Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Until We Meet Again

We were so fortunate to spend time with Valerie, in her last days.
Valerie and Bob were reunited last evening, 2/22/11 at approximately 9:05pm.  Rest in peace, our beautiful friend.

"I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."    
                                                        Sarah Williams

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bidding Farewell

It must be our fears, and insecurities, that make it so difficult to say "good-bye" to those we love.  Do any of us have so many friends that we can 'afford' to lose one and not be touched by it?  Is it selfish to "hope for one more chance to visit, one more chance to talk about old times, one more chance to tell her we love her"?
These are thoughts I've been pondering over the last several days, weeks, as we are cherishing our last days with our dear friend Valerie.  Valerie (who many of you know) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma last summer.  She did well with the first months of treatment, was an amazing testament to the wonders of modern science!  Then the cancer came back.  That's all that really needs to be said, isn't it?  This time, the cancer is winning and we are watching her die as actively as she lived.  

Without getting into the long history of her life, I can say that Valerie is one of the most fascinating and entertaining people I've ever met.  She's a wonderful story teller, and her life stories enthrall!  She and Dean go back to "the early days".  He was "Best Man" for Val and her husband, Bob, when they married in the early '80's.  Dean and Bob were best friends, "twopeasinapod" astronomer buddies on Kitt Peak.  Enter Valerie, and there was Bob getting swept off of his feet.  Bob had a long history of heart ailments.  Valerie was his champion until the end, which came too soon in 2001.  Valerie is the steadfast rock that you know you can cling to in times of need.  She gave her all to help Dean through the death of his first wife, Vicki, from cancer in 2003; and through his subsequent heart surgeries.  She comforted and supported me when I was visiting Dean (before we were married) in 2008 and my brother passed away.  She has been there through times of joy also.  Valerie is an "organizer".  Every party benefits from her added input.  She and our friend Jane threw a wonderful "Tucson pre-wedding star party" for Dean and me, a month or so before we got married.  It was a 'modest' affair of 100 people or so - complete with authentic Mexican food catered in, and telescopes set up and ready for a night of viewing into the heavens.  When Dean and I married a couple of months later, it was Valerie, Jane, Erica, Jennifer, and Chuck who arrived from Arizona a couple of days ahead to 'attend to the details' - our family from Arizona.  Every Grand Canyon Star Party has had Valerie working 'crowd control' - directing the flow of visitors to the lesser viewed telescopes, encouraging and praising speakers, and keeping the astronomers excited about our purpose.  There are no strangers to Valerie, she can talk to anyone and loves everyone!
How do you bid farewell to "the rock"?  How selfish is it to want one more chance?  Even once she has broken the Earthly chains that hold her here, we know that she will still be with us.  Her late husband, Bob, used to say that when he died he would go to exist in the Orion Nebulae (one of most beautiful of the night sky objects).  Valerie is looking forward to joining him there, soon.  The night sky will be friendlier for us, to be sure, but there will still be a gaping vacancy left here on Earth.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Snow Fun!

We've especially been enjoying the snow and cold temps here in Illinois, when we know 80s are waiting for us in AZ in a couple days! Even here, the temps are climbing and the snowbanks are transforming to slush and dirt-colored mounds.

Back a few days ago when it was still well below freezing, we has some flurries, and I went out to try to capture some snowflake closeup images. A few broken ones, a few 6-sided crystals, but mostly unsuccessful at capturing iconic flakes. These were photographed against the car windshield for a background.

Since the temps were down near 0F, and snowmobiles replaced the boats that normally ply the Fox River in front of the house, we ventured out to get a new vantage of the place - from mid-stream! Melinda was more nervous than I. Interestingly, the snow seemed a lot deeper on land - perhaps swept a little cleaner on the ice-covered river.

With the bitter-cold temps of the first part of our visit, we saw very little wildlife in the woods. Sure the squirrels were active, but few birds or other creatures. After the flurries mentioned above, the next morning we saw fresh deer tracks in our front flagstone, and their paths through the deep snow. They evidently came up close to the house to nibble on some juniper needles. The picture of their paths shows something else that interested me - the large flat snow crystals reflected the sunlight into little glints that were obviously visible. It was like little mirrored points of light in the snow, and was visible whether you looked up sun or at your shadow down-sun. The effect wasn't as apparent after warmer temperatures arrived...

And finally, something we looked forward to on the standard trip to Iowa last Sunday was a stop at Mississippi lock and dam #13, just north of Fulton, Illinois. With the cold temps, the "Mighty Miss" was iced over, except for just below the spillway, where literally 100 or more (that is what we counted) bald eagles gathered and spend the day fishing. After a period of soaring and diving, they hang out in the trees across the river, where they are easily spotted by eye or binoculars. There were also a constant stream of human observers cycling through watching them. When I last lived 30 miles to the west 40 years ago, bald eagles were pretty much unheard of here, but they've sure made a comeback!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Movie Night!

While I enjoy attempting astronomical photography, use of one of the newer DSLRs can be fun, but is ultimately limited by the built-in filters in front of the sensor. While more convenient for a beginner to use, an astronomical CCD system is ultimately much better. But since I travel to dark skies without power and need a portable setup, I continue to use my trusty Canon cameras.

One of the more enjoyable applications is in taking a series of still photos and transforming them into a time-lapse movie. This is an application where the consumer cameras excel, and it is easy to get satisfactory results quickly. All you need is a tripod, and an intervalometer - a device which allows taking pictures at preset intervals. We have a couple Chinese made knockoffs for our cameras that are only $20. We take a series of pictures, import them into Windows Moviemaker (which is included in nearly every laptop computer I've seen), and you can turn out a time-lapse movie in minutes. For years, I used an alternate program that converted the images into animated gifs, but their limited color resolution and small size made them unsatisfactory. Of course, file sizes can be quite large for even a short high-definition movie, but we've found that YouTube is an excellent interface for both display, storage and making your clips available to the public.

For the first example, back in 2006 at the Grand Canyon Star Party, this was one of the first sequences I took. Wanting to show the beautiful Milky Way overhead with telescopes and observers clustered below, I setup near the restrooms, where the red lights dimly lit the foreground. I used a wide-angle Nikon 16mm F/2.8 fisheye, taking a 40 second exposure every 90 seconds, allowing the camera to use it's internal noise reduction for each exposure. The streaks in the sky are mostly airplanes, though there is at least one satellite. The small light dome on the horizon to the right of center is from the town of Tusayan about 8 miles to the south. I thought the video showing 2.5 hours of elapsed time effectively showed the excitement of observers and the beautiful sky conditions. To see this video via YouTube, click HERE.

In an effort to improve upon this effort the next year (2007), I repositioned at a different spot in the parking lot. The earlier date of the event that year allowed catching the Milky Way rise as the sky darkened, so I started a little earlier to catch the end of twilight, and continued for 4 hours. At the start of the sequence, the exposures started out short, but grew to the same 40 seconds and same intervals as above, and the same lens was used too. The shuttle buses were rerouted that year, so we had fewer lights going through the parking lot. The picture at left from the sequence looks to be a space alien, but is in fact a red-illuminated Dennis Young checking out a sky map at his observing desk. The bright object in the Milky Way is the planet Jupiter. There are a few clouds that appear early and late in the video, but otherwise is another fine result. We repeated this sequence a few extra times and we fit it to one of my favorite song standards by Hoagy Carmichael - "Stardust", performed by Nat "King" Cole. Click HERE to see this video on YouTube. I think the song makes it pretty special!

A couple months ago I posted about the real-time video we made of the sunset behind Kitt Peak National Observatory every winter solstice week. In years past I would photograph it every 4 seconds or so, and make a gif of the results. While I enjoy the video we posted in December, I'm including this reprocessed video of those frames. It is the only sunset I recall where sunspots were visible, and are seen in the image to the left just above the 90" Bok Telescope of Steward Observatory. The images were taken with a 6" Newtonian telescope and a Thousand Oaks solar filter. The video on YouTube can be seen by clicking HERE.

And while that last sequence was taken from 60 miles east of Kitt Peak, on another date, I was setup about a mile to the west in the picnic area on the mountain. A radio telescope dish (part of the VLBA Radio Telescope)is located nearby, and it's actively changing objects frequently makes a striking sight with the observatory domes in the background. I started the sequence before sunset, the first exposures about 1/1000 second, lengthening to about a minute exposure every 2.5 minutes. I didn't realize the Pleiades Star Cluster would rise behind the radio dish, but it made it much more interesting! Click HERE to see the video!

The last one presented here is a time-lapse of the tide coming in at Puerto Penasco, Mexico. At the northern end of the Sea of Cortez, the tidal range can exceed 6 meters, so at low tide, the shore can be 200 meters away from the high tide line. These pictures were taken every 2 minutes for over 5.5 hours showing just about the entire incoming cycle. It was almost shocking how fast it came in during it's fastest, and it shows up nicely in the sequence. Check out the video HERE.

So now you know how it is done - easy and rewarding, simple to upload to YouTube for ease of storage and viewing by others. Consider giving it a try!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

It's 5º!

We've been delinquent in posting, but be prepared for a plethora, as we are in the Midwest again! And with temps on single digits and wind chills well into negatives, what are you gong to do but post on the blog!?

We had a great trip - a reasonable 9:30 departure on Southwest, which we've not flown in years. We had tailwinds, unlimited snacks, no charge for checked bags and arrived 30 minutes early - what's not to like? Well, I'm not too keen on Midway Airport, but still, a good travel day. The snow started in New Mexico and continued all the way to Lake Michigan and evidently well beyond. The pic at left of the flight was taken somewhere over northern Missouri or southern Iowa. Sister Maj swooped in and rescued us and we all went out to Carolyn's where baby Colin (Carolyn's grandson) kept the girls enamored. Carolyn also serves as hostess for our car, where it awaits for our return. I ran to the store for some groceries and we finally pulled into the Ranch about sunset.

It was COLD! From afar (Tucson), Midwestern lows are just numbers, but when the chill air finally tickles your chin, it finally means something! Maj had come by earlier and turned the heat up for us, so it was nice and snug, but I ran around the house taking a few snapshots (not too easy in 18 inches of snow in the growing dusk. The highlight of the evening: Melinda took her Jeopardy online quiz! Nothing else makes you feel quite so inadequate as taking that exam. I watched over her shoulder - we were confident on about a third, guessed at about a third, and said "huh" on the other third... She had a beer afterwards, caught up on some of our cable shows and turned in early for us (Midnight!).

The day dawned clear (well, I assume, since I woke at about 10). Another beautiful blue-sky day, though still in single digits. A few more snow pictures, and time to get a few on line. I know, the people who live here permanently don't want to see snow pictures, but for us, it is still exotic. We'll likely tire of the stuff in a few days, but for now we are enjoying it!