Sunday, December 30, 2018

South Carolina State Museum (SCSM)!

The highlight of nearly any trip to Columbia, South Carolina has got to be a stop at the State Museum. My first time there in 1990, it was a newly-opened facility, open 2 years (1988) in a converted century-old textile mill. It is an amazing place, covering all aspects of SC history, the sciences, and one of my main interests, a new observatory with a century-old telescope! One of my last trips there, they had a major part of the museum under construction building the observatory seen above the roofline at left.

Immediately seen as you enter the building is the tripod upon which the telescope sits up on the 4th floor. Shown at right, most likely don't know what it is, but note that the tripod that insulates the telescopes from building vibrations is even incorporated into the new emblem of the SCSM - note the embroidered patch and name tag on the inset!

Just past the ticket desk is a store that sells everything South Carolina! Being that it was just before Christmas for my visit, there was lots of cutsie gifts for those that have everything - like the kitchen towels that say Jingle y'all and the like (Left).

There is lots of symbolism in the SC flag and it appears on most everything from flip flops to glasses, including the silver bowl shown at right... Carolinians take their history seriously and there is quite the history section in their books for sale. They continue to relive the "War of Northern Aggression", and the second largest section is likely cooking books! I asked one of the young sales clerks what I couldn't live without (I just wanted to hear her delightful southern-belle accent), and she steered me towards the chocolate-covered caramel popcorn. But while her accent was adorable, was able to turn down the treats!

Just across from the store in the entryway
was the "Palmetto Gate", featuring the craft of Philip Simmons, a blacksmith-turned-artist in the Charleston area. Wrought iron work like this is very popular, adding to the allure of older neighborhoods in that city. This work was custom designed for the museum by Simmons. It shows incredible craftsmanship and details in the gate highlights - details shown at right...

There were a couple of commissioned artworks from local artists - using some unusual media! Shown at left is the detail of a portrait by Molly B. Right - in bottle caps on wood! Only when you back up and see the whole piece do you see it is the scientist Albert Einstein!  This was made for a 2014 exhibit "Building a Universe".

With a rotating set of exhibits, there is always something new to see. In fact, on one out-of-the-way hallway, there was a wall filled with posters of the various exhibits over the 30 years of the museum. I think it was in that same hallway that I found some new displays using old photos showing the transformation to century-old textile mill to state-of-art museum...

But the main reason I was there was that it was a Tuesday, and on Tuesdays (weather permitting) the observatory was open for public viewing! It isn't often one gets to observe through a century-old 12" telescope from the classic Alvan Clark and Sons manufacturers! And unlike Lowell Observatory and their classic 24", where I asked to focus a fuzzy image and told "NO", these guys not only told me to focus, and gave me the controller to "drive around" the moon! At left our telescope operator lines up on a gibbous moon as twilight approaches.

A little later as it got darker, we all gravitated to an outer deck where an additional Dobsonian could be set up, as well as spot city lights of Columbia a couple miles to the east. Also as part of the observatory expansion was increased display area for the Bob Ariail antique Telescope collection. I alternated with touring the collection of Clark and other manufacturers from the 1700s and 1800s, with walking out into the dome for fine views of the moon and tiny disk of Mars at 400X.

Finally I got my fill, and I had family to visit on my first night in Columbia, so headed out. Interestingly I saw that you could rent the museum and even the telescope for private events! I loved that they had a photo of a bride fondling the nearly century-old Clark telescope! It makes such a wonderful groom!

Finally out in the parking lot, I looked back at the observatory and could barely make out the shape of the telescope and observers inside the dome, so was worth trying to get a photo from outside. Shown at right the ghostly scope can be seen thru the windows out to the patio,

In short, if you get to Columbia, in fact, anywhere in the state, it is worth your while to head down to spend the better part of a day at the State Museum. It will likely always be a destination when I'm in town!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Road Trip!

No sooner did I arrive at "Ketelsen East" that things fell in place for me to hit the road again for road trip to the east coast! Last Spring I visited Betty, my mother-in-law in South Carolina, and another friend in Virginia. This time, I ordered some telescope parts from a manufacturer in North Carolina, and shipping was going to be $320 to Arizona! That would pay for a lot of gas, so repeated last Spring's trip with a side stop near Raleigh, NC. The call from Raleigh came right after landing in Illinois, so pretty much hit the road 2 days later!

First up was a visit with Betty - at 94 you want to take every opportunity to visit, but I'm convinced that she is going to outlive us all! She is doing a daily exercise class! Not that she NEEDS to exercise, but seems more of a social thing for her and to get her out of the house as a friend picks her up. At left she is shown in front of her Christmas tree. I ended up staying 3 nights, visiting, doing a little shopping and generally hanging out!

On Tuesday, the afternoon I arrived, I happened to check to see what nights the State Museum was open for telescope viewing. Turns out it was Tuesday, and it was clear enough that they were going to be open! Centerpiece of the Bob Ariel antique telescope collection is the observatory built around the Clark 12 3/8" refractor telescope. Shown at right, it is a very nice facility - shown here is a young astronomer on the step ladder with dad behind him, observing the planet Mars. Look here in a few days for a post about the State Museum...

Eventually I pointed the car north and headed towards North Carolina. Interestingly, most of the central - to south sides of both the Carolinas are pretty flat, but rarely do you get a view out from the interstate system! They have trees growing along both sides and between the roads too! You can get a peek when in the northern areas where it is hillier or downright mountainous, but strange they have planted trees along hundreds of miles of roads, assumingly to minimize road noise for locals...

Thanks to my maps app on my iPhone, navigation was easy and I followed directions to the home of the head of Parallax Instruments, Joe Nastasi, outside of Raleigh. He had rolled an aluminum tube out of sheet, then welded it, and painted the interior black. While you can get commercial tubing to 12", I needed 16" tubing for this project! He then made the rings that hold the tube firmly to the telescope mounting. It was the high price of shipping the bulky tube that motivated the trip. I wished I'd had a chance to see his main shop, but wasn't possible that day. Shown here is Joe carrying the tube to my car at left and besides the rings at right. The tube is for a new project - a 14.25" mirror that also made up the trip from Tucson with me and is getting coated while I'm here to bring back. It will go on my AP 1200 mount and mostly anticipated to do astronomical imaging with a focal length of 1300mm and a speed of F/3.6.

After visiting Joe's place briefly, the goal was to find my way to friend Elaine's place in Virginia before dark! On the last weekday before Christmas, the roads got busier and more crowded as the weather turned worse as well. Heading up the mountains of northern North Carolina and Virginia the cold rain started, and literally it turned to snow just a few miles from Elaine's!

I seem to have known Elaine forever - she started coming to the Grand Canyon Star Party last century, and she was a friendly smile there for many years. Her beloved husband Tommy died a couple years ago, and she has been staying closer to home in recent years. In the Spring she was recovering from a broken leg in a wheelchair - she looks much more normal moving about afoot! One of our excursions took us to Tommy's gravesite where there was a pretty view of snow-or-frost covered trees to the north, shown at right.

Mostly we hung out at their beautiful home located in the foothills or rolling hills near local mountains. She organized a pasta dinner for me to meet some of the local amateur astronomers to eat and talk shop, and also gave the chance to sing carols around her Christmas tree! And of course, out there in the country we also watched for the local white tail deer population and see who came to the bird feeders. The photos at left and right show a panorama of late afternoon light at left, and a bit later, some nice colors as sunset came... Some of the highest mountains in the state are just a few miles to the south shown here. Also, below at left is a view of the mountains just north of Elaine's house showing the snow/frost covered trees from her front yard.

Finally Sunday arrived and it was time to transition back to "Ketelsen East" again. At 650 miles from Elaine's it is a long, but doable drive in one day. For some reason, the maps app took me on a northerly route and for the first time that I know of got to travel in West Virginia! Mostly interstate all the way, there were still surprising vistas of multi-lane highways going thru tunnels in mountains, and the wide valley of the Ohio River. Finally through north central Indiana I crossed a huge windmill farm (hundreds!) just before sunset. Even after stopping at the store for groceries, I was home before 9pm. It was nice to get out from behind the wheel! More soon, I promise!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Snowball Lobbed in our Direction!

Being that Winter is near, seems appropriate that a snowball is flying past the earth! It was scientist Fred Whipple back in the early 50s that theorized the "dirty snowball" model of comets which stands today with few modifications. The comet 46P/Wirtanen is a small, short period (5.4 years) comet discovered in 1948 by American astronomer Carl Wirtanen. It is normally very faint and rarely observed, but last weekend happened to be the closest object to the Earth besides the Moon!

I've been on the road, but am now located at "Ketelsen East" and this time, brought up a couple of telescopes so some observing can be done locally near St Charles. In fact, this last Saturday (15 December), I was signed on at a Christmas party in a local county park to show families the moon and other bright objects. Well, I arrived, but the event was so crowded there was no place to park, so went on home, photographed the nearly perfect quarter moon, and tried imaging the comet. That is the moon at left, photographed with an 8" RC reflector of 1600mm focal length. I've got no tracking mount, but the 250th second exposure froze the earth's rotation...

On this particular night the comet's orbit brought it almost opposite the sun, and almost at the closest point of its orbit, only 7.2 million miles from us. From a dark site it was said to be readily visible to the naked eye, but from my semi-urban area it was barely spotted in binoculars!

The comet provided a new set of challenges! I chose a 200mm lens which perfectly fit both the comet and Pleiades star cluster in the frame. Shooting from between St Charles and Elgin (my yard), I suffered a lot of light pollution, not only from artificial lights, but also from the moon! I also knew that the comet was moving at a pretty good clip, and it might take some effort to get sharp images. In my first attempt, I took 30 second exposures every minute (with in-camera noise reduction on), and took 30 of them to stack. The initial results are at left - over the 30 minute time frame, the comet moved quickly enough to show up as a streak, showing its motion over that time!
Another thing you can do is to align the stacked images to the moving comet, as shown at right with the same data files. While the comet is nice and sharp, the stars and cluster are now trailed! I know there is a way to render both comet and stars sharp, but I've not yet learned that trick.

What I ultimately did was to take short exposures (10 seconds!) at a higher ISO (1600) and F/number (F/3.2). stacking 20 of them together (about 3.5 minutes total exposure).  Shown at left, the stars are nice and sharp, and the comet is pleasingly rendered also without showing much trailing...  It was tough dealing with colored gradients, likely from the bright sky - a combination of moonlight and city lights.  But it will have to do for now...

No other "snowballs" expected in the near future, we were just lucky to have this one!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Ho Hum, Another Sunset...

As you know, we get our share of spectacular sunsets in Arizona. It has something to do with the clarity of the air, and for the western horizon to be clear to enable the setting sun to shine through and illuminate clouds at the observer's location. This one was from last Wednesday, the very evening I went out and photographed the second set of images of Mars and Neptune. Once the clear strip at sunset came over, I headed west of town to shoot the night time targets.

But that sunset! It was a sunset for the ages! If you aren't ready they can pass in an instant, so not much time to prepare if you aren't ready. This time I had collected my camera in preparation of going out to observe, but didn't have the right lens on when I grabbed it and went out to the cul-de-sac in front of the house. I had my 100mm macro, a reasonable telephoto - difficult to shoot a needed wide-angle view.

Well it was spectacular, so as a compromise, rather than run inside to change lenses, I did a mosaic - Took about 5 photos, then moved up a field and took 5 more, then later assembled them in Photoshop to appear as a single image. It worked well, as you can see here. Sometimes the software gets lost and can't combine them, or distort them wildly, but it really did look pretty much just like shown here. Enjoy!

At left is one of the individual frames from a slightly earlier sequence than went closer to the horizon...

Thursday, December 6, 2018

They Move!

Last week a FB friend of mine forwarded a list of December sky happenings and I noticed that the planet Mars happens to be passing the outermost planet Neptune (that is if you believe in the demotion of Pluto as a planet). Shown at left is the plot of the characters in this scene. Mars is relatively close to the earth, and Neptune very distant But from our vantage point Mars appears to be zipping past Neptune. At best, Neptune is visible in a very good pair of binoculars or small telescope, but I've been watching reddish Mars for a few months in the evening sky - now almost due south just after sunset. I really didn't have any interest in actually SEEING Neptune, I've seen it many times in a telescope - appears as a featureless tiny bluish disk. But what I was HOPING to record, was its motion over a day or two. All planets move around the sun, and of course, the earth's motion also contributes to their apparent motion in the sky.

Monday night when I was photographing windmills, I took a set of exposures of Mars with my 200mm lens, using my little tracking platform. I took a half dozen exposures of 20 seconds each that I stacked to minimize the noise in a single image. As shown at right in the stacked image (also some cropping), Mars is the reddish brilliant object below Lambda Aquarii (seen in the inset in right diagram). Oh - hopefully Neptune is in there too!

We've had a stretch of cloudy weather since, but Wednesday night there was a brief break of clear sky between storm systems, and I headed west of town in hopes of providing a second "epoch" to demonstrate 48 hours of motion. I again took a series of 20 second identical exposures. After completion I headed back to town and later in the evening stacked those exposures too. Putting the two data sets together shows the motion over the time gap between them. Now realize that Mars was about 1 AU (astronomical unit - mean distance of sun to earth, about 93 million miles) from us, and Neptune was 30 AU away - 2.7 BILLION miles away! As a result Neptune moves pretty slowly, and I didn't expect much of a shift for Neptune, but I was in luck - it was clearly seen - do you see it at left? Clearly seen in this cropped image is the doubled image of brilliant Mars, with its considerable motion over the 48 hours. But Neptune is harder to spot...

But the right image shows the labeled position and the doubled position of Neptune over the 48 hour gap. Neptune moved a tiny, but definite amount. Well it takes 165 years to orbit the sun, so it isn't in much of a hurry...

In Search of Foregrounds!

A Facebook friend of mine, Paul Schulz, posted a spectacular photo a few weeks ago - the Milky Way rising past an old windmill in the foreground. As any photographer will tell you, sometimes the foreground adds more to a composition than the subject, and in this case, makes a superb Milky Way shot even better. Shown at left, it is a single exposure with a fast, wide angle lens, exposure short enough that the stars don't show appreciable trailing as the earth rotates beneath. But to record decent detail, lens must be used wide open and at the risk of noise appearing with a very high camera ISO.

At my request he told me where he found it - in a canyon on the southeastern slopes of the Graham Mountains, about a 15 minute drive from his home in Safford, but a nearly 2 hour drive from Tucson! There might well be country windmills closer, but this one was proven to have NO light pollution in the area. My thought was to photograph the constellation Orion rising past the windmill - something everyone would recognize... So I drive out there, arriving about sunset and wouldn't you know, someone was camped beneath it! I figured it was a hunter as deer season had just started, but no, it was Kevin from Iowa, just camping for a few weeks. We had a nice long chat and I ended up taking a few photos anyway, even though he had a solar panel and electricity, lighting up the bottom half of the windmill like a Christmas tree - not suitable for dark-sky imaging!

But we had a great time, talking about our lives in Arizona and past lives in Iowa and once he figured out what I was doing, let the campfire die down and turned the lights on the windmill out as well.  I eventually took a few test shots, leaving any real effort on Orion for another time!  At left are the star clusters the Pleiades at center (Seven Sisters) and Hyades between Pleiades and tree below (Vee shaped) rising in the east.  Orion would be just below them an hour later...

I didn't wait that long - I needed to return to do some training with night staff at work, but before leaving, I noticed that the setting Summer Milky Way was making a nice "V" in the western sky with the Zodiacal Light! Shown at right, the Zodiacal Light is a cone-shaped white glow extending to the left behind the windmill, appearing in the western post-sunset sky December into February, and the eastern pre-dawn sky September into November. It is sunlight being reflected from meteoritic dust in the plane of our Solar System, mostly released from Comets and asteroidal collisions... It needs a dark sky to be really apparent, and in fact, many of my Midwestern amateur astronomer friends have never seen it! This is a single 40-second exposure with a fisheye lens - the one shot that didn't have a lot of airplane in it to edit out! That is Kevin being illuminated faintly by the embers of his campfire!

So yes, will likely return someday to so more shots similar to Paul's. It is a nice spot to camp out, in a little valley near a small stream - even now running likely from melting snow from higher elevations. Not a productive night, but they always turn out fun and interesting!