Saturday, June 24, 2017

The June Tradition!

For over a quarter century now I've followed a tradition. Back in 1990, my first wife Vicki and I ran off to Vegas to get married. Pausing at the Canyon for a brief honeymoon before a road trip to the Midwest to meet my family, we noticed that a telescope set up at the rim to look within immediately gathered a crowd. We decided then that we'd invite a few friends to join us on our anniversary and have a star party. Thus was started the Grand Canyon Star Party, our anniversary in May of 1991 (4 telescopes over the week!) was butt-freezingly cold, so have held it dark-of-the-moon in June since the second interation in '92.

The early years the rangers seemed to tolerate us, and it took a decade to grow into the full partnership it is now between park and astronomer. I've managed to be the only attendee that has attended at least a night at every year's event, sometimes over the objections of my boss or my responsibilities of a care-giving spouse.

Today is the last day of this year's version, and I was able to attend the first 3 nights last weekend. It was a great time, and an affirmation of what I found the very first event in 1991 - the joy and appreciation in feedback from the tourists that may be seeing a dark sky for the first time is the highest payback that us as astronomers can receive in sharing the views through our telescopes! I ran the event for a generation (about 18 years), and it is nice to see it thriving under Jim O'Connor's and the Park Service's attentions. At left is a selfie I took in our parking lot at sunset with the venerable Celestron 14" - here with a piggy-backed 500mm lens for some late-night imaging...

This year's trip up was uneventful. An early-morning start of 6am got us through Phoenix before reaching the 115F+ temperatures that were expected. The road typically taken between Flagstaff and Canyon was closed because of a fire, so went west to Williams before north to the Canyon. Interestingly, the fire could be seen at one of the many cinder cones connected to the volcanic field with the San Francisco Mountains. The smoke from the fire made it look as though the ancient cinder cone was active again!

A quick stop at the telescope field, a run to the campground to set up the tent, a bite of dinner and then back to set up the telescope for the night. It wasn't until about sunset that I had a chance to roam and meet up with friends from over the years. At right, Bernie Sanden at left had a trick played on him - Dennis Young at right had hidden Bernie's expensive Tele-Vue eyepiece and replaced it with a cheap substitute. Before too much anguish, Dennis 'fessed up, and Bernie managed a smile at being "scammed". That is Joe Bergeron, long time artwork contributor for our t-shirt designs in blue at left...

The first night was fantastic! I had an immediate crush of public as soon as we were able to get Jupiter in the eyepiece. I had 30 people in line at my scope most of the night, so was difficult to change objects without upsetting folks in line for a while. Managed some great views of Jupiter, Saturn and Messier 13 in Hercules. The seeing was near-perfect, and, of course, as soon as the crowd departed after about 10:30, I fine-tuned the collimation of the C-14 and was able to run the power on Saturn well in excess of 300X without any breakdown!

After a reasonable night's sleep in the cool temps, I made it to the rim after nearly 24 hours there! It looked about the same as last year! Looking for a nice shot of it, over near Yavapai Point (where the star party was held for decades!), took some shots from one of my special viewpoints from where I used to set up my binoculars for hours and days to attract people's attention to the star party. Here I took a pair of HDR (High Dynamic Range) images with both the standard camera (Canon 6D) and an IR-modified camera (an old converted 20D). While the color image looks nice, I always like the alien view of an IR image, whose longer wavelengths cut haze, darkens a clear sky and turns vegetation white. The HDR image uses 3 different exposures at differing exposures to compress the shadows and highlights to see all details in the single frames...

When I had arrived at Yavapai, I noticed a little something out-of-the-ordinary. As I left my parked van, I spotted an elk as it walked past me towards the rim with single-minded-purpose! With a quick pace, looking neither left nor right, it seemed to be late for a meeting... After my own stop at the bathroom and collecting camera gear, I headed rimside too. As I approached, I found the reason for his being there! Right at the rim was a water bottle filling station and there was the elk... He had managed to open the valve and there he was slurping water from the valve!

Now realize these are NOT pets, nor raised in captivity. They are wild creatures capable of dangerous behavior if started or if fawns were around. Yet there was a crowd of people gathered around, most turning their back to it to take a selfie. The three girls at right asked me to take their photo, but I declined saying I wanted to document their selfie because they looked so stupid! There has been a huge uptick in elk over the years and they were pretty much everywhere around the park, at all hours of the day and night, so whenever driving you had to keep an eye out!

On night 2 there was a little smoke coming up from the fire near Flagstaff, but it dissipated and cleared just after sunset, never really affecting the observing. Huge crowds again, and I met some amazing people, whose story I'll save for a subsequent post. The top photo shows the 500mm lens recently obtained mounted on the scope and I hoped when the crown thinned, to take some photos to better show people what we were looking at with a few seconds of exposure. About 10:30 again the crowds thinned and I went looking for Comet Johnson C/2015 V2. It was in a very sparse field and took me a while to locate it, but a brief exposure showed the characteristic green glow, caused mostly by the dissociation of carbon in the vacuum of space as it approaches the sun. The exposure at left is a stack of 6 exposures of 2 minutes each and show a short stumpy tail that we could only imagine visually in the 14" telescope...

Those who have seen my photos before know I'm a fan of dark nebulae - seen mostly by silhouette against more distant star clouds. For that reason I show the exposure of Saturn at right - extremely overexposed at center. It happens to be crossing the Summer Milky Way and a long-ish exposure shows many of these distant dust clouds in profile. For that reason alone this is a favorite exposure from the Canyon!

Similarly, not far away, I tried the same thing on one of the coolest sights in the sky, Messier 22. A globular cluster, it contains the mass of about 300,000 solar masses, and is quite spectacular with the rich star fields in the background. In the full field at left, you can see the thin wisps of dark clouds in projection against the star clouds near the galactic center. While the 500mm is nice for showing extended clouds like this, it isn't optimum for showing details of objects like this cluster. A full resolution crop is shown at right and starts to show some details of the star cluster. It also has a lil' buddy to the upper right - what looks like an extended bright star is actually another globular NGC 6642. This smaller cluster is also nearly 3 times farther away (26,000 light years, vs 10,000) than M22, making it look diminutive.

Also nearby is a pretty pair of objects if you do wide-field imaging like this with the 500mm. You might have spotted them here before because M20 and M8 (Triffid and Lagoon Nebulae) are a common target of mine. Both glow with the characteristic red tint of hydrogen emission, as these star-formation clouds are predominantly hydrogen. The Triffid Nebula at top is so-named because it is split into 3 pieces by narrow dark clouds. It also sports a striking blue shade on top - the result of the dust and gas reflecting light from a nearby blue star.

Finally as I was considering closing down for the night, I noticed that the Andromeds Galaxy was getting high in the northeast. The 500mm is a perfect lens for the object as it barely fits in oriented diagonally. Messier 32 is the nearest bright galaxy to the Milky Way at about 2.5 million light years. It is also the farthest you can see with the naked eye if you have a dark enough sky!

Tuesday brought something rare - clouds! There was even thunder and lightning scattered around the Canyon. I spent some time along the Canyon edge. Shown here is an interesting sight - a single condor attracting a LOT of attention, not unlike a Hollywood starlet and a gaggle of press corps!

I ended up heading home after dinner, avoiding the 120+ degree heat of Phoenix by traversing it at Midnight! So I got my dose of the star party - glad I made it, always wanting more, but sometimes life gets in the way!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Another Momentous Day...

Today marks yet another milestone date - the 9th anniversary of Melinda and my wedding in 2008! It also starts the inception of this blog, but back then we didn't do a lot of photos on the blog, so some of these might not have been well-circulated. Since it was the second marriage of each, we took the easy route - took advantage of the Riverwoods Camp grounds to hold the wedding, and held the reception in their outdoor pavilion. Melinda's sister Susan funded the pig roast, and we decided on a Hawaiian-themed event. Melinda happened to have a surfboard (rare in Illinois!), which sister Maj painted to reflect our anniversary date. It was a spectacular event and we were married 50 yards from our house, circled by friends and family on a warm sunny June day. We were even married by the minister that oversaw operations at Riverwoods - Tony Danhelka! That is Tony with the bride and groom at right. Seems like we kept all details "in the family"!

But as we all know, life is anything but predictable, and Melinda left us last year. Eight years of marriage wasn't nearly enough, and sometimes I dwell on the what-ifs, but if anything, I'm grateful for the time we did have together, as do you all who knew and loved her like me. So I mark another date with tears and smiles, as I encourage you all to do the same if you knew her, or have lost your own "love of your life". "Gone, but not forgotten" is an oft-used phrase, but appropriate when remembering her smile lighting up every room she entered. Happy anniversary, my love!