Friday, March 28, 2014

End of an Era!

Today was Melinda's last treatment!  She made it through the two weeks of daily whole-brain radiation with flying colors.  No serious symptoms to speak of, minor headaches, and some dizziness - enough that they gave her a liter of fluids after yesterday's treatment.  They offered a steroid to lessen some of the effects of brain inflammation, which she started last night, and she thinks it is a little better today.  As a prize for making it through the latest round, they presented her with her "head cage" and a carnation...  The cage is what holds her head absolutely still during the 5 minute treatment, and was form fitted to her when she first started.  She demonstrated its use at right against the wall.  The mesh helps with claustrophobia since you can see and breath through it, but still, being bolted down to the table has got to feel strange...  Evidently the radiation stimulated her olfactory nerves, and told the techs that she could smell ozone or an electrical smell.  They told her that it was normal and some also see blue light from the optic nerve being similarly stimulated (which she didn't see).

At left, our cat Annie comes to investigate the cage.  Since I'm such a fan of moirĂ© fringes, the shot shows the start of fringes formed by the mesh holes lining up, or blocking each other... 

So our adventure from the last 7 months is ending! No more treatments on the horizon!  She's got more doctor appointments weeks and months away, along with PET scan and MRI monitoring on a quarterly basis or so.  But otherwise she is declared cancer free!  It is interesting to be suddenly over the treatments after weeks of waiting for the end to come.  We've sort of forgotten what "normal" is like, but hope to find out in the weeks to come.  For those of you who have showered your prayers and good wishes upon us, thank you so much for your support!  For those of you in Tucson that would like to tip a celebratory beer with us, we'll be at Barrio Brewery about 5:30 tomorrow (Saturday)!  Happy Times!

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Scouting Adventure!

One of the engineers at work, and fellow photographic adventurer Steve West is fond of telling me that "Luck rewards the well-prepared".  I guess that is true as experience goes a long way towards a successful conclusion.  This last weekend, the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) had another ARGOS run, which uses a laser to help correct the atmospheric distortion of the telescope image.  I had some fortune in imaging the laser beams from a distance the last observing run in November, and wanted to improve on it.  I consulted with another staff photographer and the implication was that we weren't welcome at the Observatory this run, so decided to check out Heliograph Peak (HP) - shown at left here when I last visited the LBT last October.  If we had a good view of HP from LBT, conversely there should be a good view of LBT from there!  Time for a scouting reconnaissance run...

Fortunately the 2 day run fell on a weekend, but clouds early on Saturday delayed my plans - we decided to take in a movie instead of the road trip, even though it cleared late...  Oh well, that left Sunday.  Even though thick clouds were moving in, I decided to hit the road to scout out the situation.  Actually, there had been some homework to do first.  I checked with the Forest Service about access to Heliograph Peak earlier in the week.  No permits were needed, but unfortunately, there was a locked gate where the access road met the main road - motorized access for the antennas and fire lookout only.  I also wanted to run a couple cameras and a small telescope from a single tripod to save weight, so tried and found that one of my adaptors would hold both the little Meade 80mm APO plus hold the 70-200 zoom with my wife's camera.  The setup is shown at right.  So I figured the tripod, pair of cameras and optics would be packable.  Good to go!

It is a good 3 hour drive to get to the top of Mount Graham.  While it had been weeks since we last had rain, I was a little surprised to see snow on the upper elevations of the mountain, given the warm temperatures we've had lately.  I got to the locked gate about 45 minutes before sunset, loaded the lil' scope and zoom in a backpack with a water bottle and snacks, made a sling from some webbing for the tripod and had 2 cameras in a lightweight case.  Hitting the trail, I was immediately hit with the quadruple whammy - first, I'm not in that great of shape, second, the hike started at over 9,000 foot elevation and the mile-long hike included over 600 feet of elevation gain, third, the hike was over mud and slushy ice and snow, and fourth, I was humping about 30 pounds of gear.  Let me tell you - that hour-long hike to cover that mile was the closest thing to real work I've done in recent years!  My heart rate climbed faster than the elevation, and even stopping frequently, like every 40 yards, it was hard to get the heart rate to drop or catch my breath. 

By the time I got to the switchback that provided the view I was after, I was soaked in sweat and just about exhausted.  And it was so dark that there was barely enough light to use live-view for focusing the 2 cameras - but it has potential to be a great vantage point!  The view to the left is the wide-field view with the zoom set to 200mm.  Besides the Large Binocular Telescope, the Sub-Millimeter Telescope (radio telescope), and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope are labeled.  While it looks pretty light yet, it is a 16 second exposure!  At left is the view with the 80mm F/6 (480mm equivalent).  I'm thinking if it was possible to drive to the site, it is just about perfect as there are very few places where there are good vantage points of the Observatory on the Mountain because of the forestation.  For about the first time since leaving the main road, there was also good cell reception, so was able to check in with Melinda, and also with fellow photographer Ray who was shooting the ARGOS from San Pedro Vista on Mount Lemmon.

I had planned to stay a while in case it cleared, and while there were some stars visible, there seemed to be some low clouds hanging over the Mountain.  But I had also started shivering, and knew I needed to get back down, as the temperature was dropping below freezing and my sweaty clothes weren't helping me much.  I repacked and headed down by flashlight - fortunately going down was much easier, though the mud and slush was starting to freeze.  There were a couple slippery spots, but was mostly good going.  Reaching one of the western switchbacks, I got a text from Ray, who had heard from LBT that they were going to shoot the laser shortly.  By then it had nearly totally cleared (of course, since I was headed down), but my decision was made and it had been a good choice.  Rounding a corner to head towards the NW towards the LBT, bam - there was the ARGOS beam!  While from my previous observations from tens of miles away the beam was at best barely visible, from here at only 4 miles distant there was no mistaking this beacon.  I stopped, too tired to even set up the tripod, but mounted the fisheye lens (the only lens I had packed besides the zoom and little scope), leaned it on a rock and exposed for 30 seconds.  It looked very much like the picture - the brightened areas are evidently where there were a thin layer of clouds to better scatter the light.

Even stopping to take a few exposures, the hike down was faster than the trip up.  I waited to get back to the van to munch on my snack and ran the heater on the drive down.  It was an uneventful trip back to Tucson, arriving about 12:30.  But even with the death march, it had been a good evening, and I learned a lot about the area.  I need to see how many hoops I need to jump through to get access past the gate next time!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Know Your Tucson Landmarks - Window Rock!

There are a lot of interesting landmarks in the Tucson area, some harder to find than others.  The one that comes to mind is Window Rock.  Not only is it directly visible from much of Tucson, the Spanish word for window (Ventana) is a very popular name for streets, neighborhood and Canyon on Tucson's east side below it.  But while visible, few know about it, even those who've lived here for a long time, so here is your insider's guide to locate it!

The Santa Catalina Mountains form the northern limit to Tucson's northern edge.  The front range contains many trails for recreational hiking, and provide easy access to native desert in just a few minutes of hiking.  The trail to Window Rock climbs about 4500 feet elevation and is over 12 miles round trip.  Much easier to spot it visually or in binoculars!  The picture shown here at left was taken a couple miles from our house this morning, at the intersection of Campbell and Water, just north of Grant.  From the Chase Bank parking lot on the SW corner, the highest peaks of the front range are shown.  Not visible in the thumbnail shown, click on it to load the full-size image.  The Window is towards the right side near the top of the mountain profile - a large clear natural hole through the cliff allowing the sky to come through.  I've never done the hike, though Googling "Window Rock Tucson" brings up many hike descriptions and close-up pictures of it.  If you don't pick it out of the profile picture at left, the right image is labeled so that you can more easily pick it out.  These pictures are a 3-frame panorama with my 70-200mm zoom set to 115mm, and also are HDR images to get details of the storefronts in shadows as well as in the sun lit mountains.

Of course, the images above also readily show another landmark, Finger Rock.  Anyone driving north on Swan Road sees it straight ahead up on the Catalina's profile, and it is quite spectacular.  I've blogged about it before (enter "Finger Rock" in the search box at upper left), and this morning's close-up of it is shown here.  The most spectacular views of it are from the Finger Rock trail which starts at the end of Alvernon Road from Skyline Drive.  As you ascend the trail, you get closer as well as climb in elevation.  I've read that you can bushwhack to Finger Rock itself, but the trail itself climbs to Kimball Peak to the right of Finger Rock, ending at over 7,000 feet elevation.

The Window is easily visible over a wide swath of Tucson, from down near the airport up past the University area.  It is easiest to see in the morning when the rock face is in shadows and the light of the sky comes through.  It is much more difficult to see in the afternoon once the rock face is illuminated by the sun.  It can also become visible on heavily overcast days when direct sunlight is blocked.  Of course, with optical aid, even binoculars make observations easy.  When I was a patient at UMC, it was always readily visible from north-facing rooms, and Melinda often spots it around sunrise from her work there when she is in the appropriate-facing rooms.  This image was taken this morning (about 0830) with the William Optics 11cm diameter F/7 APO (770mm focal length).

This pair of images were taken late yesterday just before sunset.  You can see that with the afternoon sun shining on the west-facing cliff face, the brightness difference makes the window a little harder to see, though, of course, with optical aid, the color difference now takes over.  As you continue north from the University, driving towards the Mountains up Campbell, eventually the front range blocks the view.  The left image is taken as above on Campbell near Grant, and the left one a mile further north near Ft Lowell.  Another couple hundred yards to the north and it disappears below the top of the hill to the Window's left.  We can't see it from our house as it is below that same hill.

So there you have it!  Next time you have a good view to the north of Tucson, and you are south of Ft Lowell and somewhere between I'10 and Swan, scan the north edge of the Santa Catalinas and see if you can spot it.  Earlier in the morning is better, but give it a shot!

Friday, March 21, 2014

The "R" Word!

We've travelled a hard path for the last 7 months.  Melinda's initial diagnosis of small-cell lung cancer was a shock, but we jumped into the battle without hesitation.  We've done everything Dr. Garland has wanted us to do, and she has an aggressive outlook on treatments.  We know there is no cure for small-cell, but today we finally heard the word, brought on by yesterday's PET scan, the definitive measure of her cancer.  When Sandy, Dr. Garland's nurse first called this morning, Melinda thought there must be bad news, until she said the radiologist report said "continued complete metabolic response to treatment", in other words, there was no detectable cancer activity!  When Melinda first dared ask if her cancer was in remission, Sandy confirmed that was the case!  HAPPY DAY!  She still has a week of the full-brain radiation to zap the microscopic cells that may or may not be in her brain, but when we see Dr. Garland on Monday, we're expecting confirmation of Sandy's news leak, more details and likely get to see some images too.  At that time she'll go over the schedule for continued long-term monitoring for a possible return.  While we've hoped for good news, it looks that it has finally arrived, and it is time to celebrate. 

Addendum: For those interested in the tech speak, from the radiology report:
Complete response to therapy. The primary right pulmonary hilar mass and paratracheal lymphadenopathy are no longer identified. No new FDG avid disease is identified.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Today's Box at the Door!

The ingenuity of our friends knows no bounds!  Melinda has continued to get cards and notes to keep her spirits up as her radiation treatments resume again today for the home stretch.  This weekend we got an "Edible Arrangement" of fruits, she has a prayer shawl waiting for her to swing by work and today, another box waiting for us at the door as we returned from the hospital.  Most, or at least some of you likely know the radiation warning symbol at right.  Well what way to poke fun at the process than little cookies of radiation symbols!?  They were sent by Gretchen, who lived up the street when the Johnsons were still living in the 'burbs of St Louis.  As Homer Simpson would say, "Hmmmmm, radiation cookies!"

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The View From Here!

The struggle is nearing an end!  When we started all this cancer stuff back last August, we knew we had a fight on our hands.  Melinda made it through 6 cycles (3 consecutive days every 3 weeks) of chemo, ending in mid-December.  Then she started 2-a-day radiation to her chest for 36 treatments (!) in January plus another chemo round to make those cancer cells more susceptible to radiation.  Some of the side effects (esophageal burns, low blood counts) threw her into the hospital for a couple stays, but she has come through this step 2 as strong than ever.  All that remains are 10 more once-daily treatments of full-brain radiation in case any cancer cells made it into her brain. That starts 17 March after a week off, so by the end of the month, we're hoping to be all through the treatments the oncology experts deemed to throw at her!

So while we're not sure what side effects will pop up the next few weeks, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, not unlike this view of the Catalina Mountains past the entrance to the Diamond Children's addition.  We've been walking past this view on the plaza between the main hospital and the Cancer Center for all her radiation treatments to get to the lonely elevator that brings us down to Radiation Oncology...  And finally when the sun popped out to brighten our sky Friday, it seemed to indicate the end was in sight.  She has heard from some of the other patients that brain radiation is nothing to worry about, so perhaps the worst is behind us!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Eye in the Sky!

I've certainly extolled the virtues of Heavens-Above - the website that predicts the location of virtually every satellite that is circling the Earth.  While the bright visual ones are easy to spot, if you have a particular little satellite you want to follow telescopically, you can find positions of those too.  And besides objects that circle the earth, you can also plot out sky maps for any time and date, as well as make finder charts for comets and asteroids and find out information about other solar system objects.  It is a great resource!  Just enter your location by city name or from Google Maps, make sure you enter your time zone correctly, and you should be ready to go.

Thanks to the heads-up provided by a TAAA member earlier today, I saw that the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) would be making a favorable pass over Tucson tonight shortly after 1900 (7pm).  Heavens-above provided a map where it would appear in the sky.  You can also print out a ground track, the positions on the globe that it passes over.  Interestingly, the HST's orbit is inclined 28 degrees to the equator, the same latitude of Cape Canaveral, Florida where it was launched.  It takes a lot of extra work to launch a satellite into an inclination different from your launch point's location.  As a result, it NEVER passes directly over Tucson, which has a latitude of 32 degrees.  The best you can do is a situation like tonight where it gets about 51 degrees high to the south - as reflected in the ground track, it passes us well to the south, but thanks to its relatively high orbit (550km, about 330 miles), it is still easily seen.  The circle on the ground track at right indicates where it would be visible.  I just checked, and if we had been observing from our home in Illinois, HST would only have been about 12 degrees over the southern horizon - a big difference in appearance!

Of course, to see it, it needs to be mostly dark at the observing location, but the HST needs to be still lit up by the sun and that was the circumstance tonight.  Looking at the sky plot at left, you can see where the track stops at the left side below the constellation Leo - that is where it enters the Earth's shadow.

I decided to try photographing it from the back yard with a tracking mount so at least the stars wouldn't be trailed.  Since the Hubble would be passing through Orion, not far from Rigel and the Orion Nebula, it was a natural to try getting those in the images too.  Of course, it always takes longer to set up gear than you think it does, and just about the time I finished focusing the lens I happened to look up and it was right there about to enter the field!  I quickly snapped the picture, but it was only set to 15 seconds - shown here at left is the cropped part of the image that shows the trail of HST with Rigel at lower right and the Orion Nebula at left center.  The focal length of the zoom lens was set to 85mm, and F/3.5.  Unfortunately there were some think clouds in the field, but that is nothing new - we've had at least thin clouds for seemingly months!

So spotting the Hubble was a great success!  It won't be many years that the Hubble will have another failing reaction wheel or something that will knock it out of commission.  While there have been several servicing missions over the decades, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the opportunity to repair or upgrade HST is over.  The 6.5 meter James Webb Space Telescope is not a direct replacement and is still years from launch, so it will be sad to see Hubble end, though it will likely continue to circle the Earth in its orbit for a long time.  In the meantime, hopefully some day it will clear again here in Arizona, without the moon, and with my schedule allowing me to get out to a dark site.  Until then, these little back yard excursions will have to do!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

How We Spent Our Week...

We're just poking our head up after nearly another week holed up at the University of Arizona Medical Center (UAMC).  While Melinda's throat is improving to the point where she can eat solid food again, this last weekend she developed bad ear/head aches, and while waiting for a fluid infusion to improve her hydration last Monday, developed a fever and the Cancer Center decided to admit her.  Six days later she was released today - with no obvious cause for her head/ear pain, which she still has and which is little affected by the pain meds she is taking.  The fevers she was having have subsided, the ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctors at UAMC indicate no signs of ear or sinus infection, so she'll ride it out at home for now.  The good news, if any, is that they started up her 2-a-day chest radiation treatments this last Wednesday, so we're checking those off her calendar again, and she's down to the last week's worth this upcoming week, assuming no problems.  After another week off for recovery, they then plan 10 treatments (2 weeks) of whole-brain radiation so she'll be finished by the end of the month if there are no more setbacks.

After splitting my time between home chores, time with Melinda, and a couple hours at work every day, it feels good to be home again, looking at a normal schedule.  The big news in Tucson this weekend is the arrival of a honest-to-goodness storm for the first time in over 2 months.  The last measurable rain was on 20 December, and usually Winters are a secondary rainy season here.  But the normal weather patterns that brings that rain has brought California and us unseasonably warm temperatures and drought, and the eastern half of the country the "Polar Vortex" and the snowiest, coldest weather in decades.  As the storm clouds moved in yesterday, we had some spectacular cloud patterns, making me wish I had a camera with my comings and goings from UAMC.  Finally, upon our arrival at home late this afternoon I got out the camera and took a few shots.  In a run to the drug store, I saw an impressive display of what looked like Mammatus clouds.  By the time I got home, they had lost some of their rounded bottoms, but still looked impressive.  A 3-frame mosaic is shown at left.  A few minutes before sunset, it slipped into a clear spot in the west, and though we didn't have much rain falling at the time, there were a few rainbow segments to be seen, including the one at right against the Santa Catalina Mountains.  This is an HDR image - a combination of 3 slightly different exposures for better illumination.

Finally, just as the last rays of the sun left the sky, a few segments of the rainbow arc could be spotted from the back yard.  It literally faded as I watched, so this was the last of any rainbows.  There are still scattered storms west to LA, but whether they will make it across the desert to us remains uncertain.  Knock on wood, at least we'll be home, not in the hospital, to document it if we get more rain or photo ops!