Thursday, December 31, 2009

As the Year Winds Down...

Another 90 minutes until 2009 ends. Melinda is working tonight and tomorrow, so a low-key holiday for me. I've been working on an optics project I'll post about eventually... This evening I've been searching through my boxes of photos looking for ones I've visualized the last couple months - of friends lost this year.

The news came in early October that my friend Glenn Losey died in Cedar Rapids. He was 71 and died of lung cancer - I've never known him to smoke, but I've only known him for 15 years. I met Glenn in 1993. I had flown into Sioux City, Iowa to take part in the annual celebration of the bicycle called RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). Well, through a series of circumstances, United Airlines had "misplaced" my bicycle. Fortunately, though, there was another biker who suffered the same situation. She was coming in from Seattle, and their team driver was Glenn Losey, waiting curbside for her, and a smile and handshake for me. He offered to bring me back later for my bike, meanwhile me and my camping gear were welcome to join "Team Toad". Well, my bike wasn't "found" for 24 hours, so that first day of the ride, Glenn had me as assistant support driver as we exchanged life stories. He was just about the friendliest guy I had ever met, and seemingly had an endless supply of silly t-shirts, as illustrated in the photos. We only saw each other the week of the ride every year, but it was if I were family, and we kept in touch by e-mail the rest of the year - he put me on his mailing list of "groaner" jokes, and had about a thousand questions when he and his wife Barb adopted a mother cat and kittens. He stopped driving for the group after a few years, and I only saw him only occasionally when they loaded the bus for the continuing RAGBRAI trips. I stopped going myself this year, so I had lost track of the health of him and others in the group. Then the bad news from Carl, our team leader about his death - a shock of sadness knowing his smile will not greet me on my return... Sad indeed.

And then another e-mail from a friend in mid-November - another good friend, John Gregory, had been killed in an auto accident, and his wife Carolyn was critically injured when a driver drifted across the center line. John and I had been friends for about 20 years - we met at the Texas Star Party - a gathering of telescope nuts, some to use them, some to make them. I was just getting into the optics biz and he had been a lens designer and telescope maker for decades. Interestingly, though, the thing that brought us together was that my mother had died of cancer, and his first wife was going through a similar circumstance, eventually dying. We consoled each other in our grief, and became friends with repeated visits either at TSP, or his trips to Tucson or when he and his second wife Carolyn flew their "Cindy Cessna" to take part in the Grand Canyon Star Party, which I organized for nearly 2 decades. Again, a great guy - a renaissance man, really - he surprised the heck out of me when at a dining hall he uncovered an old upright piano and started playing honky-tonk music. So besides optical design, telescope making, he played music and made jewelry as well! He certainly had the energy of a man much younger than his 82 years! The photos are of him and Carolyn arriving at the Grand Canyon about 10 years ago, and a picture of him at a talk he gave about his experiences in optics in 2006. The picture on the screen is of John back in the 50s (I suspect) and his 2 little boys - I love it! I had corresponded with him only a few weeks before his death, so the suddenness again is so shocking. Another friend I will miss dearly.

So with the unpleasantness over with, have a better 2010! To our distant friends, we can't wait to see you again. To those of you we've not had the pleasure to meet, we look forward to it! One hour left to the New Year - almost time to break out a beer and dig out that piece of chocolate cheesecake in the fridge - Melinda left me a piece from the one I made yesterday for her staff party tonight!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Down Time at Work

The Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, where I work, is shut down for the Christmas and New Year's Holiday, as is the entire University of Arizona campus. But while nothing is going on this week and most of last, there was a flurry of activity the last few weeks. The big projects are the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the San Pedro Martir Telescope. I'm involved with the first two, but it has been months since I last updated on the Mexican project.

The last time I posted about the San Pedro Martir mirror was when it was being cast last August. It was an uneventful cooldown, even though it happened during our rainy season (power outages are a particular concern). Interestingly, whether we are casting a large mirror or "small" (6.5 meters or less in diameter), the cooling process is driven by how uniformly you can cool the thickest part of the mirror, in our cast, only a few inches thick. So nearly all our mirrors have a cooldown/anneal cycle that lasts about 3 months.

The oven was opened just before Thanksgiving in November and the brand spanking new 6.5 meter diameter blank looked great! The casting crew had removed the inconel bands that wrapped around the circumference during the heat of casting before the Thanksgiving break. Upon their return they worked to remove the tub walls and clean up the soft refractory from the outside and inside diameters of the casting. Here you can see Jim spraying some water on the refractory to keep the dust down, as it is quite bad for the lungs. I also included a photo that illustrates how the machined soft refractory makes the edge profile that includes an extended faceplate and backplate.

By early December the crew had finished the cleaning process and were preparing the lifting fixture. Here the now-lonely-looking mirror blank sits on the oven turntable. Of course, the mold is still encased in the once-molten glass, so the next step is mold cleanout. The lifting fixture the casting crew is preparing will lift the 10 tons of glass and nearly as much mold and refractory material. While being held on it's side the next few months, the mold material will be cleaned out with a high-pressure water spray, leaving hollow hexagonal voids in the glass to make it lightweight, yet stiff.

Finally, just before the holiday break, the casting crew installed the lifting spider. The 36 annular pads are built up with a .25" (6mm) thick layer of RTV (bathtub caulk) which is allowed to cure, then additional RTV is added to the glass/RTV layer and applied to the blank, then allowed to cure for several weeks. When we come back, they will cut off at least one or two samples to verify they have cured completely through the thickness of the pads. Only then will we lift the mirror off the oven hearth plate and move it to the mold washout stand. After the hard work of centering and gluing, here the entire casting crew takes a breather. From left is Jim, crew leader Randy, Phil, John and Damon. So even during the holiday shutdown, progress is being made, if only curing of the RTV!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Day 2009

Christmas 2009 has come and gone, and what a day it was! A beauty of a day here, though cold by Tucson standards with highs in only the 50s (F). But talking to far-flung relatives, some currently involved in ongoing blizzards, we felt lucky indeed.

We had a Christmas Eve dinner party Thursday, with 7 attending, and I spent most of the day tending the fire smoking a 20 pound turkey! After 6.5 hours and another 15 degrees to go, I moved it into the kitchen oven because I had hungry guests arriving. The turkey came out great, followed by standard Midwest holiday fare (green salad, mashed 'taters, corn, green bean casserole), and a pumpkin-chocolate cheesecake. Everyone got appropriately stuffed and we've got smoked turkey to last us into the weekend! Sorry, no photos of that event...

Our friend Donna came down from Phoenix and is staying with us for a few days, so became part of our holiday tradition this year. After staying up late after the above dinner, excited relatives phoned and woke us at the ungodly hour of 9am! Donna had brought down pumpkin bread mix, so before opening presents she and Melinda made muffins and bread - a real treat. We got piles of presents from family and friends - a pile almost big enough to hide behind - we are lucky indeed! We got a fine mix of clothes, linens, practical (rice cooker!), picture frames, and treats Donna rescued from her offices at work. After watching her try to photograph a lizard with her camera phone on a previous trip, we surprised her with a little digital camera, and we've all been learning how to use it. It has already been used to e-mail pics back to the Southeast to her family, and I think it will get a lot of use.

Of course, part of the tradition lately has been another trip up Mount Lemmon to again photograph the sunset alignment behind Kitt Peak. Even though we were successful last week, the weather was great, so went up in case others wanted to join us. We had another fellow who had joined us last week who returned, otherwise it was just our two groups. It was obvious that about half of Tucson had gone up the mountain to play in the snow. There was literally a constant stream of vehicles coming down, some sporting snowmen on hoods or roofs, some trucks shovelled full of snow. Did I mention the southernmost ski area in the country is on Mount Lemmon? Anyway, the constant stream of vehicles actually blocked one of my sunset exposures, otherwise didn't have much effect on our operations. Another beautiful sunset, though this time we weren't above the inversion layer, so the sun got quite dim as it dropped the last bit into the Observatory. It also added a more jagged edge as the image of the sun passed through the different layers of air.

We packed up more quickly than last week, and got down to the Babad Do'ag (from the Native American name "Frog Mountain") overlook in time to see the stars and lights of Tucson come out in the dusk. We even tried a self portrait that came out pretty well. Kitt Peak was still easily visible 50 miles to the southwest. Even the innermost planet Mercury, shockingly bright a week ago on our last trip, was still visible low in the sky. But as it rounds the sun more quickly than our Earth, the crescent phase it extends will make it fade quickly - we may not see it again this apparition. As we drove towards home, we had thoughts of walking through the lights of Winterhaven, but after seeing the crowds of people with similar ideas, we pressed on for home to feed the hungry herd of cats, and break into the turkey leftovers for the adults. All in all a great day spent with friends, family and a fun outing!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tis the Season!

Living in the Southwestern Desert, if you REALLY look, you can notice the 5 or so seasons we get. It starts in January with cool-damp, graduates to warm-dry, hot-dry, hot-damp, and finally warm-dry to close out the year. But you do have to notice the small things. Here it is, the 20th of December and it was in the 70s (F)! Now how can you celebrate or notice a Winter Holiday when folks are walking around in shorts and t-shirts?

Today as we drove around town, we noticed a few signs that Christmas is approaching. First up is the Paul Bunyan statue up on Stone and Glenn. Normally carrying an 8 foot long prop axe, this time of year he switches to a candy cane. Paul is a bona fide Tucson landmark, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time. But supposedly he has made guest apperances in the movies "Easy Rider" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore".

We've mentioned Padre Kino before, and have even posted about the Santa hats that mysteriously appear on his horse's ears at Christmas. But it is nice to see a bit of color added to his statue on the north end of Kino Parkway.

And we noticed recently that the groundskeepers at Tucson Medical Center have also added the Santa hats to the tops of many of the saguaro cacti. Understated, yet a bold use of color to remind us we approach another season of good will.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Solstice Sunset

Last night was the "sunset expedition" - the first time this season that the sun set behind Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO). After an announcement on the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association's forum, there was a little interest in observing it, so the sunset hunt was on! In all we had 8 people and 7 scopes or lenses focused on the sunset.

We met at the McDonald's on Tanque Verde and Catalina Highway at 4pm. Melinda and I were the last to arrive with a few minutes to go, so made the drive up to just short of milepost 9 in short order with less than an hour to sunset. After indicating the spot to the group, we spread out and set up gear, some focusing and aligning on the sun, me - I did a quick focus on the sun then set up and aligned on the profile of KPNO. I was concerned about some thin clouds moving down from the north, but there wasn't much we could do, so we waited.

Time zipped by quickly and seemingly before I knew it, the disk of the sun became visible in the upper corner of the frame. By the time I determined the correct exposure, it had just touched the mountaintop observatory and I started the timer sequence with an exposure every 4 seconds. Bill, our former club president was worried it wouldn't span the mountaintop and announced he was going to move a few yards - but we assured him all was ok and besides, sunset would be over before he would be able to reacquire the image! And then it really was over. The alignment was perfect, everyone got some great images and all were carrying a silly ear to ear grin. And what was interesting, there was actually a group of sunspots visible - the first in a long time. In the shot here it is just above the University of Arizona's 90 inch telescope - second from the right.

I had read a notice online that the moon and planet Mercury would appear in the sky together, so some of tarried a bit while others packed up the the rapidly dropping temperatures. While we waited Melinda and Jennifer compared silly-looking hats.The moon was almost exactly 36 hours old - a skinny crescent that suddenly seemed to appear out of the darkening sky and a surprisingly bright Mercury less than 5 degrees away. A striking sight with the still orange clouds that glowed after the sunset.

We finally ambled to town and a small subgroup of us stopped for some pizza and beer before finally heading home to download images from our cameras. While my focus and the sunset alignment was great, I inadvertently had overexposed my shots very slightly and the red channel was saturated (since the setting sun is mostly red). It does affect the image some, but it is what it is - will just have to do it again and be a little more careful next time. I did make a quick movie of the exposures I took - we couldn't figure out how to display it here on the blog, but our friend and co-observer Tom Polakis agreed to host the .GIF file on his photo site. If your computer connection can tolerate downloading a 5MB file, take a look at the sunset movie. With the clouds moving in front of the sunset, it is quite incredible.

In the next few days the sun moves a little too far south to align with KPNO, but in a week it will be heading north and the alignment will happen again. The next chance is on Friday 25 December (yes, sunset on Christmas Day). It will be a good pass - if the weather is good I know at least one of our group will be doing it again with me...

(Click on the picture to open and view the .gif file. This is a 5MB .gif file, so it is very large!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday!!!

Dean is really very low key, as most of you know. He hinted, two days ago, that his birthday was coming up...but that's the most you'll hear from him on the subject. I, on the other hand, think that we should celebrate our birthdays for at least a full month! So, much to his chagrin (I'm sure) - here is the man we are celebrating today, if not for the rest of the month....Happy Birthday, Dean! XO

Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Birthday Ma!

Though she passed long ago, today is my Mom's birthday. She would have been 76! The date is easy to remember as it falls 2 days before my own. The B&W photo shows a Christmas 56 years ago while my Dad was off in the army - I was a mere lad of 9 days old and she was 20 (can you imagine?)! The other photo was taken on my parent's 35th anniversary, shortly before her death. While she was taken from us much too young, at least all their kids (I've got 5 Sibs) were all old enough to have memories of growing up in a loving and nurturing household. Happy Birthday Mom!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holiday Street Fair

The Fourth Avenue Street Fair is a Tucson icon. It happens twice a year - a few weeks before Christmas and again in the spring in a funky neighborhood within sight of downtown. Even though Melinda worked last night, we went down this morning early as soon as they opened at 9:30 at least to make our annual run to Antigone Books to get our Christmas cards.

We've never seen it so deserted! Normally you are shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses, but because of the early hour, we had the place to ourselves. Besides the vendors selling any sort of crafts you can name(half a mile of 4th avenue is blocked off for vendors!), the usual suspects of oddball stores take part too. This is the first time I've seen the Moai statue, moved from a miniature golf location to a bar on 4th Ave. There is also a "Sky Bar" astronomy themed tavern along the street with a telescope to beam in images from the roof.

The fair pulls in the eccentrics too. With the crowd you get all kinds of panhandlers, street musicians, street people, punks and goths - a real human zoo. No oddballs at the early hour, though we did see a well-dressed pit bull waiting patiently for it's owner to finish shopping.

Nothing struck our fancy that we had to buy, though the fellow who makes signs out of discarded license plates impressed me as quite the entrepreneur and was attracting our interest at least. Get your raw materials for nothing, and sell the finished product after a few minutes work for big bucks! Glass ware, paintings, leather work, sculpture, food and entertainment is all there, as well as stuff you can't even imagine. It is always a lot of fun except for dealing with crowds, and should be on your bucket list if in town when it is going on.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sunset Alignment

Every year it seems I got through the same effort to recalculate the "perfect" dates to catch a particular alignment. From the Mount Lemmon Highway near winter solstice, at the apex of the hairpin turn just past the Thimble Peak Vista pullout, the sun sets behind Kitt Peak National Observatory. An interesting coincidence makes the apparent width of the Observatory just under the apparent width of the sun, so it is perfectly silhouetted. But I've slightly missed it more than I've caught it, so I pour over the images and calculate again what days and exactly where to set up. The image shown here is a "marginal" shot from 2 years ago - if the sun were any further south, the observatory profile wouldn't have fit on the solar image.

I've had a request to lead another "expedition" this year, so I've spent the evening looking up the sun's declination for this year's dates and for past successes. and the results are in! The 2 dates that are in the "perfect" zone are Thursday the 17th, and Friday the 25th. Marginal dates (where you can barely get acceptable results)open up the 16th, 18th and 24th. Moving a few dozen yards can improve the results. I'm offering to lead a group up on the 17th and 25th (yes, Christmas Day), meeting whoever want to join us at the Tanque Verde/Catalina Highway McDonald's at 4pm. There is no delaying departure as sunset is very shortly after 5pm and setup and alignment on the Observatory must be done before the sun comes along! E-mail me by clicking my name at upper right to let me know if you are joining us - in case of questionable weather, I can let you know the go-no go decision if I know you are coming.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Giant Magellan Telescope - a model project!

We had some Korean visitors lately to the lab - and they brought presents! The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute is one of the GMT partners. Evidently national pride has inspired a Korean company to make a model of the telescope! Software engineer and buddy Cary first sent me the link to the model (with a video of a fellow assembling one)and another to photos of a 7 -year-old assembling one before revealing that the young ladies in the front office had 2 of them. (Note that some browsers may have trouble downloading foreign language webpages - mine worked ok, even when saying "no" to loading language packs. Google may offer translation which works ok...) The fuzzy catalog image is reproduced at left.

While I wasn't a model nut as a kid, it is sort of bizarre to be currently working on a project that has a scale model of the finished product. After getting permission from the Steward Observatory director's office, Victoria and Kassie assembled one, with perhaps a little more trouble than the 7-year-old did... But it is a "working" model of the GMT, at least as far as demonstrating the operation of the Alt-Az mounting. Standing about 22cm (9") high, it is quite accurate, showing the individual adaptive optics secondaries and truss work. Running about $10, they might not be available for Christmas delivery, but had I known earlier, it would have been fun to have a few to give away!