Saturday, November 30, 2013

Another Cross-Country Trip...

You don't realize that I threw the initial part of the previous post on Comet Ison together after waking up too early for a flight to Chicago, and had a few minutes to post.  Yes, I'm back in Illinois, following Melinda who traveled here last week to help with her sister's estate details.  My travel ON Thanksgiving was planned so I could work a few hours this week...  We normally avoid the zoo of travel so near one of the major holidays, but the fares were inexpensive, and took the jump.  I'm sorta glad I did!  The plane, while not empty by any means, was also far from full, about 3/4 occupied, so I had an empty seat beside me, allowing a lot of casual viewing of the countryside rolling by, since I could move away from the window - normally the window is at elbow height and difficult to look thru if the center seat is taken.

Since the FAA allowed electronics on during all phases of the flight (except cell phones), for the first time I didn't feel guilty about sneaking photos during take off and landing.  They had always said that anything with a switch had to be turned off, including cameras, which always seemed silly to me...  Anyway, I shot with impunity this trip, spying a lot of landmarks we had flown over previous trips, so I shot with impunity and with the use of Google Maps, found all of the locations of the images!  At left is an HDR image of the plane at the gate with the sun emerging behind the jet way.  At right is the view from my seat - if I had been sitting any further back, I would have been in the trunk!  I had a nice view of the engine intake, but had a little angle of visibility in front of it before the wing occulted...  In this shot, taken as we took off, shows the older village of Summit, with distant copper mines in the eastern foothills of the Sierrita Mountains in the background.

After turning northeast after passing the town of Willcox, highly visible next to its dry lake bed (and missing what was likely a great view of the LBT telescope out the left side of the plane), I sort of got lost for a bit, but we passed some interesting landmarks, including snow-covered peaks, coming out in known territory again over Socorro in the Rio Grande Valley in west-central New Mexico.  Backtracking slightly, I located the snow-capped peak as South Baldy in the Magdalena Mountains - home of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, operated by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.  I had passed it several times before and saw a linear feature atop the peak and wondered what it was - a landing strip for alien craft?  No, it was an optical interferometer - a 10-telescope array working together for ultra-high resolution imaging.  It also has a 2.4 meter telescope visible in the left image for more conventional observing atop the 10,600 foot elevation peak.  A bit further along, still in the Magdalena Mountains, I captured an interesting effect, and had to show it off in stereo.  While the mountain had received snow in the recent storms, in the intervening 4 days, it had melted off the south-facing slopes, but remained on the northern slopes.  Shown at right is a cross-eyed stereo view - cross your eyes slightly to look at the left picture w.right eye, and vice-versa.  You should see a center image that reveals depth.  You can try it on the small images here, or click the image for the full-resolution view.  I took these pictures a few seconds apart from the moving plane to provide the baseline for the stereo image...

A bit further along, among an array of irrigated circular fields (circular because they are irrigated from a central well), One field looked strange because of its shape resembling Micky Mouse smoking a cigar!  Surely I wouldn't be able to identify a single anonymous field among thousands located through the west, right?  Well you would be wrong!  Looking at the numerous pics I took and their time stamp, I had happened to take a picture of a town at a major crossroads - I was thinking that it might be Dalhart, Texas, a town I drove through many times on the diagonal road Highway 54, the shortcut from Tucson to the Midwest.  Well, the town wasn't Dalhart, but smaller Stratford, Texas, taken a minute before the Micky field.  Looking through Google Maps, sure enough, I located the ranch just left of Mickey's cigar, then realized the Google picture had been taken just after the field had been plowed or planted, but is easily recognized in the bad screen shot at right.  It is a couple miles east and north of Stratford, and just on top of the left picture is the venerable Highway 54 that I've been on so many times and was paralleling our path on this section of the flight...

Just about the time we hit the Oklahoma/Kansas border, we had some cirrus clouds below us.  It was interesting to see the wisps of "mare's tails" below us rather than above, but it was at this moment that the Subsun appeared. I blogged about this our last trip, as I had never seen it before, and here it is again, this time accompanied by a Subsundog!  The smeared-out image of the sun at right is reflected off flat ice crystals partially aligned and forming a reflection as if off a body of water or other reflector.  The effect was only visible for less than a half minute this time, but there had been no appearance of the sundog image before...

It cleared again and we were lost somewhere over central Kansas.  No towns large enough to provide IDs, but there were a number of reservoirs, including this one.  Again, a little searching on Google Maps identified it as Marion Reservoir, North of Wichita and west of Emporia, Kansas.  A short time later we passed a large meandering river that had to be the Missouri, with a big airport that again, I had seen before.  I likely would have known at the time which city it was, but Kansas City was barely visible, nearly lost in the mist.  I should likely note what I've done to these pictures in Photoshop.  The images, particularly of the reservoir look pretty manipulated, but really aren't much.  The photos are adjusted in levels to stretch the images properly from black to white.  I sometimes increase the color saturation a little, then dial back the blue that tends to accumulate by atmospheric scattering, and that is it...

I think I fell asleep for a short time, because I seems to have missed the Mississippi crossing, but awoke in time to catch an almost breathtaking vista of a large river and backwater, seemingly ice-covered that had blotches on it...  Hard to tell from 30,000 feet, but it looks like there are patches where the snow was blown off in spots, or where ice was blown before the wind to make the effect.  I'm thinking they are patches of wind-cleared snow off the ice.  The spot is on Senachwine Lake off the Illinois river, north of Peoria and southeast of Davenport. Be sure to click on the image for the full-sized view - it really is cool!

Finally we neared our destination, and as usual, flew towards the lake and turned west towards O'Hare.  Fortunately, we banked hard with the downtown skyline right outside my window!  The view reaches from Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium at far right to Navy Pier on the left.  Unfortunately, the John Hancock building is out of the field to the left, but the Willis Tower is on the right.  Recently in the news for the competition of the country's tallest building, it was determined that the antenna installed in 2000 was not a permanent part of the building, so One World Trade Canter's spire, topping out at 1776 feet was the tallest structure, dropping Willis to second place...

So it was a great trip - I don't see why everyone isn't glued to the plane windows as we fly over the country!  We landed a few minutes early, but then had a LONG taxi to the gate.  Melinda picked me up and whisked me off to a great Thanksgiving feast at in-laws Maj and Jeff's house, the hard part of the trip over...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Comet ISON at the Sun

Of course, all amateur astronomers are wondering if comet ISON is going to survive it's Thanksgiving pass near the sun.  I've not seen it for about 10 days now as it moved into the morning glow of twilight, but the best views are now on-line from the solar-viewing spacecraft.  Right now, it is spectacular on the SOHO real time images, of which the latest (well, 2am local) is shown at left.  The sun is behind the circular mask in the center, and the thing with a tail is comet ISON.  Click this link to bring you to the latest set of images which might include a disintegrating comet, or something spectacular!  Interestingly, the bright star near the bottom is Antares in Scorpio, just to the right of it is the star cluster Messier 4.  Always weird to observe stars, comets and clusters few degrees from the sun - interesting days we're living in!

EDIT:  Well the comet went behind the sun, as expected, and just as everyone declared it had broken up and that it should Rest In Peace, burnt to a crisp while skimming the suns surface, SOMETHING did come out, seen here to the upper right, where the comet was expected to pass. This shot was taken overnight, about 1am Tucson time.  It is more diffuse than the comet that went in, so it might well be reduced to a rubble pile, but it still sports a tail, so is still a comet of some sort.  Note that the tail does not point nearly away from the sun, so is composed of very heavy dust particles, not light ionic particles that normally make up the tail very near the sun near these environs.  You might recall another recent comet, the current "Comet Of The Century" from a few years back -Comet C/2011 W3 Lovejoy.  It passed the sun under similar circumstances, and being larger than lil' ISON, survived to a great display in the southern hemisphere. I posted about that with a time-lapse movie taken from SOHO images, and is a great companion piece to consider next to this comet.  I'm working on a similar time lapse now, but for the moment, review the Lovejoy clip...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Checking Out a New Tracker...

One of the things that make astronomical imaging more difficult is that the Earth rotates, so anything more than a couple second exposure is either trailed or must be tracked to counteract the Earth's spin.  I've got a couple tracking mounts, a 30 year-old Byers Cam-Trak, and a year-old Vixen Polarie.  While both work well with normal-to-wide-angle lenses, use of a telephoto or small telescope usually requires setting up the Big-Boy mount, currently my Astro-Physics AP1200.  It would be nice to have something between the two to handle more payload, or even a couple cameras, say if we have a spectacular comet in the sky!

My friend George e-mailed a couple weeks ago that he wanted to sell his Astrotrac system, complete with pier, wedge, alignment scope - the works!  Unlike most precision mounts that use a worm gear, this device uses a tangent screw that tracks for 2 hours before needing to reset.  With a tangent screw, the drive rate needs to vary slightly as it extends, but with microprocessor control, it is easy to do.  Reading the website claims a payload of 30 pounds, compared to the 7 pounds of the Polarie - something worth a try! 

With the recent wet weather passed, clear and cold returned, and last night I went out for a couple hours to check out the mount.  Unfortunately, the sun sets so early there was no chance to avoiding setting up in the dark, and not wanting to travel too far on a "school night", I went down the Sonoita road near the Greaterville turnoff and set up at a roadside table.  The sky was great as I figured out how it worked in the dark.  The setup is shown at left as Orion rose in the east.  I mounted my 70-200 lens on the hastily machined mounting plate and tried my first exposure - shown at right.  It was trailed!  I was attempting to use it without looking at the manual, and had I done so, would have seen I needed to push the arrow button twice - the second to start tracking...

That startup glitch behind me, I started working on a 3-frame mosaic of  Andromeda-to-Triangulum, home of two of our nearest and brightest galaxies to be seen from the northern hemisphere.  Using the Canon XSi, I only took 2.5 minute exposures, and took 5 exposures per field, including in-camera noise reduction, so total investment was 75 minutes, and I was on my way home by 10:30.  Evidently I barely finished in time - the camera lens was just starting to dew over as I ended my exposure sequence.  As the temperature dropped, the lens dropped below the dew point, higher than normal because of the recent rain.  The mosaic was assembled with the Microsoft ICE program, and north in the image is approximately to the lower left direction. The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and its two companions are at far left, the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) at upper right center.  Beta Andromeda (Mirach) is the bright star at upper left center, and the three stars at lower right form the Triangulum constellation.  The star cluster at bottom center is NGC 752.  Not a bad image given 12.5 minute exposure total per frame with a 70mm lens (F/3.2).

So wide angle shots don't push the mounting system too hard, but given the short time I had available to test, at least I know more about how it works now!  Shown here are the pair of galaxies at the full camera resolution, M31 and companions at left, and M33 at right.  Of course, the above mosaic was reduced in size mightily to fit the blog's 1600 pixel limit.  Next time I'll spend more time at longer focal lengths - one or two short exposures at 200mm seemed to track pretty well...  I feel a little better-prepared in case ISON survives its trip around the sun!

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Rain in the desert is a rare thing.  We're supposed to get over half of our annual total (about 10" or 25cm per year) in the months of July and August, but this summer's totals were miserable in our part of town (just over an inch or so), while other parts had plentiful rain.  It was so bad I needed to water our cacti and trees to survive the hot months. 

But finally, this weekend came a confluence of effects that brought a slow-moving "cutoff low" through Arizona, and over the last 24 hours we got about 2" (5cm) of rain.  Interestingly, even though the top of Mount Lemmon got over 5 inches, a trip or two over the Rillito wash while running errand today showed a little stream, not even bank-to-bank, all of today's moisture soaking in instead of running off.  And while it is hard to photograph a rainstorm, I tried, catching drops running down the leaf of a Rhus Lancea (and catching a droplet of drizzle at center left) forming an inverted image of the trunk and fence in the yard, and some of the circular wavelets in the front yard "Lake".

Of all the pictures I took of the circular waves, only one showed any of the effects of falling drops in water that is sometimes seen in flash shots or short exposures.  You might spot them in the photo at left, but it helps to click and load the full-size image to see the column of water in the center of the lower-left wavelet, and many others in this shot show suspended drops as the column drops away.  I'm not sure why this is the only frame that shows any of the effects...

I ran a few errands around town, enjoying
driving through the gentle rain.  Also today was the 31st El Tour de Tucson, and a UA football game.  It was the first time in the el Tour history that steady rains fell!  While I was out and about I happened to catch a small section of a rainbow arc at one of my stops.  Interestingly it is seen over Mr K's Barbecue, which closed down a couple months back...

While stopped at the moment, the precipitation might not be over.  The original forecast had rain into Sunday, with the snow level dropping to the point where we'd see snow in the nearby mountains.  After months and months of no rain, I don't think anyone minds a few days of it...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Good News and Bad...

Melinda's cycle 5 of chemo is in the books!  She continues to tolerate it well, and is doing great this week.  On Monday we saw the oncologist's PA and heard the results of her PET scan from last week.  The cancer is responding well to the drugs and all tumors continue to shrink at a pretty good clip.  In the original consultation with the oncologist in August the plan was for 6 cycles (3 consecutive days at 3 week intervals), and they will be completed by mid-December.  We'll be consulting then for her opinion on the best course of action.  She has never led us wrong and will look for her for guidance.

But a few minutes after completion of cycle 5, a reminder came in how fragile and precious our lives and connections are.  We got the news that Melinda's older sister Susan had died overnight from an apparent heart attack.  Susan had been diagnosed with lung cancer within a week of Melinda's, though a different type (non-small cell).  She also had been responding well to treatments, but recently had difficulty with back and joint pain.  Middle sister Maj and Melinda are of course, very distraught, and are in the middle of a thousand arrangements, since Maj has been her primary support during her treatments.  From happier times, the picture at left shows the sisters at our wedding five and a half years ago, Susan in sunglasses at right, Melinda in the middle.

While Susan circled in and out of our orbits back and forth through our Midwest trips, sometimes not seeing her for seasons at a time, we were always in close touch.  The loss of a sister is always a jolt, and the hole in our lives and hearts will take time to fill.  But the one thing we know is that we expressed our love for each other at the conclusion of every phone conversation - nothing was ever left unsaid just in case something bad were to happen.  Make sure the ones you love know it!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Faces of ASAE 2013!

This last weekend was the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo (ASAE) for 2013.  This was the second ever, and it was a spectacular event - a total immersion into all things astronomy, great speakers, interesting panel discussions, a very nice collection of vendors, and enough draw to attract friends and astronomy acquaintances far and wide!  If you were only mildly interested in astronomy or space, you had no excuse missing this event!

Last year I only had one day at my disposal to attend, and I bypassed the great speakers to spend my hours in the vendor area, which isn't a bad thing.  So this year I was determined to go to most, if not all of the talks.  I committed to going for both days, which left me time to hit vendors too.  At only $10 admission, it isn't like it is expensive to spend time there!  In my first trip through the vendor area, I ran into Steve Peterson, shown at left.  Steve is an astro-photographer extraordinaire, and besides working with me in a past life at Kitt Peak, he is now working on the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.  He's also fond of a bargain, so is always found reviewing the vendor displays at events like this.  At right is Clay Kessler - another astro-imager from the olden days, now having fun working for a new startup telescope parts company called Telescope Support Systems.  While I see him only occasionally (he is from Michigan), each time is like catching up with an old friend - a great guy!

Speaking of vendors, at left here is Dean Koenig, a super-vendor here in Tucson!  Shown giving his typical one-on-one service to a customer, he is showing off how his innovative Hyperstar corrector system works on a telescope.  Among one of the most popular accessories for photographers using the Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes, it allows using a camera at the "prime focus" of the primary mirror, which usually at F/2 or so means wide fields of view and short exposures to record very faint objects.  And there were celebrities too!  Well, at least celebrities that nerds know...  He is shown at right surrounded by swooning females - do you know him???  He is non other than Story Musgrave - 6 time shuttle astronaut, one of the few to have flown in all 5 of the space shuttles!  Of course, the females are well-known too - at left is science writer Camille Wheeler, and right is my better half Melinda...

The vendor area was great - many of them had well-known innovators and inventors on hand to describe their products.  For instance, Roland Christen from Astro-Physics was there showing off their mounts and telescopes with a couple other engineers to answer questions.  I recently obtained one of their mounts and they were able to answer my autoguider questions and offer some advice.  I also met the fellow who developed the Astrotrac camera tracking mount, and as a Canon user, sat at their table for 20 minutes looking at their equipment and asking questions.  Shown at left is a table full of their premium cinematography lenses - absolutely the best resolution and aperture for their approximate $5k cost each.   At right is an array of eyepieces - many of them available to try on telescopes for viewing across the convention center...

The vendor areas also had displays for the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA), as well as tables for Kitt Peak National Observatory's observing programs that cater to amateur astronomers, and Adam Block was there representing the Mount Lemmon Sky Center, which offers a similar program operated through the University of Arizona.  Shown at left is George Hatfield whom I've worked with (and observed with) on Kitt Peak, while he was on duty representing Kitt Peak.  There was also an exhibit of space and astronomy-themed artwork, where I saw Michele Rouch.  I had met her a few years ago when Kitt Peak had an artist residency program.  Besides some of her aviation-themed artwork - she showed a more whimsical side in her retro-50's-styled fashion art.  it was way cool!

The talks, forums and speakers were also
uniformly spectacular!  Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of comets and with the approach of Comet ISON this Winter, a comet panel was thrown together with some local comet celebrities.  What, you didn't know we had comet celebrities in Tucson?  Well shame on you, we've got some great observers, discoverers and scientific experts here.  The panel is shown here - at left is David Eicher, editor of Astronomy Magazine and writer of a new book titled "Comets!", next to him is Steven Larson, long time observer and scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the panel was moderated by Carl Hergenrother, at right in the photo.  The photo at right shows Jim Scotti at left, another well-known observer with the Spacewatch Program, and, of course, David Levy, well known observer, discoverer and writer.  After discussing recent "great" comets and what made them great, thoughts turned to ISON.  With the very recent brightening of the comet to naked-eye brightness, the panel's prediction was that it would either hold to prediction and be a spectacular sight in the morning sky in early December, or it will disintegrate and disappear in a puff of dust and ice as it skims the sun's surface...  Of course, that is quite a range in suggested appearance, but about all you can predict about comets.

There was also a more general science panel
assembled on Saturday, among them one of my favorite bloggers Emily Lakdawalla shown at center in the left photo.  She blogs for the Planetary Society, specializing in images from planetary probes.  She gave a great talk on "the Golden Age of Planetary Exploration" on Sunday, which is right now with all the active probes returning data from all corners of the solar system.  To her right in the image is Story Musgrave, who in the panel stood in for Phil Plait, who couldn't attend because of illness, and to Emily's left is biologist Carin Bondar, producer of a well-known webcast "Wild Sex" of the animal world!  And speaking of Story Musgrave, he gave a spellbinding account of his life that lasted nearly 2 hours with no one leaving without hearing every word.  He has lead an amazing life, with nearly 4 or 5 different careers, starting as a farm boy and highlighting as shuttle astronaut.  With surgeon, computer engineer and careers in the Marines and Air Force thrown in!

In all it was a great weekend, and a good chance to catch up and spend time with friends from far-away places too.  I'm assuming that this November tradition will continue and I encourage you to join in next time!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lunar Pareidolia Test

Everyone has heard of the "Man in the Moon", but have you ever looked for it?  The full moon is coming up on Sunday, so as a preview, lets talk about what you might see.  Pareidolia is a phenomenon of a vague or diffuse stimulus being detected as something more concrete - say detecting familiar shapes in clouds or shapes on the moon, outlined by the dark maria and lighter highlands.  I've never been able to see a man's face in the moon's features, but have 3 distinct figures I can perceive. 

Shown here is an image of the moon taken during May, 2012 "Supermoon" when its orbit brought it closest to the earth that year.  It was taken with a 5" Celestron with my Canon XSi camera.  There is nothing remarkable other than it was a little larger than normal, and I use it here to demonstrate the shapes you might detect.  North is upwards in this image.  Just about the strongest shape I've always seen is of a rabbit, that is visible from the crescent shape onwards to full moon in the upper right hand of the moon.  I use my primitive tracing skills to form the outline at right...

The next shape I regularly make out as the phase
nears full is a profile of  Lucy van Pelt - yes, the little girl from the Peanuts comic strip!  Just as a reminder, at left she is shown in profile and at right, the same picture from above using Photoshop to outline the face.  I think it is a dead ringer of her - few, if anyone wears their hair in such a similar hairstyle.  And what is remarkable with this view is the bright rayed crater Tycho near the bottom serves as a diamond necklace!

The last one for this session is another "old timey" shape, which to me looks like a woman reading a book!  It is best seen if the moon is rotated CCW so the figure is more upright, but is shown at left.  She appears to be wearing an old-fashioned floor-length dress and sports a long ponytail as she reads.

Perhaps I only see females in the moon 'cause I'm male.  Of course the song "Heavenly" by Harry Connick Jr. says "The Man in the Moon is smiling 'cause he's in love with the girl in the world." 

I'm sure there are shapes that I've not outlined, but those are the ones I see.  From the first link above, there are toads, dragons, and a full-sized rabbit that reaches across the moon that I don't detect, even with a shaded guide.  What were these people thinking???  If I've missed any of your favorites, please feel free to let me know!

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Well, I took my own advice from our last post.  Last night was the last night of the first engineering run of ARGOS, the Advanced Rayleigh guided Ground layer adaptive Optics System. It will allow making artificial guide stars to partially correct atmospheric turbulence.  Since it won't be in use again until next Spring, Melinda and I took off for the Willcox area - where the observatory is readily visible and closer than the view we got from Mount Lemmon Wednesday...

But also more visible, the moon had grown 2
days brighter and partially affected the visibility.  While we were about half the distance (about 20 miles due south) to the Large Binocular Telescope, the brighter sky partially hid the beam, though I was convinced that I could barely see it naked eye.  It was, of course, evident in binoculars from the fallow field where we set up...  These wide-field images, while apparently illuminated as bright as day in the long exposures, approximates the view of the laser - I could follow it in binoculars nearly up to Polaris as shown here.  The bright sodium lights at left is the prison Fort Grant, a mere 6 miles (and a mile below) the Observatory.  The picture at right shows the 2 lenses I had set up - a 70-200 zoom at left shooting 60 second exposures, and the William Optics 11cm APO refractor at right taking 2 minute exposures.  Clicking on either will load the full-size images and the laser will be visible...  Both of these pictures were taken with the Canon 10-22 zoom, the one at left near 20mm, the one at right near 10mm...

Both setups took nice images of the
mountaintop.  The wider 200mm showed a wider field of the mountaintop and caught several cars going up and down the mountain, though not in this particular frame at left.  It is a 60 second exposure at F/3.5, and shows the LBT structure and the twin beam, one for each of the primary mirrors of LBT.  The shot at left is from the 11cm F/7, so 770mm of effective focal length and is a 2 minute exposure.  It shows not only the LBT structure and laser scattering from the interior of the building, but to the left of it is the moon reflecting off the dome of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), a 1.8 meter (72") telescope also built at the Mirror Lab.  Dimly visible between them (if you look at the full image) is the Sub-Millimeter radio Telescope (SMT).  Each beam actually consists of 3 beams that map out  the turbulence over a wider field of view, but they can't be resolved from 20 miles.  For more close-up pics, info and links, visit the LBT news blog.

It is fun seeing the developments in this product of the Mirror Lab and the first two 8.4 meter mirrors that I had a hand in polishing.  It would be great being on site during the next round of testing - will have to ask some favors and see if I can be up there next Spring!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Death Ray? No, Artificial Stars!

We had a great speaker at our Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) meeting last Friday on the adaptive optics system of the Large Binocular Telescope. Guido Brusa filled us in on the technical details and results using the flexible, actuated 80cm diameter secondary mirror to allow resolution measured in the tens of milli-arcseconds. He mentioned in passing that the ARGOS artificial star system was being tested currently on the telescope, and sure enough, on Wednesday came the announcement on the LBT blog of the successful test.

ARGOS stands for the Advanced Rayleigh guided Ground layer adaptive Optics System.  It is a method of correcting the distortions caused by turbulence in the atmosphere.  If the star images can be made smaller by using these methods, you make them much brighter, allowing to see much fainter as well as finer structure in the image.  A good introduction to this system is given on the ARGOS page of the Max Planck Institute.

After seeing the above announcement on the LBT blog, I was wondering if the projected beams might be visible from the Tucson area, so last night Melinda and I went up to Mount Lemmon to San Pedro Vista where the LBT can be spotted at a distance just over 40 miles away.  Sure enough, though not visible to the naked eye, in binoculars the beam could be seen against the sky! Over the course of 2 hours it varied in visibility, sometimes only barely visible in binoculars, but could be easily revealed in a few second exposure. Shown here is a 2 minute exposure with the 70-200 lens set to 70mm later in the evening.  This approximates the view of the beam in binocs, and shows the bright Jupiter breaking the horizon just left of the LBT.  From this vantage point LBT appears between the faint skyglow from the town of Safford, and a significant glow from Ft Grant, a prison and former army outpost just south of the PinaleƱo Mountains.  At right is a single 2 minute exposure with the lens set to 200mm.  What looks like a single laser beam is, in fact, a set of 6 aligned beams from a Nd:YAG laser (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet) of 14-18 watts each...

While the blustery wind was evident on our drive up the mountain, the little saddle we were in was dead calm, though the wind was howling up in the treetops - weird!  I wanted to set up a small telescope too, trying to catch more details of the telescope/laser.  I have a small 80mm F/6 Meade APO refractor that works well for applications like this, so set it up on a substantial tripod.  Another single 2 minute exposure is shown at left, along with the headlights of a car coming down the switchbacks of the one-lane dirt road on the last section of the Observatory road.  Note the wiggles in the star trails due to turbulence at the low elevation, or the breeze wiggling the telescope - again, don't forget the LBT is over 40 miles away!  In an attempt to reduce the speckles of this exposure, I tried stacking 3 exposures to smooth the electronic noise from the ISO 1600 used.  At right is this exposure, but note that with the telescope tracking the sky, the laser moved between exposures!  I was using in-camera noise reduction, so for every 2 minute exposure, it took a 2 minute dark, so in those 2 minutes it wasn't exposing, the laser moved to a slightly new position.

Unfortunately, after Friday night, ARGOS won't be on the telescope again until next Spring...  I may need to make a trip to get another view of the Observatory from a closer vantage point tomorrow night!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

An Evening of Stars and Rain!

My buddy Pat wanted to see my Celestron 14" plus Hyperstar in action, plus check out a new site near Benson, so we went out last night for a few hours.  Shown at left, the Hyperstar is produced and marketed by Starizona, a local astronomy shop, and allows a Schmidt-Cass telescope like my 14" diameter scope to be used at "prime focus".  The advantage of the design is the short focal length, leading to wide fields and short exposures.  It effectively transforms the scope to a 660mm focal length, F/1.9 telephoto lens!

We had planned to go out last weekend, but as most any amateur astronomer will tell you, it is most always cloudy on the dark-of-the-moon weekend (or if someone bought a new telescope) and that was true last weekend.  This weekend, the forecast was also for clouds, but some predicted a few hours of clear skies early, so we took a chance and hit the road!

We arrived before sunset (always a good thing to NOT be setting up in the dark!), and the scope went up quickly on my more-substantial AP 1200 mount rather than the one shown above.  After allowing the scope to vent its interior for a bit to cool down, I installed the Hyperstar triplet corrector lens, focused on Venus and I was ready to take some twilight flats to help calibrate the frames I'd take when it got dark.  After sighting the mount on Polaris align it to the Earth's rotation axis, it was ready to use.  Since it had been months since I'd used the setup myself, I went to the brightest fuzzy thing in the sky to make setup easy - the Andromeda Galaxy!  Even though I just shot this a couple weeks ago, it was good practice, and a good comparison to the longer exposures needed with the slower 11cm refractor I used for that shot.  Shown here is a stack of 5 exposures of 90 seconds each - yes, 450 seconds total exposure!  Besides the main galaxy Messier 33, composed of perhaps 200 Billion stars are two of its companions, the smaller M33 upper left and M110 lower right.  Of course, the bulk of the individual stars you can see in the picture are in our own galaxy...

As the forecasts had predicted, clouds formed in the SW and slowly moved towards us, so we hustled to get in a couple more galaxy shots (Pat has a thing about capturing distant galaxies!).  From his back yard in Tucson he had often searched for Messier 33, another nearby galaxy to the Milky Way, and not too far in the sky from the above M31.  But alas, he had never spotted it from home and was amazed at it's appearance in binoculars and in his 10" scope.  Shown here is a single (!) 90 second exposure with the Hyperstar.  So it has some noise, but you get the idea of its spiral structure, and some of the brighter stars and clusters in the 2.5 million light years distant galaxy can be spotted.

Just as the clouds reached the zenith, I started a series of exposures on NGC 891, an edge-on galaxy located not far from the above objects, though this one is much further away at 30 million light years.  Clouds allowed 4 exposures of 4 minutes total exposure before closing out the sky.  But even so, the fast optics allowed a reasonable exposure.  This has a very low surface brightness, and views through a telescope are often disappointing, but takes careful scrutiny to spot the spindle shape and even the dark lane in an 8 or 10 inch telescope.  Note that down on the right border of our blog is a photo taken of it with my longer-focus 11" Newtonian telescope many years ago that perhaps shows more detail...

We got socked in right afterwards and about the time we packed up and drove back to Tucson, it actually started raining!  Rain was NOT in the forecast, but given the sparse summer rainy season we had it is great to see coming down.  By the time I got home (about 10pm!) it was coming down at a good clip, and the Weather Service claims we got about the highest totals in town, nearly .1"!  Not much by most standards, but given the fact we caught the above photons AND got to enjoy some rain showers, it was a nice night!