Wednesday, November 30, 2011

City of Lights!

It's time once again to not look at the calendar, and head up to "Ketelsen East" in the outskirts of Chicago to visit friends and family!  Yes, we know it can be cold and miserable, with a real chance of getting snowed in this time of year, but we get back almost every 2 months for the better part of a week, regardless of time-of-year.  Besides the afore-mentioned F&F, we're also working on the house up here, and there is work to be done!  And what better time for working on painting and indoor projects than December!?

It was an uneventful flight out (uneventful is good!), and I figured our seats (row 22 - right over the wings) wouldn't lead to any pictures of interest, so the camera bag was safely stowed under the seat in front of me.  But as fate would have it, as we descended into Chicago, an interesting shot or two exposed themselves (excuse the pun!).  So I grabbed the camera (a difficult task with the lack of legroom these days and my knees wedged against the seat back in front of me) and risked the ire of the cabin crew by turning on my electronic device during approach to grab a few frames.  Of course, the first one I caught, while banking over one of the brighter parts of the city, the exposure was set way too long (1.3 seconds), yet yielded a way-interesting shot, even better than the subsequent one (0.1 second) that is much more boring...

Now many of you likely say "what pretty lights!"  But the amateur astronomers among you are likely aghast at the light pollution!  Since we are flying over the lights, if they were even moderately shielded to reduce glare, we should only see the diffuse light on the ground, not the lights directly.  I'll endeavor to take some of Tucson that show that effect sometime.  Here in Chicago, I think they are proud of all the "pretty lights" that add to the skyline. Of course, if you try to do astronomy here, the sky glow from the urban area can be seen hundreds of miles away.  But that is one of the reasons we spend most of our time in Tucson, for that inky sky relatively easily obtained with a short drive.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sunset Effects and a Tiny Sliver

Tonight I was scheduled to direct a Kitt Peak Advanced Observing Program (AOP), but the guest was a no-show.  While waiting for him to arrive, I took a few opportunistic photos while hanging around the Visitor Center.  The early sunset happens to fall over Tucson and I noticed last week in a visit that many roadside signs that use glass microspheres (to appear brighter under headlight illumination) appear brilliantly lit when exactly opposite the sun.  The first image shows the mountain shadow creeping over Ryan Airfield on the way to Tucson.  All the reflectors, as well as roadside traffic signs are redirecting sunlight back to me.  It is a really cool effect, and visible to the naked eye, even from a distance of 25 miles.

It was quite a clear day and though breezy on the Mountain, transparency was very good.  For a few trips I've been wanting to image the shadow of the Mountain ascend into the sky as the sun goes down.  The effect is quite well known, but few people have observed it - mostly because most people are watching the sunset on the other side of the sky!  The sky has to be very clear, and I've seen better, but it showed up nicely.  Mostly the shadow appears pointy, but tonight, being near the VC right in the center of the mountain, the shadow appeared flat-topped or slightly rounded.  I'm thinking about chasing down the upcoming partial lunar eclipse setting at the tip of the mountain shadow in a couple weeks...

With the new moon occurring a day or two ago, I saw that the thin sliver of the moon was to be very near brilliant Venus after the sunset.  Of course, being up at the Observatory, it was easy to place a telescope or two in the foreground.  Shown here in the wide field are the WIYN 0.9 meter, the NOP 0.4 meter and the WIYN 3.5 meter telescope structures.  And the closeup shows just the WIYN 3.5 meter next to the celestial alignment.  Venus' stellar flares are caused by diffraction from the lens' iris edges.  Of course, the skinny moon's "dark" side is lit up by Earthshine, since viewed from the nearly-new moon, the brilliant full Earth lights it up.

Lastly, shortly before giving up the wait for the guest, I had set up an ultra-wide 8mm fisheye lens to image the Milky Way/Zodiacal Band confluence.  It seems lately that the band has been brighter than I remember - it seems more easily visible across the entire sky.  The Zodiacal Light (the fainter band angled towards upper left in this image) is caused by dust in the plane of the solar system, and in this image reaches from Sagittarius, where the ecliptic crosses the Milky Way, up to the planet Jupiter, just appearing in the upper left corner of the field.  In another month or two, as the ecliptic makes a sharper angle with the horizon, the Zodiacal Light should get brighter - even brighter than the remnants of the Summer Milky Way that is visible here.

So even though I had hoped to be up observing all night, I was home by 9:30, but still got to see a few amazing things!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Check Your Local Listings!

Last Thanksgiving I happened to be  channel surfing and fortuitously ran across some of the most compelling TV ever!  Punkin Chunkin!  Take your average home garage shop engineer, task him with hurling a big gourd and give him liberal amounts of time you come up with some of the most outlandish mechanical devices ever seen, including medieval trebuchets and giant air cannons, like those shown at left. 

The last few years the World Championship, held in Delaware the first weekend in November has been broadcast Thanksgiving evening on the Discovery and Science Channels. Last year's show, "hosted" by Adam and Jamie of the Mythbuster series on the Discovery Channel, was a hoot.  The overall winner was a female team - Hormone Blaster, their air cannon reaching 3760 feet!  The Guinness Record is currently held by "Big 10 Inch" with a distance of 5545 feet in the thin air of Moab, Utah - yes, over a mile!  This year the show is hosted by the Mythbuster "kids" - Kari, Grant and Tory (Youtube promo shown here).  Tune in Thursday night (9pm in Tucson, rebroadcast at Midnight and again Saturday the 26th) and prepare to be amazed!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lil' Bundles of Joy!

This morning as I walked into our integration lab, I was reminded of the warehouse scene of "Raiders of the Lost Arc" - the floor was covered with boxes about as far as I could see!  I counted about 70-some pallets of 24 boxes each.  And what could consume so much floor space in our lab?  GLASS! 

It is time once again to cast a mirror, and that calls for sorting through more than 20 tons of Ohara E-6 borosilicate glass (a Pyrex equivalent).  The sorting process takes a few days, and commences right after the Thanksgiving break, so they've moved in glass, sorting tables, light boxes and tools to put together their assembly-line process to inspect every chunk of what will become the next mirror substrate - the next Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) mirror.  Each box holds about 10-12 kg of glass, and each block will be cleaned and inspected for flaws and impurities (most of these show up as stress concentrations under cross Polaroids), and sorted for where it should be placed in the mold.  The best glass is kept for placing in the mold last, so it will remain on the faceplate of the cast mirror.

While I've never been called to assist with the sorting process, it is fun to watch the crew working together in the assembly-line process.  After the glass inspection, they will also inspect the mold, which has just been through a pre-fire process the last week.  The glass will be loaded into the mold just before the Christmas shutdown, and the casting will start in January.  The process of transforming raw chunks to finished optics continue!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Our Decade With Marley...

Our orange tabby Marley died this morning.  While it was not a sudden passing, he declined pretty quickly.  We first noticed he had lost considerable weight only a week ago, but for a week or two previously seemed lethargic without much appetite.  We got him into the vet quickly last Tuesday, and they kept him for a few days for some X-rays, blood tests and IV fluids.  We got him back Friday and saw he had continued his slide - he could hardly stand and we were syringe feeding him to try to get some food in him.  Another quick trip to the vet on Saturday before they were unavailable for the weekend brought a slight change in meds, including some for pain.  Mostly he sat near us through the day.  Melinda had a bit of a cold and sore throat, so stayed home from work and stayed up with him Saturday night, waking me at 5am to tell me he had stopped breathing and had died quietly.  The cause remains undiagnosed...

Marley came to us as a kitten in the summer of 2001 - Vicki, who was volunteering for some local animal rescue groups rescued him from his foster home.  Evidently there was a flea infestation and this little kitten had gotten ODed on flea powder and could hardly stand.  Fortunately he recovered without any problems, and grew into the greatest cat.  He was quite trusting in us and waited patiently for his lap time - 3 or 4 of our cats rotate through their turns with mom and dad nearly every night and he always enjoyed his owners' attention.  At bedtime he rushed to be in place on my side of the bed as we drifted off to sleep together, always managing to leave wet spots on me or my blankets from his happy drooling.  But despite wanting to spend time with us, he also spent a lot of time with Lance, who entered our household about the same time.  Lance was very shy and set up residence in our garage and seemed happy alone, but on most nights Marley stayed by his side - his only friend among all the cats.  We didn't see any change in Marley's behavior after Lance's passing this Spring, though he continued to eat at the spot he shared with him for years...

The pictures above are taken in 2008 when Marley accompanied me on my cross-country drive to Illinois and our 5 month stay there while Melinda and I married.  He was an OK traveler, but a most excellent cat when it came to personality and his desire to spend time with his humans.  He will be missed...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Up in the Sky - It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...

An Iridium Flare!  Tonight we had an excellent appearance that was magnitude -7, which makes it about as bright as the quarter moon!  This one appeared in our southern sky - the bright star near the bottom is Fomalhaut, the brightest star in Piscis Austrinus (Southern Fish).  It is a 30 second exposure with a 50mm lens at F/4.5.   I've mentioned the flares before, but perhaps never fully explained them, so it is about time to remedy that.

The Iridium satellite constellation is a set of 66 satellites that provide world-wide handheld phone communications.  Originally there were to be 77, matching the atomic number of the element iridium, thus the name.  A peculiarity of the satellite is that there are 3 flat polished antennae, and with it's orientation fixed in space, these antennae can predictably reflect sunlight down onto the night-side of the earth.  These flares can be as bright as magnitude -9, possible to see even in daytime, and can be spectacular at night.  The flatness accuracy of the panels is such that the projected sunbeam is only a few miles in diameter.  In addition, there are websites, such as Heavens-Above, that will predict when these flares will pass over your position on the earth.  It can be quite amazing watching even from urban areas a dim satellite appearing and growing brighter by thousands of times to brilliance, then fading slowly again to invisibility, all in a few seconds.  The flares are quite popular at the Grand Canyon Star Party, where the public treats us as shamans for our ability to predict their passing.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has a nice website explaining the geometry and effects of the flares, including detailed instructions to logging into heavens-Above to be able to predict these far in advance, including appearances of the International Space Station and, in fact, any satellite currently in orbit!  They are the source of the illustration at left showing the effect of the antenna reflection.

Observing the flares is a lot of fun, and so easy to do with the assistance of Heavens-Above.  In addition to predicting Iridiums and the ISS, they can plot out the path of the satellite as it goes across the constellations.  They also plot out the positions of any bright comets or asteroids that are visible, and you can plot out a whole-sky map for any time or date you desire.  With those tools and a few satellite observations under your belt, you are on your way to learning your way around the sky.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Last Glance of Mercury...

The evening observing window to spot Venus and Mercury has been very brief, thanks to the low angle of the ecliptic to the horizon this time of year.  A couple weeks ago I posted about the evening conjunction of the 2 planets inward of the Earth.  Forgetful me, I often don't remember to look until the pair sink too low to spot the fainter Mercury.  The innermost planet also reached greatest eastern elongation (furthest from the sun in the evening sky) yesterday, so in the next days will get fainter (as it becomes a smaller crescent passing between us and the sun - visible in telescopes only) and as it dives towards inferior conjunction (between us and the sun) 2 weeks from  Sunday (4 December).  But in the meantime, in the next day or so, you can still spot it in the evening sky, as I did tonight, below brilliant Venus - taken with Canon XSi and 17-85 zoom set to 85mm for 1/5 second.  Catch it while you can!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not something familiar to much of the United States.  However, in states bordering Mexico (or states with large Latino populations) it is a practiced holiday - one that is planned for, anticipated, and relished.  Being in Tucson (formerly Mexico), Día de Muertos is an event to behold!
Wikipedia says: "Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and around the world in many cultures. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico, where it attains the quality of a National Holiday, and all banks are closed. The celebration takes place on November 1–2, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years (thousands of years) and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world: In BrazilDia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures."

We had never been to the Day of the Dead parade, on 4th Street, in Tucson.  In all of his years here, Dean had never checked it out, and when first moving here I was at first 'put off' and frightened by the Day of the Dead artwork, sculptures, and paraphernalia found in the shops here.  My appreciation has changed, however, and now I'm drawn to those articles - we even have a Day of the Dead tin wall sculpture in our kitchen (purchased in Loreto, Baja Sur last March), and I have just been given a Day of the Dead Kitty tile by our friends Jen and Tom (from Phoenix)!  It seemed like we would miss the embodiment of this holiday if we didn't go to the parade this year.  In Tucson, this has become a largely gringo event that nearly resembles a form of Mardi Gras.  That was what it reminded me of anyway.  For some it was an excuse to get dressed up, paint their faces, and parade through the streets with like minded individuals.  For most, however, it was as it is supposed to be.  A day to remember their loved ones, a day to remember all souls who have passed.  The parade ended at a park in Tucson, befitted with an altar and a large cauldron of fire where papers with messages to our loved ones (which we were given papers to write messages along the parade route) were burned so that the messages were raised to the spirits of the ones we love, remember, and miss.  Remembering those who have passed isn't limited to people, there were people with pictures of their pets as well as a group that our friend Chuck walked with, remembering (and making people aware of) the number of gray wolves hit and killed by vehicles each year!  It was heartwarming to see people walking, holding up pictures of their grandparents, their ancestors; and gut wrenching to see pictures of children, teens, young adults - lost to accident, disease, violence.  Every soul deserves someone to remember them - we all have loved ones we remember.  This was not a sad event, but an event to remember them with the respect and love that they deserve. The tail of the parade was brought up by the University of Arizona marching band (or a portion of it, anyway) - all with their faces painted for the Day of the Dead.  If you live in the Tucson area and haven't been a part of this before, then come out and see it next year (the first Sunday of November).  Dean was a little unsure of this event before we went, but afterwards he suggested that maybe we'd like to walk in it next year!  So whether the participants are gringos, or Latinos, it doesn't matter; we are connected by the love we have for those who have passed, by Día de Muertos.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Kitt Peak Vistas

Seems we've been having a lot of posts about Kitt Peak National Observatory.  In fact this makes 4 of the last 7 posts!  With my regular one-night-a-week work with the Nightly Observing Program, recent workshops, training for VIP tours, and volunteering for Tohono Night, there have been ample chances to take a few pictures.

Last night I was up again on my own time, to try to get some images to improve a time lapse sequence I took some 3 years ago - nearly my first one.  You can click on the image to the left here to see it.  Mistakes were made, and I've learned a lot in doing these over the years.  The problem is that if I want to catch the Pleiades rising over the working VLBA radio dish in the foreground, it would have to be this week before the moon gets too bright.  By next dark-of-the-moon, the star cluster would already be above the horizon at twilight. 

After some car issues, I got up there just before sunset and rushed to get set up.  But there are still issues - as twilight faded and I was adjusting exposures, the effect of the 5-day-old moon was greater than I expected.  Also, about 30 minutes into the sequence, the radio dish stowed itself and didn't move the rest of the night.  It will make for a dull video, I suspect.  But having the moon provide some ambient light was a plus, and I continued this one long enough to also catch the Hyades cluster.  Other changes included shooting shorter exposures (faster lens) at a quicker clip to reduce star trailing and jumps between frames, but I also used a longer focus lens, so star trails are still there.  And I also used another camera with a telephoto to catch some other "events", so edited in, it may add some interest.

This last wide frame at left shows how the Pleiades and Hyades cluster barely fit in the field as they rise into the sky over the 80 foot dish.  The view thru the telephoto shows the Pleiades rising over the secondary mirror of the radio telescope - unfortunately, the dish was so close, the stars are slightly out of focus - but the slightly fuzzy stars better show off their subtle colors.  Interestingly, even in the 12 second exposures (at F/2.8), the slight glow of the cluster's nebulosity can be spotted to it's lower right!

And finally, taking a sequence of similarly short exposures of the big domes on the peak with the telephoto, I inadvertently captured a trio of star clusters rising past the 4-meter dome.  At left here are the domes of the 4-meter Mayall Telescope to the left and Steward Observatory's 90" Bok Telescope to the right.  The two fuzzy patches to the left of the big dome are M-36 (below) and M-38 (upper left), and to the upper right of the dome is NGC 1893.  The coming Fall and Winter observing seasons features lots of clusters like these.

Oh, and the original gif that inspired all the above is shown here.  Note that gifs have limitations in number of colors, so they can appear a little noisy, so forgive me - I'm trying to do better!

So I got some interesting still shots - you'll see it here first if anything interesting shows up in the time-lapse sequence...