Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Lights in the Sky!

Always on the lookout for topics to blog, I watch certain websites, Heavens-Above among them. A few days ago I saw there was a good pass of the International Space Station (ISS) this evening, but promptly forgot about it! Thanks to the local weatherman at 5pm who mentioned it again, I was motivated to look it up again and set up a camera.

Now if you go to the website above, the first thing it wants to know is where you live - duh, it needs to know where you are located before it starts telling you where to look. Click the "change your location" button to tell it where you live, using the search box, or the google map to locate your city. The closer you can locate your observing location, the better! For some observations, like Iridium Flares, a mile or two off makes all the difference! Anyway, for tonight's ISS pass, I got the map at left. It is a map of the full sky with north at top and south at the bottom. You can see that Venus and Mars were bright in the west and Orion high in the southern sky. The path of ISS was to skim the three belt stars of Orion, and it ends before the bright star Sirius. What happens there? Well, since the ISS needs the sun to hit it to be visible, that is the sunset point - as the ISS continues to move eastwards, it moves into the earth's shadow!

I set up tripod and tracker so that the stars would look like points, working from the back yard. My sky glow from Midtown Tucson limits my exposures to 30 seconds or so before the orange glow from sodium lights starts to color the sky. For the exposure here, I used the Canon 6D and 85mm lens at F/3.5.  Seen is the streak of the moving ISS, just grazing under the 3 belt stars of Orion. Below the belt stars is the reddish glow of the Orion Nebula, and near the bottom are the 2 stars that make up the feet of Orion. I wasn't sure how long it would take to move through the field, so used 60 second on the intervalometer, planning to stop it when it blinked out to minimize skyglow.  This shot ended up being about 40 seconds, and I had to use Photoshop to neutralize and minimize the sky glow a little.

Surprisingly, the ISS didn't "blink out" once the sun net from its vantage. Just like it stays light right after sunset here on earth, the color of the ISS took on an orange-ish tint and faded out slowly - pretty cool!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Saguaro Saturday!

My buddy Donna was down over the weekend. Since our Jeep outing last Fall, a group of fellow astronomy nuts has been debating where to go on a 4WD outing as the weather gets warmer, and someone suggested a petroglyph site in Saguaro National Park, western unit. It isn't a difficult drive even for a passenger vehicle, so Donna and I hit the road on a lovely Saturday yesterday to check it out. I haven't been there in a good 15 years, so reviewed the maps and hit the road for a couple-hour road trip.

The first stop was Gates Pass, where Speedway/Anklam Road crosses the Tucson Mountain Range. It is spectacularly scenic with groves of saguaro cacti, and as shown at left, the view opening up towards the west quite dramatically. The main photo was taken with a 16mm full-frame fisheye on the Canon 6D, so has a 180 degree diagonal field-of-view. To show some of the details at reasonable scale, the inset shows a blow-up of Kitt Peak National Observatory about 35 miles to the SW with a 500mm lens and blended with the magic of Photoshop...

The view towards the north is no less exciting, even in the dull light of midday - saguaros all the way up the slopes to the profile of the mountain ridge, though the fisheye lens doesn't show them much. It again takes the inset from the 500mm lens to bring out those details...

We drove down past the West Unit's visitor center and checked in (free, thanks to my Golden-Ager NPS pass). We continued north a bit on Sandario Road before hitting Golden Gate Road, a dirt road we followed for a couple miles to the Signal Hill picnic area. From there we could spot the petroglyph site about a 1km hike away, with the trail spiraling up the far north side. An image is shown at left, with a group atop the hill, behind a protective fence checking out petroglyphs. It didn't take us long to hike over a well-maintained trail - literally a freeway compared to some of the raw trails I've seen in the SW!

The petroglyphs were made by the Hohokam culture about 1,000 years ago and are quite striking. The main spiral is shown at left, with many others scattered about the stones of the hilltop. Besides the spirals and possible symbols for the sun and moon, you can also imagine figures of deer or sheep, scorpions and snakes. Niles Root has done some spectacular images and analysis, proving that the site was used as an astronomical calendar, finding dates of the summer solstice(first day of Summer) and vernal and autumnal equinoxes (start of Spring and Fall). His website with fascinating photos and descriptions is linked here.

A wider shot of the area showing a few more symbols is shown at left. The main spiral shown above is now near the left edge, with more visible at lower right. And at right is another large spiral on a nearly horizontal stone. Root's description didn't mention the symbols over here on the west side, so there are still mysteries about!

With all the examinations of the
petroglyphs, you forget you are still in Saguaro National Park, and the view towards the NE towards Mount Lemmon, shown at left shows the forest of Saguaros in the area. That is Mount Lemmon at far distance at center.

And because THIS IS MY BLOG, I've got lots of 3D photos too! So grab your red/blue glasses and follow along. Since I just showed the cactus forest at left, at right is an anaglyph (3D shot by adding another shot taken a couple feet away). Using the glasses, each of your eyes sees the appropriate frame and your brain reconstructs a stereo image.

And, of course, I've got 3Ds of the
petroglyphs too!  At left is a close-up of the main spiral at the site.  This was taken with a telephoto and is a "hyperstereo", taken with a baseline further apart than your normal eye separation.  Doing it this way emphasizes the stereo effect, amplifying the unevenness of the stone and spiral itself! 

At right is a wider field including some of the mountainous background too. and finally below, is the wide shot showing other petroglyphs...

We returned to Sandario Road, but rather than return the way we came, continued north and returned to Tucson on Picture Rocks Road  (so named because of the numerous petroglyphs), making a big loop for our Saturday adventure. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Déjà vu All Over Again!

As my regular readers surmise, on travelling back and forth to "Ketelsen East" in Illinois, I enjoy looking out the window.  Looking at my fellow passengers, it seems I am nearly alone pressing nose to window watching the country pass by.  It seems most can't be bothered even having the shade open - how can you rather read a book than see the world zip by at 3/4 the speed of sound?!

I've also made comments that I suspect the pilots enter the destination or waypoints into the flight computer and it follows the same path. Every time. Not that I'm complaining, but it is fun to see the same landmarks swing by. This last flight I recognized a reservoir in NE Kansas, and my seatmate asked where I thought we were. I told him I thought we were near Topeka, and wouldn't you know the pilot came on and confirmed it 15 seconds later! He also said something about flying over El Paso, normally a ways out of our way. I got a little excited, but then I think he confused it with the normal Albuquerque waypoint! As shown here at left and at right, from Chicago O'Hare to Tucson, AZ, we ALWAYS pass just south of Albuquerque before turning south towards Tucson. That is it just east of the Sandia Mountains in the center of the left photo taken on 15 November. The most recent trip, on 31 January, you can see a little snow in the mountains. What is more interesting is that at the very top of the photo, you can see the snow-capped Rockies well up into Colorado!

The plane turns slightly more southwards and we pass down parallel to the Rio Grande River - yes, the very one that runs down and eventually becomes the border between Texas and the United States. About 6 minutes after making the turn, we always seem to pass over this remarkable mesa that I've yet to find on Google Maps, though I know pretty closely where it is located. The landform and subtle coloration is exquisite! And you can also see from the near-identical images that we are almost flying over the exact same spot! It is a big sky up there and I would think it would be tough to occupy the same spot without help!

A few minutes later and outside the right windows, we seem to always pass over the VLA - a huge radio telescope that uses 27 dishes, each about 82 feet diameter. As shown on the left photo, both these recent trips, we've passed over the very end dish of the east arm of the array. Each arm is 13 miles long - the best way to think of the radio telescope is as if the 82 foot dishes are tiny parts of a huge dish 25 miles across! The left photo was taken on the most recent return trip. The dishes are mounted near railroad tracks, so they can be moved to adjust the telescope's resolution and sensitivity, which happens on a regular basis. At right you can compare the center of the array 11 weeks apart. In the lower, more recent image, they are reconfiguring the array for the "D" close-pack configuration which has lower angular resolution, but the highest sensitivity.

Somewhere down in southwestern New Mexico, we adjust our course more to the west to pass over the big copper mine in Clifton/Morenci, and a few minutes later, Mount Graham and the Large Binocular Telescope(LBT). I always look for LBT as a waypoint, and also because we made the mirrors for it at the Mirror Lab where I work. Sitting atop the mountain very near the peak, it is easily visible. Once seen, the Sub-Millimeter Telescope is spotted adjacent to it, and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope is there too. You can also see here that in the 11 weeks between my return trips, Graham also picked up quite a snowpack, as seen at right.

From there we follow Interstate 10 into Tucson, usually circling over the north side of town before landing towards the southeast into the south-side airport.

Normally the photos I take include image pairs taken a few seconds apart for making 3D images, and there is no lack of them on these trips too. But I know that many of you don't have the glasses, so am slowing down my production of anaglyph images. I'm looking for an inexpensive source of them so I can offer them to you in exchange for a self-addressed-stamped envelope, but still looking for a suitably cheap source! In the meantime, open your window shades and enjoy the view out the plane!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

File Under "S" - Snowflakes, Selfies...

In my recent posts on macro snow shots,
I mentioned I'd be on the lookout for snowflakes and water crystals that show structure... A couple days later on Sunday, 29 January, the flakes were sparse, but falling gently straight down, so went out again to try to capture them with the Canon 100mm macro plus about 5cm of extension tubes. Shown here, I had a little more success. At left is a complete flake, but so fluffy that a lot of fine detail can't be quite made out... The yew "needles" are just under 2mm wide, so this snowflake is about 3mm across!

At right is another structure, more what I was looking for in snowflake structure, but looks to be a conglomeration of incomplete parts. Still worth posting here.

And if you can tolerate one more, after giving up for a bit for lack of snowfall, there was another flurry that tempted me to go out again. At left is the result of a large flake buried deep in the bush foliage that was getting close to melting! Unfortunately, I didn't notice that the focus was up against the limit and the focus stack wasn't very good, but the flake was half melted by the time I set up for another... The snowfall was so spotty and flakes were melting in just a few minutes after falling, so I soon lost interest and gave up...

The only other photos that I was tempted to take over the last weekend were some selfies! Some of you that have read the blog for a while know that sometimes I photograph the weirdest things! I "noticed" for the first time that the knobs on the bathroom cabinet had little "baby moon" reflectors on them, about 1cm diameter. If a macro lens was used in close-up, each of the reflections could be used to construct a 3D image! The image is shown at left. You can see the two images - one from each knob. If you look "through" the image so that you look at the right knob with right eye and left knob with your left, you can see a merged image of my face in 3D! It is very reminiscent of another "accidental" 3D image I discovered in spoon reflections from a post 3 years ago. The image is reproduced at right, but because of the concave surfaces, this is a cross-eyed view, so need to cross eyes to merge images for proper 3D...

Of course, these days I know that most of you don't want to give yourselves headaches by crossing your eyes or free-viewing 3D images. So I performed what I've been normally doing with my 3D images lately and made the knob photos above into anaglyph images, using the red/blue glasses... Check out the image at left while looking thru the glasses (red lens on left), to see it in 3D.

Or, if you want to be mundane about it, you can keep it as a 2D image and use it for a normal selfie image... Kind of boring given the opportunities in a pair of reflections, but ok - for completeness presented here at right! Yes, it was taken in the bathroom on an overcast day with long exposures. I added the golden-cast tungsten lights to keep the exposures short of a quarter second... And yes, that is the camera at right - also seen in the 3D shot above...

And while on the Selfie kick, during several feeding fests with family gatherings of late, I collected a few of myself. I also figured out the "secret" of a successful selfie - include someone a LOT cuter than you to include in the image! Here are a pair of my great-nieces - related by marriage, so they've never met each other. At left is Emmy, and at right is Alivia. See what I mean?! Include someone adorable and you ignore the old coot!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Whitewater Draw Crane Cam!

The last time I posted about Whitewater Draw, the over-winter location for tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, I'd mentioned that Arizona Game And Fish has installed a "Crane Cam" to provide 24/7 coverage of cranes and other waterfowl. But it had been offline for a few days... It is now back, and provides a sometimes-amazing view, like last night, showing a spectacular AZ sunset with cranes flocking into the wetlands and their haunting calls coming out of the speaker... The remotely-controlled camera is shown at left from my last visit. Someone obviously controls its pointing and zoom setting, working diligently to keep cranes in view for a good part of the day. But do check out the live Crane Cam by clicking here!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Snow Flurries!

I've been at "Ketelsen East" for a few days taking care of some business with the house here. While the weather can be unpredictable in January, it has been unseasonably warm the week I've been here. Till today it hasn't been below freezing, and fog has been more of a driving issue than snow or ice.

So I was sort of surprised to see that we'd received some snow flurries overnight. No accumulation to speak of, but still something worth documenting! In cases like this, I do what I normally do - grab the macro and go close! I didn't feel like kneeling in the mud to get snow pellets in the leaves on the ground, so looked for something a little higher to shoot. Fortunately there are some evergreen shrubs, I think a variety of Japanese Yew, that formed a nice, high contrast background for the snow, shown at left. I was hoping to see some signs of snowflake or ice crystal structure, but as you can see, there is little sign of that. I moved over to a patio table and shot an isolated oak leaf and acorn shell covered with snow as well.

The little acorn shell looked cute enough, sort of like a sake cup full of snowflakes that I moved in to another for its close-up. And oh yes - these are all focus-stack images to increase the depth of field. The yew photo is composed of 12 frames, the leaf 14, and this little acorn cap combines 18 frames, each with a slightly different focus setting, combined in Photoshop to extend the depth of focus...

So I was disappointed that I didn't catch any crystal or snowflake structure, but so much of that depends on temperature, humidity and other conditions that I've learned that catching snowflakes to document is really a hard thing to do! Looking out the window a couple hours later, it was snowing again! Calm winds, the HUGE flake conglomerations were mostly falling straight down, so I went out again to see how they looked under the macro.

BETTER! First, the flakes were huge! The yew "leaves" are about 2mm wide, so some of the flakes were considerably larger! It was still tough to find a complete snowflake, but at least there were parts of them visible. The temperature was pretty much right at freezing, so they were melting over the space of a few minutes, so likely would have been better if it were a few degrees colder. Still, overall it was nice to catch a little of what I was looking for... Forecast is for colder temps and more flurries without much accumulation, so I'll keep on the lookout...

Saturday, January 21, 2017

More Stars WIth the 500mm Lens!

A post or two ago I promised some more astronomy shots with the "new to me" 500mm F/4 telephoto lens. It is a fun lens to use - a full order-of-magnitude increase in scale over a normal camera lens it opens up a whole new world for imaging, and its unrivaled sharpness transfers to astronomy as well.

In my first post showing off the lens, I showed first results of the North American and the Rosette Nebulae. Both of these red-glowing clouds of hydrogen are excited to fluorescence by nearby hot stars, whose ultraviolet light cause the gas to glow much like the glow of a fluorescent light. This time of the year (recall these were taken the end of November!), it is possible to shoot the Summer Milky Way objects as it sets, as well as the Winter Milky Way as it rises, and these clouds of gas are large enough and bright enough to capture well, so more included here today. First up at left is NGC 2174, its popular name being the "Monkey Head" Nebula! I like to display my images with North up, sort of how it would look in the sky as it transited the meridian. The "Monkey Head" is more easily seen with South displayed upwards to see the outline of a monkey. Try it and you will see! While the nebula is very large and faint, I actually discovered this visually through my 11" Newtonian telescope at a star party while sweeping along the Gemini/Orion border. This is a stack of 5 exposures totaling about 12 minutes of exposure with the 500mm lens, with a pretty moderate crop.

The next object to show off is one of my
favorite areas - the belt area of Orion! The 3 main belt stars are the brilliant stars stretching diagonally across the image at left. The reason I like it are the little reflection nebulae scattered among the bright stars. While there is an ionized hydrogen cloud off the frame at lower left, the blue nebula at upper center is IC 426, a reflection nebula - here, the blue light of the bright stars are reflecting off the dust and gas making up the nebula. A careful examination will reveal LOTS of nebulosity through the field of both kinds - both reflection and ionized clouds, as well as a few others that are dark clouds that show up in silhouette against the others. This is nearly the full frame of the 6D with about 22 minutes of stacked exposures with the 500mm lens.

I've been a fan of IC 426 for a long while - it was one of my first objects photographed with my old venerable Canon 20Da camera and 11" Newtonian telescope. At left the nebula is shown in close-up cropped from 20 minutes worth of exposure with the 11" from January, 2006 - 10 years ago!

Finally often as I'm about to shut down for the night, I take a single exposure of a new object just to see how it will appear in the scope or lens in use. In this case, the only really clear night this lens was out on 28 November, I took a single frame of the Orion Nebula - 150 seconds-worth shown here. I rarely shoot the Orion Nebula, one of the more spectacular objects in the sky because it varies so much in brightness and is difficult to show such extremes in brightness well. Anyway, as soon as the image read out I could see something "weird"! Even though I was tracking the stars, there were streaks in the image! Of course, I'd seen them before and knew immediately what it was - geostationary satellites! Orbiting the earth 22,000 miles above the equator they orbit every 24 hours, so appear stationary in the sky, and if one was broadcasting a TV signal, your antenna dish wouldn't need to track it - ingenious, no? But as a result, from Tucson's latitude while tracking the stars, they will trail through the Orion Nebula. Here 4 satellites showed up in the 2.5 minute exposure... Just the other day, the Astronomy Picture of the Day showed a movie clip showing several hours worth of satellites "sailing" through the field...

Finally, I'll close with one more astro shot. While not taken with the 500mm, it was taken with a slight telephoto 80mm lens from Whitewater Draw 2 weeks ago. Watching the dance of the planets in the western sky, for many weeks I've been watching the orange-ish planet Mars as it approaches the brilliant Venus. But I also knew a secret - there was a 3rd planet between them! The most distant planet Neptune appeared between them... Since all the planets orbit more or less in the same orbital plane, just knowing that the planet was between them, I didn't have to know where it was - I could look it up later, and sure enough, just did this evening. Just shoot it with the appropriate lens to get both Mars and Venus and you'll get Neptune too! It was easily seen in this stack of a couple 30 second exposures tracking on the stars with the little Vixen Polarie tracker. One of our astronomy club members makes a planetary report every meeting, and Erich had noted the alignment, stating that the brightest planet (Venus) and dimmest (Neptune) was over 100,000 times different in brightness! You might have to click the image to even be able to see it!

As the cogs of the solar system continue to grind on, Neptune is, of course, no longer between them. I believe that Venus passed Neptune last weekend, and is now headed towards superior conjunction behind the sun on 1 March, 2017.