Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Observing Leftovers...

A couple posts ago I talked about how the seeing improved from one night to the next.  It made sense to only post the common images between the nights, so a fuzzy Saturn was compared to a much nicer one from Friday.  But in the hours before we turned to Saturn, a couple friends shared imaging time with us, so am presenting a few more frames from that evening.

After doing a little visual observing of some of the showpieces in the sky, we attached DSLRs (in this case a Canon XSi) to the Takahashi 106 that rides piggyback on the 20" telescope we were using.  This first image is of the beautiful galaxy pair Messier 81 and 82.  At about 12 million light years distance from us, it is not considered part of the "local group" that includes the Milky Way (us) and the Andromeda Galaxy, but are just about the nearest galaxies just outside our neighborhood.  The trio consists of M82 on top, M81 at bottom right and NGC3077 at lower left.  Also, just barely seen to the left of M81 is a small dwarf companion galaxy Holmberg IX.  Realize that this is a stack of 4 exposures of 3 minutes each - a minuscule amount of time for such a nice result.  Our friend George Hatfield did the image collection and stacking of this object.

Located only a few degrees away from the above galaxy trio, the comet 2009P1 Garradd has continued to put on a good show.  Discovered nearly 2.5 years ago, it has remained just below naked-eye visibility since last fall.  Even now it is about as close as it will get to the earth (1.25 times the earth-sun distance) and is visible in binoculars in a dark sky.  With a modest exposure - here 5 stacked 3 minute exposures, show the comet's motion in the 15 minutes (I stacked the comet image, so the stars are trailed), as well as the comet's 2 tails.  While most comets are lucky to have one tail, this one has a bluish ion tail that is pushed straight back by the solar wind.  The yellowish tail is if larger particles that trail behind the comet as it moves in its orbit.  When the earth is close to the comet's orbital plane, both tails can be seen, often pointing in different directions!

Finally, the big news in the previous week (16 March discovery) was a bright supernova in the galaxy Messier 95.  Located about 35 million light years away the supernova is shining with a brightness that is a large percentage of the entire galaxy!  There is no way that an amateur sized telescope can spot a single star at that distance, yet this supernova can be easily seen in an 8" telescope.  With the 106mm Takahashi (530mm focal length), you get not only Messier 95, but also its neighbor M96 and another galaxy cluster in the upper left of the field.  This is 12 minutes of total exposure with 4 frames.  Now near maximum brightness, in the next few weeks the supernova will start to fade, and it will become invisible to us inside of 4 or 5 months with this telescope, at least.

Those were our observing highlights from last Friday.  Thanks to the Nightly Observing Program/NOAO/NSF for access to the 20" telescope.  It is a spectacular venue and I'll try to schedule these after-hours sessions in the future as my and its schedule permits.

Star Pupil!

After Melinda's cataract surgery last fall, her follow up with the doctor a few days ago revealed the need for a minor laser procedure to remove some scar tissue.  So this morning, I drove her in for the surgery.  Since her pupil needs to be dilated, she is not able to driver herself...  All went well, even though the "10 minute procedure" turned into something in excess of 2 hours waiting for the pupil to dilate, and checking for complications afterwards.  We stopped for an early-afternoon breakfast, arriving home about 2:30pm. 

I insisted on a couple pictures to show her still-dilated eye.  Close examination revealed detail in her pupil  I jokingly said I could see her brains.  Turns out that with some re-windowing of the image that it was merely a reflection of me taking her picture!  The yellowish residue is from the numbing drops applied before taking the eye fluid pressure.  Another follow-up with the doc after we get back from Illinois in a few weeks, so no issues expected.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What A Difference A Day Makes!

One of the Nightly Observing Program guides had a family emergency, so I filled in for him on one of his shifts last week.  As a result I went up to work the program 2 nights in a row on Thursday and Friday.  After a winter storm had dumped about 10 inches of snow the previous weekend, warm weather had returned quickly and the piles of snow, in some places 5 feet high were melting quickly at the 7,000 foot elevation of the mountain.  The other benefit of the storm was the air was absolutely cleansed and we had high hopes for a spectacular night.  I took a camera along in case the seeing was good - was hoping to get some "family portraits" of the 4 bright planets in the evening sky.

Another of the guides took sunset tour duty, so I went to the scope to catch some shots of Jupiter and Venus before they got too low.  Unfortunately, while the sky was very clear, turbulence in the atmosphere played havoc with the "seeing" and the planets were not very sharp.  I took some portraits regardless.  All of these, including Mars and Saturn at the conclusion of the program, were taken at the same scale - the 16" telescope at the Cassegrainian focus with a 2.8X Barlow lens, making it equivalent to something like a 9,000 mm telephoto lens!

Jupiter is at upper left, and one of its moons Ganymede is just above the upper left limb.  Upper right is brilliant Venus - since it circles inside the earth's orbit it goes through phases like the moon.  It is currently at its greatest eastern elongation in the evening sky, so is nearly exactly half illuminated.  A little later at the conclusion of the program, I grabbed a few frames of Mars, here shown at lower left.  Barely seen at top is the northern polar cap, with some diffuse dark and bright markings.  And while it was low, Saturn is included here, though pretty fuzzy...

The next night (Friday) we had some haze buildup, and even a few clouds in the western sky that actually blocked the setting sun, though they didn't affect the observing at all.  But the atmospheric stability was much better and the seeing was quite good.  I set up the camera for some time-lapse work while I was busy with the program, but afterwards, I had some friends join Melinda and me for some after-hours observing.  Towards the end of our evening, about 2am, we turned to Saturn before leaving and we were just astounded by the quality of the view.  Shown here is the average of a few frames with the Canon XSi.  Realize that a DSLR is not the optimum camera for planetary images - webcam imaging, where thousands of images can be stacked for spectacular results is the now-preferred method.  Check out what advanced amateur Jerry Lodriguss is doing on Mars and Saturn - using the video output of a DSLR!

I also took some longer exposures (4 seconds) which showed Saturn's moons in the vicinity.  Here at right is a stack of 5 images, rather severely windowed to show some ring detail as well as the moons.  From the bottom going CCW is Dione, Tethys, Enceladus (right next to ring at lower right) and Rhea at top.

I've got to learn some of the webcam techniques on those rare occasions when the seeing is great, the optical quality and chance for great results is too great to pass up!  Images are courtesy of the NOP program/NOAO/NSF.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Marking the First Day of Spring!

One of the fun things to do on clear nights, even in urban areas, is to look for Iridium Flares.  Just think - spacecraft the size of a Volkswagon is angled just right to shine a shaft of sunlight down where you happen to be standing!  Because these spacecraft (an array of satellite phone transponders) maintain a known attitude as they circle the earth, it is straightforward to calculate when they reflect the sunlight.  My favorite website for this is Heavens-above - you just enter your place on the earth via Google Maps or entering the name of your town (being sure to enter your proper time zone), it will tell you when and where to look for these "flares" that last for a good part of a minute.

I happened to notice last night that one would appear tonight at about 7:30 here in Tucson, and if we moved just a couple miles to the west it would brighten from magnitude -4 (about the brightness of Venus) to -8 (about the brightness of the quarter moon)!  So we setup at Jacobs Park near Prince and Fairview to image it.  I used my camera with an 8mm fisheye to catch a wide field of the northern sky that also included a bit of twilight and Jupiter and Venus in the western sky.  With Min's camera we used the 10-22mm zoom set to 17mm to catch the flare between the Dippers.  Because we wanted to expose for the entire appearance, but didn't want to overexpose it in the still-twilight sky, we dropped the ISO to 100 and F-stop to F/5.6 for each and set the exposures to 90 seconds.  Because these flares are accurate to the second, we just opened the shutter 45 seconds before the mid-flare time (before it was visible to the eye), and hope for the best.

Unfortunately, there were a lot more lights from nearby soccer and baseball fields than I thought from my afternoon scouting trip.  We found the darkest part of the park, focused on bright planets or distant lights.  We finished setup with seconds to spare, and started the exposure at the predicted time.  Right on schedule, the satellite brightened, flared very close to the predicted -8, then faded out.  I'm sure that even with the dozens of people near us at the park, we were the only ones witness to the event.  It was still fun to watch, and witness a little of the sky on a clear night. 

Sure, it would have been more impressive from a dark sky, but it also would have been easily visible by stepping out our door and glancing up at the right moment.   And while it is merely a passing piece of hardware with a shiny mirror reflecting the sun down to your eye, we highly recommend hunting them down and checking them out.  The public at the Grand Canyon see us as mystical shamans for being able to predict these majestic lights in the sky - you may well be amazed as well!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Living Sky!

Last Saturday I filled in for one of my ailing co-workers at Kitt Peak for the Nightly Observing Program (NOP).  After prodding from my supervisor to collect some time lapse images a few weeks ago, I cleared it with the lead guide and set up the Nikon 8mm fisheye to collect some images. The enclosed images are taken from the sequence that was turned into the clip near the bottom of the post.

For the first time, I also collected some frames as I prepared the telescope for the night's observing, including the "Roll-Off Roof" (ROR) exterior, the roof moving back, and bringing up the telescope and software to point at Venus during the daytime to check the pointing.  Then the tracking was disabled while I rejoined the team to check in visitors, feed them and do the sunset tour before returning during twilight.  In the meantime, my Canon XSi took a picture every minute and as sunset approached, you can see the WIYN and 2.1 meter telescopes open in preparation for the night. 

It was a great night observing - seeing was quite good, and in recent months, I've really enjoyed using the ROR - wide open view of the sky and excellent optics.  The only real disadvantage of the scope is that if it is windy, there is little protection and you get COLD!  Yes, it does get cold in Arizona, especially at higher elevations.  Fortunately we've got a heated classroom on the ground floor w/a bathroom, so some guests that were under dressed went down frequently to warm up.  The photo at left shows the planetary conjunction in the western sky - Venus is the bright one, Jupiter just to its upper left.  Both are immersed in a diffuse cone of light called the Zodiacal Light - sunlight reflected off dust in the plane of the solar system.  I'm at the computer either calling up the next object, or looking something up on Wikipedia while my 14 guests take their turns at the eyepiece.  Along the upper edge of the frame is Orion at center, the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters of Taurus to its right, and the Winter Milky Way seen to the lower left from the bright star Sirius in Canis Major.  The dark sky seemed all to brief as the gibbous moon rose promptly at 9:30, just as the NOP program was winding down.  After making sure all the visitors left the mountain safely, I came up and shut down the telescope and cleaned up the classroom below.

So over the course of almost 7.5 hours, about 450 pictures were taken.  Most all were loaded into the program Windows Moviemaker with no manipulation, which turned them into the 50 second clip shown here.  Yes, compared to the daytime prep and other activities, the actual night time observing in dark sky conditions seemed all too short, but we got some great views of something like 10 objects, and everyone was content.  Since the pictures were taken on company time, credit should be given to the NOP program, funded by NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On The Way Home...

While Rocky Point is stunning in its own way, it is interesting to observe the transition from ocean coastline (well, Sea of Cortex, anyway) to the medium elevation desert of Tucson.  And while water laps against spectacular sand beaches, the beaches pretty much go for miles - the lack of rain in this part of the world (6-8 inches) doesn't support a lot of plant life and the Mexican desert is pretty desolate .  Oh, the picture above is a "group shot" I took of the 3 of us from our balcony - it took about a dozen attempts to get the flash balanced with the twilight glow.  I wasn't completely happy, but compared to the rest...

After the first hour of driving we get to Sonoyta, Mexico, sitting on the border across from Lukeville, AZ.  Given what I said above about the sparce desert vegitation, it seemed that as soon as we crossed the border, all of a sudden the desert was green with creosote bushes and wildflowers.  We didn't tarry long south of the border, but just north of it is Organ Pipe National Monument, and we usually always stop for a bathroom break and perusal of the bookstore.  There is a very short nature loop walk near the visitor center, and for some reason, always inspires me to take some 3-D stereo pairs.  First up was of Min taking a pic of Carolyn in front of an organ pipe cactus and brittlebush behind the VC.  It is usually difficult to take stereo of people, because it usually takes a second or two for the pair of frames and motion between the pair can mess up the effect.  But my subjects paused for a few seconds while I took multiple frames as I moved laterally.  I took 4 pics total, and the first 2 came out great - good stereo effect of the two, as well as some of the plants. 

As with all my stereo pairs, they are presented in "cross-eyed" viewing mode - cross your eyes slightly to look at the right picture with your left eye and vice-versa.  You should detect 3 images, the center one showing depth.

Next up was a blooming pincushion that was spotted along the walking path.  Other than brittlebush and a few poppies, the dry winter didn't result in a lot of flowers.  The small mammilaria cacti are just about the first to bloom, and these were the only cactus buds we saw.  The closeup view at right is from the same image pair, but not downsized so that fine detail in the flower can be seen.  The planes of detail make the stereo pair quite interesting, and of course, the flower colors are quite spectacular.

Much of the return drive to Tucson, and over half the driving time, is across the Tohono O' odham Nation.  Nearing its eastern edge is pretty familiar to me - Kitt Peak and the Kitt Peak National Observatory.  After seeing the view from the east (the Tucson side) for so many decades, it is always a head turning experience to see it from the west.  So much so that I had Melinda stop the car for me to take a few pictures of the western vista of the Observatory (shown at left).  As we continued driving past the Observatory, the view from the moving car inspired another attempt at a stereo pair.  Through the open window of the moving car, I caught more views of trees adjacent to the road than of telescope domes, but was able to get 2 frames that showed good stereo effect. 

After the uneventful return trip home, the cats were glad to see us, even though they were well cared for by our sitter Jason.  It was difficult to go back to work after a nice weekend at the beach, but our pics are proof that the reality wasn't a dream...

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Weekend Out Of Town

Our friend Carolyn spent a week visiting us, centered around last weekend.  We always do a side trip to make it memorable, after previous visits to the Grand Canyon, San Diego and Los Angeles, and Baja whale watching last year.  This year called for a trip not only out of town and out of state but out of country - another trip to Mexico!  We did 3 days, 2 nights in Rocky Point, or Puerto Penasco for some relaxation time...

Min found that condo rentals were less expensive than a couple hotel rooms, so booked a furnished 2-bedroom condo at a complex still under construction - the 7th floor of the Esmerelda!  We've never stayed in a half-million dollar condo before, but it was pretty nice.  The views of mostly deserted Sandy Beach west of the port couldn't be beat, and of course, the western planetary conjunction in the western sky over the Sea of Cortez was spectacular.  At right was the view of Jupiter and brilliant Venus above, with diminutive Mercury down in the twilight glow.  The picture at left is from a 4-frame mosaic of the west side of the complex.  Our room was in the rightmost of the 4 buildings, the 7th floor above the right corner of the wading pool.  On the right edge of the building, the 3-bedroom condos that wrap around the beach side edge of the building run upwards of a cool million...

The apartment was nice and spacious, nicely furnished, and these days had wide screen TVs in the 2 bedrooms and living room.  Unfortunately not a lot of channel choices, about 8 or so, but one that showed a good variety of movies that we watched most of the time.  There were also 3 big bathrooms, the master bath had a whirlpool bath or jacuzzi that we didn't use.  Appliances were new, and it's a shame we didn't get to use many of them in the couple days there. We spent a LOT of time on the balcony for both Carolyn's smoke breaks and to enjoy the view.  It was a little disconcerting at first with just the glass sheets at the edge of the 80 foot drop, but was a great space to "chill".

While we brought snacks, we ate most of our meals out, hitting all our regular favorites we've developed over the years, and included a new one or two.  Of course, Rocky Point is known for their shrimp, and a lunch of shrimp tacos is shown at left.  We did a little beach walking, but with a moon phase just past first quarter, the tidal range wasn't very great, so no really low tides that are so great for beach combing.  But you can see how little-used the west side of Sandy Beach was on a late Sunday morning.

A little shopping was accomplished - we got a new Talavera sink in anticipation of another bathroom remodeling here in Tucson, and a few knick-knacks.  We certainly didn't go overboard...  Mostly it was a nice getaway trip to relax and spend some time in a place a little less familiar.  An hour before we packed up and left, Melinda spotted a pod of dolphins passing on the beach and I was able to grab a frame, again, from our balcony. 

So another memorable trip w/Carolyn passed.  Rocky Point is just about the closest beach to Tucson, only about 210 miles, 3.5 hours of travel time.  A lot of locals are concerned about travel in Mexico, but the over half dozen trips we've made have never been less than great, and we'll likely be back again soon...