Saturday, August 29, 2015

Phoenix??? Yes, Phoenix!

We like to kid that the only reason we have to go to Phoenix is to get through it to more interesting places beyond - mostly the Grand Canyon or California... But this is not strictly true - a few times a year, like yesterday, we go up to the great metropolis to the north to attend the Saguaro Astronomy Club (SAC). I've developed quite a number of friendships among their membership over the years, have spoken to their club on several occasions, and they even made me an honorary member, ostensibly for restarting and running the Grand Canyon Star Party for a generation. Overall, they are a friendly outspoken group of quite avid amateur astronomers, and their meetings are always fun to attend. So even though Melinda was 26 hours past getting her latest chemo treatment, and I had a long day of meetings and work, 5pm found us hitting the road for points north.

The 2 hour trip door to door at Grand Canyon University is pretty boring unless you enjoy expanses of flat desert (even less exciting than expanses of cornfields in the Midwest!). The monotony is interrupted by passing between Picacho and Newman Peaks (left-to-right) about a third of the way there, and continues past occasional cotton fields, pecan groves (thanks to prodigious irrigation pumping), and small desert communities. About 70 minutes after the picture at left (including a 10 minute bathroom break along the way), we descend a hill into the urban jungle with a view of Camelback Mountain at right(because of its resemblance to a reclining camel). We got to enjoy a pretty sunset over the downtown skyline, but no place to pull over for a picture.

Right on schedule at 7:15 we walked into the meeting room to surprise our friends there. Melinda was just about tackled by our friend Jennifer who repeated her hug so I could get the picture at left. I can personally attest she gives great hugs! After greeting and pestering a few of our buddies, the meeting got underway - the topic this time was a "Member's Night", where 9 members gave short presentations about items of interest or projects they are working on. These are great opportunities to see what a club's members are doing and how serious they are in their pursuits. The show tonight was uniformly very good and interesting. One of the first was from Steve Dodder, shown at right, who had replaced the heavy base of a club telescope with one that only weighed half as much -assuring it would get used more often. Steve stepped up a decade or more ago and runs the North Rim version of the Grand Canyon Star Party, so it was good to see him, though he didn't bring his better half, Rosie to the meeting...

Another great talk was by SAC president Michael Poppre. He's developed a friendship with Lowell Observatory mechanical engineer Ralph Nye. While Ralph's work has lately been wrapping up the refurbishment of the 24" Clark refractor at Lowell Observatory, Michael talked about a similar task - resurrecting a John Brashear 9" F/9 astrograph that he had found abandoned at the Observatory in his spare time over a 4.5 year period. The telescope (along with a 6" astrograph and 4" guide scope), is again used for imaging by Ralph using sheet film. Supposedly the walls of his wife's restaurant "Crickets" in Montezuma's Well is lined with images from the "new" century-old telescope.

Another thing I like about the SAC meetings is that there is a break early in the meeting for some socializing, refreshments, as well as a small swap meet in the rear of the room. I wasn't too interested in much (after a stern look from Melinda), but ended up with an adaptor, and a t-shirt for a $5 donation. There were a pair of 20X100 binoculars that were tempting for only $175, but with my very own even larger antique pair, I couldn't justify the deal. At right Paul Lind tries them out while the inset shows the details. If any of you are interested, I can get you in touch with the owner...

Speaking of Paul Lind (trying out the binoculars above), I loved his t-shirt, so include it here. Along with the "ascent of man", the last view shows the modern man using a telescope... I love it!

Saving one of the best talks for last, former SAC president Tom Polakis talked about some of his recent projects, which included some sunsets over Lake Michigan on a recent trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, his home state. While those were spectacular enough, he worked through some atmospheric models that output the shape of the sun, given its altitude. At right the chart at the right edge shows the sun's actual position relative to the horizon shown in blue, and the atmosphere's effect on both the refracted position and flattened shape. With the sun appearing to sit on the horizon, the actual position of the sun is completely below the horizon as shown. The scale of both axes is in arc-minutes, with the sun being about 30 arc-minutes (a half degree) in diameter. He also had some great images of Venus as it moved through inferior conjunction recently, about 8 degrees from the sun. These Venus crescents were imaged by combining thousands of images to get the best results. Many of his planetary images are quite breathtaking and can be seen posted on his Pbase site, along with his many other adventures. He closed out his talk with some telescopic images of the International Space Station passing overhead - quite spectacular and again, can be found on his Pbase site.

The meeting ended promptly at 10pm (where it was still in excess of 100F outside!) and most of the members went off to a nearby restaurant to continue the socializing. While only a few miles away, it was in the wrong direction for us, and we headed back to Tucson, getting home right at midnight. A tiring drive, but a lot of fun - we'll certainly be doing it again when our schedules allow!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Few Hours In The Dark...

Unfortunately, clear skies through Arizona's monsoon season come rarely, typically only a few times through the 10 weeks from 1 July into mid-September. And I don't count the times it clears at 2 or 3 am - that happens almost daily with rains in the early evening, and clear skies by dawn the next morning. Who has the schedule to wait till the hours before dawn to think about observing? I'm talking about the rare times the monsoon circulation is disrupted and we get some rare nights that are clear throughout.

Well, it happened last week. and we finally had some blue AND dry skies in the afternoon. Melinda had been to the dentist earlier in the day with a tooth extraction, and she was resting comfortably at home, so I ran out towards Kitt Peak for a few hours in the evening. It wasn't going to be a late night - I needed to be at work the next morning. With the sun setting about the time I reached the Kitt Peak turnoff, the interesting clouds I'd been watching revealed themselves - I believe that they weren't clouds at all, but smoke from the California fires some 400 miles to our west. Shown at left, something way over our horizon was casting crepuscular rays from the well-set sun, but the line of smoke stayed low with the crescent moon above it.

With most of the telescopes still in summer shutdown, there was little activity on the mountain, and I set up in an out-of-the way corner of the public parking lot. I've always got a project or two in mind, and I set up two different tracking platforms - an Astrotrac system I've had nearly 2 years, and a Vixen Polarie for shooting wider fields. Those who know me know I love to image dark nebulae, and this is prime time for dark clouds - dust and gas seen not from incandescence or fluorescence, but from their silhouette against the star clouds of the Milky Way. My main goal was to go after the area of the Pipe Nebula in the constellation Ophiuchus with a 200mm lens (Canon 70-200 @ 200mm, F/3.2 w/XSi) to put together in a mosaic. By shooting with a telephoto, you can retain the resolution of the original frames, with the mosaic revealing the wider view.

The result is shown at left - I ended up taking 5 frames in the mosaic, each 5 exposures of 3 minutes each. There was enough overlap that Photoshop assembled the mosaic just fine. As you can imagine, the "pipe" of the nebula has the mouthpiece at right, and the intention is smoke ascends from the bowl at the left side with more dark clouds. Also noticeable if you click on the image is that the "Snake Nebula", B72, is visible as an "S" shaped dark cloud at top center. The "B" designation is from the Barnard catalog of dark nebula, from E.E.Barnard, who discovered and listed 369 such dark clouds from his initial photographic exploration of the Milky Way.

While that was my primary object through the evening, I used a 20mm wide angle lens to shoot another mosaic at left on the Polarie tracker. This one is produced from 2 frames from 6 or 8 two minute exposures at F/4 with the old film-era Nikon lens. Even with only 12 minutes total exposure (of the lower half) there were quite a few deep sky objects visible. I made a labeled version posted at right to show objects in subsequent images, as well as show the position of the Pipe Nebula in the grand scale of the Summer Milky Way. This wide-field much better matches the naked-eye view, with much of the Pipe Nebula and other dark clouds seen against the Milky Way glow in the dark mountaintop skies.

But like a telescope or binoculars show much more of the sky details that can be seen by eye alone, a longer telephoto lens shows much more than the wide field. Seen here is a 3-frame stack taken with a 135mm lens (another film-era Nikon lens shot at F/4 with a Canon 20Da). Besides star and dark clouds and star clusters, also visible are a pair of luminous hydrogen clouds, illuminated by internal fluorescence from bright stars within. Part of the Charles Messier catalog of "fuzzy objects" (he was looking for comets, and is best known for his catalog!). These are labeled as M17 and M16 on the labeled version at right. While the couple-decade-old Nikon optics do an adequate job, if you look at the brighter stars, some of the blue ones have blue disks around them, and some of the red stars have red disks, indicating the color correction isn't really sufficient. Someday I'll update to newer lenses, or use the 70-200 zoom which is quite excellent, but was in use on the other mount.

Finally I close with the last frames of the night. On the Polarie and 135 lens, I shot a few frames of the Lagoon and Triffid Nebulae (M8 and M20), shown at left. Unfortunately, that tracking mount isn't beefy enough to shoot my "newish" 300mm lens to try for astronomy. But with the Pipe Nebula mosaic frames ending on the Astrotrac, the final frames of the same field were shot with the 300 at F/4.5. It looks to me that the lens has very good potential, almost needing use of an autoguider, as even the Astrotrac was barely adequate for this pair of 2.5 minute exposures... These nebulae have been featured here before, most notably at a Kitt Peak "Star-B-Que" 5 years ago, a close-up of the Triffid featured in a first-outing of the TEC140 last year, and both these nebulae and M16, 17 above were all featured in a post on "snapshots" with the Hyperstar on the C14. I really like this area, not only for the bright glows of the gas clouds, but also because of the interplay of involved dark nebula as well. But this pair has not been featured together as well as the 300mm shot at right, so a deeper excursion might be called for in a future outing.

I was a little tardy getting home - originally I was planning on a Midnight arrival, but it was closer to 1am when pulling in. Still, that isn't too much later than our normal bedtime, so made it to work the next morning just fine. I was glad I didn't put it off till Tuesday night as it was nearly overcast, though rain-free. So you've got to get out for those little moments when you can catch them! Unfortunately, in another month as the monsoons wind down, the Summer Milky way will be another twelfth of the way around the sky, lower in the west, and soon after that in conjunction with the sun. I'm glad I got out, if just for a few hours...

Friday, August 21, 2015

Seasonal Transition!

We've been back in Arizona for about 10 days and we're nearly back to normal after our break in Illinois. My computer came back after being in the shop for 4 days - I lucked out as the display failure was evidently an internal disconnection, and SWS didn't charge me more than the $50 fee to diagnose the issue. Time to get back to my backups I need to do.

But first, time to close out some coverage of our Illinois stay. We enjoyed our visit tremendously - can't get too much of rainy weather (too rare in Arizona, even in our summer monsoon season!) and never too much of the green from the Midwest! Also loved the moderate temperatures, which stayed in the low 80s most days, much nicer than the 100+ we're now enjoying in Tucson. Fortunately the warm temps are drawing to a close in AZ, but "Ketelsen East" was a joy. I got out twice most days to ride my loop up at a local park that has a nice mile-long path at least partially through prairie restoration areas. At left is an image of one section showing the predominant population of Queen Anne's Lace, milkweed, purple coneflower and an assortment of yellow flowers. But the "queen" of the prairie, at least the first week of August, is Dausus carota.

So given the extent that they are everywhere you look in Illinois, I was surprised to rediscover from the above link and others that they are, in fact, an invasive species, native to temperate Europe, but not to North America. Still, they make an attractive addition to the roadsides and patches of prairie that now seem to be everywhere.

But their seasonal domain is ending as August progresses.  Many of the flowers in the above right image are seen curling up into balls. As shown here at left, the flower consists of a multitude of tiny  individual flowers, with the characteristic red one in the center - the "drop of blood" in Queen Anne's Lace... At right, the seed ball is seen in better detail, each one with little forky extensions to stick to passing animals or clothes to distribute the seeds.

Even as the lace declines, others maintain their presence. Abundant throughout are the  purple coneflowers shown at left.  Interestingly this is one of the few flowers I can think of that are both found wild in nature, and also cultivated in flower gardens.  Folks don't plant dandelions, but coneflowers, likely because of their nice accent color and flower size, are liberally found through the area.

And among the multitude of yellow flower variants, the sunflowers and black-eyed susans, I was surprised to find on the Interwebs that the interesting flower at right is, in fact, a gray-head coneflower! So both of these flowers are related out of the aster family... They were quite striking with the yellow petals blowing in the wind like so many grass skirts...

So what is lined up to dominate the prairie patches in the coming month before the cooler weather of Fall descends? As I've mentioned before during our visits in September, large expanses of goldenrod hog the spotlight. They were just starting to pop during our visit, still a long way from dominating, but they are certainly on their way. Interestingly, even as they are starting to bloom, they are attracting a lot of activity. From the little bugs visiting the open flowers at left, there are certain plants that seem to attract a multitude of sap-sucking aphids shown at right. Seems like every 30 feet or so there would be a single plant or two just covered by aphids of all sizes. Perhaps the entire population grew from a single infestation, or perhaps they don't travel very far, but the populations were extremely localized. Their activity didn't seem to hurt the plant much, at least in their pre-blooming state.

And of course, it's a jungle out there - where you have insects like aphids, you have other insects that eat the aphids. While watching them carefully over a day or two, I noticed a couple of other interesting creatures, one of them with an aphid in its mouth! Both of these qualify as my weird bug of the summer! Last year it was the plant hopper that looked like a leaf, and the year before it was the two-spotted leafhopper. So these are in good company. Carl, the UA "Bugman" has stopped answering my emails about IDs (I think he retired), so I went on to BugGuide and registered and asked for an ID. The suggestions came in moments later - while I thought that these two bugs might be the same creature a couple days apart in development, the thinking is that they are different, and variations of a green lacewing larvae. If you are looking for an identification, I'm not sure you can do better than BugGuide to find it yourself or enlist the help of others...

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Blog On Hiatus...

Just a note that the blog is off the air for now.  We made it back safely to Tucson early this morning, but while in the Midwest, my computer with image archives and Photoshop for editing "blew up".  It wasn't very spectacular, but the display (which one tends to need for working) suddenly got bright and went away.  So it is at the shop and in the intervening week or so I'm not going to worry about it.

Melinda had a dentist appt today, and her first treatment of cycle 2 is on Thursday.  This new chemo drug is really knocking her down with nausea and fatigue, so she is resting up for this next cycle, after which is her next PET scan to see if it is doing her any good.  But for now, life goes on as normal here - check back in a couple weeks as we resume operations...

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Latest Cross-Country Trip

We just finished another cross-country trip and are now relaxing at "Ketelsen East" in the western suburbs of Chicago. Lately I seem to be enjoying the trip as much or more than the destination, watching the country roll past my portal, nose pressed to window... I just can't imagine that some passengers would keep the shade down and read or sleep - are they so jaded with travel that there isn't still a sense of wonderment? The last two trips were to Midway on Southwest Airlines, and while the routes are similar, I'm getting to the point where I can detect the subtle 30 mile difference from when we fly American into O'Hare. More on that later...

Travelling on Saturday, it was a packed flight, and the flight attendants gave vocal encouragement to pack us in as quickly as possible. We ended up taking off on time and arrived in Chi-town about a half hour early! 2h 53m from take off to landing - perhaps it is because Southwest used the big-boy airplanes (737s compared to MD80s), or maybe they state longer flight times to bias their on-time percentage... Anyway, it was nice to leave Tucson at sunup and arrive at noon, still getting to enjoy half a day at our destination.

My first step of the trip is to get a "down-sun" window - trying to shoot up-sun always complicates both viewing and imaging with reflections and glare from the usually non-optical Plexiglas. Headed to Chicago from Tucson, that means the left side of the cabin, looking mostly NW. Usually I quickly lose track of where the plane is located, but I'm slowly extending my known markers as we repeat the trip. The first target I look for as we're still climbing is Mount Graham and the Mount Graham International Observatory. At left is a straight shot of the telescopes atop the mountain seen through a little gap in the cloud layer. The huge building at right is the LBT, which I visited and blogged about a couple months back. The smallest structure at left is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, and between them is the 10 meter Sub-Millimeter Telescope. I've worked on all three of the projects, so is a personal source of pride for me. The image at right is an anaglyph 3D image, made from a pair of images taken a few seconds apart. Viewing through your red/blue glasses (red on the left) you will see the stereo effect of clouds, mountains and Observatory. Make sure you click the thumbnails here for the full-size image to load.

Shortly after Graham is where my "no-man's land" starts, where I've not driven, so don't know the territory very well. From here on out I mostly depend on cruising over Google Maps to locate the ID of my shots. But for striking formations, sometimes I still know what they are. Case in point is the Morenci Copper Mine - the largest copper producer in North America. I've never been there, but certainly have heard about it, both from miner strikes in the news a few decades back, and devastating floods that occasionally occur in Clifton, located in a canyon below the mine. At left is a wide-field view of the open-pit mines at top, and leaching fields below. The company-owned town of Morenci is up at mine level about right-center, Clifton is in the canyon at far right. The latest production numbers I saw was over 600 million pounds of copper in 2011.

At right is an anaglyph 3D image of the open pit area, with both the extraction areas as well as leaching fields made more obvious with the stereo view...

The great plains of the country are a little more boring, though still worth a look out the window.  Seems we cross the mile-diameter irrigated crop circles from far western Oklahoma thru eastern Kansas for an hour, but has to be less.  At some point I switched from the standard color camera to my modified IR camera, mostly because it is so sensitive to bodies of water.  Shown here at left is a 4-frame panorama of a pair of reservoirs in NE Kansas.  At left is Milford Lake, and at right is Turtle Creek Lake.  Barely detected below each is Junction City below Milford, and Manhattan below Turtle Creek.  They show up much better in the original-sized image (about 6,000 pixels wide), but tougher to see at this resolution.  While it is interesting that water comes out so dark (from higher absorption, lower reflectivity), most of the dark spots across the Kansas plains here are actually shadows from small clouds.  Loading the full-rez version, those with hard edges are lakes, soft edges from cloud shadows...

We had to have passed nearly directly over Kansas City (thus not visible), but the Missouri River was clearly seen 10 minutes after the above frame. At right, what looks like a black windy road is the Missouri River, transformed to dark in IR. The 3-frame mosaic shows Kansas to the left of the river and Missouri to the right. Nebraska actually makes a minute appearance in the far upper left corner of the center frame. The mosaic also shows the city of Atchison, Kansas at far left, with the bra-shaped Lewis and Clark lake just across the river. At the far right side of the composite image is the city of St Joseph, Missouri.

I mentioned above that I'm thinking I could detect the slight change in path from our destination change to Midway from O'Hare what, 30 miles apart... Certainly flight paths change due to weather and other effects, but mostly with good weather, I suspect they just enter the airport coordinates and hit the "go-to" button. Often we would see Kansas City out the right window, now we flew over it. Trips past we would fly over Iowa and see the southeastern tip out the right window.  This trip we saw it out our left window - shown here is Ft Madison down on the Mississippi (just above the river at center) as we flew directly over the SE tip of Iowa,

Similarly, we've before seen the town of Ottawa, Illinois out the right window, this time out the left since we're heading to Midway, about 30 miles south of O'Hare. All 3 images of Kansas City, SE tip of Iowa and Ottawa were recorded in our trip to O'Hare about a year ago. You might well ask why the interest in Ottawa - well, for one thing, it is on a major shipping channel, the Illinois River, and one can usually spot dozens of barges plying the waterway. Also, it is of interest for us because if we jumped in an inner tube outside our house here on the Fox River, we would eventually drift down to Ottawa, where the Fox runs into the Illinois...  In the image, the Illinois runs along the bottom and the Fox extends towards the upper right.

On Saturday, there were strong westerly breezes (perhaps partially accounting for our under 3 hour flight), so instead of our normal approach towards the NE, we circled and came in from the east. As a result, we flew well past Midway until nearly over Lake Michigan before turning towards the airport. As a result, we had a nice, if not distant, view of the Chicago skyline. Shown here at left is a portrait from at least 15 or 20 miles, I'm guessing. We're also not a lot higher than some of the tallest skyscrapers, so their apparent height likely matches their relative actual height. In the image at right I've labeled some of the highlights. The Willis Tower at left is still the second-highest building in the country after 1 World Trade Center and tallest in Chicago. But surprisingly, the Trump and Aon buildings (Chicago's 3rd and 4th tallest) are not much shorter than the Hancock Building. Also seen, though not particularly well, are Adler Planetarium and Navy Pier, both jutting out into the Lake.

As we turned and made our final approach, there were a multitude of potential targets. There seemed to be a lot of railway yards with multiple parallel tracks where trains are assembled. Interestingly, they are not identified well on Google maps, perhaps for security reasons. At left is a dual yard with a lake between, located just south of Calumet Park. This view looks directly west. A minute later as we continued our turn towards Midway, the left image is another anaglyph pair looking towards the SW. While the macroscopic 3D doesn't jump out at you like mountains and copper mines as above, the little trees, water towers and billboards lining the 57 Freeway.

So another fun trip. We've been busy since landing, lots of stuff going on, some of which may make it here. Certainly I predict some flora and fauna photos will make it - we'll see!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

More Geckos!

A few weeks ago I mentioned in passing that there is a small gecko population in front of the house feasting on the insects drawn to the front porch light. I've spent the intervening time trying to get some better images of them. They are questionably not as cute as the Geico gecko, based on the real Gold Dust Day Gecko, which we saw and documented a few years back on our Hawaii trip. These in Arizona are actually non-native, actually they are Mediterranean geckos, imported for the pet trade, and evidently thriving in urban areas after being released or escaping.  They seem to be doing very well, but are extremely shy - evidence of some very good eyesight!  At left is how they are seen through our security door - ghostly outlines, translucent against the porch light as they hunt.  At right is one as it hides in the darkness behind the light fixture.  Thank goodness for on-camera flashes that work well at capturing them!

At most we've seen about 4 or 5 at one time before they scatter for cover as we approach the door.  Some look familiar - the little guy at left looks like one I rescued from one of the cats a couple months back.  He had dropped his tail (the wriggling tail sometimes distracts predators long enough to get away), but was in otherwise good shape, so I released him out the front door.  He is pretty tiny, only about 3cm (1.5 inches) long, and it also appears that his tail is starting to grow back in. They are quite agile on any surface it seems - they are known for being able to cross ceilings and climb glass surfaces.  The image at right shows one hidden in a crack above our door frame, but reveals the little lamellae under the toes that allow them to stick so well.

I'm not sure where they retreat during the day, but likely go up through cracks in the eaves under the roof. I've noticed over the years that as the Summer goes on, the insect population attracted to the porch light falls drastically even with the monsoon rains - the opposite of what you would expect. Likely these guys are the reason, and those responsible are friends of mine! Too bad they are so shy - they can quickly retreat into the smallest cracks - shown here at left is one near the crack in the eave - already occupied by one with toes sticking out. And at right is another behind part of the security door as another peers out from another crack above. I didn't even know I had captured the one at upper left until I saw the frame...

But if you know me, I love a challenge, so capturing these (dare I say cute?!) little guys is a lot of fun. They relax a little when safely hidden, or at least near a retreat, so have had some luck in capturing them with a macro. Most all of these have been with the 100mm lens, and of course, the on-camera flash of the Canon XSi. The problem remains pointing and getting close to focus in pitch dark hidden behind the porch light. Usually a little hand-held LED flashlight is used to get close to focus, autofocus doing the heavy lifting before exposing. The head shot at left shows great detail around the eye, the one at right is actually a 2-frame focus-stack while it held still long enough to get a little more of his head and foot sharply.

SO there you have it - a little over a month ago I didn't know they existed. Knowing they are there seems a constant fascination - coming up to the house at night we get to watch out for more than feral cats - geckos now too!