Tuesday, January 31, 2017

File Under "S" - Snowflakes, Selfies...

In my recent posts on macro snow shots,
I mentioned I'd be on the lookout for snowflakes and water crystals that show structure... A couple days later on Sunday, 29 January, the flakes were sparse, but falling gently straight down, so went out again to try to capture them with the Canon 100mm macro plus about 5cm of extension tubes. Shown here, I had a little more success. At left is a complete flake, but so fluffy that a lot of fine detail can't be quite made out... The yew "needles" are just under 2mm wide, so this snowflake is about 3mm across!

At right is another structure, more what I was looking for in snowflake structure, but looks to be a conglomeration of incomplete parts. Still worth posting here.

And if you can tolerate one more, after giving up for a bit for lack of snowfall, there was another flurry that tempted me to go out again. At left is the result of a large flake buried deep in the bush foliage that was getting close to melting! Unfortunately, I didn't notice that the focus was up against the limit and the focus stack wasn't very good, but the flake was half melted by the time I set up for another... The snowfall was so spotty and flakes were melting in just a few minutes after falling, so I soon lost interest and gave up...

The only other photos that I was tempted to take over the last weekend were some selfies! Some of you that have read the blog for a while know that sometimes I photograph the weirdest things! I "noticed" for the first time that the knobs on the bathroom cabinet had little "baby moon" reflectors on them, about 1cm diameter. If a macro lens was used in close-up, each of the reflections could be used to construct a 3D image! The image is shown at left. You can see the two images - one from each knob. If you look "through" the image so that you look at the right knob with right eye and left knob with your left, you can see a merged image of my face in 3D! It is very reminiscent of another "accidental" 3D image I discovered in spoon reflections from a post 3 years ago. The image is reproduced at right, but because of the concave surfaces, this is a cross-eyed view, so need to cross eyes to merge images for proper 3D...

Of course, these days I know that most of you don't want to give yourselves headaches by crossing your eyes or free-viewing 3D images. So I performed what I've been normally doing with my 3D images lately and made the knob photos above into anaglyph images, using the red/blue glasses... Check out the image at left while looking thru the glasses (red lens on left), to see it in 3D.

Or, if you want to be mundane about it, you can keep it as a 2D image and use it for a normal selfie image... Kind of boring given the opportunities in a pair of reflections, but ok - for completeness presented here at right! Yes, it was taken in the bathroom on an overcast day with long exposures. I added the golden-cast tungsten lights to keep the exposures short of a quarter second... And yes, that is the camera at right - also seen in the 3D shot above...

And while on the Selfie kick, during several feeding fests with family gatherings of late, I collected a few of myself. I also figured out the "secret" of a successful selfie - include someone a LOT cuter than you to include in the image! Here are a pair of my great-nieces - related by marriage, so they've never met each other. At left is Emmy, and at right is Alivia. See what I mean?! Include someone adorable and you ignore the old coot!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Whitewater Draw Crane Cam!

The last time I posted about Whitewater Draw, the over-winter location for tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, I'd mentioned that Arizona Game And Fish has installed a "Crane Cam" to provide 24/7 coverage of cranes and other waterfowl. But it had been offline for a few days... It is now back, and provides a sometimes-amazing view, like last night, showing a spectacular AZ sunset with cranes flocking into the wetlands and their haunting calls coming out of the speaker... The remotely-controlled camera is shown at left from my last visit. Someone obviously controls its pointing and zoom setting, working diligently to keep cranes in view for a good part of the day. But do check out the live Crane Cam by clicking here!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Snow Flurries!

I've been at "Ketelsen East" for a few days taking care of some business with the house here. While the weather can be unpredictable in January, it has been unseasonably warm the week I've been here. Till today it hasn't been below freezing, and fog has been more of a driving issue than snow or ice.

So I was sort of surprised to see that we'd received some snow flurries overnight. No accumulation to speak of, but still something worth documenting! In cases like this, I do what I normally do - grab the macro and go close! I didn't feel like kneeling in the mud to get snow pellets in the leaves on the ground, so looked for something a little higher to shoot. Fortunately there are some evergreen shrubs, I think a variety of Japanese Yew, that formed a nice, high contrast background for the snow, shown at left. I was hoping to see some signs of snowflake or ice crystal structure, but as you can see, there is little sign of that. I moved over to a patio table and shot an isolated oak leaf and acorn shell covered with snow as well.

The little acorn shell looked cute enough, sort of like a sake cup full of snowflakes that I moved in to another for its close-up. And oh yes - these are all focus-stack images to increase the depth of field. The yew photo is composed of 12 frames, the leaf 14, and this little acorn cap combines 18 frames, each with a slightly different focus setting, combined in Photoshop to extend the depth of focus...

So I was disappointed that I didn't catch any crystal or snowflake structure, but so much of that depends on temperature, humidity and other conditions that I've learned that catching snowflakes to document is really a hard thing to do! Looking out the window a couple hours later, it was snowing again! Calm winds, the HUGE flake conglomerations were mostly falling straight down, so I went out again to see how they looked under the macro.

BETTER! First, the flakes were huge! The yew "leaves" are about 2mm wide, so some of the flakes were considerably larger! It was still tough to find a complete snowflake, but at least there were parts of them visible. The temperature was pretty much right at freezing, so they were melting over the space of a few minutes, so likely would have been better if it were a few degrees colder. Still, overall it was nice to catch a little of what I was looking for... Forecast is for colder temps and more flurries without much accumulation, so I'll keep on the lookout...

Saturday, January 21, 2017

More Stars WIth the 500mm Lens!

A post or two ago I promised some more astronomy shots with the "new to me" 500mm F/4 telephoto lens. It is a fun lens to use - a full order-of-magnitude increase in scale over a normal camera lens it opens up a whole new world for imaging, and its unrivaled sharpness transfers to astronomy as well.

In my first post showing off the lens, I showed first results of the North American and the Rosette Nebulae. Both of these red-glowing clouds of hydrogen are excited to fluorescence by nearby hot stars, whose ultraviolet light cause the gas to glow much like the glow of a fluorescent light. This time of the year (recall these were taken the end of November!), it is possible to shoot the Summer Milky Way objects as it sets, as well as the Winter Milky Way as it rises, and these clouds of gas are large enough and bright enough to capture well, so more included here today. First up at left is NGC 2174, its popular name being the "Monkey Head" Nebula! I like to display my images with North up, sort of how it would look in the sky as it transited the meridian. The "Monkey Head" is more easily seen with South displayed upwards to see the outline of a monkey. Try it and you will see! While the nebula is very large and faint, I actually discovered this visually through my 11" Newtonian telescope at a star party while sweeping along the Gemini/Orion border. This is a stack of 5 exposures totaling about 12 minutes of exposure with the 500mm lens, with a pretty moderate crop.

The next object to show off is one of my
favorite areas - the belt area of Orion! The 3 main belt stars are the brilliant stars stretching diagonally across the image at left. The reason I like it are the little reflection nebulae scattered among the bright stars. While there is an ionized hydrogen cloud off the frame at lower left, the blue nebula at upper center is IC 426, a reflection nebula - here, the blue light of the bright stars are reflecting off the dust and gas making up the nebula. A careful examination will reveal LOTS of nebulosity through the field of both kinds - both reflection and ionized clouds, as well as a few others that are dark clouds that show up in silhouette against the others. This is nearly the full frame of the 6D with about 22 minutes of stacked exposures with the 500mm lens.

I've been a fan of IC 426 for a long while - it was one of my first objects photographed with my old venerable Canon 20Da camera and 11" Newtonian telescope. At left the nebula is shown in close-up cropped from 20 minutes worth of exposure with the 11" from January, 2006 - 10 years ago!

Finally often as I'm about to shut down for the night, I take a single exposure of a new object just to see how it will appear in the scope or lens in use. In this case, the only really clear night this lens was out on 28 November, I took a single frame of the Orion Nebula - 150 seconds-worth shown here. I rarely shoot the Orion Nebula, one of the more spectacular objects in the sky because it varies so much in brightness and is difficult to show such extremes in brightness well. Anyway, as soon as the image read out I could see something "weird"! Even though I was tracking the stars, there were streaks in the image! Of course, I'd seen them before and knew immediately what it was - geostationary satellites! Orbiting the earth 22,000 miles above the equator they orbit every 24 hours, so appear stationary in the sky, and if one was broadcasting a TV signal, your antenna dish wouldn't need to track it - ingenious, no? But as a result, from Tucson's latitude while tracking the stars, they will trail through the Orion Nebula. Here 4 satellites showed up in the 2.5 minute exposure... Just the other day, the Astronomy Picture of the Day showed a movie clip showing several hours worth of satellites "sailing" through the field...

Finally, I'll close with one more astro shot. While not taken with the 500mm, it was taken with a slight telephoto 80mm lens from Whitewater Draw 2 weeks ago. Watching the dance of the planets in the western sky, for many weeks I've been watching the orange-ish planet Mars as it approaches the brilliant Venus. But I also knew a secret - there was a 3rd planet between them! The most distant planet Neptune appeared between them... Since all the planets orbit more or less in the same orbital plane, just knowing that the planet was between them, I didn't have to know where it was - I could look it up later, and sure enough, just did this evening. Just shoot it with the appropriate lens to get both Mars and Venus and you'll get Neptune too! It was easily seen in this stack of a couple 30 second exposures tracking on the stars with the little Vixen Polarie tracker. One of our astronomy club members makes a planetary report every meeting, and Erich had noted the alignment, stating that the brightest planet (Venus) and dimmest (Neptune) was over 100,000 times different in brightness! You might have to click the image to even be able to see it!

As the cogs of the solar system continue to grind on, Neptune is, of course, no longer between them. I believe that Venus passed Neptune last weekend, and is now headed towards superior conjunction behind the sun on 1 March, 2017.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Brush With Celebrity!

Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, April, 2010
Congressman Ron Barber, Aug, 2013
Working at a high-profile location like the Mirror Lab, we get our occasional VIPs and celebrities. Frequently some of these groups are lead by the College President or more likely by founder Roger Angel or former Director Peter Strittmatter. The Lab is quite the local source of pride - and so it should be! I think I recall spotting Senator John McCain once, but have recorded two congress-persons, Gabby Giffords, shown at left, and her replacement Ron Barber at right. Gabby's photo was taken at a solar power technology meeting hosted at the lab and the photo is of a solar-powered car an engineering team had built. The photo was taken 8 months before she was shot in the head in an assassination attempt. Ron Barber's photo was taken in the Lab as he was hounded by the media! Since these photos we've also seen their Republican replacement Martha McSally...

Mike with Bill Walton
Linda and Bill, photo by Steve West
But I've never quite seen the excitement that was caused by a VIP last Friday. After announcing the UA/ASU basketball game at McKale Center Thursday night, Former UCLA and NBA standout, and now sports commentator Bill Walton was taking in a tour from engineer Mike Tuell! Evidently Mike had contacted him nearly a year ago through Bill's website offering a tour and it finally happened last week! Now you have to realize that Mike towers over most everyone at the Mirror Lab, so it was a bit unnerving to see someone, anyone, towering over him! And later I saw a photo that I also had to share - the same grinning Bill Walton REALLY towering over our receptionist Linda - who I always considered normal height, but appears deficient by comparison here... Oh, and his actual height - Mike claims it is 7', but there was some conspiracy involved for listing it officially at 6'11"...

Anyway, there was excitement in the lab as he was recognized by most, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Congressmen and Senators, I guess are dull by comparison compared to a famous athlete!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

More Whitewater Draw Thru The 500mm Lens

Folks seemed impressed with my first results through the "new" (to me, anyway) 500mm lens in its debut at Whitewater Draw. In that last post I talked about how I found the lens and showed a few of my favorite shots of cranes and astronomical objects too. I took a closer look at the images collected and have a few more to add - this time I'll restrict myself to just the bird shots - may have more astronomical ones next time.

Interestingly, last year they (AZ Game and Fish) installed a webcam providing a live HD view of the cranes. This was a wonderful idea for the crane observing season as you could tune in several times a day to observe and even in the middle of the night you could enjoy their rattling calls to each other. Unfortunately, since my last post a couple days ago, it has been offline, but I will keep an eye on it and provide a post providing it comes on again soon. The crane season typically winds down after Valentine's day, so it may not get back again this season. Anyway, shown here is the camera, solar cells and little transmitter. The shot at left shows it right after sunset at the wetlands, but the sun was still shining up in the Chiricahua Mountains - at upper left you can see the profile of "Cochise's Head", a well known landmark from Eastern Arizona... At right is a closer view of just the camera on my most recent trip...

The cranes have been keeping their distance from the viewing stations, so the images can't compare to some of the images I've taken on foot from a few yards away in Illinois! There seems to be a lack of water this year, and they tend to congregate where the water is located to protect themselves from predators. But sometimes you can catch flocks of them against the sky which can sometimes be striking compositions. Shown here are a pair of shots of profiles against the twilight after the sun has gone down. As a result, they are only silhouettes, but hey - still striking profiles! I particularly like the left shot as it isn't quite dark enough to obscure the "purple" mountains, which occur for about 15 minutes before and after sunset. And the shot at right, the birds seems consciously to stagger their wingflaps to prevent interference! In actuality, they are likely offset along their direction of flight to prevent that...

But on my most recent trip a week ago, there were a lot more water fowl than the mid-December trip! With the lack of water, these birds stayed close to viewing stands too where the water was located, so was able to get some decent shots. While not uncommon, they are striking. Most have appeared here before in previous trips, but still fun to photograph and show off!

I love the striking color difference of the eyes and body color of the Cinnamon Teal at left. This was just about the first photo taken on last weekend's trip. Hadn't seen these for a few years, likely last time at Sweetwater Wetlands, a manmade retreat off of the water treatment plant on Tucson's west side. At right, the Green-Winged Teal has some similar colors, but quite striking patterns on its head and neck.

And this one might be a new one for us! At least in Melinda's birding book, where she meticulously notated where we first saw each species, this entry is blank - a Northern Pintail. There was quite a gang of them feeding together here, but I don't recall seeing them before, so snapped a few shots, but usually can't trust my memory if we've seen them before. Good thing I did!

And there are a few things besides birds at Whitewater. My first trip there in December, well after sunset there were a couple peering thru their binoculars at something, whispering to themselves. When asked what they were looking at they said they had been spotting some deer, so again, recorded it for posterity. Sure enough, I counted about a dozen white-tails venturing across the west side of the property - the dark shapes with birds in both the foreground and in the fields in the background too. It was actually quite dark, but the fast lens was able to pull them out of the dusk...

That's about it for now - some more astronomy shots next time...

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Newish Glass!

The past few years, whenever I would suggest a purchase, Melinda would usually respond with "when I'm dead you can spend my life insurance money", which usually brought any discussions to a halt - you can't argue with a cancer patient! She did agree to a new TV when the old CRT set died, and she eventually came around after flat out stating that the 48" screen was "too big" at the beginning. Watching our Cubs win thru the summer became our favorite pastime...

Anyway, now that she has passed, and now there IS insurance money, I've tried to be responsible and spend it on what she would approve - paid off the AZ mortgage, and still debating on the IL house... Invested most of it so retirement should be more pleasant... But I did buy a little "toy" - one she even might have approved of if we had some disposable income! We were both fans of birding at Whitewater Draw and elsewhere, and also of astronomical imaging, so when I saw a Canon "super-telephoto" lens on Craigslist, I had to check it out. Shown at left, it is a 500mm F/4 - very fast optics allowing short exposures for astronomy and pretty good reach with fast autofocus and image stabilization for birding. It is an older first generation, but was a good deal including the camouflage-cover, the Wimberley tripod head and a Canon 2X converter. Note in the photo that most of the large diameter part is the sun shade!

I got the lens in the closing days of November and have had it out a few times and it is impressive in it's performance... If you do a Whitewater Draw search on this blog, I've hoisted a few telescopes along for birding a few times and while the images for a distant crane is impressive, the very fast autofocus and image stabilization it is a whole 'nother ball game! I can now focus and follow birds in flight and have them come out tack-sharp! I've made 2 trips to their over-winter home and have gotten a few favorites already. At left are some cranes in flight at that "magic time" just before sunset. And at right is a straight shot taken with the lens of cranes at rest.

In my most recent trip this last Sunday, I
caught some distant flocks of cranes coming in from miles away where they were likely feeding on grain fields in the area. Over the same mountains shown at upper left, here at left are 127 cranes (by my count) coming in for the evening. There is "strength in numbers" as they spend the evening together at Whitewater, using the water pools as protection from predators (usually coyotes). Click on the image to enlarge to full scale to see the multitudes of cranes... And at right is the standard shot of LBT glowing in the last rays of sunset from the Observatory near 11,000 feet elevation. At 80+ miles away, it is still eye-catching as it is usually parked at an angle that reflects sunlight to us birdwatchers... This frame is actually a focus-stack of 2 frames, otherwise either the birds or observatory would have been out of focus. But here 2 shots were combined to keep the sharp part of each image.

This last trip out there was a larger variety of smaller water-birds from a month ago when there were mostly just cranes. They also cruised closer to the observation platforms, so were a natural to photograph with the 500mm! At left is a long-billed dowitcher that was difficult to freeze as it was in constant motion marching and picking thru the shallow waters... And at right is an eye-catching killdeer - a common bird, but a beauty nonetheless!

And even though we're suffering through what seems like the cloudiest Fall and Winter in recent memory, I've gotten the lens out on a couple occasions for astronomical imaging. The first time I was fighting thin clouds and wasn't a good test for its capabilities. But the next time I shot a few objects and got some promising results. At left are a couple nebulae that shine by fluorescence of hydrogen resulting in a reddish glow. Commonly called the North American nebula at left and the Pelican Nebula at right, they are analogous to the glow from a fluorescent bulb, but excited not by electricity but from a bright star out of the field. This image is a stack of 17 frames totaling about 35 minutes of total exposure. The lens is extremely sharp from corner-to-corner across the full-frame 6D sensor, and I did stop it down to F/5.6 to reduce vignetting at the corners a little. But overall the results are quite good! At right is another glowing cloud of hydrogen - this one known as the Rosette Nebula, looking almost like a ghostly Christmas wreath! This one is only 10 minutes of total exposure!

So I'm impressed with the overall performance of the lens for both birding and astronomy! It will be one of my standard tools when going out on excursions, and might be just about perfect for the upcoming solar eclipse in August! But it is a sobering reality to know that it is a product of a life insurance payout... Would much rather do without it and have the presence of my bride back... But it will give me a chance to remember her every time I have it out with me!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Rare Optical Alignment!

The first day of work in 2017 at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab and what should I find, but a first-ever (that I'm aware of) alignment of the first 3 mirrors of the Giant Magellan Telescope! There are 4 mirrors in various stages of completion in the lab, but today GMT1 was moved from the test tower where it has resided over the holiday shutdown, out into the integration lab while both machines are undergoing some upgrades. So as seen at left, from right-to-left are GMT1, GMT2, and GMT3!

GMT1, the blue-colored one at right is finished, but will likely serve as reference to measure all the other mirrors, so may be the last to be delivered! It has a brush-on blue coating to protect the finely-polished surface.

The center mirror (with Leslie standing in front for scale!) is GMT2 and is diamond generated and awaiting fine-abrasive lapping and polishing. In the rear is GMT3 - currently face-down, with rear work of applying load-spreaders and thermocouples complete. It will soon be flipped over and work started on the front concave surface.

All of these mirrors are our standard-size 8.4 meter diameter substrates. That converts to nearly 28 feet in diameter. If you go to the GMT website above, that telescope will consist of 7 of these mirrors combining to form a single HUGE telescope... As seen at left, these 3 mirrors nearly fill the integration lab completely, with barely room to walk between them. You can see that both polishing cells are nearly identical, with a plumbing skirt to contain polishing and generating fluids around the outside. Visible on the GMT2 cell at left is the inflatable pressure seal at the backplate which allows pressurizing the cell plus mirror to match the polishing pressure to reduce print-through in the finished mirror surface.

And some of you may well wonder why the rear of the GMT3 mirror is covered with foam. Nothing secret certainly, just protecting the rear surface with the now-attached load spreaders which will interface with the supports in the polishing cell and the eventual telescope cell. At left I've pulled back one of the foam sheets to show loadspreaders and the thermocouple wiring so that mirror and air temperatures can be monitored during polishing or in the telescope.

And just because it is MY blog, here are some 3D anaglyphs! Grab your red/blue 3D glasses and enjoy the following shots. By adding another shot an inch or two away from the loadspreader shot above, you can make the 3D shot at left.

And while I was on a ladder taking the above shots, Looking back across the lab, I took another stereo pair of GMT1 and GMT2, shown at right.

We're continuing machine upgrades, and need to run some experiments to checkout machinery and software before continuing work on the GMT mirrors. Stay tuned!