Sunday, July 21, 2019

Keeping Up With Buddies!

I'm about halfway through this trip to "Ketelsen East" in the far western suburbs of Chicago. I've been in a "decluttering" mode, and one of the items I don't use any more is a recumbent bicycle given to be by RAGBRAI buddy Carl. A decade ago I hadn't been riding much after my pair of open-heart surgeries, and he passed on the recumbent that someone had given him. It was a unique piece of gear, and totally different to ride than a "normal" bike. The riding position was very comfortable, but the under-seat steering took a little getting used to! Also, after stopping, starting up again was surprisingly difficult, and usually included wobbling across the lane of traffic and aborted starts on many occasions! So I mostly did not ride it in traffic, and mostly rode laps around the mile-long path in a local park. Oh, and in going uphill, it had difficulty getting out of its own way! And there are plenty of hills near the river where I live! After I got a new hybrid bike here (which I love), the recumbent was abandoned so thought I'd pass it back to Carl to pass on to someone else! That's me on an early ride at left...

So THAT gave me an excuse to take a day trip to Iowa and cross paths with Carl. Back in 1993 when I did my first cross-state ride, he was one of the riders in the dozen or so crazies from the Toddville area that soon became my fast friends. He now is their intrepid leader, motivating them to train and keep on going year after year. He figures he's been on 29 of the 500 mile long rides across Iowa! Lately he and his wife Terri spend their winters in the Phoenix area near where one of their daughters live. While we crossed paths once this last winter in AZ, we didn't get a ride in, but since he is in "training", we did one earlier in the week when I visited. That is us at left, post-ride when I was pretty sweat-soaked, but it was a great, if warm and steamy day!

We met about 9am. Interestingly, I live next to a river, so have to climb a hill to leave the house. He lives atop a hill, so coast down to leave. Unfortunately, that means you climb that hill as you finish! He took me on a route that finished out at 20+ miles, and included 700+ feet of climbing - both records for me since restarting riding! A good part of it was over a rails-to-trails bike path - the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, which travels all the way from Cedar Rapids to Waterloo, over 60 miles, paved a good part of the way! I was surprised how busy it was - we would pass bikes or groups of bikes every minute or two! We stopped in a shady spot for a drink (at right), and Carl immediately found someone to talk to. The stop also included a latrine in the background, so a nice rest stop on a warm humid day.

After traversing sometimes busy roads to get there, it was a relief to not battle car and truck traffic, and it was nice to ride side-by-side for miles to chat and tell stories. Shown at left is a shot I took as I slowed to record what it was like as we biked along the very nice path.

We got back to Carl's and wondered if they wanted to go into town to Culver's for lunch. They were blessed to have their granddaughter Harper staying with them - she is a cutie, though seems pre-occupied with games and apps on her cell phone. She was plenty friendly and tolerated well my teasing her and attempting to steal her rapidly melting custard out at a table. See how photogenic she is at right?

I left the trio at the Cedar Rapids Culvers and headed south to Iowa City to make a pilgrimage to "Prairie Lights", my favorite book store, then on east to have dinner with sister Kathy, her husband Rich, and friends in Wheatland. Leaving them all for the 2.5 hour trip home in St Charles, I got in about 10:30. A long, but very fun day!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Wavy Wispies?

One thing I've been able to adhere to at "Ketelsen East" is my daily bike ride. In 12 days so far in July, I've gotten in 10 rides for a total of 105 miles! Mostly I bike the mile to a local park with a nice 1 mile loop to get in at least 5 miles or so, then jump on the bike path along the Fox River for more hill work and a little variety. But today I noticed something different!

As an astronomer and observer of nature, I've seen all sorts of clouds, but today was different - wavy clouds filling up the eastern sky! Fortunately I had my phone (tracks my bike rides) handy to take some photos. Kinda weird, eh? The foreground is River Bend Community Park, about a mile up the hill from me, and you can see it is a nice place to bike. But the whispies did not look like any clouds I've seen. I think the giveaway is the bluish nature of them.

The weathermen have been pointing out that some of the haziness we've been seeing has been due to forest fires across the border in Manitoba and Ontario Canada, and I suspect this is smoke from those fires. By afternoon they had moved off, the sky turning completely clear, so obviously the wind moved them out of the area. But they sure were striking for a while!

Monday, July 8, 2019

After The Meeting...

Tonight was the monthly meeting of the Fox Valley Astronomical Society. An interesting meeting about Apollo 11's Moon landing 50 years ago. Part of the discussion was about the "where were you" stories. Some were deployed in Vietnam. I was a 15 year old working on my Grandparent's farm. It was a Sunday as I recall, so didn't have to do much work - I remember shooting hoops with my younger cousin. I think there is a photo somewhere. I also took photos off the TV of Armstrong and Aldrin with my Instamatic - was a space nerd even then!

After the meeting, my friend Mark was setting up the club's 12" Meade in the parking lot at Peck Farm Park where we met (shown at left). He asked if I'd seen Celestron's new cell adaptor, which quickly allows mounting of a cell camera to shoot through the telescope. I'd not seen it, but was quite impressed as it allowed 3-axis of motion - X, Y, and focusing motion too! Shown at right in their advertising, it would come in handy at the Grand Canyon as EVERYONE wants to take photos of what they see in the telescope...

Well, with the quarter-moon high in the west, it was a perfect opportunity to try it out. The only difficulty we had was in setting up and aligning the camera lens to the eyepiece in the dark. A little red light might have been handy, but we eventually found the light coming out of the eyepiece. A wide shot of the moon is shown at left. Note the bottom edge is clipped by the edge of the eyepiece, NOT the lower limb of the moon...

At left, with the addition of some digital zoom in the camera, more detailed close-up is shown. It was an impressive demonstration with the brightest thing we observe in the night sky!

A bit later we looked at Jupiter, and were easy to see and record the 4 Galilean moons. Shown at left, the overexposed disk of Jupiter is at center, and left-to-right are the moons Ganymede, Europa, with Io and Callisto on the right. I tried but was unable to reduce the exposure to more properly expose for bright Jupiter. A higher power might have helped, but I suspect there was too much black sky - not enough "bright" to trigger the auto-exposure... I would have stayed for Saturn, low in the SE, but the mosquitos had drunk enough of my blood, so moved on towards home to post these. All in all, I'm tempted to get one of these devices - looks like an easy way to at least document the moon and bright planets with a cellphone.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Visible and Invisible

Woo Hoo - back in the Midwest for a visit to "Ketelsen East"! But what is this watery substance my skin is excreting??? For the first time the last few Summer visits, it is miserably hot and humid! A big change evidently as they have been "enjoying" a cool, very wet Spring. Farmers have been unable to get into fields to plant and evidently a slow-motion disaster is in progress...

Anyway, last weekend my maternal grandmothers family held a reunion that I was able to attend! Held every 2 years, it has been going on a few times. Held in a church camp in eastern Iowa (Grace Lutheran Church Camp), I didn't take any photos of relatives I've not seen in decades, but knowing that there would be some blue sky and greenery, I took my IR-modified camera to take some landscape photos!

Most modern cameras are sensitive to infrared (IR) light, but the sensors are filtered to specifically block those wavelengths invisible to the eye beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. Well, there are some neat effects going on just past our vision limits and 8 or so years ago I got an inexpensive DSLR camera on Ebay and paid a modest fee to remove the IR blocking filter and replace it with an IR pass filter. While the view through the camera looks normal, the photos are anything but! As shown here, the IR shots show white trees and grass, indicative of chlorophyll, which is a strong reflector of IR, and dark water and sky, which absorb or do not scatter IR light. Please enjoy the photo comparisons, which I've tried to match the exact field with the modified Canon 20D, and the visible color images from my Canon 6D. The IR shots do not look unlike the view of a snowfall covering grass and vegetation, but that is indeed NOT the case.

The longer IR wavelengths easily penetrate haze and dust, and are scattered less by the atmosphere. Looking at the photos above, the clouds just above the treetops are more easily seen in the IR shot as it is less affected by haze and contrast is increased. In the long-distance views from mountaintops in AZ, this effect can be used to more clearly discern distant details. But since the horizon is at most only a mile or two away in flat and tree-infested Iowa, this effect is much less. But note in these photos left and right that the algae mats growing along the water edge also glow white from chlorophyll!

For years I've tried to photograph details within the structure of a leaf, but it all glows so completely white it is hard to pick out any details. These photos are from an oak tree, and structure is clearly seen in the color image at right, but harder to discern in IR, even with severely playing with brightness and contrast. What you can see are some little spots that align with little leaf defects, perhaps insect bites or other small intrusions, that clearly show a lack of chlorophyll.

You may see more from the IR camera in coming weeks - I love seeing the normally hidden world revealed!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Grand Canyon 2019!

Last week was the 29th Grand Canyon Star Party! Next May 6 will be the 30th anniversary of Vicki and me getting married in Vegas, and honeymooning at the Canyon for a couple days. We discovered that most any optics set up at the rim would attract a crowd, so we started inviting friends to join us in setting up scopes for a week-long public star party. About the first thing we did was to move it to June when it was a little warmer, but has only grown in popularity. They now attract upwards of 2,000 people a night to more than 60 telescopes. I now know what it is like to see your children grow up to do great things, as I feel this event is my offspring! I'm still the only one that has been to all of them (including the zeroth one!) and I hope to continue the streak!

I took lots of photos (nearly 1200), mostly destined for some time-lapse clips.  The weather was uniformly very good - perfectly clear for 3 nights of the 4 that I was able to attend. Sunday night we had memorably good seeing, permitting to see amazing details on Jupiter and Saturn, stars of the show in my eyes! Seems I spend most of the 3-hour window of observing on one of those two objects. In the 3 nights of observing, over 720 people looked through my telescope - numbers that were a little down from previous years, but with more telescopes, the number/scope would naturally drop a little.  That is me at right with my Celestron 14, with a 500mm telephoto mounted atop it for some astro-photos later when the crowds died down...

One of the coolest events that happened during the week (2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Grand Canyon as a national park) was the bestowing of "Dark Sky Park" status to the Grand Canyon by the International Dark-sky Association (IDA). Over the last few years, the Grand Canyon Conservancy has done a full census of lighting in the park and retrofitted over 5,000 lights to "dark-sky friendly". The photo at left shows the ceremony held the first day of the star party at Mather Amphitheater for speeches and the award (as well as some killer cookies!). Again, I'm thinking that our little event helped motivate the National Park Service into recognizing that dark skies are a resource and worthy of protecting!

It takes a special kind of amateur astronomer to use their valuable vacation time to migrate to Arizona every year to show the sky to the public! We've had a great set of regulars who have attended nearly from the beginning. It is always fun to catch up with people we only see at this event and find out what is going on in their lives. This year we had a new addition - Chris Fuld showed up from Seattle with his 40" telescope - the largest we've enjoyed for a couple decades! All the astronomers are busy during prime observing, but I heard he enjoyed an hour-long line to look through his behemoth. I got a glimpse through it late one night after closing down when I was only second in line. I saw the "Needle Galaxy" NGC 4565 spread out across the field of view with a dust lane through the center.

I did take a few celestial sorts of photographs. The photo of me by the scope shows the 500mm telephoto mounted up, and I did take a few shots with it. Unfortunately, about the time the crowds thinned and allowed taking photos, the astronomers also started driving up to load up their scopes for the night! So many were affected even by the parking lights as they approached. Shown here is a frame with the 200mm lens showing Jupiter among the dark nebulae of the Summer Milky Way. For those familiar with the dark clouds of the Milky Way, just to the left of Jupiter is the crooked knee of the "Prancing Horse" nebula. Also, the dark Snake Nebula (B72) can be seen at lower left. Once this photo was taken, I took a pair of others to bridge the distance to nearby Antares with the 200.  Shown at right is the assemblage of frames. There are likely some gradients in the photo from both parking lights and improper vignetting correction. Each frame is only a stack of about 5 frames of a minute exposure each, so great things should not be expected, only something to return to and do better next time!

Our observing spot is about a quarter mile from the rim of the Canyon, and rimside is a popular place come sunset time... But the period around sunset is pretty busy for the astronomers setting up their gear and arranging last-minute details. I only witnessed one sunset, and that was the night before the star party (went up a day early). We thought we were going to miss it as the sun disappeared behind a cloud bank, but at the last minute it popped out just before setting behind a distant canyon wall. This is an "HDR" shot, combining 5 exposures of different lengths to try to capture all details that can be seen...

On a couple afternoons I set up my camera to take some time-lapse sequences that may or may not ever make it to these pages. One of them was at a popular overlook - Mather Point, where there is a rock that people from around the world stand in line to get photographed atop with Canyon in background.  These two are my favorites - one looking like a pair from a cheer squad, and another striking a yoga pose. Fun stuff!

Well, that is it for another year. Always fun to get people excited about what they can see through a telescope. Next year's evens will be held 13-20 June, so mark your calendars now and I'll see you there! You can't say I didn't give you enough warning to make plans!