Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Local Color...

As our 10-day visit to the Midwest draws to a close, the Fall colors that we went on a 3-day trip to Northern Wisconsin have finally started appearing down in our area.  This maple tree is up the hill from our house here, and is always among the first and just about the most reliable local spectacle.  I especially love how it seems to turn a complete branch at a time rather than a coordinated overall change.

From the first instant of our homecoming we literally heard that Fall was arriving!  Over our house towers a nearly 100 foot oak tree, and from minute one we heard what sounded like distant gunshots as acorns rained down on the house.  Occasionally you could hear them tumbling down the slope of the roof and roll into the rain gutter, but mostly they hit hard and bounced onto the ground.  We don't recall an acorn crop like this, unrelenting, nearly all night long.  Once in a while, a gust of wind would unleash a barrage of impacts, and at times, headgear was nearly required for head protection while walking near the house!  As a result, the gutters have a couple inches of acorns in them, and the house is surrounded by a thick layer of them and their caps.  The two shots shown here are representative of what the ground looks like in the area.  The squirrels have been busy eating and collecting, with piles of chewed husks lying about.  Just last night a gust of wind or two seems to have closed out the acorn season, and nearly none were heard today...

A few days back, in fact, it was the evening upon our arrival back from Wisconsin, I walked down to the Fox River with the camera and found some photographs.  First was one of my favorite plants of the Summer - the new-to-me swamp milkweed, with its own set of local insects confined to it!  The Summer insects from that post are all gone, hopefully the monarch butterfly is on its way to Mexico.  But now the pods are releasing their seeds and they are different enough from the standard milkweed to look interesting.  At left, a still-closed seed pod awaits a few more days before it launches its seeds.  A few yards to the right was the Fox River, which this time of day reflected the sunset colors off the still water.  An occasional insect landed or launched from the water, the source of the round waves at right.

I returned to the swamp milkweed plant today to see how it was progressing.  The singular pod at left in the above image had now cracked, revealing its seeds, but had not started dispersing them.  It made for a fascinating close-up with the macro lens (Canon 100mm F/2.8).  Another trio of seed pods were in an even-earlier stage, the seeds just barely visible within, shown at right.

The spectacular stands of Queen Anne's Lace are long gone, as are most of the goldenrod, now brown and well past their prime.  However, I found one lone torch of goldenrod over in Riverbend Park, where I ride laps of the walking path with my bike.  Shown at left, while some of the prairie flowers can be seen past their prime, for some reason, this goldenrod is at its peak of brilliance, and was popular with bees, being one of the last viable flowers.  Imagine what the plots of prairie looked like a month ago when all the goldenrod looked like this!  A close-up is shown at right, revealing the multitude of small florets that make up the whole.

Finally, I'll close out with a discovery I made while going to document the goldenrod.  I found a trio of sandhill cranes!  While cautious, they seemed unbothered by nearby walkers, and folks with their pets at the dog run.  There is intermittently a breeding pair in a nearby body of water we've seen on rare occasions, so these might be them, or perhaps they are passing through from Northern Canada headed to join their tens of thousands of buddies in Southern Arizona.  Melinda jokes that we'll pass them while on the plane tomorrow, perhaps to visit them the end of the year in Whitewater Draw!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Searching For Roy...

While in the Midwest, in late September, it is always fun to look out for Fall colors.  Of course, when you make travel plans, depending on the weather and temperatures, you can't always predict what the schedule will be, so arriving a couple days early and the local color (northern Illinois) limited to very  early yellow tints, we decided to go on a road trip north into Wisconsin, and also had fingers crossed for northern lights too...  Oh, and the "Roy" in the title???  It is a play on the spectral colors in a rainbow, or the output from a prism - in order, the colors appear red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo and violet.  Taking the first letter from each color, you get Roy G. Biv!  So our little road trip was in search of the Fall reds, oranges and yellows!

With the trees just starting to turn in St Charles, it didn't take long to see them more vividly a we moved north of Madison.  Bodies of water seemed to be a good place to view deeply into a stretch of woods, as at left.  Taken from the moving car at 70 mph, the motion of more distant woods were also well-frozen.  Other than our trip to Minneapolis this Summer (when we came up for the idea for this road trip), it didn't take long to get into territory I've never been in before, and it was quite scenic.  Any examination of a map of Wisconsin shows it to be covered in lakes (like Minnesota!), so views like this were common.

While stopping for a bathroom break and snacks in Tomahawk, we found we had to drive a mile or two off the interstate to hit the small town.  It is a really pretty area, as is all of northern Wisconsin, with lakes and rivers abounding.  It looks like its major commerce is the summer recreational and Fall hunting activities.  Anyway, we found a quiet side road with some nice colors to do a "group portrait" with the car on the way back to the main drag.

We didn't have firm plans or reservations anywhere, just drove till we found a pretty area.  It turned out the stopping point was a wide spot in the road called Minocqua.  Looking on the map, it is almost 50-50 as much lake area as land area, it seems!  Besides the fall colors, we were also looking for aurora, and much further north and we'd be in the upper peninsula of Michigan.  We even did a reconnaissance trip north of town to find the south side of a lake to shoot aurora shots from for the best northern horizons, to not have any northern sky blocked by trees...  Alas, while we were ready, and the earth's magnetic activity was approaching storm level, the clouds and rain that night prevented seeing anything...  We did find a nice spot to stay, which even had a jacuzzi in it to relax Melinda's sore back - injured in a fall a few weeks earlier...  We were kind of sorry we didn't plan to stay for the weekend - it was the 50th anniversary of "Beef-A-Rama", highlighted by the "parade of roasts", and cook-off contests...  Sounds like a destination to consider in the future!

Did you ever take a family vacation, and for hundreds of miles, see signs advertising some tourist trap or another?  I recall Wall Drug, on a long-ago trip to South Dakota, or "The Thing" not far from us in southern Arizona...  Well on this trip, it was the "Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty"!  I'd never been to a cook shanty, but it seemed appropriately kitschy that it seemed worth a visit.  While searching for an aurora observing location, we passed it, but were disappointed to see it was closed Wednesdays...  But it was remarkable in it's oversized signage, huge fiberglass sculptures of Bunyan and Babe, and the appropriate "log cabin" building.  It was spectacular in its kitschiness!  The next morning we were searching for a Perkins we had seen somewhere and saw that the "Shanty" was open for breakfast - we had to go!  I'll have to admit, it was pretty cool - $10 gets you a table where they rush you freshly cooked donuts, and everything you might want for breakfast served family style.  Included were 'taters, scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, flapjacks and French toast, and what appeared to be good-ole Tang.  And, of course, you were surrounded by the d├ęcor of carriages, oxen yokes, antique Americana of all kinds hanging off the walls and ceilings.

I'll have to admit it was worth the price of admission.  They even have a gift shop (of course!) to sell souvenirs, and big-as-your-outstretched hand cookies and muffins.  I was talking to the woman behind the counter and their big business is through the Summer when the crowds line out the door and around the parking lot.  Once Labor Day hits they lose most of their wait-staff to college, and the summer vacation crowds thin out.  They were already closed a couple days of the week (this the 3rd week of September), and they would be closing for the season soon.  I'm sort of glad we had a chance to experience it!  I even was inspired to get documented by the statue of "Babe".  It isn't often the photographer gets photographed!

The goal for the next day's drive was to head generally SW towards Door County, heading out the peninsula that extends nearly 100 miles into Lake Michigan, Green Bay guarding the path.  So we meandered on small roads without much traffic, still enjoying the sights along the way.  Melinda shot the 2-frame mosaic of the small lake complete with beaver lodge shown at left.  Assembled with the freeware "Microsoft ICE" program.  At left a close-up of trees from Green to yellow to red...

It was a very pleasant drive - I think we were near the peak colors, certainly in the northernmost extend of our trip.  The road was lonely and winding - perfect for occasional stops to take a picture.  We shared it with few cars, and more than a few motorcycles that had similar ideas.  Not a lot of reds among the maples, but lots of red in the roadside ditches in the clusters of sumac shown at right. 

We didn't tarry long in Door county - nearly drove its full length, getting as far as Ephraim before stopping for more aurora searching on Thursday night (without success).  We hustled southwards Friday - homecoming activities calling our names, as well as wanting to visit friends in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin before the final 2 hour push for home, arriving just about sunset.  It was a fun trip - all told in 3 days of driving, we figured we went about 900 miles, and would be glad to repeat it another time to explore some new territory we've not seen before.  Now if we could just close the loop on getting those auroral views!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Dispatch from an Undisclosed Location!

Melinda and I are on the road, at a location which, for the moment, will remain undisclosed. Our last post revealed we're in the Midwest, so you know a little of where we are.  The photo at left shows us on a little walk before dinner, across the road from where we're staying, so you can see we have water to our west towards the setting sun...

Dinner was great!  It was on the second floor of our motel, appropriately called "The Second Floor"!  Did you ever had a meal that made you sad when you finished, 'cause it was over?  That is how I felt about this meal.  It was a rib-eye steak dinner for $20, which included locally grown veggies and potatoes and in-house baked bread.  Everything was cooked perfectly and just melt-in-your-mouth good!

After dinner we returned to the same water-side location, and now the clues start to come in to our location.  As we waited for the first stars to come in from the twilight, Antares and Mars came into view very low to the SW.  Shortly after, Saturn popped into view closer to the horizon to their right.  And to their left, the Teapot Asterism of Sagittarius was also low in the sky.  Compare this picture to my self-portrait from last weekend atop Kitt Peak.  They were much higher in the sky from Arizona.

Looking to the north a little later - I was actually on the lookout for Northern Lights!  We've been north of 45 degrees latitude the last couple nights...  Though we had some local light pollution, I shot with the 14mm Samyang, as the above exposures are too for a wide-angle view.  This is a 30 second exposure that shows both the Big Dipper at lower left and Polaris, the North Star at top center.  From Southern Arizona, the Big Dipper would be diving below our northern horizon, so we are indeed considerably north!  While the stretching brought out a little green, I'm thinking it might be airglow other than aurora.  There is also a possibility that it is illuminated thin cirrus, or even scattered light from the local lights.  I'm going out in a few minutes to look again...   Locals have said they saw them a couple nights ago...

The last shot is a 40 second exposure to the SW now that it is totally dark.  It shows the sky glow of Green Bay at left, about 60 miles to the SW, and at right the glow of Marinette, Wisconsin and Menominee, Michigan, about 20 miles to the west.  Yes, we are on the north shore of the Door County peninsula, combining a Fall foliage trip with a search for aurora.  Last night was our best chance with an unstable geo-magnetic field, but of course it rained a good part of the night.  Today under clearing skies we had a pleasant drive from northern to eastern Wisconsin with lots of Fall colors, and our trip out to Ephraim showed a wide variety of orchards, cheese shops and shopping of all kinds.  Tomorrow requires our return to Illinois with Melinda's HS 40th reunion festivities tomorrow night and Saturday.  Sounds like a fun weekend!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Window Seat!

We're safely back in the Midwest after another cross-country flight.  While never ho-hum, I guess we do take travel for granted.  It is so convenient to take the noon non-stop to O'Hare and be there in 3 hours!  Travel isn't much fun with overcrowded planes and going through security, but it was more pleasant this time.  For some reason, Melinda has for some time gotten the "TSA Pre-check" stamp on her boarding pass, allowing her to pretty much walk onto the plane while I took my shoes off and unpacked the computer every time.  This time, somehow I qualified and got to do the same - it was great!  And while over 6 feet tall, sitting next to the window isn't always the best place to look out the window (at about elbow level), this time I pretty much used the window as my personal space to look out on the country as we made the trip.

Remember the old days (a month or three ago!) when a digital camera wasn't an approved electronic device and they had to be off for takeoff and landing?  Fortunately it is allowed now, so was using the camera the entire trip.  While mostly clear, hot and humid after the recent rains, there were a lot of clouds hugging the ground, even in the Desert Southwest.  Check out this shot of the Willcox Playa (dry lake bed) about 80 miles SE of Tucson.  Even while we were still climbing, we were far above most of the low clouds.  The lake bed is atop the frame, and there is lots of irrigation and crops in the Sulphur Springs Valley section shown here.  Would have always like to see Mount Graham and the LBT telescope out the left side of the plane, but we were on the right side. 

We had clouds for a while, but one of the advantages of flying this same route every couple months is that you start to recognize the route!  Crossing into west-central New Mexico it cleared in time for me to spot Socorro, easy to pick out because of interstate 25 and the Rio Grande River running down past it.  Yes, this is the same Rio Grande that continues south and acts as the southern border of Texas and the U.S. border with Mexico...

I read the paper for a while through the boring parts of northern Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, and then spotted Kansas City in the Missouri River Valley.  While I've posted the KC airport before, not the downtown area, so here it is... I actually briefly mistook the Topeka airport for the KC version until we flew the additional couple minutes.  That is the Missouri meandering through the lower left corner of the image, with the Kansas River joining in from the right.

Coming up on another big river, I figured it was the Mississippi, and sure enough, it was the first time I've recorded the southernmost point of Iowa.  This 3-frame mosaic, taken in short order and assembled in Microsoft ICE, shows the Des Moines River emptying into the Mississippi.  The town located there is Keokuk, Iowa, adjacent to a lock and dam.  It is interesting how much muddier the Des Moines is, as you can see the color difference as it enters the Mississippi.  Also interestingly, while the Des Moines River marks the boundary between Missouri and Iowa here, evidently the survey followed an old course of the river - comparing it on Google, the border doesn't follow the current river course!  The crescent shaped woods on the right side of the Des Moines River is actually in Iowa!

Continuing on into Illinois, we cross a big wind farm most every time, then come up on the Illinois River.  I didn't realize how busy a waterway the Illinois was.  In the space of a few minutes, I spotted a couple barges plying what looked to be a pretty narrow waterway.  And it is one thing to be working upstream where you can fight the current, but going downstream, one needs to move faster than the current to maneuver - it has to be scary given how narrow the channel is.  Shown at left is a barge moving downstream past Ottawa.  I didn't think much of it until I checked Google maps to verify which town it was...  The Google satellite image just happened to catch a barge moving upstream past the railroad bridge shown at right - can you believe how narrow a gap there is between the pilings of the bridge?!  The railroad bridge is in the left image too, just downstream (to the right) of the barge at center.  Also of interest to us is that the Fox River, which flows past our house in St Charles, empties into the Illinois right about where the barge is located in the left image.

Before we knew it, we were in the urban buildup of the city of Chicago and the 'burbs.  At left is one of the first developed areas we saw - a subdivision built around a golf course.  It wasn't more than a few minutes later than we saw some of the older parts of town in the established cities built long ago, shown at right...  Of course, we were descending by the time these pictures were taken.  Our plane headed right towards downtown Chicago, but unfortunately banked left too late for me to shoot it out my window.  I caught the top of the Hancock building, but not much else of downtown...

So anyway, we're back in cooler temperatures, where long sleeves are mandatory in the evening.  It will be a fun time catching a bit of the transition into Fall!

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Yesterday was the Fall Star-B-Que for the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) at Kitt Peak National Observatory.  What is a Star-B-Que, you ask?  Well it combines the best 2 parts of belonging to an astronomy group, socializing at a potluck picnic, and observing under some pristine skies.  The picnic area at the National Observatory is very nearly perfect for such an event.  It has a pavilion, flush toilets, and an open area with concrete pads to set up scopes.  The employee association even provides a gas grill for our use - it is always great!

Plans were complicated this week by Hurricane Odile, which came up Baja and was supposed to bring up to 7 inches of rain or more to the Tucson area.  Fortunately, it got the to the US border and veered east, so while we got some rain early in the week, we didn't get hammered like Baja did.  But for some reason, the moisture didn't clear out like it usually did and the Observatory spent 3 days buried in clouds and fog, finally dispersing Friday evening.  Saturday, Star-B-Que day dawned with severe cloud buildups over the mountains, and even as we drove out to Kitt Peak for the event, we saw some desert downpours just 15 miles SW of the mountain.  Arriving to set up, there were plenty of clouds, but a promise of clear skies to the west.  By sunset after some grillin' and eatin' there was a rush to set up gear under clear skies.

I'm keeping this post short, I did some visual observing with the 14" and also did some wide-field imaging that I'll post later if I get anything of interest.  Just as it was getting dark, I took the wide-field self portrait at left with kit lens and a 40 second exposure showing clear skies and a bright Milky Way galaxy arching over us.  With a couple new eyepieces (Meade UWAs), I and others were treated to some spectacular views of some favorites.  The Triffid Nebula, M20 was looking pretty much just like the picture in my last post, though in black-and-white, since the cones in our eyes don't work in low light levels!  I also showed a few people the great globular cluster M22 in the rich Milky Way background, and a little later, the Helix Nebula was spectacular with a nebula filter to increase contrast.

A bunch of us also visited John Davis, an engineer who works with me at the Mirror Lab.  He had just finished working on an equatorial mount and had its debut under dark skies with a 12" telescope and camera.  I'll be sure to show some of his pictures if he sends them along.  His mounting sure was impressive!

We didn't have too late a night - we were about the last to leave shortly after 11pm and were home by 12:30.  It was a nice night, given that most were there just for the picnic with the threat of rain.  Sometimes nature smiles upon us!

EDIT-  John Davis has posted the images he took Saturday evening on his blog.  My favorite of the night was of the HII region Messier 16 in the midst of the Summer Milky Way - he sent me a larger size than appears on his blog, so I stretched it a bit and show it here. Not bad for 9 minutes total exposure with an unmodified camera. It was through a 12" telescope though, and the image quality is testament to the quality of the mount he has built.  Note that you can see a little star bloat in the corners - he was not using a coma corrector for the Newtonian telescope.  Future efforts should have better images!  Going to the more general address of his blog, you can see his progress from the machining of the mount through the first exposures... Fun stuff!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Few Hours Under Dark Skies

Last weekend between hurricanes Norbert and Odile, which is scheduled to hit Wednesday, we had some pleasant weather.  With a nearly last quarter moon, and some new hardware to learn, I called buddy Pat, and invited myself out to his observatory near Benson.  It is always more fun to have a friend under the stars with you, plus he had experience with the auto-guider I was trying to learn to operate.

I'm still learning more about using the refractor obtained a few months ago.  The task for Saturday was to get the auto-guider working with the AP1200 mounting.  I always try to keep things as simple as possible out in the field, and the use of any auto-guider means using a computer - believe it or not, new for me as it requires a power beyond a 12 volt battery...  Melinda and I got a little portable notebook computer a couple years back that hasn't found a permanent application, so was going to try to run new software and hardware on a relatively new mount and scope - what could go wrong?!

Nearly all telescope drives have slop, periodic and alignment errors that limit tracking accuracy.  In the past, macho astronomer that I am, I'd normally guide manually when it was needed.  The image at left shows the little auto-guider I first used with Pat's setup in June.  Even with a scope so much smaller than the one shooting through, small pixels in the compact cameras and sophisticated software work at keeping the tracking nearly perfect for long exposures. 

And let me talk about digital cameras for a
minute.  Virtually all of the images taken in the 800+ posts here are taken with couple Canon DSLRs that I own.  Compared to olden days using film these newer cameras are a godsend!  No waiting for processing to find out the telescope or lens was out of focus, or poorly tracked, or object decentered.  The digital images go immediately in the telescope for stacking or further processing.  There are issues though - consumer cameras work great for most applications, but for long exposures, electronic noise is added to the signal.  Specialized astronomy cameras are cooled to reduce noise, separate dark exposures can be taken to minimize the noise, and many exposures can be averaged to reduce noise compared to the faint signals.  The exposures shown here were taken Saturday at Pat's.  At left is a full-resolution partial frame of Messier 20.  It is a 3.5 minute exposure with the TEC 140.  The red, green and blue speckles are actually "hot pixels" where some of the little sensors have more noise than others.  Fortunately, they mostly repeat really well, so darks can be taken separately, like at left.  This is the exact same piece of the sensor, so the hot pixels repeat in both images.  Check out the green clump of them above center.  The "dark" is typically subtracted to reduce noise in the object's image.

Most modern cameras have built-in tools that can help too.  My 6-year-old XSi, used for these images, has a "long-exposure noise reduction" feature.  The image at left was taken right after the above exposure, with that feature turned on.  After the 3.5 minute exposure was taken, it closes the shutter and takes a 3.5 minute "dark" exposure, which it subtracts from the object image before writing.  The result is an image with fewer of the hot pixels as above.  It has been shown that you are better off to take many "dark" exposures when not under dark skies.  Most consider taking the darks sequential to the object exposures as wasting half of your potential exposure time.  As long as I'm going after reasonably bright objects, I sort of like the convenience of doing this part of the calibrations in camera...

As demonstrated in these exposures, the auto-guider worked great!  After attaching the guide scope to the telescope, hooked it up to the notebook, focused, and calibrated, and it worked great, no issues at all!  I ended up taking 7 exposures with a total of about 25 minutes.  When stacked together with some levels and curves adjustment, the image is shown at left.  I'm thinking it looks pretty good for a consumer unmodified camera.  If I had taken the images with the 20Da (with slightly modified red response), the red part of the nebula due to hydrogen emission would have been more prominent.  The blue part of the nebula is from the hot blue stars near the center reflecting off the dust and gas clouds...

The moon came up shortly after 10pm, so it was an early night.  Just before breaking down the scope, I took a couple frames of the moon a couple degrees off the horizon.  Nothing special, but still fun to see what the nearly 1,000mm focal length scope can do.  Of course, it would have been better high in the sky, but it is a phase of moon I rarely photograph, so the fun was in the taking! 

It was a fun night - Pat helped me with some guider stuff, and I helped him with some collimation issues, so we both benefited by our company.  We'll likely do it again soon...

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sunset Rays

Tucson made the national news today with flooding caused by torrential rains - leftovers from hurricane Norbert that passed off the Baja coast a few days back.  The official rainfall at the airport doubled the previous record for 8 September with 1.84" today, but only the 9th wettest September day of all times...  Still, that is a lot of rain when 12" a year is normal!  Unfortunately, 2 women lost their lives locally in separate incidents when their cars were swept away trying to cross flooded washes...  It is about the second thing you learn living in Arizona, do NOT enter a wash with water running (the first is about using sunscreen).

The rain ended in early afternoon, followed by clearing from the west.  After coming home, I was doing cat chores about sunset when something a little unusual was seen in the west.  A thunderhead far to the west, below my restricted horizon here in town, was casting a shadow into the sky.  Called a crepuscular ray, it was really neat to see the dark searchlight shape cast high into the sky.  After running for the camera, I got a frame or two, unfortunately I didn't notice the continuation into the east (anti-crepuscular ray) in time to catch the ray's re-convergence.  I even went looking for weather satellite images checking to see if I could find a possible candidate.  There were some candidates in western Maricopa County, but I gave up after a bit.  Still, fun to see and observe the cast shadow!