Sunday, January 29, 2012

An Interesting View...

Often times you don't think about a viewpoint - it takes someone else to note how unusual it is.  Such was the case lately, when a month ago one of the outreach people at the NOAO offices happened upon one of my pictures - it is at the bottom of the post from Christmas day.  It is shown at left here, taken with a 200mm lens.  I've taken similar shots for at least a year or more - the nearly exact same shot was taken exactly 2 years earlier in 2009, but it needed a new set of eyes to see it. 

Anyway, they asked permission to use it in a story about light pollution, and a few days later it appeared in a Yahoo News on-line article.  With the lights of Tucson only 40 miles to the east of the National Observatory, most pictures of Tucson are FROM Kitt Peak.  I've got lots of those too - like the one shown at right above - boring without the observatory.  But the ideal shot would be just like at left, with the lights in the foreground and the observatory shown in the distance! 

Even before the Yahoo article appeared, in another sunset trip to "Bad Dog" overlook (a simplified version of Babad Do'ag, the Tohono name for Mount Lemmon and the actual name of the overlook 3 miles up the Mount Lemmon Highway), I took some additional pictures, this time with a small 80mm Meade telescope I use (480mm focal length).  I took a series of photos as part of a 4-frame mosaic to retain more details over the relatively wide 200 mm lens used above.  Unfortunately, Photoshop had issues assembling it, but with another application in mind, I recently got some new mosaic software that handled it just fine (Kolor Autopano Pro).  The results are shown here at left. 

There is a LOT to see in the photo, unfortunately, Blogger limits the file dimensions to 1600 pixels wide, so it cannot be shown at full resolution.  Of course, Kitt Peak with it's armada of telescope domes is at upper left.  Tucson's skyline, such as it is, is shown at right.  Interestingly, with the perspective view from the NE side of town, the football stadium looks to be right at downtown's foreground, with the red neon "Home of the Wildcats" visible.  In actuality they are separated about 2 miles...  Just to the left of the stadium a large flag can be seen flying over the new Centurylink Building (formerly Quest).  Above and to the left of the flag are some headlights and tail lights from atop "A" Mountain, which entertains a line of cars through the evenings.  Right under the profile of Kitt Peak is a cell tower (red lights visible) that are about halfway to the mountain out at the town of Three Points.  The shadow of the nearby mountains are the Tucson Mountains, the one to the right of Kitt Peak I believe is Cat Mountain, which you pass on the way to the Observatory.  Much beyond the familiar landmarks and I quickly get lost due to the low viewing angle and the diagonal view that isn't square to the street grid...

So a new perspective is sometimes good!  The crops here are from the main mosaic, just a little closer to the native resolution, but still downsampled a factor of 2 or 3.  The  Kolor mosaic software has samples of mosaics assembled from hundreds of images with telephoto lenses so you can zoom out for a wide view, or zoom in to see people hiking on distant mountain trails.  It is quite spectacular!  I'll likely be using it for much more mundane applications, but I see fun in the future!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Old Business!

After catching up the other night with our last trip to Whitewater, I'm still need to catch up with old business.  It will be 2 weeks on Saturday that we had the "high fire" of the latest Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) casting.  Along with the spinning oven with 20 tons of molten glass inside,  the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab had an open house for GMT and their partners.  Along with that we had both polishing machines going, using the stressed lap doing near-final polishing on the first GMT mirror, and also working on fine grinding of the M3 surface of the Large Synoptic Telescope (LSST)

The "high fire" part of the casting, where the oven temperature reached 1165C, allowing the molten glass to run into the mold, went nearly flawlessly.  There were some minor electrical relay problems that will mostly be an issue during the annealing phase the next few months, if then.  And of course, the polishing operations have been making steady progress and was enjoyed by all the visitors.

For grins, I thought I'd set up a camera and tripod to catch GMT polishing with the visitors in the background.  I found a spot over our sink near the Large polishing Machine (LPM), and set it up to take a picture every 15 seconds, 240 per hour.  Between a write error and a dead battery, which each paused the sequence, I got just about 2100 pictures over 9 hours.  It covers the initial lap and mirror cleaning, pressing the lap for a short time before starting the flat removal stroke, while operators ran the machine, press arrived, then the visitors came in several waves of tours on the stairs in the background.  The picture above is the last one of the sequence, of me as I shut down the camera.

I then loaded all the frames into "Windows Live Movie Maker" and made an HD .MOV file and uploaded it onto Youtube.  Click on the link here to see it...  There are a lot of interesting effects to notice - of course the operators are moving something like 150X normal speed - I had lots of comments with the internal Steward distribution along the lines of "I wish they worked that fast all the time"!  Another thing of note is that the mirror is so aspheric (far from a spherical surface) is that you can see it's effect in the reflection as the mirror spins.

Anyway, a fun day - free t-shirts (and food!) for the staff, so about time I did a blog post!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Another Whitewater Trip

Catching up on old business - it was over a week ago now that we did what will likely be our last trip of the season to Whitewater Draw to visit with the sandhill cranes.  It is always a treat to bring people that have never been there before to show off what would seemingly be so rare in Arizona - birds that winter over in a wetland area!  We had some friends ask how to get there - how could we not offer to lead a trip?  After a stop in Tombstone for a late lunch, we hit Whitewater about 3:30.

Not a lot had changed in the 2 weeks since we'd been there, but with a little blustery wind, the cranes seemed mostly grounded.  There were a lot of birds on the ground, which tells me that they likely didn't go off during the day to feed in the nearby fields.  But while we found many thousands waiting for us, as the afternoon progressed, we did see many waves of those who did go out, come back to the wetlands.  In binoculars, it was cool to see lines of them appearing out of the cloudy sky silhouetted against distant hills.  When they landed they joined the general din of noise as they called back and forth.

Also like last time, a flurry of activity just before sunset heralded the arrival of the yellow-headed blackbirds.  They don't appear here every year, but it is certainly a banner year given the number we've seen our last 2 trips.  Their din almost drowns out that of the cranes.  Their flashes of color are certainly striking as they dart around jockeying for position in the reeds.

The picture at left shows the public parking area at Whitewater.  It shows a LOT more cars than a few weeks ago, when we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  It turns out that this weekend had been the "Wings over Willcox" crane festival.  Even with larger crowds it was great - even got to see some ginormous camera lenses - one woman had a Canon 600mm that left me with some lens-envy!

We still didn't get to see any vermilion flycatchers, the showy, scarlet highlight of most of my trips to Whitewater.  We did catch a pair of Northern Harrier hawks this trip.  I happened to be following the female when she dove for a mouse. 

Clouds thickened later in the afternoon, so we didn't get much of a sunset, and we left the area earlier than we normally do, arriving back home by 9pm.  Our work and travel schedules don't permit us to get back while the cranes are still here, so it was fun to get in another trip before they head back north.

Today's Hike in 3D!

I haven't had a 3D stereo post in a while, so thought it was about time.  No movies struck my interest today, and Melinda was sleeping after working last night, so did a few miles on the Finger Rock Canyon trail.  After parking at the north end of Alvernon, and a short walk past the expensive houses, you reach something close to wilderness.  The first few miles are pretty flat and has some pretty spectacular scenery, so this trail is just about my favorite walk to "get away from it all".  I've posted about Finger Rock before - quite the distinctive landmark from the entire Tucson valley...

Unfortunately today, as we are at or very near the peak of winter visitor season, the parking lot was overflowing.  After parking illegally and hitting the trail, there were LOTS of folks that had the same idea.  It was ok - I still had a few minutes of solitude at a time, and had suitable inspiration to take some stereo pics.  As usual, I present the "cross-eyed" view - cross your eyes slightly to see  3 images, the center one in 3D. 

To start off are a couple views of the trail itself, with "the Finger" in the background.  Since we're in the middle of winter and my walk was pretty much at high noon with temps in the low 70s, there weren't many shadows to help bring out details in the terrain.  I apologize in advance...  The trail is easy to follow, though frequently crosses rocky sections where you need to look ahead to see where it picks up.  LOTS of saguaro cacti and prickly pear, cholla is less common.  A few miles up the trail there is abundant cottonwood in the bottom of the canyon.

Another not-so-good thing I saw a lot of were dead saguaros - more than I remember from years past.  We had some brutal cold weather a year ago, temps in the teens, barely recovering above freezing.  Saguaros are quite sensitive to temps and rainfall, and have adapted to local conditions and extremes can take a toll.  It also takes time for a sick or diseased cactus to show symptoms, so here a year later they finally getting obvious.  They can also get struck by lightning, acting as natural lightning rods in the summer storms, but again - there are more of them than normal, so I suspect last year's temps.  This one shows the internal skeleton at the bottom, the upper part still shows some of the outer skin.

Looking across the canyon to the eastern wall were a nice array of the plants growing out of the rugged, rocky cliff faces.  It is quite amazing how these huge cacti can grow out of what appears to be solid rock.  I guess all it takes is a single crack for a root to penetrate.  With time, if the plant survives and grows, the root similarly can force the crack open and help fracture the rock.  Also frequently visible were many small saguaros a foot or so high.  While you might think that a small one might be a few years old, they grow extremely slowly - the 14" specimen shown here adjacent to the trail might likely be 25 years old.  Realize too that they don't reach maturity and start flowering till about 75 years of age.  The 40 foot dead one above might well have been 150 years old.  Interestingly, most of the small surviving saguaros like the youngster shown here grow under a "nurse plant", typically a mesquite tree, which helps protect it in it's early years.  After a few decades, the tree dies and then the cactus grows to maturity.

I hadn't meant for this to be a saguaro cactus post, so I'll move on.  There were other plants, of course, most are dormant this time of year.  I say most because there was some greenery from the unlikeliest of plants - ocotillo!  They are mostly dormant during the short days of winter, but as in the summer months, after a rain, leaves can pop out quickly to start photosynthesis for energy reserves.  While we've had little rain this winter, evidently we've had enough to trigger the ocotillo to flower.  I also shot the prickly pear at right, just because long needles look so cool in 3D!  Note that there are a combination of long and short spines.  Even the prickly pear species that look spineless likely have tiny clusters of short fine spines that will come off if you brush them.  Personally, I'd rather have one or two of the big spines poking me than 20 or 30 of the little hairlike spines that you can barely see and have a hard time getting out!

Well, that was my Sunday hike - a couple miles in and then back.  Enough to get a little exercise and sun and scenery to chase the wintertime blues.  I apologize in advance for any headaches caused for making you cross your eyes, but it really is the easiest way for viewer-free fusing of images.  Comments always welcome for your successes or failures in seeing the 3D.  If you want more - go down and check the "3D" subject down on the right to bring up past posts.  Good  luck!

Friday, January 13, 2012

A "Working" Night on the Mountain

I've mentioned my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory...  The majority of my effort is with the Nightly Observing Program(NOP) where visitors enjoy a 4-5 hour early evening program that includes sunset viewing and Observatory orientation, then classroom and sky instructions of planispheres and binoculars before a session with a star guide at a 16" or 20" telescope.  It has been a lot of fun showing visitors the spectacular night sky objects, and entertaining for me as well to see how the sky changes from week to week for nearly a year now.

But besides the NOP, there is also an Advanced Observing Program - a more advanced observing session.  Here the visitors book a dorm room for the night, eat their meals in the dining hall, and have a one-on-one observing experience at one of the Visitor Center telescopes.  The program starts a few hours after sunset when the NOP finishes for the evening, and goes till twilight starts again in the morning.  There are several observing options for the AOP program, including advanced imaging with CCD cameras - still a bit beyond my skill set, but a lot of visitors want a visual program, where we also take short exposures with a digital SLR for images to bring home.  This I can do, and I just had one after Christmas a few weeks ago.

My guests for the night were on a cross-country road trip, the AOP program being one of their anticipated high points of their trip.  Booked several months in advance, Both of us looked forward to the evening under the stars.  The weather turned out great - a few wispy clouds early, the crescent moon setting before the end of the NOP, so no issues with any stray light.  While the NOP kept the telescopes busy, I took a few images of the twilight, including a sequence of pictures in the roll-off-roof where we would eventually be observing.  In the first picture above at left, the crescent moon and Venus hang over the WIYN Telescope at right and the WIYN 36" telescope at left.  The right image shows a fisheye view of the western sky from the Roll-Off-Roof 16" telescope.  Besides a view of the telescopes dotting the south side of the Observatory, the Moon and Venus are visible just over the roof, as well as the cone of the Zodiacal Light and part of the Summer Milky Way.  The telescope was in use for the NOP at the time of the 50 second exposure.

Finally the NOP finished and those visitors wound their way back down the mountain road and it was our turn for use of the telescopes.  First up we took a look at a few objects in the western part of the sky before earth's rotation made them inaccessible.  One of the early objects is a spectacular galaxy in Andromeda - NGC 891.  Visually it is rather dim and appears as an elongated streak in the sky.  With averted vision you can also detect a narrow dark lane down it's center.  With a moderate exposure (here 3 exposures of 3 minutes each were stacked) you can see that the galaxy is exactly edge on and the dust lane bisects the disk.  At a distance of about 27 million light years, it is dimmed somewhat by the dust in our own galaxy as it's location is near the Milky Way, accounting for the rich foreground of stars along the line of sight.  While visible in amateur sized telescopes, it's really spectacular nature becomes evident in images of it.

Another very spectacular object is visible in the early evening sky - the Pleiades star cluster, also known as Messier 45.  Visible to the naked eye as a cloudy spot to the casual observer, closer inspection shows 6 or 7 stars.  Also known as the Seven Sisters, it is well-known in many cultures.  In our binocular sessions in the NOP, many think the bright stars form a small dipper and ask if that is what it is called, but the Little Dipper is an asterism that is part of Ursa Minor.  Sometimes visible in a very dark sky through a telescope, an exposure reveals an intricate network of nebulosity.  Once thought to be leftovers of the gas clouds that formed the cluster, it is now known that the cluster is merely moving through a dusty part of our galaxy.  Only about 400 light years away, it is one of the nearest star clusters to us.

When we took a night lunch break, we set the telescope and camera on the Crab Nebula, Messier 1, and let the camera run while we were away.  It was a good way to make use of telescope time while taking a break from the cold.  The Crab is a supernova remnant with an unusual past - it was actually observed when it went off in the year 1054.  Chinese observers noted that it was visible in the daylight sky (!) for 4 months, and didn't fade from visibility for 2 years!  The  object is the first object in the Messier catalogue - a list produced by the comet-hunting astronomer of diffuse objects that were not comets.  The stacked exposures total about 50 minutes, and reveal the red wisps of nebulosity due to hydrogen gas emission.  The diffuse white glow is due to synchrotron radiation interacting with the gas of the nebula.

We also used the camera and fisheye lens to take a self portrait during the night.  While taking images of galaxies in the coma cluster, we took a shot with the winter Milky Way and Orion as backdrop.  I moved a little, so you can see stars through my head during the 60 second exposure. 

After viewing and imaging dozens of objects, we entered the springtime realm of the galaxies.  We imaged a few of the more striking of them.  As the night wore on some of the spectacular summer globular clusters rose as well. 

My visitor was interested in comets.  Unfortunately, there weren't a lot visible.  We tried to see Comet Gehrels2 earlier in the evening - we didn't see it, but were able to image it with it's little tail.  Just before twilight started we easily spotted Comet Garradd (C/2009 P1), even saw some of it's greenish glow, easily the brightest comet of the night, even visible in binoculars.  I've been watching it off and on the last few months, even rolling it out on the occasional NOP.  We took a few exposures to stack and I was surprised to see 2 tails!  Shown here, the dust tail broadly extends to the left, and the blue ion tail heads up in the 1 o'clock position.  It never got very close to the earth, and the heavier particles of the dust tail mostly trace out the path of the comet, while the lightweight particles of the ion tail are pushed straight back from the sun by solar wind.

One thing I hadn't pushed, but as we casually observed Venus, Jupiter and Uranus in the early evening, then Mars and Saturn as the night progressed, the chance existed to observe all 8 of the major planets.  Unfortunately, we had bypassed Neptune in the early evening, but as twilight broke, Mercury rose not far from the bright star Antares in Scorpius.  But seeing 7 of the planets was doing pretty well, and set a record for my guest that night.

So with the twilight, the observing drew to a close, and though we were tired, we were both exhilarated by the great night of observing.  After providing a copy of the raw data to my guest, we both headed down the hill - him to a road trip back east, me to my pillow and the rest of my Christmas holiday.  I've got another AOP scheduled in a few weeks - already looking forward to it!

Telescopic images courtesy Charles Parker/Dean Ketelsen/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Friday, January 6, 2012

We Love Lucy!

We got a call a few weeks ago from our Vet with an unusual request.  She had given a home to a kitten from the animal shelter they help run, and it hadn't been accepted by her older animals.  She hoped we would consider taking her in.  It is hard to say no to someone who has helped us so much with all our animals over the years, so we're giving it a try!  Our new lil' girl is a long hair orange tabby with beautiful orange and green eyes, who is definitely a curious cat!

Lucy came home with me after work today.  She does have some issues, but they are pretty minor in the scheme of things.  She had some severe ear infections when younger (she is about 8 months old now), and has at least one burst eardrum.  We're not sure she isn't deaf - she doesn't respond to noises, but then, she's been distracted by her new surroundings.  She also has a significant head tilt, perhaps related to the ear issues, but it -doesn't appear to affect her jumping ability, which seems consistent with an 8-month-old!  Dr. D is also lending us a dog crate to help introduce her to the herd - we've used this method when introducing our two latest FIV+ cats, where fighting and fluid exchange could put the health of the other cats at risk.  After a few weeks of getting to know her new brothers and sisters, they are usually ready to mix it up without serious altercations.

She had a great trip to the house - alert, but not complaining at all till we turned into the cul-de-sac when she finally let a few meows out.  She seems to tolerate her cage pretty well but made sure to let us know not to forget her when it was feeding time for everyone.  She enjoyed the 2 servings of her usual food Dr. D provided that I gave her, then while everyone else was sleeping off their dinner, I let her out to explore a bit and she ate another bowl full of leftovers in the kitchen!  She also was the first cat to play with the ball-in-the-track in years!  She pays close attention to the other cats passing her cage, and is quick with a hiss - most of the adults in the room are pretty much ignoring her, since we've got 3 other orange cats.  I think it will be fun having a youngster in the house - we'll see if the others agree!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Eve with the Cranes!

The other day Melinda suggested closing out 2011 with a day trip to Whitewater Draw. We had talked about it for a couple weeks, so we finally pulled the trigger on the drive, just over a 2 hours to the southeast of Tucson. We've been there at least once per year for the last few years, and have never been disappointed - there are always sandhill cranes there over the winter months, sometimes in excess of 20,000! The only variable is the amount of water the management allows to flood the area - when the water level is high, the bird count seems higher and they hang out closer to viewing areas. This year the water level appeared pretty low, and we were guessing just over 10,000 cranes.

Some viewers go before dawn for the mass ascension, when they all take off for their daytime feedings in nearby fields. Generally not being early risers, we typically arrive mid-afternoon and observe their arrival from feeding when huge numbers fill the twilight sky. We arrived about 3:30 and pretty much had the place to ourselves - only a couple other cars there. They came and went into the evening, but there were never more than 3 or 4 cars parked at any one time.

After getting some shots of the closest cranes, we went looking for other targets. We didn't find any of my favorites, the vermilion flycatcher this trip. Just before sunset though we spotted a couple yellow-headed blackbirds. And then the floodgates opened! A huge tornado-shaped cloud of blackbirds reached from the ground till out of sight a few thousand feet up. There was an orgy of activity in the reeds in the growing darkness - we estimated about 5,000 of them, which we watched until it was too dark to see them anymore.

After going to the car to get another layer of clothes on and switching to faster optics for shooting in darker conditions, we went back out in hopes of swarms of cranes against the sky. With the smaller numbers, we didn't really see clouds of them this trip, but inspired by previous trips where I've caught the cats-eye effect in their eyes using the flash, I took a few flash pictures. After guessing at the focus, I tried using the flash with my 200mm at F/2.8 and shot at some moving shapes in the dark. Amazingly, a couple of them came out pretty well and are shown here. I still caught the cats-eye effect from their eyes, but they were close enough to illuminate them, even with the on-camera flash.

As the last traces of twilight faded in the west, we headed for home, pausing in Benson for dinner at the Horseshoe Cafe. It was Melinda's first time there, and we both enjoyed ribeye steaks there, shutting the place down on New Year's Eve (they close at 8pm). We got home about 10pm to some hungry cats, but I'm glad we were back to calm them down when the fireworks started at Midnight. Happy New Year!