Wednesday, October 30, 2013

New and Improved, Bigger and Frostier!

The more I use the Canon 100mm macro we
have (non-image-stabilized)
and examine the images critically, the more I'm impressed with what it can do!  Last week when we were in Illinois, I was out the morning of the first frost, taking a few pictures.  Well the next morning, it also froze, and I went out again, taking some nice pictures, but since I'd already blogged, figured it would be redundant to show such similar images.  But looking at them closely, they are quite incredible, so am posting again, this time showing the images displayed at somewhat closer to the camera resolution limit (most pictures here and most elsewhere are reduced considerably in resolution).

First up above is a weed (sorry for the non-identifications - all I know is that it isn't grass!) with considerably more frost than formed the night before on the leaf edges.  And even the image at left is downsized some from the full frame.  At right is the same image at nearly the full resolution, with just the slightest touch of unsharp masking.  Note that this shot is a 1/4 second exposure (tripod mounted!) at F/11.  I also took a 1 second exposure at F/22, but interestingly, while the depth of field is better, the sharpest part of the water crystals have lost sharpness due to diffraction effects - interesting, and something to remember!  Click on the image for the full size image - the detail in the crystals is quite nice!

I also had a leaf picture in the previous post, but this one is considerably better.  I don't understand the mechanism of crystal formation, but it is interesting to me that the leaf veins seem to grow more frost than the expanse of flat sections.  At right is a single blade of grass covered with crystals.  Growth rings can be detected in some of them, as well as what might be hexagonal structures in the edges.

Finally, with the heavier frost this morning, this convex leaf surface has considerably more crystal growth than the previous post.  I was just there as the sun was clearing the tree line, which adds another layer of interesting reflections off the crystal faces.  For all the world it looks like a cave grotto full of quartz crystals!  I'm certainly going to look for similar circumstances in the future - I've tried a time or two to go after snowflakes without success, but after these first attempts, it is worthwhile to try again, or perhaps attempt some time-lapses...

Geostationary Satellites!

Space is far from empty.  Especially in the Earth's neighborhood there are lots of objects.  Rare is a twilight while out observing from a dark site when you do not spot a dozen or more satellites moving across the sky.  Fortunately it is not as bad as the movie "Gravity" when a space station or habitable pod is just a few dozen miles away, but in the near-earth environment there are lots of both naked-eye satellites, as well as fainter ones that show up in telescopic or binocular views.

Some of the easiest to photograph, especially from a dark site, are the geostationary satellites.  Mostly communication or weather stations, they orbit precisely every 24 hours over the equator, so an observer on the ground will see these points of light fixed in the sky.  NOT fixed with respect to the stars, but fixed with respect to the ground.  All you need to image them is a tripod and camera and you can spot them because they are fixed with respect to the trailing stars as the earth rotates.  Because of parallax, from northern latitudes they appear to be located south of the celestial equator - from Tucson's 32 degrees latitude, they appear at about -5.5 degrees declination.  A few weeks ago, before our recent Midwest trip, I went out towards the base of Kitt Peak to image some of these  Shown at left here is the result of 50 (!) co-added exposures with a DSLR and 50mm lens running 90 second exposures, pointed a little east (about 10 degrees east of due south).  I had in-camera noise reduction turned on to minimize hot pixels that would confuse identification, so 50X90s=75minutes of exposure over a period of 2.5 hours.  The bright points are the geostationaries - there were over 25 in the full frame, this one is cropped about 25%.  The dashes are the stars that trailed through the frame.  Besides the point like satellites, there are also a large number of trails NOT in the same direction as the stars.  These are geosynchronous satellites - likely rocket boosters or inoperative satellites that have been moved out of the crowded geostationary positions.  They also orbit every 24 hours, but have a slight inclination, so they do not orbit over a single point. 

Many of these geosynchronous orbits trace out a figure 8 shape as seen from the Earths surface if it could be followed for a full 24 hours.  At left in this frame is a close-up of the satellites, taken with my 70-200 zoom (set to 90mm focal length), again, for the full 2.5 hour period.  This one is highly cropped of the right part of the field above, and in it you can see how well aligned the geostationary ones are to the earth as they don't budge much.  The one not in the plane of the others traced out a looping curve in the 2.5 hours of coverage...

The last exposure shown here is one of the single frames with the 50mm lens, cropped pretty tightly from the left side of the first frame above.  Besides the line of geostationaries, there are a trio of geosynchronous satellites visible, one of which (the bottom) that is glinting sunlight to my position.  I picked the observation period (a couple weeks after equinox) that was favorable for catching glints like this, and many of them caught the sun, brightening a lot before they went into the Earth's shadow.  I was able to spot several of them in binoculars, and I'm pretty sure I could see them naked eye.  Certainly the one below left would have been easily visible to the naked-eye during the 10 minutes it was flaring.  Unfortunately, they move so slowly relative to the stars that they are hard to identify only from their appearance, unless you have the advantage of watching the camera display as the frames are coming in.  Interestingly, over heavily populated areas, like the US, they can position and use them with .1 degrees angular separation, which at the geostationary distance of  22,000 miles (36,000km) corresponds to a real separation of about 44 miles (73km).

I'd like to be able to identify some of these, but haven't yet as I need to figure out how to measure the east-west alignment more accurately.  Since these were about 10 degrees east of due south, and we're at about 112 degrees longitude, they are mostly about 102 degrees west longitude.  I'll continue to observe them occasionally, and I encourage you to do the same - it's easy as there are no tracking issues!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Window Sill Still Life

While we're back in Arizona, recovering from
our vacation in Illinois and preparing for chemo, round 4, I'm reviewing pictures I've taken the last 10 days.  While most of my posts from there are usually taken outside, here are a couple taken of interior décor that have collected on our window sills.  At left is the view from our laundry/furnace room of flags and Mason Jars, and at right is the view outside the bathroom of candles, bottles and knickknacks.  While mostly I wanted to record the shapes and colors, it is actually a difficult photographic problem to shoot out the window in daylight as the exterior details overwhelms some of the detail you want to record.  I tried to use High Dynamic Range (HDR) methods to record the frame at different exposure levels to preserve detail, but I ended up using a single frame for the flag exposure, and only 2 frames for the bathroom view.  But "levels" and "curves" were used in Photoshop to bring out what I wanted to show...  I was hoping to record some fall colors out the windows, but only green was still showing...  But as for the layout of the décor itself - didn't touch a thing - what you see is what's actually there!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Phun With Flames!

Seems like whenever we visit our place in Illinois, the pyromaniacs in us come out and we find excuses to stoke a fire in our yard.  We've got a "burn pile" where wood discards from construction projects, fallen branches and leaves make an excuse to have a fire.  At our last visit in July, my RAGBRAI buddies revealed the way-cool Chinese Lanterns, and after nearly a week's search, we finally found and nearly bought-out the supply of an Iowa store (they might be slightly illegal in Illinois...), but again, we've never "pulled the trigger" to send one off...

Tonight, our last night in the Midwest, we had to make an excuse, as we hadn't yet lit the burn pile this trip either.  Melinda had a dinner at a local restaurant with many of her nursing buddies, some of which she hadn't seen in 15 years!  All told, over 15 former co-workers got together at a local Italian place where they spent over 3 hours yakking!  When we got home we looked at each other, and decided it was time to send off one of these little hot-air balloons. 

We walked out into a clearing west of our house - it seemed dead calm, opened the balloon and lit the little wax-covered piece of cardboard.  In a matter of 20 seconds or so it became semi-buoyant and seconds later lifted off from my fingertips.  Interestingly, it went up about 80 feet and then took off towards the east in the undetectable-from-the-ground breeze.  We watched it for about a minute before it disappeared below the tree line from our location. 

We debated why in the world they could be found illegal - what's the worst that could happen sending flaming balloons into the sky?!  It turns out that except for a bit of wire, all parts are biodegradable, and, if sent up while it is calm and the piece of cardboard burns till it goes out, by the time it falls to earth from a couple thousand feet up it should be cool.  We just won't get permission from authorities to send them off - easier to get forgiveness than permission, right?  At a few bucks each, a fun thing to do next time we have company over!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What the Passenger Saw....

We travel frequently, mostly around the continental US.  Since I'm an "observer", I enjoy looking through the window, as you can see some interesting things at 30,000+ feet elevation.  Note also that at 74" tall, sometimes the best seat for looking through the window is the center seat!

Anyway, on our trip here I saw something I'd
never noticed before.  In fact, I wasn't even sure what it was called until I went looking for it on Optics Picture of the Day!  It was a "Subsun", a near-specular reflection of the sun off oriented ice crystals in the clouds.  It had a very similar appearance to how the sun would look reflecting off a body of water, except we were somewhere over New Mexico or Texas, and it was mostly cloudy.  All told, the subsun was visible for only about 5 minutes, but I got a dozen shots of it in that time, all seemingly associated with misty-topped mid-level clouds.  I sent my description and a couple shots to Les Cowley who runs OPOD, and overnight he provided a name, description and links to a few better examples than mine.  And while he indicates they are quite common, I'd never seen them from above anyway...  I've seen sun pillars that are formed from similar crystal alignments, but these were a first for me.  Keep looking up, or down, or whatever direction is available to you!

More Macro - Frosty Morning!

Still in the Midwest - it was clear overnight and with the cold front that passed yesterday, was below freezing for the first time this season, according to the weatherman.  Of course, still no sign of aurora, but with temps in the mid-20s this morning, I stepped out for some frosty photos.  These are literally yards from our door, in the grass and weeds that pass for our lawn, but there were still some interesting ice crystals forming.  These are all taken with the Canon 100mm macro, typically at F/22 for depth of field, which drove the exposures to a quarter second or so in the early morning light...  Click on the images to load the full-resolution images.

Of course, the temperatures didn't stay below freezing for long, supposed to be in the 40s for highs today, but now it is trying to snow - can see it out the window as I write this at noon!  Looks like Tucson is expecting highs near 90F, so quite the difference, but we enjoy the change, and have been taking in the Fall colors here. We've been in a whirlwind of visiting friends and family - Melinda needs her calendar to keep track of who she is meeting for breakfast, lunch and dinner the rest of the week! She is loving it as she is feeling great this week as we enter into cycle 4 of chemo next week...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Fall Through the Macro Lens...

We're back in the Midwest for a few days to visit family, friends, and get away from thinking too much of chemo and the routine of our lives in Tucson!  While it has been in the mid-80s in Arizona, Fall has definitely arrived here in Illinois!  Plus, we've been enjoying the rain here - the monsoon season wasn't very kind to us in Tucson, only an inch and a half all Summer.  So walking through drizzle the other day was a refreshing experience, even though most of the folks around me wondered why I was smiling so much!

While there is some Fall color, I think we're past most of it and a lot of the plants over at the Forest Preserve prairie has been felled by frost.  So I've taken a few walks and tried to capture some of the colors and patterns that catch my eye.  Since we're past the bulk of colors, I've chosen to use the macro to zoom in on close-ups.  Using that lens makes you reconsider a lot of framing choices and really makes you look at tiny details that show up easily with the higher magnification.

The macro is so great at revealing intricate structure, like the veins of a leaf - and I loved the collected raindrops on the oak leaf above, each acting as a little magnifying glass providing a little closer look under each drop!  It makes the use of a tripod almost mandatory to keep image blur to a minimum, especially under the canopy of the woods where some of these were taken - upwards of half second exposures with some of the small apertures required for the depth of field needed...  So I've been having fun seeking out these little jewels as time permits between seeing all the folks we want to see this trip.  Perhaps there will be more!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Snapshots and Mosaic of a Neighbor!

We were out recently taking a few pictures with my "little" 11cm William Optics refractor.  I've posted about it before, and this summer found a field-flattening corrector for it, so have been anxious to try it on the sky.  I underestimated the setup needed for the longer f-ratio of the F/7 refractor, and didn't have the guide scope needed to perfectly track such a long focal length.  So a critical test will have to wait.

Before it sank too low in the sky, I was hoping to catch the hydrogen cloud and star formation area Messier 8.  Since the predominant color is the h-alpha red, shown here is a single-exposure (!) with the venerable Canon 20Da, which has a little extended red sensitivity.  With the trailed images, it didn't seem worth a longer sequence to beat down the noise any more.  Shown is a 3 minute exposure at the highest ISO of the 20Da (1600).  With the F/7 lens, 4 minutes would have been better, but not until I've got a real guidescope.

Since the part of the Milky Way where M20 was located was setting fast, I moved over to something rising, and higher in the sky - our neighbor galaxy Messier 31 - the Andromeda Galaxy!  For some reason, the tracking seemed better in that part of the sky, so the exposures are less embarrassing.  Unfortunately, at 770mm focal length the entire galaxy is to big to fit in the field, so I ended up taking 3 frames to push the extent of the coverage.  Each frame consisted of three 3-minute exposures, so the total investment was less than 30 minutes with my other camera, the Canon XSi.  The 3 frames were then assembled into the shown mosaic with Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor - FREE - see this post!), which did a great job of combining them.  The result then had levels adjusted a bit (perhaps too much!) in Photoshop.  It could certainly take more exposure, but is not bad for a half-hour's investment!  Of course, the majority of the stars shown are in our own galaxy, a few hundred to a few thousand light years away, then there is a big jump of 2.5 million light years to the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) and its two companions, the smaller M32 above and larger (but fainter) M110 below.  I tell people at my night programs at Kitt Peak that we'll have a much better view of it when it collides with our galaxy in about 10 billion years!

So the jury is still out on if this new corrector was worth the hassle of getting it (the only one I could find was in Europe and was an adventure in ordering it!).  But the William Optics scope is a nice one to use for daytime use and it is nice to have it available as a tool for night time use as well!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Large Binocular Telescope (Part 1)

Last weekend we got invited to tag along to the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) employee family picnic day up on Mount Graham!  The above link is great because it includes a time-lapse from a year ago when the Russian kids were visiting and we got to see the dome opening, as well as some other links to various aspects of the Observatory...  The telescope is made up of 2 large mirrors, each 8.4 meters (a little under 30 feet diameter), that for some instruments work together, and others work separately.  Since I was supervising the crew that polished the mirrors, I literally can't get enough of this telescope, and thankfully, Melinda agrees with me!  It is literally like visiting a technological cathedral, both in size and scope, and sitting atop a 10,700 foot mountain, is a very special place!  At left is the LBT building just before sunset in normal visible light color, and at right is the view from 150 meters down the access road in infrared light.  It is constructed from 3 exposures of different lengths because of the extreme variations in light from the overexposed dome to the tree shadows - so had to take an HDR (high dynamic range) exposure.

And while I think that my polishing the mirrors
was enough to get me into the annual picnic, we actually got to go because my friend Lee works there now, and we got to tag along with him and his family to the potluck affair.  Lee's wife Michelle cooked fried chicken and baklava, and we offered to drive everyone in Min's Jeep.  It was a beautiful day and while warm down in the desert, it was nice and cool atop Mount Graham.  The "dining hall" where the astronomers relax and enjoy down time while observing was fortunately large enough for the 40 or so attendees.  Some of us spilled out onto the deck to enjoy the view, which is where I took these IR pictures.  At left is the view to the west towards the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) in the small dome partially behind the trees, and the Sub-Millimeter Telescope with the open doors at right.  While the fir-spruce forest here at nearly 11,000 feet elevation doesn't have the brilliant white of deciduous leaves, they still look light in tone against the dark sky in these IR shots.  At right the edge of the forest is seen, with the yellow rope defining the limit of human trespass - because of the scarcity of the red squirrel population, we are definitely prohibited from roaming through the woods!

After stuffing my plate (and myself), I went out in search of pictures, where I got the above and some in the telescope enclosure as well.  While I packed some ultra-wide lenses, there is some satisfaction in retaining the resolution of some large mosaics as well, so I shot some of those too.  The picture at left is a mosaic of 6 frames that was taken below one of the telescopes.  Because the mirror towers over me, there is some distortion, but many details of the scope can be discerned.  This one was taken early on and shows the tertiary mirror still deployed near the mirror center.  Shortly after this was taken, it was removed from the optical path.  The elevation bearing (hydrostatic - rides on a microscopic layer of oil) is the arc of steel at left, and the duct work at right vents air from the mirror and telescope out of the building.  The picture at right was taken a little later once the telescope was open.  It is a 3-frame mosaic taken from behind and near the same level as the same mirror shown above.  Here you can see the tertiary mirror is pulled out (below), and the blue prime focus camera is installed above.  The steep curve of the F/1.14 primary mirror can be seen - and they are deep!  It doesn't look it, but they are over 18" deep in the center!  In this shot also, you can see when the Gregorian secondary  and flat tertiary mirrors ARE installed, it can feed any one of a number of instruments that can be seen through the apertures at the right of the mirror.  Lee was telling me which instrument was which, but he came back later saying he had been confused, so now I'm really confused and won't claim I know which any of them are except the CCD prime camera that is top center!

Right about sunset the telescope operator rotated the dome 360 degrees and we were treated to a leisurely panorama of the entire horizon!  Some of the highlights was Heliograph Peak a few miles to the southeast, imaged at left.  Named for the heliograph station located on the peak in the 1880s, it used mirrors to flash signals using sunlight over great distances during the campaign against Geronimo's Apache tribe.  It now consists of an array of various transmitters.  You can see the effects of the big fire that in 2004 came within a kilometer (1/2 mile) of the LBT observatory.  You can also see a flash of yellow foliage from the aspen trees that have been established since the fire.  And while it wasn't being used for observing that night, over our heads in the growing darkness was the Gregorian secondary mirror, reflecting parts of the interior of the telescope structure. 

We finally got kicked out of the telescope enclosure, and while the girls warmed up a bit before the drive down the mountain road in the dark, I stepped out on the deck to take a few more twilight shots.  Visible far to the southwest on the far side of the Tucson valley was, of course, Kitt Peak and Baboquivari.  Kitt Peak is about 40 air miles SW of Tucson, LBT is about 80 miles NE, so Kitt Peak is close to 120 miles, but still line-of-sight from Mount Graham, though barely visible past the Catalina Mountains that are north of Tucson.  At left is a 3-frame mosaic with the 200mm zoom showing Baboquivari to the left, Mount Lemmon to the right.  Kitt Peak is the flat-topped mountain on the down slope of the Catalinas at right.  The picture at right shows a close-up of Kitt Peak, with the telescopes barely resolved a few minutes later deeper in twilight.

We survived the 3-hour drive back to Tucson just fine.  Michelle wasn't sure she wanted to go back to Graham anytime soon, but Min and I are ready any time - it is such a special place to spend an afternoon or evening.  Perhaps sometime I'll get to stay late at night!  Part 2 coming up, hopefully I'll figure out how to post my videos!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Cycle 3 And Some Good News!

Melinda's Season Of Cancer continues with her 3rd round of chemo starting this morning.  Today was the long day - blood tests, appointment with the oncologist and 4 hours of infusion of 2 chemo drugs.  Tomorrow and Tuesday will be shorter, just a 1 hour infusion of a single drug and some fluids.  Then it will be 3 weeks to recover and do it again...  Of course, every day is an adventure - discovering new symptoms and effects, but so far, cycles 1 and 2 have been remarkably similar...  Nausea for the first week with extreme tiredness, a week of slowly improving appetite, stamina and energy, and a week of feeling pretty normal.  Were hoping cycle 3 doesn't throw us anything new - we can tolerate what we've seen so far!

We are gratified by the response of family and friends.  I don't think there is a day that has gone by that Melinda hasn't gotten a couple cards or packages in the mail.  I'm thinking our mail person must be wondering what is going on with all the cards we've been getting!  No cards today, but a priceless piece of art - a painting by our 2.5-year-old great-niece Claire (with help from the folks, we suspect).  The picture at left shows today's gift, and the sharp-eyed among you might notice Min's bracelets, which she got in Saturday's mail - replicas of Wonder Woman's bracelets that repel enemy attack!  A reminder photo of Linda Carter is provided at right - other than the hair and tiara, a remarkable resemblance!  Yes, Melinda is a little more camera shy than normal, but isn't traumatized by lack of hair - she treats it more of an inconvenience (with Winter coming) and proof that she is kicking Cancer's butt!

Oh, yes, and my title mentioned something about good news...  Our oncologist orders PET scans after even-numbered chemo cycles, and a week ago she had a scan that we could compare to the one taken before the first chemo treatment to see its effect.  The doctor pulled us into the consult room to show the results on her computer screen that displayed two pictures - the earlier and later versions as we scanned slices through her body from head thru torso.  She pointed out the tumor between her lungs, slightly larger than a baseball that first alerted us to something unusual going on that was pressing on her airway.  The current image shows it reduced to the size of an olive - tiny compared to 6 weeks ago!  Other spots in her lung and pancreas have completely disappeared!  We suspected that with Melinda's improved breathing that things were improving, but now we have proof the chemo is working!  Our doctor is of the opinion that we're going to go the full 6 cycles to knock it down as much as we can.  There is no accepted protocol for "maintenance" once the chemo is finished, so after 6 cycles she'll be done, and she will go for checkups every 6 months after that...  So round about mid-December we'll be ready to properly celebrate, after an abbreviated "happy dance" today after our news!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Tucson Birthday Weekend!

We had family visitors last weekend... Not directly related to either me nor Melinda, but mother Betty and sister Susan to my first wife Vicki!  So that makes her a Mother-in-law to me, and Melinda has been quick to recognize her as family too.  And while we don't see them very often, we speak to them often, so we keep track of their lives.  We all met in Hawaii a year ago, but it has been over 5 years since they've been in Tucson.  And while they came to Tucson to help "take care" of Melinda between her chemo cycles, she was feeling fine, so had a busy long weekend of tourist activities and meeting friends of Vicki's that were all glad to see Betty and Susan too.

To make it even more special, Betty was celebrating her 88th birthday with us!  Betty is an inspiration to us all - not only was she mistaken at least a couple times for Susan's sister (!), but she still works every day at the PE department at the University of South Carolina!   Old pictures of her have been posted on this blog before, including the picture at right - Betty with Susan's 3 older sisters at the beach in South Carolina.  I figure that since Vicki is the toddler in the background, it was taken some 60 years ago, and Susan was still a gleam in Betty and Mackie's eyes!

We hit the road running during the 3 days they were here, with major trips to local mountain destinations - up to Mount Lemmon (where they had never been) for lunch at "Ski Valley" and shopping at Summerhaven.  The pictures here were taken at "Geology Vista" on the way back down the mountain road.  We celebrated her birthday at a local steak house, and celebrated it again the next night at a favorite Mexican restaurant.  We were going to do it a third time up on Kitt Peak at the astronomy club's "Star-B-Que", but I forgot the candles to put on the brownies that were my pot-luck contribution...  Everyone had a great time and we already talked about a trip to South Carolina when the State Museum's new observatory opens next Spring.  We can't wait to see them again!