Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fair to Partly Cloudy!

Well, it is 31 December, so must be time for a look back at 2015! I'm shamefully copying Andrew Cooper, who started the review on his blog a few years back and has already finished his 2015 wrap-up! I echo his sentiments exactly in his wrap-up that it is a great place to look to see "where has the year gone?" and I tell everyone they should be blogging if nothing more than to keep a personal diary of their goings-on in life.

It has been a busy year for Melinda and I. Unfortunately, it revolves around her small-cell lung cancer battle now in its third year. While we've had our ups and downs over that time, the year ends on a good note as her current treatment with Irinotecan is having a dramatic effect on her tumors! She was given the month of November off of treatments to recover a little, and has just finished her 5th cycle of the drug, which was developed for colon cancer, but is making her a cover-girl for Dr. Garland's talks at conferences. After round 6 starting next week, there will be another PET scan the end of January - fingers crossed for continued good news!

Despite her treatment regimen and my continued part-time work at the Mirror Lab, we've been on the road a lot this year! A February trip to Puerto PeƱasco to visit our buddy Margie resulted in a spectacular sunset across the Sea of Cortez with the 10,000+ foot high mountains of Baja visible just on the horizon (post of 3 March). A new (to me) 300mm close-focusing telephoto allowed close examination of some passing pelicans from the sea wall from the old port town (27 February).

A trip to "Ketelsen East" in June allowed us to meet our new great-nieces that live in Iowa. At left, brother and sister Jeff and Sarah show off their newborns, born 3 weeks apart a couple months earlier. Jeff (wife Sandy) holds Natalie and Sarah (husband Tom) shows off her daughter Adeline. Jeff and Sarah (and their sister Jennifer" had the "photo gene" growing up - always ready with a smile for the camera. The new ones have yet to learn those traits yet!  At right, their mother (my sister) Kathy takes a photo of another niece Breanna holding Adeline.  I'm sure the kids got tired of being passed around (post from 13 June)!

Other of my favorite images from that trip were a macro shot of some of the greenery out after a rain storm. I've always enjoyed close-ups of raindrops acting as little magnifying lenses showing details, here on the back of an oak leaf (post from 7 June). I had taken my IR modified camera which excels at showing greenery and haze penetration. Looking out the airplane window on the trip home, I captured reservoirs in Kansas, the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and in flying over our neighborhood in Tucson, "Ketelsen West", the first time I've happened to have a camera in hand as we flew over our house (post from 17 June)!

In October, we were able to travel to Columbia, South Carolina to help celebrate the 90th birthday (!) of Betty Quave, mother of my first wife Vicki. We've stayed close over the years and Melinda and I both consider her the mother we're both missing. Unfortunately, the weekend of the celebration coincided with a hurricane off the coast funneling moisture up through central South Carolina, resulting in 20 inches of rain over a couple days. Flooding closed down the city and curfews delayed our departure a day as well. We were not near any of the destruction, though we lost water overnight. The celebration got cancelled, so the family that had arrived celebrated in a local restaurant. At left is shown her collection of grandchildren gathered around her, including my niece Shannon, and nephews Rhett, Brian, Eric and Asher. At right is an "olde-timey" portrait of Betty spotted as we were going through photo collections at the house (post from 4 October).

We make 3 trips to Illinois this year - I won't relate here about our flight cancellation story which had us staying an additional day and a half in Illinois (16 June). But one of my favorite activities there is stalking wild game - mostly bugs, with the macro lens. Interestingly, I find new ones every year that I've not a clue what they are. Thanks to the Bugguide website, experts help ID what you are seeing! Such was the case with the ladybug larvae here at left, feeding on an aphid, and a lacewing larvae on the same plant a couple days later at right (21 August).

The attraction to the challenge of imaging lil' creatures extends to what I find in Tucson also. This year I discovered a colony of Mediterranean geckos living in front of the house, hunting insects under our porch light, and living in narrow cracks leading up under the eaves and roof. Extremely shy, they retreat quickly if you look at them very long, but thanks to the flash and the 300mm lens, I had fun capturing some images (12 July). Also in front of the house, the occasional praying mantis would show up under the light too, likely also hunting for smaller prey. They seemed to have some sort of treaty with the geckos, as they didn't seem to bother each other. They were much easier to approach, and I stacked the macro with extension tubes and used the on-camera flash of the XSi to get the hand-held shot at right for the 30 September post.

We had a pretty good monsoon season this year, and our cacti flowers responded, attracting the usual pollinators. I was able to set up on a couple nights, collecting the Rustic Sphinx moths that came to feed on the cereus repandus on the east side of the house. My post on 5 September is quite the collection of images, with 32 moth visits captured in 2,000 images over 2 nights. At left, one of the rustics docks with his huge proboscis in one of the flowers, which can reach 6" (15cm) diameter. With about 2% of the images capturing moths, I usually don't stay to watch "live", but rather use a timer to capture them by chance. I happened to be there for the visit for one, though, and over 30 seconds captured it feeding in 6 frames shown at right. The numbers in the frames are the number of seconds after the first frame was taken...

In our neighborhood, we're known as "the cat people", currently with 8 of them sharing the house with us. But we lost a couple early in the year. Pixel and Hootie were both over 15 years old, and led good healthy lives (post from 21 February). The images at left are from years ago and were Photoshopped by Melinda as a cat intro on the blog. Most of the new crop of kitties don't have mug shots like these, but these vintage cats have them. At right, we also had to give up Spitz this Fall. I had high hopes for him, as he is a great cat, but he was FIV+ and when we tried to introduce him to our family, he would attack the other cats - definitely not allowed! We gave him a good chance, but it didn't work out. He is currently at Hope Animal Shelter and available for adoption to an only-cat household (21 December).

My buddy Chuck figured in my learning some new skills this year. I had asked him to go on a short flight around western Pima County early in the year in search of views of the mountains on Baja across the Sea of Cortez. We could barely make out the sea, let alone the mountains across them, but had fun with other stuff. At left is a 2-frame mosaic of the cramped side-by-side seating in the plane as we taxied out to the strip at Ryan Field. We flew past my former employer Kitt Peak both ways, and on the return I captured this infrared view of the Observatory atop it. The IR shows vegetation as white, so it can be tough to spot the domes among the vegetation, but is an interesting view from the air. The IR also penetrates haze better with the longer wavelengths, so can be very useful for aerial views. Both of these are from the 16 March post.

The skills I developed from this trip included learning how to make anaglyph 3D images. Since many of the shots I took from the plane were in quick succession, when combined with the plane's motion as baseline, some amazing 3D images could be made. There is a reasonably easy, about 5 step process in Photoshop that is easy to apply so that depth can be seen with the commonly available red/blue glasses. Here are a couple of my favorites from that first plane ride with Chuck, so grab your red/blue 3D glasses!  At left, as we first passed Kitt Peak on its south side, a pair of shots a couple seconds apart reveal depth throughout the Observatory. And on the return trip, a wide pair of shots shows not only Kitt Peak in stereo, but all the canyons reaching back to Baboquivari in the distance! These are from the 24 March post.

I was a anaglyph nut the rest of the year, a few of the best appearing here. As long as you have a baseline where you can image the same object, you can create the 3D stereo image. I put it to good use flying to the Midwest as we passed the Mount Graham Observatories. By taking a pair of images a few seconds apart, both stereo on the mountain and cloud deck can be seen - even when going 400mph! The image off Graham at left was from the 4 August post. And as well as it works with macroscopic objects like mountaintop observatories, it also works with small objects like shells on a beach. On our Christmas return to Rocky Point, Mexico, I used a macro lens and a monopod set to the minimum height. Swinging the camera a couple inches using the monopod as a pivot works perfectly to keep focus and scale (26 December post).

In June I was able to catch the last 2 nights of the 2015 Grand Canyon Star Party, keeping my 25-year attendance record intact! While still on the anaglyph subject, I tried my hand on a variety of subjects. When you want depth several miles away (like on a plane for distant scenes), the baseline needs to be 100 meters or more. At left is a color image pair of Isis Temple. At right, I repeated the technique on Bright Angel Canyon using the IR camera. The B&W images seem to work better with the red/blue images. I've found that trying to image strongly colored objects, particularly if they are red (like the Canyon) or blue can introduce strange viewing effects. The other defect introduced for these "hyperstereos" is that since it takes a finite amount of time to walk the baseline distance, objects can move (like people or cars in urban scenes), and in this case, with the low sun angle, you can detect slight shadow creep between frames (both from 25 June post).

So yes, I did make the Grand Canyon for 2 days. I started the event in 1990, and while I've retired from organizing, I'm gratified by the excellent job that Jim O'Connor and the Park staff are doing in promoting and supporting the event. It brings a sense of pride when so many thousands of the public are exposed to dark skies there. We continue to get excellent support from amateur astronomers too. At left, Jim Palmer offered to take photos with visitor's cell phones of the crescent moon through his telescope. At right, after the observing was winding down, I talked Bernie Sanden into putting my 16mm fisheye on his 6D camera to record the rising Milky Way. In the 25 second (!) exposure, it also captured the green glow of airglow near the horizon.

Image by Stan Honda
One of the year's highlights was a visit from back east by photographers Ken Spencer and Stan Honda. I helped coordinate some activities and together with fellow local Mike Terenzoni, we toured a few places around southern Arizona. At left is a selfie taken by Stan from the enclosure of the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham. That is me at right, Stan in black, Elliot, our engineer/tourguide, Ken, Mike, and the two astronomers for the night. We were allowed to stay for a few hours after sunset, taking photos from around and inside the telescope enclosure - having a grand time (28 April). At right is a group shot I took as we spent time on Kitt Peak a night or two later. This is a B&W IR shot near sunset as we self-toured the place with the 4 meter telescope in the background (May 19th).

One of the interests I had in our tours was borrowing Ken's camera, another Canon 6D. I took some frames with it from inside the LBT enclosure, and compared it to my best with the venerable Canon 20Da a few years earlier. The new 6D had almost no noise in comparing the images, shooting at ISO 6400 compared to the noise snowstorm in my 20Da at ISO 1600 (that comparison on 9 May). This image appeared on the blog April 29th - a 1 minute exposure with the 16mm fisheye!

Speaking of big scopes, buddy Roger Ceragioli and I volunteered for an open-house evening on Kitt Peak, one of the side benefits was looking through the WIYN 3.5 meter! Here we examined the planet Jupiter before sunset. The enclosure is so small, this is a 6-frame mosaic assembled to show it all (5 May).

While it seems as though I didn't get out for many long nights of observing, reviewing the results posted, I did get out a lot, but mostly I was home before bedtime. These shorter nights while limiting in my observing program, had me home to assist Melinda if she needed it. The year started with a bright comet. I came down with a bout of pneumonia and was actually in the hospital for a few days. I wasn't sure I'd get out to see the best of comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2. I felt like I was an escaping prisoner when I talked Melinda into going out for a couple hours to image it near the Pleiades Star cluster at left. Shown is 15 minutes of exposure with an 85mm lens (19 January). Two weeks later, I went out again as it passed a galaxy and star cluster, shooting this time with a 135mm lens with 20 minutes of exposure.

The new year also brought a new observing accessory - a new van! My former venerable '88 got rear-ended while stopped at a red light. The insurance company totaled it out with a grand payout of $550! I cashed in some chips and replaced it with a '05 model, shown here in the front yard...

Besides Comet Lovejoy, which was its first observing trip, there was another interesting comet in 2015 - Comet SOHO C/2015 D1. Discovered by a satellite that monitored the near-sun environment, it spotted the comet diving into the sun, but lost its snowball of a nucleus, resulting in a "ghost comet" - only a remnant sprig of a tail. I took a chance it might be observed and spotted it on the 8th of March (9 March post). In 22 minutes of stacked exposures with the 135 lens, it looks like a little Cheshire cat mustache!

Some observing projects didn't require leaving the yard! One project requiring 6 months to complete, included taking an image of the sun with earth at both at its perihelion and aphelion distance (closest and farthest distance). The difference in size amounts to a little over 3%, which is easily observed when doing a comparison like this. Ironically, the sun is closest to the earth in Winter and further in Summer - of course, the distance has little effect on the earth's temperature... Interestingly, the images, taken 6 months apart, both had large sunspot groups at the same solar longitude. See the 7 July post for more info.

Also in July, we had a 2 day break in the monsoon rains and I tried imaging Pluto from the back yard, even as the spacecraft New Horizons was racing towards a flyby. Not knowing if I could spot it from town, I at least tried, and it was quite easy! Shown at right (13 July post), I used the anaglyph techniques to tint the 10 July image blue and the 11 July image red (click for the full-size image to see colors).

September 27 brought us a total lunar eclipse - the last one we'll see for a few years. I set up in the back yard to catch some images. The early stages were easily recorded as it happened right after sunset, with the full moon rising in partial eclipse - the left image taken from our back alley (28 September post).

A few weeks ago we enjoyed a daytime occultation of Venus (moon passing in front of it). Unfortunately we had some clouds partially obscuring it until a few minutes before, and I was barely able to catch it just before Venus popped out of view (7 December post).

Another night I was able to get out for a few hours, I headed west to the western slopes of Kitt Peak, where I set up my tracking platform. Using a wide-angle lens (14mm Samyang), I shot a 3-frame vertical mosaic of the western sky. In February, the Zodiacal Light is prominent as it reaches almost straight up to join in to the Mikly Way near the Pleiades. There are many objects visible in the frame, so am including a labeled version at right. Besides 4 planets (don't forget the Earth!), there is a comet (Lovejoy), a couple galaxies, and some nice constellations too. Interestingly, the blue lights out in the desert are water stations places by humanitarian organizations as many illegals try crossing the desert out in the Indian reservation there.

One of my projects was to rebuild my 11"Newtonian telescope. Effectively, I replaced the big guide scope with a smaller auto-guider with digital camera, making it much lighter. At left it is shown in its inaugural outing at friend Pat's place down in Benson, illuminated by a red flashlight. The new auto-guider is that little white cylinder atop it. It shows good promise - at left is 4 minutes of total exposure on the Pleiades cluster. The cluster is known for its embedded dust cloud, though it appears that the cluster happens to be moving through the dust clouds, and was not formed from it...

On a different night (7 November) at Pat's place, we witnessed a brilliant Trident missile launch from a submarine off the California coast. The spherical shell structure was brighter and visually quite distinct - amazingly so from 600 miles! It seemed to take forever to get a camera out, on the tripod and focused and I missed the brightest part... The missile itself is still visible headed downrange at the white jet to right of the bluish center (likely an artifact of the first stage separation.

And back in August (23 August post), I took a 5-frame mosaic of one of my favorite objects, the Pipe Nebula in Ophiuchus. Using the 200mm lens, it retains good resolution, yet the mosaic provides a nice field of view.

I'll close out the year with some of my adventures on Mount Lemmon Highway - one of my favorite places for not only catching the Kitt Peak Solstice alignment, but the view from Babad Do'ag (irreverently referred to as "Bad Dog") is hard to beat! Case in point is a single-shot with the camera kit lens set to 60mm to record the crescent moon over the lights of Tucson with Kitt Peak and Baboquivari back-illuminated by late twilight glow (14 November post).

And speaking of the solstice sunset alignment, at right is a gif of the 17 December sunset, with images taken at 3 second intervals. While I'm happy with the sequence, the gif has some artifacts I don't care for.

And that was my favorite moving image of the year, until post-Christmas I went sunset chasing again, generating this version from 2-second interval sequence on 27 December. To avoid the artifacts, I uploaded a movie clip to youtube:

So in all, a good year - lots of adventures and fun along the way. Hopefully we can get thru the cancer thing and spend more time feeling better and getting out. Perhaps we'll see you along the way!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Just One More, And Then Another...

Tonight's title comes from a song.  Our movie buddy Larry makes a mix tape every holiday and we were lucky enough to get one last year. One country-tinged song, called "Just One More" by Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott has the words: One more drink of wine/ And if you're still on my mind/ One drink, just one more, and then another". So it goes for my sunset sojourns - a week ago I said I was done with them for the season, but the more I thought of it, the more I wanted to go up again and chase the alignment further down the hill. Perhaps I should have done what the song suggests - stay home and drink, but after a two day trip to Mexico for Christmas, I again headed up the Mount Lemmon Highway in search of celestial alignments.

Using the Heavens-Above website to calculate the Sun's declination, it was obvious I would miss the alignment at my usual setup point (from my experience the week before), so it was time to bias my position to realign the sun and Observatory profile. TAAA member Jim O'Connor stayed on the turn, biased as far south as he could set up, and I went south a bit and up a hill a couple hundred yards to "Thimble Peak Vista". There, among the hordes of folks going down the road after playing in the snow atop the mountain, I set up the scope for imaging the sunset. Note from the left image that observing any further south isn't allowed as the side of the hill about 1km away would block the view... So this night was perhaps the REAL last chance for an alignment.

With the sun barely in the field of the telescope, I quickly checked focus and exposure, then started the sequence using an intervalometer, taking frames every 2 seconds. Once started, there was really nothing for me to do other than watch, so took a couple frames with Melinda's camera and 300mm lens (without filter) at left. I knew the sun would be overexposed, but wanted to catch the other mountains that aren't visible through the solar filter. This shot is F/10 and 1/2500 second. It turns out that the alignment was perfect! Shown at right is about the most-centered frame. All together, 142 frames were included in the sequence from start to finish, so I went through them all, cropped each down to the center 60% of the frame and fine-tuned levels slightly. No color or sharpening was done, otherwise straight shots through the Baader solar filter, TEC 140 scope and 1/80th second exposures at ISO 200.

Putting all the frames together, I made another GIF, but the artifacts similar to the last version bothered me, so I uploaded it to Youtube after making a clip in Moviemaker.  In this video I also added a couple frames where I ID the profile of the main scopes at Kitt Peak.  Here it is with 2 loops through the frames - full screen and HD if you can:

Unfortunately, while I had a perfect set of data, Jim O'Connor had some software issues and didn't catch an alignment on the usual curve.  Looking at some frames that his wife Susan took, I'm thinking they could have caught it there too.

And of course, in the theme of "Just one more, and then another", I decided that perfect wasn't good enough! I felt bad about chickening out about trying 1 frame/second for the intervalometer, so wanted to push that, and also wondered if I could catch one more alignment from the Thimble Peak Vista. The quick answers are yes and no.  Yes, if I didn't overload the camera by trying to write raw files, it seemed to write jpegs just fine at 1/second. But unfortunately, while the data streamed in quickly at 1/second for over 4 minutes, the alignment couldn't be seen a full week after Solstice. Examining the image at left, you can see the sun is north enough that it doesn't ever cover all the scopes at once, though it does over a period of several seconds. So in my book, the alignment season's limits are +/- 1 week. I'll likely write up a compendium of all this information for future alignment chasers - so look for that if you are interested...