Monday, May 30, 2011


Editorial: Tucson amateur astronomers are fortunate in that they have easy access to spectacular dark skies, and we are also equidistant from two of the biggest astronomical meetings offered. We're about 450 miles from both the Texas Star Party and the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference. And while that puts us well under a days drive from either, few locals take advantage of the proximity. Perhaps we're spoiled by our own local skies, but for me, the joys of attending these events is in catching up with and making new friends, seeing interesting telescopes and equipment, the interesting talks, vendors of all types, and finally, the observing comes in a distant fifth. We just returned from RTMC and have some opinions to pass along.
RTMC normally is held over the Memorial Day weekend at YMCA Camp Oakes at 7,000+ feet elevation a few miles east of Big Bear California. This year was the 43rd so it has a long and established history. I've missed only 2 since 1986 when attending the first time. It was great then and is still great, though for various reasons, is endangered.

The "golden age" of RTMC was back in the mid-90s. Attendance was over 2,000 amateurs. You could hardly walk 30 feet before being stopped by another friend with which to catch up with. There would be over 30 entries in the informal telescope making competition. A walk through the "telescope field" and "Telescope Alley" revealed some of the most innovative ideas in astronomy and was an inspiration to all who would put grit to glass or screwdriver to wood in making a telescope. But at about the same time that inexpensive optics from Asia and high gas prices arrived, attendance started dropping, even as the number of vendors climbed. The telescope field was filled with vendor's tents, pushing the telescope making elsewhere. The event rebranded itself as "RTMC Astronomy Expo", in an attempt to widen it's appeal, but I didn't detect much improvement. Last year, in an attempt to appeal to observers, they moved it up 2 weeks before the traditional Memorial Day Weekend to provide a dark sky, and attendance still dropped. This year, back to it's regular spot on the calendar, attendance was under 800 (my guess), the vendors, now given a dust and wind-free spot in the Fall's PATS(Pacific Astronomy and Telescope Show), are also no-shows. The telescope field was once again deserted, as were most of the vendor spots along the borders of the lanes leading through the grounds.

But I still had a great time this year. The core of the old RTMC were still there. I sat for an hour or more swapping tales with Gerry Logan, one of the preeminent telescope makers of the last few decades. Telescope entries were up some this year. I connected with some friends I'd not seen in a while, and the talks were still top notch. But if attendance continues to suffer, I can't imagine the event can continue in anything close to it's historical or current form. In years past, the Tucson attendees used to meet for a group photo - we would get upwards of a dozen or 16 TAAA members. This year we had 6... All I can encourage you to do is to make the trip - it is still a great chance to spend a weekend eating and breathing astronomy, and if anything, it is more family friendly than ever with kids and family activities all day long (and into the night). And with Big Bear and the spectacular scenery of the mountains all around, there is no lack of alternate activities. Please consider a visit next time around!

Finally for some content! We travelled Thursday evening, staying at the base of the mountain in Indio, and made the morning trip Friday. We decided to stay in Motel 6 in Big Bear, though I've traditionally taken and slept in the back of the van in the past. Like I said above, meeting and catching up with friends is the best, and shortly after we got there at noon, we ran into Steve Peterson from TAAA, who is also a co-worker at Kitt Peak with me. We normally rib each other about what we're tempted to get from the vendors, and this was no exception, though there was a lack of vendors for a Friday afternoon! We still roamed, and ran into Claude and Teresa, while we were visiting former Tucsonan Dennis Casper, who had brought a recently completed 18" F/8 telescope. Dennis used to work with me at the Mirror Lab and I'd not seen him in several years, so was great to see that he's continued the optics tradition. I promised to return after dark to look at Saturn through his long-focus reflector. True to form, it was a great view, and the night shot here shows him checking out M13 in a 30 second exposure with a 16mm fisheye with Scorpius at left, Corvus at right, and a passerby with a red light approaching.

A little later we ran into Mike and Elvira from Phoenix, with their friend Tom, who runs a B&B near Flagstaff. Telescope nuts all, we swapped recent travel stories and checked out a Mirror-O-Matic machine that was demonstrating mirror grinding. This one was built by Eric Shrader (red shirt), and was one of several talks and demonstrations about telescope making.

There were several excellent talks, certainly one of the more interesting ones was by Russ Genet who gave a talk on "A Portable 2-Meter Telescope". As someone involved in large telescope fabrication, it was certainly fascinating to see someone approach the problem with a shoestring budget. His criteria were a lot different than most. In order to cut down expenses as much as possible, his telescopes do not need to be optical quality, in fact, designed for photometry, the measurement of brightness of objects, his telescopes do not have eyepieces or even an accessible focus as long as the detector can be mounted there. The mirrors also aren't the aspheric parabolas or hyperbolas that most large telescopes have - an inexpensive spherical surface suffices, corrected with a pair of "Lenscrafter-quality" lenses. The optical quality needs only to be good enough to focus an image which fits on the detector. He built a 40" diameter version which was up on the telescope field, and had models for 60" versions. The 40" was supposed to fit in a Jeep Cherokee. He figures that scaling to 80" wide is the most you can carry on the open road without permits...

With the drop in attendance, the swap meet also suffered, so fortunately I was able to save what meager funds I'd brought along to spend on trinkets. All I ended up getting was a new camera case, which was a good deal, cause my current one has just developed a bum zipper... Still, it was fun to go shopping - I ran across Dennis Young looking for a buyer for his WWII vintage 100mm binoculars. Behind him is another acquaintance, Mike Clements, who on more than one occasion brought his 40" telescope up to the Grand Canyon Star Party. He has the mirror blank for a 70" and is working on a site and telescope for it. Mike currently has no plans to make it portable...

So we still had fun, we're likely to go back. If you've made a telescope or have some interesting ideas, bring and enter them! Or just go to experience it - you will be glad you did!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Return to where it began...

Some of you may have heard I'm working part-time at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Some of you may also know that is where I started working when I moved down from Iowa way back in '79. Back then, with a shiny new astronomy and physics degree, KPNO recruited me to join the technical group at the Observatory, After a little more than 5 years I moved to the University of Arizona and got into optics, but I really enjoyed working and living on the Mountain. Other than a stint as a docent in the early '90s, this is my first time back on a regular basis.

I've kept my day job at the Mirror Lab, but one night a week, I join the crew at the Visitor Center where they run a nightly observing program (NOP) for the public. We serve a multitude of duties, but serve as a liaison to the Observatory, part time tour guide to the history and operations that go on, as well as sky guide, telescope operator and astronomy instructor. All that stuff is easy for me - the hardest part for me is the administrative stuff - running the cash register and other store operations, things I've never done or worried about before... So far it has been a lot of fun - the people (both staff and the public) are great, the equipment top notch, and the one night per week under the stars has certainly scratched the observing itch I get. Melinda and I haven't been out with our own scopes since November! Those Thursday nights after a work day at the Mirror Lab does make for a long day, though!

Work nights there are generally pretty hectic without much time for anything but the program. But there have been a couple opportunities to get up for some extracurricular imaging - not through the telescope, but of sky and domes, a favorite subject of mine. Most of the shots here are single images from a sequence that will eventually find their way into video clips, likely posted on Youtube. Look for that in the near future. This night time shot of the Visitor Center is a 20 second exposure under the light of a quarter moon. The 20" telescope is open for the NOP, and the 4-meter dome is visible in the distance. Polaris, the North Star, is visible over the 20" dome, with Vega and the constellation Lyra visible rising on the right side of the frame.

First up are a sunset, moonset pair. The sunset was taken with a 200mm at full zoom, the moon through a little 80mm Meade telescope of 480mm focal length. The sunsets are a popular feature of every NOP, and since I started working in January, it has been fascinating how much of the western horizon the disk of the sun has covered in it's northward journey. The moonset was a tougher project - taken on a gusty night, the sky was hazy enough that 1 second exposures were needed as the crescent moon approached the horizon over what I think is the village of Quijotoa, about 35 miles northwest of the Observatory out in the Tohono O'Odham Reservation.

The last exposures are all about 20 second exposures with fast lenses. First up is the 2.1 meter telescope on the south side of the mountain. The great globular cluster Omega Centauri has just cleared the dome, and visible just a little above it is the bright radio galaxy Centaurus A. The only illumination is light pollution from Tucson (to the left), and natural airglow. The other exposures are of the 4-meter and 90 telescopes up on the north side of the mountain under the light of a crescent moon. Repeating from above, these are individual frames from a sequence of a few hundred taken for a video sequence. More coming up on another Kitt Peak topic!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kitty Update #???

When you have 10 cats "it's always something", and usually it's unexpected.  This month's kitty saga involves Scruffy.  To refresh your memory, Scruffy is a feral we brought in (near death) a couple of years ago.  He tested positive for FIV, and shortly after being a part of the family he went blind and was diagnosed with high blood pressure and spinal problems.  He was skinny as a rail when we brought him in and his lack of eyesight hasn't deterred him from finding the food bowls.  His latest weight is 14lbs 8oz (just about double from when we first brought him in), making him quite the handful!  Overall, Scruffy does very well.  He willingly takes his medications (disguised in his food) twice a day, and generally stays out of trouble.  It was a startling discovery, then, when Dean found that his left eye was bulging nearly out of his head a week or so ago!  I was at work and Dean texted me to see if Scruff had been okay when I fed him dinner (which he had been).  Dean had gone shopping after I went to work, and found Scruffy very uncomfortable with this eye problem when he returned home about 8:30pm.  Fortunately, we have an emergency Vet clinic that specializes in ophthalmology very near by - and Dean had Scruffy there in record time!  Examinations and tests later -- Scruffy definitely has glaucoma, may have some sort of abscess or cyst behind his eye, definite corneal abrasion from not being about to close his eye, and his blood pressure was dangerously high.  After several days of increased blood pressure medication, antibiotics, pain medications, eye drops, artificial tears, and anti-inflammatory meds; Scruffy is improving!  He had a follow up appointment earlier this week which was encouraging.  There is a chance he may still have to have that eye removed - which may be less traumatic for him than the average cat since he is already blind.  We'll see what the decision will be when we go for another check up in two weeks.  We're seeing improvement every day and he seems to be much more comfortable.  We're not putting close up pictures of his eye on here as it was just too awful at first!
In the mean time, it was time for the big boy to get his summer haircut!  Dean had already made his appointment for his annual shaving, and fortunately Scruffy was improving enough to keep his appointment.  So here he is, shaved and comfy for the summer!  You can see that there is still some swelling in his left eye, and you can see blood that has pooled in that eye.  No doubt, he's been in a great deal of pain with this, what a brave little man he is!  The eye Vet gave us a great compliment when we were there.  He said, "You know, reading his history and what's going on with him I expected him to be a train wreck!  He's not!  He's doing great due to your great care!"  We love our big, old boy!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pima Air Museum in Depth!

I got a phone call a week or so ago from my buddy Chuck - the fellow who arranged us to go whale watching in Mexico a few weeks back. He is a pilot and of course an enthusiast of all things flying. He was meeting our friend Joey at the "Pima Air and Space Museum and wanted to know if I was free to come along. It was a Sunday, and Melinda was sleeping after a shift, so sure!

The Museum is the largest non-government funded aviation museum in the country. They have an incredible display of aircraft from throughout the history of flight spread over 80 acres. I've been there a few times, but new displays are always coming along, and there is a huge amount to see. There are even displays of local technology and the Mirror Lab appears in one!

Of course, the best part was that Chuck, as a member and frequent visitor, knew pretty much everything about every display, which plane had mahogany ailerons during the war years, fabric vs metal covered frames, details like that. It was great having him as tour guide. Listening in on his conversations with the museum docents was like hearing a foreign language for the first time...

I was looking for photo opportunities, and what I ended up doing was taking some interesting 3D images. By taking a pair of images with a little distance between them, and viewing one with each eye, image depth can be seen. Cross your eyes slightly, looking with the right image with your left eye, left image with your right, and a center image will show the 3D image with depth. I've got other posts with similar images - hit the "3-D Images" subject line over in the right border for more.

It was a great time - turns out there were ulterior motives - I was also invited to Easter lunch with Joey's family - a traditional Midwestern Easter dinner, which was great! Melinda would have loved it - in fact she did love it because they sent a care package home with me which she loved.