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!


David A. Harvey said...

Sigh. Beautiful shots as usual - I missed this event again.

I had planned on beating you to it this year - computed that this same scene would be visible from Babat Duag at sunset on November 26th - the day I went into hospital for a month.

But this year . . . :-)

Dean said...

If it lines up at "Bad Dog" overlook the month before solstice, it should line up a month afterwards too. Let me know if you are available and I'll meet you there! Date and time please!