Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Frosty Time!

I'm back at "Ketelsen East" in the western 'burbs of Chicago after a week-long road trip through the Midwest.  It is great to stay in familiar surroundings, though has been a while since I've been in these weather conditions - temps in single digits and new snow falling most days!  It has been beautiful, especially when combined with a blue sky, but what is one to do when confronted by temps near zero?  Go out and shoot photos, of course!

I noticed the strange glow just looking
out into the dark - the sky seemed aglow as what I assume were streetlights reflecting off the new snow.  These photos of "Ketelsen East" and surroundings are only 5 seconds long, but you could easily see without a flashlight.  There were a few snowflakes still coming down, and other than the "Grinch, Grinch" of my feet compacting the cold snow underfoot, it was completely silent.  At left, I was shooting at the "security light" of the church camps pavilion on the grounds where my house is located.  At right is a view of the Fox River, mostly frozen over with the snow cover over it making it look deceptively safe to cross on foot.  While Melinda and I have crossed the frozen river before, it would have to be cold for much longer before I'd venture out onto the ice!

The next morning I awoke to an
incredible frost display in the bathroom window between the inner pane and the outer storm window.  I shot these with macro lens and some extension tube added in for good measure to record crystal detail.  I shot it first with good reason - shortly  afterwards, the sun hit it and it melted into a hazy patch of condensation and a few sizeable drops of water.  No doubt the next evening a new pattern of frost would appear magically drawn by the randomness of crystal growth and moisture availability!  Hmm - perhaps a time-lapse subject - but in a night-darkened bathroom???

As soon as I snapped the above shots in
the bathroom, I looked outside on the porch (where it truly was nearly zero Fahrenheit!) and saw the sun glinting off some really nice snowflakes atop new snow fallen on the grill and bushes a few feet outside the door.  The cold temps and still air from the night before must have been perfect conditions for crystal formation, as there were many choices to draw from.  In particular, what had initially caught my eye was the near-specular reflection of the sun off the large flakes, so attempted to recapture that reflection.  As mentioned, some flakes were huge - the one at left measuring (with a ruler!) to be a full 5 millimeters across!  The flake is so bright because I was lined up with the sun's reflection, and the much shorter exposure required darkened the background snow...  Similarly at right I found a pair of flakes that lined up their sun glints in the same direction, so was able to catch the pair with their crystal structure!

Well that was fun!  Now I'm wishing for more quiet, cold days w/snow to look for more crystals and frost!  Since we're still in the early days of February, I'm thinking the chances are good!

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Fine Winter Night!

Those of you who know me knows it doesn't take much to get me under a dark sky, so when buddy Laurie Larson expressed interest in coming down for a visit and a camera session under the stars, my answer was, of course, YES! So last weekend we headed west towards one of my favorite pieces of sky, that over Kitt Peak National Observatory. It was a job on that mountaintop that got me to Tucson, and after a stint as a full-time employee there in the '80s, another as a docent in the '90s, and another with their nightly observing programs in the '10s, it is still a favorite place to go, though one can't interfere with the night time activities there. I use one of the pull offs on the west side of the mountain for a sky that can't be beat! We made it to the Observatory well before they closed to the public and wandered around for a bit, finding I no longer know anyone working in the visitor center! The photo at left shows a view of the 4-meter telescope atop Kitt Peak from the road far below through a 500mm lens and a 6-frame mosaic assembled in Photoshop...

A bit later, after we finished atop the mountain, we went to the first pullout below the 4-meter telescope and set up my TEC 140 to do some real telephoto-lens imaging! With a focal length of 1,000mm, it works great if the seeing allows. Case in point is the shot at upper right. At right foreground is the San Xavier Mission, likely just under 40 miles distant. Above that is the Tucson International Airport, above that the Pima Air Museum and at top is the "Boneyard" of spare airplane parts at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base!

Also, a couple months ago I documented the LBT shooting off the ARGOS laser from Mount Graham 120 miles distant! While easy at night, I've never spotted it during the day. While I couldn't see it in the viewfinder, I shot blind and sure enough, is also easy with a little Photoshop adjustment of brightness and contrast...

We moved down a few miles to my favorite pullout and set up a small tracking mount for wide-angle lenses, and the big AP1200 mount here to mount the 500mm lens, as well as another piggyback 300mm without breaking much of sweat! That is Laurie doing her best Vanna White impersonation...

The first object of the night was an unusual comet - 2016 R2 PanSTARRS. It has been putting on a good show in larger telescopes and digital detectors, with an unusual blue color due to an overabundance of CO. Not quite as impressive through the smallish 500mm lens (compared to some telescopes), but the color still comes shining through! This is 15 minutes of total exposure through the 500mm. The 10 exposures were stacked on the comet nucleus, so the star images are trailed due to the comet's motion.

Laurie was interested in chasing down some of her favorite sky objects through the 500mm telephoto, and took these of the Rosette Nebula at left, and the Horsehead Nebula at right. In both images, the colors are real - the red is mostly from ionized Hydrogen gas, the most common element in the universe! Also in both images, the gas is condensing to form new stars. In the Rosette Nebula at left, you can see there is a loose cluster of stars that have used up and/or blown out the gas from the center of the nebula accounting for its hollow appearance. The Horsehead nebula is similarly composed of dust and gas also forming new star systems. the cream-colored nebula at upper left is actually a "reflection nebula", reflecting starlight from nearby stars, compared to the red glow caused by the gas' fluorescence! The "horsehead" part of the nebula is a dark cloud blocking the glow from the hydrogen cloud behind it. The Rosette is 10 minute total exposure, the Horsehead is 22 minutes!

I was content with some wider-angle fields, so went with the small tracking device after the comet photo above. At left is the Winter Milky Way rising over the southern slopes of Kitt Peak. While we thought it was clear, the photos make it obvious that it was not, with thin clouds being lit up by distant city lights. Over looking towards the west was a different kind of light! While parts of the Milky Way is visible in both images, the searchlight-looking beam reaching nearly the zenith at the Pleiades is the Zodiacal Light - meteoritic dust in the plane of the solar system reflecting sunlight to us. It is bright this time of year in the evening sky, even outshining much of the Milky Way! Both of these frames are with the 16mm Fisheye, and are each 70 seconds long.

As the night wound down, I did a 2-frame mosaic of Orion with a "normal" 50mm lens. The effect of doing the mosaic is retaining a little more resolution, though blog limitations remove most all of those advantages! Visible through most of the Orion shot (at left), are a plethora of red hydrogen clouds, including the above Rosette Nebula in the upper right corner, and the Horsehead under the left-most star of the belt of Orion...

I took another Fisheye shot to close out the night as the night's attendees also departed the mountain, illuminating the roadway with their headlights. Just above the southern horizon near the "blip" of Baboquivari is the bright star Canopus. I never saw this star growing up in the Midwest as it never clears the horizon there. The "light domes" of a couple towns are visible - I think the glow just to the left of Canopus is the border town of Sasabe about 30 miles to the south. And on the right hand edge of the horizon, the largish town of Caborca about 90 miles away illuminated the cloud deck.

Even given the clouds it was a great, mild night for January. They just don't come often enough for my taste!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Star of the Show!

One of the traditional holiday trips to take in AZ is down to Whitewater Draw to see the over-wintering Sandhill Cranes. We've been there likely over a dozen times the last few years to observe and take in the sights and sounds of up to 30,000 of them congregate in the wetlands as evening approaches. My suspicion is that numbers are down this year, as is the water level kept at the wetlands. Note also there is a live "Crane Cam" that provides a live view - make sure you check it out!

However, this year, on a New-Year's Day visit, while there were lots of cranes, they were not stars of the show, but rather another of my favorites, a male Vermillion Flycatcher put on a good display. We've seen them often, perhaps a third of the time, but this time he was in a tree very close to one of the lookout posts. One of the characteristics they follow while feeding is a return to the same perch they've launched from. So by staying set up with a big telephoto on the perch, you can catch them returning by hitting the camera "motor drive" as they return. The first shot, shown at left, shows blurring, even though taken at a 1600 second. As a result I adjusted the camera to use shorter exposures for subsequent frames. And the frame at right even shows his success as hunter as he has a fly in his beak!

The rest shown here are easy to take as you are just waiting for a return. Seeing all the maneuvers they make sure make you want to take flying lessons! Make sure you click the images for the full-size version!

Finally I left him and moved on to other subjects, but he was fun to shoot! Shortly after sunset the "Supermoon" rose over the peaks to the east - another easy catch! It might have made a nice time-lapse, but the sudden onset of twilight observers moved the platform too much!

Yes, Kinda Still Here!

My Friend Liz asked me at the astronomy club meeting Friday - "So is the Blog over"? A valid question as I've not posted for nearly 2 months, including any in December, nor the what has been the usual year-end review. With only 44 posts in all of 2017, it hardly seemed worthwhile to do a "best-of"... But believe me, I'm still having adventures, and while distracted by work, play and considerably longer stays in the Midwest, I'll try to do better - promise! In the meantime, here are some nearly-2-month-old photos to wrap up the last trip to "Ketelsen East"!

In my nearly daily outings around the parks and forest preserves near the cottage in the Fox River Valley, I keep an eye out for bits of color, especially as Fall and Winter descend and the color palette move towards earth tones and grays! But a walk down the bike path at Tekakwitha FP on Thanksgiving revealed these bright flowers or fruits growing along the ditch between path and folks' back yards. They were completely new to me, even after living there for 8+ years now. They appear in long viney tendrils their bright colors their only property that makes them stand out. Of course, I seemed the only one in the dark - the first two friends I showed them to immediately said it was "Bittersweet", and with that start, the Google revealed them as Celastrus_orbiculatus - Chinese Bittersweet. In the photos you can see these are the Asian version as in the native North American version fruit only grow at the vine ends. Will have to keep an eye out next Summer for the green flowers they are said to produce.

Both of these images are focus-stacked. Eighteen frames were combined for the left image, ten for the right. Images were taken at slightly different focus settings and combined in Photoshop to extend the depth of field thru the area of interest.

A day later (24 November) I again shot the quarter-moon through the mostly bare trees adjacent to the house. Unlike a few days before, This time I got out the 300mm, but the longer focal length either threw the moon or the tree branches out of focus. The solution was easy - focus stacking again saved the day! Taking 2 images, one focused on the branches, the other on the moon were easily again combined in Photoshop resulting in the shot at left. I actually took a 3D pair, but didn't come out as well as I had hoped, so will stick with the single frame for now!

Well, that wasn't so bad - finished the first post of the year! Hopefully they will come more often than every 6 or 7 weeks!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Colors and Patterns!

Am still at "Ketelsen East" and with Thanksgiving coming and going yesterday, we're in a headlong plunge towards Winter! But I've been watching for, and finding some small concentrations of patterns and color on the tail end of Fall. My last trip here in September we usually get some early colors, but it was unseasonably warm with temps in the 90s even close to October, so the trees, responding to shorter days, leaves were just turning brown! But my first few days here, helped by some hard freezes, cleared the leaves from the trees. Shown at left and right here is the same red leaf in two different views, from the lawn I share with neighbor Elaine...

And while taking a photo of a uniform foliage color might be interesting, I like to image the contrast, the non-conformity of the foliage. Here at left is a nice attractive stubborn green holdout among a sea of yellow.

Similarly, a view of the flagstone "sidewalk" to the house shows a few leaves from the "Burning Bush" at the north side of the house, along with other collected detritus, including an acorn hull and other leaves of various shades. Because I used the macro and there was considerable range of focus, this is a focus stack of 14 frames, combined in Photoshop to extend the range of sharpness.

Sometimes it isn't the color that transforms an object, but the environment. One morning after a rain shower, I went out to grab some shots of the bushes transformed by the moisture. At left is a leaf from an identified shrub that, while not fallen from the plant nor changed color, had partially absorbed the water, and sports some drops that act as little magnifying lenses. It also shows nice veins to the image...

A few minutes later, another set of bushes, transformed by the rain. Here some berries sport water drops along their bottom surface...

And sometimes, especially in November, there isn't much color to be seen, so I look for patterns and structure. At left is a striking seed pod with a background of a Milkweed pod.

A few yards away (both these at a nearby park's prairie patch), is the dried remains of a Queen Anne's Lace flower. So spectacular in July when thousands of them transform the prairie white, this time of year, if you can find them at all, their dried carcasses look so much like a monochromatic fireworks explosion... Both of these images are 6-frame focus stacks to extend the sharpness a little bit more...

One more image from the part's prairie restoration patch is shown at left that I've not seen often. I believe it is Common Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), native to Eurasia and North Africa, but known as an introduced species and noxious weed in the Americas. Supposedly it has a lavender-to-white flower in Summer that I've not noticed. Supposedly it was introduced as the spines on the seed pod shown form a natural comb used to raise the knap on wool or silk...

The last image showing a bit of color is from a few nights ago. We've been enjoying blessedly clear skies and moderate temps, though it has dropped below freezing most nights. The other night after an evening walk I returned outside to image the crescent moon through the now-naked trees. I took image pairs for stereo 3D, the anaglyph of which is shown below. Of course, not only does it show that the moon is WAY beyond the tree, you can also detect some 3D structure within the tree branches...

Enough for now - always have my eyes open for other interesting stuff!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Window Seat!

Have been at "Ketelsen East" for over a week now, and time to get my travellin' photos posted! It is fun to schedule a down-sun seat and watch for the waypoints we pass every trip that seem like long-lost friends. And every time you seem to see more and sometimes weird stuff - no exception this trip! The plane, a 737, was absolutely full, so took longer than normal to load and we took off about 10 minutes late. The photo at left shows the view from my vantage point from seat 28A as we turned onto runway 11 to start our takeoff roll.

The flight path usually takes us just south of Mount Graham and in many recent trips have gotten some impressive views of the telescopes there. This time the plane flew pretty much due east for a good length of time - I could look out my window and see Willcox below me and Mount Graham a good 30 miles to the north. We must have turned towards the NE shortly after as a bit later the big copper mine at Clifton/Morenci came into view as usual. We never got close to it, but thanks to the clean windows, got some decent views! At left is one of the photographs showing good detail, and at right is a pair of images put together to make a 3D anaglyph image. You will need the red/blue glasses to see the 3D, red lens on the left! The mine is the largest production copper mine in North America, so is a big deal in the local economy - Morenci is located in eastern AZ, in fact, I'm thinking we might even have been in New Mexico airspace when this photo was taken!

Now that we were nearer our normal flight path, the waypoints came by like clockwork... Twelve minutes later, the VLA (Very Large Array radio telescope) came into view. It was tough to spot visually, but a little contrast adjustment in Photoshop brought the telescope dishes into clear view. 27 dishes, each about 80 feet in diameter are spread out along a big "Y", each arm about 9 miles long. The dishes can be easily moved on a rail system, mounted closer to the center to provide highest sensitivity, or spread out widely along the 9 miles of each arm for the highest angular resolution. According to the observing schedule, this is configuration "B" which provides the second-highest angular resolution...  Click the left image for the full-size view!

Six minutes later and we were approaching Albuquerque, looking up the Rio Grande Valley. At right is a great view up the river. Click to load the full image and you can see some Fall colors in the foliage near the river, as well as the patchwork of fields irrigated by river water. I believe the town above center is Belen, NM...

We passed Albuquerque and the Sandia mountains they nestle against as we continued ENE. Then I spotted something I've never seen before - what appeared to be a landing strip built along the top of a narrow mesa, with some symbols bulldozed into the desert. I took some photographs and didn't think much about it, finally looking along our path on Google maps, finally finding it! It is known as CST Trementina Base, so named because it is near Trementina, New Mexico. It belongs to the Church of Spiritual Technology, affiliated with the Church of Scientology. Supposedly the location houses an underground vault where the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard are preserved for future scholars, the symbols - another Scientology emblem for future faithful to find the vault. The view at left is the straight image, and at right is the 2-photo combo made into an anaglyph that shows the impressive terrain there. Again, the red/blue glasses are needed to see the 3D image.

Eastward of New Mexico and Kansas we
ran into clouds, which forms their own set of pretty views! The photos for the anaglyphs are easy to take in a plane going nearly 600 miles per hour... All you need is a little stereo separation between the 2 frames, much like your eye separation provides for items close enough to reach with your hands. Since clouds are farther away, typically 4 or 5 seconds of a plane's motion is fine. If the clouds are more distant, I've gone as far as 12 or 15 seconds to show a good stereo effect... At left, I love the effect of the clouds floating over the landscape forming a pair of layers at different heights. And at right, when the ground can't be seen, even the clouds themselves form their own landscapes analogous to mountains and valleys. There is a never-ending variety to clouds that I've seen over many trips... Again, both of these are anaglyphs, so use of red/blue glasses required!

It is always a challenge I set for myself to see how soon I can locate where we are as we approach Chicago. Paying attention to the flight path, I can spot the Illinois River and that network of locks, dams and barges plying their way to Chicago. If there are clouds over the Mississippi, hiding where we are crossing, it is sometimes a challenge to locate our approach. On my July trip clouds prevented me from seeing the Illinois river, and I didn't catch the location till we descended over the Fox Valley and saw the "big circles"! As seen at left, it is the Fermilab nuclear accelerator just outside Batavia, about 15 miles south of "Ketelsen East". By using strong magnets, atomic ions can be made to follow the circles and be accelerated to nearly the speed of light and collide into another beam or target, releasing strange and exotic atomic bits and pieces. It was state-of-the-art 45 years ago, but has been superseded by the big accelerators in Europe.

This trip, we were further north, in fact,
likely flying within a couple hundred yards of "Ketelsen East", which is often in the flight path of approaching planes.  I knew because I could look out my left-side window and see the Stearns River bridge, built just a couple years ago and a frequent turn-around point for my walks along the Fox a mile and a half north of the house.  This trip, with the loss of Daylight Savings Time, it was too dark to grab a photo, but the one at left is from April on the same flight following the same path.  The view is looking north up the Fox River, with the Stearns Avenue Bridge at bottom, with it's distinctive green pedestrian and bike path built-in underneath.  Note also the much older railroad bridge just north, which I've not seen used...  In any case, you can see the bike path along the left (west) side of the river, where I took the photo at right last Spring on a walk...

Of course, the endpoint destination is O'Hare Airport (ORD), named for Edward O'Hare, the first WWII flying ace and Medal of Honor winner.  Built in the late 40s and later, it is one of the busiest airports in the world.  We flew past it in September as we went out to Lake Michigan to turn around for our approach towards the west.  The photo at left shows it sprawling over it's 7,000+ acres of land.  I would be intimidated as hell trying to fly a small plane into something like that!

Well, that was this flight - we landed nearly 30 minutes early even with the late start, likely the jet stream was behind us!  I'll keep pushing for the window seat - too much to miss by ignoring the view!