Friday, September 14, 2012

A Summer Favorite!

With Summertime rapidly drawing to a close, I was thinking of some of our experiences that we've not had the opportunity to post about.  Certainly one of the highlights was a visit to A Shooting Star Inn, a combination Bed & Breakfast and sound recording and portrait studios.  We've known the proprietor, Tom Taylor for many years - he has made semi-regular appearances to the Grand Canyon Star Party, and we've seen him down in Tucson a time or two also.  This last June he invited us to stop by at his B&B on the way to the 2012 Star Party and experience a night at his place.  He had also invited our friends Mike and Elvira, so the chance to experience the Inn and catch up with friends at the same time was too good to pass up!  This year we had two friends joining us at the Canyon and Tom didn't bat an eye, inviting them to join us too.

Located about a third of the way to the Canyon from Flagstaff at Kendrick Park, it is quite a spectacular location - in a broad valley surrounded by a few cinder cones.  It has a spectacular view of the extinct volcano Mount Humphrey - the highest point in Arizona, to the Southeast.  In the panorama picture at left, the last rays of the setting sun illuminate the highest peak of the San Francisco Peaks.

It is quite the incredible place!  Built from a "log cabin kit" that Tom designed from scratch, it arrived by a trio of semi trucks and was put together over a considerable length of time by him and a group of local friends.  The inside is remarkably large and roomy, with a recording studio loft tucked into the west side, and a large photographic studio on the ground floor.  I've heard there is a chemical darkroom, but I think most of his current work is digital.  Aided by girlfriend Amy, they have 3 guest rooms, commercial kitchen, large office area and their own living quarters.  Amazingly enough, they do all this "off grid", surviving solely on solar power, since they are some little distance from civilization...  They've even been experimenting with their own little brewery operation, producing a very nice ale that we were able to sample.  Their walls were covered by keepsakes of the area and Tom's own photography, which set a very nice tone for a place specializing in astronomy and local attractions.
After a tour and getting settled into our room, I took a walk around the structure, taking the panorama above and some of the other exterior sights.  I didn't get (or have forgotten) the story of the flamingos gracing the back yard, but they somehow did not seem out of place in the high desert of Northern Arizona.  Just a few steps from the entrance is the main telescope - a Meade 14" Schmidt Cass on a beefy Astro-Physics AP1200 mount.  Not shown in this view is a smaller refractor that a paying guest was using with a CCD camera for some very deep wide-field imaging later in the night.  Note that in this picture and panorama above that it doesn't have a roof, removable or not...  Tom says the walls block the wind to improve imaging performance, but a roof generally isn't needed - when bad weather is expected, he has a few tarps to protect sensitive equipment.
As darkness descended, dinner approached.  Tom and Amy cooked a gourmet meal for us, and it was great to gather 'round them preparing and cooking, hearing stories of the Inns construction and the experiences they've had.  And once served, I can't recall having more enjoyable dinner conversation that we had that night.
After a bit of digesting, I grabbed the camera and tripod to check out the observing conditions outside.  A good 15 air miles from Flagstaff there was a little bit of sky glow sneaking over the San Francisco Peaks, but generally the night sky was spectacular!  The Summer Milky Way was rising brilliantly, stretching over the horizon to the Northeast.  It seemed to me that there were some thin clouds moving into the area - strange, it looked perfectly clear at sunset...  A short exposure with the camera revealed the greenish secret - there was a substantial airglow display!  I wrote a blog post about it in June, which happened on a few subsequent nights at the Canyon.  If you look carefully under the Milky Way image at left, you can see the greenish layer near the horizon - it often appears at about those levels, even in the southern sky as here.  Panning around towards the Northeast under the Cygnus area of the Milky Way it is easy to see the green glow of the natural airglow that was visible to the naked eye appearing as thin clouds. 
Further on to the North is not only the greenish airglow, but perhaps even some purplish colors as well that I've not heard mentioned before.  Airglow is a natural phenomenon caused by oxygen in the upper atmosphere.  Atoms absorb solar ultraviolet light during the daytime and re-emit them in the evening at characteristic greenish colors.  I think that the fact it happened so close to Summer solstice when the days are longest and the sun is closest to our Northern horizon at night helps to explain these displays in my mind...  In this picture, the "W" of Cassiopeia is at extreme lower right with the Double Cluster of Perseus below it on the horizon.  At upper left, the dipper of the Big Dipper is just descending into the frame at top.  All these pictures, by the way, are with a 16mm fisheye lens at F/2.8, with 60 second exposures at ISO 1600.  I checked with the observer at the telescope who was unaware of the sky display - he was doing some amazing imaging of very faint nebulae in the Milky way and was little effected by the small amount of airglow display.  I turned into bed shortly afterwards...
The next morning we needed to leave early for the Star Party at the Canyon - we ended up leaving at the ungodly hour of 11am!  As a post pancake treat, Tom pulled out his Coronado SolarMax 90 for some exquisite views of some solar storms on the sun.  I don't think I've ever seen solar prominences so clearly as through that scope - it was very nice!  Shown in this picture is our buddy Mike, and our friend Rob, seated, who was joining us for the Star Party that week.  Our visit to A Shooting Star Inn was a great stop on what is normally a very long hectic drive to the Canyon.  It was so nice to unwind on a quiet evening before "roughing it" in the campground for days at the Star Party.  Many thanks to Tom and Amy for hosting us for the night - we'd love to come back!

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