Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Still Springtime Cactus Season!

We're receiving a reprieve from an early approach towards 100F here in the desert. In fact, we've enjoyed recent highs in the 70s, which make for some spectacular Spring days! Everyone knows that it won't be long, though... But we're enjoying the moderate temperatures while we can - even the extended weather forecast doesn't include 90s.  The moderate temperatures are extending the cactus flowering season as they aren't in such a hurry to blossom when it is cooler.

It seems I spend a lot of time in my neighbor Susan's front yard. The image at left of her prickly pear appeared over a month ago, and this same plant is featured almost every year as a neat demonstration of focus-stacking, like the image at right - this one from 2 years ago. One of the joys of shooting this particular cactus is that over the years it has grown to about 5 feet in height, so no more groveling on the ground to get a close-up - standing looking through the viewfinder is a nice luxury!

But while the buds have made an annual appearance, I've rarely shown the flowers! They don't last more than a day, and often are wilty-looking by the time I get home in the afternoon, so haven't chased them down often. At left is a shot of nearly the entire bush. Fortunately all the buds don't bloom at once, but at a couple dozen per day, the estimated 200 buds still last over a week. Likely a Santa Rita Prickly Pear, I love the color contrast of the purple-ish pads and bright yellow flowers this time of year. And, of course, you wouldn't be able to get away without a close-up of the flower and buds. Shown at right is a focus-stack showing a few flowers and buds that remain to bloom. This is a 6-frame focus stack, where each frame had a slightly different focus to assure everything was sharp.

But that isn't the only plant holding my attention these days! They also have a few saguaro cacti. I've been at this location for 30 years and I remember these cacti before they had arms! Anyway, this one has seen better days - in the wide view at left, you can see it has lost the top of the main column, and even though the downward-pointing arm is covered with buds, it is mostly hollow and can be seen through from several points. All this damage was brought on by cold temperatures in the teens a few years ago. Many plants died off that winter and even many native plants suffered, including this saguaro. But while it is here presenting flower buds (and soon flowers, I hope!), I'll gladly take photos of it!  The close-up at right is a 7 frame focus-stack. Can't wait for some blooms here - look for some anaglyphs below!


My friend Dick told me about a cactus show and sale a couple weeks ago. I had never been to one and didn't know what to expect, but ended up buying a couple different cacti. They are still in pots - not in the ground yet, but hoping to before it gets too warm as it lessens the attention I've got to pay to them for watering as they get too hot in pots... The three specimens I ended up with are shown at right. The left one was mis-labeled an echino fossil cactus, which I can't find on the Google, so not sure what I've really got here. The middle one is a mammillaria longimamma, with flower bud at right, and the right hand cactus is an oreocereus trollii. Our friend Donna called it "Einstein", but I think it more closely resembles Bernie Sanders!

And because it's my blog, here be anaglyphs! Grab the red/blue 3D glasses and be amazed! Because I just showed the shots of my new cacti from the sale, will show them first. As I normally do, these are put together from a pair of images, taken from slightly different perspectives. When each is viewed with the appropriate eye, your brain interprets them into 3D. For these macro shots, the baseline is quite small - only an inch or less.

At left is my still-unknown "fossil" cactus. I love the surface wrinkles and the spines that threaten to poke you in the eye! And at right, "Bernie's" hair shows up quite nicely in 3D...


Here is the mammillaria longimamma, both when I first brought it home, and 10 days later when it bloomed the other day. The brilliant yellow flower is shockingly different, and with the cool temperatures and partial shade, has opened 3 days in a row! This cactus is supposed to be easy to start new ones - tear off one of the fingers, let it dry a day or two and plant it for an entirely new plant...




And finally, closing up with a couple anaglyphs of Susan's saguaro. I was shooting from a stepladder, estimating what the baseline should be (generally going too large), but the result is very interesting! I hope you enjoy!

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Visit, an Outing, Repeat...

Last week Melinda Jo's buddy Sally Jo (both of them nee Johnson!) came down for a few day's visit. Sharing a middle and last name through nursing school and Delnor Hospital, how could you not learn to be great friends? Everyone who knew their names assumed they were related, but nowadays, they only act like sisters! They spent a good three days gabbing like crazy for 12 hours/day. Sally's only request was to go out observing one night since she had never had an opportunity to look through a telescope. Well, how can I turn down a request like that?!

We had a couple partly cloudy evenings, so finally went out Wednesday, the last evening Sally was in town. Even though only a day short of Full Moon, we drove the hour up to Geology vista. In case views of the heavens fell short of expectations, there were always the pretty lights of the Tucson Valley to entertain!

The atmospheric seeing was quite good! After plopping down the TEC140 down on its mount, I first went over to Mercury, low in the west. A couple weeks short of its transit across the face of the Sun on Monday, 9 May, it showed a nice, if not colorful (from atmospheric dispersion) crescent as it passes between us and the Sun. The planet Jupiter passing high overhead was just stunning, with the moons showing their disks. We could identify Ganymede merely from showing the largest disk!

I didn't take many pictures as running the telescope took most of my attention. But I did take a shot of the Pima County Fair, the center of attention on the southeast side of Tucson. Shown at left it is the bright collection of lights under the profile of the Santa Rita Mountains, about 45 miles distant. Pointing the scope at the fairground midway (about 25 miles distant), Sally was amazed at the amount of details visible.

I had noticed an array of red lights blinking in unison to the east looking out past the local hills. Shown at right is a shot, both of these taken with my 100mm macro, which was what was on the camera... They looked to be pretty distant - clicking on the picture shows the most distant peak to be Dos Cabesos over 60 miles away past Willcox. My comment to the crew was that the only time I've seen red lights flashing in unison like this was for a windmill farm, though I was unaware of any in Arizona. The view in the camera and in the telescope revealed nothing - at least they didn't appear to be moving, so UFOs were out of the question, but their source remained a mystery.

Heading towards home, I talked the girls into pausing at "Bad Dog" (actually Babad Do'ag - the native American name of the mountain).  I was thinking with the full moon it might be possible to record the domes of Kitt Peak over the lights of Tucson.  I dug out the 300mm lens from it's case in the back of the van and took a few shots.  It was a tough get - expose too long and the lights of Tucson were way overexposed.  But much less and the feeble light of the moon off the 60 mile distant domes through the haze might not be recorded.  I took 4 frames and stacked them once home to reduce noise - the domes are there, but took a bit of image manipulation to pull them out.  Click on the image to see them at all - above the red cell tower towards the left side of the image!

So while we had a good outing, it gnawed at me to figure out what the lights were. In addition there were a couple other targets that I would have taken in had the chance permitted. On Sunday I went up again, this time before sunset, to chase down some of them. As soon as the scope was plopped down this time, I went straight for the source of the lights to the east - windmills! Shown at left is a 5-frame panorama taken with the TEC140 for maximum details. I had not been aware of any, but seeing is believing, as they say. Then I remembered some pictures I'd taken as we flew back to Tucson last June. I hadn't seen any windmills, but had seen a solar photovoltaic "farm" in the area. Shown at right is the image I took flying over the area. Looking on the Google today, I found the complex is called "Red Horse 2" and combines 650 acres of photo-voltaics and 16 windmill turbines, generating 71 megawatts of power. Located on the western slopes of the Winchester Mountains, it is located midway between Willcox and Cascabel. I've never noticed it from I-10 driving east, but will have to look for it now...


A couple other targets seen in daylight... There are many mountaintop observatories seen in and around Southern Arizona. Among them are Kitt Peak, Mount Hopkins, several atop Mount Lemmon and Mount Bigelow and of course, Mount Graham. Few know about the one south of the border near Cananea, Sonora. The Guillermo Haro Astrophysical Observatory is located about 20 miles south of the US border and 8 miles NE of Cananea, a copper-mining town in Sonora. I took a series of images of likely mountaintops with the TEC140, waiting till I got home to find the correct one after goosing contrast in Photoshop. Shown at left, it is about 100 miles distant from Geology Vista... Mentioned above, Mount Bigelow is home to some UA scopes, hidden among the trees, but from my vantage point, a nice array of TV transmitters for Tucson was visible from about 3.25 miles distance. It makes a nice resolution target - here cropped slightly from the Meade 80mm F/6 (480mm focal length).

Finally, as the sun set and it started darkening, I swung down towards the fairgrounds and took a few frames of the county fair midway. No great shakes with 25 miles of air between us, but the stripes of the big U.S. flag flying over the midway are easily resolved - still fun stuff nonetheless.

By the way, whenever I shoot through a telescope with this long of a focal length, there are a couple tricks to follow. Since vibration during even a short exposure can blur the image, I tend to always make sure "mirror lockup" on the camera is enabled, along with a 2-second (or more!) delay. That way, the vibration caused by the moving mass of the DSLR mirror has passed before the much lighter shutter vanes makes the exposure. This always helps get the sharpest images when shooting with focal lengths of 1,000mm or more.

It is always fun to spend time with telescope and camera, especially from a high location, just to see what you can see. Generally more than you think you can!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Cancer Center Interlude!

Even though my last post indicated that with Melinda's oral chemo meds we've got little cause to go to the cancer center, she went in Monday, and again today (Thursday) for IV fluids. The fluids help her feel better and lessen some of the common side effects of many of the chemo drugs, and she has a standing order to get them whenever she wants. So for that reason we've been in twice this week.

And interestingly, among the cancer patients in various stages of their disease there are little touches of the natural world. Many of the walkways and halls are lined with photos and paintings of the natural world, and the cancer center (former Tucson General Hospital) is built around a couple atria open to the sky in the 2 story building, as well as a small garden of native plants on the east side of the building. But on Monday we had a front-row seat to the best show there - an active hummingbird nest just outside our window! In a little nest about the size of a computer mouse were 2 little beaks sticking out, waiting for mom to return with a handout. They were tiny, and at about 10-12 feet away were hard to spot, and from her private bed that day, Melinda wasn't high enough to see them over the sill. So I excused myself and drove the 2km home to get camera and 300mm lens, with about a 1cm extension tube to get a little closer. With that combo, I was able to get a few good shots, though in the late afternoon light, I used the on-camera flash to illuminate the scene. Fortunately the flash seemed to have no affect on mom...


In the 2.5 hours we were there, mom came back every 30 minutes or so to feed the youngsters, regurgitating the nectar and bugs she'd been gone collecting. Interestingly, mom looked to be a rather drab green, and I was surprised to see how the flash lit up her iridescent feathers! Still, it is tough to identify the female hummer without the more showy colors of the male. If anyone has a firm identification, click on my name at upper right and drop me an e-mail, or let me know in comments! While mom was out feeding, the chicks were mostly quiet, but I was surprised to see in the photo at right when one of them stretched its wings, vibrating them just like mom while flying. From the quill feathers seen, it has a ways to go before it comes close to flight. I like the expression on the nest-mate being squished during this wing-stretch! Another time there was a mourning dove in the area, and mom spent a lot of time driving it away. Otherwise it was out feeding, returning on a regular basis.

Today's trip in for fluids, I brought in a few prints to distribute to the nurses to show the patients more than anything else. Well after observing the hummers from a distance, they were all totally amazed that I was able to record these scenes. I guess any attempts with their smart phones were doomed from the start - what this application needs is a real camera! Will keep an eye out in the future for these headlining stars of the cancer center...

Addendum: It looks like we have a winner! Workmate Steve avoided any heavy-lifting today and searched for images that matched mine on the interwebs, and came up with a Broad-billed Hummingbird! Since the females are so drab (sorry girls!), it is tough to match coloration against most of the photos on-line, but on this identification, the dark patch and bright line over the eye match up nearly perfectly. Tucson marks the northern limit of the Broad-Billed Hummingbird's range - so glad to find out who our star attraction was!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

No News - Not Always Good News...

I apologize for our regular readers for not posting regularly. Here we are 3 weeks into April and only our 3rd post! I've not been inspired to write lately as Melinda's latest PET scan results were less than impressive. And the oncologist visit was uninspired. After getting Melinda's vitals and report on how she was doing, she informed us there continue to be more tumors and increased activity. But for the first time she added that "You've had a good run", and that she "has done better than most". When she said that I really hated her - and that is my fault. We've always been impressed with her matter-of-fact attitude and blunt opinions, but after 2.5 years of optimism and hopefulness, the sudden turn made me angry. For the first time she didn't have an option for us - no rabbit-out-of-the-hat chemo drug for us to try. She needed to consult with her pharmacist to get an option. She asked twice if we had any travel plans, as if to imply that maybe we should be making some... And for the first time we walked out of the cancer center (always lower case) without knowing when we would be back. And besides the small-cell lung cancer to worry about, her dominant issue lately has been her increasing back pain. After a compressed vertebra a sixteen months back and steroid shots a year ago, she's been pain free, but it got so bad she had more injections last week, but they have had little effect on her pain.

A couple days later and we got the new regimen. An oral chemo pill called Temozolomide, generally used for brain cancers, now for some reason to be used on her small-cell... For the first time no need to go to the cancer center other than labs and doctor visits. At least it is nice to have a plan, but it is sort of sad to go thru chemo without seeing all our nurse friends we've come to love over the years to administer IV drugs. That has been about the best part of cancer center visits other than the hope something good was being accomplished. Now we'll miss our friends and the hope is starting to fade too...

Friday, April 15, 2016

Optics Ole'-Timers

Everybody's friend Bob Crawford died a week ago (7 April) on his 77th birthday. Well, I should say that if you had ever met him, he was a friend. One of the nicest folks I've ever known, he was on staff at the Optical Sciences Center's optics shop where I worked for a few years in the 1980s. He was a veteran Master Optician, and as a newcomer to optics after nearly a decade of astronomy in college and Kitt Peak National Observatory, he was quick to help and teach the newbie (me!) in any way he could in my new profession. Even though my duties were mostly in metrology and engineering, he answered my million-and-one questions about fabrication, and slowly I absorbed from the master...

One day I brought in my 4X5 view camera and took some pictures, including these of Bob beside what I recall was a spare mirror for the Multiple Mirror Telescope. I was called on it today by one of the old-timers from the period, but I wasn't around for the original six-mirror fabrication, so this had to be the spare, made out of the same surplus Air Force egg crate fused quartz substrates. In the other image, MMT engineer J.T. Williams was assisting Bob in measuring some of the physical parameters of what was likely a nearly-finished mirror in its handling ring. These negatives have never been printed, but this week I got them scanned and prints made for today's services.

The memorial today was absolutely amazing!  Everyone in the Tucson optics industry was there - a testament to Bob's outgoing personality and how he was loved wherever he went. Former OSC directors, secretaries and former co-workers and staffers of all levels came to pay their respects to Bob's memory, his wife of 52 years Joan, and adult children David and Jennifer. As is always the case (last time was the passing of another OSC optician Ed Strittmatter 2 years ago) it is a shame it takes the death of someone so loved to bring everyone together to catch up on our lives.

Melinda and I had just seen him a couple weeks before his passing while at the cancer center. Melinda was in getting blood tests, and Bob and Joan were on their way home after an oncologist appt. I'm sure he was feeling poorly, but we chatted for a good long while, waiting for Melinda to get out of the lab so they could talk to her and see how she was feeling too. But that was how Bob was - always wanting to be brought up to date, hear a story, a joke, bring out a smile. Thanks Bob - for everything!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Vacation Swag!

Our good friend Donna recently came back from a solar eclipse trip down in the south Pacific near Malaysia. Before she left she asked about any requests for souvenirs she could bring back for us. While not a coin collector, I asked her that instead of spending her pocket change before leaving a country, to bring it back for me - and she obliged! I wasn't much interested in coins till a couple months ago when Dick and I had our microscope comparison and coins seemed to be the thing to look at - especially in 3D.

She had flown into Australia, spent some time there, then on to Darwin to catch an ocean-going vessel for the trip to Malaysia. So upon her return had a handful of coins from each country. Of the pair of countries, Australia's was my favorite, though the "heads" of all the coins are a bit dull - all featuring the profile of Queen Elizabeth II, as shown at right. The denomination has little to do with size, at least for the "gold" coins. The $2 coin is smallest at lower left and $1 at upper right. The "silver" coins do go by size, 5 cents upper left to 50 cents lower right.

The reverse sides are much more interesting, featuring native Aussie creatures, as shown at right. On the 50 cent piece at upper left, the Aussie coat of arms is flanked by the kangaroo and emu. The 20 cent piece has an amazing depiction of a swimming platypus. The 10 cent coin has a lyrebird, and the 5 center has an echidna, a spiny anteater. The gold dollar coin at lower right is a commemorative coin from the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting in 2007...

My favorite Australian coin has got to be the $2 coin. Not only does the reverse side feature a portrait of an aboriginal elder, but also features the Southern Cross, only visible from the southern hemisphere - at least from Central America southward...




By comparison, the Malaysian coins are a little more Spartan, but still pretty. The Hibiscus blossom is the national flower and is featured on the front of all the coins, along with the denomination. The reverse sides were a little more obscure, so had to look up what I was seeing on the coins, shown at right. The 5 sen coin at upper right shows 14 dots, 5 stripes, pea tendrils and a cloth pattern of an indigenous tribe. The 10 sen coin shows a Congkak game board. The 20 shows jasmine flowers with the 5 lines, 14 dots and another printing motif in the background. The older "silver" 20 sen coin below right shows a sirih and kapur container that holds betel leaves and other items used in ceremonial and social gatherings. Finally the 50 sen "gold" coin at lower left contains the 14 dots, pea tendril motif and fine lines as a security measure.

Anyway, cool stuff! U.S. coinage was so boring until they started the 50 state quarter series, and continue it into the "America the Beautiful", but seeing what other countries are doing with their coinage is impressive too, so thanks to Donna for scratching that lil' itch! Oh, and interestingly enough, shooting these coins with macro lens at an oblique angle, I couldn't keep the front/back of the coins in focus, so all the group shots above are 3-frame focus stacks to assure they are all in focus!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

March '16 ARGOS Run

Regular readers know that I love recording things in the sky. While the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and the ARGOS system are not a natural phenomenon, since I worked on the fabrication of the mirrors of the huge telescope, I feel a natural bond to it atop Mount Graham. I've posted about it many times before - most recently in October, I was in position at a new observing spot about 20 miles south, but a stubborn cloud cap remaining from a clearing storm prevented their opening while I waited below. However, that post resulted in my finally putting together a nice time-lapse nearly 2 years earlier from November '13. A more general post describing the instrument and the other telescopes atop Graham is from that earlier date. This time (a couple weeks ago on 12 March) the weather was great, though a little chilly with a bone-chilling breeze. I was set up about a mile south of a small development, and about 16 miles south of the brilliant lights of Fort Grant, a State Prison, visible at the left side of the above image. From 20 miles, the laser was barely visible to the naked eye, but with binoculars could be spotted nearly to Polaris about 30 degrees high! In this image, I'm lit up by a several-day-old moon in the west, that was to set about 11pm.

Once the scope and telephoto lens was set up, you realize how difficult it is to align and focus in pitch black conditions! I ended up focusing on the rising stars of the Big Dipper's handle, but alignment on the LBT (before the laser started up) was tough requiring many short exposures as trial. It would have been much easier to get there an hour or so earlier, but time seems a rarity lately!

Finally success, as shown at left is the view of Graham with LBT and ARGOS with the 70-200 zoom set to 70mm. You can spot some of the local lights and how much the lights of the prison illuminate the southern flanks of Graham. At right in this wide image is Heliograph Peak, and while it looks to be the tallest peak, because of perspective (it is a little closer to my position) it isn't... At right is a shot of the mountaintop through the TEC 140 with its nearly 1,000mm of focal length, and the scopes atop the peak labeled. You can even spot the illumination from Fort Grant on the side of the LBT enclosure! Amazing what a minute will show in the exposure, since the laser was barely imagined to the naked eye.

All was going swimmingly - I ended up shooting over 2 hours of images with the TEC 140, potentially for a time-lapse (see below!). But when I took a first-look at the images later, I found a surprise! Shown at left is an image taken less than an hour into my shooting. While LBT had moved on to its second object of the night, there appeared to be a second "laser" appearing to emanate from the Sub-Millimeter radio telescope. But there were 2 clues about it's real source. First, clicking to load the full-size image, you can see wiggles in it as the source was affected by atmospheric disturbances, like the distant stars themselves... Also the telephoto caught part of the trail as it was disappearing behind the mountain. It was likely a distant sun-illuminated satellite disappearing over the horizon... Unfortunately, using Heavens-Above, I couldn't locate any possible candidates...


And yes, I did put together the time-lapse sequence, after editing the 140 images taken that evening with the TEC 140, and uploaded it to Youtube for your convenience! Note that the change in lighting over the time-lapse is due to the moon setting towards the end.




In conversations with the LBT director, he ended up using the shot of mine of the satellite disappearing over Graham in the LBT blog, which also includes highlights of the ARGOS run. Evidently ARGOS, which projects laser spots 10km up for partial correction of atmospheric turbulence, improved the seeing over a moderate field of view to .2 arcseconds. See the blog entry for more info.



Addendum: When I published this post late last night, I totally spaced that I got more shots of this run from a different perspective a few days later! Joe Bergeron, visiting from out of town, and I went up to San Pedro Vista on the Mount Lemmon Highway and spent an hour or so shooting towards Graham. Four days later and the moon was a lot brighter, and we were over twice as far away as above at nearly 50 miles. As a result, it was sort of murky and bright, but managed a few frames. Three images were stacked together to make the image at left. You can see a moderately bright star, heavily reddened by the the low elevation rising past the telescope and ARGOS laser. There is also enough ambient light that you can see snow on some of the higher slopes of Graham.

Another thing I've found in the last 24 hours is that when you play the above time-lapse, one of the clips it will auto-play is one made by the ARGOS team from adjacent to the LBT! It is a spectacular clip, showing what is possible with the short exposures and wide angle lens as a result of being 40 yards away, as opposed to shooting from 20+ miles with a meter-long focal length! Impressive stuff - copied here for your convenience - enjoy!