Friday, August 27, 2010

Another Cometary Blast From the Past!

While on vacation a couple weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a book publisher looking for permission to use one of my photos in a text. This is now the second request I've gotten in the last 14 months while in the middle of a month off where I didn't have a backup of my images with me. My images aren't that popular, in fact these last 2 requests have been the only ones in recent memory. The last time this particular image was used was back in film days, and in any case, I didn't even have a scan of the original to send them. So after a search for the slide and a run to the lab to get a scan, I've got a pretty cool shot of Comet Hale Bopp from March, 1997. I need to think about scanning other favorite images from that era...

It was a time I remember well! I had just gotten a Schmidt camera, so I had the perfect camera to record a wide field with short exposures. The comet first appeared in the morning sky, so at it's peak, I was making 3am trips up to Mount Lemmon's Geology Vista to set up gear, take a couple exposures, drop off the film on the way to work, pick up at noon. If they were great, I would get a day or two off. If they needed re-shooting, off on another morning excursion. Fortunately, the weather remained cooperative, and I got some nice sequences of the dust and ion tail developments.

Shown here is a wide crop from the morning of 18 March, 1997. It was nearly at it's most spectacular, visible in a dark sky. It was brighter a month or two later, but didn't ever get as far from the sun. Both tails were quite spectacular and well developed. The white tail above is from sunlight reflecting off the dust released by the comet's "dirty snowball" nucleus sublimating as it neared the sun. The bluish ion tail is from the fluorescence of the molecules carbon monoxide and water when sunlight knocks off an electron(CO+ and H2O+). Because these molecules are so much lighter than dust particles, they are driven directly back from the sun from the solar wind. The exposure was 3 minutes on Elite 100 slide film. By the way, I still have the 8" Schmidt camera, but because no one uses film anymore, and the focus of the telescope is inside the light beam it has almost no value at the present time... In this view, north is to the left, west is up.

Earlier this year I blogged about another spectacular comet a few years back. Interestingly, the streakiness in the tail, called synchrones, are visible in both comets. Hale-Bopp set records for brightness. Being very large (estimated 25 miles diameter compared to a "normal" comet's 1-5 miles diameter), it was visible to the naked eye for nearly 18 months (twice as long as the former record holder)! Ironically, the closest it ever got to us was 120 million miles - always on the far side of the solar system. If the comet had appeared 6 months earlier or later when the earth was in that part of it's orbit, Hale Bopp would have been as bright as the full moon!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Escaping the Heat

Yesterday a few members of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) were scheduled for a star party with a payoff - free food! For nearly 10 years now, the Optical Sciences Center (OSC) has hosted a mixer for incoming graduate students, holding it at the Kitt Peak National Observatory picnic area. It is an excellent venue for such an event, with real bathrooms, room to explore, trails to hike, and telescope tours on the mountaintop. If the monsoon gods allow clear skies, there are some great dark skies for some observing. And the payoff for nearly any desert rat is the cool mountaintop for a temporary respite from the heat.

I decided to go up early to take some pictures, and got there just as dark clouds starting approaching from the south. While walking around the Observatory grounds, the rumble of thunder was a constant reminder to keep moving - lightning was coming to the exposed mountaintop soon!

Stereo pairs are still on my agenda! Even though I still have plans to start a 3-D only blog, I've been too lazy to pull the trigger, though I've been collecting images like crazy. Shown at left are 2 versions of the same view. The left one is meant for cross-eyed viewing - slightly crossing your eyes after clicking the image should result in a center 3-D image. The right version is identical except designed for parallel viewing for those that have difficulty crossing their eyes. Look across the room, then look through the screen, and hopefully fuse the images into 3-D. The disadvantage of the latter view is that you can't have images larger than your eye separation, so small details are lost in the reduction. The interesting thing is that slight cloud motion in the few seconds between frames make them appear to be right behind the domes - not quite true in real life! I'm always up for comments on your successes or failures at viewing these, so send a comment or e-mail to let me know how they work for you. More coming in the new blog roll out!

Originally I had planned on taking some infrared scenics, but the increasing clouds made the views less dramatic, so ended up heading down to the picnic area to await other astronomers and the OSC crew. Even with the approaching storm, the radio telescope was actively observing, these shots taken as the rain started coming down. An IR shot was followed up a few minutes later with the more familiar color shot.

The rain picked up as the crowd arrived - I'm guessing about 40 students, half a dozen or more staff and faculty helped out. After cold sandwiches last year, they switched back to catered Mexican food again this year and it was quite excellent. With the arrival of darkness and more sprinkles, I got to be the entertainment, arranged in advance to give a presentation about the Mirror Lab, as well as show some examples of my astro-imaging. I think it went pretty well, after which most everyone packed up the leftovers and headed back to town early. Even with no hope of observing, the astronomers lingered a little, enjoying the cool moist air of the mountaintop. There was still distant lightning for the drive back to civilization and showers even in town (mountains typically get 3 times the annual rainfall of the valley). But we got a nice break from a hot Tucson summer!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I'll Take Potpourri for $400, Alex!

We had an uneventful trip back to Tucson last night. Nice flight - we even had an empty seat between us to spread out, rare these days! We spent the trip reading - Melinda with a mystery she picked up, I'm on volume 2 of the Stieg Larsson trilogy. Best of all, we got in 20 minutes early... The cats all seemed to recognize us and Annie was overjoyed to be home, though not to see the other cats!

Tonight's post includes my favorite images of the trip that haven't made it to the blog yet... Starting off was a pretty view we saw after a family dinner in Clinton, Iowa. Venus, Mars, Saturn and Mercury made a nice conjunction in the twilight sky this last month, but only Venus is visible in this early-twilight shot with the Clinton County Courthouse in the foreground.

The bulk of the shots are from my frequent walks through the woods either at the Riverwoods Christian Center where we live or the local forest preserve. First up is an uncommon sight while walking through the area - a lone white tail fawn. It is always a good idea to take careful note of your surroundings - this fellow was visible only about 30 yards from the bike trail at Tekakwitha Forest Preserve. While keeping a wary eye on me he remembered what his momma taught him - you are less obvious when you stay still.

I always keep a close watch on the milkweed plants, quite numerous along roadsides and in open prairie. They are a common food source for a variety of insects, including Monarch butterflies and the Milkweed Bugs shown here. These are the nymph versions of the bugs, before they develop their wings. The pod was just swarming with a couple sizes of nymphs. The singular little fellow was posing for me along a leaf edge in the morning sun, so was easy to get a sharp image of him, swarming mosquitoes notwithstanding...

Back down at the bike trail along the woods, the spot of green along a tree branch caught my attention - a Katydid. Related to crickets and grasshoppers, they are identified by their long antennae. I don't recall ever seeing one before, though likely because I wasn't paying attention!

The accompanying shot is a damselfly, I believe a Blue-Fronted Damselfly.... There were a lot of them flitting about, but their eyes provide great vision and they are pretty shy. After trying to get close enough to see anything of them, I was glad to eventually get this photo!

And finally, a spectacular caterpillar was captured, though my Internet researcher to ID it is working tonight, so hope to get it's name soon...  (From Melinda:  I'm the aforementioned Internet researcher and it is a white-marked tussock moth caterpillar .)

We had clear skies most of the flight to Tucson, though the sun set about halfway back. I bugged Melinda, who had the window seat, to interrupt her reading to grab some shots and stereo pairs. Shown here in deep twilight is Albuquerque under a scattered cloud cover. The color contrast was quite striking, and with nearly quarter second exposures, this one was the only one of a half dozen that wasn't blurred.

It was a great trip and I was able to score some nice (in my opinion) photos. After going there for years I'm still seeing new stuff every time I go out. I guess that is a good thing - more reasons to go back!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bruce(?) Lives!

We often see and blog about Bruce - our resident groundhog living under the building next to us. It was always fun to see a friendly face, though we never fed or approached other than to take a photo. Though we feared for his demise - Maj had seen a dead groundhog on the lane here over the winter, and our last trip there was an intense effort at the camp to trap yet another groundhog that had taken up residence in his burrow. A pic I took indicated the "new one" was different, and it seemed smaller with much better eyesight than "old Bruce (shown at left). Whether it was a mate or offspring, we didn't know...

So with the trapping effort (to relocate, so far as we knew), I hadn't seen him this trip, nor have I even been looking for him. So it was a shock this morning, when on a trip to the car, I saw a blur of brown running back to the burrow. It appears to be the "new Bruce" ! He doesn't look in the best of shape, with uneven fur, but it was a nice surprise to see a familiar shape, if not face in the yard.

Bathroom Remodel

It is a rare trip to the Midwest that we don't spend most of our time on a major remodelling project, and this trip was no exception! The task this time was the bathroom - the existing sink was small, and the mirror/medicine chest, attached to the wall, was sticking out so far you bumped your head to spit out your toothpaste... The "before" version is shown at left on our last trip to Illinois.

You can see part of the wall has already been done - Maj had worked extensively on the bathroom over the winter, but waited for us on that last wall to enjoy some of the fun with plumbing and electrical work!

We had gotten a pedestal sink a year or more in Iowa at a second hand store, but couldn't find a pedestal that fit it, so it was abandoned and a new set obtained.

By the time I returned from my RAGBRAI trip, the girls (Melinda and sister Maj), had already removed the mirror from the wall and ripped out the sink and vanity. I arrived just in time to help enlarge the hole in the wall to countersink the mirror/medicine chest, and install plumbing fixtures in the new sink. Melinda spent an evening replacing wiring in the wall and also installed new light fixtures over the sink.

The next work session involved installing new bead board siding, matching the efforts that Maj had completed up to the sink. It is always impressive watching sis-in-law Maj - always a whirlwind of activity. Best not to get in her way when she is wielding a nailgun! It was about all Melinda and I could do to keep up with her on the chop saw cutting trim...

Once the wall was finished and a coat of primer/sealer put on, we had to complete the tiling, which was missing where the old vanity stood. Fortunately we had a few squares of original tiles to fill in, though not enough to remove partials and install full tiles to match the floor pattern. So the tiles look a little funky under the new pedestal sink, but who notices those sorts of things?

And then it was time for the sink installation, which went just fine. The only issue was the waste line that seeped a little for a couple days, till we figured out that one of the clamp gaskets had been installed backwards and wasn't sealing properly. The last step was to install a little shelf to hold glasses or jewelry and finally the project was done...

The remodel went pretty quickly, but only after working hard on it for a week or so. The girls continued to be productive with sewing projects, and we spent an evening installing and running a coax through the house for a wall-mount TV in the bedroom, so our "vacation in the woods" had a relaxing second half enjoying the fruits of our labors!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Annie's Excellent Vacation

While we've travelled with our cats before, it was usually for an extended period, and never on a plane. For this summer's trip, we had made plans to bring Annie with us on the plane. She seemed to like her under-seat carrier from the start, and according to Melinda was great on the plane (though the drugs might have helped!). We were encouraged on our May trip by the couple bringing along 2 cats a few rows in front of us, though put off a bit by the price ($100 each way), we decided to try it!

So it has been a couple weeks - time for a report. She grew up in the Illinois cottage, and ran through it when she arrived, seemed to adapt very well. She seemed surprised to be alone for the first time in years, and still searches behind the couch and under the covers for imaginary creatures or for the cats that she's sure must be around somewhere. Annie has never been a lap cat, but for the first part of her stay here she followed us around, getting lots of attention, even with company in the house. She's not seemed to miss running around outside like she does in Tucson, but spends some time looking outside at the strange green stuff on the ground...

But when her "cousin" Jack (the rather large golden retriever) came to visit, she disappeared under the bed until hours after he left. She really hasn't recovered, disappearing to that or other hiding places, and her favorite spot is now way up out of the way on the mantle - an appropriate hiding place in a high spot. The return trip is in a few days and she's expected to do well - it will be interesting to see how she reacts to all her brothers and sisters in Tucson...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Very Popular Plant!

While visiting Illinois, I've been trying to get out to explore the nearby woods like I do most days here... This summer though, for the first time in my 5 (!) years coming here, the mosquitoes are so thick you really can't stand still for more than a few seconds without being swarmed. It is probably a combination of the higher-than-normal heat and the wet summer that makes it so. The last few summers have been reasonably cool without skeeter issues.

So when trying to take pictures, especially with the macro lens, you get at most about 10 seconds to frame, focus and shoot before you need to stand up, swat, shake them off, or move on. Similarly, changing lenses takes the skill of an Indy pit crew to coordinate motions.

Today, I spent over an hour walking through Tekakwitha Forest Preserve, half for exercise, half for the photo ops, returning home about midday, when the pests are usually not very active. Their activity had lessened somewhat, so I walked down to the Fox River a few yards from our house and noticed a literal beehive of activity around some thistles in full bloom.

After searching for signs of Monarch butterflies the last few weeks around the milkweeds here (butterflies, caterpillars or chrysalises), I finally saw one and watched it for several minutes feeding on the thistle nectar. This one was a male, identified from the lighter black markings, and the small pheromone emitter spots on the top of the rear wing. It was interesting to see him feeding, moving from flower to flower, occasionally sharing with other insects. I got a pic of him with a bee, and while they would share for a bit, the butterfly would always defer to the bee and take off when it got too close.

With the plentiful food supply, the insects were quite tolerant of each other's presence. Here is a shot of 6 insects of I think 3 species sharing a single flower. Still, I think the honeybees were the alphas, taking dominance over all that I saw, but they did share. I still need to develop my id skills - the copper-colored butterfly is likely in the skipper family, given the thick body, large eyes and long proboscis. Melinda, is on the case and names it a Fiery Skipper, known to be in the Kane County area. The honey bees looked happy with their little thigh-bags packed full of pollen.

In all, I took about 50 picturesin 11 minutes elapsed time(from the data files), from which these pics were culled. A nice variety of insects in such a short time, particularly from a single plant!

I'll leave you with a mystery - one which I've never seen and have a hard time describing, let alone look up - the colorful fellow on the right... There is another honeybee in the background, and what looks to be a cabbage white on the left. Late-breaking news - Melinda found it! It is an Ailanthus Webworm moth. A new find for me!

ADDENDUM! Today (Sunday) was one of those treasured Midwest summer days - pure blue sky, temps in the low 80sF, dry with a nice breeze. The breeze kept the skeeters at bay, and I went down to yesterday's popular thistle plant and found more of the Ailanthus Webworm moths. Though the wind made imaging difficult, I managed to get a little better angle than up it's rear end. A striking insect!

Friday, August 13, 2010


Day two of the RAGBRAI route this year had the bikers going from Storm Lake to Algona. Shortly after I agreed to drive the support vehicle, I noticed Spencer, Iowa was pretty much on that drive, so I contacted friends Anthony and Anita if they were up for visitors. Friends of mine from way back in my University of Iowa days, they have led extraordinary lives. She graduated with an art degree, he worked with an insurance company in Seattle before a career change - administrator for US Aid for Southern Africa! After 2 decades in Africa (including raising 2 daughters), they retired to his hometown in Spencer where they continue to pursue their art interests. Their specialties of interest are a little fuzzy and overlap somewhat (to me, anyway), but Anthony dabbles in graphic arts and metalworking, with Anita the ceramics expert.

They live on a small acreage outside of town, in fact, the bike team stayed with them a couple years ago shortly after Anita moved onto the property (Anthony was still in Africa at that point). Instead of mowing acres of lawn, they decided early on to convert to a prairie yard. Instead of manicured grass, in late July it was a showpiece of native grasses and flowers, insects and small animals. Before we left their garden close to the house, Anthony spotted something - a Black Swallowtail caterpillar, close to pupation (no horns showing). A few steps into the prairie, we easily found some Monarch caterpillars as well - I still can't tell which end is the head - from the abundance of caterpillar poop around him, I should have waited a few more minutes...

His prairie yard, still in the formation stage, was last mown 6 weeks earlier, but was deemed ok by their advisor to skip mowing from now on. He also mowed paths through it to more easily examine the details of the life zones - great for easy access for a photo nut like me! Also abundant, as well as in the ditches and prairie remnants through Iowa and Illinois is Queen Anne's Lace - broad white flower clusters with the requisite red bloom in the center (from the drop of blood from a pricked finger as she made the lace). Also visible in the background is the bus and trailer I drove for Team Toad support across Iowa...

A tour through their home was like going through a gallery - which it was, in essence! Visible were some of their pieces from their African days, as well as metal working experiments Anthony performed, and shelves of ceramic works.

It was great seeing them. Northwestern Iowa is sort of an out-of-the-way place, so it was nice to have an excuse to see the changes they've made to their place in the last few years.


I'm embarrassed it has taken so long to finish this writeup - I guess that is what happens when you are on vacation - things get put off!

RAGBRAI is hard to describe. It is virtually unknown outside of Iowa, yet is a true icon within the state. It is a bike ride with some friends, generally from the Missouri River to the Mississippi over a course of 7 days and about 500 miles. Oh, and did I mention that your group of "friends" run somewhere between 8,000 to 15,000? And that is just the bike riders - add another 5,000 or more support people and hangers-on and you've got quite the traveling side show! The pictures shown at left are from Register photographers, taken from their website above. Check out my pictures at my RAGBRAI 2010 page.

The ride was started in 1974 by a pair of columnists for the Des Moines Register, which has sponsored the ride from the start. Joined by 300 die-hards on that first trip, it grew quickly to it's current phenomenal size by media reports about the event. Maximum attendance for a single day was estimated to be 23,000 riders on the day in '88 from Boone to Des Moines. The Register officially caps the ridership at 8500, but unregistered "bandits" can't be kept off public roads, so generally many more than that ride. The unusual-looking acronym stands for the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.

While used by some as an excuse for a week-long alcohol fueled party, as with most things in life, it becomes what you make of it. For some it is a summer-long culmination of a goal to exercise and get into shape. It is used by multitudes of families and friends to spend a week bonding in the heat and humidity of an Iowa summer with a daily 75 mike bike ride thrown in. It is used to eat some of the best food anywhere (church basement pies and Pork and Beef Producers sandwiches in particular) guilt free after 8-10 hours on a bike. You can see silly outfits, silly bikes and silly local residents when the bikes come into town, and believe me, the ride takes over any town it enters, whether a pass-through during the day, or an overnight stop. Traffic stops, music blares, food offerings everywhere as hordes of hungry bikers descend. It is said a small pass-through town can generate $200,000 in a few hours (20,000 riders looking for a sandwich, slice of pie and a Gatorade), and an overnight host town almost 10-20 times that. Picture at left taken from Toad member Maggie Jessie.

When I was an Iowa resident through the 70s, I never had time in the summers to take a week off, though I joined the ride on it's last day in 1976, biking the 45 miles from Iowa City (where I lived) to Muscatine, then turned and rode back! It wasn't until the great flood year of 1993 that I donated a week and registered for the ride, knowing no one else doing the ride. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), the airlines misplaced my bicycle and I met my savior Glenn Losey, who was there to collect another biker that I had met on the flight. The airlines eventually got my bike to me the next day, but by that time, Team Toad had adopted me and invited me to join them for the week, and, in fact, ever since! I went on and rode the full length of RAGBRAI 9 times, then after my heart surgeries, have driven support 3 times now. It is a way to take in part of the fun without biking the miles, and it fulfills an important role for the team members who don't want to lose out on biking.

This year's ride was pretty good - not a lot of rain, not a lot of heat, or wind, but just the right amounts of each to appreciate when they left! Since the support drivers are purposely kept away from the bike route, I didn't get shots of biking multitudes, but I got some good shots of our overnights and team members. My favorites were of Rusty unpacking his bike, the postcard perfect sunset over Storm Lake, Iowa, and the final-day group shot of our intrepid leader Carl with Kurt and his daughter Anne. Stroll over to my RAGBRAI 2010 page for more.

It is always hard to think rationally so soon after the ride. I know on the most miserable years, when the heat index hit 120+F and the road's melted asphalt stuck to your tires, you wondered why you were subjecting yourself to such torture. Well, a few months later, the pain subsides and you can't wait for it to start again. With the fine year just past, I'm thinking I'd like to ride a day or two in the future as the weather and my dissected aorta permits. We'll see, and certainly, continuing to drive support is an easy way to live the ride vicariously. I suspect I'll be back!