Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kitt Peak Star-B-Que!

Last night was one of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association's (TAAA) twice-a-year Star-B-Ques, held at the picnic area about 1.5 miles below the mountaintop National Observatory on Kitt Peak.  It is a great location for such an event - plumbing for bathrooms, easy access, and great dark skies only about a 75 minute drive from Tucson.  Our rainy season weather has been winding down, and we had high hopes for clear skies, but of course, you always take your chances!

Our afternoon drive up revealed some blue sky, but also lots of clouds, with occasional rain sprinkles - not a good sign!  Once there, we also found that the Observatory had neglected to a) unlock the access gate, b) unlock the storeroom where the gas grill was located, and c) deliver the gas grill for our event!  So we went to plan "B" - since it was a pot-luck picnic, at least we all had side dishes from potato and pasta salad, to baked beans, chips, desserts and brownies, so no one went hungry.  With clear skies and a spectacular sunset to the Southwest, we all anticipated clearing and some serious observing.

But obviously, fate was working against us.  The clouds, though broken, revealed wonderful clear skies to the far south, showing Scorpius and part of the Milky Way on the southern horizon, but little chance for overhead observing.  Mostly folks stood around and visited for a time.  I jokingly announced - "why don't some of you leave, so that it will clear up!"  While most had a good chuckle, after 20 minutes or so folks started leaving and as predicted, we had some pretty good skies a little bit later!  I had a photo project in mind, so even with the clouds and with digital exposures costing little, had 2 cameras going showing clouds and stars intermingling.  The view towards the east showed the cloud bottoms lit up not by the rosy glow of twilight, but the yellowish glow of the mostly sodium lighting of Tucson.  The shot here shows that effect plus the trails of 3 (!) satellites converging nearly from the same spot!

Eventually we did get some good skies and I hunted down and pointed the C-14 to Comet Garrad C/2009P1, bright enough to spot in Paul Lorenz's 20X binoculars.  It is about 8th magnitude and looked great in the 14", sporting a nice stubby tail.  I mounted the 200mm zoom lens piggyback on the scope and took 3-90 second exposures at F/3.2 to stack for this result.  It is about a fourth of the original frame so is about 2.5 degrees high, with North up.  The comet is slowly getting farther from us as it approaches the sun, so slowly grows brighter.  About the end of the year, it starts moving away from the sun, but Earth's orbital motion again gets us closer to the comet to keep it about the same brightness.  It won't get naked eye, but from a dark sky should be a binocular comet well into Spring!

The sky stayed clear long enough for us to observe some fall galaxies, the Helix Nebula, and some good views of Jupiter and it's 4 Galilean moons as it rose in the NE.  When first observed less than 10 degrees off the horizon, the atmospheric turbulence had it shimmering pretty well, but even then, belt details could be seen.  Just before clouds came in and convinced us to pack up at 10pm, a dark brown oval could be seen transiting the meridian in the North Equatorial Belt, and the Great Red Spot could be seen approaching the meridian in the south belt.  The view was quite similar to the amazing webcam shot by Phoenix amateur Tom Polakis taken 8 days ago shown here at left.  It was a nice highlight to carry home with us.  We hit the mountain road shortly after 10:30 and were home by 11:45, an early night even by weekday standards!

It was frustrating to deal with clouds and picnic details, but the cool temperatures, the chance to socialize with other members and the little good observing that was carried out made it all worthwhile.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Kreepy Krawlies and Flutterbys!

The other day while still in Illinois, we finally had a break from home improvement and were able to get in an amble down the bike path into Tekakwitha Forest preserve and through some of the forest trails.  As I mentioned the other day, the weather has been beautiful and Fall-like compared to the 100 degree days of Tucson, but still warm enough the trees were just starting to stray from their Summer shades of green.  A few of the maples were just starting to turn...

Flowering plants were also starting to get rare and as a result, the few vibrant ones were host to lots of insects.  In particular, this Goldenrod was feeding grounds to at least 3 kinds of wasps and these two butterflies.  The white one is a male Cabbage White (sexed from it's single spot), and a female Pearl Crescent (from it's larger abdomen and colored antenna tips).  It is easy to take many photos while they are distracted feeding, thus you can get a couple good ones while throwing most away.  Why keep the ones that are inferior or slightly out of focus?

Every trip back I still marvel at the stands of Milkweed.  While I've heard that they are becoming rare, they are anything but in our area of Illinois.  They serve as hosts for a variety of insects, most commonly the Monarch Butterflies, which we rarely see, unfortunately.  I think it is because of our irregular trips to the Midwest - between their migration between Mexican wintering ground and their Summers in southern Canada, we are missing them coming through.  That is my excuse, anyway! 

But there are other insects that live exclusively on the Milkweed - the Milkweed Bug (at left) and the Milkweed Beetle(at right).  I still get them mixed up, though the Beetle is much more common.  In fact, I've only seen the Bug once and was able to get his portrait here this last July.  The Beetle goes through several instar stages, and last week, you could see nearly all nymph stages from a little red spot a couple mm across, to the adults shown about 1.5cm.  Reading about the Milkweed Bug at the above link, I found that the antenna base splits the eyes, shown in the picture too.

Returning home after our walk, Melinda pointed out a few of our spider buddies with webs near the house.  She is deathly phobic of them and would rather empty a Raid can on them than look at them.  So of course, I photograph and post about them.  Hopefully the blog title will keep her from looking!  I'm amazed how well the macro works (Canon 100mm F/2.8) - the photo at left is cropped down slightly, the right is the same frame, enlarged to actual pixels...  The on-camera flash helped freeze motion and maximize details.

Unfortunately, the one thing I've learned about spiders is that they are notoriously difficult to identify.  Both of these, living a couple feet apart, are Orb Weaving Spiders, but that is about as far as I've gotten.  The bottom photo shows the smaller with an unusual feature, even seen with the naked eye - enlarged pedipalps that may be a palpal bulb that carries sperm.  So this particular fellow might be the same species as above, since the coloration and leg striping is similar and females are typically larger.  Plus they were withing a meter of each other, so the chances may be good. 

I think insects are fun to find and photograph - certainly as fun and interesting as astro-imaging.  Too bad Melinda is so phobic.  Anyone have suggestions or therapy to try?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Another Visit Home!

We're back in Illinois at the moment, partly to visit family, mostly to get some more work done on the house, continuing the modifications started in July in preparations for the new roof.  We'll be blogging more on work on the guestroom the next couple days. 

Upon our arrival, they were deep into some Fall temperatures here, but we were disappointed there is hardly a lick of any Fall colors.  They look to still be a week or two away.  We found another sign of Fall, though - our house was surrounded by the racing sculls of Wheaton College, who train on the Fox River here.  We're just lucky that now, in addition to the usual rack of canoes between us and the Fox, we've also got a half dozen 8 and 4 person sculls.  I almost tripped over the nearly 40 foot sculls on my first walk down to the river the night we arrived.  But that has been the only inconvenience - always interesting to see them go out for their evening training runs.

It has only been 6 weeks since we were here last, but the cool temps almost make it seem like a different place!  I've had a couple brief chances to get up to Tekakwitha Forest preserve - fall is definitely coming, but there are some last gasps of color and some of our regular buddies to greet us.  My first trip over, a visit near sunset, I spotted a couple white tail deer.  While getting out of the car very slowly with the camera, one walked right past me and the car to join them.  A fourth fawn joined them from under an apple tree at the edge of the woods to feed on the mown grass and acorns.

The open prairie section of Tekakwitha that a month ago was dominated by Queen Anne's Lace is now overgrown by Goldenrod and patches of Sawtooth Sunflower.  Each of these shots were taken on each of my two trips - one right near sunset that shows the silhouette of the inner flower on the petals, and the other a noon wide-angle shot that contrasts the yellows of the Sawtooth Sunflower and Goldenrod.

We've promised ourselves to spend more time outdoors while the weather is nice, but the demands on our limited time in home improvement work makes it hard.  We've got a few days left, so hope to make more time to get out!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rarer Than Rare!

Yes, we live in the desert.  But even in the desert, this has been an extremely dry year.  With an annual rainfall of something like 12", about half of it normally comes in our "monsoon" season  of July into mid-September.  But with the rainy season winding down, we were 5 or 6 inches down from normal year-to-date.

But late this last Saturday evening it rained - biblical rain!  And of course, it came down while we were trying to drive the mile to a local restaurant...  Sometimes it feels good for the desert rats to get wet!  While the "official" rainfall from the National Weather Service was only 1.25", the local radar, when set to show rainfall totals, showed upwards of 3-4".  This isn't that unusual, monsoon rains are traditionally spotty from place to place only a block or two apart.  With the NWS "official" station at the airport 15 miles south of town, a factor of 2 or 3 isn't rare. 

The rain eventually slowed, then stopped, and a few hours later, while watching a rerun of Saturday Night Live, we noticed it had cleared, cooled, and the nearly full moon was shining brightly.  Suddenly, nearing midnight, we got the urge to drive the mile and a half down to the Rillito River to see if the wash was running.  Now we don't cross the Rillito every day, but it seems like ages since we've seen any flow.  I noticed weeks ago someone had built a primitive tepee in the sand, and when down on our bat visit a few days earlier (see post below), it remained, though any flow would have removed it.  So it had been ages since the wash contained significant water.

We were shocked on our Midnight run to see it running bank-to-bank, with a deafening roar!  It wasn't close to flood stage, but it is rare to see the channel full.  We took a few pictures by combination of moonlight and streetlights from the Campbell Avenue bridge, a couple of them shown here.  We were also surprised to see a steady of stream of folks like us who drove up to see the unusual event.  Turns out those camera phones don't work so well by moon and streetlight!

The next morning, we repeated the trip, thinking that it might still be running, but alas, it was not to be...  While sometimes Winter snows in the mountains can melt and the wash run for days or weeks, in this case, the water drained quickly and only a few pools, with people and dogs playing in it.  I guess if it ran every day we'd start taking it for granted, but being able to see it only on a midnight run makes it really special!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Batty Moon!

While our friends were visiting last weekend, I awaited their return from shopping near their hotel, which just happened to be across the street from where we occasionally go watch the bats come out at sunset (Campbell Ave bridge across the Rillito).  With them still away, I stood about 50 yards west of the bridge and took a few shots of the stream of bats passing near the quarter moon in the southern sky.  This was the best of about a dozen frames I took before it got too dark to see them silhouetted against the twilight.  With a shorter exposure to properly shoot the moon, the bats would have been invisible... 

Today, looking at the exposures more critically, I noticed a bright spot just above the moon - a star that was scheduled to be occulted, or blocked by the moon, if viewed from the correct location.  As described on the Sky and Telescope website, the star is Delta Scorpii (4th brightest star in the constellation Scorpius).  The chart in the link there shows were we're just north of the "Northern Limit", so no occultation was visible from this location, but from the southeastern US, the star did disappear behind the disk of the moon.  I've seen many such occultations of stars and planets, in fact, with a reasonably sized telescope and a crescent moon, one can watch random faint stars disappear behind the earthlit "dark side" of the moon most any night as it slowly moves around the earth in it's orbit.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Kitt Peak Movies - Final Version!?

With the long weekend, I had time to go through the time-lapse sequences taken at Kitt Peak last June, and this last week.  Let me tell you - there's nothing more fun than going through each frame of the nearly 750 shots and adjust levels and contrast!  But the results are worth it - the fine details in the Milky Way and Observatory domes really punch through.  I'm sure the photo professionals that occasionally read this missive will tell me the way I should have done it - actually, I'm looking forward to any constructive criticism, so let me have it!

First up is the sequence from last June - a 6-hour sequence from early twilight till after the crescent moon rose just before 2am.  I've since replaced the unstretched video first posted (and replaced it with this link), so if you play the video from the old post, you won't see the difference...  What really stands out is the abundance of satellites that were so much harder to see in the early version.  But the dust clouds and dark lanes of our galaxy make it amazing to me.  If your bandwidth allows, be sure to watch it full screen and bump up the quality to HD!

And then we have the 4 hour sequence taken last weekend from the peak of Kitt Peak.  The blog post documented the hassle of carrying the needed equipment up the very steep route, but again, the result I think is pretty amazing.  While I had the option of saving both of these in wide-screen formats, it cuts out some of the top and bottom, so chose to leave the camera aspect ratio - particularly on this sequence, as lots of mountaintop details would have been cut out.  As above, be sure to watch it full screen in HD if your bandwidth allows...

The question to pose to the photo pros is how to stretch each individual frame, and yet, if a bright light appears in the frame, how to keep it from affecting the global stretching of the Milky Way details...  Perhaps I'll get to do all the frames again eventually, but enjoy them for now!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Horny Times!

Barely 8 days after our last encounter, when moving the couch for a little house-cleaning, we discovered another horned lizard!  While a virtual twin of the one we found last weekend, there are slight differences, so this makes another that the cats likely carried in.  I was kidding Melinda that a few babies might be next!  The lil' ones are so cute!

Since I had Melinda around when capturing this one, she took a few pics with the macro lens while I entertained the fellow.  It appeared that this one was cornered at some point - it is obvious that he squirted blood out of his eye, as some varieties are capable of doing to avoid predators - see the Wiki link above for details.  We were also able to get a closeup of his lil' toes and toenails, and also demonstrate that when held on their backs with their tummies rubbed, they approach something like a hypnotic trance!  True, this one, like the one last week, had a long exposure to the cool temperatures in the house and moved more slowly than if he's been outside. 

After a few portraits, he was released in the front of the house and when checked a few minutes later, was nowhere to be found.  It remains to be seen if he'll reappear in the future!