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!