Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Look To The West!

Working a late shift at work last night (Wednesday), I was leaving the house at 7:30, I wondered to myself "What the heck is that object by Venus?" It didn't move, so wasn't a plane or satellite... I suspected it was the innermost planet Mercury, and the Internet confirmed it. This weekend it is having a close conjunction with the brilliant Venus, so it is easy to spot the innermost 3 planets (Mercury, Venus, and, of course, Earth!). This picture was taken tonight with the Canon XSI and is a 3 second exposure with the zoom set to about 80mm. They will appear closest Saturday and Sunday night, when they will only be 3 degrees, or about 6 full moon diameters apart. A map at the Sky and Telescope website shows the motion of the two objects for early April. Mercury will fade fast after the weekend, so be sure to check it out!

Oh, and of course, if you want to see the other naked eye planets, as it gets dark, the planet just outside the Earth, Mars, is very close to overhead - can't miss it with it's red tint. And the ringed planet Saturn is low in the southeast at dusk. So there are 5 planets visible at the same time as evening twilight ends (counting our own planet). Jupiter is the only bright planet that is missing - it rises just before dawn very early in the morning almost due east

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bloomin' Hedgehogs!

I'd been talking about taking Melinda to B&B Cactus Farms on the east side of Tucson for a while now. Today our schedule magically cleared, so we drove across town to their location on the far east end of Speedway. I thought it was way too early for the cacti to bloom, but boy, was I wrong! From the wagon next to the entrance sign all through the greenhouses and grounds, the place was ablaze with color. I recall an early visit 20 years or more ago, and remember a large place with lots of variety, and we were rewarded with an astounding display of diversity in more than 6 greenhouses and several acres of grounds. It is almost a tourist destination - we just wandered for an hour taking photos, never hassled by the staff, yet they were around if we had needed anything. Sorry I don't know the names of all the cacti shown here - I'm not an expert by any stretch, and not all were labelled. Their website through the link above references a customer's website where many species are named - the best I an do for now. If you are in Tucson, definitely worth a trip for the flowers, if not additions to your xeriscape (dry landscape) gardening. As for us, I can see another visit in the nearer future (not waiting another 20 years!), and likely dropping some money next trip!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Big Boy Star Chart

A couple posts ago I was looking for the identification of some objects near the Hyades star cluster. After some hints from a Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) member, one of the objects was found to be LDN1551. As the owner of several paper star charts that did not identify them, I was hoping to get to the Science Library at UA or to the Kitt Peak headquarters library to use the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS). The original POSS were prints of images taken with the 48" Schmidt Telescope back 55 years ago, and since my college days revelled in using the photographic prints to vicariously observe pretty much all there was to see in the sky. In my Kitt Peak days, not only were they used routinely by professional astronomers to make their finder charts to use at the telescope, but besides the photographic print version, there was a glass plate version which provided a truer replica of the original glass plates used in the original survey. In the '90s with finer-grained emulsions, the POSS-II was done over the course of a decade and reached fainter objects, even with the growing light pollution near Palomar.

Today I was able to get away at lunch and made the 200 meter walk to the NOAO offices and found the POSS down in the bowels of the library extension in the basement. The 1000 print pairs (red and blue exposures of the same field) fill a large file cabinet. What made them even more useful back in the '80s was a transparent overlay which labelled nearly everything in the exposure. Shown here is the blue light exposure of the Andromeda Galaxy and repeated with the overlay in place. There are lots of lil' objects there, dominated by globular clusters and a myriad of other things.

So I found the chart showing the Hyades, but in reality, my picture of the little dark clouds (admittedly windowed a little severely here), only barely showed up in the print version of POSS-I, likely printed to show stellar objects better.

However, this afternoon, while Googling the POSS, I found that digital versions are online for anyone to use, with any version of the Sky Survey, including a near infrared version that was part of the latest '90s edition. So I typed in LDN1551 and include the image here - a red exposure from POSS-II. Only a 1 degree square maximum is allowed, but a good comparison can be made. Both images are shown with north to the right. I'm still impressed what the little 135mm lens (2 hour exposure @F/4) did compared to a major observatory instrument, but it was also nice to find the on-line versions of all the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey editions at the click of a finger!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"The Great Man" - Aden Meinel

I was wondering how to title this post, and it came to me this afternoon while taking a photograph of 3 real pioneers in astronomy and optics in Arizona. After taking the photo at left of Helmut Abt, Aden Meinel, and Roger Angel (from left to right) as they toured the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, Roger offered to take a picture of me with "The Great Man", and that title seems appropriate given all his accomplishments in just a couple square blocks on the University of Arizona campus. By the way, here they were examining one of the 11 foot slumpings that Roger is researching to make inexpensive high power solar voltaic collectors.

Aden's early days in Arizona was the topic of a lecture last night as part of the public lecture series at Steward Observatory. Titled, "Why Kitt Peak? -- The History of Iolkam Du'ag and the Birth of Kitt Peak National Observatory", he addressed how Kitt Peak was selected as the site of the National Observatory. Reading his biographical highlights, Helmut Abt took nearly 10 minutes to cover the basics! The essentials, as relates here, is that Aden was in charge of selecting the location of the National Observatory, narrowed it down to a list of 4 possible locations in Arizona, Kitt Peak being the final choice, which required negotiations with the Tohono O'odham Nation for a lease arrangement. Aden served as the founding director of Kitt Peak and oversaw the site surveys, construction of the first 36" telescope and design of the 84" and 60" solar telescope. He then served as the third director of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, including the relocation of their 36" telescope to Kitt Peak, and the design of the University's 90" and Multiple Mirror Telescopes. Aden then went on to be the founding director of the Optical Sciences Center - one of only 2 optical centers in the country specializing in optical research and education. Realize that the headquarters of all 3 institutions are pretty much adjacent to each other on the University of Arizona campus, with OSC located in the Meinel Building. The photo at left shows Leo Goldberg (KPNO director), Nicholas Mayall, and Aden Meinel (former KPNO directors) at the 4-meter telescope dedication in 1973 (named for Mayall).

The lecture was filled to capacity with attendees spotted from all three centers on campus where he served as director. Interestingly, I've worked at all 3 institutions, from Kitt Peak and Optical Sciences through the '80s, and Steward Observatory since then. It was great seeing all the "old timers" there, some of which I've not seen in well over a decade!

The highlights for me are always the pictures and stories of the old days. Kitt Peak was "discovered" by Helmut Abt as he criss-crossed the desert southwest from the air. One of it's advantages was a large developable area, though it was on reservation land, and the only access was on horseback. After arranging permission for a visit with Tohono guides, Aden showed the resultant home movies and photos from that first ascent in February of 1956. He related the story of how the precious water (there was none at the mountaintop) they brought first went to the horses, then into the bucket next to the fire to which was added coffee for the group. That first overnight visit showed great promise, and the location has gone on to be one of the largest concentrations of astronomical telescopes in the world. Aden related the story of the trip down when his horse slipped on the rocks, and while it was fine, Aden broke his arm... It was some time before a road was built to the site, and the first routine access for observers and the first 16" telescopes was a bulldozer road straight up the east side where slopes approached 100% at times (45 degrees!).

Another highlight for me was the second part of the lecture, given by Bernard Siquieros, Education Curator of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Cultural Center and Museum. He told the native's historical and religious perspectives of Iolkam Du’ag (the Tohono name for Kitt Peak, which ironically roughly translates to "home of the clouds"!). Most moving for me was the slide show of past and current life on the reservation with his wife, children and grandson providing musical accompaniment in the native tongue it was great!

Kitt Peak has always been a special place for me to live, work and visit. It was a wonderful evening to learn some of it's early history and get the native perspective as well.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Trickling into Spring

Well, Spring is officially here! It was 3 weeks ago I was posting about how the the regular winter rains had been keeping the Rillito River running (it is usually a dry wash). It has now been over 2 weeks since our last rainstorm on the 7th, and while melting snow in the mountains (visible in the photo) has kept it running since then, it is definitely slowing down. While there was still significant flow yesterday, this morning the surface water ended just east of 1st Avenue. Of course, it still flows underground, just no more surface water unless it rains again. Unfortunately, we are now entering a more typical spring weather pattern (dry, temps pushing 80F) and we are unlikely to get significant rain until July. It was nice while it lasted!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Very Red Star

Sorry for all the astronomy posts lately. I know some of you would rather see remodeling pictures, or photos of our feathered friends than yet another astronomy post, but consider yourselves lucky - we've finally gotten some clear skies, and I attacked a number of projects last Wednesday!

This is sort of a follow-up to a post from 3 January when I talked a little about detecting R Leporis, a very red carbon star from town while imaging the ISS. For those amateur astronomers among you, put it on your observing list before Orion/Lepus sets for the season. It is just a few degrees below Rigel, and while a long period variable (as most carbon stars usually are), it is still easily visible in binoculars at about 6.5-7.0 magnitude. Shown here is a wide shot showing a recognisable chunk of Orion, then a closeup with a 70mm, then finally a short (couple seconds) exposure with a 5" telescope (1250mm focal length). Yes, I know the last exposure is out of focus, but while out of focus, it saturates less easily and the dramatic red color is more obvious. As it is, it is only a 10 second exposure and the ones in focus only show it as yellowish (all shots with Canon XSi).

The color is supposed to get more vivid as it gets fainter, so I'll try to get it as it comes around the sun in the fall when much fainter. The red color is due to both the low temperature of the star which makes it redder (as opposed to a much hotter, blue star like Rigel), and also because carbon molecules in it's atmosphere block the bluer part of it's spectrum, making it redder still.

While strictly not a variable star observer, I do pay attention when objects you look at directly show strong colors. Most objects viewed through a telescope are not bright enough to trigger the eye's color sensors, so galaxies and nebulae appear in shades of grey.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Partly Cloudy in Taurus

When it comes to astronomical imaging, I've professed my attraction to hunting down dark nebulae, clouds of dust and gas that are not glowing or reflecting starlight like their luminous counterparts, but rather are seen mostly by silhouette against a rich star field. I posted one of my favorite fields about 14 months ago in Taurus near the Pleiades star cluster. In another post from last October, I was examining an image of the same field with a wider lens, and thought I saw some small clouds near the Hyades, the vee-shaped star cluster that makes up the "face" of the constellation Taurus the bull. I needed to take some long exposure sequences to build up the faint images that might be there... The picture of interest is shown at left, with a label pointing to the objects in question. North is up in this exposure.

The Hyades star cluster is the closest cluster to us, 150 light years distance. The bright red supergiant star Aldebaran is unassociated with the cluster and closer to us, only 65 light years away. All the pics I've seen do not show any dark nebulae near the cluster, nor to any of my amateur star charts.

Over the last month, I've gotten out 3 times taking some exposures of the Hyades with a 135mm Nikon lens. As we progress towards Spring, Taurus is getting lower in the west, so time was getting short this observing season, and now with the moon climbing into the evening sky, the window is pretty much closed for now. I got about 2 hours of total exposure when you add together all the 3 minute exposures. Yes, there are a couple of dark clouds, and like the Taurus dark clouds in the uppermost link above, they appear to be faintly illuminated by starlight. And one of the clouds appears to have a small glowing nebula within it. Since many of these clouds are condensing to form stars, there might be a proto-star illuminating it from within... Shown are the nearly full image at left, and a closeup of the largest clouds to the right. North is to the right in these exposures

I'll have to do a little more research with professional star maps to find out the identities. It is fun to find these little-known objects with a telephoto lens and consumer camera these days...

The Latest:
Thanks to a hint from a TAAA member, the two major dark nebulae have been identified, as well as the glowing cloud within. Click the pic here for labels. They are members of a catalog from Beverly Lynds, who I actually have worked with a time or two when I was at Kitt Peak back in the early '80s. She went through the Palomar Sky Survey (in the 1960s) and cataloged all bright and dark nebulae, and came up with the LBN and LDN lists (for Lynds Bright & Dark Nebulae). So the two clouds easiest to spot are LDN 1543 and LDN 1551. The little glowing cloud inside LDN 1551 is Sharpless 239 (SH2-239), and it is, in fact, a proto-star forming region. Also found on the Internet is a spectacular image of the little glowing cloud in red light with an 8" telescope and nearly 12 hours (!) of exposure. I'm only recording the inner bright region, but the enlarged pic with the 135mm lens above shows the oval shape shown in much higher detail in the CCD image. Mystery over as to what it is, but still fun searching the little guys out!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Twilight Pair

Last night (Wednesday) I headed west out of town towards Kitt Peak National Observatory to work on an observing project before the moon climbs higher into the sky. It's natural light pollution would drown out my subject (more in a day or two on that one, I hope). But while I'm avoiding the fast brightening Moon, it was quite pretty in the twilight, hanging above our new "Evening Star" Venus, getting higher and brighter every day. They were side-by-side Tuesday night, but some high clouds inspired me to stay home, so missed that conjunction, but Wednesday, as nightfall descended, I took time out to take a couple pics of the pair.

As Venus 'rounds the sun, it is apparently getting higher in the evening sky during twilight. The presence of the Moon was just happenstance, and will pass Venus again in 4 weeks, that time the pair joined by innermost planet Mercury.

The coolest thing about the skinny crescent moon is not the sliver of it's surface directly lit by the sun, but rather the "Old Moon", which should be dark, but is lit by a mysterious glow. What causes it? It is pretty simple actually - we do, or rather, the Earth! At new moon or thin crescent stage, it is between us and the Sun, and if we were lucky enough to be standing on the lunar surface, the Earth would be a brightly lit "full" phase. In other words, when it is a new moon, from the Moon, there is a full Earth! And because the Earth subtends a considerable size from the Moon's surface (about 4 times the Moon's appearance from Earth), and also because the Earth's clouds, oceans and continents reflect much more light than the asphalt-equivalent reflectivity of the moon's surface, the dark side of the moon is lit up by earth shine, which we can easily see with our naked eyes. So while I can take a short exposure and show some of the craters along the terminator (sunrise line, where shadows enhance the Moon's relief), it always seems more impressive to me to expose a few seconds to show the earth shine.

The photos here were taken with the Canon XSi, the closeups with a Celestron 5", the wide shot with the kit lens set to 50mm focal length.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Birthday Girl!

Today was Melinda's birthday. Unfortunately, she had to leave for work at 7am for a "competency demonstration" at work. It was only for a half day, then one of her workmates took her to lunch at Tucson's newest eatery - The Cheesecake Factory! About the time I got back from my half day at the Mirror Lab, she returned, and got to open her six or eight birthday cards she got in the mail today. Of course, she also got to talk to sisters Maj and Susan in Chicago, and her sis-in-law Marsha in Omaha. And tonight, we met friends at local pub/restaurant Old Chicago. Interestingly, though full of Windy City memorabilia, there are no Old Chicagos in the city of Chicago. Liz and John got her some star earrings, and earlier, she was surprised to get a "bouquet" of chocolate dipped strawberries from former landlady and current St Charles neighbor Elaine! With all the eating out, we're temporarily off the diet recommendations that Maj gave us a week ago, but we'll be better tomorrow. She made out pretty well this birthday, I'd almost bet she wishes they came more than once per year!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

No Place Like Home!

While Jason took great care of the cats while we were gone, it is obvious that they were glad we were home! When I got up this morning the evidence was apparent as I fought my way out from under the covers. Of our 10 indoor cats, rarely do you see 6 of them on the bed at one time! The new queen size bed we just installed in St Charles seemed roomy compared to the king size with all the cats in Tucson! But we wouldn't have it any other way, in fact, it was certainly the best night's sleep I've had since we left a week ago... As the saying goes, a house without a cat is not a home!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Whirlwind Recap!

We've been here for nearly a week and it is time to go back to Tucson already! Time has flown by and not enough chances to blog, so here is a quick summary of some of our weekend activities.

Whenever here in St Charles, we're on the lookout for Bruce, our resident groundhog. We figured with the snow cover that we'd be unlikely to see him, but he has been out nearly every day! While considered a pest on the grounds here at the camp, we look forward to spotting him, and are encouraged by his digging under our shed outside, where we hope he'll take up residence.

Saturday, after nearly a full day's work on our hallway, the Johnson girls led a group of 10 to Rookies for the All-you-can-eat crab legs. It was quite the scene of devastation, with shellfish and butter everywhere! Not a fan of seafood, I had a steak, but we had some great times visiting with Carolyn, her daughter Anne and her husband Pete, and cousin Lisa and husband Dan. We respected the family's privacy and didn't bring the camera to dinner - pics of you with crab leg in your hair just isn't something you want to see!

On Sunday, our friend Carolyn joined us on our cross-state ride to Iowa to visit the Ketelsen part of the clan. Just over the river near Sabula ("Iowa's Only Island City"), we spotted some bald eagles in the trees, though couldn't stop on the bridge to shoot pictures. Once in Sabula, we pulled off at a boat ramp and shot these of an eagle defending his fish from another adult as well as a juvenile (still dark head). We've been fans of the birds since we attended the "Eagle Festival" the first weekend in January last year near Clinton, where they amass near the open water under the lock-and-dam spillways to fish. They are so majestic in the air and are amazing to watch fishing in the river. At any given moment there were upwards of 60 or more in the trees nearby. With the lack of ice on the river, we were lucky to see the 8 or 10 we spotted this late in the season.

As we entered Iowa, we called my Aunt Velma, who we'd had difficulty contacting in advance. We stopped to pay a visit and fortunately, she was available to join us on our trek to visit the rest of Dean's brothers and sisters at a "Pizza Summit" at the DeWitt Pizza Hut. All the Sibs were there, except for sister Sheri, who moved to San Antonio a few years ago. We've got to coordinate our Midwest trips better so we can all meet at once - Sheri and family were back for the holidays, but we didn't make it then... Also attending were my Uncle John and Aunt Judy - they had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary our last trip back, and just the day before was Judy's birthday, so we were glad they could join us.

Star of the show was 3-year-old Alivia, plus, sitting next to her we got the most pictures of her. But she was a ball of fire and fun to photograph - certainly not afraid of the camera! Between drink deliveries, and rounds of pizza hopping, until long afterwards (we were there for 2.5 hours!) I think everyone got to catch up on every one else's news, and it was just getting dark as we headed back to deliver Velma back to her country home near Sabula. We knew we'd miss the Oscars, so set them up to record, but still saw nearly an hour of the show after arriving home about 10pm. A great weekend and day trip to Iowa.

The last few days have been a blur - it would be great to stay longer, but the jobs in Arizona require a return. Next time we'll be posting from Tucson!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday's Observations

The weather has been spectacularly clear here in the Midwest since we arrived - 3 days in a row! This winter it has been hard to get much more than 1 day in a row in the desert Southwest. In fact, this is the first time I've spotted Venus in the western sky since our California excursion a couple weeks ago. Here is is shown just over our treeline to the west, just above a half dozen Canada Geese coming in to land in the Fox River (click to enlarge). Venus will be getting farther from the sun (ie, higher and more visible in the twilight) and getting brighter and will be very obvious through the Spring into Summer, so keep an eye out for it.

Also visible for us in the Midwest was a good appearance of the International Space Station (ISS). From our perspective tonight it traveled right through the constellation Orion, so was easy to spot, even though twilight was still strong. This is a couple second exposure of it passing the 3 belt stars of Orion, with the faint mist of the Orion Nebula among the sword stars below. For our readers in the Midwest, there is another good pass of the ISS tomorrow (Saturday) evening in the western sky, about 6:45 local time. Enter your city in the Heavens Above website for details of this and future satellite appearances. Keep watching the skies!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

New Information!

I wondered aloud in our last post that I didn't know whether the Canada Geese I saw last night and this morning were from the local population, or if they were migrating northward. This afternoon, shortly before sunset I went out into the yard with a telephoto to see what was happening. Well, I heard geese calling in the south and a minute or two later, this huge formation came flying over heading, appropriately enough, due north (following the Fox River). There had to be at least 50 or more in the group, and since I've never seen the locals flying a: in groups that large, or b: in the migratory "V" formation, I've concluded the geese we are seeing are definitely migratory.

Minutes earlier, when I first left the house, I noticed some motion near the north edge of the Riverwoods Christian Center development (where we live). I happened to notice a deer, then 2 more, and eventually the whole group of seven came into view. I never got very close, perhaps 200 meters or more, and they were pretty cautious even when I took a few steps in their direction. They are white-tailed deer, I could tell from their white flag of a tail which they hold up as they flee (the underside of the tail is white). I saw few signs of deer at Tekakwitha this morning, and was wondering about the local population. It is apparent that they are doing fine!

First Sign of Spring!

Ironic that we travel from Tucson, AZ to St Charles, IL, and the first sign of Spring that we spot is outside a snowbank in Illinois! I was talking to sister Kathy this morning when I happened to look outside the window and spotted this Crocus bud popping up through last Fall's dropped leaves.

The ground here is still mostly snow covered, but there is little ice on the river. I was out admiring the night sky last night (still considerably brighter than Tucson, especially with snow on the ground to direct light upwards) and was surprised to hear flocks of geese flying at night. Watching them carefully, I could even spot some against the light-polluted sky as they came down to land in the Fox River. This morning the river was loaded with Canada Geese, but I couldn't tell if they were part of the native population or if they, like us, were on their way north.

After sleeping in this morning, I went off on a shopping trip for some eating supplies and stopped for a walk at our regular Tekakwitha Forest Preserve on the way home. The bike path on the way to the river was still snow and ice covered - in fact, you could still see where cross-country skiers were using it recently. The trails in the woods were perfect for walking - the shade of the woods left the ground snow and ice covered, but the temp was such that it wasn't too slushy, icy, or muddy. A beautiful day for a walk - perfectly blue skies, temps in the low 40s.

One of the tasks to accomplish here is to work on one of our hallways that sister Maj has been working on. When I finally got home after my walk they were working out the strategy for the walls and floor.The plan is for drywall, boxing in the electrical boxes and a wooden floor like we did in the bedroom. Eventually the entire house is likely to have the same floor treatment, so we are working it in where we can.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

False Spring...

The temperature was tickling 70F today (21C), but looking through the neighborhood still shows little signs of Spring except all the weeds in the yard from the winter rains. The lush green growth of one of our most spectacular desert plants, the Ocotillo is similarly, not a sign of Springtime temperatures, but rather from the abundance of rain. Normally appearing like dead-looking sticks sprouting from a common point, they will leaf out immediately after a rainfall, then, if no rain is forthcoming in a week or two, the plant will drop the leaves to prevent water loss from transpiration. The cycle will recur whenever rain appears. When Spring really comes, the tips are covered with clusters of orangish-red flowers. I'll have to keep an eye out and document that for you. Do note in the closeup however, that buried in the leaves are some very sharp spines to keep away animals that might be tempted to eat the greenery. Also note that the ocotillo is NOT a cactus! Check out the Wikipedia link above for more pics and info.

Spring for us will have to wait a bit, as tomorrow we head off to the Midwest for a taste of the remaining Winter and the warm glow of family for a few days. The kitties will be left in the capable hands of their regular house sitter, while we blog about exciting (for us!) snow scenes. I know our friends and family there are ready for Winter to be over, though we'd be glad to be blamed for bringing higher temps with us if it happens!