Friday, December 31, 2010

Out With The Old...

Along with the end-of-the-year "out with the old, in with the new" theme, the same goes with some technology that Melinda has been after me to replace. My old cell phone, which has served me very well, was approaching inclusion in the Smithsonian Institute. This particular phone , which was only 5 years old (replaced when the original got wet), was actually a model at least 10 years old from what was Vicki's first cell phone. And while it excelled at what I used it for (making phone calls), it was beginning to show it's age - like most of the numbers being worn off. It was getting difficult to make calls unless you had the number pattern memorized.

So for Christmas, I've entered the 21st century when Melinda got me a "smart phone" - smarter than me, anyway! It is a Droid X and does everything but scratch my back! Of course, it has a camera, a pretty good one, that also takes video (picture of Mia enclosed). It has GPS capability, as well as Internet connectability via Verizon, and about a gazillion other things I'm still learning about. It even makes phone calls! My favorite among the "apps" is of course Google Sky, which shows a view of the stars in pretty good detail where you have the phone pointed, acting like an interactive star chart. Of course, it works clear or cloudy, even showing the sun under your feet in the middle of the night!

Another of my favorites I've found these first few days is Pandora Radio. You set up virtual radio stations by entering a favorite artist or musical genre, voting thumbs up or down for music the app thinks you would like, thus refining the users tastes. By applying your likes and dislikes to the hundreds of thousands of songs available, it develops a music list just for you that would be unlike the list for another user, even starting from the same beginning artist. Melinda found an abundance of other applications, from turning the Droid into a precision bubble level, even a flashlight, with tunable light (astronomers like the red lights, you know!). Another can be used at the store to read bar codes, giving the list price, and I believe nutritional information as well for food items.

So I think it will be great, though there is a learning curve that will take some time getting used to... I've always been a touch typist, never having typed with my thumbs on a small screen, so I can't see sending many e-mails or blog posts from the new phone, but you never know! But with navigational info, google maps, Internet access and everything else, fitting in your pocket, it is a new age!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Snow! In Tucson!

Well, very near Tucson, anyway! Just up the hill a little bit towards Mount Lemmon, the mountain range has a winter frosting of white. While we suspected as much with the rain overnight the mountains were shrouded in clouds and fog through the morning. It wasn't until we came out of the movies this afternoon (we saw "The King's Speech" - an excellent flick, and my favorite going into Oscar Season!) that we saw a clear view of the hills and grabbed a couple frames from the top of Alvernon Avenue.

It is interesting that since I blogged about the rain on my birthday 2 weeks ago, it has rained for 3 straight Thursdays! I also noted in that post that the weather patterns suggest a dry winter for the desert southwest! Now note that the total rainfall for the month of December is only .46", but still, the rainy Thursday is something I could get used to, especially if we could always arrange to get nice sunny weekends. With the clearing storm, cold air is moving in - it is already at freezing here at 10pm, with low temps tonight expected in the low 20s (F). Interestingly, it is about the same highs and lows they are currently getting in Chicago today and tomorrow! Rare for us!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

More Sunset Fun!

We certainly hope that all of our regular readers (all 5 or 6 of you!) have gone to Youtube and checked out the spectacular sunset alignment video we posted way back 10 days ago. Partly because of that success, we got to repeat the sunset trip several times, setting a record of 4 attempts this season!

Adam Block, who runs the SkyNights program on Mount Lemmon had a large group going up for the lunar eclipse on the 20th. Unfortunately, while we had some views of the sun while we set up the 5 telescopes (!), the sunset was totally socked in, and other than the view of Kitt Peak telescopes, the group of 25 people were skunked on the sunset observing. At least we tried! I think they had at least partial success on the lunar eclipse observing like we did in town...

Our next try was on Christmas eve the 24th. Friends Tom and Jenn came down from Phoenix to join in the fun with at least 3 other TAAA members. I was thinking that the only way we could improve on our sunset video from the 18th was to do it in the light of Hydrogen Alpha, using a special filtered view that normally shows dramatic activity in the light of a primary hydrogen reaction. When you see images of the sun showing large flame-like structures off it's edge (called prominences), it is likely an Halpha image. Tom is about the only person I know with such a setup, so we supplied Melinda's camera for another video, and he supplied the scope and mount for the partnership. He also shot some white-light shots with a telephoto and through his 10" telescope.

The attempt was partly successful for us. There was indeed a nice prominence that was visible that was just about the last part of the sun to set, but because we needed to use a diagonal in the filter train, the video is flipped left-to-right. Rather than show an inverted video, we show some individual frames here that we flipped in Photoshop. To show the prominence, the disk needs to be overexposed some, and it is hard to coax good views of the prominence so low to the horizon, but I think we did ok (barely visible at the top of the frame). Everyone in the group was successful, even though we were once again shooting through some thin clouds in the west. First timers Jim and Susan O'Connor even had one of their images picked as the solar astronomy picture of the say!

Tom and Jenn stayed the night at our house (we dined on crock pot chili that was waiting for our return from the sunset), setting up Tom's 10" to look for the storm on Saturn in the early morning hours. Unfortunately, the atmospheric seeing was so bad, we could barely tell that the planet had rings!

About the time they took off for Phoenix at noon the next day, another friend Laurie arrived (another Phoenix refugee). She was also interested in the sunset alignment, so we headed up once again. Unfortunately, we were shooting through thin clouds again, and while the video was fine, the blustery wind we had was really shaking the mount, almost inducing motion sickness watching the movie! With the clouds we had more spectacular colors, and we paused at another pullout on the way down to watch the city lights come up against the dimming twilight. Laurie had a great time documenting it all.

So for this December 2010 solstice sunset season, we were 3 successes for 4 attempts. The alignment seems perfect - that pullout at milepost 8.7 seems the perfect place to be when the sun reaches -23.40 degrees declination. It was interesting that none of the 3 "clear" sunsets were actually perfectly clear, but we had great views of each anyway. And even though we got that perfect video on the 18th, well likely do it again a few times next year!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bella Luna

We've been planning for this night for a long time. The 2010 Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse. In fact, I intentionally scheduled myself off of work for this night. So, when the clouds started building, and the radar looking too vibrantly colored I was a little more than disappointed. We had hoped to join our TAAA friends at one of the club's dark sky sites (TIMPA), but decided that it just wasn't worth the drive over the mountains to get there with a cloudy sky. All the same, we continued to poke our heads out the back door to peek at the moon as the time drew near. Lo and behold! "Sucker holes"! "Sucker holes" are those breaks in the clouds where you can see 'some' stars, but you still have mostly cloud cover. If we were in Illinois we'd be thrilled to have a few of those to get a glimpse of the eclipse; being in Arizona we expect clear skies. Clouds were not in our plans! However, since we were seeing a bit of 'hope' I grabbed my camera while Dean went for the tripod. There's a distinct advantage when it comes to being married to someone who is SO good at what he does, I have to admit that up front. Dean set me up with a great tripod and a Meade 80mm, f6 (480mm focal length) lens/telescope for a lens to shoot through. Yes, some of the time I was shooting through clouds, but the results speak for themselves!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Holiday Sunset Alignment!

It is that time of year again - if we are nearing the winter solstice and the holidays are upon us, it is time once again to travel up the Mount Lemmon Highway to once again document the sunset alignment against Kitt Peak National Observatory. I feel like an astronomer of old, looking for alignments to tell the turning of the seasons, and indeed this is true. From "my spot" (about milepost 8.7) along the Mt Lemmon Highway, the alignment is nearly perfect when the sun hits a declination of -23 degrees, 24 minutes which happens on the sunsets of the 18th and 24th this year. All of the telescope domes atop the mountain will fall within the observed disk of the sun.

This year we had 3 other TAAA members observing with us. Meeting at the base of the mountain at McDonalds at 3:30, it was a 30 minute drive up to the spot, providing plenty of time to set up equipment. This year, rather than take still images every few seconds and turn them into a movie like last year, we decided to use Melinda's T1i to take HD video - duh! It should look much nicer, and at 30 frames a second, with sound besides, it should be the ultimate reproduction of the sunset. Besides Melinda's Canon T1i, I also used the Celestron 5 I got from Elinor and David Levine - it provides the perfect image scale for the moon or sun to just fill the short axis of the APS-C sensor. I practiced using the video mode the night before on the moon, and freshly collimated on a star to provide the sharpest images.

While the alignment has been reduced to a science (no question anymore of a perfect alignment), the weather conditions were questionable even as we met at the base of the hill. High clouds were gathering and they looked even thicker towards the west, but we were all motivated to try, so off we went. After setup, focus and alignment, we got to gather, offer advice and guidance as "magic time" came. It appeared luck was with us as a clear strip appeared over the mountain, from our vantage point at least, 60 miles away. As the sun moved ever closer to the horizon, it finally came into the telescope's field of view and I pushed the "record" button. I was anxious as a cat near a rocking chair, but the image on the camera screen looked just about perfect. After the sun disappeared behind the 90" telescope, I removed the solar filter and recorded the sunset colors for a couple more minutes. In all, we got nearly 9 minutes of video, recorded at the medium-HD resolution. Still, it is about 1.4GB, so impossible to display on the blog at anything approaching full resolution - we'll have to see how we can display it publicly. Shown here are a few frames pulled from the video... It was fun gathering around and watching the replay. Playback at normal speed with the sound is quite fun, approaching the anticipation of even a total solar eclipse as it progresses!  {We have uploaded the video to  If you click on this link "Mt. Lemmon/Kitt Peak Sunset" you will be able to watch it!  Remember, it is a huge file and if you have a slow internet connection it may take a very long time.}

But the fireworks were not quite over. Even well after the sun had gone down, the western sky was ablaze with color and shifting clouds. This was, without a doubt, the most amazing, dynamic sunset I've seen. Cloud patterns and colors shifted minute to minute and it seemed to go on for much longer than most colorful sunsets. Just amazing! And for dessert, we stopped on the trip down the hill at one of the overlooks showing the city lights, Kitt Peak far in the distance (the flat-topped mountain on the horizon). We continued on to a holiday party at my boss', but what we had just witnessed will stay with us for a long time!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Birthday Present for a Desert Rat!

Yes, today is my birthday. What could a guy possibly look forward to, living in the desert where rainfall barely averages 12" in a year? Well rain showers, of course! And while not exactly on my wish list, it did rain today, nearly 2 months since we got our last measurable amount (.07") on 21 October. The extended forecasts point out that the La Nina weathern pattern is in position, leading to higher temperatures and less precipitation than normal. Unlike last Winter where it rained weekly through the season, expectations should be lessened into Spring and Summer. Good news, I guess, for amateur astronomers - less rain means clearer skies perhaps, but sometimes a good rain seems the perfect prescription for clearing the air and setting the world straight again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Somewhere Over New Mexico...

We had a very nice return flight to Tucson, arriving nearly 30 minutes early, and of course, leaving temps of about 10F, arriving to about 70F! During the flight I was thinking (I had the window seat) that stars should be visible, but it was tough to look up very high when adjacent to the window, so I did the next best thing and used the Canon camera! Shown here is the view to the south from 30,000 feet. I think El Paso, TX is distant center, Alamogordo, NM to the left, Las Cruces,NM to the right. Orion and the bright star Sirius are visible to the upper right of the wing of our aircraft. The bright moon provided some ambient light, but also visible are some reflections, as there were some reading lights in use in the seats in front of us. I used Melinda's winter coat to block most of the lights, and hand-held the camera against the Plexiglas window for the 15 second exposure with the 10mm zoom (wide open F/3.5, ISO 1600). Not a great image, but you have to make your own fun when held captive for 3.5 hours!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Baby It's C-C-Cold Outside!

As is normal in this part of the world after a snowstorm, the skies clear and the temperature drops, and keeps dropping! The high today was barely out of the single digits (F), and the lows tonight will be well into negative territory.

I did manage a short hike this morning - the only good thing I can say is that it is easier hiking in snow and ice when it is well below freezing rather than the slushy wet stuff like on Saturday... It was interesting to get a bit of a brain freeze when turning into the wind, and the mustache freezes together from your breath. Ahh, brings back memories from the olden days!

The camera worked fine in the frigid temps, I managed to get a couple shots I liked that I hope convey the cold. The Geminid meteor shower reaches it's peak tonight, though I'm not sure we're going to brave the negative temperatures to do any observing. It is also our last night in the Midwest already, and we'll likely have better things to do tomorrow than recover from lack of sleep!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Winter Wonderland???

We're taking our holiday break away from the desert, leaving house and cats in the hands of our trusted sitter, to visit family and friends in the Midwest. Rather than fight crowds during the holidays, we've found it easier (and less expensive) to travel during the off-peak times between the holidays. So after leaving the Tucson high temperatures near 80F, we find ourselves in 6-8 inches of snow with highs in the 20s and 30s!

I must say it has been rather enjoyable, I've kept up with daily walks till today, going out for an hour or two at a time slogging through the woods and roads. It is a comfort, though, knowing that in a few days time we'll be back in the sun-soaked upper 70s again. I'm not sure we could survive the nearly 6 months of winter they've got here, though it is great coming back for visits! Meanwhile, I've snapped a few photos along my journeys, showing the snow and ice. I've spotted lots of deer tracks (white tail are common here), though I've yet to spot the real thing. We imagine they peer in the windows at us at night, but we never see them when we peek back. The ole' steel toed hiking boots have been great keeping my feet comfy in the walks through the woods, and it is obvious from the tracks that there are humans doing the same thing, but I've yet to run across any. Temps have nosedived today, and with up to 30mph winds and near blizzard conditions, I've not ventured out today. We're contemplating a trip to Iowa to visit my side of the family - we're at least starting out and seeing how bad the roads are. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures, and we hope you are all cozy, wherever you are!

UPDATE: We left for Iowa, but it took nearly an hour to go 25 miles with the blowing snow, whiteout conditions, and snowpacked roads. So we turned around and gave up the idea to see the Ketelsen clan this trip. We're now hunkered down enjoying our cable TV the rest of the weekend...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Some New Faces to go with the Familiar Ones...

We're way behind posting, but hopefully will catch up this weekend. Waaay back on the 2nd we took a day trip out to Tombstone and Whitewater Draw, one of the earliest visits of the season we've made to the popular birding site. The excuse for the trip was our Phoenix friend Donna and her mother Shirley visiting from Florida making a multi-day tour of Tucson. Add to that another friend Margie who was taking the scenic route to her place in Mexico, and Derald, who we talked into joining us to help balance out all the females, and we had a crowd! Shirley had never been to Southern Arizona before, and she was pretty much astounded by the vista as we rounded every corner. Our general plan was a morning departure, spend a couple hours checking out Tombstone (the town too tough to die), purported at one time to be the largest city between St Louis and San Francisco in the mid-1800 heyday. Then, after a bite of late lunch, head the 25 miles to Whitewater Draw to watch the Sandhill Cranes return from their feeding to gather at the wetlands there.

Interestingly, on our first stop in Tombstone, sort of an art gallery co-op, we ran into an astronomical celebrity! Bob Kepple looked familiar to me as we entered and roamed around, but it wasn't till we saw the "Night Sky Observer's Guide" in front of him (he is co-author) that I remembered we had chatted just this last summer at the Astronomical League meeting. He lives nearby in Sierra Vista and just happened to be volunteering that day to tend the gallery. Since all of us had a little astronomy background, we chatted it up and he pointed out his astronomical-themed paintings he had done. Unfortunately, he didn't make any sales to us, but we did take him up on his recommendation for lunch and headed to the Longhorn. Most of the females in the group shopped on the way, Margie for art and jewelry, Donna and Shirley for souvenirs. I caught Melinda making out with a cigar store Indian, and also captured mother and daughter before they ducked out of view into another shop.

After lunch at the Longhorn, we headed to Whitewater Draw. It is always a surprise as to what will greet us on our arrival, but we were gratified there were lots of cranes. Unfortunately, the water level was just about the lowest I've ever witnessed. The ponds that were usually filled with coots and duck varieties were mostly dry, and while there were lots of cranes, they were not particularly close to the viewing areas. The waterfowl attendance was very low, though we did spot some Northern Shovelers and Cinnamon Teal. Shown above too is a Say's Phoebe, showing the characteristic short loopy flights of flycatchers, oftentimes landing at the same spot they launched.

Of course, I was overjoyed to catch my favorite of the location, the Vermillion Flycatcher. The male is so spectacular, how can you not love him? The female is a drab brown, and was hanging about nearby. Interestingly, I've never seen more than a single male - I think they are pretty territorial. Whether I've been seeing the same individual year after year, or different ones, I'm not sure, but I'm glad to have captured him. This one fluffed the feathers atop his head, and looks like he's wearing a really bad toupee from the rear...

Inevitably, the sun headed for the western horizon and the birds started settling in for the night. The Northern Harrier that we saw last trip made a couple passes, always producing a commotion when passing as the birds shout out warnings. I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike, but he was too fast for me to catch with camera. At left is a shot of our group (except for me) at one of the viewing stands, with the sunset-lit LBT dome atop Mount Graham 85 miles distant. From left are Donna, Shirley, Margie, Derald and Melinda. Always visible from the site is the profile of the Chiricahua Apache Indian chief Cochise, in a landmark called "Cochise's Head", nearly 50 miles distant. By the way, ALL of these shots were taken with the Canon XSi shooting through a small Meade telescope - an 80mm F/6, 3-element APO (480mm focal length), with manual focus, of course.

The sun set, and as darkness approached, so did additional cranes, returning from nearby fields to the water for safety from predators. I was able to get one more shot in the dying light against distant pink clouds. The deafening noise that 30,000 cranes make is hard to describe, but even as the frigid temperatures envelop you, it is difficult to leave as hundreds and thousands more arrive, flying invisibly over your head, yet calling to those already on the ground. As we finally walked back in the dark, we had yet one more friend to greet from last year - a Great Horned Owl, seen only as a faint silhouette in a tree, yet confirmed by his glowing eye in the flash picture. We finally departed for civilization, enjoying a fine Italian dinner near Derald's house in Corona de Tucson, and we made it back home about 10pm, even getting to watch the last few plays of the Arizona Wildcats losing to arch-nemesis ASU. But still a great day spent with friends and the cast of characters we visit once again at Whitewater Draw.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Pleasant Evening Under the Stars

Melinda's work mates display a sense of awe regarding our interest (more like obsession) with astronomy.  So she gets requests about going out to observe with us sometimes.  We had 2 couples interested in observing with us, as well as a tour of the Mirror Lab, so we set a time weeks ago and went out last weekend.  One of the couples had out of town guests, so only stayed for the Lab tour.  But Melissa and Dave were game for bundling up for cold weather and stopping at Bianchi's Pizza on the way to Timpa, the astronomy club's "close-in" observing spot out west of Saguaro National Park on the west side of town.

It was a very pleasant night (though cold - in the 40s), and it was also Christian's last night in Tucson.  he was to leave for home to Switzerland the next morning!  We set up the C-14 and also had an 8" for zooming around the sky.  Christian hunted down some more obscure objects, while Melinda located some showpieces for the neophytes.  I helped set up both, then set up a camera to take a snapshot of the spectacular Zodiacal Light meeting up with the Summer Milky Way in the western sky.  The Zodiacal Light is caused by sunlight shining off dust in the plane of the solar system.  It is brightest near the sun, and also has a subtle brightening near the anti-solar point as mentioned a couple posts ago.  Normally, the Zodiacal Light is most visible in the springtime sky when the ecliptic plane rises straight up from the horizon, but from the clear skies of Arizona, is visible almost all year long.  Here it meets up with the Milky Way making a big "V" right at the horizon.  The 4 stars just left of the caretaker's house lights are the 4 stars of the teapot asterism's handle located near the center part of our galaxy.

And of course, a fun evening such as this one required a group photo.  Using a flash to light up the participants (how often do you use a flash for astronomical imaging?), we stood still for the 1-minute exposure so the stars wouldn't make us transparent (if we had moved, stars would appear through our image).  From left are Dave, Melissa, Melinda, me and Christian.  Christian has now been back to Europe for a week and claims he has yet to see a star, our own sun included!