Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Weekend of Randomness!

Note piggy-back 500mm lens!
Newlyweds Michael and Casey!
A few weeks ago was the 2017 edition of the Grand Canyon Star Party. I attended the first few days - I feel responsible since I'd started the thing way back in 1991, so had to keep an eye on "my baby"! I was in a nostalgic mood with this being the first one held after Melinda's death last Fall, and it seemed more than ever were asking me about the origins of the event - started at the honeymoon w/my first wife Vicki at the rim. So I was enveloped in a melancholy mood as the event started...

But the crowd wore on me - the tourists that stop and look thru our telescopes are always so enthusiastic that sadness was not long accepted. On the second night I had mounted my camera piggy-back on the scope so I could take and show a photo of what folks were looking at. Early in the evening I met Casey and Michael - they had just been married canyon-side the day before and were now honeymooning here! Someone down the line of telescopes had told them to come look me up and say hi. Well their story similar to mine certainly cheered me up and I asked them to come back when I didn't have 30 people in line looking at Jupiter, which they said they would.

Grand Canyon view of C/2015 V2 Johnson
Casey and Michael Johnson wedding photo!
My crowds eventually thinned and I'd all-but forgotten them. Left alone, it took me a while to find the "bright" comet Johnson in the evening sky. While bright enough to barely be seen in binoculars, it took a while to get it into the telescope, but the camera quickly confirmed its green coma and short tail that it was indeed Comet Johnson C/2015 V2. I've already told the story of how it was discovered as part of the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson by Jess Johnson in 2015, thus the name after the discoverer. About this time Casey and Michael appeared and they got to see the comet thru the eyepiece and in the back of the camera. I then offered to take them a few stacked exposures of the Triffid and Lagoon Nebulae as a wedding present, and showed them the pretty blue and red nebula in a short exposure. As the camera recorded the half dozen frames, I took their email contact from them. I was amazed that Casey and Michael's married name is Johnson - so had to go back and tell them the story of the Comet Johnson that they had just seen! And strangely enough too, many of you may know that Melinda's maiden name was Johnson! It was a set of circumstances way to weird to be random, and quickly had me tearing up...

Another of Casey and Michael's wedding shots!
My little wedding offering to them...
The other big event this summer is the solar eclipse coming up in August. I'm always loathe to make plans days or weeks in advance, let alone years or months. But in my talking to the folks in line looking through the Celestron at the Canyon, I met a family from Wyoming. When asked where they would be on the 21st of August, w/out hesitation they said "Watching the eclipse from our yard!" Of course, my immediate response was if they would mind if I brought up a dozen people to camp in their yard, with access to a shower and bathroom? They said yes! So now I have a destination for my group of Russian amateur astronomers and the group of friends that want to follow along. Our new friends in small-town Wyoming have even offered to cook for us, so it sounds like an adventure that will soon-enough appear here.

So randomness and circumstance are still at work in the universe! It has been said (perhaps by me!?) that if you sit along the rim of the Grand Canyon long enough, you will meet everyone in the world! It certainly worked wonders for me, raising me out of my funky mood, and also finding a home for the 21st of August! May the universe continue to be surprising!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

My Mediocre Fireworks photos!

I've photographed galaxies a hundred million light years away. I've shot moths that pollinate flowers IN PITCH BLACK NIGHT. I've shot planets thru a telescope that has an observatory as a pretty background. But evidently I'm incapable of shooting a decent image of a fireworks display! Co-worker Steve set the bar pretty high and did a lot of the preliminary work, taking a spectacular fireworks image 2 years ago. He told me all the hints he could but warned me that to get a background of Tucson's skyline (at least what there is of it), you had to expose a long time, risking way overexposing the fireworks. But I figured it was worth a try so even though the night before leaving for the Midwest, I went chasing fireworks!

I used the same venue he did - the top level of the parking ramp next to Parking and Transportation on 6th street on the south edge of UA campus. Even an hour ahead found cars claiming prime spots - it looks like it was gonna be a party! I set up camera and tripod and used my trusty 70-200 zoom lens. Steve used 70mm, and I figured with the full-size sensor of the 6D that I'd need something closer to 100-120, so the zoom was a great choice. My first shots, that still showed some twilight glow, showed that to get a properly exposed skyline, at least 10 to 15 seconds was needed. You can see at far left some of the "wildcat" fireworks in the neighborhoods showed up nice on this exposure.

But at right, the problem can be seen! The Tucson display was held far after it got dark, not starting till about 9:15. This shot shows that even in the 4 second exposure, the fireworks were so bright that they are very overexposed and colors are blown out. I was able to stretch some of the skyline back, but you can't do much with the overexposed fireworks...

I did luck out and get some shots that were ALMOST acceptable. At left is another 4 second shot that captured some of the dimmer shots that didn't overexpose the sensor, yet, I was able to bring up the skyline a little.

At right is a 10 second exposure that again, did well on the cityscape, but the fireworks were again on the verge of being overexposed again... It is a very narrow line to balance background with the points of interest, but that is the goal! My buddy Ken who runs a "Picture a day" blog not only got a great shot, but ran it on the 4th of July! A former newspaper photographer, he is used to running on deadlines!

The party did develop! I ran into some very nice people there, mostly young student-types, some with kids. Some were interested in what I was capturing and were amazed at what a few seconds exposure would show - things they couldn't see with their eyes... The photo at left is a hand-held exposure with my spare camera showing some of the cars at a lower level watching the distant show.

You will note in almost all the shots above that the fireworks ignited a blaze on the lower slopes of "A Mountain" from where they were shot off. In fact, most refer to the local fireworks as the "traditional lighting of A Mountain! After the display ended, many stayed to watch the blaze grow before being extinguished. At right is a shot thru the longest focal length of the zoom (200mm). It was impressive to us and we couldn't even see the fire directly from our location!

So I'm not sure I'm gonna try this again anytime soon. It is too hard to get good results. Maybe I'm getting lazy in my old age, but you would think if you take 85 photos, you would have one or two "keepers" of which I don't feel I did. Back to photographing invisible things...

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Arizona Aflame!

All of you have likely seen the nightly news and the reports that the western US is suffering simultaneously record high temperatures and dozens of forest fires. Even in my last post here I talked about a fire detouring my trip to the Canyon, and a glimpse of the fire showed one of the ancient cinder cones as if the volcano had come back to life! We've had close to a dozen within a hundred miles of Tucson the last few months, but two in particular have attracted a lot of attention. 

Most recently, the Burro Fire started about a week ago. It's cause is not yet known, but wasn't lightning as it was a storm-free day when it started 30 June. It is in a popular area for "wildcat shooting", so that remains a possible cause. While on the east end of the Catalina range just north of Tucson, it is not directly endangering any houses, but is very near the only access road to Summerhaven atop Mount Lemmon, so as a precaution, the mountain has been evacuated. Yesterday (5 July), I flew to Chicago and was surprised when we took off to the west, and circled around, flying along the front range of the Catalinas. We were not near the main part of the fire, but what did become clearly visible were the slurry paths from the aerial tankers as they controlled the southern extent of the blaze.  Current estimates have it over 25,000 acres burned, and only 11% contained...

Another major fire that had attracted my attention several weeks ago was the Frye Fire atop Mount Graham. Now burning for a month, it was initially not actively fought as it was a lightning-caused fire, not near any structures in a remote part of the range. Ten days later it had exploded wildly and threatened the major observatory at the peak, as well as cabins at several locations.

Now I'm a little paternal when it comes to the telescopes up there, as I worked on making all three of them! While I was at the Canyon a couple weeks ago I was looking for news to see if the scopes survived. Thankfully they did! Troy Wells was with firefighters atop the LBT structure and took the following video. Interestingly, it is mis-identified as being in Utah, and it is also reversed left-to-right, but the video is no less amazing. As the fire bears down on the structure, the cavalry arrives in the form of a DC-10 with a load of slurry!

The Observatories there literally appeared to be saved by that drop. An inspection a couple days later by the director of the Vatican Telescope resulted in the following report...

I took a Sunday visit to a friend living in Safford, just east of Mount Graham on 2 July. The fire was still very evident even if the danger to the Observatories and cabins have passed. At left is a view of the only access to the mountain - highway 366, Swift Trail. Smoke hangs heavy over the eastern slopes, and while not easily visible in this shot, there was a sheriff and a roadblock a kilometer down the road. I was heading home about sunset, driving south paralleling the mountain and suddenly noticed the lighting had changed! A glance towards the sunset showed the sun hanging low directly over the main column of smoke. That was certainly worth a stop for a photograph!

Now Mount Graham is another waypoint on the flight to Chicago - it normally is visible outside the left window as we jet to the northeast. I paid the extra fee to get a port side window and was rewarded with the following view at left! Normally the 3 telescopes are clearly visible as we pass, but the smoke from the fire totally obscured the entire mountaintop!

Interestingly, I had also packed my IR-modified camera. This camera has a filter that ONLY allows infrared light to the sensor, instead of being blocked out like most cameras. As a result of the longer wavelengths used, blue skies get darkened and the chlorophyll of healthy plants appear almost white. At right is the infrared view. Most interestingly, the smoke is all but invisible! Blackened burn scars are much more easily visible against the white of normal forest growth. They were taken only a few moments apart, so the only real differences are the wavelengths of observation... The current status of the Frye Fire is about 48,000 acres burned and is about 66% contained.

WARNING!  Anaglyphs ahead!
For those of you who are fond of my anaglyph 3D images (I know there are a few of you out there!), I've combined image pairs taken from the plane to make 3D images. At left is again the color shot at visible wavelengths. You will see the 3D image with using the red/blue glasses with the red filter on the left.

At right is similarly the infrared anaglyph. I am truly shocked at how well the longer IR wavelengths penetrate the smoke of the fire. The 3D effect also seems stronger too - perhaps because of the mostly black and white image and its effect on the tinted anaglyph.

And believe it or not, the LBT is visible through what is likely about the thickest part of the smoke in the IR shot. Check out this full-resolution shot at left of the above image. Just under the center of the cloud at the upper profile of the mountain, the silver box of the LBT can be spotted!

While fire season is hanging on as long as the summer rainy season is staying away, it won't be long till the rains and humidity will extinguish the AZ fires at least. Meanwhile, I'm happy to be back in the green Midwest for a few weeks. I'm even looking forward to some hot muggy days - can't be much worse than the 115 degree days we've survived in the desert!

I'm editing this entry as I just finished a new anaglyph of the slurry lines at the Burro Fire, and it was too cool not to include! Shown at left, the 3D anaglyph shows how the slurry lines were laid down mostly along ridge lines to prevent the fire's spread. That is all - enjoy!