera, but now back at home and with the sky guide above for the appointed image time, at left the minute Neptune appears from 2.9 billion miles (4.6 billion kilometers)!  You'll likely have to click the image to load the full-size view to see it well, but it is there!

And even then the show wasn't over! My friend Ken Spencer blogs a picture he takes every day. He is currently touring western New Mexico and yesterday had posted an exquisite image of the Zodiacal Light seen from the boondocks near Magdelena, NM. Since Gates Pass is sort of on the western edge of the Tucson metropolitan area, could the Zodiacal Light be seen from that vantage? The short answer is yes - I could see it visually, but wanted to try a photographic record... By the time I tracked down an appropriate wide angle lens (in this case a Canon 10-22 zoom, set to 10mm) on the tracking mount, the setting crescent moon was just sitting atop the western horizon. This 45 second exposure easily shows the Zodiacal Light - a sky glow that outlines the ecliptic plane where planets and asteroids reside, and dust from comets and ancient asteroid collisions are illuminated by the sun. You can see some signs of civilization to the west - there are some houses out in Avra Valley, and cars along Gates Pass road outline it in bright glows. Also the bright orange development is actually the "Old Tucson Studios", which from the sounds of it, was hosting some sort of banquet or function likely associated with the Gem and Mineral shows going on. Do note the earthlit disk of the moon sitting on the mountaintop and also the little light dome just right of Kitt Peak - likely from Sells 60 miles distant.

By this time I had been alone for a long time and it was 8pm - long past time to pack up and head from home - but boy, what a fun evening! Wish you had been there!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Milestone and Optics Phun!

A milestone and celebration of sorts today - this is our 1,000th post! Started way back in 2008, Melinda started it right after our wedding, and as she graduated to the Facebook, I sort of took it over, transitioning from everyday life to more of a science, nature and astronomy blog. Thinking about it, in those approximately 3,167 days, coming up with original content every 3 days isn't too bad! There is very little rote copying from news or events, so I'm pleased, and if you are reading this, hope you are enjoying our common journey through the cosmos!

So what better way to celebrate what we are all about but to show you what you can do with a chunk of glass! I've posted some results with this prism assembly before - the first over 4 years ago with a objective prism spectra of the Hyades star cluster, and 2 years ago with a comet spectrum. It appears that I'm posting w/it every 2 years like clockwork! Anyway, with Melinda mostly feeling under the weather, I've mostly been staying at home, so looking for projects I can do from the back yard. The 4"+ diameter chunk of glass was obtained somewhere, and I polished it flat on both sides with about a 30 degree wedge in it. Mount it up on a mounting surface and you are in business. I originally built it 20 years ago (!) and first used it on comet Hyakutake, and it has been kicking around my storage room since. It is easy to use - mostly point and shoot, the only drawback being that the prism deviates the view of the object spectrum about 20 degrees, so you need to point to something you can see, or build some sort of finder for it. Mostly to this point, I'm using objects I can see in the viewfinder. The image at left shows the setup with my "newish" 300mm lens which works well with it, and the deviation I noted is demonstrated in the right image.

While the daytime view through the system + prism is a muddled mess of colors, it comes into its own at night. Even though it is well into February, the neighborhood still has strings of lights about, and these are fun to look at. From the spectra, they look like a continuous type you would expect from hot little filaments emitting at all colors. At left is the view of my next-door-neighbor's white lights. From the full spectrum you can spot one of the disadvantages of a prism spectrograph - the dispersion is non-linear from the blue to the red. While the blue part is spread out widely, the red part not so much. For that reason alone, outside objective prism spectra for wide-field surveys such as this setup, most high-resolution work at a telescope is done with diffraction grating devices with more linear dispersion... At right is a similar string of red lights a few doors down on the other side of our house. While also continuous spectra, they are likely filtered with red glass, so mostly only the red part of the spectrum passes. You can spot some of them have small leaks that permit other colors through, but mostly only the red.

The next really cool thing to do is head down the street a couple hundred yards, looking down Mountain Avenue not far from the house. Shown at left with labels is the intersection of Mountain with the cross-street of Fort Lowell - in this case without the prism, just the 300mm lens. Identified in the image at left are 4 types of lights - low-pressure sodium dominate along Mountain south of Fort Lowell, with high-pressure lighting used at the actual intersection. Also visible is the red traffic light as well as the headlights of cars waiting at the traffic signal. At right is the view through the prism assembly, where you can see all the lights have significantly different spectra. First of all, like the colored light spectra above, the red traffic light is similarly a filtered continuous spectrum showing only red and yellow. The car headlights similar to the full spectrum continuous spectra white lights above also display all colors of the spectrum. The sodium streetlights are significantly different.  The spectrum of a gas heated to incandescence make an emission spectrum - glowing brightly at discrete wavelengths. The low pressure ones that stretch down the street are very nearly mono-chromatic with a strong yellow component, with minor red and green emission lines. High pressure sodium is a complex spectrum with pressure-broadened emission in the yellow and red, along with some strong lines in the green and blue from mercury added to the lamps in small quantities. Interestingly, there is self-absorption in the high-pressure sodium at the exact yellow wavelength of low-pressure sodium emission from the outer, cooler parts of the sodium arc that re-absorbs the yellow lines.

As you can see here, and from the pictures of the setup on top of the post, the spectral dispersion is vertical. From the back yard, I was thinking that if the stars were bright enough, shooting on the meridian, the east-west motion of the stars (in a standard 8 second exposure)would broaden the spectrum allowing spectral lines to be seen. And it works! With stars, their interiors act as hot sources that provide a continuous spectrum, but cooler gasses in their atmosphere absorb discrete wavelengths that indicate what elements and to some extent, how much of the element is present. Shown at left are the 3 stars of Orion's belt, cropped somewhat so that the absorption lines can be spotted. Since these are very hot "B" stars, they don't have many absorption lines - only a few simple element's atoms can exist at such temperatures. So mostly just weaker hydrogen lines are seen. At right are a pair of stars in Canis Major - In this case, I've turned the spectrum pair 90 degrees CCW so the dispersion is along the long dimension of the image to better see the absorption lines (north is to the left here). The upper star is Epsilon CMa, the lower Sigma CMa. The lower, fainter star is a supergiant over twice as far as the hotter, nearer star, but many more lines can be seen in the cooler atmosphere, where more elements can exist.

Here I compare two spectra that are very similar - Theta Leporis (A0 V) is magnitude 4.7 and about the faintest I can see visually from my back yard. Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) is -1.5, so more than 6 magnitudes (250X) brighter because of its close proximity to us. Shown here are 4 stacked spectral frames (8 seconds each) of Theta Lep, compared to a single of Alpha CMa. Pretty similar results, though noise is visible in the fainter star. The spectral classes are defined so that the Balmer lines of hydrogen are strongest in the "A" stars. Note how much stronger they are in these stars, compared to the hotter "B" stars of Epsilon CMa and Epsilon Ori above.

So similarly, I took a series of spectra using the device, using 8 second exposures as my standard widening width. I used the 300mm F/number and camera ISO (standard Canon XSi to fine tune exposures for bright to faint stars, using multiple exposures (up to 4) for the faintest stars. Checking with Wikipedia for spectral classifications, I then plotted up a variety of stars from hottest (top) to coolest. It was interesting to confirm the hydrogen Balmer lines are strongest at about "A" spectral class, and as you get cooler many more elements can exist (thus absorb wavelengths) in the stellar atmospheres. At the bottom (Alpha Orionis - Betelgeuse) is cool enough that molecular bands can be seen absorbing over a gap of wavelengths.

I'm still amazed that I can detect what elements can exist in a star's atmosphere 2,000 light years away - and from that and the star's brightness, you can make assumptions about temperature, mass, and chemistry - all from an inexpensive camera and simple piece of glass. Fun stuff!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Fleeting Fame!

When I logged on last evening to post about "Trumping our cats", I noticed something peculiar going on with the Blog. On the statistic page there is a plot of readership and there was a huge spike on 1 February - for some reason, we were suddenly popular! The question was why! Shown at left, we hit nearly 500 page views on the 1st. So far as I knew, we hadn't been linked to any UFO posts, and Phil Plait, Mr. Bad Astronomy similarly hasn't linked anything to us, so had to look elsewhere...

Down at the bottom of the page, there is a gadget called "Feedjit". Clicking on the "live view" link below it brings up a page showing the last 50 folks who have looked on the blog - usually those 50 go back a day or more. But even now, those 50 only go back about 5 hours, so are still getting traffic linking to us. Examining those lines reveals where the readers live, what operating system they use, and whether they come to us directly (like a bookmarked link), or from a link from another website. In this case they were coming from the 1 February posting of Astronomy Picture of the Day!

Now the APOD website is the Holy Grail of any amateur astronomers who points a camera skyward. It is the equivalent of a musician getting his picture on Rolling Stone! I've forwarded them more than a few pictures, notably Melinda's accidental fighter jet silhouetted against the sun just before the solar eclipse of 2012, and various versions of the sun setting behind the outline of Kitt Peak National Observatory, but the most they will commit to is "we'll think about it". No, to this point they've not been interested in any images, but why folks were suddenly coming to the blog was because the astronomers who run APOD liberally use links to provide detailed descriptions of what they are trying to explain, like I do in the clickable links here. In the 1 February APOD, they were pointing out the faces people sometime see in the moon. Down in the description, they linked to my similar blog post pointing out a woman in the moon! So I'm getting closer to APOD fame - at least the Blog is on their radar and who knows - someday I might get a photo credit there!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Cats, Trumped!

Trump our Lucy - the donor!
Ever since Donald Trump has been in the news, seemingly forever, his coiffed comb-over has been the butt of jokes and comments. Take the classic Letterman bit "Trump or Monkey" that got laughs for years. Well, recently, with his running for POTUS (President Of The United States), derision has returned in full force. And while we've been doing this for years (really - WE invented it!), "Trumping your cat" has been all the rage the last few months!

Well, midway through our Winter season, our youngest cat, Lucy, needed some severe combing, so got out a handful of fur, so she was our donor kitty this time. "Collect, shape, place - and now document" is our new mantra! So at left is Lucy, Trumped! Pretty good, she tolerated it better than I expected, and the shade, of course, matches pretty well. There was an extra curl or two in the hairpiece, which was reworked for other volunteers...

Sugar Pants - not quite natural...
Squeeky - our winner!
Sit still very long in our house, and one-by-one, they all come by for attention! So with our lil' hairpiece set aside, we patiently waited. Next up was our "pretty boy" Sugar Pants, who also tolerated it well and doesn't look too uncomfortable with the rug. While the shape is good in this case, the contrasting color just doesn't do it for me.

It wasn't too many minutes later and our newest adapted feral, Squeeky (or Squeeks, Mr. Squeeker - you get the idea) came by and got in the fun for the first time. Ladies and gentlemen - I think we have our winner! Not only did he wear it well, but he had a bit of attitude and did a great job!

As the opportunity presents themselves, you might see more of this - they don't hate us for it, so it makes their owners smile, so why not?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Notes From The Battlefield!

If it seems like it has been a long time since we've blogged about Melinda's cancer battle - it has! After 2 PET scans that showed impressive improvement in decreasing both the size and numbers of tumors of her small-cell lung cancer, her oncologist gave her the month of November off treatment to recover, and restarted another set of cycles in December. Just today we got official word from the latest PET scan (taken every 2 cycles - about 2 month intervals) from a week ago.

And the word isn't good... Increased metabolic activity, and more tumors are visible. Dr. Garland is quick to point out these spots aren't "new", even though they haven't been visible the last couple scans. Going back to the Summer, these are old spots that are coming back. This is now the second time we've seen this - a drug that initially worked well slowly becomes ineffective as the cancer develops an immunity. While some might wonder what would have happened if we hadn't taken the month off, you can't ask that question - water under the bridge. At the time we didn't argue with the decision, though I do recall asking the question. All we can do is trust the doctor's recommendations and we will continue to do that.

So since the Irinotecan is no longer effective, we were concerned the doc might be running short of drugs to try - but not to worry! She always seems to have something to give us - in this case she wanted a drug that worked substantially differently from what was just abandoned, and chose Navelbine - a drug normally used for non-small cell cancer. We've already given the drug a pet name - "navy-bean". It works by inhibiting cell division, which is what causes cancer cells to grow unchecked. We're currently awaiting her insurance to approve treatment (Melinda has changed insurance 4 times since September, and she just today started Medicare - now THAT is an epic story!). We expect that to get approved and she'll receive chemo on Thursday, and go in for the normal weekly infusions for 3 weeks, then a week off for her normal cycle. Two more cycles and another PET scan - so we'll know if it is working come the first week of April.

The other complication is that the most recent PET scan showed a speck in her brain, while the brain MRI taken 4 weeks ago to look for such things didn't show it... So they are repeating the brain scan also on Thursday. If confirmed, they'll likely do radiation to zap it, but will learn those plans once we get to that point... Stay tuned - the battle continues!

Monday, January 25, 2016

My Favorite Roadway Art!

Do much driving around Tucson and you will soon spot some art or something that LOOKS like it might be art! They seem to sprout from road expansion projects, and thus the funding source is found - the Federal Transportation Administration requires that 1% of transportation projects using federal funds be spent on art or enhancements. I think it is a good idea to get away from the raw concrete and steel and soften the edges a bit. It is tough to find a single source that shows the variety of work and artists, but there is a small gallery in this newspaper article...

But I do have a favorite! I go out of my way just to pass by it - fortunately it is almost on my way home if I'm going north on I-10. It is on one of the underpasses on the Miracle Mile exchange, installed when the interchange was re-aligned 20 years ago. Local artist Gary Mackender did all 6 of the huge (35 feet wide, 9 to 20 feet high) mosaics after hand-painting the 18,000 tiles. My favorite is the first one you see as you go north on the right (east) side. Shown at left (slightly fuzzed as to not reveal the surprise!), it appears to be a lizard (Gila Monster) in the desert overlooking a beach and body of water with perhaps a rock or small island offshore. It reminds me of the desert down near the Sea of Cortez, where the desert runs right to the shore. When you drive past it at 70+ miles per hour, that is about all the detail you see.

But slowing down to the speed limit or lower (65mph at that spot) you pick up more details, as shown at right. What was thought to be a body of water is a flood of urban sprawl extending outwards into the desert, with the lizard looking aghast at what is happening. I think it is a great statement the artist makes in preserving what is left of the desert before it is gone. Don't worry - I didn't take it while driving like some people on Long Island I know! Melinda drove the last leg back from our Christmas trip to Rocky Point, and I shot out the windshield as she drove the speed limit. The last shot of the 3 I took cleared the ocotillo plant that shows in the upper shot. I love the colors and the theme, so spreading the word here is what else I can do...

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Official End Of The Holidays!

The holiday season officially ended the other day with the arrival of the last card! Why was it delayed so much, nearly a month late after 5 weeks in transit? Well, it came from our friend Sergey Karpov, via air mail from Krasnoyarsk, Russia! It is a very long way away - almost exactly opposite us in Longitude (93 degees east), though closer to us if we headed due north over the pole (56 degrees north latitude). Sergey sent a Christmas Eve e-mail, telling me the card and desktop calendar the astronomy club put together from astro-photos they had taken would be late as he had suffered from flu and didn't get it off till mid-December. Still, 5 weeks for air mail seems slow!

The story of Sergey and "our Russian children" is pretty simple - as then-president of the Tucson astronomy club in the mid-90s, he wrote to me asking for help in arranging a tour for a few members of his astronomy club. I jumped at the chance, and one youngster came, along with 3 chaperones! Over a decade later, Sergey again contacted me and wanted to do it again! This time he had 11 teenagers and just him to keep an eye on things! Melinda and I had a great time spending 8 days with them as we kept them busy every day with activities from attending an American high school, touring Observatories at Mount Graham, Mount Lemmon and Kitt Peak, Pima Air Museum, then a trip to northern Arizona to Meteor Crater, Grand Canyon and finally Lowell Observatory. And after each of our long days, I would post a blog about our activities so their parents could keep an eye on us from around the world! It was great! They are considering another trip in August of 2017 to observe the total solar eclipse that occurs in the middle part of the country. I hope it happens!

So it is always nice to hear from Sergey. The card was beautiful - the front (at left) had some holographic printing to outline parts of the image of Snegurochka (more on her in a moment). At right is part of the inside. Of course, it is in Russian (duh!), and while I do not speak (or read) Russian, our neighbor across the cul-de-sac Cheryl does. She even brought it to school to show one of her native Russian students who seemed awfully interested in how such a card made it to Tucson! My thought of the card's cover girl was sort of a knockout Mother Nature, but Cheryl immediately recognized the image of Snegurochka, the Snowmaiden, daughter of Spring and Winter. She even supplied the legend of Snegurochka, who is eventually melted when she falls in love with a mortal. You should also check out some of the impressive images that Google turns up!

Cheryl's supplied translation:

For New Year's:
When the clock
strikes twelve,
we are given again
the gift of childhood,
We dream & dreams are realized,
and wonders/miracles occur!

May all in life
be wonderful,
May you find yourself
believing in wonders
and the amazing anew,
May this coming year
be like an amazing fairytale!