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!

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