Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Lens and Testing Venue

I go on Craigslist about once a year.  Come to think about it, that is where we found our Toyota Highlander a couple years ago, now serving us well in Illinois when we go there.  But in my annual perusal a couple weeks ago, an ad for a wide-angle lens caught my eye.  It was for a 14mm F/2.8 Canon lens made by Rokinon - a Korean-made lens that has pretty good reviews on line.  Even new they sell for about a third of a major-name brand, and the seller was taking a discount off the street price, so I couldn't say no! 

It isn't like I don't have other wide-angle lenses, but this baby has less distortion and almost the same field of view of my 16mm fisheye, and is a full stop faster than my 10-22 zoom - very important for night-time shots, in particular the time-lapse shots I've been shooting lately.  This week, with the University shut down, I picked up some extra shifts on Kitt Peak, and had a little time for some test shots after my duties there.

This time of year Orion rises early, but once clear of the horizon it is difficult to get into the field of view with a dome or other item of interest.  But with the wide-angle, it is easy to do so, and with the fast aperture, 30 or 45 seconds at ISO 1600 records enough light to even get some shadow details in the near blackness, and expose short enough to not get too much star trailing. 

The image at left here is off the west side of Kitt Peak showing the western sky.  Visible in the 60 second exposure is the Summer Milky way to the right, and the glow of the Zodiacal light to the left.  Besides the lights of Sells (the capital of the Tohono O'odham reservation), the faint light domes of distant cities can be seen.  Just upper right of Sells is the US/Mexico border town of Lukeville/Sonoita.  The brighter light domes of Why/Ajo is to the right.  I've not identified the light domes into Mexico, but I'm amazed at how well the light domes show up from so far away given how clear the skies were...  A couple nights later we had some thin clouds after our observing session and I took a few frames  of them moving through the rising Big Dipper and Polaris (to left).  This was only  30 second exposure...

Finally a daytime shot of the Visitor Center at the Observatory.  Note how the straight edges of the building remain mostly straight, unlike what you would get in most ultrawides or fisheye lenses.  I'm mostly happy with the lens - I need to do some tracked shots to test it's ultimate sharpness, but for the money seems to be a good value.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Now It Feels Like Christmas!

In what has become an annual holiday tradition for a bunch of our friends, this evening we made the trip up the Mount Lemmon Highway to again observe the winter solstice sunset alignment.  The trip up was clouded out last weekend (plus, we had a holiday party to attend), so tonight was the last chance this season.  It was a last minute decision to attend for me, plus Melinda had to work, so there was a rush to prepare a scope and camera.  Five cars met at Tanque Verde and Mount Lemmon Highway at 4pm for the 20 minute drive up near milepost 9.  I decided to again use the Celestron 5" telescope, which just about gives the perfect image scale.   After careful focusing on the sun, it was about a half hour wait to sunset.  Note that we had a good supply of sunspots this year.  The image at left was taken at setup with the sun about 8 degrees above the horizon.  Up is up in this image, so north would be to the 2 o'clock position.

Shown here are Susan and the Jims waiting for the sun to approach the horizon.  Jim O'Connor had both a small scope with a white-light filter, and one with a Lunt H-alpha filter shooting video.  Realize we're all parked next to a relatively busy highway, with lots of tourists driving cars and trucks covered with snow they are bringing down from the mountaintop.  A few shouts, but on Christmas eve, no one stopped to see what we were doing this year.

Finally the sun dropped into our viewfinders and shutters started snapping.  I pushed the start button on my timer, and after a quick check for the proper exposure, mostly I stood back and took a snap or two with an unfiltered telephoto lens on another camera.  Before you knew it (always seems to happen faster than you think), the disk dropped below the Observatory and it was over.  As soon as I stopped taking frames every 3 seconds and removed the filter for a few post-sunset shots, I could see the scope was a little out of focus, as well as suffering from shutter-shake.  Unfortunately, after setting focus during setup, the temperature dropped enough to shrink the telescope tube and throw it out a little...  But the experience of a mountain sunset in a perfectly clear sky among friends made the trip worthwhile, even with fuzzy pictures!

After packing up and heading down the hill, my friend Mike and I stopped at the Babad Do'ag overlook (Tohono O'Odham name - Frog Mountain, for the Catalinas) for what has almost become as popular to me as the sunset - watching the twilight fade as the lights of Tucson come up.  I set up my camera and tripod again and exposed a few panorama mosaics, then focused on the silhouette of Kitt Peak and it's telescopes against the last of the twilight with foreground city lights.  It is fun to locate the hot spots around the valley by their lights at night.  Our downtown district doesn't have the skyline that many large cities have, but it was easily identified by it's proximal alignment from our observing spot with Kitt Peak.  Hopping to the north from downtown the University and UMC could be located.  Even darkened locations like A Mountain and Gates Pass could be spotted in the exposures that were up to 20 seconds.  Finally it was time to head back to civilization - I had cats to feed, presents to wrap, and a cheesecake to bake as gifts to friends.  It finally felt like a holiday!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Incredible Week!

Similar to the philosophical conundrum about falling trees in the woods making a sound, if no one observes something happen, did it?   But in the 21st century of advanced technology, instant communications and cameras on every corner, it is difficult for anything to go undetected.

This last week something amazing happened, undetected from the earth.  But with an armada of sun-observing spacecraft, Comet C/2011 W3 Lovejoy was observed to dive into the hellish temperatures of the sun, skim the surface and for the first time ever observed, survived to retreat to the frozen outer solar system. 

The primary observing platform was SOHO - the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.  Originally designed for a 2-year service life, it was launched over 16 years ago.  It observes the sun with a dozen instruments, including detailed observations of the surface in the extreme ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths, and the near-sun environment with coronographs.  The coronographs show the outer atmosphere of the sun, storms of charged particles thrown out by active areas on the sun, and most importantly, the near-sun environment, including comets.

Now comets generally are their brightest near the sun, but it wasn't until SOHO's observing station was deployed just how many comets there were.  It has found more than 2100 comets the last 16 years!  It puts to shame the 20 or 30 found from the earth's surface.  The majority of those found from SOHO are a special type called Kreutz sungrazers - from the deepest reaches of the solar system, they dive to within a few tens of thousands of miles of the sun's surface, most all vaporizing and not coming out.  Interestingly, these sungrazers share a very similar orbit - they are all considered pieces of a much larger comet that broke up perhaps 8 or 9 hundred years ago.

On November 27th, Terri Lovejoy, observing in Australia, discover a smudge of a comet that was officially named for him on 2 December, the 16th anniversary of SOHO's launching.  It was the first Kreutz sungrazer discovered from the Earth' surface in over 40 years.  Predicted to reach the brightness of Venus or brighter (about magnitude -5 to -6), most everyone agreed it would never survive it's close approach to the sun and come out the other side, but sometimes the experts are wrong!

As it swung past the sun (on my birthday!) the tail inexplicably was swept away, but the comet survived and the tail redeveloped.  The "experts" are now saying the comet is larger than the 200 yards diameter they estimated, or it would have vaporized.  It now lives to return in another few hundred years.  Some of the other spacecraft observed other aspects of it's pass, such as the Stereo (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) and SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory).  A really good synopsis of observations and early analysis is located at a Sungrazing Comets Site.

As for future ground-based observations - it might be seen from the southern hemisphere as it moves south and fades, but our friend Andrew Cooper, observing from his workplace on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, was one of the rare observers to have recorded it near perihelion.  Yes, SOHO sees a new comet every 3 days or less (!) but there are still some surprises out there yet for us to find.  And being able to surprise the experts is a thrill too!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Color Accord Signed, Disaster Averted!

While we have safely returned to Tucson, we need to update progress on our 80-year-old cottage out in the woods of Illinois.  This last summer we had a new roof put on, and then we insulated, rewired and reglazed windows of the guest bedroom.  In September we finished the drywall and wainscoting.  Sister Maj, who takes joy in working on our little nest while we're away (it is like having home-improvement elves working on it while we're gone) finished the beadboard ceiling and had started priming in the intervening period.  So our December trip was to finish out the painting of the guest room.  The photo at left shows our starting point upon our arrival, on the right is our lil' construction elf Maj!

But the complication, going back to July, was what color to paint the room?  I had no strong feelings, though they started out with a pretty strong red color that I thought was too close to the master bedroom.  So we left with ideas, but no decisions.  We were thinking that as soon as we even leaned towards a color, Maj would just go ahead and start painting.  Melinda wanted the ultimate decision and especially with her cataract surgery this Fall and subsequent clearer vision put off the choice. 

So the first order of business this trip was to pick out a color and guess what - it was the color of her old "shell pink" painting sweatshirt!  Shown at the photo at left, I think that match was a happy accident.  They were concerned I would think it was "too girlie", but again, I didn't have strong opinions other than make it at least a little different from the master bedroom.

So after a few days of effort, the final color scheme is in place.  Beside the pink drywall, the wainscoting is "soft white" (really a pale butter yellow), the trim between them and the window trim an "eggshell white", and the beadboard ceiling is a bright true white.  Whew - lots of color coordinating, but everyone is happy!  The room looks great already and the windows (which I stripped and reglazed in July) look spectacular - matching the view of the Fox River outside.

The next task at hand for the "construction elf" is staining and finishing the new wood flooring.  Maj is incredible working on the little details, and excels at this.  If we're lucky, we'll be able to help install flooring our next trip, rather than just move furniture into the finished room.  About all that remains is finishing out the kitchen ceiling - just in time to move to outdoor projects for the spring and summer visits!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Family Faces...

We had a sister with a hip replacement, and a brother-in-law with major back surgery, so we used our normal Sunday trip to Iowa to visit recovering family!  All are doing extremely well, are up and around and apparently following doctor's orders.  At my middle-sister's house, we got to spend some time with my great niece Alivia, who turned 5 a few months back.  Seemingly like all of my nieces and nephews, turn a camera on them and it is time to perform!  Even great-uncle Dean got in on the face-making act...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Near-Term Forecast - Bleak!

Well, I missed the Fall colors - our September visit was early, and we're definitely way late for them in December...  I think Melinda caught some good color with her surprise visit for her sister's birthday last month.  But today's walk shows winter is here if not just around the corner.  No snow yet, and people on the plane were eager to tell us their garden hadn't had a killing frost yet(!), but from the greys and tans, it is dreary cold for the next 4 months! 

Which brings me to the sign I saw on my walk, shown at left.  Seems a harsh set of choices, without much middle ground...  Reminds me of the advice my money manager gives every review - "well, we expect to get worse, then turn around and get better" - doesn't take a genius to see that in everyday life, but there it is.  It just seems the better days are taking their time arriving!  I'm rather glad to have the moderate temps of Tucson to spend the Winter months - the cold and short days would drive me to depression.  Yet some thrive in the cold, snow and dressing in layers (Melinda included). 

But for now, it is still above freezing (low 40s for highs today), the trail along the Fox River is fun to walk with the rustling of leaves underfoot, and minute spots of color still exist for the moment.  Enjoy it while you can!