Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Fall-Back Plan...

Even though the months of July and August are Arizona's rainy season, threatening precipitation most every day, the Kitt Peak Visitor Center continues to run its Nightly Observing Program on weekends.  While rare, occasional clear skies do happen, and I offered to fill in for one of the guides who needed to leave town.  Not unexpectedly, the high chance of rain caused the program to be cancelled, but ready for any excuse to get out of town, Melinda and I decided to head up for a few hours.  So 5pm found us pointing the car westward, even as a storm moved into eastern Tucson...

Usually for a session like this, I make some sort of plan.  With the high chance of rain, when at a higher elevation, observing the storms themselves can be very interesting.  There was also a -5 magnitude Iridium Flare once it got dark if it miraculously cleared.  And the fallback to the fallback plan was to hunt for glow worms!  On several occasions, twice in the last year, while walking along the paved lanes on the Observatory grounds, I've spotted bio-luminescent glows.  Upon closer examination, they came from the tail of a 4cm (1.5") segmented caterpillar!  In both instances, I didn't have a camera on me, so I wasn't able to document them, and contacting a couple insect experts produced shrugs over the Interwebs...  So I was going prepared this time, hoping for another encounter.

Arriving just before sunset, we found partly cloudy skies and the 20" telescope dome open with my boss in residence.  He and other staffers had worked on electronics and he was about to start on the pointing model for the software.  While the weather was clearing on the mountain, there were impressive thunderheads over Tucson with abundant flashing from lightning.  Shown at left is the cloud buildup illuminated by the fading twilight as the lights of Tucson start to come up.  Strikes like this are easy to capture with a tripod mounted camera and intervalometer.  By taking 20 second exposures every 25 seconds, there is a very good chance of catching some flashes.  All three of these strikes happened simultaneously...



With the clearing skies and the Iridium Flare appearance approaching, we retired to the car to set up my tracking mount.  With a wide angle lens, it can take more than a minute or two for the satellite to traverse the field, so I chose to track the stars so they would be points rather than the trails from a rotating earth with a naked tripod.  And since this flare would appear to be in the Milky Way, I chose my older Canon 20Da to try to catch some red-colored emission nebula.  Unlike normal, I was fully set up with minutes to spare, and actually got to try some test exposures to make sure framing and focus was set.  The Iridium satellites start out very faint, but I spotted it early before it entered the field, and it slowly climbed in brilliance as it reflected sunlight down to us off one of its antennae.  The exposure shown here is 3 minutes in length, with a Nikon 20mm set to F/4, and I thought it came out pretty well!  The Summer Triangle dominates the field, Vega at top, Altair at right and Deneb left center.  Just below Deneb is the red ghostly glow of the North American Nebula, named for its shape.  The irregularities in the glowing Milky Way are from dust clouds along the plane of our galaxy, and detecting them is one of my favorite activities...

Even as the lightning storms grew in intensity to the east, the glowing clouds of the Milky Way seemed to be calling to me.  Since it has been June since we'd seen these starclouds at the Grand Canyon, I decided to shoot a few frames to make a little mosaic of them.  Shown are the 3 frames, each a 3.5 minute exposure with the 20Da and 20mm lens as above.  While Photoshop can assemble them, Microsoft ICE did a better job for me, especially in joining the seams of the frames.  I love this time of year with all the dark nebulae seen in silhouette, and interestingly, another satellite was caught just below Altair, the bright star seen upper left.  The dashed trail indicates that the satellite was tumbling, varying in brightness.








After the frames were taken for the mosaic, I pointed the camera to a single spot and let it expose while I went off in search of glow worms...  The lightning flashes continued unabated, and I was unsure the frames would be usable, but hey, as long as we were there, keep on exposing.  Melinda retired to the car as I went on a jaunt looking for glows...  And wouldn't you know, 100 meters into my walk, in the shadow of the 2.1 meter, I saw one!  While shining my red flashlight along the road keeping an eye out for snakes in the dark, I saw a flash, then another.  I dropped my sweatshirt I'd brought to kneel on, and took a closer look.  As I got closer, it glowed intensely, and I saw it was a different worm all together!  It looked to be a small inchworm, about 2cm long and less than 2mm diameter, much smaller than the segmented caterpillar I'd seen before!  I fumbled to put on the macro lens, turned back to it, and poof, it was nowhere to be seen...  It got away, dug under a layer of dirt and escaped my gaze.  But I saw it and now I've got 2 species to find instead of just the one...  I continued the search, but didn't find any more glows in my amble.  But I didn't go away empty-handed...  With the summer rains in full force, the mountain was covered in Sweet Four O'clock flowers, an evening-bloomer.  With none of the domes open yet, and numerous lightning flashes filling the air, I took a flash photo at left without any guilt.  There were also huge clumps of datura, also night-bloomers.  I've posted about these before, with pictures just a mile or so below the Observatory.  These were some healthy stands atop the mountain, and though I didn't spot any pollinators among the numerous flowers, I had to take an image, shown at right.

I promised Melinda I'd have her home by 11:30, so I finally concluded my glow worm search, broke down my still-exposing camera and platform and headed down the mountain.  Interestingly, all of my "programs" saw some action - flare, storms, stars and glow worms were all successful to some extent.  Fun, fun, fun!





3 comments:

Alan Strauss said...

Dean, Awesome report. I love the pictures- I have been trying to learn to take some lightning ones myself and get more that are overexposed from the flash than usable...but it is a fun pursuit nonetheless!

Andrew Cooper said...

I have also seen a glowing caterpillar atop Kitt Peak, at one of the Star-B-Ques if I recall properly. I remember a fairly small caterpillar, inch worm sized, with a number of surprisingly bright green glowing dots. Let me know if you come with an ID.

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