Thursday, October 28, 2010

Our Birthday Gurl!

The whole Raison d'ĂȘtre of our most recent trip to the Midwest was for sister Maj's birthday. What better way to help a family member through a trying time than plying her with an alcoholic drink or two on her big 60th?! A few friends (nine all told) met at Art and Alma's Century Inn in beautiful downtown Burlington, IL (population 452) on Tuesday evening. Fortunately for us, unfortunately for Art and Alma, we were about 80% of their business that night, but they took great care of us and had a fantastic dinner. The top photo shows the Birthday Gurl showing off her celebratory tiara.

The second picture, at left here is Maj with her younger sister Melinda. They just fought like cats and dogs all night and we finally had to separate them. The last picture shows the female contingent of the evening. They were certainly better looking than the old grey-haired codgers that brought them, so guess which ones get their picture in the post?! We all agreed that Maj needs at least 3 or 4 birthday parties a year so we can all get together to commiserate. We should all look so good at 60! Happy Birthday Sis!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tis the Season...

One of the things that impresses me the most, when returning to the Midwest in the Fall, is how EVERYONE dresses up the outside of the house for the big holiday. No, not Christmas, but for Halloween!

                                                                                                        Perhaps because of the more moderate temps, I'm guessing fully 50-70% of all houses have some sort of Fall decorations, from simple mums in a pot, pumpkin or harvest displays, or full-fledged cemetery graveyards with over-the-top Halloween decorations. Tucson is a virtual desert by comparison - you could rack up lots of miles to find a half dozen decorated houses! Even the City of Saint Charles loads up it's light fixtures with mums, in a few weeks to likely be replaced with Christmas decorations. It certainly gives St Charles a more "homey" feel to it!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Splashes of Color as the Season of Gray Approaches

We're up in Illinois enjoying our time with family and relaxing at "Ketelsen East". We just missed the peak of the fall colors, though there are certainly some isolated spots of bright yellows still. A hard freeze is yet to arrive, so there is a widely mixed range from green to bare trees that have already lost their foliage. Earnest yard raking has started, but with so many still on the trees, it hardly seems worth it...

The "brightest" tree around is likely the maple between our house and neighbor Elaine's. I've always enjoyed the trees that not only display the bright colors, but retain a gold puddle of leaves that have fallen below as well.

In a walk the other day through our local neighborhood Tekakwitha Forest Preserve, I was dismayed to see the 20 acres of prairie reduced to shades of gray - none of the goldenrod, Queen Anne's Lace or aster remained from a couple months ago. There were only isolated bits of color to be seen with a careful search. Most of the milkweed seeds were long gone , but a couple pods still showed off some drab colors, if not interesting textures. As I ambled, I was lucky to spot a couple red-banded leaf hoppers on the leaf of a mulberry tree. They were patient enough to pose for me as I took a few photos, and certainly added some color to the mostly drab scenery. These were the only ones spotted, and fortunately I had the macro lens along.

Finally I saw it! Pretty much the only flower still in bloom - a freak-of-nature Goldenrod a good 7 feet high, double the size of normal plants. This one was still a bright yellow, and obviously still viable, hosting a swarm of wasps, ladybug beetles, and other flying insects taking advantage of just about the only source of pollen and nectar in the prairie.

As I departed the prairie section of the preserve and headed into the woods, a downy woodpecker flew right past and landed about 15 feet away (there is a slight chance it is a hairy woodpecker). I had the 85mm at full zoom to snap a shot before he took to his senses and flew on. The spot of red on the back of it's head marks it as a male...

Finally, in the fully wooded section, it was nice to enjoy the subtle remaining color of the trees and the leaves already fallen. The path follows the Fox River for nearly a half mile before coming out on a paved bike trail and many more walkers out enjoying the weather. No sign of white tail deer or anything larger than the woodpecker. With winter coming, it was nice to see some signs of color in familiar territory!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New Glass Revealed!

This week at work (Steward Observatory Mirror Lab), the latest mirror casting was revealed as the oven was disassembled. While the 12-meter diameter oven is normally used to cast either 6.5 or 8.4 meter diameter substrates, this time the project was for a replacement telescope mirror for the 1.2 meter telescope at Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Mount Hopkins south of Tucson. While a 1.2 meter (48") diameter is a sizable telescope, it just looks tiny on an oven usually used for mirrors nearly 50 times larger (in area). In fact, the last big mirror we cast has a center hole as big as this mirror!

The original 1.2 meter mirror, originally cast at the Mirror Lab in the '80s, used true Pyrex glass from a U.S. supplier. However, the original rough edges of the glass pieces did not fuse together cleanly, and the substrate was full of bubble veils that not only weakened the substrate, but the multitude of bubbles on the mirror surface made cleaning for aluminizing nearly impossible, thus achieving a good reflecting surface was difficult. So with a gap in the casting schedule, a mold was machined and the new substrate was cast over the last 2 months. This substrate too has a few bubbles near the surface, most of which will be removed in generating, but it is very clean compared to the mirror in the telescope. The standard hexagonal lightweighting technique was used, and the white refractory material of the mold will be removed the next few weeks to leave a hollow glass structure. I'm not sure what the mirror weighs (I'll ask tomorrow), but I'm guessing about 500 pounds (220kg). Edit: I guessed correctly - as-cast weight is 575 pounds (260kg). Finished weight after processing will be 400 pounds (180kg).

I've got a few friends in the local astronomy club that would love to see this made into a telescope that we could haul around in the back of a pickup. Now that would be fun!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Surf's Up!

Just one more post left in me from our trip to Puerto Penasco, MX last weekend! One of the things catalogued under "often observed, but rarely noticed", are ocean tides, caused by the gravitational attraction of the sun and moon on the Earth's oceans. For a farm boy raised in the Midwest and living in the Southwestern desert, large bodies of water are amazing enough, but tides are an amazing subject in themselves. But that isn't the point of tonight's post - check out the Wikipedia link to tides to learn more...

No, what is amazing to me is that the Sea of Cortez has the 3rd highest tides in the world! After the Bay of Fundy and a bay in southern Alaska, the tides at Rocky Point can routinely exceed 6 meters (20 feet) near new and full moon. Why is the Sea of Cortez special - well, it is because it is enclosed on one end, and once the water starts flowing down the relatively narrow body of water, it has no place to go but slosh up the bank on the end like a kid playing in a bathtub. There is a way-cool simulation demonstrating it here. In the photo above, taken near low tide, I was standing on the high tide mark left about 6 hours earlier. There is well over 100 meters of exposed beach to get to the water!

We lucked out Saturday morning - after staying up late observing Friday evening, we got to sleep in - low tide happened about 8:30. I set up my camera and tripod on the beach, and took a LONG sequence taking images every 2 minutes. The movie made from the total is sizable, and for those with limited bandwidth (Hi Sister Kathy!), I've included 3 images taken an hour apart to show the change over just 2 hours.

For those of you with faster connections, click on the image here to see a 1.5MB movie GIF that covers 2.5 hours of incoming tide. With that shallow extent of beach, it was interesting to watch some kids digging in the sand, go splash in the surf for a few minutes, then have to rush to retrieve their play implements before they washed away - it really did come in that fast! Depending on how well this gif shows, I've got other sequences of sun and moon set from seaside, so we might yet return to Mexico once again on the blog... Well, it isn't working, so I need my blog expert debugger Melinda to assist, so come back later for the movie! (From Melinda: Fixed!)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Autumn in Puerto Penasco, Mexico

As Dean mentioned in the previous post, we spent a quick weekend in Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) Mexico this past weekend.  It was a fast trip since I was only off of work for two nights.  Fortunately it's only a four hour drive from our house.  Considering that, I'm wondering why we don't go there more often!  As we did last Spring, we stayed with our friend Margie, who owns a beach house there. 
Margie's house is in a gated community, Las Conchas (translated: "The Shells"), towards the east end of Rocky Point.  Most of the homes are very similar to hers, similar architecture and building materials, giving the developement a very tropical seaside feel.  The weather was delightful - mid-80's during the day, 60's during the night (cooler than Tucson at this time of year), and a constant breeze off of the Sea of Cortez.  On our trip to Penasco we carried Margie's newly repaired telescope.  She had taken it to a Tucson astronomy shop for repair on her trip south (Margie also lives in the Sedona, AZ area).  We were happy to pick it up and deliver it to her in Mexico.  Many of the houses in Las Conchas have a rooftop deck, as does Margie's.  While most people refer to it as a 'sun deck', at Margie's house it is an "astronomy deck"!  The city of Penasco is in view to the west, but the Milky Way is easily visible and the location gives a chance to see farther south than we can in Tucson.  Typically we spend most of our time out of doors there, whether it be on the upper porch, along the upper sunning area, or on the astronomy deck. 

Dean avoids spending too much time in the sun.  Like many people in Arizona, he's had his occasions of skin cancer - so he's cautious, wears sunscreen, and prefers the shade whenever possible.  However, this trip was an exception with a reason.  Since it was new Moon the tides were significantly more dramatic than at other times.  It was the perfect opportunity for him to do a series of pictures of the tide coming in!  Saturday morning he was out, bright and early, setting his camera up on the beach.  I joined him shortly thereafter.  I tend to spend more time in the sun than is advisable, and consider sunscreen anything more protective than baby oil.  While Dean manned the camera, I was able to wander about exploring tide pools and wading in the water.  I hadn't brought my swim suit along because I didn't think we'd be spending any time on the beach.  The next time I'll pack the swim suit, no matter what.  We spent six hours on the beach, and yes, we both ended up with sunburns!  Dean was doing fine until he took a break and went up to the house for some shade.  His error was forgetting to put sunscreen on his feet when he changed from his tennis shoes to his sandals.  Ouch.  I was burned, but not as bad as I have been in the past - and am tanning up nicely now.  Again....yes, I've heard the lectures about sun damage, etc.  I'll not whine when my time for skin cancer arrives.  Dean was able to get a great series of pictures, and I'm sure he'll be posting them in the form of a little 'movie' in the near future!  We finished off our Saturday on the beach with watching the sunset over the sea, enjoying the breeze and taking time for a picture of the two of us.  You can see the crescent Moon, and even Venus low on the horizon, behind us.

Margie is a wonderful hostess, thinking of every detail.  She places books that she thinks we'll enjoy on our bedside tables, shampoo and lotions in the bathroom, and even a picture of our group on our first visit to Rocky Point on the dresser in our bedroom!  Consequently, people enjoy visiting her at both of her homes!  One of the friends is Jack, from her local Astronomy club.  He was there visiting this past weekend as well, but also needed to have more dental work done.  Like many people in Arizona, Jack travels to Rocky Point to visit his Dentista!  It's a well known fact, here, that a trip to the Dentist is at least 50% less expensive in Mexico and the quality of work is the same.  This trip Jack was having a root canal and crown placement (all for 1/4 of what it cost Dean the last time he had one done!).

Margie spends a month at her house in Penasco every other month.  We won't be able to visit her in December, but plan to visit again in February - hopefully for longer than two nights!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Have You Heard? The Earth is Round!

We spent the weekend in Rocky Point, Sonora, Mexico, visiting our friend Margie who lives a block from the beach on the Sea of Cortez. We had a great time - look for a couple more posts the next few days. We saw a neat effect that any casual observer could make that is presented here.

Her 3rd floor astronomy deck provides a great view of what looks to be an ocean, and to the southeast about 40km away (25 miles) is a stark white archipelago known as Bird Island. While an impressive set of peaks from the top of her house, from sea level there is barely a blip visible. The included images demonstrate - at left is the view from the roof, the middle shot about 40 feet (12 meters) lower, and the rightmost about that much lower again near sea level. The curvature of the sea when near that elevation blocks all but the highest peaks. A little higher and less of the island is obscured. These pics taken with a 500mm lens, taken within a few minutes of each other, and are reproduced at about the same scale.

Knowing the elevation of the island peaks, a more precise value of the elevation of my observations and a little trigonometry and you could estimate the diameter of the Earth. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mount Lemmon SkyCenter

A couple weeks ago, Adam Block, a well-known local astro-imager, e-mailed me about the December sunset alignment from the Mount Lemmon Highway. He mentioned that the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, where he works, had just finished installation of a new 32" telescope, the largest telescope I know of available routinely for public observing. After expressing an interest in checking it out sometime, he invited Melinda and me to come up and assist with a large group he had coming up the next night for an evening program. How could we say no?!

Even though I work for Steward Observatory, I know little about the crop of telescopes atop Mount Lemmon. Working at Kitt Peak decades ago, I was more familiar with that site, and more recent telescope projects on Mount Hopkins and Mount Graham. I did know Mount Lemmon had several in the 60" range, and I also know that a 30" Schmidt and another 60"telescope is used by the Lunar and Planetary Lab for the Catalina Sky Survey, which discovers a large percentage of new comets and asteroids every month. The SkyCenter, opening a couple years ago with a 24" telescope, is open for public observing, as well as an advanced imaging program both with the new Schulman 32" telescope. Adam is the program coordinator for both, and from what we saw that weeknight, does an outstanding job of bringing the universe to those taking part in the program.

The SkyNights program actually starts late in the afternoon, well before sunset. Upon arrival, the visitors are escorted into the telescope for a daytime orientation. On this date they got to observe the bright star Vega, the planet Venus, and also observe the sun with a specialized solar telescope. Arriving a bit before the crowd, Adam also showed Melinda and me the double star Albireo. I wasn't expecting the couple hundred magnification that the "low power" provides and was stunned by how wide the double star appeared, and also how pinpoint sharp the images were in broad daylight. I couldn't wait for the night time viewing!

From the telescope, the 20+ visitors were escorted to the Learning Center, part classroom, part dining hall and part living quarters for overnighting astronomers. We all had a dinner (sandwiches, chips, salad, cookies and a variety of snacks and drinks) along with a slide show orienting us to the universe, using some of the spectacular images Adam has gained a reputation for taking. Binoculars were distributed, as well as planispheres to find our way around the sky later. As sunset approached, we walked 150 meters or so to an overlook with a western view. There were some clouds blocking the sunset, but we did get some nice colors, and Kitt Peak National Observatory, a flat-topped mountain to the southwest, was pointed out for binocular viewing. On our stroll back to the Learning Center, Adam pointed out the shadow of the Earth being cast into the sky - often observed but rarely noticed!

Finally darkness came and all of us returned to the telescope dome (all transit atop the mountain is by bus, to prevent exertion at the 9160 foot elevation of the site). Adam definitely had an agenda for the sky tour - showing the ghostly glow of a planetary nebula from a dying star, to the clouds of gas where they are born. Between those were views of open and globular star clusters with hundreds of thousands of stars. In the photo at left, visitors lined up to look at M13 a globular in Hercules with the Summer Milky Way visible through the dome slit. After a few objects, Adam lead the group outside where everyone found their way around the sky using the planispheres. In a "final exam" Adam used his laser pointer to point to a few objects, and visitors needed to identify the star or asterism. In the photo at right, the group uses their red lights to read the starmaps as Adam uses his green laser pointer (faintly visible at center).

Saving it for the final viewing highlight, Adam waited for Jupiter to rise as high as possible to improve the view. While claiming that "the seeing could be better", there was an abundance of detail in the cloud bands, and even in a few minutes of observing, the motion of the innermost moon Io could be detected. Unfortunately, the planet's permanent anticyclonic Great Red Spot was not visible, but still the view was a suitable climax to a great night of observing. Many thanks to Adam for the invitation to join the group, and no doubt we'll be returning to the SkyNights Program, both as visitors and helpers if our efforts are needed again.