Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Not According to Plan!

Post nearly 550 entries and the blog routine should always fall into place, right?  Mostly I've been lucky rather than skilled, but the luck didn't hold tonight...  Let me tell you the plan..

What to post is always sitting on the back of my mind, and tonight was no different.  While getting dinner ready for the better half (she's working tonight, so dinner is my job), I happened to look at http://www.heavens-above.com/ and saw that the International Space Station (ISS) was making a pass low in the NE this evening at 1900 - see the plot at right from the website.  From Tucson, it would cross the handle of the Big Dipper near Epsilon Ursa Majoris at an elevation of about 11 degrees.   A background?  Hmm - with an appearance low in the north, how about a profile of the Catalinas, and Finger Rock a few miles to the north?!  Well, it was 1800 at the time, the ISS was already somewhere over the South Atlantic and headed this way! 

Melinda left for work at 1830 and I was right behind her headed north. First up Campbell, then over on Skyline looking for a place to shoot.  But then I realized that the 11 degree elevation might not clear the mountains!  Instead of heading up Alvernon to the edge of development as planned, I stayed on Skyline, setting up along the road in the gravel with a couple minutes to spare.  A quick focus, test exposure, set ISO to 200 and F-stop to 3.5 to allow a 30 second exposure.  I was hoping to catch it just over Finger rock, but the time came and no ISS!  Then it appeared in the opening to the right of Finger Rock - it was too low!  I clicked regardless,  and caught it grazing over Mount Kimball before continuing onward and entering the earth's shadow a few seconds later.

Well, not what I imagined for a post, but I'll take it for now, and try for a better pass another time...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Under Dark Skies...

We're enjoying some warmer than normal temperatures, and the skies have remained clear the last few days.  With a skinny waxing crescent moon, we've been enjoying some nice dark skies.  Thursday was my normal night to work with the Nightly Observing Program (NOP) at Kitt Peak National Observatory.  Usually, we are so busy I don't have time to think about bringing a camera along to shoot anything, but with the moon and planetary alignment in the western sky I took the chance I'd have a minute or two.  Fortunately, Lucas, one of my compatriots took the sunset tour duties, and I was able to follow along with the tourists. 

It was a beautiful sunset - the above mosaic was assembled from 6 images.  There were just enough thin clouds to add some nice color.  Normally after the sunset, we walk up a little rise to show the folks the shadow of the earth rising into the sky.  Called the "Belt of Venus", it shows up as a bluish edge rising in the east.  I was going to catch Lucas (in yellow jacket) with the shadow in the background, but then I noticed the anticrepuscular rays over the group.  Caused by the cast shadows of mountains or clouds over the western horizon, perspective makes these "rays" appear to converge again in the anti-solar point.  They were pretty subtle visually, but they show up ok on photos, and another in the group imaged it as well once pointed out.

When returning to the western sky again to spot the planets aligned there in the fading glow, a shadow cast by a cloud over our horizon persisted in the sky like a dark searchlight.  I've never seen such a singular long shadow cast like that - particularly by something over the horizon by a sun that had set 15 minutes before!  The dome shown here is of the "SARA" telescope - the Southeast Association for Research in Astronomy, a consortium of  10 universities.  This is the location where we normally observe the sunset for the NOP.

Well the program started, and my group went into the adjacent 16 inch telescope for the observing program.  In quick succession we checked out Venus, the moon and right next to it, Uranus.  We took a break to go out and see Mercury with the naked eye, floating above the town of Sells to the west and below the crescent moon.  It was a beautiful sight, and the first-time view of Mercury for most.  I spent a couple minutes in an attempt to image all 4 planets in a line, but it was difficult.   Uranus is  binocular object, just under naked-eye visibility, but if you expose too long, you lose Mercury in the twilight glow.  The only way to get Uranus was with a telephoto lens, my 70-200 zoom set to 90mm with a 5 second exposure.  The wide view here shows the planets Mercury, brilliant Venus and Jupiter with the lil' lunar crescent, but no amount of stretching would show both Mercury and Uranus...  The closeup with the telephoto shows the slight greenish tint of Uranus readily...

It was a great program - the moon was too skinny to affect the sky and the folks had a great program.  Besides the above telescope views, we covered the basics of planispheres and navigation around the sky, some binocular viewing of the great objects up right now, then back to the telescope for Jupiter, Andromeda Galaxy, Orion Nebula, Hubble's Variable Nebula (one of my favorites), M82 (another galaxy), M47 (a star cluster with superimposed planetary nebula), and we closed out the night with a very nice view of the planet Mars.  So between naked eye views of Mercury and Saturn (just above the horizon as they left, they spotted all the current planets except Neptune which is behind the sun!

The next day I had experienced astronomical visitors from out of town, two that worked at major observatories and were used to visual observing with 60" to 80" telescopes.  I had asked for, and received permission to use the 20" telescope at the Visitor Center after the NOP ended, so we were up and rarin' to go at 9:45 as the program was winding down.  I was hoping to keep them occupied for a couple hours, but it turned into an extraordinary night.  The seeing was absolutely superb, and we routinely used 500X on many objects, including Mars, the Eskimo and Orion nebulas and Saturn as the evening finally wound down about 1:45!  Even the jaded observers agreed it was a memorable night.  As we got more dark adapted, we ended up turning down all the lights, even the plugstrips and computer power indicators so as to not affect our observing.  The view of NGC 2392 (Eskimo Nebula) was amazing - the high power view of it comparing favorably with the classic images of it taken with the 200" decades ago. 

I'd been wanting to set up a fisheye lens inside the dome during an observing session, but unfortunately with a full-house program, there just isn't room, a tripod would be a trip hazard.  But our little group of 7 was just perfect.  I set the camera for 50 second exposures at F/2.8, which has come to be my standard with wide angle shots that has pretty good depth for time-lapse shots.  Shown here is one of the still frames - The bright star Sirius and its Canis Major constellation can be seen out the dome slit.  Of course, I turned the exposures into a time-lapse video, after stretching all the frames a bit, and uploaded it to Youtube.  You can see that shortly after we got into the rythym of observing, we turned down the lights and only our red flashlights provided the ambient light.  Meanwhile, the stars slowly track across the sky, as does the telescope as we move between positions.  The brighter temporary flashes is the necessary light from the computer monitor as we change objects.  The video ends when I move the camera out to the catwalk for some frames of some of the Kitt Peak scopes and the Winter Milky Way setting overhead as I shut down the telescope.  For just about the first time I've ever recalled, I used absolutely every frame I took in the time lapse - no test shots, mistakes, or duds!

We ended up much later than I expected, but all were happy for the experience and chance for the memorable observing.  As always, the facilities and images are courtesy of the NOP/NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Evening Conjunction

I almost missed it!  In the rush to get dinner ready for Melinda before getting her off to work, I forgot that the new crescent moon was going to be next to innermost planet Mercury shortly after sunset.  Somehow I stepped out in the back yard before it got too late and saw it, then grabbed the camera and took this photo handheld for 1/6th of a second down our cul-de-sac.  Mercury is the little star-like object just above the tree - click the image for a full-size view.  This is the first of a quartet of moon-planet alignments the next few days.  Tomorrow Uranus should be just visible with binoculars to the left of the moon, then it will be next to Venus on Saturday and Jupiter on Sunday!  If it is clear where you are, be sure to step out and take a gander with your binoculars the next few nights and see if you can spot all 5 planets (be sure to count earth!).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Home Improvement Wrapup

We've been back in Tucson for 6 days now, but life and work has conspired against us updating the blog.  I know some of you like to see the progress we're making on our little "place in the woods", so here is how we closed out our most recent stay.

First of all, while we often show shots of the Fox River from the house, we've never shown the house and river in the same shot.  Time for the new software to assemble a panorama mosaic!  You really get a feel here for how close we really are to the Fox.  It is only about 40 yards, and having them in the same shot helps.  It is a big change from last year to this trip.  A year ago they just had a 2 foot snowfall, and the River was frozen over - we walked across it last year, but not this February!

Another reason I took this mosaic is that Riverwoods contacted us this trip about Wheaton College's interest in building a canoe house for their crew equipment, as well as the canoes for the camp.  Since it will be located near the canoe racks, and potentially block some of our views of the River, they asked for our reaction.  Since we feel fortunate to be a part of the camp, they are welcome to do what they like, but I thought I'd document a "before" view.

I also finally got a daytime shot of our finished guestroom showing the shutters and sheers in place.  The room is all but finished - just a little trim and paint work in the closet to call it complete and ready for visitors.  Actually, sister-in-law Susan already stayed with us this last trip, so it is officially open for business!  Compare to 2 posts ago to see the effect of these details - it looks a lot more finished now!

With most of the effort in the bedroom finished, it was time to move to the kitchen.  Our last trip in December we found Maj had just finished installing the beadboard ceiling.  Unfortunately, we found some electrical wiring issues.  When Melinda installed the kitchen lights, the circuit breakers kept popping - always a bad sign!  In addition, Maj found that using a saw in an exterior outlet (same circuit) also popped the breaker, which it hadn't done before.

Unfortunately, that meant that Maj had to remove her ceiling work to re-expose the wiring for this trip.  On the Saturday of our stay we had an electrical contractor out to check things out, making some minor changes and additions, then splitting the circuit to have the exterior lights and outlets on a separate circuit.  While Melinda enjoys wiring, sometimes this house's wiring, with its numerous changes over the last 8 decades, is tough to figure out and the contractor was well worth it.

So after the obligatory Sunday trip to Iowa, it was full speed ahead Monday to replace the kitchen ceiling.  Since the lumber was already measured and cut by Maj back in November, with me helping her sort pieces and her on the pneumatic nail gun, we had it replaced in record time.  Melinda and I went light shopping and decided on track lighting, and she installed that the next day.  I made myself useful by making a run to the hardware store (my best-suited task with the skills these girls have) and helped out where I could, as well as snapping a few pictures.  The track lighting is certainly a change from standard kitchen lighting, but I think it will look great.

So that is our progress this trip.  I believe Maj will work on painting the ceiling as her time permits.  Since it was installed twice, there are twice as many nail holes to fill.  We've already made plans for an April trip - I'm not sure yet what projects await - I only follow orders from the bosses!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

I'll Take Potpourri for $200 Alex...

A variety of topics for today's post...  Each not quite deserving of it's own page, so will cover them all at once. 

In Illinois we live less than a mile from the Tekakwitha Forest Preserve, so it is a natural destination when getting in a walk to "get back to nature" or just a chance to almost get lost in the woods.  It has been a pretty mild Winter here, with lots of cloud cover if not downright fog and mist.  Not great conditions to get pictures, but I took some to put my new mosaic software to work.  Shown here is a 3-frame panorama showing the bike path down the east border of Tekakwitha that leads down to the Fox River, then across it on a bike/pedestrian bridge.  Even when you only have a few minutes to walk, the quarter mile walk down the hill to take in the views of the Fox is always worth it.  Over the last few years I've seen deer wading across the river, watched egrets and herons feeding in the shallows and cedar waxwings reducing the local insect population.

The bridge pauses at a mid-channel island before finally finishes its cross-river trip.  Normally overgrown with vegetation in warmer months, this week I followed a trail in the mid-stream island down to the water line.  There was a cool shot of the bridge from below and a fallen tree amongst a patch of ice and snow.  And then I saw it - another downed tree - this time one of my favorites... 

Some people might chose a favorite tree for it's shape, abundance of shade, fall colors, that sort of thing.  I REALLY like the hackberry tree (Celtis occidentalis), not for any of the above characteristics, but because of its really remarkable bark!  A relative of elm trees (very similar leaf shape), the bark is described as "warty" online, but some varieties here locally show the strong ridged structures shown here.  This one had ridges nearly an inch high, with micro-layers that for the world looked like growth rings.  You gotta agree it is pretty amazing!

Of course, a tree and bark like this calls for some 3D action, so I took a few frames to put together in Photoshop.  The frame at left is a stereo shot of the same section of tree  as above, at right is a different part of the tree.  As with the rest of my 3D posts, cross your eyes slightly so you are looking at the right image with your left eye, and the left image with your right eye.  You will then see a center image that displays depth.

And while we are on the topic of 3D pairs, here is a leftover of our December trip.  I was returning from a walk about sunset and saw the moon coming through the gnarled branches of an oak tree a few dozen yards from home.  Taking one shot, then moving a few inches and taking another, I got a stereo pair that shows some changing depth among the oak branches, then places the moon in the far distance.  Over the remainder of our December stay I tried to improve on this shot, but as is often the case, the original shot, almost accidental in nature (I just happened to look up), turned out to be the superior version.  I think that must be some law of nature combined with Murphy's Law!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Home Improvement News

We're currently back in Illinois (yes, we know it is the middle of winter), and as is normal, we're doing more work on our 80-year-old fixer-upper of a cottage.  Those of you who follow our improvements, our last trip in Chicago we were working on our guest room.  We did a lot of priming and painting, and pretty much finished out the room except for the floor (flooring lumber is what is under the tarp in the room center).  the pics show our progress in that week. 

Also as normal, soon after we left in December,  sister-in-law Maj set up shop in our living room and as her schedule permitted, started staining and polyeurethaning our floor and installed it, and when we arrived Wednesday night, the room was REALLY finished out.  The floor was spectacular, as per usual when referring to Maj's efforts.  Unfortunately, the next morning I went out for a New York Times and a walk, and didn't get a picture of the empty room.  Melinda and Maj had gotten busy and I returned to a fully furnished and decorated guest room!  At least I was able to catch a bit of floor here at left.

The women were concerned that it was "too girly", but I told them they could do what they wanted, and besides, I've got no taste in those sorts of things.  Today, after the bulk of photos were taken, we worked on getting shutters and curtains installed.  Melinda found the shutters on E-bay a few weeks after moving into the house in February of 2006, hoping someday to install them.  Well, they fit the windows perfectly, didn't need any staining or work, and look perfect in both our bedrooms. While Maj and I worked on the shutters, Melinda worked her sewing magic and finished the sheers, and finally finished up the room a little before dark this evening.  All that is left is a little trim work in the closet and the guestroom is officially finished!

Tomorrow we've got an electrician coming to chase down some wiring gremlins in the kitchen.  Unfortunately we had to take down some of our new bead board ceiling to expose the wiring, but hopefully we can get that squared away and the ceiling replaced this trip.   Look for an update as we leave in a few days!