Sunday, May 24, 2015

Saturday Star Party!

Tucson has been enjoying cool temperatures this Spring. While we normally break 100F about now, yesterday the high temp was only 79F, and with the blue sky calling my name, we planned an impromptu star party. As the Memorial Day weekend was ramping up, we decided to go up the Mount Lemmon Highway and set up a telescope to show people the crescent moon and planets that are up early in the evening. Members of the astronomy club could be seen doing that a decade or two ago, and it was fun showing newbies the sky - that was the plan anyhow!

We arrived at Geology Vista after 6pm, about an hour before sunset, and I set up the 14" Celestron. Living in the van, the telescope usually comes out of its crate pretty warm to the touch, so I had the secondary off to allow the tube to vent. We had a few folks stop by, but we weren't quite open for business. And while the scope was cooling, with temps in the low 60s and dropping, Melinda was bundled up, shown at left...





During this time, just before sunset, I took the opportunity to take some test shots with the William Optics 11cm APO that I also brought along. When doing closeups of distant objects, nothing beats a good APO, unless you want to spend upwards of $5,000 or more for one of those "football" telephoto lenses. The WO scope has a focal length of 770mm, so works well as a telephoto lens, or as a small telescope. My target is in the upper paragraph at right - an array of antennae located atop Mount Bigelow further up the road. According to Google Maps, it is about 5km (3+ miles) away from our location. That photo was taken with a 100mm lens, and at left is the view through the WO scope. The ultimate test though is the full-resolution image shown at right here. The image looks great - good sharpness and resolution down to the limit of the pixels...


About the time we put an eyepiece in the Celestron telescope, our friend Dick showed up. I had alerted him to the fact we would be setting up, and he was always a sucker to drive a few miles to look through a telescope or two. He put both the Celestron and WO refractor to work looking at the early evening objects. Unfortunately, even though he lives in Tucson and knows about elevation and cool temperatures, he showed up in shorts and sandals, so immediately grabbed a blanket out of my van to keep tightly wrapped around himself while we observed! Here, with the 17mm Nagler eyepiece, he was checking out the moon at 240X...

As you can see, we didn't have a huge line. All told, in the couple hours we were there, we had a big 7 viewers checking out the Moon, Venus and Jupiter, and one couple stayed late enough to spot rising Saturn.

Another photographic target is the lights of Tucson rising out of the twilight. While normally an amateur astronomer would get upset about the lights, Tucson is better than most large cities for at least enforcing some lighting codes keeping light out of the sky. Still, it is a pretty sight deep into the twilight, with the Santa Rita Mountains barely visible far south of Tucson to the left, and the Sierrita Mountains to the distant right. The headlights of a car coming up the Catalina Highway outline the road below us.

Finally, Dick came to the end of his patience, and since we were out of customers, I started closing up about 8:30. Packing up the WO scope first, I got Melinda's ok to spend a few minutes shooting a mosaic of the Moon. It only took a couple minutes to remove the diagonal and eyepiece, and substitute the camera adaptor and mount my canon XSi. Shown at left is the 3-frame mosaic (assembled w/Photoshop), at the largest I can show on the blog (1600 pixels high). Nothing outrageous resolution-wise - images looked a lot fuzzier than the visual view through the eyepiece. When viewed as a mosaic, it looks like a fine wide-field view.

After an uneventful ride back down the mountain, we were back home at 10pm - an early night, and a little disappointing with the lack of viewers, but a fun getaway...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kitt Peak Favorites From The 'Fellas

I completed my post about the trip Ken, Stan, Mike and I made to Kitt Peak last night. It occurred a month ago, but I've been distracted by several things, but thinking back, really wanted to include a couple images taken by my fellow travelers. While I normally don't use images taken by others, these favorites are appropriately credited.

Photograph by Stan Honda
First up is a panorama taken by Stan Honda from atop the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. While a nice accompaniment to my IR version included in the above post, what I really like about it is that I appear in it twice, on both ends! While Stan was working on the panorama, I was likely doing stereo pairs, moving back and forth to get a baseline for 3D images. So not only is it an impressive (7 frame!) image, you are treated to double images of me! While the railing is straight, because of the very wide angle of the panorama, it looks like he is standing on the vertex of a "V". In fact, he is in the middle of a straight section of guard rail.



Photograph by Ken Spencer
Photograph by Ken Spencer
The next pair were taken, and appeared on the blog of Ken Spencer. I contemplated using one of my shots of the main heliostat of the scope, but I didn't have a good one, and fortunately, Ken took a great one (at left) of the 80" (2 meter) flat mirror that directs the light down the telescope, with our guide Detrick, and Stan in front. Unfortunately, I again intrude into the left edge of the image with my worn-out hat... A few minutes earlier, he also took the great image from inside the solar telescope (at right), down by the objective of the East Auxiliary scope at left, and the shaft to the main mirror. It is a great image from a different perspective than I was shooting between Stan and Detrick. Sometimes you just have to step back and see the bigger picture - appropriate words for both these images of Ken and Stan.

Anyway, I'll continue to use my images almost exclusively, but loved these appropriate shots as a great addition to my most recent post.



Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Time on Kitt Peak with the Boys!

I'm way late blogging about the trip up to Kitt Peak with Ken and Stan, visiting from New York, and Mike, who also works up there part time. It will be 4 weeks on Wednesday, so a lot of water under the bridge! This was the day after our trip up to Mount Graham and the LBT, so was our second tour date and late night observing. I had made arrangements for us to stay up after hours, and Stan had met a solar astronomer the week before in New York City and had a killer tour of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope arranged for us!

We started out in the observing room under ground level. I've known Detrick for years, and he gave a great tour! I'm not sure of his observing program, but he had all three telescopes open, perhaps for our benefit! In the picture at left he is shown at left with Stan at center and Ken at right. Here his is showing off an observing station at the focus of the East Auxiliary telescope, taking images in the near infrared. Detrick's tour was pretty involved - taking us places I've never seen even in my 5+ years of working there! At right, Ken peeks from under the floor panels as they examine details or the main spectrograph tank.


From the observing room we exited outside momentarily, then down the stairs to the entrance to the aluminizing room where the mirrors for the solar scopes, as well as the smaller stellar telescopes are re-coated every couple years. From there is was a few steps to the inside of the solar telescope, right next to the beams of sunlight reflected around the enclosure. At left, Detrick, Ken and Stan are standing adjacent to the concave mirror of the west auxiliary telescope. From a flat atop the structure shining sunlight down, the focused beam is folded down to the observing room with the flat just above Ken's head. In the image at right, taken further up the enclosure, all three heliostat flats atop the structure can be seen in the sunlight. Spotted in the darkness are the three flat mirrors that direct the beam to the observing room. The concave collecting mirrors are located down the enclosure behind me, particularly the main 1.5 meter diameter mirror, which has a huge focal length of 83 meters, providing an image of the sun about 80cm diameter. Realize that the 1.5 meter mirror (60 inch) focused to a .8 meter (30 inches) diameter solar image, the sun's image is only about 4 times brighter than native sunlight - no setting things on fire in the lab!


As I had hoped, Detrick brought us up the long flight of stairs to the top of the telescope! I hadn't been up there since working there in the early 80s, and was surprised how nervous I was at the exposure.  The nearly 30mph winds didn't help, but it was a nice view! At left is shown a 4 frame IR mosaic of the mountaintop. Shooting up sun, there were some nasty lens flare, that I partially fixed, but a few artifacts remain. It is a nice broad panorama, showing the major scopes from the 2.1 meter at upper left, the WIYN just beyond, to the UA 90" and the 4 meter telescope at far right.


As it was approaching dinner, we climbed down the stairs and took a few shots from the base of the solar telescope. At left, Mike is in the foreground, with Ken photographing us from afar. As we headed towards the kitchen, I turned to shoot the guys coming down the road from solar. Here at right the overall structure of the telescope can be seen. The heliostats atop the structure divert sunlight down the slanted section to the collecting optics below - where I took the earlier photographs above. By collecting the sunlight atop a tall structure, it is less affected by seeing effects from the warm ground. As if you couldn't tell, these images were both taken with the infrared-filtered camera, with the white vegetation and darkened sky.


After a lovely dinner, we took a walk up to the south ridge, adjacent to the .9 meter telescope. It is one of the best views atop the mountain, particularly towards the 4 meter scope. At left I took a shot of the intrepid photographers with the 4 meter in the background (another IR shot!). At dinner we had gotten permission from the public observing program to join them for the sunset, so as the time approached walked to that overlook to join in. It was little hazy, but a nice sunset, as shown at right with a 300mm lens.








We also had the ok to stay after the Nightly Observing Program to use the 20" telescope for a little observing. It worked out great as the moon would set about the time the program wrapped up at 10:30 or so. Observing conditions were great, especially after moonset, but before that happened, while waiting I took the image at left of the 4 meter and UA 90" to its left. Above the 4 meter is the North Star, Polaris, and the Little Dipper can be traced to its upper right. This was only a 30 second exposure with a 20mm lens. We observed visually with the 20" for a few hours, mostly concentrating on springtime galaxies and the rising globular clusters. While the sky was great, with our second late night in a row, we didn't do an all-nighter, but didn't get back to Tucson till about 3am. Still, a great time hanging out with the buddies!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Latest Cancer News!

Melinda had her latest PET scan Monday, and today we met with her oncologist to discuss results and plans. The report sound like a broken record, because the news is the same as the last few scans - the chemo drugs were ineffective - most active spots visible are either a little larger or brighter in intensity. The great news is that her brain scan was totally clear, so the fear of spreading to her brain was put to rest.

The plan is to put her back on the drug study we talked about 2 months ago. If you want details, you should go read that post and hit the links there. She was originally barred from the study because of the blood thinners she's been on for 2 decades. But they very recently removed that restriction, so she's back on the list. The TH-302 has a crap load of potential side effects so lots to look for and precautions to take.  The oncologist also warned us that while the drug sounds like a modern miracle (delivers cytoxins locally into the tumors), not to expect a cure, but to look for lack of growth - stability in tumor size.  Lack of growth is good!

This all starts in a week or 10 days. We see her oncologist again next week to cover more details. The good news too is that starting the study puts us on a rigid treatment schedule (3 weekly infusions with a week off), so we can plan on a Midwest trip on her break. It is the first time we've had some stability in the treatment in a while! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Evolution of the LBT

I've been looking at so many images of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) the last few weeks that I'm going cross-eyed! You all likely know by now that I had a hand in polishing both of the 8.4 meter mirrors (about 28 feet across each!) for the scope, and that was back a decade ago. Once both mirrors were installed in the telescope, I sort of lost track of it, but looking at those images now on my rare visits, the telescope never looks the same two consecutive trips! On a huge project like this, evolution past the basic telescope structure takes time, so even now, new instruments are coming on line and making new discoveries. Just last week, the Steward Observatory director notified us of an early use of the LBT imaging interferometer to image volcanos on Jupiter's moon Io. Be sure to visit the page, and scroll to the bottom where there is a movie clip showing Io being eclipsed by another moon Europa!

So let's look at some of the major changes in LBT over the years... From my first trip there in April, 2007, the basic telescope was complete.  The only instrument commissioned at the time were the prime focus cameras. Each of the big mirrors had it's own camera - the right mirror (called the SX side) had a blue-optimized camera, the left mirror (DX) had a red-optimized, both co-aligned precisely to the same field. Compared to recent images, the scope looks like a basic framework, which is pretty true...

On my next trip there a year later, May of 2008, it looked pretty much the same, but some major changes can be pointed out. Shown at labeled at right, perhaps the most obvious is a large tank between the elevation bearings.  The explanation is simpler than you can imagine - liquid is used, pumped between several storage tanks around the structure to balance the telescope as instruments and observing configurations are changed.  Of course, antifreeze is required as temperatures much below freezing is frequent.  More importantly, in preparation for new instrumentation, a Gregorian secondary mirror has been installed atop the SX telescope, and a tertiary mirror is also mounted now, where just the mounting jigs were in place a year before.  The LBT is designed for many instruments to be mounted simultaneously and the light can be brought to each in a few minutes with these auxiliary optics.  More on that in a paragraph or two.

Shown here at left is a close-up of the Gregorian secondary (taken in May, 2008).  When inserted into the telescope beam, it re-directs the light down to instruments either below the primary mirror, of via the tertiary to instruments located between the two primaries.  In this shot, the mirror wasn't in the beam, but nearly the entire primary mirror can be seen reflected in it.

Many modern telescopes use a convex secondary mirror, but LBT uses a concave for a couple reasons - one, it is easier to test a concave mirror, and in this optical configuration, it clears the prime focus camera, as shown at right.  If a convex mirror were used, it would interfere with the camera mounted closer to the primary mirror.  There is a clip at the end of this post that will show the change between camera and Gregorian secondary - it is really cool!

Also from May, 2008 is this shot in twilight of the space between the two mirrors from the "rear" of the telescope. Looking out the open enclosure, the "peak" of Mount Graham can be seen. At left is the "SX" mirror, the "DX" mirror at very far right. The thing to note is that the big mounting rings and the walkway between them is... empty!

Now check out the same space on our visit last month, April, 2015 at right. It is now packed with different instruments - I think the main one in center is the imaging interferometer, referenced in the link in the first paragraph above. PEPSI is an echelle spectrograph at lower left, LINC-NIRVANA at right, and LUCIFER (now LUCI) is mounted somewhere in there too...

A wider shot (also last month) at left shows how the light is fed to the various instruments. Though not in the beam here, the tertiary mirror is shown at left, and that feeds the light to the desired instrument (mounted in the ring flanges) when in place, and rotated to the proper alignment. This particular night, the observers were using the MODS spectrograph located below the primary, so the light went through the hole in the big mirror. The huge spectrograph is permanently mounted below the primary cell, shown at the bottom of the SX mirror at right. Since I've mentioned the ARGOS lasers in previous posts, I'm also pointing out some of the ARGOS optical system in the image at upper left. ARGOS uses 18 watt (!) lasers to project spots about 10km up in the atmosphere to partially correct turbulence that would blur the image.

The wide variety of instruments available and the ease of switching between them allows for most efficient use of telescope time should observing conditions change.

Finally, my favorite time-lapse clips are collected here in one sequence. Labels introduce each one, and should be self-explanatory. Full screen and HD should be used if you have the bandwidth. Any questions should be asked in the comments...




I think after recent posts I'm about LBT'ed out! Until my next trip up there, anyway!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

State Of The Art!

A few weeks ago friends Stan and Ken came to Tucson and one of our side trips was up to Mount Graham and the Large Binocular Telescope. It is an amazing telescope, certainly considered state-of-the-art, and the guys were suitably impressed.  What I was most interested in was spending time in the telescope's enclosure, doing some time-lapse images. Seeing a telescope at work sort of brings it to life - I've done similar things to the dome exteriors, but interiors present a different set of problems. The biggest problem is that inside the domes, it is DARK!  Starlight is a little feeble, and astronomers are most averse to setting up lights to illuminate the dome's interior...

I've tried it before. Back in May of '08 (before I was married, so before this blog existed!) I was invited to go up with telescope scientist John Hill and spent a couple hours in the enclosure. I used my state-of-the-art Canon 20Da camera, only a couple years old at the time. With a maximum of ISO 1600 and a lens working at F/3.5 (the 10-22mm zoom, set to 10mm). the required exposure was 6 minutes! With time-lapse clips, you want frames to come in as fast as possible, but 10 frames per hour is slow in anyone's book! Adding to the problem, it was cold that night, near or below freezing, and my battery died about 2 hours in. The images confirmed that the noise level was pretty high - at left is shown one of the images taken back then, with a blowup of one of the sections at lower left. There is literally a blizzard of red, green and blue "hot pixels" from electronic noise. Even the cold temperatures (one of the tricks to reduce noise) had little effect on it. In-camera noise reduction, or observing and subtracting darks would have helped, but made life more complicated. In addition, at lower right in the image is a glowing blue cloud that might be amplifier glow...

Despite the problems, an interesting time lapse was produced.  Be sure to go to full-screen and up the playback to HD for best details. The astronomers were doing short exposures over the entire sky. From my position in the enclosure, the stars trail one direction if the scope is north of the zenith, the other direction if it is pointed south. Still, more frames were needed to make a reasonable clip. I figured I'd be better prepared next time...





Little did I know that the "next time" would be 7 years later! Cameras have improved over time - Canon has come out with more than 5 new models between my 20Da and Ken's 6D. The 6D has a larger sensor, in fact, it is the same size as the venerable 35mm film format - 24X36mm, considerably larger than the APS sensor of the 20Da. The data/noise handling was DIGIC II on the older camera, the newer is DIGIC 5+, allowing much higher ISOs and faster download times with less noise. In other words, there is a new state-of-the-art! This trip, in a similarly unlit enclosure, with the larger format I used a 16mm fisheye that worked a stop faster at F/2.8 compared to the earlier F/3.5. I also gained 2 stops of exposure by using the 6D at ISO 6400, so in all, we were shooting 3 stops faster, or 8X more sensitivity! Sure enough, 60 seconds made the dome interior look pretty brightly lit by starlight, and scattered light from Safford to the north. Check out the exposure here and compare it to that above - nary a single hot pixel in the whole image!

Unfortunately, this time the astronomers were doing long exposures - multi-object spectroscopy of star formation areas in distant galaxies. In the time lapse from the images taken, the scope only makes a small change between objects, making the clip a little boring, if not for the fact that we were doing short exposures in nearly pitch-black conditions!




The staff and astronomers treated us better than we expected. Hopefully we made some friends among them and will get invited up again. With a couple sessions under my belt, hopefully a future session will come up with something stunning! 

These little 30 second clips, made artificially longer by looping through a few times, is a little tedious - I'm hoping shortly to combine a few of them into a single longer sequence showing different aspects of the telescope...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Kitt Peak Open House!

Most of you know, or should know that Kitt Peak National Observatory is on land owned by the Tohono O'odham Nation. In addition to the modest lease paid, they also buy their electrical power from the tribe, offer crafts for sale at the visitor center, and give priority employment to qualified members of the tribe. Every few years they offer an open house as an opportunity to let members know what is happening at the research institution, as well as offer craft displays, music and food to help educate non-Indians.

Organizers invited the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association to assist in setting up a few scopes.  When I informed a few folks at the Mirror Lab about the opportunity, we filled the allotment with ML people, who jumped at the chance to look through an eyepiece on the 3.5 meter WIYN telescope, which was polished in the Lab back in the 90s. The image at left shows Roger setting up his homebuilt 8" refractor, my C14, and Melinda with visiting buddy Lynn supervising from the comfy chairs.

Upon our arrival, while stretching our legs, we found wildlife nearby! For some reason in the Spring and Summer in Arizona, ladybird beetles seek the highest elevation in the mountains, and they were found Saturday in piles around the base of the .9 meter telescope near where we set up. I recall from my working days at the Observatory that we sometimes had drifts of them 4" thick that you could shovel. They weren't quite that numerous this time, but it was fun to see and easy to take a macro shot or two of their clusters. I also recall hiking the neighboring Coyote Peak to the Observatory's east, never seeing a single ladybug all morning till we got within a couple meters of the top, when they suddenly got so thick you could barely breathe! Certainly they must be sensitive to temperature, so seek the coolest environment, but so far as I can read, the reason for their massing is unknown.

We jumped at the chance to visit the scopes adjacent to us before it got dark. The 36" telescope whose parking lot we were set up in, is now known as the WIYN 0.9 Meter Telescope, run by the same consortium as the WIYN.  The telescope is an interesting mishmash of the optics from the very first telescope atop the mountain in '59, and the mounting of one built on this spot in 1965. It is the classic-looking design of Boller and Chivens, which made dozens of similarly largish scopes for universities and research institutions in the '50s and '60s. The University of Iowa had a 24" version that looked identical in design. The .9 meter is shown at left, the warm room, from where the observer works can be seen in the background.

At right was the main reason we came - the beautiful WIYN Telescope, its 3.5 meter mirror cast and polished at the Mirror Lab in the late 80s, early 90s. Its mounting is of ALT-AZ design - the optical assembly moves up-down in the vertical forks, which rotate with the building in azimuth. The field-of-view rotates in this type of mounting, so the instrument is mounted on a rotator near where Roger is peering through the eyepiece at Jupiter, visible even in the daytime during our visit. This shot is a mosaic of 6 frames to get all of the telescope visible in a single view...

One more shot of the WIYN scope if you can tolerate it. Before we headed down for a food run, Melinda's friend Lynn posed in front of the telescope for me. It was pointed lower here, and the 3.5 meter mirror (140" diameter) was easily seen. The light comes in through the front, hitting the concave primary mirror, comes up towards the secondary mirror behind the black cover on top, which directs it back down off the flat mirror in front of the primary to the left where the instrument, or in this case, the eyepiece is located.

We headed down to the main parking lot in search of food, and found live music - rarely seen or heard at the Observatory!  We heard it on and off all night - a curious mixture of Mexican ranchero and polka music, and when we passed there were quite a number of dancers, shown at right. There were nearly a half dozen food vendors, nearly all selling their own version of the Indian fry bread taco, served open face, a good 11" diameter with beans meat (if desired) sprinkled with a little cheese. The fry bread is made up when ordered and is crispy, fresh and hot and the result was a tasty treat that stuffed me, and Melinda was only able to eat part of hers...

By the time we gorged ourselves, sunset was drawing near - I decided to break out the William Optics 11cm refractor to shoot both the nearly full Moon rising in the east, as well as the setting sun in the west. There was a low haze layer - there have been some controlled burns in the area, and that might have been the cause. The result was that I didn't need a filter to shoot the sun that low, just a fast shutter, a 4,000th second in this case(ISO 100). The moon, in clearer air, needed a 600th second (ISO 200).


Before long, we were busy, showing folks view of Venus and Jupiter even as the sun was setting.  Before long Mercury became visible, and a peek at it revealed a little crescent, since it is near greatest elongation. With the Full Moon, we didn't look at many stellar targets, but it was fun to shoot observatory landscapes, since the domes could be seen in a couple second exposures. At left is a shot across the mountain to the 4-meter telescope. They had the interior lights on, since they likely had visitors on the telescope floor. You can also see other open domes that were likely hosting tour groups. At right was a shot of the WIYN dome and the "Little Dome" with its 16" for public observing. Seen behind both is the setting constellation Orion, to the right of the dome is the bright star Aldebaran, and continuing right over the tree is Mercury.

Keeping strictly to schedule, we were told to start packing up about 8:30 and we were on our way home before 9:30.  So a relatively early evening for us.  Gretchen and Lynn had a good time, and while we wore out Melinda, she got through it ok.  And I got to cross of viewing Jupiter with WIYN from my bucket list!