Friday, January 30, 2015

Observatory Lake!

Today the Arizona Desert got some rain! In fact, we've set a record for 30 January rainfall, since over an inch has fallen and the record was about .75"... Don't forget the annual average rainfall is about 12", so for one day, that is a lot - the most rain we've gotten in nearly a half year - since back in mid-September.

Which brings me to my topic du jour. When I got home from work and errands, there was a lake surrounding the new backyard observatory! The image at left shows what it looked like, and likely still does at 2030. I've noticed in heavy rains we do tend to accumulate some standing water, one reason we put the pad above grade, and it is gratifying there is still some distance to go before the building floods. While the structural trim isn't finished, the rain has been coming straight down and I have no reservations that it isn't snug and dry inside - I haven't waded out to check. Eventually, some 24"X24"X4" concrete pavers that buddy Frank helped me pour will be used to make a path and I won't have to worry about getting my feet wet, not that I would usually be observing in weather like this!

Big Bear Solar Observatory, courtesy NJIT
Of course, the lake reminds me of another observatory - the Big Bear Solar Observatory in Big Bear, California, where a major solar observatory, now operated by the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is located on a lake on purpose. During daytime observations the body of water surrounding it helps keep the air isothermal - at a single temperature, to minimize seeing effects or heat of the sun coming off the ground. If course, I could make the same argument for my "lake", but would only be kidding. Or I could make a joke about keeping a moat stocked with alligators to keep the kitties out. Eventually, I suspect I'll need to use some gravel fill to make sure the pad doesn't get undermined, but will worry about that after the building gets finished. As for the rain - as a desert rat, I say "keep it coming!"

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Sick House!

I apologize for not posting recently, but for the last week or so our place has seemed like a quarantined house! After 5 days in the hospital, I suffered a relapse of my pneumonia, though a revisit to the ER couldn't get me past the nurse practitioner to see a real doctor. I suspect it looks bad on their records to re-admit me for something they discharged me for a week earlier... I had a huge hematoma (clot) somewhere alongside my lung that made it impossibly painful to cough or even breathe deeply, and blood tests showed my pneumonia hadn't fully gone away. So I got another round of a different antibiotic with some great pain pills and a medicated inhaler to help open up and keep my lungs clear. I'm also supposed to keep using "Melinda" my incentive spirometer (see above post) on an hourly basis. It has been another 6 days and I'm finally starting to feel better, and have gone in to work now a couple hours at a time. I still tire easily and heaven forbid I need to cough or sneeze, which still registers nearly a "10" on a scale of 10...

Melinda has been extremely tired and nauseous, with other symptoms not usually discussed in mixed company. After her old chemo, which she had been getting since her diagnosis in August 2013 stopped working, her oncologist started her on a new one for her, Topotecan, which she is supposed to get weekly for 3 weeks, then a week off.  Today was supposed to be her 3rd Wednesday of treatments, but her platelet count was too low, so only got some anti-nausea drugs and a liter of fluid, her next treatment put off at least a week if her platelets allow. Interestingly, she said she woke up this morning feeling the best she has in weeks. Hopefully with the week off she'll feel even better in coming days.

Fortunately, with all our physical limitations lately, our friends have stepped up to care for us!  Karen from the Mirror Lab has cooked several meals for us, Erica, former Mirror Lab and now a nurse at UMC (!) visited me in the hospital, then stopped and took care of Melinda on her way home... Our friend Donna came down from Phoenix to help care for us weekend before last, then Melinda's niece Kathy came down for a visit from the Midwest for a week before just leaving a few days ago. Fortunately, we didn't have to feel guilty for not entertaining her, but her exploration of Arizona will have to wait for her next visit.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Capturing a Ghostly Visitor!

While the mainstream press has (thankfully) ignored it, amateur astronomer circles are buzzing with the "bright" comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, delivering spectacular views even before Christmas. Discovered just a few months ago (August 17th, 2014) by Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy, imaging with a wide-field 8" telescope, it passed both closest to the earth and the sun a week or two ago, easily visible (about 4th magnitude) to the naked eye from a dark sky. I say the press thankfully ignored it because it is virtually impossible to observe from any urban area without a good knowledge of the sky and your equipment, and astronomy would be poorly served by the general public not being able to find a dim if not invisible glowing green spot from town.

Of course, while it was nearest to us, I was an inpatient at our local hospital.  Once out, the wife and warden, Melinda wouldn't consider my going out to darker skies.  They had a point - I was recovering from a cute bronchitis (acute - get it?) and exposure to cold night air might not be good for my recovery. Even setting up a small scope in the back yard Sunday night didn't scratch the itch enough, so on Monday the 19th (20th Universal Time), with moon waxing through the week and a weather forecast that also looked bleak, I talked Melinda into letting me go out for a few hours.


I took a very portable setup, my Polarie mount (made by Vixen), and planned to shoot wide angle with the DSLR camera. I needed a dark sky overhead with short driving distance, so went east on I-10, then south on Route 83 about 12 miles to some roadside tables. It was about a 45 minute drive, and should provide nice skies. I arrived after dark, did the quick setup include polar alignment, and was just about to do my first test shot and looked up - clouds! Fortunately they were thin, so I was able to do my pointing and framing of the field. With an 85mm lens, I could nicely get the comet along with the Pleiades in the same field. I should have used my Canon 70-200 zoom, but chose the decades-old Nikon glass because of its smaller size, and got some reddish star glow as a result, but otherwise think the result is good. Shown here is a 5-frame stack of 3 minutes each, ISO 800 and F/2.8. The comet was moving slowly enough that its trailing against the stars wasn't too objectionable for the 15 minutes.

The comet was visible to the naked eye as a greenish, not quite point-like star. It wasn't blinding, but was comparable to a 4th magnitude star nearby. In binoculars it was quite impressive! I used a pair of 9X63s that had a 6 degree field of view. From comet to Pleiades was almost exactly 2 fields of view, and the tail was visible in the binoculars reaching about 3/4 of the way to the halfway star.  The binoculars also amplified the greenish glow of the comet's coma, though no color could be seen in the tail.

EDIT:  Today, 29 January, I reworked the above images to use the camera raw files as starting point, rather than the original jpegs I used to quickly put up the post.  If you recall the original files, they suffered from some color gradients that looked a little garish on some monitors.  I think these are better.  The fisheye shots below are still from the original processing from jpegs...



I also decided to try a wide-field shot with the 16mm Nikon fisheye, also at F/2.8.  There is a huge confluence of objects large and small in this part of the sky, but as my time was running out, only got in 2 frames of 3 minutes each.  The stack is shown at left, with a labeled version at right.  Even with the Pleiades very near the zenith, the Zodiacal Light in the west nearly reached up to it!  Between the Zodiacal glow, and the Winter Milky Way glow, the nebulae in Orion, the Triangulum Galaxy hiding towards the right edge and a multitude of open clusters, it is a very nice wide field.

I quickly packed and left for home, getting there a little later than I had promised, but still before 9:30 pm.  Seeing the bright comet made up for any discomfort from the bronchitis, and while I'm still suffering some effects of it, can't say I'd be any better if I hadn't gone...


The next day I happened to be swapping e-mails with my observatory building contractor John Vermette.  He forwarded a copy of a photo he had taken at the same time I was shooting!  He uses more state-of-the-art equipment, a full-fledged CCD camera and a 4" telescope from his own back yard observatory near Foothills Mall.  This exposure with the monochrome detector (black and white) was 10 frames of 1 minute each, with 100 seconds each of color information through red, green and blue filters.  I think it is a spectacular image, particularly from town.  You owe it to yourself to poke around his website, and especially check out this frame in larger size.

Unfortunately, it is at its brightest now, and by the time the moon departs the sky in a couple weeks it will be fainter, though still perhaps naked eye.  I'll be taking a look - perhaps I'll see you somewhere under a dark sky!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The King Is Dead - Long Live The King!

The title seems appropriate with the once-per-generation transfer of royal precession... The ole' van, as predicted when I first posted about our accident 5 weeks ago, got totaled out. With a "book value" of $500 (!), and a repair estimate of about $4,000, the insurance company presented me with a check for $560 to replace the wheels that have transported me nearly 300,000 miles the last 20+ years.  It seems unfair somehow that the van I was hoping to get to 500,000 miles (I bought it used with 70,000 miles, final mileage was 363,000) could be wiped out like that while I was stopped at a traffic light! Anyway, the deal is finished, fortunately, they came to tow it away (I'd been driving it fine since the accident!) while I was in the hospital, so didn't have to go thru any tearful goodbyes!


Love at first sight?
Knowing the date would be coming up eventually, I was looking for a suitable replacement. While not usually used for carrying people, I've used it before for sleeping in the rear, but mostly it was used to support my astronomical observing. Hauling around large telescopes, it is inconvenient to constantly load and unload gear, so it would be nice to have something like a large Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). I've never really considered a mini-van, though the improved gas mileage would be attractive. Our group of amateur astronomers from Russia are talking about returning for an eclipse trip in 2 years, but getting something like the 15 passenger van we rented for them last time likely wasn't worth the expense and didn't really suit my long-term needs.

At home in its new yard...
Perusing Craigslist, I saw a couple possibilities, but interestingly, on a whim, Melinda and I were out looking around and at a local dealer found a modern version of the ole' one! In fact, it was the same exact Ford 150 Econoline Clubwagon, though an '05, 17 years newer than the ole' '88. Looking brand-new with 92,000 miles, I figured if I was exceedingly happy with the old one, the new one should work well too, so we got it! Final purchase was delayed until I got out of the hospital on Saturday, but has exceeded all my expectations. It is exactly the same size, though a 7-seater with 4 captain's chairs and a bench seat,  has lots of power, airbags and a few subtle changes that I had wished the old one had, so it seems perfect. There are a few bugs to work out - had it out for its first astronomical outing last night and I couldn't figure out how to turn out the interior lights (timed out eventually in about 10 minutes). But other than that, it looks like a successful transition has been made...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Survived Another Round!

Some of you might have noticed I've not blogged in a couple weeks.  I've got a pretty good reason - was an inpatient at the University Medical Center here in Tucson for 5 days!  While I can sometimes check my e-mail from my "smart" phone, I've yet to try dropping a blog post with it, and am unlikely to try!

It all started out by sharing a cold that Melinda had developed over the holidays.  Mine took a more-serious turn with severe sore throat and fits of coughing, that developed into severe chest pains.  After a couple visits to a local urgent care center over a couple days, after 3 nights of no sleep, Melinda took me to the Emergency room this last Monday morning.  They seemed happy to admit me, and did a good job of  balancing my blood thinner (I've got an artificial heart valve) with the strong antibiotics and pain killers they gave me, keeping up my fluids, trying to get me some sleep, and try to bring my appetite back, which had totally disappeared.  I had some strong symptoms of pneumonia too, and had to work on clearing my lungs using my incentive spirometer.

After a trying morning, all my lines getting tangled (IV, oxygen, oxygen monitor, then the phone ringing), most of my tray went flying across the floor. My nurse Dedra, a large black woman, came into the room, immediately drew a face on a new spirometer and said "This is Melinda.  I DO NOT want to see Melinda on the floor!  You will keep Melinda in bed with you and you will use her and have her within reach at all times!"  With the tone of a Drill Instructor, I had no excuse for her, but thought her drawing and story would be blog-worthy...  Her artwork is shown at left, and at right, I'm still practicing at home.

Of course, any time you get strong pain killers at the hospital, especially if you've not eaten in days, you tend to get constipated.  They will give you the first phase of correction, stool softeners, at the drop of a hat.  That quickly developed into Milk of Magnesia a couple times a day as more serious medicine.  Then I woke from an afternoon nap to see the note at left on an otherwise unmarked Styrofoam cup.  Not knowing its source, I had no intention of complying, but found out later that the above same Dedra had left it for me - the 3rd phase of treatment.  But while my appetite had returned, nothing seemed to aid in the constipation.  They weren't going to release me without my being off oxygen and having that BM.  Finally my release seemed imminent on Friday, off O2 and walking around the floor first thing in the morning,  and was finally able to meet the second criteria for my release by late in the day.

So I'm home, trying to be quiet - but it is hard with bright comet Lovejoy high in the sky making a nice appearance, and with company in town.  Interestingly, the most impressive thing about me right now is the bruising.  Starting just about the time I went into the hospital, I must have been doing a lot of subcutaneous bleeding as about 30% of my total skin is covered with some impressive hues.  As shown at left today, some yellows and purples have joined the palette.  I almost resemble an Arizona sunset!

I still have the sharp abdominal pain, perhaps some swelling, still have trouble sleeping, though up to about 5 hours now, mostly limited by chest and abdominal pain.  Hopefully I'm through the worst of the recovery and these symptoms will fade as I work through the last of the antibiotics.  Thanks much to my buddies Erica and Roger who filled in with errands and care when Melinda wasn't able to come by and care for me - she has new chemo drugs of her own and wasn't able to come in several days.  But my buddies and other visitors kept my spirits up and got me feeling like I needed to get home and act as caregiver  to Melinda too...

Sunday, January 4, 2015

An Alignment Scout Trip!

I'll bet you thought with the solstice sunset alignment with Kitt Peak 10 days ago that that stuff would be over for the season, but you would be wrong!  Again, based on my daily astronomical on-line reading, I "discovered" that in a week or so Mercury and Venus would have a lovely close conjunction in a week or so.  Knowing that Venus is in about the right spot to catch it behind Kitt Peak (again!) from the Mount Lemmon Highway, it was time to hit the road for another sunset!  Also, it is about the last field trip I'll be taking with the ole' Ford '88 van with the smashed-in rear end.  I take it and sign it over to the insurance company Wednesday...

Anyway, I made it out to "Bad Dog" over look (Babad Do'ag  for sticklers...) at about milepost 3 on the Mount Lemmon Highway just in time to catch the sunset.  Shown at left, it went down about 2 degrees south of where it needs to intersect the Observatory.  According to my calculations, for those who might want to observe the alignment of the sunset w/Kitt Peak at this lower location, rather than the one near MP9, Friday the 16th is the day to be at the "Bad Dog" overlook.  It moves much more every day than near start of Winter, so you only get the one chance on this side of solstice.

But I didn't come today for the sunset, only to get there before it got dark to get setup!  BTW, with snow atop Mount Lemmon, the highway was packed with cars heading down.  Luckily I had this lower overlook mostly to myself most of my 80 minutes there.  Venus popped out shortly after sunset, and about 10 minutes later, Mercury was spotted below the brighter planet.  Still a few degrees apart, by this next weekend they are less than a degree apart.  Waiting for it get dark enough to have it stand out from the sky and get a little lower with Tucson's city lights as well, it is shown at left.  That is Venus above and Mercury mostly below it and a little to the right.  I waited another 10 minutes to catch it just before Mercury set behind the Quinlan Mountains.  While the sky is darker, the rising Full Moon behind me helps light up the "A" of "A" Mountain, and in fact, the telescopes atop Kitt Peak have the pale illumination due to the moon.  In the next few days, Mercury will rise up nearly to the height of Venus and both will move to the right a couple degrees, so should be a pretty pair directly above the Observatory.  Perhaps I'll see you there!

I also had time to take a 5-frame mosaic of the pretty lights of Tucson with Kitt Peak in the background.  Down-sampled here to the 1600 pixel-wide maximum, you can't see a lot of the details of the original mosaic, but you can perhaps see why I do them to keep the details of the original files...  I also took a time-lapse of the twilight including the swiftly moving clouds...  Perhaps I'll be doing something with that soon.  I guess I'm just easily entertained!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Spotty Sun!

Moon orbit Illustration by NASA/Spaceplace
I was doing my regular daily circle of on-line reading when I happened to catch Mr Bad Astronomer's post about today being the Earth's perihelion day!  Since the Earth and all planets, for that matter, orbit in an ellipse as (most of) you know, perihelion is the point of the orbit where the planet is at its point closest to the sun.  Reading Phil's post, interestingly, while the Earth's orbit is stable, the perihelion point can vary from year to year, mostly because of the Moon!  As the Moon orbits the earth, the Earth too circles the center-of-gravity of the system, called the barycenter, illustrated at left.  Because the Moon reaches the full phase in a day or so, the Earth is a little closer to the Sun than it normally is, and the phase of the moon can effect perihelion by a day or two...

As any blogger will tell you, you can get a lot more posts about certain concepts by having a variety of pictures in your library.  Like happening to catch the "smallest Full Moon" last January - I happened to have a picture of the "Supermoon" from 18 months earlier and could directly compare disk size for a powerful illustration!  So while I don't yet have a photo of the sun at aphelion, and I've never seen that comparison (!), you will likely see it here on July 6, the day that happens!

So getting started on that July post, I needed to take an image of the sun today.  I set up the TEC 140 on mount and tripod, along with the same solar filter setup I used 10 days ago to image the sunset. Even a casual glance at the Sun's disk showed a huge sunspot near the center - active region (AR) 2253. Sure enough, after an imaging session, I put on my eclipse glasses and found it was easy to see with the filtered naked eye!  The full-disk image at left was taken with the TEC 140 and Canon XSi on the non-tracking mount with 1/640th second.  You can see besides the new AR2253, there are lots of other, smaller sunspots as well.

Of course, with the image down-sampled for the web picture above, some of the data is lost, so a full-resolution image is shown here.  It is again the same single image as above, with just a little sharpening applied.  Click on the images to see a larger version.

It is always interesting to tell people that we are closer to the sun this first week of January while winter weather has us in its grip!  The effect is small, the eccentricity of the Earth's orbit is only about 3%.  Of course, the real reason for northern hemisphere winter is that the axis of the earth is pointed away from the sun and it appears lower in our sky, resulting in less illumination and shorter days, thus cooler temperatures. 

Come back in 6 months for a comparison of the sun's disk for perihelion/aphelion!