Sunday, July 6, 2014

Kitt Peak Photo Opportunity Trip

Last night was the evening my friends and I were permitted on the grounds of Kitt Peak National Observatory for some tripod imaging.  The intent was to catch the Milky Way over domes, like I captured on my scouting trip a week ago, but with the quarter moon providing illumination for lighting the foreground.  Since we were running into the start of our rainy season, the fallback was to photograph any storms in the area from the vantage point of a 7,000 foot mountain.  Well, the monsoons had hit hard, so it was something closer to the later this trip!

Storms were blowing into Tucson behind me as I headed west towards the Observatory.  It was pretty dark with storm clouds the entire way out, but didn't run into any rain.  I met my friends at the base of the mountain and drove up, noticing they've had some storms lately as the road was littered with sizeable rocks loosened by rains.  We forged ahead, enjoying temps in the upper 60s upon our arrival at the peak.  With clouds all around threatening rain (but no drops or signs of lightning or thunder), we walked up to the normal sunset-viewing location we use for the Nightly Observing Program that provides a great view to the west.  While the boys were taking pics of domes and interesting clouds, I did some of the same, a view of the 1.3 meter and more distant  2.1 meter domes under some rain clouds.

I tried taking a sequence of images of the above view, trying to capture some motions in the storm, but this particular cell was dying fast and it sort of dead-ended without much interest.  So I got out the little Meade 80mm F/6 triplet APO (480mm effective focal length) and took some closeups of the horizon.  With the sunset upon us, though behind a thick bank of clouds, I instead shot a panorama of some mountains to the far west.  There is some thought that the furthest point visible from Kitt Peak are the distant mountains just left of the flat-topped Mesquite mountains on the right of the frame.  While not yet confirmed, we're thinking the distant peak is San Pedro Martir, a 10,000+ foot elevation mountain - the highest peak in Baja, California, which would put it something over 200 air miles distant.  The distant mountains in the center may be the Pinacate Mountains, a volcanic range north of the Sea of Cortez about 100 miles distant from Kitt Peak.

After we lost the light of sunset, and with it still thickly overcast, we debated what to do.  There looked to be a very active lightning storm off the mountain to the north, so we descended a half mile to an overlook.  There was indeed a violent storm about 20 miles away, with almost constant lightning, though mostly up in the clouds.  We all took some exposures trying to catch some strikes, most not directly visible though - just illuminating the interior of the clouds.  Shown at left is a frame that catches a strike traversing the entire frame.

While the storm raged on, and a camera with intervalometer monitoring that, I turned the Meade scope towards Tucson and took some shots of the city lights 40 miles distant.  With the long focal length, it took some 20 frames to bridge the entire length of the city, here shown from Gates Pass at the left to Tucson International Airport at the right, seen just past Black Mountain on the right-hand edge of the frame.  As I've complained before, my images here are limited to 1600 pixels maximum dimension, so the representation here doesn't do it justice.  It certainly isn't as fun as exploring the 40,000 pixel wide original.  Interestingly, Microsoft ICE freeware assembled the 20-frame mosaic (as well as the distant mountain panorama above) just fine...  The individual frames (15 second exposures) were taken with the camera frame vertical, and then assembled into the horizontal strip.

The most interesting part of the assemblage is of Ajo Way, the road that we travel out to get to the Observatory, seen as the nearly vertical streak left center of the above.  Here at left is shown a pair of horizontal frames from the Meade, assembled into a vertical image, that can be shown at a larger scale.  These are a little longer exposure, 30 seconds, which shows Cat Mountain at upper left, that we drive past as we leave Tucson.  About halfway down the frame is Ryan Field, a small airport serving private aviation.  At the bottom of the frame is the town of Three-Points, sort of a bedroom community, the major source of lights at the bottom is the Border Patrol Offices there.

And interestingly, captured in the frame is a bit of a hold over from the 4th of July the night before - a lone piece of fireworks set off from the west side of town, perhaps from the Border Patrol grounds themselves, or perhaps the school across the street.  A full-resolution image is shown at right...

We had a fun time, enjoyed the cool temperatures, but never had a chance to capture any stars over domes...  We did take a walk around the grounds, looking for viewpoints that we might try again as the monsoons wind down in a couple months.  I can't wait - always a fun time to be at altitude!

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