Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Grand Canyon Star Party 2015 - Day 1

In the last post I related how my 25 year streak at the Grand Canyon Star Party was in jeopardy with our Midwest travels and Melinda's chemo midweek. But she encouraged me to go, so found myself headed up for the last 2 days. So do check out that post as it has my early favorite images from this year's event.

It has been a long time since I've attended the event alone, so was a bit weird driving up by myself... It was great weather, though I was leaving behind an expected high of 111F in Tucson and 115F in Phoenix, so an early morning departure was called for!  Though I put off packing the van till Friday morning, I was on the road by 8:30, with lots of gear for observing, no so much for camping - was thinking of just crashing in the back bench seat for sleeping...

This was the first summer trip for the new van, and I've just figured out some of it's minor issues.  I'm thinking there is a vacuum leak in the control of where the blower air goes. When accelerating or climbing a hill, I'm not sure where the cool air goes, but doesn't come into the van! Letting up on the gas rewards you with a nice cool breeze - a nice reward not to be a leadfoot!

Fortunately, by the time we climbed the long hill into Flagstaff, the temperature had dropped into the 90s... As Flagstaff approached, the sky seemed hazier too. Finally pulling into town and gassing up, there was a single patch of snow on the south face of the San Francisco Peaks north of town. With the haze in the air, I shot the image at left with the infrared-modified camera - no trace of haze in that shot, but of course, the vegetation comes out white, and the sky darker than normal. The image looks over Mars Hill, and in case you can't spot it, that single patch of snow is up just left of the peak above the treeline. While there has rarely been snow on the south facing slopes in mid-summer, there had been snow falling recently, so was surprised to see almost none.

Taking route 180 NW towards the Canyon, much more snow was revealed on the north face as the route circled the range. Unfortunately I ran into road construction which added a good 20-30 minutes to the drive. Just short of Valle, I looked for the snow-capped peaks and had a hard time spotting them. In the clear air here, they should have been easily visible about 30 miles away, but the haze buildup (found later to be from the forest fire east of LA) made spotting it tough - visually the bright snow fields were nearly floating against the blue sky - the mountain outline was nearly invisible. At left is the view of Humphrey's Peak in the color camera, and at right is the IR view. Another demonstration of an advantage of IR imaging - haze penetration!

Finally arriving at the Canyon about 4pm I first made the pilgrimage to the original home of the Star Party - Yavapai Point. Normally packed with cars, it was nearly empty of tourists, so walked to the rim to check out the hazy view - it was about as bad as I'd ever seen it, so moved on to Mather Campground to seek out some of my buddies. Mae Smith had taken over camp organization and pointed me to site #20 which had just been vacated that day. Early morning and late afternoon shade - perfect! Walking across the road, I ran into the camp of long-time attendee George Barber, who now makes the trip down from Utah to join us. We sat for a while and caught up each others news. He moved on to fix some dinner, and I went to Maswik cafeteria for one of my favorites - the "burrito grande". It was as tasty as ever, but again, strange to be eating by myself - none of the regular star party crew in sight...

Finally headed over to the star party location - the bus overflow lot behind the visitor center. I had already decided to take it easy that night and not set up the scope, instead moving around with camera and tripod to take some pictures.  Just after sunset I walked to the rim to see if the 3-day old crescent moon provided enough light to illuminate the Canyon for night photography (it doesn't).  So I went back to the star party - a HUGE crowd of tourists, as well as plenty of scopes, so didn't feel guilty about not setting up. It allowed me a chance to take some images, like that of Mike Magras and his 14" scope with a line of folks at left. In deep twilight, Scorpio can be seen rising, being lead by Saturn, the brightest object atop it. Unfortunately, the Milky Way can't be spotted as twilight was a bit to bright in the 13 second exposure. At right Dennis Young's 28" behemoth again made an appearance, here with overexposed crescent moon joining in the Venus and Jupiter conjunction. At far right in the image, Geminii's Castor and Pollux can be seen in twilight in the 4 second exposure.

One of my little projects for the evening is that the International Space Station was to make a nice dark-sky pass, moving into the earth's shadow. To the eye, it fades pretty quickly as sunlight filters and fades into the earth's atmosphere. I was hoping to catch some sunset glow as it disappeared into the stars of Libra. I had a pair of cameras ready, one with a 200mm telephoto, the other with an 85mm as backup to catch it. As it turns out, I didn't know the disappearance point well enough to catch it with the longer lens, but was fortunate with the 85. Shown here is the untracked 4o second exposure of fading ISS, with the lights of a plane at lower right. Sure enough, the fully illuminated white light of the full sun quickly fades, but also changing color to a burnt orange before disappearing. At right is a full-resolution crop of the end of the trail. With the extra resolution and bit more contrast stretch, it seems the track can be imagined almost to the edge of the field. One of my interests is to try detecting the ISS when it is out of sunlight, but illuminated by the nearly full moon - I'm thinking it should be visible in big binoculars, and an appearance like this where it moves into earth's shadow with a bright moon might be a good way to try this experiment.

Walking down the row of telescopes, I ran into Bernie - a regular here for seemingly forever. He was taking some pictures with a new camera - a Canon 6D, like that my friend Ken Spencer let me use up on LBT a couple months ago. While Bernie had a 35mm lens he had recently gotten, I talked him into mounting my F/2.8 fisheye on his camera for the ultimate in wide-angle views. Shown at left is a 25 second (!) exposure at ISO 6400. It shows nearly a 180 degree sweep of sky from the bowl of the Big Dipper at upper left, to the Scutum star clouds at right. The green "clouds" near the horizon are natural airglow in the upper atmosphere.  We've seen these nearly every year recently at this event, but the first time they are revealed so well in the large-sensor 6D. Also visible at left is the green laser pointer of an observer pointing out something to a tourist. They are very common at the star party as everyone wants to know where the scope is pointed. Normally they aren't very apparent in exposures, but is easily seen in the short exposure.

It was about this time the long day hit me and I headed back to camp - but once there was inspired to take the images of the Summer Milky Way framed by the ponderosa pine of the campground. Go to that post to check out that image. Day 2 coming next!

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