Friday, October 30, 2015

Modern Ghost Story!

Since Halloween is upon us, I wanted to tell you the story of something that happened today.  Perhaps you can help me explain it, but I can't.  It is certainly spooky  - I'm thinking my "new" van is haunted!

The weather in Tucson has been spectacular - that is except for all the clouds and rain!  But at least it hasn't been in the 90s for over a week!  Today the high was in the low 70s (all temps in F), so was almost cold going to work in short sleeves and shorts, my usual uniform.

Anyway, after work I swung past Sam's Club to get the normal 10 pound bag of candy for trick-or-treaters, and a few other things.  It was nice-enough weather that I likely had the driver's side window down.  There was a storm in the distance that I didn't pay much attention to, in fact, it was starting to sprinkle as I walked into the store.  Not sure if I closed the driver's door window, though...

I was in Sam's for less than 30 minutes, but as I exited, it appeared it rained pretty hard for at least a bit.  Everything was pretty wet.  I got into the van after loading the goods and immediately noticed that the interior of the driver's door was wet, and the seat was so wet that it got my butt wet through the shorts, yet the window was up!  I was thinking that perhaps I'd left the window open and a passing good Samaritan had closed it, but with the power windows and the keys in my pocket, hard to justify that excuse.  Driving in downpours before, I've never seen the door or windows leaking, but it certainly seemed the window MUST have been open during the rainstorm, but was closed on my arrival.  Weird stuff - what do you think?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Large Caliber Entertainment!

Every once in a while, when it isn't to hot out in the desert mornings, a few of the "gang" go out shooting. I've blogged about it before last Fall. Seems a little weird, this mix of ultra-liberals and conservatives gathering to shoot guns, but hey - it's Arizona! Thursdays are generally the days they go out, preferred by one of the doctors, but interestingly, he never goes the Thursdays I can make it... Since Melinda's treatments are normally on Thursdays, we were only able to join in a couple weeks ago on her last chemo break.

Doc Chuck is sort of our motivator to get out, and is always looking for new ways to compete. In the previous post from last year, he had a "dueling tree" that swings around when you hit it. That way you can compete against another shooter and usually the best shot hitting the 4" targets is easily recognized. This time they had a paper target with zones worth various point totals. Six shots and your point total is recorded. Ironically, I volunteered to be first out of the gate with my little .380 and immediately scored a perfect 60! It has little recoil and I seemed to aim better than with my 45.   In the images here, Chuck and Sue take a look at the scatter in her shots, and at right, the collection of guns available for shooting is shown.

Chuck then got the idea from Detective Dan (retired police detective) to shoot as fast as possible, where you got a higher score for both accuracy and speed. Not unexpectedly, police-trained Dan did the best with this method. Chuck thinks he can get a timer from his brother that records the length of time from the first-to-last shot for more accurate timing one of these next sessions.

I happened to take some pictures of the guys shooting and discovered some interesting things. Far be it from me to criticize anyone's style, but the pictures don't lie! At left are a pair of images of Sue shooting her 9mm, one just before firing and the next just afterwards as the cartridge is being ejected. The two images are stacked in Photoshop, and demonstrates the effect of the recoil. Sue has an unusual "lean-back" posture, and also the recoil seems a huge 20 degrees or more. She had a large scatter in her shooting, and corrective action might be in order. Dan, in comparison at right, has the more conventional "lean-in" posture and suffers much less recoil with his .38.

Finally we put the target away and shot a few rounds on the "dueling tree" again. At left, Sue and Sam are shown firing away, and at left Sue and Dan are competing. I did pretty mediocre in this round, but was still glowing from my perfect score on the paper target!

With November comes nearly perfect Fall mornings, and Chuck has dates in mind already. I've warned him we're generally not available Thursdays, so will see if we get out anytime soon, but will look forward to the next trip out...

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Another Learning Adventure!

On Thursday after a long day in the Arizona Cancer Center keeping Melinda company for her latest round of chemo, I was ready for a drive just to get out of town. The IV drugs they administer help her with the immediate side effects of the chemo for a few days, so knew she would be ok at home. They make her a little sleepy, so likely she would relax at home, surrounded by cats.

For my adventure, there was a bright moon, so no astronomical imaging of the usual sort, but I'd been keeping my eye on ARGOS from a distance. ARGOS is an instrument on the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and stands for Advanced Rayleigh guided Ground layer adaptive Optics System. In short, a laser makes an array of guide stars around the field of view and instrumentation partially corrects the distortion caused by turbulence in the atmosphere over an extended field of view. Most large telescope's artificial guide star systems work over a field of view of a few arc-seconds, but ARGOS corrects a field of 4 arc-minutes, a huge improvement. I've blogged about it before - the 18 watt lasers can be seen for many miles, and with post-storm clearing, I was hoping to get another chance to take more images. The image at left shows an shot from 22 miles away that I was hoping to improve on. This image, taken on 8 November, 2013 resulted in a blog post, but the images taken with a 200mm lens at left and the William Optics scope showed some color shifts, and even though I had intended to do a time-lapse, I never attempted it with all the work involved.

So I made the 90 minute drive, arriving just at dark, looking for a site a little closer than that I used before. I quickly found a nice quiet deserted site a little off the paved road. Unfortunately, my first exposure showed that the only cloud in the sky was found hugging the profile of Mount Graham, my target! Shown at left through the 200mm lens, it was pretty close - stars were above the mountain, but residual moisture from the storm left a defiant cloud cap. Staff on the mountain had found the season's first snow the previous day, and I know from my experiences on Kitt Peak that even the humidity that sticks around after the clouds dissipate would likely keep the scope closed. Fortunately, this trip I had the phone number for the console room of the telescope, so could use my cell phone to find out directly what was going on! And the operator Thursday was Geno - who I've worked with occasionally a couple decades ago when he worked at a metrology place here in town. Geno confirmed they were, indeed, in a cloud cap and were unlikely to open anytime soon, because of humidity as above... Oh well, it was such a pleasant evening too!

Well, since I was there, I got out one camera anyway and took a few frames. My first shots of the night provided a learning moment for me! I saw Ursa Minor with Polaris nicely placed so thought I'd take a short exposure of it. After carefully focusing on distant farm lights, I pointed it up to Polaris and took a 30 second exposure. My eureka moment was seeing not pinpoint stars, but little wormy trails. While I had carefully turned off the autofocus feature of the lens so it wouldn't go hunting for focus in the dark, I had NOT turned off the image stabilization (IS). For longish exposures (30 seconds here), the corrective optics get lost and drift, resulting in trailing star images. I corrected the issue and re-exposed, shown at left. The inset is from the exposure with IS turned on and you can see the effect. Also in my sky, the Big Dipper asterism was hugging the horizon, so I took a 2-frame panorama to capture it and Mount Graham. The lights are from local farms and the nearby community of Fort Grant. The Dipper is at left and the cloud-capped Mount Graham is at right. There is an artifact from the vignetting of the two images that result in a darkening in the center...

With the bright moon and little chance of LBT and ARGOS making an appearance anytime soon, I decided to head back to Tucson for an early evening of it. I got back pretty much right at 9pm. The next morning, I got an e-mail from one of the engineers that said that was about the time they were able to open the telescope... Which was ok, because with that late start, taking a couple hours of images would have resulted in a return time well after Midnight. Will try it on another time...

But when searching for the topmost image on my last ARGOS imaging session, I returned to the files taken nearly 2 years ago. I've spent the last day or two going thru them and making the time-lapse I had hoped to. On that trip, Melinda and I recorded about 2 hours of images through my 70-200 zoom set to 200, and also on the William Optics scope, with 770mm of focal length. The former had 1 minute exposures at F/3.5 and the scope needed 2 minute exposures working at F/7. I do not know the details of the program that night, but they apparently were set up on the same part of sky for those hours. Also visible are a number of planes, cars going to and from the mountain, and of course, the LBT can be seen rotating to keep the object in the field. It apparently was tracking something just north of the zenith as the dome was turned north, not south towards us. Since I've got a new telescope with more focal length (the TEC 140), I'm ready to try it again when I get a chance. Enjoy the time-lapse - watch it full screen in HD if you can...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rainout at the KPNO Fall Star-B-Que...

Last night was our Fall, 2015 Star-B-Que at the Kitt Peak picnic area, held for about 20 years now. Last night's reminded me of the very first one - Kitt Peak had been very paranoid about anyone outside astronomers being on the mountain after the death of Marc Aaronson in 1987. It was nearly a decade later that we convinced them that the picnic area with its open-air pavilion, flush bathrooms and 6500 foot elevation was the perfect place for a "Star-B-Que", a cookout and star party, and it has happened ever since. That very first one, where we were permitted only 25 attendees, filled up with those wanting to join in, and even though the weather was questionable, 23 still showed! I recall it rained so hard that we had a hard time keeping the charcoal grill going! But it was a memorable time, as is nearly every trip up that mountain.

Again, the weather was questionable, but there were lots of blue skies and sun on the 60 mile drive to the SW of Tucson. As organizer, I had to arrive a little early, head to the visitor center and collect the keys to the picnic area and staff area where the gas grill is now locked up. Arriving a little after 3pm, I found the night time programs had been cancelled for the weather, but as I'm fond of saying, at least we'll have a cookout!

Upon driving up, I grabbed a camera to take some more time-lapse of the VLBA dish. It was just a week ago that it was moving multiple times per minute to a new object, and it seemed to be sticking to that schedule. I took a short sequence with a frame every 20 seconds and show it as a GIF here at left.

We had a few attendees dribble in, so the grill was pulled out and set up adjacent to the restrooms. We also had some auspicious visitors! Mike Spooner, telescope maker extraordinaire and his wife Elvira attended after I contacted them a few weeks earlier. Mike has joined the ranks of the recently retired, and had brought one of his gems down with which to observe. Also, Demetry Papadopoulos, a doctor, had flown in from where he lives in Charleston, SC for some desert observing. Ironically, it was clear back home, and the Peach Star Gaze in Georgia, where he usually goes to observe this weekend, also had clear skies! Besides Jim and Elaine Miller and Paul Lorenz, TAAA stalwarts, that was about the extent of our crew.  With Melinda and me, we could all fit at one picnic table!

But as I said above, even if the skies don't cooperate, there is usually something of interest going on, and storms can be spectacular from elevation where you can see them for 100 miles! While we didn't have any raindrops early, the view off the west side of the mountain was at times breathtaking. At left is shown a view of vertical rain shafts to the distant west, alternated with some slanted crepuscular rays where the sun shown through breaks in the clouds.  You can see that the distant west looked to be clear, and if it looks familiar, I've mentioned them before in identifying the Pinacate volcano field. The flat-topped range are the Mesquite Mountains, about 40 miles west of Kitt Peak, and the peak to the left is Mount Cubabi, just into Mexico south of Sonoita/Lukeville border area. As time passed, the storms grew a little nearer, with associated lightning too as shown at right. While I was using a timer at the moment this was taken, I actually pushed the button manually, as these strokes sometime last long enough to react to. I would have been lucky indeed to catch one taking an image every 15 seconds with intervalometer!

Locally, the rain picked up and I was out protecting the cameras I had going with my trusty umbrella! Behind a bush I saw a glow and thought the sun was sitting on the horizon already... Walking a couple meters, it was the sun reflecting off sheet flooding out in the desert! The sun, still hidden behind clouds, eventually dropped into the clear gap and gave a spectacular encore setting behind some storms and providing some amazing colors. I shouted out to the attendees, hunkered down in the pavilion to come see and all were amazed. Unfortunately in my haste to catch it, the camera was slightly out of focus, so didn't make a time-lapse, but did catch 3 representative frames as the sun moved through the gap. The top one shows the sun reflecting off the flooded desert I mentioned, then the sun eventually coming into view and momentarily being partially hidden by clouds.

As the sequence neared its end with sunset, the rain intensified and everyone ran for the cars.  I stayed to the bitter end, holding the umbrella against the downpour.  Between the lightening and rain, everyone was long gone before I packed up, and I had to return the key to the mountaintop before leaving.  It has been a long time since driving in rain that heavy, but at least the near-constant lightning helped light the way!  At 7:45, it was about the earliest we've ever gotten back from a star party - even got to catch the last inning of the Cubs playoff game!  The storm followed us, arriving in Tucson about 30 minutes later, but lacked the intensity of the Kitt Peak version.

But as I've said before, a trip to the mountain is always entertaining, and this one was no exception!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Updates On Recent Postings

Often after posting on the blog, new images come to light, or I think of a slightly new topic to add. Case in point is the recent post on the praying mantis from a few weeks ago. Four nights after the mantis pair arrived, one returned and seemed very content to pose for me. I took the opportunity to shoot him through the security door - how he appears from inside the house at left (illuminated by the porch light). After mounting the macro lens, I went to take a few close-ups at the limit of what the lens can do without auxiliary optics or extension tubes. At right is what I came up with, using the on-camera flash of course, since it was pitch dark outside. This is at full camera resolution, so reveals the finest details that can be seen without too much effort. Not bad for a hand-held shot!

Next up (chronologically on the blog, post about the total lunar eclipse we had on the 27th of September. The eclipse happened early on a Sunday evening, right after sunset, so couldn't have been easier to observe! It happened early enough that I wasn't quite set up to take images, so didn't really get started till nearly mid-eclipse when it was deepest in the Earth's shadow. Telescopic views look so strange with the full moon surrounded by a multitude of stars! Under a normal full moon, all but the brightest stars are washed out, yet, shown here at left in a 10 second exposure with the TEC 140 are lots of stars adjacent to the moon. In some ways it resembles the "old moon in the young moon's arms" when the moon is a skinny crescent. The earth lit side unilluminated directly by sunlight is faint enough not to overwhelm adjacent stars. Of course, the color cast of the eclipsed moon picks up the sunset colors that leak around the edge of the Earth...
anyway) was the

And speaking of color casts, it has recently been recognized that shortly before second contact and just after third, you can sometimes see a blue or turquoise cast to the edge of the moon, caused by sunlight passing through the Earth's ozone layer, which scatters out the red wavelengths... The shot at right was a 1.3 second exposure taken after 3rd contact - the hard edge of the Earth's shadow is overexposed at lower right.

Finally, I recently posted about a pair of possible identical twin cats we've been feeding out front. After disappearing for a couple weeks, Spatz has decided he likes us and has been hanging out for daily feeding again. He is a fixture on the front porch, looking like an Art Institute lion parked adjacent to our front door to greet us and make sure he doesn't miss any feedings. After feeding him for at least a year, he is big and healthy, needing a neutering soon... Meanwhile, his possible twin brother Spitz is living in a dog crate in our living room, trying to socialize with our existing herd. He had nearly all of his teeth pulled a couple weeks ago, but seems to have recovered well. He is about the friendliest cat to us, but not so much with the other cats... At right he is hiding under the futon at the vet's office. Note the astronomy bed sheets! Also I had managed to put my phone's camera in B&W mode, which doesn't make much difference in shooting a "tuxedo" cat, but makes for a drabber background... Sptiz is going back to the vet in a couple weeks for another checkup, if Spatz is still hanging around, he'll get to go for a ride too!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Seeing the Unseen!

I was up on Kitt Peak last evening, helping out with their beginning astro-photography class. It was a very nice group - one fellow who lives 25 miles from our house in St Charles, IL, a couple from Florida and even a couple from Tucson! All were fans of astronomy and getting into trying to image the sky. My little presentation was about some of the time lapse that I do. Of course, you can click on the "time-lapse" keyword on the right side of the page, or go to this link, which does the same thing!   My motivation for most of my time lapses is sort of seeing the unseen by demonstrating the motion of the sky or objects, instead of static images.

Last night, the second night of the workshop, we got them going exposing on they sky with their own equipment on tracking platforms or piggyback on the TEC 140 piggyback on the 16" scope at the Roll Off Roof. As first time astro-photographers, we ran into the usual issues - not having adaptors for all cameras, or not having the intervalometers or cable releases to take long exposures, but we got past them mostly. Most were truly enthused about their first images, and all seemed inspired to push forward into this new aspect of their hobby.

While we were away for dinner, I had set up my tripod-mounted XSi with a 300mm lens shooting at the VLBA telescope about a mile down the road near the picnic area. The 80 foot dish is part of a 10-telescope array scattered around the hemisphere. I was hoping to demonstrate how time-lapse techniques show things you had no idea were going on. Take an image of the dish and yea, looks interesting, but take a second and third and you realize that it is changing its pointing between EVERY frame taken at 30 second intervals! Of course, I knew nothing of the observing program - the telescope is run remotely from the VLA headquarters near Socorro, NM. I do know that IR and radio wavelength observations used to take data by offsetting off the object to measure the background signal. This is what appears to be happening here. You can see offsets both N-S and E-W in the time-lapse.

Anyway, I took the VLBA sequence and also one of the sun setting in a clear gap in the west, to demonstrate how easy it is to use Microsoft's Moviemaker program to make the time-lapse. But the constant motion of the radio telescope was more interesting in my book. However, the sunset was interesting too in that it set directly behind the Pinicate Mountains, visible as the more distant peaks here. They have been featured many times on the blog as we drive past them on the way to Puerto Penasco on the Sea of Cortez. At left is a pre-sunset image of where the sun eventually set. The flat-topped mountains are the Mesquite range, nearly due west of Kitt Peak. The more distant mountains are the volcanic Pinacates, just over 100 miles distant. At right is the same horizon with the sun entering the image...

Finally, here is the time-lapse I constructed during the workshop, here with an intro shot and uploaded to Youtube. The radio telescope is a flurry of activity, moving between nearly every frame taken at 30 second intervals.  Go to full screen and HD if you have a high speed internet connection!

We fought a few thin clouds through the evening, but fun was had by all as they say, and hopefully we all learned a few things.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Carolina Adventure!

We intended to enjoy a leisurely trip to Columbia, South Carolina, help celebrate the 90th (!) birthday of our mother-in-law Betty, and take in some of the ambiance of the South. As it was, South Carolina was declared a disaster area, but at least we got to have a birthday celebration! With days to go before our trip, we were a little concerned about hurricane Joaquin threatening the Eastern Seaboard, but what can you do but take your trip. Midweek they had some good rains and when we arrived Friday, it started again in earnest. By the end of the weekend they collected 20+ inches of rain, which washed out hundreds of roads and bridges, and before we got out Tuesday, over 15 fatalities in the state. It truly was a disaster area, certainly if you watched the continuous coverage on local TV.

But in downtown Columbia where we stayed, less than 3 miles from Betty's house, we were on high enough ground we never saw flooding, or even any standing water in the streets. Certainly in low-lying areas there were boat and helicopter rescues, but from our part of town, it was just a rainy weekend. It got worse over the weekend as the water plant was overcome by flooding and the entire city was under a boil water order for any drinking or cooking. It worsened when the parts of town we were in had no water at all for 15 hours or so... You don't know how much you depend on the utilities until they go away! At least we always had electric power in our part of town.

We got in late on Friday and Saturday headed to Betty's house, where she and Mackie raised their 4 girls, and about the time the girls moved out, their granddaughter Shannon grew up there too. It is an unassuming 1930s two-story brick home. The girls lived up in the attic, the adults downstairs. Shown at left is an exterior shot, and at right the living room with a comfortably appointed screened in porch behind the double doors where, in drier weather, we would have spent much of the weekend. Simply furnished, it is a very pleasant place to gather and converse, or hold a pizza party, which is what we did on Saturday night.

Being that we first gathered on Saturday, the first order of business was to find coverage of the local and regional football games of interest. Betty's youngest daughter Susan managed to get her two boys to Columbia. Both attend Texas A&M, so were intent on finding the game on TV (they were not successful), but had to settle for watching the occasional score. By later in the day after a couple meals, most of the Texas contingent was snoozing in front of the TV (at left). The kitchen was similarly Spartan, but airy and easy to handle a crowd of people. Shown at left is a 6-frame panorama of the kitchen where the girls grew up. Unseen is a little breakfast nook just out of the frame at left.

There seemed a plethora of still-life possibilities. As with any grandmother's cabinet-top, grandchildren, and daughters who have passed populate picture frames. Seen at left are great-grandkids Hayes, Cort, Eric, Asher, Rhett and Brian, with daughters Vicki (who I was married to for 13 years) and Sharon. At right, in the picture window of the dining room, her normal angel collection is being displaced by the plethora of birthday cards she's been receiving! The careful observer might notice the puddles forming out the window in the driveway...

Of course, painters' still lives always seemed to involve fruit, so Betty's kitchen provided the view at left in the corner of her counter... Most of us looked through stacks of photos, with the momentous occasion at hand. I joined the family in 1990, so was around for the births of nearly all the male grandchildren. At right is an early photo of Betty, I suspect pre-children, which you can compare to the one of her post-children herding the girls on the beach in a post from a few years ago...

It wasn't raining continuously, almost stopping occasionally. In the front yard in the shade of a bush was a painted metal bench. It has likely seen better days, but in close-up showed interesting details with the macro lens... I knew there was some reason that I brought that lens along! I think it was the only time I used it, for the 2-frame mosaic shown here at right. What I really should have packed was a small tripod, as some of the flower pictures and other images I tried would have benefited.

Saturday drew to a close and we all adjourned to our respective hotels. All was still well with the party on Sunday, but the rain continued overnight. By Sunday with the steady downpour, the Arboretum finally called to cancel. The party was off. Most folks who had planned to attend by driving from nearby states were contacted and encouraged not to come to Columbia. One couple actually drove out to the arboretum but found the road actually washed out! So the family that had collected earlier reconvened back to Betty's. It was decided to have a low-key celebration at a local restaurant, Yesterday's that had enough room for our party of about 16. It was a fun time with a few other family members arriving. Grandson Asher is a professional soccer player and managed to cross 3 states to get to our abbreviated party. Granddaughter Shannon also joined us. At left are the 4 good-lookin' grandsons, from left are the A&M students Rhett and Brian, with Eric and Asher at right. Asher had the coveted seat next to Betty, and we got to meet his girlfriend Ashley for the first time, all shown at right.

Finally Shannon jumped in and Betty too for the official grandkids portrait at left. A good-looking bunch if you ask me!  To round out the official portraits, youngest daughter Susan poses with Betty at right.

As we dined and visited leisurely, it was revealed that the city of Columbia had called for a curfew to keep people off the streets after dark, mostly so they would not drive off roads or bridges that had washed out. Yesterday's locked the front door and hurried us out a couple hours before the 6pm curfew. Susan, Bill and the boys were to head back to Dallas that evening. They were concerned about getting to the airport 8 miles away, so with them driving Betty's car, Melinda and I followed. The trip was uneventful, but you could see the Congaree River, the biggest going through western Columbia, was a good 15 feet above normal. Looking back at our last visit to the area, the walk along the river that we posted about was far underwater! We made it to the airport fine, and Melinda drove back to Betty's. We arrived to find that her water had just stopped, and when we returned to the Marriot, it too was out of water for flushing or bathing. Bottled water was complimentary, though... We heard from Susan that the curfew had shut down the airport - they were unable to leave! Only medical and emergency vehicles allowed on the road.

By morning, I woke and took the elevator down to search for a toilet that flushed... Staff said the ground floor had water and the rest of the building soon would, for flushing and bathing only - no consumption. We had nothing better to do, so checked out, swung by and made our farewells to Betty and headed to the airport, 6 hours early for our flight. At 4pm, 3 hours to go we got the news - another curfew, shutting down the airport before our flight was to depart. American Airlines couldn't help us. No seats were available the next day. If we wanted to rent a car and pay the drop off fee we could drive to Charlotte, NC, but seemed an unnecessary expense for us. They finally handed us over to United Airlines, who had a 4pm flight the next day going through Houston to Tucson.

So Monday night we stayed in a motel that was actually nicer than the Marriot, complete with fridge and microwave, as well as jacuzzi! We were able to order out for Chinese before curfew and watched a little TV before catching up on our rest. The next morning we returned to the airport, observing a nice colorful ring around the sun (left)- a good-luck sign if I'd ever seen one. The sky cleared thru the day, and we spent another 4 hours at the airport (which we'd gotten to know pretty well after most of 2 days there!). In a bored daze, the image taken at right was of Melinda over a glass of water served in a beer glass. Ya gotta make your own fun when you are bored! Right on time, we finally boarded an airplane! It was a small plane - only 3 seats across, but made it to Houston fine, and after a 2 hour layover, boarded for Tucson, where, of course, it was raining Tuesday night when we landed at 9:45!

The plan is to reschedule the 90th birthday celebration for perhaps Betty's 90.5 year birthday! In the Spring the arboretum should be spectacularly beautiful, and well worth making the trip again. Consider this one a practice session for the next one, hopefully held before hurricane season starts!