Sunday, May 21, 2017

CAC Dedication!

I don't set out to only post every 3 weeks or so - it just happens to work out that way! Last night the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) threw a party! Over the last couple years the club has developed a relationship with a benefactor that funded a warm/meeting room along with a pair of ginormous telescopes! Last night was the dedication of the Reynolds-Mitchell Observatory at the TAAA's Chiricahua Astronomy Complex (CAC). Bob Reynolds has generously contributed to a large roll-off roof observatory, but the star of last night's show was dedication of a 40" telescope! The TAAA wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted to attend could make it, so went to the trouble of leasing a big tour bus for hauling members on the 90 mile drive from the TTT truck stop at I-10 and Craycroft. Who could turn down a free bus trip, box dinner included, highlighted with viewing with a 40" telescope?! Not me! At left, our travelling hostess Mae makes sure we all have what we need!

I can't recall riding a big tour bus since our Senior Class Trip to Washington DC 45 years ago, so it was a fun time. Our seats were higher than the truckers in the big semis that we passed, so was a nice view of the passing scenery. Of course, some might claim there isn't much scenery in Southern Arizona except brown-colored desert, but Texas Canyon, shown at left is always amazing, especially if you don' have to pay attention driving! And, of course, once you've made it to Texas Canyon, you've already passed about a million of the signs at right - "The Thing" is a tourist destination just east of Texas Canyon, and is actually kind of a cool-kitschy stop worth a visit - especially if you need a rest room or a Dairy Queen stop! As mentioned, the TAAA also sprang for meals - boxed dinners from a local deli, with 4 choices of sandwich - pretty high living!

The trip seemed to fly by, and we got there a bit before sunset. There was quite an agenda on the night's program and after a rush to the bathroom (twin flush toilets!), the facility tour started. First up, former TAAA president and site manager John Kalas gave a guided tour of the site from the ramada. That's him at left, taken in a 4-frame mosaic taking in the sweep of members present (nearly 100 I'd guess), ramada and the new scope/warm room at right.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, I skipped the treasurer's tour of further development plans, instead staying and documenting some of my friends that I recognize from my travels up and down the Sulphur Springs Valley. From CAC, as from down to not-to-distant Whitewater Draw to the south (sandhill crane site) views of "Cochise's Head" as well as the 60-mile-distant Mount Graham topped by the LBT telescope showed up as familiar friends!

A few minutes later and it was time for more speeches! Former TAAA president Tim Hunter and owner of the Grassland Observatory reviewed the club's search for a dark-sky observing site, culminating in CAC. In the photo at left, Tim is shown at left, and Carter Smith (Chief Telescope Operator) prepares the 40" for use as John Kalas introduces our benefactor. At right, Bob Reynolds says a few words before handing off the sissors to his wife to cut the ribbon opening the warm room and telescope!

All too slowly, it got dark and the scope operators did an alignment to get the giant 40" telescope pointing and tracking and finally ready for use. The first object - a stunning view of Globular Cluster Messier 13. This view is taken with the Canon 6D with Nikon 16mm fisheye lens wide open at F.2.8. The 20 second exposure (ISO 5,000) shows stars and objects much fainter than the naked eye can see, including Omega Centauri just upper left from light dome from Douglas at right. Messier 13 can be spotted at upper left if you can make out the keystone of Hercules. At the upper edge is Jupiter, and between it and Scorpio rising at bottom center, a faint section of the zodiacal band can be seen!

A bit later and the scope was turned to Messier 82 in Ursa Major. The edge-on galaxy, 12 million light years distant displayed very nice dust lanes crossing the luminous band. In the photo at right (exposure details same as above), besides the scope, dominating the sky is the bright glow of Zodiacal light in the west - the Beehive Cluster (Messier 44) can be spotted in the midst of it! While both photos seem to show the area was brightly lit, the exposures seem to amplify the amount of ambient red light about. It certainly didn't look brightly lit to eye!

Before we knew it, 9:30 had arrived and we needed to board the bus for the return trip to Tucson. By the time we disembarked, loaded up the small amount of gear into the van and dropped off passengers, we walked into the house right at Midnight. A very special night of observing "in the can"! All I can say is that an observing trip down to CAC with the 40" is a rare treat - about to become less rare!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Fishing Season!

I'm currently at "Ketelsen East" in the western suburbs of Chicago, enjoying some "real" Springtime weather! After already threatening to break 100F about the time I left Tucson 10 days ago, the cooler temperatures, rain, flowers and outbreak of green here is a welcome sight! And we've had it all - 4" of rain over last weekend, and tonight there are freeze warnings in the area, so Summer still seems a long way off!

But with the downpour this weekend, on Monday the Fox River jumped out of its bank and got within about 50 feet of the house here! The image at left shows the water as it came up the "canoe beach" at far left and filled a depression in the middle of the lawn as shown. As the water drops back down, usually carp, some of pretty good size (I've seen up to 20" long!) are trapped in the "yard pond"! Somewhere I've got pictures that Melinda took of me trying to catch them by hand (hard) or with a large fishing net (easier) to dump them back in the river. After I gave up that earlier time, the herons and egrets move in and they were gone in a day.

So I wasn't really surprised, but startled when I saw my first great blue heron appear just before sunset tonight. The only telephoto I have is a 500mm Nikon mirror lens of '70s vintage given to me by a friend, and I rushed to install the adaptor that lets me use it with my Canon camera. Unfortunately I missed his playing with a sizeable fish, but got a nice portrait at left in the "yard pond" before he moved back over to the main river channel for some fishing where only his head is visible.

It started raining pretty hard again, and my last view of him was standing on the bank looking across it, or perhaps looking downstream at a kayak that was bearing down on him as he took off a few seconds later as they passed going upstream. If there are still fish in the pond, they will be back, though other than the one I saw the heron play with, I've not spotted any...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A New View of LBT!

It is never my intention to go a month between blog posts - it just seems to work out to that lately - I have no excuse! Case in point is this post about the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) - the photos were taken nearly 2 months ago! I was initially looking for permission from their director to ok the release of the images, but after so long, I guess I'll be looking for forgiveness rather than permission if they complain!

I feel sort of possessive of the LBT telescope as I supervised the polishing operations on the primary mirrors. Entering "LBT" in the upper left search window will return a number of posts, including some on the ARGOS instrument - my current favorite. ARGOS, of course, stands for "Advanced Rayleigh guided Ground layer adaptive Optics System" - an instrument mounted on the telescope that uses lasers to focus 10km above the telescope, those artificial "stars" are used to analyse and correct the atmospheric turbulence along the path. It really is exciting stuff, as it can improve seeing over a relatively large (up to 4 arc-minutes) field by a factor of 2 or 3.  While a factor of 2 or 3 doesn't sound that groundbreaking, note that the INTENSITY or brightness of a focused star goes up a factor of 4 or 9, by improving the sharpness that factor of 2 or 3.  Improving your star detection ability by a factor of up to 9 really is a big deal! This post really isn't about the instrument, merely observations of the lasers involved. For more information of the system and results, even from this run, go to the Max Planck Institute site - the sponsor of the instrument.

There was an ARGOS run in early March. With fresh snow on the mountain, I didn't even consider an observing site on Mount Graham, instead, went to the town of Safford, some parts of town enjoying a direct view of the telescope. I had obtained telephone permission to observe from the Discovery Park campus, but their view was a bit too obscured, so moved about a mile eastward for the good view shown above right at about sunset. You can see in the photo if you go west or north, the rise to the right of LBT starts blocking it. From my vantage point, LBT was 12 miles away - the closest I've been for an ARGOS run! The image at left shows my setup - from 2 sturdy tripods I was running a 500mm lens on the Canon 6D (full 35mm format) for a wide angle shot of the telescope, and the TEC140 (1,000mm with Canon XSi APS format) for the narrow field-of-view.

Looking very carefully at the above image, the laser projecting upwards from near the peak of Mount Graham can barely be seen. It was much more obvious through the optical aid of the telescopes and telephotos! At left is the view through the 500mm. Coupled with the larger format of the 6D, it gives a very nice wide field of view.

Through the TEC140, as with the photo at the top of the post, lots of details can be seen, including antennae in the sunset shot above! I took a series of photos with both setups, typically 30 second exposures under the nearly full moon was sufficient to get a good histogram. In the wide shot above, a wisp of clouds can be seen hugging the mountain. There was a layer of smoke that I suspect was from a controlled burn from the Tucson water treatment plant. The "Sweetwater Wetlands" had a burn of vegetation to control mosquitos, and can be seen as an enhancement in the laser scatter just over the telescope in some of the shots.

I chose to use only the narrow field in making the time-lapse of the evening, since the details were so stunning. In addition, I was able to start taking images before the dome opened, another advantage of knowing the phone number of the telescope operator and getting briefed on the observer's plans. So shown here are about 270 frames taken over a 3 hour period covering the dome opening, setup and following the first object of the evening. While it looks like the telescope is tracking across the sky much more slowly than the stars in the field, realize we are looking just over the horizon with a considerable focal length while the telescope is looking much higher in the sky.

Note that at no time was the green beam of the ARGOS laser visible to the naked eye. Even in my decent pair of 9X63 binoculars was it barely seen. Of course, as seen above, it photographs well! Finally as I was driving home with the telescope on its second object, I could barely detect a "green star" from inside the enclosure directly by eye, but that was all that was visible in my nearly 4 hours there! I've heard rumors that locals are upset at the lasers, but as you need optical aid to detect them, it hardly seems obtrusive! At the same time, with the gains in observing efficiency they are seeing it is proving its worth.

Before leaving, I took a few frames of the Discovery Park campus a mile to the west from my location. It is a cool place with interesting displays of both historical interest from the region, and the ground-breaking science going on at LBT and the optics from the Mirror Lab, including a cool 20" Tinsley telescope in the dome. Shown here is a 2-frame mosaic illuminated by ambient moonlight, and some security lights on the grounds that give it a nice glow...

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

South O' The Border!

With the lack of posts recently, you might well ask what the heck I've been up to. Well, part of my recovery from Melinda's passing is to live more "deliberately". While I'm busy part-time at work, I'm sure to take time for myself every day, including relaxing, interacting with friends, watching my "lesbian girlfriend" (as Melinda referred to her!) Rachel Maddow, dealing and spending time w/the cats, that sort of thing. I try to make time for the big things as well as small.

And another thing I've done, at least twice over the last 4 weekends, was to visit with my buddy Margie in Puerto Peñasco. As the nearest real beach to Tucson, it is only about 210 miles away, but generally works out to a 5-hour drive with a refreshment stop and some slowing at the border crossing. While some would consider the drive rather dull, the Sonoran Desert is far from boring, and in the 3 weeks between trips, the desert changed considerably, with a multitude of wildflowers in early March, and the start of cactus flowers by the end of the month. One of the interesting sights too is the road seemingly going off to infinity, shown at left. Just west of the Tohono O'odham capital of Sells, the straight-as-an-arrow road extends a good 16 miles here. And on the return trip from about this same point, there is an excellent view of Kitt Peak National Observatory from the west side of the mountain - a view not often seen by those of us normally travelling to the Observatory from Tucson.

I've known Margie for a couple decades - I think we met at the Grand Canyon Star Party back in the 90s, and she has always been generous with her hospitality at her "Beach Casa" in a residential neighborhood on the Sea of Cortez. That is her on the left, where I caught her while we worked on a crossword puzzle on her second floor exterior dining room. Yes, that is the Sea of Cortez off in the background... Mostly we seemed to relax, interrupted by eating, though we did some excursions, like to the visitor center of the Pinacate Volcano Reserve, as shown at right. It is an unusual place - that is the main volcano in the background, with black lava in foreground, some lighter-color mountains that preceded the volcano (Sierra Blanca - White Mountain), and outside the photo to the west are sand dunes from the Sea of Cortez and the Colorado River, which exits the mainland off in that direction.

While hanging out, we always kept an eye out for the small details! A few years back, well, way back in Easter of 2010, I caught an osprey bringing home a flounder for lunch - that is mom and baby waiting in the nest...

This time the nest is still occupied, though don't know if it is the same pair. Never saw them carrying fish home, but did happen to turn that way while they were silhouetted by the post-sunset twilight. This nesting season they apparently have two nestlings! The nest is a good 150 meters away from Margie's. The left image was taken with the Meade 80mm F/6 APO telescope at full-resolution on the XSi. At right, the current image is taken through the TEC140 (1,000mm focal length) with the Canon 6D.

One of the more amazing phenomena I witnessed on the earlier trip was the view of Bird Island. Located about 20 miles off the beach at Margie's location, it has served as the subject of blog posts on several occasions! This time though it had outdone itself! Shown at left is what I would consider a "normal" view of the island from Margie's "astronomy deck" atop her house. But on my visit in early March, an inversion layer in the atmosphere transformed it into a fantastic sight. Over the 3 days I spent there, it never appeared "normal", but was always distorted into weird shapes. At right is a representative offering - bizarre stuff! And what is more interesting that it changed minute-to-minute. I took several series of exposures lasting up to 3 hours, so should make for some interesting time-lapse clips!

Both trips down I brought along the TEC140 which was great for capturing fine details at great distances like the island and ospreys above. My first trip was at full moon - one of the reasons was the extreme tides they get at Puerto Peñasco - over 6 meters! Analogous to the sloshing of the water at the rear of the bathtub, the tides there are six times what they see at the mouth of the Sea of Cortez at the southern tip of Baja! Of course, the reason for the tides is the moon of course. At left is the distorted full March "Worm Moon" as it rose over the eastern horizon. The later trip 3 weeks later the pretty crescent was high in the west during evening twilight, shown at right. Both shots taken with the TEC140 and Canon 6D.

This later trip last weekend, Margie went around the neighborhood and invited most everyone she saw up to her roof to do some observing. Besides the crescent Moon, we also had a crescent Mercury low in the west and Jupiter low in the east. The sky wasn't real dark, but all got to see the Orion Nebula too. On the trip in early March, the crescent Venus was star of the show. While the iPhone isn't a star at astronomical shots, at left you can see the last of the western twilight with stellar-looking Venus in the west, while in the camera viewfinder, the crescent can be seen.

I also got some beach time both trips, the most recent one these green sand worms were brought to my attention! I'd never seen them before, and on the Google they are frequently mentioned, but no one seems to have a positive ID on them. They are quite striking, and I'll keep on the lookout for more and an identification!

You may still see more offerings from these trips, but thought it was about time to share some of these goings-on!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Photons From The Past...

With the recent posting of rarely-seen photos of Melinda on her birthday, I got a Facebook message, then an envelope in the mail from Melinda's Godmother Marie with a precious cargo - long ago photos of Melinda and her siblings from their school days!

While Melinda has a bookshelf full of photo albums, we never sat around looking at them, and one of these trips to "Ketelsen East" I'll have to work up the nerve to sneak a peak. So I've never seen her as a young girl as shown here. It isn't until the most recent, taken when she was 16 that she even resembles the woman I came to know. Her siblings too are presented here - I never met her older brother Dick shown here at left - he died just as Melinda and I were seriously dating. While I knew Susan pretty well (shown at right), she also died just over 3 years ago.

Only her sister Maj (Mary Alice Johnson!), shown at left, remains and thrives and connects me to my beloved Melinda. By the way, all three of these photographs are labeled from 1964. Unfortunately, I don't know their birth years, so don't know their ages from these images, but they are a great-looking group of kids! Jumping forward in time - I'm guessing about 2005 to 2006, is a group shot of the Johnson girls that Marie also provided. I present them all here as ancient artifacts from another time.

But the Melinda photos that are the little gems. While unlabeled, I suspect the photo at left is the earliest, perhaps when she was 6 - looking like a candidate for Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz!

My guess is that the next shot in the sequence is at right - it is labeled 1963, so it was taken when she was 7 years old. I would have been hard-pressed to guess that this little beauty would grow into Melinda - not much resemblance yet - to me, anyway!

Next in the sequence is shown at left, and is now starting to resemble My Girl! While unlabeled date-wise, I'm guessing she must be about 10 or 11. Interestingly, in a cursive note on the back of the photo to "Aunt Marie and Uncle Bill", she signs her name Melynda!

Finally, in the last photo labeled 1972 when she was 16 (at right), you will all agree the Melinda we all know is shining through!

While I love seeing these photos, they also bring a sense of melancholy.  Photos of school kids always show such potential and promise for the future!  Not that Melinda didn't accomplish a huge amount in her life - making a real difference in hundreds of lives of the preemie infants that came through her care.  But because she left us so early, there was so much more to do!  Still, I'm glad "Aunt Marie", whom I've never met, chose to share them with me - thank you so much!

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Evening Star Moves On!

For those of you who have been watching Venus in the evening sky, we've had a good show, but if you have looked in recent days it has disappeared! It is already sneaking into the morning sky and in another week or so should be visible to early risers coming up before the sun. But for those of us who have a telescope or for that matter, any optical aid at all, the last couple weeks Venus has been quite striking! If you have been a reader of this blog, you of course know that Venus orbits inside the Earth's orbit, so undergoes phases not unlike the Moon. It passed "Inferior Conjunction" a day or two ago on 25 March, where it passed between us and the Sun, so was "new" (using the same terminology we use for the Moon). In actuality, Venus passed the Sun from our vantage point about 8 degrees north of the Sun, so was never un-illuminated, but showed the skinniest of crescents. Behold the image at left - it was taken on 19 March. It shows about what it looked like thru a small telescope or good pair of binoculars. While a pretty view of a world the same size as the Earth, it is rather humdrum - kind of boring. Needs a little spicing up! On a field trip, I caught the crescent next to some cacti at Gates Pass, but with the darkened sky, the brilliant crescent is overexposed, and also likely a little out of focus with the cacti so near...

To the rescue comes my favorite foreground! Whenever there is something in the western sky, I generally head west of town and use the silhouette of Kitt Peak National Observatory as a nice foreground to frame the object(s). Whether for a comet and Moon, or some other close planetary conjunction, Kitt Peak has served many times to make a shot more interesting! I've actually attempted to catch Venus over Kitt Peak on the last inferior conjunction 18 months ago, but the geometry didn't work out and while I made a trip to look for it, clouds and a bright sky resulted in failure. This time, with Tom and Jennifer Polakis also taking part and calculating the setup position, we had a good chance. That is them at left, searching for the crescent even with the sun still up to verify that we were in the right spot to see it hanging over the Observatory. The silhouette of the Mountain/Observatory is always spectacular to me, and is shown at right in a 2-frame mosaic with the Canon 6D and TEC140 telescope (1,000mm focal length).

We didn't need to worry - Tom's calculations were spot on - he had worked towards it going behind the 4-meter telescope at right and sure enough, it did disappear behind the dome! That is my shot at left, with the still-slightly overexposed Venus crescent in the darkened sky.

It was interesting to note what a difference a meter or two makes in our observing position. At right is shown a single glimpse I got of the crescent appearing on the side of the 4-meter - you might have to click it to detect it to right of dome. Tom, a couple meters to the right of me, got a much bigger bite of it - his video clip of Venus setting is shown here. MAKE SURE YOU GO SEE IT!

As well as these exposures had come out, I was hoping for something a little better. A day or two later, Venus would be closer to the sun, the sky would be brighter and a shorter exposure would do better at keeping Venus properly exposed. As a result, on 21 March, I repeated the trip. Tom and Jenn couldn't join me, but advised me for positioning, advising a move to the south to get it behind the solar scopes. Unfortunately, there were no clear shots to the west where needed, so missed it going behind the south side of the Observatory. Still, the image of Venus was properly exposed. I also used a longer focal length - a 7" F/12 refractor made by Roger Ceragioli, resulting in a 2.1 meter focal length, more than double that used in the above image, and I also used the Canon XSi and its APS sensor, expecting considerable vignetting with the 6D. Interestingly, when I had first envisioned the shot 18 months ago, THIS was the shot that I saw in my mind! The colors on the Venus crescent is from atmospheric dispersion, since the Earth's air and curved surface combine to make it act like a thin prism. Seeing was also a factor as the features on the telescope, 12 miles away, and Venus, 26 million miles away, show structure and "waviness" from atmospheric turbulence...

Finally a minute or two later, Venus descended behind the water storage tanks atop the mountain. Using the profile of the mountain above, I was able to identify a couple other items seen in the photo, including 3 of the telescope domes...

I think it is amazing to capture planetary details with earthbound foreground, so would absolutely do this again. Will I try for the next inferior conjunction in October of 2018? More likely than not! What more fun can you have!?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Birthday Girl!

Hi All! As you have seen, I'm not winning any awards for my volume of postings on the blog. I'm embarrassed that it has been a month since the last post... I have no excuse other than I've suffered a lack of inspiration. So I come to you today with a task to accomplish! Today would have been Melinda's 61st birthday. On Facebook last month on the 6-month anniversary of her passing, I promised to dig through my photo archives and pull out some images that are little-to-never seen. We dated for over 2 years before we married, so that is 2 years of pictures before the blog started, so some pretty fertile ground! So as a present to YOU, those who knew her from work, play, relations, or didn't know her at all but are running across this accidently, here she is in her glory. Know that she was a special woman who touched all that knew her! Photos presented here in approximate order they were taken...

First photo! 25 Feb, '06
Unchaperoned Weekend! 7 April, '06
More alone time! 9 April, '06
Visit to Tucson 19 May, '06
Grand Canyon Star Party 20 June, '06
My favorite Portrait!  Iowa Star Party 23 September, '06
Dinner over Sea of Cortez 15 December, '06
Dallas Trip! 29 Jan, '06
Proof of engagement! 13 Jan, '07
Cranes at Whitewater Draw 10 Feb, '07
Goofing around the Fox River 17 March, '07
Birthday Celebration 17 March, '07
Moss Cottage, aka "Ketelsen East" 18 March, '07
Dean's Family celebrates her b-day 18 March, '07
Melinda on the Fox at dusk 28 April, '07
More Canyon star party 14 June, '07
Summer Feast!  7 July, '07
Ketelsen reunion 15 July, '07
Daily Crossword 3 August, '07
The Bean!  29 September, '07
With Great-niece Alivia 25 Nov, '07
Giving Thanks!  25 Nov, '07
On the river path 4 January, '08
Snowy Ketelsen East 1 Feb, '08
A cool Spring day!  13 April, '08
Last night as an unmarried woman! 6 June, '08
Yard Wedding!  7 June, '08
Johnson Sisters!  7 June, '08
Melinda looks good in our ranger's hat! 13 June, '08
My Fave of Maj and Melinda!  19 May, '10