Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A New View!

Long time readers know I'm justifiably proud of some of the Mirror Lab accomplishments, including the twin mirrors of the Large Binocular Telescope, each 8.4 meters (about 27.5 feet) in diameter. In particular, I've been on a quest of sorts of imaging the telescope while it does interesting things. It seems to have culminated last Spring when I caught the ARGOS laser propagating into the sky from a distance of 12 miles. From the town of Safford, through a small telescope, I almost had a front-row view of the instrument, visible at left, which is used to project a constellation of artificial stars in the field of view of the telescope to partially correct atmospheric turbulence. Several hundred similar frames were combined to make a short video seen here.

Well, without permission from the powers that be to get any closer (made more difficult by the recent severe fire this last spring that approached within 50 meters!), my most recent query was - from how far away can you see it?! From a post a few years back, I knew that LBT was line-of-sight from Kitt Peak National Observatory, very close to 120 miles away! The image at left is from that post and demonstrates that if you can see KPNO from LBT (flat-topped mountain in center), you can see LBT from KPNO!

So last night after work (working evenings this week at the Mirror Lab), I found my way driving westward - this after confirming with the LBT telescope operator that indeed ARGOS was operating properly. Being that it was dark-of-the-moon, I parked on the last pullout before turning towards the Observatory so that my lights would have no effect on operations there. It was an interesting night - totally clear, but obviously above an inversion layer. I watched the thermometer climb as the van ascended. It was 60F at the base of the mountain, 70F on top! The wind seemed a little blustery, alternately blowing out of the south or the north - weird! But fortunately, I was very comfortable in shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt.

I had several optics to try - the first was easiest to set up - the 500mm F/4 "big bertha" telephoto. I had it up, pointed and focused on the lights of Tucson in a few minutes. It took me a couple shots to find where the LBT would appear - I'd never seen it from Kitt Peak, as it is quite small. But I knew it would be left of the red-lit radio transmission towers atop Mount Lemmon, so used that as my guide. About my 3rd shot - there it was! The green laser standing out from the occasional star and headlight visible on the Mount Lemmon Highway. At left is shown a 6-frame panorama of part of Tucson. with the green spot of the 18 watt ARGOS laser visible. At right is a single frame at a little larger scale better showing the laser beam.

I then broke out the big gun - the TEC 140 - a 5.5" diameter telescope with 1,000mm of focal length. Again, because of the large magnification, it took a couple practice frames to get it pointed properly. Note that at NO TIME was the ARGOS laser visible to the naked eye or even visible in the camera viewfinder. It was only the power of a 20 to 30 second exposure that revealed it was there. I had started an exposure sequence for a possible time-lapse, and interestingly, the inversion layer is visible just under LBT. In a couple minutes of exposure, it slowly dropped and became a little brighter in the less-affected air. Also visible in the exposure is the south slope of the mountain, brightly illuminated by the lights from Ft Grant prison at its base.

Most of my outings, I usually finish with a practice shot or mini-project that can be completed while putting away gear. This night, approaching 1:30 in the morning, I mounted the 16mm fisheye on the Canon 6D and took a couple frames of the sky from Andromeda to the rising Winter Milky Way. What is most interesting, besides the reddish airglow that looks like clouds to the west (right), is the oval glow just below center. This is called the Gegenshein, or counter-glow - a spot defined by being opposite to the sun in the sky. An optical effect allows sunlight to reflect from meteoritic dust back to us. This may be my best photo of it, and from only 2 stacked exposures shown here. Each of the 2 exposures were 2.5 minutes with the fisheye working at F/4.

Always great fun to be under a clear dark sky, and while chasing an ARGOS viewing might be only an excuse, it doesn't take much to get me out looking up!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Deja Vu, And Then Some!

My friend Donna had a hair appointment in Tucson this last weekend and suggested a road adventure, and another buddy Bernie was impressed with my photos from the weekend before on the Baboquivari 4WD trip. What could I do but suggest another trip to the most sacred site of the Tohono O'odham? Neither had been to the area, so by noon we were again winding down the Sasabe Road! As on the previous trip, my new riders were impressed with the view of Kitt Peak from 12 miles away. At left, Bernie shoots the observatory - the flat peak seen on the horizon.

We didn't waste a lot of time on the drive down - turned off the paved road just beyond milepost 16 and followed the road back NW towards the impressive profile of Baboquivari. With our little later start, we found a nice spot for our lunch with a view of both the peak and vistas to the east as well. The 5-frame mosaic here from our lunch spot with the 300mm lens well-captures the peak and surrounding area. Unfortunately, with the 1600 pixel-wide limit of pictures much of the impact of these panoramas is lost. At right what I've done is crop out the peak area of the panorama, keeping it at full resolution to give an idea of how powerful the full resolution panorama is! The crop at right is the same image, just cropped, not downsized from the panorama...

The previous trip I had seen a lot of huge grasshoppers, though didn't stalk one down on that trip. This time one came walking by at our lunch, so was able to molest it and take it's photo. It is a colorful fellow, flightless, though with underdeveloped wings seen here with black spots. It didn't take long to identify it on the Google as a Plains Lubber Grasshopper, Brachystola magma. Interestingly, in that link, they find that the Plains Lubber has a 2-year life cycle. I really love the subtle but strong earth-tone colors!

A little later we did some hiking when we hit the locked gate mentioned in last week's post. We turned a corner and I discovered the Praying Mantis shown at right at eye level on a plant. It was quite patient while I twisted the plant to bring it into the sunlight to get one or two good shots...

About 1km above the locked gate, we saw a ranch house that looked a lot better-kept than I remember hiking past back in the 80s! It appeared to have newer double-pane windows and a metal roof, even as the road leading up to it seemed long-unused. I ventured a little past the "private property" sign, but only to get the photo at left. Following the trail around the house and the corral, I took the mosaic at right. It looks like an idyllic place to spend some time! Back 30 years ago when last here hiking the peak, we parked much nearer the ranch house, but was pretty run down. In my reading, about that time it was known as Riggs Ranch. I'm not sure who operates in the area now. On our trip last weekend, we saw a big truck going in, but didn't stop to talk. Did not see any cattle either trip, though saw some white-tail deer (about a half dozen, including fawns) this trip.

We pointed the Jeep downhill about 4pm, making good time back to pavement without incident. Returning north on the Sasabe Road (the way we went out) we were rewarded with more nice views of Kitt Peak. Shown at left is an odd-looking view when 99% of the time you only see the profile from Ajo Way on the way to the Observatory from Tucson. Here, looking from the SSE, the 4-meter telescope appears between the solar and 2.1 meter scopes! This was taken with the 500mm lens...

Thankfully, one of us was thinking and we used Donna's phone to take a selfie of the three of us, shown at right. It was another beautiful, if not warm (temps still in 90s) Fall day that will remain memorable!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Another Jeep Adventure!

Well, it is October in Arizona, which means that the temperature has dropped below 100F - barely! After being back to Tucson (from Illinois) for over a week, it was time to get out of town for a drive. I still have Melinda's Jeep, so since it has been parked the last couple months, I thought it should get out on a day trip. I decided to redo a trip that Melinda and I had done almost 9 years ago shortly after she moved to Arizona - a drive out to a unique mountain, Baboquivari! Since the car was her daily driver, she got nervous when the road got a little rocky, and we turned around WAY early. Less chance of that happening today!

Anaglyph image - 3D pair of Kitt Peak from east
Anaglyph image- 3D pair of Kitt Peak from the SSE
The route from Tucson takes us out Ajo Way towards the SW, then turns south on the Sasabe Road at Robles Junction (Sometimes called Three Points). I've often been on this route when photographing sky objects in the west, as the silhouette of Kitt Peak National Observatory 12 miles to the west makes a fine foreground! I used the opportunity on Saturday to take some stereo pairs of the Observatory, taking image sets a couple hundred meters apart to show 3D effects at the distance of the mountain. Use the usual anaglyph red/blue glasses to see the 3D effect! While the image at left shows the usual profile one sees heading west towards the Observatory, the 3D image reveals the topography you don't usually see! As the road continues south and curves towards the west, you get a completely new vantage point of the mountain, as shown at right. Kitt Peak's top is sort of shaped like a "T" with the broad side on the south, and you can see this topography with a couple hundred meters separation. These pairs were taken with a 500mm lens out the car window, pulling over when there was a clear shot to the horizon...

Anaglyph image - 3D of Baboquivari over foothills
A few more miles and Baboquivari, which had been visible miles away, comes to dominate the western horizon. It is a spectacular mountain - the remaining lava plug from an ancient volcano. The anaglyph at left shows the peak towering over some of the foothills that surround it. The diagonal slash of green just above the foothills is a natural ledge (called Lion's Ledge) that forms a route across the sheer east face of the mountain. A lifetime ago, a Kitt Peak programmer (an experienced climber) led another employee and me across Lion's Ledge to climb that left side profile, called the "Southeast Arete". Never having been rock climbing before, I chickened out and met them back at the saddle on the north side, after they successfully summited and descended again. I've never been comfortable in highly exposed situations, and while I've climbed to the peak three times since, it was always on the easier Forbes route on the north and west sides...

Peak nears, road becomes a little sketchy!
The turn towards Baboquivari was near milepost 16 on the Sasabe road. The dirt road was near perfect condition, except for occasional small gullies that would have slammed your head on the roof of the Jeep if you didn't slow and didn't have your seatbelts on! It was about 8 miles to a locked gate, the road getting progressively worse as the peak became more and more impressive as it grew nearer! Really, only the last mile required 4WD in climbing out of a wash and a steep rocky hill beyond. Shortly after crossing a wash with actual standing water and deciduous trees showing some Fall colors, we came to the locked gate, the weeds growing on the route beyond indicating it is not open very often! But that is MUCH farther than Melinda let me go with her baby back in 2008! I took a photo of the Jeep and the gate with the peak in the background in celebration!

I didn't feel like hiking much beyond the gate and other than take a few stereo pairs didn't stay long. I had spotted a striking seed pod while climbing through the desert vegetation, the crimson seeds standing out against the browns and tans of late Fall. I took a photo of it against some striking pink metamorphic rock that I collected in a wash crossing.

I also collected a set of photos of the peak with the 300mm lens, zooming considerably into the slab, taking 13 frames to cover it down to the lower elevations. While the mosaic loses considerable power when reduced to the 1600 pixel wide limit of the blog, it still reveals lots of details in the sheer walls.

The return down the route seemed to go faster and the Jeep enjoyed returning to pavement in less than an hour. Like the trip in '08, returned via Arivaca and Amado to return to Tucson via I-19, arriving by sunset, making for a long, but memorable drive to some difficult-to-forget wilderness!