Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cochise's Head

Last January, we posted about Arizona Landmarks, and included Cochise's Head - a striking mountain peak that in profile nearly precisely outlines a human head. As we noted then, it is unusual in that the profile holds whether viewed from the north, driving along Interstate 10 near the New Mexico Border, or from the south, particularly from Chiricahua National Monument, 5 or 10 miles to the south. As noted last weekend, we were at the Monument for an informal public star party, and after setting up scopes, we took in the vista of the profile again.

Cochise was perhaps the most famous Apache leaders to resist the settlement of whites in the Southwest. He was born, lived and died in or near the Arizona county that now carries his name. He is also the namesake of a college near Douglas, Arizona. He is a well-known historical figure in Arizona, and should be known to all Americans. Read the bio link above. He was portrayed in many movies, perhaps the best known was Broken Arrow (NOT the '96 film with John Travolta!), starring Jeff Chandler as Cochise, and Jimmy Stewart as his real-life friend Tom Jeffords. It was the first movie sympathetic to Indians, and while the story is fictionalized somewhat, is well worth a watch.

This trip I brought along a small telescope to take some close-up photos of the formation. Those lips! That Nose! That eyebrow! All accurately rendered in stone along with a pair of tall trees as eyelash. The monument is a spectacular place, and the next time we go I'd like to do some hiking and further exploring. It has been a few decades since properly exploring the trails and rock formations there.

I've also always wanted to get a night time exposure with star trails overhead, so tried it after our crowd of star party attendees left for the night. Unfortunately a few clouds started drifting in, but a couple exposures were taken. This is my favorite - the headlights of a car swept over the foreground, lighting some of the trees. This was the last one before the clouds moved in, so lucked out. Be sure to click on the images for a larger view!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tiling Fun (our 300th Post!)

As our free time permits, we're finally making progress on our guest bathroom project. We posted over a month ago about having a carpenter in to assist with drywall removal and backer board installation, and we also posted about the difficulty of deciding about tile colors and patterns, especially where Talavera tile is concerned, with it's rich colors and bold patterns.

We ended doing most of our tile shopping at Sierra Tile, both because of price and selection. We decided early on that we loved the rich color of the Cobalt Blue of the Talavera tile and would feature it extensively in the shower, but the it's handmade variations would result in grout lines difficult if not impossible to keep straight. So we went with a glazed ceramic tile that matched the color, but we are still using Talavera for some trim and accents. Decisions on patterns were really difficult to make, we wish there weren't so many choices!

We had to start somewhere, so a few days ago installed the bullnose tile around the edge of the backer board, and installed a reference edge (using some lumber) that started the pattern straight and level. Then Melinda had a solo session starting to fill in tile, and installed the soap dish insert. Melinda was a little surprised how easy it was installing the ceramic tile, as opposed to the floor tiles she had done before. With the built-in spacers of the ceramic tile, they mostly fall into place, though dealing with the irregularities of the Talavera may yet cause us some grief...

Another session today and we made really good progress. Since we'd not chosen plumbing fixtures yet, we wanted to keep the gaps around the valves as small as possible. I had offered to take tiles to work and use some diamond core drills (for cutting glass) to cut holes. Melinda was really impressed how easy it went and how well they came out. She was in charge of marking where the holes went, so that was a big part of the drilling success.

Melinda worked layout and I cut the needed trimmed tiles and worked on buttering the backs of the tiles. As the photos indicate, we broke up the blue with accents of Talavera medallions and a border line. The plan is to use yellow tile for the countertop, and our sink has several colors that match our accent colors. The gap at the left corner is for a little shampoo shelf that will get set in at our next session. I'm guessing we are about 60% done, but the rest should go pretty fast even with the Talavera left to go in. We think it is looking pretty good so far!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Meteor Mania!

Tuesday night I volunteered to set up one of my telescopes at the Visitor Center of the Kitt Peak National Observatory. They were holding an outreach program called Meteor Mania!, set to coincide with the peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower, falling on 20 October this year. Besides a presentation and a chance to get warm inside the Visitor Center, the meteors were the main course, with the telescopes of TAAA member John Kalas and myself serving as hors d'oeuvres. The meteor program ran from 10pm to 3am (meteor showers are generally better after Midnight), yet it was easiest to set up scopes before it got dark, so John and I had some time on our hands after sunset about 6pm. Here is a self-portrait taken after scope setup - a 4 minute exposure with 12-22mm zoom on the Canon XSi.

It was a beautiful evening, and I wandered about with camera and tripod to capture a few photos in the deepening twilight. The "King of the Mountain" is the 4 meter Mayall Telescope, it's dome dominating the mountaintop, even easily visible to the naked eye from Tucson 45 air miles away. Here it is seen with the University of Arizona's 2.3 meter telescope in the foreground. The four brightest stars in the background are the bowl stars of the Big Dipper, setting in the northwestern sky. As always, click on the image to load a full-screen version.

Out on the southwest ridge of the mountain is the 3.5 meter WIYN Observatory. The acronym is formed from the primary partners, the Universities of Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, which also administers Kitt Peak National Observatory. The 3.5 meter (140 inch) diameter telescope was built 15 years ago, and it's mirror was cast at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, where I work. The mirror was the 3rd large mirror I worked on at the Lab, along with 2 opticians from Kitt Peak's optics shop. The telescope has many unique features that were new at the time of construction. The mirror is a lightweight casting that is only a fourth the weight of a solid mirror. The mounting is an altazimuth design, aimed sort of like a cannon - left-right and up-down motions. The combination of the light mirror and Alt-Az mount reduce the moving mass of the telescope to 20 tons, compared to nearly 300 tons for the 4-meter across the mountain, almost the same size, but built a generation before! On Tuesday, the 2-day-old moon posed next to the faceted dome of WIYN. Also visible are the brightest stars of the constellation Scorpius, setting in the southwest.

One of the more interesting things going on Tuesday night, other than the meteor program, was that there was an "artists in residence" program going on. There were a number of members of the International Association of Astronomical Artists spending the better part of the week, getting inspiration by the sky and hardware assembled at the Observatory. The program was partially to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Kitt Peak. John and I met the 5 or 6 that were up and around Tuesday and toured their impromptu studio (housed in what used to be a rec room when I worked at Kitt Peak in the '80s). They later came by and observed through our telescopes, being suitably impressed with vistas of the cosmos. Shown here is a view of the 2.1 meter telescope "Midday on Kitt Peak" by William Hartmann painted last Spring, and is representative of the work that was ongoing, with several different media employed by different artists.

As our artist friends departed, I set up a camera on a tracking mount to take some wide-field shots of the sky, subconsciously attempting to catch any bright meteors that happened along. This shot is of a pair of the brightest galaxies viewable from the Northern Hemisphere - M31, the Andromeda Galaxy to the left, and M33 in Triangulum to the right. The former is easily visible to the naked eye from a dark sky, and represents the furthest one can see without optical aid - 2.4 million light years (multiply by 6,000,000,000,000 miles per light year to convert to English units)! When you click on the image to get the full size, there are two small fuzzy spots nearby that are small satellite galaxies to the Andromeda Galaxy. They are easily spotted in small telescopes, as are the dust lanes that are also seen. Both this image and the next are a stack of several exposures with a 50mm lens and the Canon XSi.

Also easily visible high in the sky throughout the night were these two clusters in the constellation Taurus. M45 or the Pleiades are in the upper right, and the V-shaped Hyades are lower left. Compared to the distant galaxies in the previous image, both of these clusters are close by, part of our Milky Way Galaxy. The Hyades are about 150 light years (the distance light travels in a year), and the Pleiades are about 440 light years. Upon spotting it in binoculars, some novices note a dipper shape and mistake the Pleiades for the Little Dipper. Interestingly, in Japan, the cluster is known as Subaru, and if you ever see a Subaru vehicle, look for a little map of the Pleiades on the rear of the car!

Finally, about 12:30am, the meteor observers came out and got down to observing, both with the scopes John and I had set up and for meteors. The Orionid shower originates from Halley's Comet - the meteors we see being caused by dust particles released in a comet passage long-ago. In fact, I saw some estimates predicting an enhancement in shower activity caused by filaments of dust released by Halley in a 1400BC pass! I likely saw a few dozen meteors over the hours, though I spent a lot of time looking through the telescope and camera screen. It was a great night, with some spectacular views, though I only caught part of one dim meteor on camera. It was also nice having the Visitor Center as a warm room, with snacks available! The observing ended promptly at 3am, and after packing up, I got home right at 5am. Fortunately I had taken Tuesday and Wednesday from work, so I could sleep in!

There are 2 more opportunities for Meteor Mania! - for the Leonid shower on 17 November, and the Geminids on 13 December. Check out the link if you are interested in taking part!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Road Trip Story #42.

Now that our weather is starting to improve, we are getting back into a great time of year to go observing and we are always interested in creating a little star party whenever possible. This past week Dean spoke with the Ranger's office at the Chiricahua National Monument, suggesting that since we were planning a trip to that area to view the Fall colors we might consider doing some public viewing, if there was interest. Their response? "We'll get the shuttle bus out and bring the campers to you!!!" We also contacted our friend in Phoenix, Laurie, and when invited to join us responded, "I'm there!" Seems we picked just the right weekend to do a little excursion!

We headed southeast to the Chiricahua's around 10am, with all we would need for a day of picture taking and a night of observing. Included in those supplies were sandwiches, brownies, and two gallons of water (always advisable when traveling in remote areas). Our drive took us down through Willcox, where we stopped for refills on our 44 ounce sodas before heading into the nearby mountains for the afternoon. Quickly, the road turned from paved to maintained dirt/gravel - as many of the remote roads do in Arizona. This is cattle ranching territory - cattle guards across the road (lots of free range cattle around here) and even this sign! About the time we decided to turn around to go back and take this picture my 44 oz Coke spilled over (second time this year, I might add) and dumped into my seat and open purse sitting directly below it on the floor! The women reading this post will understand the ramifications of this more than the men, no doubt. I do wish I had a picture of when Dean picked my purse up and turned it upside down, letting about 6 ounces of Coke drain from inside the bag. After getting that situation under control we continued onward. As we climbed higher in elevation we saw more deciduous trees, and more Fall colors. While we don't have Maple trees in Southern AZ, we do have Sycamore, Oak, Ash, and Aspen; all which give a beautiful golden glow to the hillsides, and scenic drives. The colors contrasted with the deep blue sky and the mountains was breathtaking! The Chiricahua's are a very interesting range, with beautiful rock formations that remind me of the Easter Island statues. Near the entrance to Chiricahua National Monument is a dirt/gravel road that takes you to the other side of the range to the town of Portal. This area is world reknown for it's diverse bird population, listed as possibly the best bird watching site in North America! The road over the mountains is most scenic - lots of hairpin turns (no guardrails), vistas into canyons, and canopies of trees shading the drive. While we didn't see many birds (it's a little early for the migration to this area), we enjoyed each twist and turn revealing a new site......until.....uh oh.....the van is awfully quiet......the power steering is gone.....uh that the serpentine belt laying in the road behind us???? Readers that know us, who know Dean, also know his trusty Ford Clubwagon van. You also know that we have been having adventure after adventure keeping the workhorse going. Yesterday adds a new chapter to the story of "the van", to be sure. Yes, indeed, the serpentine belt was laying in the road several yards behind us, but it was next to a huge puddle of antifreeze....the mystery continues. Dean is good about carrying tools in his vehicle (much better than most, in fact), and after doing some diagnostic work he found that the cooling fins for the alternator had cut into the coolant hose causing antifreeze to spurt onto the serpentine belt, that caused the serpentine belt to shoot (like a really big rubber band) off of the pulleys! Fortunately, the belt was intact and not cracked or broken by the episode (it's a new belt as of this summer). **scratching head** now what do we do? We were a good 8miles from the nearest town, so no help there. Many (and I mean many) people stopped to offer assistance, which we were very thankful for, and we garnered some advice and suggestions from some of them. In searching through the tool box and piecing together what we had to work with we were able to repair the hole in the hose with duct tape, securing that further with an extra hose clamp we found hanging on a hose under the hood (there for such an occasion, perhaps???), and then we worked together to get that serpentine belt back in place. Fortunately, Dean had thought to make sure we had those two gallons of water in the van before we started our journey. We filled the radiator, checked for leaks and were on our way in a total time of about 80 minutes! While this may seem like 'another nail in the coffin' for the van, I have to say - that old 'girl' just keeps going! Reminds me of the pioneer women who help settle the wild West! Kudos to Dean, though....that man can fix anything - while never losing his temper or saying a harsh word. He is, absolutely, the best!

We arrived at Chiricahua National Monument in plenty of time to wash up, change clothes, set up telescopes, take some pictures and welcome our 30 or so eager guests when the stars came out to play!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Yes, It WAS Art!

Round about 100 days ago (time flies when you are having fun), I posted about a public arts project in London, England called "One and Other". For the last 100 days, 24 hours each day, ordinary people each spent 1 hour on "The Fourth Plinth" on Trafalgar Square, doing whatever they wanted, live on a worldwide webcast. Yes, that makes 2,400 people each spending their 60 minutes of fame on public display, instead of the 15 minutes that Andy Warhol would grant us. The public performances ran the gamut from dull (reading a book or knitting) to sublime (truly creative performances of art, dance and song). Many represented their favorite causes, from cancer survivors, pet adoptions, fallen soldiers. I was a bigger fan than Melinda, but it was ongoing, seemingly semi-permanent. You could log on at any hour - at Midnight before going to bed you could figuratively share tea and crumpets with the Plinther having their 7am breakfast.

It ended yesterday morning, and I miss it. It was big and grand, and brought people together. I had the girls in the front office at work following, and lately, even one of my workmates Kirk was checking the daily video highlights. In the meantime, you can still check out the summer's highlights and get a feel for it, in case you've been ignoring our link down on the right side and didn't go visit during the 100 days. Whether in Arizona, or Illinois, or even between, we could check on the daft English and see how they behave in public. Would we have done as well? Will they do something similar again? I would hope, it was great fun, but do go and check out the highlights - easily worth 4 minutes of your time!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Whipple Observatory Star Party Epilogue

After Dean and I had been out last Friday night, at Geology Vista (Mt. Lemmon), we headed back out again on Saturday night to Whipple Observatory for one of their quarterly "public lecture/star party" evenings. Public star parties are always fun, and they're always in need of more telescopes so it's easy to just show up, ready to show off the sky!

I had never been to Whipple, though we had gone sight-seeing in that area before. We took this opportunity to arrive early enough to enjoy a nice dinner at the "Cow Palace" restaurant in Amado (Arivaca Junction) before heading up into the Santa Rita mountain foothills to the Whipple base camp. Whipple Observatory is the home of the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT), as well as many other telescopes. The MMT houses a 6.5m mirror, made in the early '90's at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab - polished by none other than my own dear Dean! While unscheduled visitors are not allowed to travel up to the mountain top to see the MMT, they do have a very interesting display in their Visitors Center, at the base camp. Included in the display are numerous pictures, one in which Dean is shown working on a mirror! He's always very modest about things like that; while I'm the one showing him off!

The star party was very well organized and I (for one) am happy to go back there again and again! My priorities aren't always the same as others, but the conveniences there made for a very enjoyable evening! It was nice to have hot coffee and hot chocolate served all evening, though I didn't have any. I did take advantage of the clean, well lit, modern restrooms in the Visitor Center however! Mind you, most of the times that we go out observing we are in fairly remote locations - usually without any sort of toilet facilities (yes, I've learned to look and listen for rattlesnakes and assorted critters)! The lecture seemed to be well attended and included people of all ages, including a Boy Scout troop working on their "Science badge". There were aproximately 15 telescopes set up, each giving it's viewers a glimpse into the heavens. While we were hoping for a clear night (we always hope!), we ended up being challenged by about 50% cloud cover at any given time. Fortunately, those clouds move so we could switch between Jupiter and it's moons to Andromeda, the ring nebulae, and assorted globular star clusters. Jupiter was being especially "showy" on Saturday night - with the Giant Red spot appearing shortly after we started observing! While we had plenty of people looking through our telescope, I took the opportunity to also set up my camera and take some pictures. Friday night (see previous post) was the first time that I really seemed to "get it" - setting the exposure, getting the focus, etc. Going into Saturday night I was anxious to set the camera up and see what I could do! Fortunately Dean didn't mind me abandoning him at the telescope for blocks of time and I think I was able to get some decent beginner shots! I'm looking forward to our next trip out (this coming weekend), and maybe using the "cam-trak" to see what more I can do! Dean is a very patient teacher, so he doesn't seem to mind trouble-shooting and answering my neverending stream of questions. I have a long, long way to go (so don't judge my attempts too harshly!), but am excited to be learning so much! It's nice to be past the monsoons and into clearer skies again - we've missed the stars.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Starparty from the Edge of Civilization

It had been a while since Melinda and I had been under a dark sky, so with 10pm moonrise scheduled, yesterday we headed for the hills! To keep it simple and provide a dark northeastern sky, we went up towards Mount Lemmon's Geology Vista, a really nice pullout about 14 miles up a fine paved mountain road. Total driving time from our house is right at 60 minutes, and you couldn't do much better in so short a drive if you don't care much about your southern sky (towards Tucson).

While the weekend forecast had been for perfectly clear skies, as we stopped for a snack before heading up the Mt Lemmon Highway, we saw the ominous sign - Sun dogs! Usually a sign of gradually increasing clouds, it was pretty at the same time. Undaunted, we figured we'd pretend we didn't see them, and would at least get a nice scenic drive out of the trip.

One of the interests in going out was to take a picture for a friend of mine - she wanted a photo of the Andromeda Galaxy that approximated it's naked eye view, including some nearby star or constellation references. Of course, it is always nice to provide some terrestrial landmarks as well, like the horizon or trees that "bring it down to Earth". Since Andromeda was well up at dark, a photo would have to be taken very soon - before you know it, a few more weeks of the Earth's trip around the sun will have Andromeda nearly overhead at dusk... So we set up the 14" Celestron to start cooling down for later observing, and I set up my little tripod and tracker for a wide field camera shot. With a 20mm lens and short 30 second exposures I was able to get the Great Square of the constellation Pegasus at right, all the way over to Cassiopeia's throne at left. The fuzzy patch at center is the Andromeda Galaxy, the furthest you can see with your naked eye - about 2.4 million light years away (multiply by 6 trillion miles or 10 trillion kilometers light travels in a year to convert to your car's odometer distance).

Geology Vista is a nice spot - with a remarkable view of the canyon and rock formations to the east, and the view takes in the entire range of the Santa Catalinas, of which Mount Lemmon is the peak, to the Rincon Mountains to the southeast, and Santa Ritas 30 miles to the south, and the entire Tucson Valley as well. There was surprisingly a LOT of car traffic - it was a Friday night, of course, and there a lot of residents that live on Summerhaven at the top of the mountain among the ponderosa pines and commute to jobs in the urban jungle. The picture here is 11 minutes long at F/5.6 with the ISO at 200. It shows the car headlights lighting the highway and outlining the canyon and rock formations (along with the lights of Tucson). The Pleiades are rising in the east, and the light glows of Safford and Wilcox far to our east is visible off the thin clouds.

As predicted, the thin clouds rolled in, but didn't bother observing too much. We got some great views of Jupiter and a few impressive sky objects for a passerby who claimed fate brought her to join us and enjoy the sky. After she left, Melinda and I tried some pictures of Jupiter with the C-14 and her camera - and we discovered again how difficult it is to try to retain some detail on very bright disk of the planet and still show the 4 Galilean moons that orbit Jupiter. The shot here shows the moons clearly, but none of the cloud bands that show up on shorter exposures (but then without moons). From left to right is Callisto, an overexposed Jupiter, Io, Europa and Ganymede. Io and Europa were moving quickly, and we're hoping to demonstrate that motion somehow in a subsequent post.

Realize that while we were over 6500 feet, we were still close to Tucson - likely less than 15 miles, and a glance south showed the "pretty lights", or as pretty as astronomers would allow light pollution to get. I observed Comet Hale-Bopp many times from this site and the sky was inky black, but it was far from it last night - perhaps it was the thin clouds that didn't help, but certainly Tucson continues to spread to fill up all the semi-level space that is available between the mountains. Be sure to click on the image for the full-size view.

After packing up before moonrise, we paused at Windy Point, just a quarter mile below Geology Vista, where the Tucson lights picture was taken. While walking back from the edge of the hill, I noticed the crosswalk that led people back to their cars if they parked on the northbound side of the road, but appeared to be leading right towards the Pleiades or Taurus. The hillside is lit up by Tucson's lights, and there is a halo of light over it from the just-risen moon. The appropriate title would be "Crosswalk to Pleiades". If only the sky were so accessible!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Another (Yawn) Spectacular Sunset

If anything, the Desert Southwest is known for it's impressive sunsets. It is mostly due to the clarity of the air (visibilities can easily exceed 150 miles), and also to the fact that parts west of us get even less rainfall. Thus the sun often sets into a clear sky where the reddened rays can light the underside of the clouds with spectacular colors. A few days ago we were waiting for our friend Chuck to arrive before heading out to dinner. He called to alert us to his schedule and to check out the sunset. I'd been out just minutes before feeding cats and it was pretty bland, but evidently the show was to get better as the sun set. We grabbed the camera as we went out the door, and it was just us and the Mourning Doves (on wire at lower left) enjoying the last rays. Less than a minute later the peak was gone, but in the growing darkness, the bats came out to feed on insects. Though there were 3 or 4 flying in the area, they are difficult to catch - will have to work on that!

Tonight the White House threw a star party for 150 middle school students in Washington DC. Turns out, one of the 20 astronomers was local business owner Dean Koenig! He runs Starizona, an astronomy and nature shop known throughout the region - a truly great guy. The business is known for being open 4 nights a week where you can actually "kick the tires" and use the telescopes or equipment at night before you buy - pretty much unheard of. Will have to talk to him about THAT star party!

Anyway, when the local Flandrau Science Center heard about the White House event, they quickly pulled together an even on the University Mall for public viewing, where astronomy club members and others set up scopes for the public.

Unfortunately, the normally great fall weather didn't get the memo and the sky gradually worsened as it got darker. There was a great display of crepuscular rays towards sunset - you can see how the Arizona flag's designer got their inspiration. I took a sequence of the fast-moving clouds in the darkening sky for an animated gif, but it never cleared for observing. I spotted Jupiter once for about 10 seconds, just long enough to point the scope at it, focus and see that the seeing (atmospheric turbulence) was just about as bad as I'd ever seen it! Even so, the folks who set up interacted with some gathering public, and caught up on astronomical news. In the bottom picture, John Kalas adjusts his telescope, just in case it clears. More astronomy events planned for the weekend - forecast calls for clearing!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Decisions, decisions...

Now that we are settled back into normal life in Tucson we still have that bathroom tile project hanging over our heads. I'll bet you forgot about that one! In fact, when I mentioned it the other night Dean admitted that since we don't use that bathroom he actually had forgotten about it! Since we needed to get back into the project we had some decisions to make. Our plan has been to incorporate Talavera tile into the bathroom. After multiple shopping trips to get ideas, Dean and I used his lunch hour to actually go look at sinks together today. To give you an idea of the choices that are available locally, check out these pictures!

These sinks are only the ones we liked, at only two of dozens of stores in Tucson that sell them! Then we have to find coordinating tile to go with the sink - not necessarily matching, but coordinating...

The possibilities will make your head swim! And....of course there is the usual amounts of coordinating accessories that one can find to go with any pattern you should choose.....

So....given the options it was difficult to narrow down the choices, which we did during our joint shopping venture. When I took Dean back to work he said "Go pick one of the two we both liked!" The only way of picking tile is to pick the sink first. That being said --we now have the round sink (first of the individual sink pictures above) sitting and waiting to be installed! The next step will be picking out the tiles that will be used as accents - we "gringos" don't tend to get as fancy as the true haciendas that we see in photos, but we are boldly jumping in, rather than just 'sticking a toe in' to the color pool! My plan is to do a tiled (solid color) counter top for the vanity that is currently in that bathroom. I'm not wild about the vanity itself, but we can change that...just wait and see! Tomorrow's lunch hour field trip will be to "Woodworker's Source" to see what kind of wood we can find to cover the current vanity. This should be a fun project, and I'm looking forward to the transformation that occurs before our very eyes!

You didn't really expect us to sit idle for very long, now, did you?