Sunday, November 25, 2012

Night Time Debut!

Last night was the grand opening of the "new for me" Astro-Physics AP1200 telescope mounting.  It is a big upgrade in the carrying capacity of the mount I've been using for the last 15+ years.  I obtained it from an acquaintance in the Chicago area this last summer when he upgraded to a newer model.  While the mount is in perfect shape, he kept some of the needed accessories, so I needed to obtain a new pier (machinist in Phoenix), saddle plate where telescope attaches (from Astro-Physics), and a new set of counterweights (water-jet steel from a local engineering company, machining by me!).  Finally all was ready to go, so with Roger C. in town, who made the 7" Apochromatic refractor about 10 years ago, we invited ourselves to the home of Richard Buchroeder to set up, and who took the enclosed pictures - thanks Dick!  At left, I set up the mount for the first time, and about the first time don't have an under-mounted telescope!  At right Roger critically checks out the view of the Moon at high power.
Besides the APO in front of the house, Dick also had a 5" APO that he designed for Meade Telescopes years ago in the side yard, and in the back yard had a 7" Maksutov telescope (also a Meade), both of which he recently obtained used.  So during the bulk of the 4 hours spent there, we circled the house checking out alternatively high-power views of bright stars overhead (it is what optics nerds look at!), what little terminator the nearly full Moon showed, and Jupiter a little later when it rose above Dick's trees.  Jupiter cooperated by having the Red Spot cyclonic storm rotate through the meridian for best viewing about 10pm - it looked great!  Of course, Melinda and our friend Donna are telescope fans too, and here are checking out the view of the Moon early in the evening through the Mak.  It was a fun evening - no need to leave town in search of a dark sky with the bright moon, and this way we got to have lots of viewing in a comfortable observing spot with refreshments!  In a few weeks when the moon passes, it will be time to search for darker skies and push the mount a little harder with the 14" Celestron and see how it performs with a heavier load.  Looking forward to it!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving Feast 2012

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and even though we didn't host any family or friends like we usually do, we didn't hold back on the cooking!  We'd had a turkey taking up space in the freezer since I don't know how long (always hoping to smoke one during grillin' season).  And once you commit to the turkey, it snowballed into mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, veggies, brown-n-serve rolls, the works!  And while we normally would have stopped with a pumpkin pie, our house sitter and significant other were "stopping by for dessert", so I ended up making a chocolate cheesecake - normally only produced when we're giving most of it away like a potluck or other holiday party.

I had been running short on sleep lately, so as I slept in some on Thursday, Melinda woke at the crack of 7:30 and started making stuffing!  Here she is shown loading up the turkey cavity and giving the stuffed bird a nice butter massage...

Last week during grocery shopping, Melinda had loaded us up on Brussels sprouts, so we were looking for a new way to cook them up other than steamed.  In Joy of Cooking we found "Brussels Sprouts Cockaigne" (I don't know how to pronounce it either), where you brown up a few cloves of garlic in a few tablespoons of butter until it browns, remove the garlic, then cook the sprouts split side down till cooked.  They were quite tasty, though I'm sure loaded up with a lot more calories than steamed!
The turkey came out great, as did the stuffing.  But one of the highlights is always the Chocolate Cheesecake (again, from Joy of Cooking).  Here you can see Pixel overseeing the re-packaging of the cheesecake Thanksgiving morning, with Lucy studying the situation from below.  While yes, Pixel is allowed on the counter (at 16 years old, he has earned that privilege), he shows no interest in people food and regarded the cheesecake as he would my shoes!  The only cat who paid any attention to us eating was Scruffy, recently passed, who would come begging, triggering other cats to do the same.  This holiday, no one came around for handouts, almost sad to say...
We've had a good year and have much to be thankful for.  We're both healthy and gainfully employed, and have been able to relax and travel as we desire - in particular spending time touring the state with our new Russian family.  Similarly our families back in the Midwest are doing well and hope to catch up with them in a few weeks in our "holiday" trip.  Our great sadness this year has been the loss of our dear Scruffy a couple months ago, Atticus going missing in June, and of Marley's passing about a year ago.  Our cats are our family members and it is always sad to lose a dear one.  And of course, we were blessed with Lucy early in the year, though it has been a trying year dealing with some of her issues.  But for the moment, all is calm on the home front.  And while it was a quiet holiday at home, sometimes those are just the sort of break one needs!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sunset from 35,000 feet!

Part of the Nightly Observing Program at Kitt Peak National Observatory has us leading the group up to a sunset vista.  Even on partly cloudy evenings there is usually something of interest to see.  While flying back from Hawaii recently at 35,000 feet on what seemed a flight that was twice as long as the trip west, we again saw a very pretty sunset - but with a twist.  While we've seen many sunsets while flying, we are always flying east or west, so we've never seen the sun directly!  But we can still see many of the effects of the sunset, this being no exception.

On the long flight, with them showing a movie we'd already watched on the outbound trip, I was doing some reading (Alan Alda essays!), mostly playing a zombie when I noticed an interesting glow from outside the plane.  The sun was still up, bathing the wing and engine cowling in a yellowish glow.  My camera was at my feet, so I wrestled it out and started taking pictures. 
The lighting changed pretty quickly - I could imagine the golden disk of the sun sitting on the hazy edge of the horizon.  As it sinks it gets redder as the light path travels a longer path through the atmosphere.  This photo, taken 5 minutes after the first one above, shows the reddening effect.  You can also see something new - at the left-side horizon there is a darker line above the horizon - the shadow of the earth!  From our elevation, we saw a different perspective than the setting sun, which is projecting the edge of the earth's surface into the atmosphere.
3 minutes later, and from our vantage point, it appears that the sun has set - no glow at all directly from the sun's disk.  But look at the shadow at left again - as the sun sinks, the shadow rises higher into the sky!  It is so very apparent because the shadow is projected into the lower part of the horizon where there is lots of haze and moisture to back scatter the light to our observing location.  As the shadow rises, it quickly rises into the higher atmosphere where there is less to scatter the light, and it soon fades away into the darkening sky.  You can also see the "Belt of Venus", the golden-orange glow atop the earth's shadow, caused by the reddened sun  - the edge of the shadow being caused by that same low sun that caused the color shift above.  We see these effects from the Kitt Peak sunsets at 7,000 feet, but a careful observer can likely observe them from nearly anywhere.  But they do seem sharper and better defined from atop the atmosphere where we were!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Sand and Lava Day Trip!

I've still got a couple Hawaii blog posts in me!  While I posted about the trip to Kilauea and Halema'uma'u crater while we were still in Hawaii, I've got some nice pics along the way that are too good to miss.  In the meantime, at left is a panorama of the crater - unfortunately, blogger doesn't allow large image sizes to examine the picture in detail, but many small steam vents can be seen even outside the crater!

While we usually have a destination when we're driving, we've taken to stopping at nearly every scenic overlook.  We figure if it is good enough to make a sign and provide parking places to pull off, it must be a worthwhile stop - especially in Hawaii!  Our destination that Monday was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, taking the "long" way around the south side of the island.  Melinda and Shannon hadn't yet been through Kailua-Kona, so we drove along the tourist shops and hotels that border the Pacific along Alii Drive.  After finally driving through most of the development, we headed up towards the main road again - Scenic View - time to stop!  I was taking a pic of the cruise ship in the harbor while something caught the eye of one of the girls.  Melinda is pointing to something she has spotted - a lizard!  Well, they just about tripped over themselves getting a picture, and when their excitement died, I took a turn, quietly mounting the macro lens as I asked where they were looking.  Oooh - a really pretty lizard - not the earthtoned ones we have in Arizona!  Such pretty eyes!
It is actually a a Gold Dust Day Gecko (Phelsuma laticauda), a native to Madagascar, but introduced into Hawaii.  This fellow was pretty shy - he was reluctant for me getting very close with the macro, but got a shot or two before hopping to another branch and disappearing.  While appearing lizard-like initially, in closeups they are pretty different - for one, look at the closeup of the photo at left (reproduced at full-rez at right) - the toes look flattened like they've got little suction cups.  At least the lizards I've had a chance to get closeups in AZ have little toenails like in this picture...
While we made a number of stops along the way, we did leave some for future trips.  We didn't make it to South Point, the southernmost tip of the island, which is the southernmost point in the United States.  We also passed up Papakolea Beach - one of only 2 green sand beaches in the world!  The other is in the Galapagos Islands - the green coloration of the sand from the mineral olivine from a cinder cone that is eroding into the beach. 
But we did stop at one of the most well-known black-sand beaches, Punalu'u Beach.  Like the white sand beaches (at least in Hawaii) caused by breakdown of shells and coral, the black sand is the result of the erosion of the black lava from the island's volcanoes.  The beach is shockingly dark, as I expected, I guess...  Almost as surprising were the numerous green sea turtles basking on the beach there.  In the short time we were there, at least 3 were basking on the beach, while several were seen struggling against the surf and rocks to come to shore.  While endangered, we saw several at nearly every beach we spent time with during our visit.  We hope this is a trend and they continue to recover.
Like I said, the sand is shockingly dark  shown here is a random visitor's foot against the sand while lounging and turtle-watching.  Of course, the human toes can be compared to evolutionary remnants of the green turtle toes at right...
It was a rocky, if not spectacular beach with beautiful palm trees and surf.  There were also some pavilions for family gatherings and picnics, and it would be great to plan get-togethers there if it wasn't over 2 hours from the western resorts...  With the prospect of a spectacular beach and turtles, it would be great to return for a visit...
Volcanoes is only a short distance from Punalu'u, about a half hour's drive or so.  A short visit at the visitor center, and a brief refreshment stop were necessary before heading out to the Jaggar Museum where the crater and current activity can be viewed.  On the way, we paused at one of the many steam vents - here Susan demonstrates the proper way to unwrinkle your travel clothes after a long day of sightseeing!  After a stop at the Jaggar (check the previous post for more pics), we toured the Thurston Lava Tube.  Lava tubes are natural caves formed by flows of molten lava during a volcanic eruption.  Flows generally get covered by hardening lava, and when the supply of lava stops, the flows sometimes drains out leaving a hollow cave structure.  Thurston is artificially lit, of course, and unfortunately we arrived the same time as a busload of tourists, so I had to wait for a chance of a picture without a crowd in it...  Andrew Cooper has several posts about lava tubes, his post about Emesine Cave is great!
Finally exiting the tube, we ascended back up to the parking lot through a tropical rain forest.  Interestingly, local climate is highly variable here, going from arid to rain forest sometimes over a couple hundred meters!  The girls were all waiting patiently for me to finish taking my pictures, and fortunately, though most tourists had passed, we found one visiting from Taiwan to take a group photo of us.
After stopping at Volcano village for some dinner, we returned after sunset to take some night time images.  The glowing emmisions lit up by the lava pool just out of our vision was spectacular.  With images taken during the daytime, and at night, I finally finished a time-lapse clip uploaded to Youtube.  Click on the player at left to play.  As always, full-frame at HD mode is always best.  What is interesting is that there are numerous vents, upwards of a dozen or so that can be seen in the clip well outside the inner crater.  Way cool!
We descended into Hilo and rain as we approached the eastern terminus of the Big Island.  We then turned back west and went over the Saddle Road, where it cleared as we ascended to the higher elevations.  As we passed the turnoff to Mauna Kea, I was thinking we still had nearly a half hour till the public viewing ended, but my riders strongly vetoed that idea!  We were back to our hotel by about 10:30pm after a long, but very satisfying day.  Can't wait to repeat that day trip!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Something Smells Fishy

Red Pencil Urchin
It's been over twenty years since I've had the chance to go snorkeling, so that was second on my list (after seeing an active volcano first hand) for our trip to Hawaii.  Thanks to our friends, Andrew and Deb Cooper (residents of the Big Island), we all had free use of snorkel and beach equipment for the week!  Not only did they loan us masks, snorkels, fins, aqua shoes, chairs, mats, a beach blanket, and a cooler(!); they let us borrow a Nikon digital camera with underwater housing!  Generous beyond belief!  I've used a disposable underwater camera before (20+ years ago), but technology has improved greatly since then.  At the end of this post go to the link for our niece's underwater shots - taken with a disposable underwater camera, on this trip, as well!

Test shot in the pool
It was a real leap of faith, taking the camera underwater the first time - at least for me.  I couldn't stand the thought of something horrible happening to it, so 'tested it out' in our hotel pool first before actually taking the plunge in the ocean.  Fortunately, some kid was cooperative enough to jump in about the time I was taking a "test shot".  Once I felt confident we weren't going to be buying a new camera for the Cooper's, I was ready for hitting the ocean!

Green Sea Turtle
Green Sea Turtle
Snorkeling is about the most fun thing a non-diver can do in the ocean!  If you can kick your feet and float, you can snorkel.  Even non-swimmers can get in on the fun by wearing a life vest.  It's relaxing and opens up a whole new world, the underwater world!  I had been reading about good snorkeling sites, on line, for months in advance of our trip.  I found a site, Hawaii Snorkeling Guide that mentioned three great sites on the Big Island.  The first we chose was at a city park near Kona, Kahaluu Beach Park.  It was a great 'cove', protected from big waves, lots of coral and fish!  The walking from our shady spot to the water was a little rough on the feet, but I have really sensitive feet.  Every beach we went to we encountered Green Sea Turtles, and Kahaluu was no exception!  This guy was taking a break on the lava at the shore - before we even entered the water!  His buddy was still swimming with us in the cove for a while, also.  It's definitely 'odd' to come face to face with a sea turtle - we did our best to stay clear, though most everyone we spoke to said they are pretty harmless.  No need to provoke the locals though!  The second place we snorkeled was Mauna Kea Beach - Kaunaoa Bay.  Mauna Kea Beach is listed as one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and is perfect for beginners.  It is a huge cove of silky soft sand (great on the feet), with massive areas of coral surrounding the edges.  The coral there had areas of canyons that were great to swim through!  The coral is where the action is, so it was great to have so many areas to see.  As the tide came in there were areas of the coral that only had a few inches of water covering it - so it was sometimes hard to swim over and avoid touching!  Knowing that there are sea urchins and anemone's helps to remind one to "take only pictures, leave only bubbles".
Dean is already talking about a return trip in the Spring, to do some more 'serious' astronomy.  I'm already envisioning us taking more underwater pictures - and looking at underwater cameras on line (there are really very affordable ones out there)!  There are Queen Angels just waiting to have their picture taken so they can be on our blog, and we never made it to the third beach recommended by the Hawaii Snorkeling Guide!
Be sure to go to our niece's blog: Shannon's Song.  She has some AMAZING pictures from our snorkel trips!

There's a lot of pictures here, and I hope I have the fish identified correctly!

Yellow Tang, and some of the amazing coral!

Fourspot Butterflyfish
A little Goby of some sort, hiding in the coral
Moorish Idol
Closer look at the Moorish Idol
Orange Spine Unicornfish, Convict Tang and a Yellow Tang

A little Pufferfish!
One of my favorites, Raccoon Butterflyfish

Reef Triggerfish.  These guys are really fast!
A Stoplight Parrotfish.  They give the place some color and can be up to 2 feet long!
Teardrop Butterflyfish
Ornate Butterflyfish
A Threadfin Butterflyfish, and Convict Tang
Yellowfin Surgeonfish

Yellowfin Wrasse

Yellow Tang - more than you can count!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo!

Today was the first day of the inaugural AZ Science & Astronomy Expo.  It was great!  I heard absolutely no advertising other than some talk on the local astro club's forum pages a few weeks ago, but obviously the word got out.  The vendor areas and talks seemed well-attended, and I was very impressed by the lineup of manufacturers and dealers of astronomical equipment of all kinds coming to vie for our attention.  Given that I recognised almost as many friends that made the trip down from Phoenix, as locals here in Tucson that attended, my question was "why is the event in Tucson"?  We hardly seem worthy!  I literally did not go to any of the "big name" lecturers, which included Phil "Mr Bad Astronomy" Plait, one of my favorite bloggers, and Don Pettit, who has spent over a year in space over a couple Space Station stays.

Here are a few of my favorite snapshots taken today.  At left, Richard Buchroeder, local lens designer extraordinaire, checks the view through some Explore Scientific eyepieces with and without glasses.  At right is the buffet table of other of their wares to touch and try out on a telescope.
In the photo at left, Roger Ceragioli (holding his new book on telescope optics), Margie and Roland (Mr Astro-Physics) Christen, and me (of little to no note!), next to AP's 7" APO and AP1600 mounting (Photo taken by Richard Buchroeder).  Roland is having difficult getting glass for this size, so there may be no more!  At left is the only talk I attended - buddy Bill Wren of McDonald Observatory presented at the International Dark-Sky Association annual meeting on some excellent examples of retrofitting bad lights and fixtures to control skyglow in West Texas.
Here at left, an impressive display of most every type of Tele-Vue Nagler eyepieces is available from Woodland Hills Camera.  At right, our buddies Claude and Teresa Plymate made the trip over from Big Bear to visit the Expo and their TAAA friends!
And just a couple more - at left, CCD cameras and filter wheels make for a colorful display at the Apogee Camera table.  At right, Tom Taylor of A Shooting Star Inn from near Flagstaff checks out a very fine $850 Leica zoom eyepiece at the ASA booth.
It was a great day - I'd gladly spend Sunday there too, though I've got obligations that will take me out of town.  Hopefully there will be enough interest for vendors and attendees that it will become a regular event!