Thursday, April 30, 2015

We Interrupt this Coverage to Bring You Current Events!

While I should be continuing to catch you up on our excellent astronomy adventure from last week, current events are stepping in to interrupt! Currently in the western sky, the planet Mercury is in conjunction with the Pleiades Star Cluster! I've alerted local observers to it, so hope you have been watching - it is really pretty in binoculars.

Of course, all these alignments of solar system objects are from our vantage point on the Earth.n In reality, the innermost planet Mercury is not physically close to the Pleiades, just from our perspective from our planet. But still, it is fun to observe and watch the day-to-day movements. Of course, everything in the sky appears to spin over our head every 24 hours because of the earths rotation on its axis. In addition, the Pleiades, as do all stars near the ecliptic path which the Sun follows, appear to move slowly from east to west about 4 minutes of time (about 1 degree) due to the Earth's motion in its orbit. In another couple weeks, the star cluster will be invisible as it will appear to move behind the Sun, to pop out in the morning sky in a few months... Mercury, on the other hand, is coming around the far side of the Sun, higher into our evening sky a little more each night. Shown at left was Mercury and Pleiades from last night, Wednesday, 29 April. The image is cropped from seven exposures with a 200mm lens, about 45 seconds total exposure, tracked with a Polarie tracking mount. Mercury is the bright object at lower left, the cluster at upper right. Since Mercury never gets very far from the sun, the shots were taken in twilight, the cause of the glow - not light pollution, man-made at least!

Tonight is the closest approach of the pair, so went out again to capture them. There were some thin clouds, and one shot had an airliner go thru (not used for the stack). But they were significantly closer, easily fitting in a binocular field. This set of 12 exposures totaled 110 seconds of exposure.

Interestingly, today Mercury was in the news because the Messenger space probe, which has been orbiting Mercury the last 4 years, was purposely crashed onto the surface after running out of maneuvering fuel.

The planet continues to draw away from the Sun, getting higher in our sky, but will also be moving further from the Pleiades. Greatest elongation from the Sun will be on 6 May, after which it will slowly move back closer to our star, passing inferior conjunction (between us and the Sun) in a month on 30 May. Get out and observe the rarest of the naked-eye planets, and do search for the Pleiades to the lower right of it if you check the next day or two!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

More on LBT...

Image by Ken Spencer
It seems as if I'm stuck in a time warp - it has been a week already since we did the trip to Mount Graham and LBT, and yet, there doesn't seem enough hours in the day to post about it. I also had taken so many images (many for time-lapse sets and stereo-pairs) that it takes time to go through and do something with them.

Image by Stan Honda
So I'm going to start tonight's program with a couple images that are not my own! I know, I shouldn't do it, but since our little band of travelers were a tight-knit group, it's ok this time. Particularly filling in the coverage gaps that I didn't get! At left is a nice view of the LBT telescope enclosure taken from near the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. Ken took this shot - he is a former photographer from Newsday and runs a great blog - you should go visit! Anyway, it is an interesting structure. The opening (which is closed here) is facing away, and the doors you see here open to promote exchange of air in the dome while observing. The big tubes also help exhaust warm air from the big machinery room where compressors, air conditioners and other heat sources are located.

The image at right was a group shot of our intrepid band of astro-nerds at LBT that night!  Of course, that is the Large Binocular Telescope in back of us - two,  count 'em, two mirrors of 8.4 meters (about 28 feet) diameter working together for some instruments, separately for some.  That is Anne and Kevin at left, the observers for the night.  Then there is Mike and Ken from our group.  Elliot is an LBT engineer who was taking care of our needs, then Stan Honda and myself.  Stan is also a pro photographer, and infamous in our little group for getting an Astronomy Picture of the Day about 5 weeks earlier for his image of the solar eclipse from northern Norway!

Our tour started with the highlight - the telescope itself! I've been working around big scopes at Kitt Peak and big optics at the Mirror Lab most of my working life, but just being next to this gargantuan is breathtaking! And I can lay claim to polishing the pair of mirrors! At left is one of the primary mirrors, the SX or left hand one as viewed from the rear of the scope. You will note that the structure is huge, but they've never engineered a proper mirror cover, so it stays exposed to the telescope enclosure, but always point the telescope to the horizon before opening the shutter to make sure snow, ice, dead birds or whatever else doesn't fall onto the mirror.  While it looks a little dusty, they actually cleaned it a week or two before.  You might notice a swirl pattern in the surface - they use a CO2 cleaning system, much like a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher.  When horizon-pointing, the snow particles stick to the dust, and when it sublimates to a gas, lifts the dust off the mirror.  From the swirl pattern, it looks like the mechanical action of the spray did more to clean off the dust. Elliot informed us that much of it may be sticky pollen that is tough to clean off easily. This mirror is scheduled to be coated this summer shutdown, so will be good as new in a few months. At right is a view of the Gregorian secondary mirror which redirects the light to a focus through the hole in the primary to the instrument located below. In the reflection part of the primary mirror and support structure can be seen. The observers were doing spectroscopy with MODS, the Multi-Object Double Spectrograph. The spectrograph, big as a small house, splits the light into a spectrum allowing the astronomers to measure motions of many star-formation areas at once.
With such a huge structure, it is difficult to get oriented, let alone get it all in a single shot without the distortion of a fisheye. Here at left is a 6-frame mosaic of the telescope in an attempt to take it all in without distorting it too much. The primary and secondary in the SX system is seen. The large cylinder at upper left is the prime focus blue camera, swung out of the beam, as is the tertiary mirror at lower left. You can see the large ports near the center of the mirror where other large instruments are permanently located. The flat tertiary mirror swings into the beam and rotates to feed the instrument of choice. Way over on the far side of the enclosure, the secondary for the DX telescope can be seen. The DX MODS instrument isn't quite commissioned, so the observers were using just the SX side shown here.
The array of instruments is dizzying! Besides the MODS and prime focus cameras, there is PEPSI - the Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument, LUCIFER - the LBT near-infrared spectroscopic Utility with Camera and Integral Field unit for Extragalactic Research, and NIRVANA - the Near-IR/Visible Adaptive iNterferometer for Astronomy.  Astronomers love their acronyms! Starting this week, ARGOS will be in action again - I've posted about it before - ARGOS is the Advanced Rayleigh guided Ground layer adaptive Optics System.  It remains to be seen if I'll have time to track down images of it this run.

The tour ended with the inner workings of the building, including the "bogies". Turns out that this is one of the problem issues of the Observatory. The entire building rotates on a single circular rail on these 4 bogies. The weight is high enough on these 20 wheels that small shards of metal are occasionally peeled off the rail. Talking to one of the mechanical engineers at work who designed much of the telescope and building, he recalls the weight is 50 tons per wheel, so something over 1000 tons of weight supporting the precision motion of the structure... He was also telling me stories of replacing bearings in the drive that failed because of under lubrication. Always something interesting going on in big science!

They opened the telescope right at sunset, when Stan took our group shot above. One of my plans was to borrow Ken's new Canon 6D camera to take some time-lapse images. When I last did it in 2008 with my Canon 20D, I had to use 6 minute exposures in the dark enclosure with ISO 1600 and an F/3.5 lens. Such a long exposure necessitated using in-camera darks to reduce the hot pixels, doubling the exposure again - only 5 frames per hour! With Ken's new camera with its larger, full 35mm format, I used an F/2.8 lens and ISO 6400 for only 60 second exposures, no noise reduction required! The difference was night and day - likely the subject of a subsequent post. At left is one of these 1 minute exposures. The red lights at lower left is Mike or Stan at their camera taking exposures. Thru the open door at left center, the peak of Mount Graham can be spotted and to the left of that door, the crescent moon was casting shadows of the enclosure on the far wall. There were a few thin clouds in the sky, but spectroscopy isn't much affected by them. After my hour or so of 1 minute exposures, before packing up, I took an image or two out the dome enclosure. Shown at right, the lights of Safford, Thatcher and Pima can be seen. Off in the distant left, the bright spot is likely Fort Thomas, the more distant glow over distant mountains is likely Pinetop-Lakeside/Show Low, reflecting off the clouds from over 100 miles away. The North Star, Polaris is the brightish star at upper left center, and the constellation Corona Borealis is in the clear spot at upper right. Also spotted is a greenish layer of airglow low in the sky...

Being a one-time telescope operator myself, it was fun to spend some time with Geno, who was just starting his week-long shift at the scope. Turns out in a former life we worked together - he worked at WYKO here in Tucson and measured some samples for me. Anyway, the work as a telescope operator has certainly changed in 35 years, though technology has too. He demonstrated how he optimized the mirror figure in real time using a star and Schack/Hartman sensor to fine-tune the mirror supports. In a couple minutes the image improved from about 2 arcseconds to sub-arcsecond. At his fingertips he had everything from weather satellite images, all-sky cameras, and readouts from all around the building. They were all needed as he was responsible for the safety and well-being of the telescope. Unfortunately, when I took his photo (an HDR where several exposures are blended), for some reason I had turned off the autofocus and they were out of focus... Oh well, I like it well enough to include.

Well, I've more to show you, but will have to wait for another time...  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Road Trip!

I've got some friends visiting from back east - both professional photographers and amateur astronomers, so I scheduled a road trip to some astronomical sites! What better location than the Mecca of astronomy in Arizona but the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) atop Mount Graham! It is an engineering marvel and should be the top of anyone's list to visit, were it not for an arduous 3 to 4 hour trip with ending with 29 miles of rather harsh mountain roads...

But the adventurers that we are, we set out yesterday morning, heading east on Interstate 10. Believe it or not, about the best view-from-a-distance is from Willcox, nearly 30 miles away! The shot at left is with the 300mm lens, and shows the towering box-like structure of the LBT enclosure, and the bright spot to its left is the sun reflecting off the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.

After a bite of lunch and caching away some snack supplies for later, we continued another 25 miles and turned north towards Safford.  We approached town early enough that I decided we had time to drop in and visit Paul and Jackie at the Discovery Park Campus of Eastern Arizona College - a great little local science center. They had helped us a lot with our Russian visitors a few years back, and for these newcomers, it was a great short visit. One of the highlights for us science-types was the "camera Obscura", which is a large lens system, projecting a distant view on a projection screen. Shown here at right is our group shot under the inverted image of Mount Graham, which we were about to go visit.

The trip up the mountain was interesting if not challenging, but we made it in fine shape, arriving close to 5pm. We found an engineer waiting to give us a guided tour, and what a tour it was! We went nearly everywhere, and he was very patient in trying to answer our barrage of questions and letting the 4 of us photographers take gigabytes of images! Eventually, as sunset approached, we ended up on the telescope floor as they opened the dome for the evening. At left is shown a 3-frame mosaic with fisheye lens to fit everything in!

We had an amazing evening - we got to go pretty much wherever we wanted to go to image. I'm keeping this post short because we've got more adventures today. But I'll close with an image taken from the LBT "patio" with a great southern and western view. Shown at right is a wide-angle shot to the west showing Orion, Winter Milky Way and Moon and Venus setting with part of the LBT structure to the right. The two yellow glows are the light domes of Tucson (to left) and Phoenix at right.  Yes, there were some high thin clouds, but it didn't seem to bother the astronomers much (they were taking spectra of star-formation areas in galaxies), and the clouds make our exposures more interesting as well.

Much more coming up, and I suspect today's adventure will generate more posts.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Closer, CLOSER, no - CLOSER!

My friend and fellow blogger, Ken Spencer is getting a complex. To hear him tell it, whenever he uses his macro lens, I'm a little imp whispering in his ear to "Get Closer!" While I generally don't think that way, my motivation for getting close is that the subject often reveals interesting details when you get really close. So something boring can be often quite interesting!

Case in point was our fish hook barrel cactus in front of the house.  We've got two pretty good-sized versions in our yard, they've been there for a couple decades,  Interestingly, the large one blooms in the Fall, the smaller one in the springtime.  Well, the smaller is blooming right now, but the cactus dome is so full of spines that the flowers are too crowded to be interesting or pretty.  However, there is a little window of opportunity if you zoom in and get close - REALLY close!

Shown at left here is an individual frame shown in the above setup. I used the 100mm macro lens, and to get closer still, used a 36mm extension tube that allows even more magnification. You've got to use a tripod at these magnifications, fortunately, the barrel cactus is pretty impervious to the breeze that was blowing - no problems there. But at that magnification, the depth of field is quite small - only one narrow plane is in focus at any one time, even though I stopped down to F/9.  Stopping down even more would increase the depth-of-field, but resolution actually goes down because of diffraction. I've talked about the solution before - focus-stacking! By taking several exposures at different focus settings, Photoshop is used to combine just the in-focus parts of each image. The image at right is the result - almost perfectly in focus from the top of the yellow stigma, to the bottom of the anther stalks!

I worked on another example today. I've posted some of the pretty flowers of the Desert Globe Mallow before. Well, the flowers are long past, but even the dead-looking branches are interesting when you zoom in on the seed pods! For this shot at left, I used the same setup as above, but used the full stackup of 68mm of extension tubes to magnify as much as I could. For a sense of scale, the seed pod is about 8mm across, about 3/8 of an inch. This was an 8-frame focus stack also at F/9. Note the peach colored flower dehydrates into the pale pink at upper left. Since I can't show the full resolution image here (limited to 1600 pixel images), shown at right is a crop of the full-rez focus stack. I like the resolved fuzz and spider silk stretched across the ultra-closeup.

So when you are shooting something that might be a little bland - move in closer for more details! While dedicated macro lenses are expensive, extension tubes are inexpensive and allow focusing a lot closer than the limits of your normal lens. Happy hunting!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spring Kitt Peak Star-B-Que, 2015

This last weekend was the astronomy club's Spring Star-B-Que, held at the Kitt Peak picnic area. It is a great venue - a spectacular dark site for observing, and the employee association allows use of their gas grill for a cookout beforehand. We've been doing it for ages, and a search of the blog recalls some great memories.

We went up early this time because we had a special guest - our niece Kathy came down from Chicago! We were both under the weather during her last visit in January, so she came down for the weekend just to join us on the Mountain. We toured all the telescopes that had visitor galleries, and her uncle (me) gave her a running commentary on what we could see as well as stories about the "olden times" when I used to work on the staff. She is shown at left stepping onto the access stairs to the 4-meter equatorial mount.

It was a beautiful day, but we were supposed to have clouds move in, which is what happened.  But the temperatures were moderate, and Kitt Peak is always a fun place to visit and play in nature.

In my recent obsession with 3D anaglyphs, I took a huge number of stereo pairs. I know I have at least one fan out there that enjoyed my recent postings, so will include a few more of the more impressive ones here. So get out your red/blue glasses and follow along! Many of the pairs were taken with my IR-converted camera, as it cuts through haze and the high-contrast images work well in the anaglyph format. At left is a wide view of the south side of the Observatory taken from the visitor gallery of the 4 Meter telescope, and at right is a closer view of the 2.1 Meter Telescope at center. For both, I used the south-facing windows of the gallery for the baseline of the stereo views, so an image was taken, then I quickly moved the 40 feet or so to the side to take another image to use as the 3D pair. It worked great and I think these aew quite spectacular!

Similarly, from the south side of the Observatory, from near the 2.1 Meter scope, I used the same technique to shoot a stereo pair of the 4-Meter. Many of the same telescopes are visible in both image pairs. The distinctive roll-off roof of the 16" used for the Nightly Observing Program is visible in the pairs above as well as here.

A little later, down in the picnic area, I tried my hand at some macro-pairs of bark and the new growth on the oak trees. At right here is some distinctive lichens growing on oak bark, and the close-up 3D looks very much like the topography of the local mountains and valleys!

Given the clouds we had a pretty good turnout - over a dozen showed up, though only 3 of us were optimists and packed telescopes! Most knew we would at least have a cookout, so showed up for that - though driving 50 miles one-way to get there takes some dedication! At left, Melinda and Kathy are shown as we got serious about moving from our social circle set up near the van, down to the pavilion to eat.  You can see that we had cool temps - everyone was bundled up!

The clouds alternately broke up and darkened again.  It looked like rain to the south, we might even have had a few drops at one point.  But the broken clouds at least provided a spectacular sunset.  Shown at right is the view as it set down the north side of a mountain, providing an unusual bite out of the setting sun.

We knew that sticking around for a few minutes would usually reward us with some more colors, and sure enough, while not spectacular, we got some pretty colors cast onto the clouds that remained.  Many folks were starting to stream out about then, and both Jupiter and Venus were blazing through the thin clouds.  I wasn't sure I wanted to go through the 20+ minutes of setting up the C-14 for Kathy to get her first view through a telescope, but luckily, someone plopped down an 8" telescope to provide her a view of Jupiter and moons and the brilliant globe of Venus.  Even as we tried to check out the Orion nebula or anything else, the clouds conspired against us, and we too left for civilization.  Still, a fun day touring the Observatory and making 3Ds.  Likely more of those to come!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


With our nice weather lately, the cats who normally don't crowd around us in bed are staying out in the yard more and more.  And even Lucy, our youngest, who normally joins the sleep-in at some point, has been staying out late.  But never to miss a meal, she wasn't to be found this morning, so the search has officially begun.  I found a hole in the back yard fence, but it was well-hidden and hard to get to, so not sure if that is where she got out.  She isn't exactly svelte, so she can't get over the "cat proof" fence like our newer athletic ferals, so it is still a mystery where she might have gone.  Melinda had the incredible shot of her at left, and I used it to make a few fliers to post at the cul de sac's mailbox, and a few other places around the neighborhood. 

We've lost other cats without a trace - years ago Hopper disappeared, and just a couple years ago Atticus similarly vanished.  Given the ferals come and go for years indicate is isn't particularly a dangerous neighborhood.  We've had hawks eyeing the backyard from a nearby utility pole, but no evidence of a snatch of that sort.  We've just hoping that Lucy, who hasn't been far from the safety of the yard, is just lost and looking for her way home.  I've been going out every couple hours, talking to the neighbors and looking for hiding places, now searching for glowing eyes at night with a flashlight.  Fingers crossed she'll turn up!

UPDATE:  Lucy was waiting at the back door to the yard this morning!  Forensic analysis showed she pulled down my blockage of the hole in the back fence to get back in, as it is now covered with orange fur.  A more permanent repair of the hole coming later today after medical stuff.  We're glad the lil' delinquent is back home!

More Medical Stuff...

Way back last fall (the day after Labor Day), Melinda blacked out and fell, hurting her back. After waiting a long time to see an evidently popular orthopedic doctor, he recommended a Balloon Kyphoplasty, which supposedly gives near-immediate relief to her chronic back pain. Subsequent head CT scans showed a subdural hematoma, which needed to go down on its own before the orthopedic surgeon would do any procedure, which it has. So finally today we had a follow-up appointment with him, and now we're proceeding at the speed of light! She has a new MRI of the injured spine area (T-12) tomorrow, another appointment with the surgeon Friday, and surgery on Monday! Oh yea, and she has to be off her blood thinners, so is transitioning to Lovenox tonight to relieve her clotting issues... She'll likely get a general anesthetic, recover for an hour or two, and get sent home with no pain, according to the doctor. She is a little nervous, but looking forward to some relief from the chronic pain she has had for 7 months!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easy To Please!

Some of you might not know that we have cats - 8 of them... Most are getting a little older, we've lost 2 recently that were over 15 years old. Some of the newer ferals that are slowly moving in are likely younger, but coming off the street, they are not as playful as carefree kittens you often see. Still, we are reminded of how easily pleased some of our cats are - even the older ones.

Melinda's birthday was a few weeks ago, and she got something in the mail, in a smallish box. I didn't think much of it, but left it out and sure enough, in an hour it was full of cat! And this is Hannah at left, our current oldest at 15 years old! Another day later and Mia at 11 years old was found in it. So far those are the only two expressing interest in it, let alone climb in.... Christmas Day is really fun, as bags and ribbons are involved too!

Our couple-year-old microwave inexplicably died over the weekend, so I ran off to get another this afternoon. BIG BOX, and Mia watched carefully as we opened and emptied it, waiting patiently for her turn. Of course, this one had a little hand hold too and it didn't take but a poke of my finger to get her wound up, sticking her own paw through to "get me" back.

I guess we're not pet owners that invest in toys. Other than the loose ink pens that Lucy chases under the furniture, these are mostly deprived of excitement. They do get to run in the back yard safely, so they get that entertainment, including the occasional bird, lizard and bunny. It is reassuring somehow that a simple box can keep them entertained too...