Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nosedive Towards Syzygy

For those observant among you, the brilliant planet Venus has dominated the evening sky since last fall.  But in 5 days, on Tuesday, 5 June, it passes between Earth and Sun for a special inferior conjunction, actually passing over the disk of the Sun as seen from some parts of our planet.  While you might think that a transit is a common occurrence, because of Venus' orbital inclination, it is actually a rare event.  While the last one was 8 years ago (but not visible from the western U.S.), the next one isn't until 2117, so likely not again in our lifetime!  There is a nice synopsis of the event, as well as the timeline in the U.S. in this SKY and Telescope link.

For the last few days, Venus was still visible in the evening sky, but while it was still brilliant, it has been diving towards the sun the last couple weeks.  It was easily visible in early twilight as we arrived home from California Monday evening.  Tonight Melinda and I took a short outing to a local park to try to see it and image it once more before the transit in 5 days.  We brought along our little Meade 80mm F/6 apo refractor (480mm focal length, 670mm w/the 1.4X converter) to try to image it and get a sense of their relative scale in the sky.  Today we've been suffering smoke from some fires in southwestern New Mexico, so the skies were pretty murky, but we managed to get some good solar images with the converter, along with some small sunspot groups.  But would we be able to spot Venus?

Fortunately, I thought to bring some binoculars along, and we started searching shortly after the sun dropped below the horizon.  I knew it was within 10 degrees of the sun, so had a limited window to observe it.  About the time I thought we had missed it, Melinda picked it up in the binoculars - once spotted, easy to see in the murky sky, not only the planet, but the skinny crescent as well!  I had pre-focused the scope, so aligned it, checked exposure levels, and popped off a half dozen shots.  While it looked great in the little scope and binoculars, I was never able to see it naked eye, though with her new eye lenses, Melinda picked it up a couple times.  The images shown here are at the same scale to give an idea of the silhouetted size of Venus during the transit next week.  Be sure to click the images for full-size viewing.

We hung out for it to set a little lower, and I caught a few frames with it setting against some distant trees in the park, without the 1.4X converter.  Also faintly visible in silhouette against the twilight sky are the out-of-focus blur of bats feeding in the area.  We'll likely not see Venus again until Tuesday afternoon a few minutes after 3pm when it appears against the Sun's disk!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Quiet RTMC at Big Bear

We've been travelling or working hard without much time to post lately - will try to catch up a bit the next few days.  We just got back from the annual pilgrimage to Riverside Telescope Makers Conference(RTMC) at a YMCA camp in the San Bernadino Mountains east of Big Bear, California.  It is always a great time, but as I editorialized in my entry last year, it continues to be endangered!  My thinking is that it is too under attended to survive much longer. 

The "Telescope Field", long an area packed chock full of unique, home made telescopes in the '80s and '90s and full of vendor tents in the '00s, resembled an old west ghost town.  The panorama shown here is shown at what should have been the peak of action on Saturday afternoon.  What was once a crowded showcase of telescope judging mixed with raw capitalism in vendor sales instead consisted of about 4 vendors with a few models on display looking at the sun or nearby mountain vistas.  Similarly, the nearby "Telescope Alley", normally the usual collection of award-winning telescope entries, consisted of commercial scopes set up for some weekend observing.  Telescope-making entries were actually up this year - 9 entries, up from 6 last year, as I recall.  I only saw one or two before the awards Saturday night as they were well scattered through the grounds.

Another optimistic point was the uniform high quality of the talks and presentations.  While I'll leave opinions of my presentation on Mirror Lab activities to others, I really enjoyed all of the talks I attended.  The keynote speaker on Saturday night, Bob Bower, from the UK, gave a very entertaining talk on "The Search for William Herschel's 40-foot Telescope".  Mr Bower weaves quite the historical tale along with storytelling skills and astronomical tidbits to give a very entertaining presentation.  Then, the next morning he gave an encore titled "Which Way is Up?", again combining his storytelling to present a tale covering 200 years of naval and telescope making history.  You had to be there!  Unfortunately, the scientist who "killed Pluto", Mike Brown, had a family emergency and couldn't attend.  But like the cavalry coming over the hill, Jean Mueller offered to give an impromptu talk on her experiences as a telescope operator and observer at Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories.  I thought it was an incredible performance and quite enjoyable, since I've been through some of the same experiences at Kitt Peak decades ago.

I didn't get tempted to spend much money this year, unlike some years past when I could rarely get away without buying glass or books or telescope accessories.  I did support our local artists, though - George Kepple, from Sierra Vista, had a small table with some of his astronomical artwork and I bought a Saturn painting.  That was it for me other than for food.

Speaking of food, after the irregularity of the food service at the dining hall in the past, they went to a short order snack bar format that enjoyed extended hours and leaving the big hall set up for lectures.  I've had reservations in the past from getting a meal plan, then sleeping through breakfast, or missing meals when dining in town with friends.  This way, you pay as you go, but with the limited menu, it gets tiring after a few days.  Also, with folks eating over a longer period of time, it seems like the tradition of visiting over lunch or dinner comes to an end with fewer people eating any given time...  All in all though, the food was fine.

I've never gone to RTMC to observe - we're definitely spoiled by conditions in Southern Arizona.  But the skies are no slouch at the conference, even while it is about 70 air miles from downtown Los Angeles.  It is fun to look through some of the innovative scopes, though seeing can be quite variable.  This year, with the dearth of the sort of scopes I was looking for, we took the opportunity to do some naked eye observing while visiting with former Tucsonans Lee and Michelle Dettmann.  We froze our rears off Friday (when it snowed late!) and Saturday, retreating early to our toasty Motel 6 in big Bear.  By Sunday it warmed enough to consider staying out a little late watching Venus set early into the twilight, a brilliant -8 Iridium flare, then set up cameras for some constellation photography.  Here Scorpius rises in the SE with the backdrop of moonlit foreground and a little glow from the Indio area.

As I noted in last year's post, Tucsonans were pretty steady attendees, sometimes up to 16 showing up for the group picture we would sometimes take.  This year I glimpsed former TAAA member Steve Peterson briefly, and former members Claude and Teresa Plymate (now living in Big Bear!), along with Dennis Casper, but that was it.  Many of our blog commenters from last year indicated they would think about attending this year, but people, we've got to act soon or it will go away!  While the all-vendor PATS is going strong, having RTMC "out in the field" should be a great draw and I would think that Tucson should be well-represented.  Come on - lets take part next year - I promise to twist your arms in advance this time.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Out of the Blue

Some times it just pays to be at the right place, right time, and have your finger on the button.  We've just returned from the Grand Canyon, where we observed the Annular Solar Eclipse from Lipan Point.  That will be another blog post, to be sure!
Before the big event I had to 'practice' photographing the sun through the solar filter Dean made for my camera.  The gods were with me on this one, and I wish I could say I "planned" it - but I'm happy to take credit for dumb luck all the same.  I'm not sure what kind of jet this is, F-16?  F-18?  Military, certainly.  I like that the contrail is visible, and even better that the multiple sun spots are visible.  Lot's of people took spectacular eclipse pictures, but I'm just about sure no one else got this shot!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Night To Remember!

Last night was the Springtime Star-B-Que for the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) at the Kitt Peak picnic area.  These are usually a lot of fun - meet in the late afternoon for some socializing over a potluck and grill, then some primetime observing with our own telescopes in some of the darkest skies available.  The picnic area is a great venue - about 6500 elevation, with a pavilion, picnic tables enjoying a multitude of viewpoints, and flush toilets!  The weather had been great all week, though the night before had a blustery wind.  Fortunately, Saturday was pretty near perfect.  We had a great cookout and the sunset revealed not a cloud in the sky.  The picture at left revealed a bit of a hazy horizon, but a couple TAAA members enjoying the sunset.

I had practiced imaging the sun w/the scope I'm hoping to use at the Canyon next weekend, and after that set up the Celestron 14" for observing when it got dark.  I also had a couple camera setups - one watching the top of the mountain for a time lapse, the other on a driven mount for some tracked exposures when it got dark.  During the rapidly changing light levels of twilight, I had to monitor my time-lapse camera and adjust exposures accordingly.  When it finally got pretty dark, I returned to the starparty and switched between the scope and taking photos.  At left is the early evening Zodiacal Light - sunlight is reflecting off meteoritic dust in the plane of the solar system.  Brightest near the sun, here the conical glow reaches from Venus down in the trees at right, extending up past mars at upper left center.  All photos taken w/the Canon XSi, this one used a Nikon 8mm fisheye, F/2.8, ISO 1600, 2m exposure.  Yes, Nikon lenses work with Canon bodies with the appropriate adaptor ring...

I used the same setup with the exposures upped to 2.5 minutes for imaging the much fainter Zodiacal Band across the entire sky.  Here, a dozen exposures were combined (about 30 minutes of total exposure) were added and stretched to show the band which reaches from Mars and Regulus at upper right, through Saturn and Spica at center towards Antares, Scorpius and the rising milky Way at lower left.  Just visible in Libra, just to the right of Scorpius is a brightening known as the Gegenshein - the counter-sun brightening of the same meteoritic particles in the solar system plane.  The glow along the left side of the frame is partly rising Milky Way at bottom, merging into some of the light glow of Tucson at upper left.

I overheard some complaining how bright  the sky appeared - yet the sky brightness meter (TAAA arranged a group buy a few months ago) revealed 21.73 magnitudes per square arcsecond, the lowest I've routinely gotten, and almost .1 fainter than my best Kitt Peak results from a couple months ago.  So it was pretty dark!  An object I've always wanted to image was the  dark lane Barnard 228 that is barely observable naked eye to the west of Scorpius in Lupus, the wolf.  This one is a sum of 25 minutes of exposure with a Canon 80-200 zoom lens at F/3.2 set to about 100mm.  Like many dark nebulae, deep exposures reveal the're illuminated by diffuse starlight, so glow faintly.  This object is right on the border of the Milky Way, so has a gradient of illumination across the image.  This frame is significantly cropped from the full field.

In my opinion, one of the coolest views in a dark sky is of the rising Milky Way.  It seems even brighter with the dark silhouette of trees in the foreground.  I'm not sure this is an optical illusion, but the view of our galaxy rising framed by the picnic area trees was just jaw-droppingly amazing last night.  Because the camera is tracking the stars, the trees are blurred slightly in the 2.5 minute exposure - this is  single exposure, this time with a Nikon 16mm fisheye working at F/4.  The red lights are from the flashlights of TAAA members.

Finally the last frame is from one of my favorite imaging spots in the sky.  The yellow star is Antares - the brightest star of Scorpius, with the big globular cluster Messier 4 just to its right.  The area is virtually packed with clusters and combinations of clouds of dark and bright nebulosity.  The field is visible just above center of the wide field above.  The 30 minutes of exposure were taken with the 80-200 zoom again at ISO 1600 at F/3.2 and a focal length of 140mm.  I do love this field!

Friend Donna and I left for Tucson at 1:20am, and there was still one serious observer with one or more fields to check out before quitting.  When we hit the main road we spotted the moon just clearing the horizon - perfect timing for our departure, and the end to a great night of observing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Among the Greenery

I mentioned in our last post that we spent the good part of a day at Columbia's Riverbanks Botanical Garden and Zoo.  I had great fun looking for images, and anticipated needing some cross between a telephoto lens and a macro, so brought the Canon 100mm macro lens that Melinda got me a few years back.  With the accompanying monopod, I got what I thought were some great images.  Even though Dave Harvey admonishes that real photographers don't take pictures of flowers, I had fun doing it!  All images are with the Canon XSi and macro.  Zoo pictures in a separate post.  I don't know the names of most of these, but I like the results...

We barely got in the gate and I happened to see a prickly pear (in South Carolina?!).  Anyway, this new bud reminded me of someone I recognised - Beaker of the Muppets!

Also near the gate between gardens and zoo was a really pretty set of glass-blown lights.  We didn't see them lit up, of course, but they were pretty enough silhouetted against the greenery of trees.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Visit With Family!

We recently got back from a 4 day weekend to visit Betty, our mother-in-law living in Columbia, South Carolina.  I had never been in a southern state till marrying her daughter Vicki back in 1990, and Betty always made me feel like part of the family and welcomed me into their version of gracious living.  Columbia, smack in the center of South Carolina, is a beautiful city, surrounded by history, lots of green (compared to Arizona!), with the Atlantic coast 2 hours away and just about the friendliest people you would ever meet.

It had been too many years (nearly 3!) since we'd been there, but we didn't want to schedule too late into the summer when the heat and humidity got more oppressive, so pulled the trigger for an April visit.  One of the highlights is aways sitting in the screened in porch catching up and telling stories.  Of course, with digital devices, we can show pictures on the phone - who needs photo albums?!

Betty is an amazing woman.  She still works in an office nearly every day and us youngsters had to make an effort to keep up to her on our hikes along the river and day-long trips through museums and the zoo.  I'm not going to embarrass her by stating her age, but the picture at right above was taken about 60 years ago (!) when she could have been a swimsuit model, but instead raised 4 daughters.  Only 3 are shown above, baby Susan was still a year or so away.  Vicki, my future bride, is the lil' 2-year-old in the back. 

We got to meet her new cat Hitley for the first time.  She was a bit put off by the strangers in the house, but she is obviously good company to Betty.  We heard stories of her being a lap cat, but didn't show many signs with us nearby.  Her name - a feminized version of Hitler with her little black mustache under her nose...
During our stay we  visited a few of our favorite eating and tourist stops.  Of course we had to spend the better part of a day at the State Museum.  It deserves its own blog post, so look for that soon.  We also spent a day at the botanical gardens and zoo, which I'd not been to in nearly 20 years!  Eating spots had to include the southern specialties of Lizard's Thicket, Yesterday's, and Pizza Man, which we had discovered on just our last trip and had to pay another visit to.  It was gooood pizza!  Fortunately, our niece Shannon made the drive down from Atlanta to visit with us and her grandmother.  It was so great to see and catch up and hike the neighborhood with her.  We're lucky she had time in her busy schedule to meet up with us.  Melinda is friends w/her on the Facebook, but it was that visit nearly 3 years ago since we'd seen her...

A few more posts about our adventures are upcoming, but a little post of background info is always useful.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Sometimes you can't argue against the hype - sometimes you just gotta join in!  So even though explaining that all the hoopla about the "supermoon" doesn't amount to much more than a hill of beans, I decided to go out last night join the throngs to check out the rising moon right at sunset.  Even stopping at Circle K for a Thirstbuster I overheard folks talking about it - jeez!  Melinda had to work, so I was on my own for this adventure...

I went to just about the only place in metro Tucson with a great horizon - "A" Mountain.  It sits about a mile SW of downtown, and about 500 feet above the local terrain, providing great views from about due north, through the east to due south.  I arrived about 45 minutes before sunset, lots of space yet, parking near the stone wall that lines the road at the peak, leaving just enough room to set up a tripod and run the telescope from the side door of the van.  I'm still "interviewing" telescopes to use for the solar eclipse in a couple weeks, and tonight I was trying out a William Optics 110 triplet APO I'd gotten years ago.  I used it a few times, but was depressed by how bad the corners were - need to invest in it's special field corrector.  Tonight I used a generic .8 reducer/flattener that works ok.

While waiting, I took the opportunity to see what I could see with over 700mm of focal length from such a fine vantage point.  Naturally downtown and the UA area were right at my feet, figuratively speaking.  Since I work at the Stadium (under the east stands, invisible from the west), I took a series of shots that resulted in this mosaic.  Blogger only allows images 1600 pixels wide, not the 9,000+ of the mosaic.  The full resolution pictures were quite impressive at the field center.  The stadium, almost 3 miles away showed impressive detail.  The signs posted in the stadium were readily resolved.  Did the UA really play in a football bowl game called the "Salad Bowl" in 1949?  The sign sez so - full resolution just below!

It is challenging to orient yourself to identify other structures in low-angle shots like these.  For instance, the buildings just to the upper left of the stadium are not on campus - that is Catalina High school, more than another 2 miles distant (fortunately I could read the sign on the full-res image).  The buildings on the upper right of the frame is Tucson Medical Center more than 5 miles behind the Stadium.  Distance certainly gets compressed with long focal lengths.

Fortunately, I practiced with the telescope earlier in the afternoon at home.  While a sturdy mount and tripod were used, images are still degraded by the "mirror slap" in the DSLR.  I've developed a workaround - enable the mirror lockup as a custom function, and use the 2 second timer delay.  When using a cable release or intervalometer, as soon as you push the button the mirror swings up, then 2 seconds later, the shutter fires making the exposure, but meanwhile vibrations from the mirror motion has died out and sharp photos are the result.  I did the same thing for the moonrise time lapse with the timer set for 5 second intervals.  I would have gone for 4 if I could have, but I'm not sure the camera finished writing before starting the next exposure.  I didn't want to clog anything up, so kept it at 5 second intervals...

Other views caught my eye - the Tucson police helicopter buzzed us once and was visible around town, so snapped their photo from a couple miles distance. 

The I-10 underpass at Granada has an interesting color pattern - ROYGBIV!  The colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet is the proper order of colors in a spectrum.  It was interesting to see it demonstrated on an underpass - perhaps a connection to the optics industry here in Tucson?

I think one of our prettiest buildings here in Tucson (I am loathe to call it a skyscraper at 330 feet tall and 23 floors) is the UniSource Energy Tower.  Though not well received when it was built in 1986, it is a blue-topped buff colored building, meant to match the colors of the clear-sky topped mountains that ring Tucson.  It has been through a couple owners over the years, but believe it or not is the tallest building between San Antonio and Phoenix! 

While beautiful in daylight, the subtle ripples in the glass turn it into an orgy of reflected color at night when observing from a distance.  Other than a lone employee working a Saturday night, the picture shown here at full resolution is to illustrate the reflected lights off the glass face - cool!

Of course, "A" Mountain is right  next to Interstate 10, which connects to 1-19 headed towards Green Valley, Nogales, and Mexico 60 miles to the south.  A look to the south shows heavy weekend traffic down I-19 with Desert Diamond Casino to the distant left of the frame.

The sun eventually set, and the moon rose.  I wasn't sure where it would appear - the hills shown in the sequence are actually the southern foothills of the Rincon Mountains to the east of Tucson.  So it took a couple additional minutes after moonrise above the horizon to clear the hills shown.  The picture at the top of the post was taken well after it cleared the horizon, when it was not so reddened by the atmosphere.  The time lapse, uploaded to Youtube is below, and you might notice that on one of the frames, there is a helicopter visible!  Just by chance I caught a MH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, no doubt flying out of  Davis-Monthan AFB. 

Looking at the full-resolution image, an amazing amount of detail can be seen, given the exposure of 1/160th second in the rapidly dimming light.  You can see the refractive effects of the exhaust at the edge of the moon as well.  The base was a good 7 miles distant, so optics and camera did well!

So once the moonrise position was spotted, I centered it just left center of the frame bottom so it would rise through the center, and pushed the "start" button on the timer.  I think the exposures started out at 1/250 second, and I made one or two corrections to exposure on the fly.  Once home, I twiddled a lot with the imaged in Photoshop, to increase the contrast a brightness where they needed to be, yet treat all the frames the same so the sequence would be watchable without too much flickering or brightness change.  The results appear here - I'm happy with the result - perhaps real-time video with Melinda's camera would have been preferable, but I hate running 2 cameras and then not seeing the event!

It wasn't till the moon tracked out of my frame that I noticed that the mountaintop lookout had been transformed into a parking lot!  There were no spaces left to park, so people were circling - once someone double parked, the road was effectively closed!  I managed to get out and head home - to cat chores and figure out massaging moonrise pics!

Friday, May 4, 2012


It seems Brian Williams, news anchor on NBC, is a budding amateur astronomer.  Nearly every newscast I see he is always talking about something spectacular in the sky - from planetary conjunctions to aurora to the recent Venus/Moon pairing in the western sky.  Now it is the "Supermoon", the hype of which seems to have outstripped normal adjectives!  Between print, broadcast and the Internet, tomorrow's full moon seems on everyone's mind.
However, it is nothing special - yes, the moon is at its closest orbital point (perigee) tomorrow, and it happens to be full moon, but that happens at least once a year.  And while it might appear larger to a careful observer, it is only 8% closer than average.  Tides will be a little larger, but other than the hype, and getting people to notice the sky a bit more closely, no big deal.

I was out doing a pre-eclipse test of my Celestron 5" that I got a few years ago from Elinor Levine.  It is just about the perfect focal length to capture the moon (or eclipsed sun in a couple weeks), with not much room to spare.  At left is a 1/500th second exposure of tonight's moon - not quite full.  Interestingly, since it is closest to us tomorrow, in 2 weeks when it crosses in front of the sun, it will be at it's furthest point, and as a result, it will be too small to fully cover the sun's disk.  So instead of a total solar eclipse, it will be an annular eclipse.  No view of the sun's corona, filters must be used to avoid eye damage, but still Melinda's first solar eclipse and we'll be watching!  Anyway, here is our "Supermoon" - perhaps another picture tomorrow...