Thursday, July 19, 2012

Midwest Observin'!

Somehow I developed and cultured an interest in astronomy while growing up in Iowa.  I think it was some combination of youthful eyes and a dark countryside that may no longer exist some 45 years later!  We're currently in the Midwest enjoying time away from the desert, though here they are suffering a drought, so it is not so different from Arizona. 

About the one benefit of the drought for a skywatcher is that it has been clear most nights.  They do suffer from moderate humidity which affects viewing a lot more than people realize.  The big drawback around here is the constant embracing glow of light pollution.  You really can't get away from it and the humidity seems to enhance it, scattering even more light into the sky.  But we've been dutifully getting out a few times to look skyward.  The other good thing about the drought is that the nights are absolutely bug free!  Normally the bulk of summertime observing is spent swatting at mosquitos!  Makes for nice evenings this trip...

The big motivation, particularly from the northern tier of states, is that there was a big solar flare last week and the charged particles were to hit us over the weekend and cause some northern lights!  Rare in Arizona, I've not seen a reasonable display in decades, so with the above news we kept our eyes out during the reunion trip over the weekend.  But despite our attempts, none were seen.  Sunday, just about our last chance to see them and with the geomagnetic activity listed as high on Spaceweather, when it got dark (about 10:30 in these parts with Daylight Savings Time), we hit the road for a dark northern horizon.  We settled for a spot just north of Marengo, about a 45 minute drive from our home here.  Of course, we got there just about the time the clouds did, and while there were lights (I think from Harvard about 6 miles to the north), my first exposures showed a greenish band right next to the horizon that might well have been a little auroral glow - very little!  It is perhaps just imagined at left above the tree line and below the clouds...  Interestingly, not knowing the area very well, literally 30 seconds after we stopped to set up the camera, a county sheriff stopped, wanting to know if we needed any help!  Once the clouds socked us in, we headed back home...

The next day dawned clear and relatively dry.  We got an invite from a local amateur astronomer to join us out at an observing site the local club uses about an hour southwest of town.  We invited some friends to join us and we headed about 10 miles southwest of Dekalb.  But still, it was 70 miles west of Chicago, the largest source of light pollution in the Midwest, so the sky was highly affected by skyglow.  Even so, the Milky Way was easily visible, just not nearly as good as an Arizona sky, not that we expected it to be.  Here is a 30 second tripod shot.  A cornfield defines the southern horizon - for those of you reading from the southern states, you can see the Scorpius just clears the horizon here...  Of course, no aurora visible here, except the lights from the Illinois city of Aurora (har-har!).

So we've taken to our alternate form of observing - watching some of the birds we don't normally see in the desert.  We don't have a good choice of optics for birdwatching - the small telescope normally used isn't here with us, though we have a Nikon 500mm mirror lens that we used for the following shots.  First up is a Belted Kingfisher (shown at left) that we spotted on a walk down to the river near Tekakwitha Forest Preserve.  They are always shockingly large when you spot them, and they are pretty shy, so don't stick around long.  The Fox River is amazingly low this trip with the lack of rain, so actually I've seen a lot more aquatic birds along the river this trip.  I think it is because many of the wading birds can now walk along the bottom and fish.  If it were a foot deeper, that wouldn't be possible.  And speaking of which, almost every time I go down the bike path to the river, there is almost always egrets or herons fishing.  Here is one of the former, visible on the same trip that we saw the Kingfisher.  This one walked so close to us that I had to wait for him to walk against a darker background to keep from imaging him against the water reflecting skylight.

We're also spotting a heron that fishes along the canoe beach right down from our house every day.  While not as satisfying as spending time under a dark night time sky, the hunt to chase down and image these prey makes for entertainment here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Old Gang Of Mine!

Astute observers of the last post might have noticed that we are currently in the Midwest.  It is our annual trip to try to convince Melinda that the "dry heat" of Tucson is a good thing.  She remains unconvinced, so we continue returning to the glorious humidity (and greens) of Illinois and Iowa.

One of the main reasons for our visit this time is that we came up for my 40th reunion of Calamus High School graduation!  For those of you not in the know, the town of Calamus, population about 400, is a railroad town named for a weed that grows in the area.  Located in Clinton County (far eastern Iowa), the area is mostly rural with large family farms - homes to most of my classmates.  Being a small town, my graduating class only had 23 students (about 100 in the entire high school).  Just a few years later the school consolidated with Wheatland, the next town to the west, so the days of small schools like in those days are mostly over.  At left are the old senior class photos, and at right was our local classmate host Dave, and Roger, now a longtime Denver resident.

This year's reunion dates were picked to coincide with "Calamus Fun Days", a celebration of life in the small town.  There was to be a parade on Saturday morning, and our task for Friday evening was to prepare a float for the classmates to ride in the parade.  I've never been to, nor heard of Calamus Fun Days - I don't think it was held 40 years ago when I lived there, but we dutifully showed up to share in the preparation work load.  We obtained a flatbed trailer, and decorated it in blue and white (school colors) bunting and paper pom-poms.  Mix simple tasks with plentiful amount of Bud Light, and fun and frivolity was had by all.  Over half the class showed up, and after the obligatory group shot, John mooned the spouses taking pictures...  Our athletic star and valedictorian Paul showed off by demonstrating that his letterman's jacket still fit! 

After float preps were finished, most of us walked the block and a half downtown to Steffen's Tap - THE place to be in Calamus (and likely the only place open after 5pm).  They had a street dance, complete with smoker fixing pork chop sandwiches and brats that were absolutely fabulous, and plentiful cold beer to help with reminiscing about the good ole' days.  We finally departed for our motel room 12 miles to the east about 11:30pm.

Saturday dawned perfectly clear, though pretty warm and humid - perfect parade weather!  What kind of parade can small-town Iowa throw?  Well, it was pretty cool - pretty much anyone with an old car, tractor, local fire departments, or people running for political office were welcome to jump in!  Throwing candy to the kids along the route seemed to be the popular thing to do.  We had a couple more alums come for the day's festivities, making 15 attendees of the 23 graduates - 2/3 of our class!  I rode the float with classmates while Melinda took pictures from the sidelines.  The  time stamps on the image files reveals the parade lasted 15 minutes from the one location.  Of course, since we were moving, it seemed longer... 

In the crowd were 2 of my sisters and a brother that had come to enjoy the festivities and see their black sheep brother.  Afterwards we adjourned to the nearby city park for more bar-b-qued pork products and games for the kids.  My great niece Alivia (shown at left) came to collect a bag of candy from the parade and some good swag from the kid's games.  Also joining us on Saturday was my high school buddy Jeff (at right), who couldn't join us the evening before.  After 20 years (since the last reunion I had attended), it was great to see and catch up with him - as it was with all my former classmates.  With a class this small, it seemed that over the years you got to be almost best friends with all of them.  No one ever warned us that as graduation approached so fast 40 years ago that you would so quickly lose contact with these people with which you spent so many years.

After lunch, some chose to take a tour of the old school, though much of the old building had been renovated and most of the high school no longer exists.  The highlight was the hallway near the cafeteria that had the pictures of graduating seniors from the past (our year shown at top of post).  Some played a round of golf at the local country club, while we hung out with our local classmate and host Dave Schau.  We finally finished off the weekend with a class dinner at the country club, laughing over the photos from a pile of old yearbooks.  The consensus seemed to be that we would meet again in 5 years - Melinda and I had a great time and are already looking forward to it!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Heard on the Radio!

Evidently, people still listen to the radio - at least given the number of folks who let us know they heard us on NPR's Morning Edition yesterday morning!  The 6 minute clip, linked here, is a story about amateur astronomy in Tucson.  It starts with the Venus transit on June 5th.  We then give the radio crew a tour of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab under Arizona Stadium where I work, and it ends up at the Sky Bar, where telescopes entertain the sometimes-tipsy patrons at a 4th Avenue tavern. 

I had been alerted to the upcoming piece last week - they called me 5 days before doing some fact-checking to make sure their script was accurate.  I set out an e-note to our Tucson astronomy group letting them know it was going to be on.  Unfortunately, we were on the road, in small-town Iowa attending my 40th high school reunion, but with Melinda's computer, we found the show streaming on-line and got to hear it "live". 

If you go to the above link, Melinda also makes an uncredited appearance as "UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1"!  So do check it out if you have speakers attached to your computer, otherwise you will have to be satisfied with reading the transcript at the same link.  I generally live on the NPR stations in southern Arizona and northern Illinois full time, and it is great that they archive most programming for all to access.  Meanwhile, you can get a taste of astronomy in Tucson where we're perhaps a little more sensitive to the machinery of the universe which controls the whirring of the orbs over our heads.  Keep Looking Up!