Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cicada Season!

In 2 decades of work at the Mirror Lab around the industrial noises of the diamond generator and pneumatic air cart, I've suffered significant hearing loss and tinnitus. The result is that I get to listen to the buzzing of cicadas all the time. But they are louder than normal this time of year when the ones in my head are joined by the real ones in the yard!

They are interesting creatures. The cicadas we've got in Arizona are not the same variety as in the eastern states that live underground as larvae for 13 or 17 years. What I've read is that they only live for a few years underground, feeding on tree roots before emerging. Regular readers may remember the larva I dug up a couple months ago planting a cactus... What fascinates me is that they spend the hottest part of the day out buzzing looking for partners, while the birds that might eat them are inactive. As soon as it cools down about sunset, they are hard to find. While their shed exoskeletons are normally abundant, I've yet to see any this year - it may still be a bit early...

They allowed me to get quite close, and the macro lens picks up a lot of detail. The things I've not noticed before are the 3 little eye spots on top of the head between their 2 big eyes. The closeup shot also shows the lighter white areas are actually the beginnings of a peachfuzz fur. In addition, their proboscis is normally stuck under the bark so they can feed on tree sap, in this case, a carob tree in our back yard. While big, brash and buzzy if they happen to run into you, they are quite harmless, though I read it is quite painful if they mistake your arm for a tree branch and bury their proboscis in your arm!

I've even included a 3-D image of one of them - this is a cross-eyed view, so cross your eyes slightly to see the center image in stereo. I'm still planning on running a 3-D blog, but have been lazy to get it started, though I'm getting a huge backlog of 3-D images!

The other big news here in central Tucson is that we finally got some monsoonal rain! After 78 days since the .02" we got on May 2nd, we got a good soak last night. The weather service says .15", but anyone who spends any time here knows that the summer storms are pretty localized. I'm suspecting we got over a quarter inch the the few minuted it dumped, complete with lightning. It had been so long the cats were pretty spooked with the lights and noise. i say bring it on!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It Happened One Night!

All it took was a little news brief in the on-line version of the Arizona Daily Star - Bloom Night at Tohono Chul Park! As a result, everyone and their brother showed up at the private park on the near northwest side from 6pm to midnight. "Bloom Night" is chosen as the night-blooming Cereus, (Peniocereus greggii) is at peak blooming season, when the flowers will come out for a single night. Years ago, the astronomy club and I were actually part of the entertainment with telescopes and one of my slide shows, as people wandered the grounds. With nearly 50 acres, miles of trails, and 350 of the night-blooming cacti, it is quite the destination for families, photographers, and children of all ages

I arrived a little after 9pm, and the place was packed. I had difficulty finding parking in the huge lot, and the docent staff was stretched pretty thin, so it was difficult getting oriented. Eventually, I learned to seek out the groups of people and camera flashes going off to locate the plants. You actually had to wait in line to get up to the flowers, so I initially went after people photographing the blooms. I wanted to catch the flashes going off, but many were using LED flashlights with phone cameras, which didn't work as well. I roamed on some of the lumnaria-lit trails and put some distance from the crowds, and eventually got some "face time" with the fragrant blossoms. The displays were nice, some plants with only a single bloom, one spectacular one growing among the branches of a Palo Verde tree had 15 blooms on display!

It was a whole new set of problems working in the dark, yet doing "normal" imaging and not astronomical objects. The on-camera flash was a lifesaver, and I used a monopod, since the flash froze any user or wind-induced motion. I got some nice shots, even a couple stereo pairs. A little after 11 as I was leaving, the crowds had dwindled and the parking lot nearly empty. A fun evening but Melinda wasn't able to join me - she was working tonight... Blooming only one night, she'll have to try for next year!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hyperstar Snapshots

I've mentioned using the Hyperstar before with my Celestron 14". Click on the "Hyperstar images" label on the right middle to see earlier posts. The lens set replaces the normal secondary of the mirror, allowing the short focus of the telescope primary to reach the camera focal plane directly with the camera on the front of the telescope. It converts the optical system to an equivalent 670mm focal length lens at the astounding F-ratio of 1.9, with nearly a 2 degree field of view! The lens set, developed and built by Starizona here in Tucson, is a marvel of telescope optics. The fast f-ratio permits very short exposures, normally less than a couple minutes at the darkest sites at ISO 800. When shooting bright Messier Objects in the Milky Way, even shorter exposures must be used to keep the image from saturating.

While out observing the weekend of the 4th, just as a demonstration, I shot a number of summertime Messier objects with 45 second exposures on the Canon 20Da. I was shooting automatic darks, so after the exposure, it took a 45 second dark to subtract from the image. During this time, I moved to a new field, restarting as soon as it was ready. No guide stars, just the G-11 mount tracking as normal... So the enclosed 5 exposures were taken in under 10 minutes!

Four of the objects are clouds of mostly hydrogen gas appearing near the brightest part of the summer Milky Way. These clouds of gas are star formation regions and often have star clusters associated with them, where they've formed. The reddish glow is caused by the young hot stars causing the hydrogen to fluoresce, much like the bluish glow of a mercury light. Generally there are dust clouds that show up in dark silhouette against the glowing gas.

From the top is the Triffid Nebula, Messier 20, with star cluster M21 to the upper left. The image to it's right is the Lagoon Nebula, Messier 8. Both of these gas clouds have dark lanes caused by dust. Continuing at left, the next image is M17, the Omega, or Swan Nebula (visualized shapes, if you use your imagination!). The last nebula image is M16, the Eagle Nebula - clicking on the image loads a larger view, allowing the "Pillars of Creation" to be more easily seen. This object was made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope image, showing how dust and gas condensed to form stars and planetary systems. The lowermost image is Messier 11, a galactic star cluster, sometimes called the "Wild Duck Cluster", from a V-shaped wedge of stars visible in a small telescope.

While these snapshots show slight trailing and other faults upon close examination, they show how swiftly an image can be built up in a fast optical system. Normally, I would guide carefully and stack many exposures to bring out the subtleties of a faint object, but sometimes, it is nice to take some nice snapshots of bright objects!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Right Place, Right Time!

A couple months ago, our neighbor Leenie knocked on our door in a panic - her son Ryan was doing a science report on Ladybird Beetles, and their printer was down. Would I print out some pictures from the Internet?

Realize this was like, a day or two after my post on the ladybug eggs in the front yard! So not only was I able to provide pictures of their eggs and the larvae that hatched, Ryan was able to bring the egg casings to class to pass around. Talk about a successful report!

Ryan brought by the report for me to check out yesterday featuring my pictures along with his research, and his Mom rewarded us with a carrot cake - so combining the appropriate adages, good deeds take the cake!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Weekend Observing

Last weekend was the long holiday weekend, and with the monsoon rains still absent, Melinda and I headed out of town to take advantage of some dark sky observing both the day before the 4th and the day after. Moonrise was about midnight, but we were able to enjoy a couple hours of desert darkness each night before heading back to the lights of civilization. I wanted to photograph wide fields of the Milky Way, and Melinda wanted to take some closeup shots through a telescope, so I set her up shooting through the little Meade 80mm refractor. When we went out Monday night, I shot through the 14" plus Hyperstar, and she shot some wide fields. For this post, we'll cover a few of my favorites.

Joining us on the western slopes of Kitt Peak was a long-term visitor from Germany, Christian. We met him a couple months ago at an astronomy club event, and invited him to join us. He is quite the avid visual observer, packing a 16" telescope, so provided us some spectacular views while we took some pretty pictures. Here he was examining Venus in the still-bright twilight.

And while I posted a similar shot of the planetary conjunction in just our last post, here is one taken the night before from our darker observing site.

My favorite object might be the center of our Milky Way galaxy. I can just gaze at it endlessly with my mouth open in amazement. Just the thought that the cloudiness is caused by untold millions of stars, interrupted only by clouds of dust and gas is just amazing to me. It is relatively easy to image too - the wide shot at left is a stack of 9 - 3 minute exposures with a wide-angle 20mm lens. The greenish glow along the bottom is a bit of air glow as the horizon is just out of the frame. The bit of shadow in the lower left corner is the shadow of a tree that was barely in the first couple of frames... Otherwise the field is a mass of deep sky objects that serve as potential future photographic targets.

One of my favorite fields is just above center - the dark nebula referred by some as the "Prancing Horse", or the "Pipe Nebula". Regardless, the mass of dust clouds obscuring more distant star clouds is an amazing field, reaching across 30 degrees of sky to the red super giant Antares and the globular clusters that frame it. This shot is a stack of 8 frames of 20 minutes total exposure with a 50mm lens. Be sure to click on the pictures to load the screen-wide versions.

I'll wrap up this post with a view of southern Scorpius. On a good night from Iowa, the bottom arc of the Scorpion hugged the southern horizon. Because Tucson is 10 degrees of latitude further south, the Scorpion is raised by that same amount, so some of those objects are easier to observe. There is an object called the Cat's Paw Nebula also known by the less-glamorous name of NGC 6302. Shown at left here is another shot with the 50mm lens showing the full arc of the southern part of Scorpius, with the bright stars of the stinger at left. Just to it's upper right is the paw print of the nebula, glowing red because of the florescence of hydrogen gas. On our return trip Monday night, I shot it with the 14" telescope and Hyperstar lens (670mm, F/1.9)with 20 minutes of exposure. While I don't remember ever observing this object visually, Christian tracked it down for us, and we spotted one of the brightest "paw prints" through his 16".

All in all, between the picnicing on the 4th sandwiched between 2 nights of observing and 2 movies over the weekend ("Karate Kid" and "The Secret in their Eyes"), we were plum tuckered out and ready for the workweek to start to get some rest! The dark desert skies were the highlight for me - with the rains coming, it might be months before we get out again...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Traditional Start To Summer!

In Tucson, the traditional start of Summer is the arrival of the monsoon season, the cooling rains saving us from the hellish temperatures that normally peak over 105F. The rains typically arrive around the 4th of July, sometimes weeks earlier, sometimes later. This year there hasn't been rain since .02" fell on May 2nd, so the desert is dry, dry, dry... In those years, the alternate traditional start of Summer is the ignition of "A" Mountain with the City's fireworks display!

We were lucky enough to get invites to two July 4th parties - one to our neighbor Audrey's with her family, church friends, and former Iowans! She grew up in Iowa so has relatives, as well as collections of friends from the Midwest as well. The second gathering was at our friend Jane's house (who originally introduced Melinda and I), at the foot of where Tucson sets off their fireworks display. Melinda had never been there for the show, so we were looking forward to it.

Since we had eaten at Audrey's, we didn't partake much of the feast, but had fun visiting, seeing the grand baby Isabel, and witnessing the amateur fireworks and firepower on display in the neighborhood. The first display after sunset was the planetary alignment to the west, which will be continuing the coming weeks. Among the stars of Leo, the planets Venus, Mars and Saturn are gathering and will cluster later in the month, eventually joined by Mercury and the Moon.

Finally, about 9:20 the "big boy" fireworks started! We took lots of pictures, most pretty boring, mostly overexposed... Shown here are some of my favorites. And, as predicted, with the dry conditions, the sparks ignited vegetation on the side of the mountain about halfway through the display. After the conclusion of the show, the fire department arrived and made short work of the flames, but the traditions continues!

And even though we waited till nearly 11pm to leave, we still got caught in traffic, taking us over 50 minutes for the normal 15 minute drive home. But it is always great to get together with friends, especially when gunpowder is involved!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ready To Go!

Don't tell Aunties Maj or Susan, but we've been quietly making plans to take our cat Annie up to Illinois with us this summer. It is only for a few weeks, but it will be interesting to see how well she adapts to her old stomping grounds where she spent her first two and a half years growing up. She also likes her alone time (from the other cats), so she can overdose with our attentions while there.

In preparation to her trip, we've got an appointment with the vet for a health check, and today, Melinda got an approved underseat carrier for her. Melinda dressed it up with some bedding and guess who has taken up residence?! By all appearances, it looks like she is ready to go tomorrow!