Wednesday, November 24, 2010

They Can't all be Winners!

I've been taking pictures of the sky for decades now, and I end up learning something new every time I'm under a dark sky.  Mostly one learns by making mistakes - taking what you thought was a 30 minute exposure, but the shutter was set to 1/500 second, leaving on the lens cap, standard stuff like that.  It is easier now with the instant feedback of the digital cameras, but you can still have issues with weather, telescopes and equipment.  Case in point was from one of my last times out - in the middle of a sequence on the Helix Nebula (a large, bright planetary nebula in Aquarius), my CamTrack unexpectedly stopped in mid-exposure for a minute, then restarted.  While the left image here shows a stacked set of 12 exposures, the right one shows the trailed one.  But even it has an unexpected appearance.  The tracked image sections were nearly identical - reminding me of a pair of eyeballs, not unlike a current ad campaign for Geico Insurance!
Another example is a shot of the local group galaxy NGC 253, a mere 12 million light years away.  It is a fine, bright galaxy, easily visible in binoculars, though low in the sky and tough to spot from the Midwest.  In an effort to image it my last observing session, after spending a couple hours to setup the 14" Celestron and mount, install the Hyperstar optics, align and focus, I realized it was just too windy to get good exposures, even at 90 seconds of exposure.  The blustery wind gusts, just made it impossible to keep the guide star on the cross hairs, so I gave up the idea of using the moderately long focal length of the C14 + Hyperstar that night.  And while it looks ok as a thumbnail, looking at even a moderate scale shows icky images...

So what do you shoot on a perfectly clear but windy night?  Well, the CamTrack looked stable enough, so I mounted up a wide-angle lens and shot a half dozen frames of the Gegenshein.  I file this object under the "frequently observed but rarely noticed" category.  It is up most every night, but you really have to look for it from a dark site to see it, but really is visible most every night.  It is the reflection of sunlight from interplanetary dust in the solar system and always appears opposite the sun, so is at it's highest at midnight.  In this exposure, 18 minutes of exposure with the 10-22mm zoom set to the widest view shows the sky from Jupiter to Taurus and also shows the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies and a host of other fainter sky objects.  The diffuse elongated glow along the line from Jupiter to the Pleiades is part of the zodiacal band and Gegenshein.  Even observing buddy Christian, an advanced European observer had never noticed/seen it before, so I was able to provide a first for him...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Trip to Discovery Park

A few months ago I was approached about giving a talk about Mirror Lab activities at Discovery Park in Safford, Arizona.  Located about a 2 hour drive east of Tucson, it was originally built as a local outreach center for the Mount Graham International Observatories, but a few years ago it was transferred to the control of Eastern Arizona College, a local community college.  Located on several hundred acres, it contains a small astronomy and science center, several outbuildings for future archeology, agriculture and mining displays, an observatory with a 20" Tinsley telescope, and a riparian area with hiking trails.  Now known as Eastern Arizona College's Discovery Park Campus, my talk was part lecture and part meeting for the local astronomy club - the Desert Skygazers.  It is in a beautiful high desert location, nestled between the town of Safford and Mount Graham, home of the Large Binocular telescope.

One of the highlights I had been looking forward to seeing as an optics nut was their camera obscura, effectively a darkened room with a big lens on the wall.  Acting like a big camera chamber with the observer inside, a projected image is seen against the wall, with a color purity that seems to be better than real life!  In this example, a large 18"  lens projects an inverted image of Mount Graham on the wall.  Another reason for my interest was that it was built at the Mirror Lab about 15 years ago, and it was about time I got to see it.  Unfortunately, facing to the west, sometimes the shutter isn't closed all the time, and Jackie here reveals the scar on the bulletin board from when the projected image of the sun almost set the place on fire!

The center had some very nice displays of origins of the universe, from scientific theory to many creation myths of various cultures.  Of course, since it got it's original start from Steward Observatory, it had a great display of the Mirror lab, with lots of video from olden days showing casting, grinding and polishing of mirrors.  Ironically, it also showed a picture of mine from the early 80s from Kitt Peak showing the northern lights over the 4-meter telescope!  My name was misspelled, but there it is to the upper right of the video monitor.

Another fun time was a "shuttle mission" ride, synched to a video space mission.  I've never been on a studio fun ride like that, and it was quite amazing what a little motion combined with visual clues fooled your body into simulating a real space mission.  Of course, the telescope was cool - sort of a semi-vintage look, since it is nearly 50 years old, here providing a sense of scale was Paul, my driver to the meeting for the night.  Interestingly, I first saw the telescope 30 years ago on Kitt Peak.  Originally installed in a dome near the 90" telescope, it was used back then at a Newtonian focus with a big, heavy image tube camera for an infrared sky survey, and moved to it's present location in the mid 80s.  We had a spectacular sunset over the mountain, as the nearly full moon rose in the east over the lights of town.

Finally it was time for my talk - half past Jupiter!  Their Jupiter room serves as a nice auditorium as well as camera obscura chamber.  Here can be seen the Jupiter mural and the members of my audience that weren't too camera shy.  Shown also is Paul, director of Discovery Park, along with his right-hand-woman Jackie.  It was a fun place and a totally enjoyable experience - I'm already looking forward to returning and showing the place off to Melinda next time!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Large popcorn..with extra butter, please.

That's how I like my popcorn, and the only place I want to see it is at the movie theater.  This house, however, has more popcorn than I can (almost) handle!  If you refer back to our hallway re-do when I removed the popcorn from the ceiling in two hallways, you'll know where I'm heading here. 

I haven't done much in the line of 'home improvement' here since the tiling work in the guest bathroom.  It was time to put some work clothes on and pick up a scraper.  There was a one foot wide strip of popcorn texture on the upper edge of the wall in our living room - only above the exterior/window wall.  What a bizarre thing to do!  That was the first to go, of this project.  Since it was a small area (1ft x 12 or so ft) I was able to scrape it one morning in just over an hour.  Easy peasy, right?  It actually was.  After the scraping it was just a 1/2 hour of patching mars in the surface before sanding the strip and then giving it two coats of primer.  Over all it was time well spent (as is most home improvement projects)!  I haven't tackled the living room ceiling yet, so you can see the contrast of the popcorn ceiling next to the newly finished (smooth) wall.  (An FYI!  IF you try this in your home, be sure and lightly spray the area you're working on with water.  That makes it easier to scrape and helps to reduce some of the airborne dust!)

The next part of the project was doing the guest room ceiling!  You'll notice, I'm working my way up to doing the largest areas of ceiling slowly.  This is something you really have to want to do.  This picture is a close up of how attractive this treatment is.  The second picture is of the hallway - while I was in the process of scraping it.  I didn't stop to take pictures of the guest room ceiling while I was in the process.  With a little starter help from our friend, Laurie (who had spent the night and helped me move furniture the next morning - as well as got started on the scraping while I patched the living room wall), I was able to get the ceiling in the entire room scraped in one day!  That's a lot of humming to ones self!  Once again, once the ceiling was completely scraped I was able to pull out the bucket of drywall mud and fill in any gouges, scrapes, dents, etc.  I let that dry for a couple of days before I then went back up on the ladder to sand the entire ceiling. 

Yesterday I primed and painted the ceiling...all the while uttering "oooh! aaah!"  The difference is so dramatic that it justifies the work!  There is still wall painting to be done - as you can see from the picture (working on getting the perfect color of pale blue -not quite there yet).  Once the walls are done then we can move on to that floor!  I'm not expecting to get this done in the next few days, but will be glad if I can finish up in here in January (holidays and work schedules get in the way some times). 

I have every hope that the guest room will turn out as nicely as the hallway did!  It's fun getting back into projects again....but all of this talk about popcorn has made me hungry.  Time to pop up a bag!

Monday, November 15, 2010

When Life Casts Lemons...

We had a buddy visit last week and had decided to head west towards Kitt Peak for a little observing and photo session. With my previous 3 visits blustery enough to prevent any telescope imaging (though very clear) I was looking forward to a good imaging session.

But nature had other plans - as we approached the base of the mountain, the thin crescent moon was setting into some thin clouds low in the west, and literally, the minute we stepped out of the van and set up a tripod, the clouds quickly moved in and covered the entire sky.

So what do you do with 3 cameras, tripods and photographers? You look for other shooting options! We headed a couple miles above our regular pullout and I shot a sequence of clouds moving past stars and domes atop the mountain. Shown here are 25 second exposures taken every minute, so 24 minutes of time are shown. Click on the image at left to start the GIF. Interesting how at the very end the clouds almost stop and change direction by nearly 90 degrees... Of course, I should have taken a few more exposures to catch more of the change, but it was cold, windy, and the other photographers were getting restless.

So we headed up the mountain a bit more till we got a view of the city of Tucson. I took a set of 8 pictures with the 200mm that Photoshop stitched together for me. If you click on the image and examine the full-scale shot, you can see some labels I've added. Realize when Kitt Peak National Observatory was founded 50 years ago, Tucson was little more than a cow town of 50,000. Now it is approaching a million, and while there are many more lights, recent research shows that Kitt Peak's night sky has not significantly degraded in the last 20 years. It's lights certainly slap you in the face when viewed from the mountaintop, but Tucson has worked hard in installing shielded lights, keeping the light from going into the sky directly. Shots like this to the contrary, I'm glad the sky is still dark out west of town! 

NOTE:I'm having issues getting the right size displayed so the image can be perused at full scale - I'm working on it!  I had envisioned a pan-and-scan effect to inspect the picture at large scale, but Blogspot evidently doesn't like the mosaic's aspect ratio.  Clicking on the subframes at left should provide larger images to peruse...

With the clouds showing no sign of departing (in fact, it smelled of humidity and rain) we headed back to town, reaching home by 10:30. A long drive, not many stars, but a couple interesting shots regardless!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

ISS Conjunction

I check the Spaceweather website daily - it is an interesting collection of astronomy and space news, as well as a gathering place of amateur photos of sky phenomena. This morning there was a note that the International Space Station (ISS) was making a series of evening passes for North America. After checking with another favorite site, Heavens-Above, sure enough, it was visible in a dark sky after sunset at 6:53 local time. What made it even more interesting is that the plot against a star map showed it would pass very close to the globular star cluster M-13 in Hercules.

So after sunset I set up a little mount that tracks the stars, and was ready for when the ISS made it's appearance. As I centered the faint asterism (faint from midtown Tucson) of the Keystone of Hercules, I could see the approach of the Space Station out of the corner of my eye. Nothing like a little pressure! I got the shutter open just in time, and closed it 40 seconds later, with the 70-200 zoom set to about 80mm at F/3.2. The picture was cropped slightly and color adjusted to make the orangish glow of Tucson's sodium-lit sky more neutral. The left-to-right background gradient is unfortunately real - the right side was nearer the horizon so has more light pollution... The 4 bright stars of the Keystone are nicely framed, and the bright streak is the ISS. The fuzzy patch just below the ISS streak at right is the M13 cluster, easily spotted in the field of view (about that of binoculars). An airplane also crossed the field in those 40 seconds - a busy sky tonight!

This pass was quite bright, nearly as bright as Jupiter in the southern sky, and easily visible even with the bright moon in the sky. I encourage everyone to log onto the Heavens-above site above, enter your location in the database, and look out for ISS, a lot of fun, and don't forget to wave at them as they pass over!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Flowers that Keep Astronomer Hours...

This summer, Melinda and I became enchanted by a couple of Cereus plants in the neighborhood. Driving home in the evening, they take on the appearance of floating apparitions, and given that they can be 6" (15cm) or larger in diameter, are easily spotted from a moving car, ghostly white from the headlights. So after finding out what they were, while visiting Home Depot about 6 weeks ago, we found 5 gallon "Peruvian Apple" (Cereus Peruvianus) plants for sale with 3 cacti per container, some already with flower buds. The one I picked out bloomed 2 days later, but in the stress of transport, fell off the next day. About 3 weeks ago, just before our last Midwest trip, we saw some flower buds starting, and one made it to flower, finally opening last night.

We haven't planted them yet, so it is still in the container, and we noticed it opening last night while feeding the cats just after sunset. Had we noted it earlier, it would have made a nice time-lapse sequence, but I took regular shots of it starting about 9pm, before opening fully. They, like all night-blooming plants, only last a night, but they lasted quite long into today with the cooler temperatures of our Fall days. It looked well-pollinated by morning, though I only spotted (and imaged) one bee at 11am. Night pollinators can vary from bats to insects to bees, so we'll try to do better in the future to see how it's done. Assuming we get these in the ground soon and they survive the winter (tolerant to 28F, and it does get colder than that here!), no doubt these guys will make the blog again!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New and Improved!

Way back when I first moved to Arizona back in '79, I actually worked and lived at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), about a 55 mile drive to the southwest of Tucson. It was a dream job - rubbing elbows every day with astronomers at the forefront of the field, using some of the largest telescopes in the world at a fantastic mountaintop location. I lasted over 5 years before deciding to pursue a living in optics, but KPNO was and still is, a magical place for me.

By living on the mountain, I worked and breathed telescopes and astronomy. I was an avid photographer and I was often out roaming at night with camera and tripod. Though I didn't need much motivation, KPNO also published a few calendars in the early 80s, and were always looking for new shots for them and postcards for the visitor center.

One of my favorites is shown at left - a 45 minute exposure from about 28 years ago back in the 35mm film days. Camera and tripod were set up at a pullout at milepost 11. After starting the exposure, I drove the little jeep we used to drive the mile up the road and used the tail lights to "paint" the 4-Meter dome at left. It enjoyed a short life as a postcard in the visitor center, and I never got the original back, though I did get 50 free postcards! I occasionally still see it (most recently about 5-6 years ago) in astronomy calendars!

Latest Update: The NOAO Public Information Office located my image and supplied me with the high resolution scan shown here. Thanks Guys! And by the way, everyone I've heard express an opinion prefers this 25-year-old image to the newer ones below... What the heck do they know?! !

Fast forward to 2005. After a major heart surgery, when it was apparent I was going to survive, I got one of them newfangled digital SLRs, and one of my first trips up to Kitt Peak in January of 2006, image #482 is shown here. This one is a 2 minute exposure with a fast lens (85mm F/2) from the same location. It became another favorite of mine, and still serves as the background image for my laptop computer since taking it almost 6 years ago. Clicking and saving the image loads a size that should work for you if you are interested...

As nice as that image is, it was a little short in my opinion because it missed that little framing glow around the base of the telescope. So this last Saturday I parked again at the mile post 11 pullout (in the very spot where 5 weeks ago Melinda and I saw a largish mountain lion leave the road as our headlights approached!) to take a few more images. Fortunately I was able to catch a car circle the telescope to catch a little highlight glow. I like it a little better than the 2006 image - but I'm always wondering how I can make it better... Suggestions?