Thursday, November 20, 2014

Update on a Backyard Observatory!

Some of you with good memories might recall a post I made last February about my backyard observatory project.  Since our yard is rather small, I envisioned a design I'd not seen before, even making a small working scale model, shown at left.  It has the advantage of not requiring permanent space devoted to poles and rails to support the roof while removed.  I had also obtained a decent-sized telescope a few years back from the estate of Lloyd Horton - a beefy 12.5" telescope he made back in the 60's .  It needed an equally beefy pier, but was perfect for an in-town observatory for observing the moon and planets. 

Things have taken a big jump forward in the last couple weeks with my locating a building contractor willing to take a risk with my design.  And since he is also an amateur astronomer, he finds working on my little observatory more fun than his remodeling projects, so bumped me up in the schedule!

But first, I realized I'd not posted on the progress made way last Spring!  In April, just before it got ungodly hot in Tucson, work was started on the observatory over a LONG weekend by deciding on the exact location and installing a pier for the mount and telescope.  It has a pretty good-sized footprint, so needed a 24" diameter pier sunk into the ground, to be isolated from the observatory building.  From my reading, such a large amount of concrete needed some steel rebar, so I visited my local concrete supply place for cardboard sonotube, rebar and rounds for proper strengthening.  Starting with straight 1/2" rebar (#4) and a hefty piece of pipe, L-shaped pieces were made and wired together.  The round pieces were placed closer together at the bottom and top of the pier for added strength there.  The cross pieces of the structure shown at right helped keep it centered in the 24" sonotube form. 

The hole had been started before, but was deepened and enlarged to accept the form and rebar.  It was then leveled so that it was exactly vertical in the hole.  I also added some conduit so that electrical power could be run under the building slab up into the center of the pier to get power to the scope without cords to trip over...

In addition, before pouring the concrete, I borrowed a transit from work to take a sighting on Polaris, the north star, to establish a north-south line with which to align the pier and mount.  With Polaris at upper culmination, ie above the pole, but exactly north, I made a mark on the air conditioner and outer fence to stretch a N-S string when the time came...

The next day (Sunday, 13 April), Frank Koch came by to help with the concrete work.  He is the husband of a friend and work mate of Melinda's and he is quite the friend to have, volunteering to help with pouring over a ton of cement on a hot Spring day!  The one advantage of casting the pier was that the mixer could be parked in one place and just dumped into the pier location.  His mixer was a beefy gas-powered model, which hadn't been used in a while...  After spending the better part of an hour rebuilding the carburetor, it finally ran great and we got mixing.  Frank hoisted the 90 pound bags of concrete (26 of them!) into the spinning mixer and I added water to get the correct consistency. 

Of course, I had the easier job there, but I also used a vibrator (visible in the wide shot at left) that I'd rented for the occasion to make sure there were no air bubbles down around the rebar that would weaken the structure.  So between Frank's hoisting bags, and my adding water and vibrating the form, we were a well-oiled machine!  It seemed to take no time at all before we neared completion.

Of course, Melinda took most of these pictures, and got just the last couple batches of concrete mix to go into the form.  At left, Frank is dumping the mix, and at right, the last little bit goes in and we start work in smoothing the top surface and cleaning up.

After working the surface and allowing it to set up a little, it was time to insert the J-bolts that will fasten to the mount.  They had been installed on a plywood square pre-drilled with the correct bolt pattern.  In addition, lines were drawn on the square so that the bolts could be aligned N-S along the line laid out with the transit aligned to Polaris.  While a little nervous if I did it all right, in a day or two, the plywood was removed and the mounting adaptor slipped right into place - just like it was supposed to!

So that brings you up to date to April!  Like I said, lots has happened the last week, but that will have to wait for another post...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Fork In The Road To Recovery...

Update-  Melinda's platelet count was too low for chemo today, so is pushed back to Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  Hopefully counts will be up enough to get it in then...

I get in trouble when I go too long without posting about Melinda's cancer treatments.  Her Facebook friends know all the details of her diagnosis and treatments before we leave the cancer center!  Those of you who depend on news from me sometimes have to remind me to let you know how she is doing. 

Fifteen months (!) into her treatments for small-cell lung cancer and she is doing ok.  That's about the news in a nutshell.  She has endured 7 cycles of chemo last Fall and Winter, radiation therapy that put her in the hospital twice last Spring, and when more spots showed up in her PET scans this Summer, is in the middle of  yet more chemo now.  She lost her hair in the first chemo, again in the radiation, and is at least thankful for a little now as we again cycle into cooler weather (see right!).  The PET scan last week showed the better news has slowed.  Of the 3 spots in lymph nodes in her abdomen, only 1 showed improvement even in the midst of chemo treatments, so the oncologist has called for a shakeup in strategy.  Because these remaining spots are near her intestines, they don't feel radiation is a good option.  We were told early on that the cancer might develop an "immunity" to the same chemo over the long run, and that appears to be happening with the Cisplatin.  So she is switching to another of the ones she got early on - Etoposide.  She is suspecting that she'll lose her hair again from this one, but remains committed to as aggressive a treatment as the oncologist is willing to go...  She seems a lot less bothered by the nausea than I am, and that would likely be easier to tolerate if it wasn't for the fall she took when she passed out the day after Labor Day.  Her back has been bothering her since and the pain of that injury is likely bothering her the most. 

But she soldiers on, enjoying her thick, curly dark hair even as it is likely to leave us like the autumn leaves...  But it will grow back someday.  So that's the story - you are now up to date as she starts the Etoposide tomorrow if her platelet count is high enough.  Any questions now?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Place To Be On A Saturday Night!

If you find yourself in Tucson on a Friday or Saturday evening with time on your hands and thinking you would like to take in some stars of the celestial type, where else would you want to go than Starizona, the only astronomy-themed store I know that has regular hours at night!  They've cut back a few years ago from 4 nights a week to just weekends, but it is a great place to go to sneak a peak at the moon or planet that might be out.  Located adjacent to one of the busiest streets in Tucson, Oracle road serves as testament you don't need perfect skies to do a little observing.  And while deep sky objects are a little beyond the limit there, the real purpose for the evening hours are for customers.  For those who want some experience with their scope or new camera or new attachment they've purchased, there is no need to go at it alone.  Just set up your equipment in the Starizona parking lot and Dean Koenig or one of his able staff will be glad to take you through the details of setting up the scope, showing you how to use it, and how to tweak the performance of your new gear.  In these pictures Dean, in the dark shirt, is demonstrating the adjustment and using of a Hyperstar attachment, what the red camera is attached to on the front of the telescope.  Most any time photos are being taken there (amazing enough given the cars and skies), a crowd soon follows.  There were a good 4 or 5 telescopes of different types set up, at least 3 of which were being used by new owners.

The ulterior motive for our visit last night was that our friends Dick and Nancy had arranged having a new telescope set up from Lunt Solar Systems, a local manufacturer of solar scopes.  They have partnered with another company to offer stellar telescopes and binoculars in their product line, and Dick, a local optical designer, was interested in a new 6" doublet refractor model. 

If you know Dick, he always has a camera at the ready, and he was out taking flash pictures - at a star party!  Who does that!?  Anyway, in my single use of flash at left, I shot from the hip and got a pic of Dick behind his camera as he took a group shot.  At right, his S.O. Nancy is at left, and Dean Koenig's wife Donna joined Melinda to catch up on news and gossip, illuminated by the gentle lights of the store with the 2 second exposure.

As a result of Dean's customer service, he gets nearly all of my astronomical business, down to the DSLR cameras I use, ordered through him. Even with his vital local status, as a loyal customer, he usually cuts me a discount, as if I need a reason to go anywhere else...  I know my buddies up in Phoenix come the 250 mile round-trip to see him, and just knowing that he is there to help his customers get started, I've never hesitated in sending someone to him when they ask where they should get a telescope.  Normally I tell folks to join the astronomy club to use different scopes to see what they like best, then go to Starizona to see Dean for sales and service and talking shop under the stars.  We should all have a local business like his for our needs!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Just Another Sunset...

Last weekend during the astronomy expo we had some pesky clouds, just bad enough to play havoc with the solar viewing at the convention center.  As seems to be standard in the south-central part of the state, particularly during the long-past Summer monsoon season, the clouds don't extend very far west.  As a result, we get another "chamber of commerce" sunset with the setting sun illuminating the clouds from below.

I suspect it is the clarity of the skies that provides such pure colors as typically the sun hanging on the horizon is still too bright to look at directly.  So a few minutes later when it sinks below the viewer's  horizon, it still brilliantly illuminates the cloud bottoms with oranges and reds. 

I was in the process of doing evening cat chores, feeding our various feline populations when I was inspired to grab the camera and head out to the cul-de-sac to document it.  I often miss them during the few minutes they are on display, but I was glad to get this one.  These were taken about a minute apart, the one on the right zoomed in about the maximum amount on the 17-85mm lens, the left version nearly zoomed out the full amount.  May we all enjoy such colorful introductions to the evening!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Astronomy Expo Weekend!

Well the 2014 edition of the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo is in the books!  I made it for a least a little of both weekend days, making 5 days in a row including the 3 days of the  SouthWest Astro-Photography Seminar (SWAP).  All told, it was a lot of fun - lots of vendors, lots of friends, lots of information to glean about new products, projects and techniques.  At left is shown a 2-frame mosaic looking down into the exhibition hall about noon on Saturday.  This was after the likely attendance peak as folks started scattering for lunch, solar telescope displays, and the hall where the speakers were located.  If you are into astronomy and couldn't find anything that interested you, you might need to re-evaluate your interests!

Starlight Instrument focusers
I'm working on a 14" telescope, so need to research a focuser and there were a couple vendors that could satisfy me.  There were a multitude of telescope manufacturers there, from the highly commercial to the local niche markets.  I'm not currently in the market for a digital imaging camera - my DSLR is still keeping me happy, but there were at least 6-8 specialty vendors selling cameras, making me very confused about which might be considered the "best" for my potential needs.  I hope when the time comes to upgrade to an astronomy camera the decision is easier!  There was also an aisle of local groups involved in public outreach, including our very own Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, Lunar and Planetary Labs, the OSIRIS-REx space mission and others.

Scott Tucker at right
As mentioned above, the local boys were there too.  Frank Lopez of Stellarvision was there with an backyard observatory setup, and Dean Koenig of Starizona was there as well with their 12" and 16" Hyperion telescopes on display.  At left, Hyperion designer Scott Tucker talks to a visitor about some of the features of the telescope, and at right is the pair of telescopes they had on display.

Phil Plait - The Bad Astronomer
Edward Gibson - now and then
The talks I attended were great!  Unfortunately, I was having so much fun in the vendor area that I only made it to two of them.  Of course, I couldn't miss astronomy blogger Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer!  He is one of the must-read blogs I read every day, and after corresponding with him a few times and getting at least a couple mentions on his blog, I had to hear him speak in person for the first time.  He talked about the Curiosity mission on Mars and gave a rousing and very interesting and entertaining presentation.  He talks with his hands a lot, and I happened to get a pair of photos that seemed to be shouting to be mounted together.  When explaining about the size of the universe, speaking with your hands is very useful!

The other talk I saw today was with Edward Gibson, an astronaut on the Skylab 4 mission in 1974.  He talked about foresight and leadership in the "golden days" of NASA from the Apollo missions through the Skylab days to his retirement from the astronaut corps exactly 40 years ago.  He showed a picture of a fresh-faced mission scientist undergoing training in the "olden" days and a picture of the 78 year old presenter today is matched with it at right.

Peter, Deb, Roger
But the best part of these large amateur events is seeing friends old and new.  Again, from the "olden days", Peter Ceravolo, wife Debra, and local telescope maker Roger Ceragioli gathered for a photo today.  Peter and I go back a couple decades to various amateur astronomy conventions.  We "worked" together when he came to Arizona in 1996 to image Comet Hyakutake, taking some of the first high-temporal resolution images of comet structures!  He used my van for the couple weeks of his stay and was surprised to see that I'm still using it every day...  At right are buddies Tom and Jennifer Polakis from Phoenix.  They are taking a "selfie" in the reflection of an 18" telescope!

I'm a bit numb after 5 days, but it was a blast!  Fingers crossed that vendors and attendees are all happy and that it will happen again next year. It is nice being in the astronomical center of the Universe for a few days!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Converging Towards the Weekend Expo With SWAP 2014

This weekend is the 3rd annual Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo (ASAE), which is exciting for us in Tucson, which becomes the capital of amateur astronomy, at least for this weekend.  This is a really big deal with nearly every medium and large astronomy vendor in town to show off their wares and new products.  Last year there were over 120 vendors, and I suspect as many coming this weekend too.  I'm wondering why they picked Tucson, not that I'm complaining...  Many of my astronomical buddies up in Phoenix are making the short trek down, and it just seems they should have headquartered there, or even the west coast.  But I'm glad they are here - those of us in Tucson need to be sure to take advantage of it!

Warren Keller, Master of Ceremonies and presenter
As part of the upcoming festivities, the last 3 days I've been participating in SWAP 2014 - the SouthWest AstroPhotography Seminar.  This is a follow-up to the first one last year, which I didn't get to attend, but I'm sure glad I took the time off work this week to attend SWAP 2014!  Some of the biggest names in astro-imaging were there, sharing their knowledge and telling their "secrets" of hardware, technique, and software tips to improve your imaging.  It was a lot of fun, and I met a lot of people from all over the country who came to take part.  Of the 140 attendees, there were very few locals, only about a half dozen I recognized from the TAAA, and a few more from Green Valley and Oro Valley. 

Our "host" and Master of Ceremonies, Warren Keller did an admirable job in keeping us on schedule and on-subject.  Of course, he is an expert in imaging as well and presented later in the program.  On the first day they started something new.  They had 10 "experts" in various applications, from planetary, lunar, solar and deep-sky observing, remote observing, collimation, guiding, Photoshop, and a few other topics.  Over the course of the day, there were hour-long sessions of "comrades in arms" where a dozen or so gathered at the topic of our choice and talked shop about questions, applications and problems we have.  This nearly "one-on-one" with the experts was very useful and will likely be repeated in future SWAPs.

Chris with the evolution of his telescope images
Robert Reeves and one of his mosaics\
The formal presentations started Thursday in two locations at the same time. Unfortunately, one of them was very small, the other quite large.  If you were interested in both topics you were out of luck, but fortunately, some of the popular ones were repeated in the larger venue.  My absolute favorites were the high-resolution imaging talks on planetary and lunar observing.  Starting about 2 decades ago, the advent of "webcam" imaging, where thousands of images are taken, graded for quality and the best ones stacked to improve image quality has revolutionized planetary imaging.  Some of these amateurs have rivaled spacecraft and Hubble imaging in monitoring details on distant worlds.  Christopher Go made the trip here from the Philippines, where he enjoys the reputation of one of the best planetary imagers.  Of course, he has the advantage of being in the tropics near a body of water where seeing conditions can be quite good.  The other of my favorites was with soft-spoken Robert Reeves who used the "webcam" techniques on the Moon.  Even though these systems typically have very small fields of view, he also talked about how to do full-disk mosaics that still maintain the resolution of the original frames.  Both these make me want to get the camera out and get to work!

Ken Crawford at right
Adam Block gets a Warren Keller intro
But even with these presentations on high-resolution work, the majority of the talks were devoted to deep sky observing, both with CCDs and DSLR cameras, and processing images with Photoshop, Pixinsight, and the multitude of other programs that do various jobs. Ken Crawford is shown at left with an inside joke while presenting a talk on intermediate applications of Photoshop towards your images.  His link above also has tutorials you can watch on his website.  Another favorite was the presentation of Rogelio Bernal Andreo, who has achieved considerable fame with his "astro-scenic" images using DSLRs.  His hints and processing techniques were very interesting to me in applying some new skills to my meager efforts!  And of course, local imaging guru Adam Block presented some of the basics of Photoshop Layers in their application to the spectacular images he makes.  He had a great way of making sure that everyone understood the basics and realized the power of layers to their imaging.  Do check out the links of some of the speakers above and see what you missed!

All those that stayed till the end of the program got a chance at door prizes ranging from software to webcam and autoguider cameras!  We had a local winner in Michael Turner, who won a little trinket from Astro-Physics, and I knew another of the winners from Ohio, otherwise, my number was never in danger of being drawn, it seems.  But there were some great vendors to speak to during the breaks, and the opportunity to see new equipment is just starting as the Expo starts tomorrow.  With a slate of well-known speakers, hundreds of vendors and solar telescope displays, it is not to be missed!  See you there this weekend!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More Mount Lemmon

In my last post about travelling up Mt Lemmon for the solar eclipse and more, I forgot to mention that the roads seems awfully crowded...  Certainly not for the eclipse - no need to climb a mountain road for that.  But the reason became more obvious the higher we climbed - Fall foliage!  At the 8,000+ elevation of the Catalina Mountains, the aspen trees were in full glory.  I recalled our local weather person had shown some foliage pictures during news the night before, and it obviously brought tourists! 

Around "Ski Valley", the southernmost recreational ski area in the US, the parking lots were near full with folks shooting the Fall colors.  Of course, I didn't need much excuse to join in.  Shown here are a couple shots both on the way up the mountain, and on the return trip the next day.  There aren't a lot of deciduous vegetation other than the aspen, so yellow dominates the palette.  At left is shown the yellow leaves piling up in the parking lot.  At right, even the pine branches were accumulating the leaves.

The eclipse took all our attention for the next hour or two, but as it wound down, I aimed the Celestron 5" towards the east and spotted the University of Arizona's Large Binocular Telescope atop Mount Graham about 58 air-miles to the northeast.  Two of the 3 telescopes are visible, of course, the huge LBT, and either the Sub-Millimeter Telescope or the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, or some blend of the two..  Also obvious are the fire scars from a decade ago that denuded the upper reaches of the mountain.

After the solar eclipse observing (BTW, blogging buddy and SkyCenter staffer Alan Strauss collected some GREAT eclipse pictures), my friend Bob and I were invited to join in on the Mt Lemmon SkyCenter's SkyNights StarGazing Program that would run until Bob got exclusive access to the Schulman 32" telescope..  These programs are very similar to those run at Kitt Peak National Observatory.  After enjoying the SkyCenter's programs 3 times now over the last few years and working part time at the National Observatory's programs, competitors seem such an ugly word in comparing these stargazing tours.  Both are very enjoyable and worth the effort and expense to join in.  After the eclipse we enjoyed a nice dinner with Adam Block, manager of the public outreach programs providing an orientation and scale of the universe demonstration.

As sunset approached, Adam and the other observers headed to the west overlook to watch, while I had other plans.   As the sun gets close to the horizon, the mountain's shadow is projected to the east, and it is really cool to see the conical shadow rise into the sky and merge into the Earth's shadow and the  Belt of Venus.  The evening was very clear and relatively haze-free, good conditions for trying a time lapse sequence of the rising shadow of the mountain.  I set up the XSi and telephoto, with the intervalometer set to take an image every 5 seconds.  I carefully monitored the histogram of the images and adjusted the exposure as the sky darkened to keep things as properly exposed as I could for the 14 minutes of imaging.  I've assembled the images, but am not happy with my freeware movie software, so that continues to be a work in progress.  Rest assured it will be presented here soon.  While one camera was recording the mountain shadow, I also wandered the 30 yards to a western view to see the sunset too, and also recorded the rosy glow of sunset on some of the domes in the University's compound at right.  Besides the telescope domes, the radome in the distance was a former Air Force installation and I believe is currently empty...

While the conical mountain shadow was spectacular, the view to the west was no slouch either!  Shortly after sunset, the distinctive profile of Picacho Peak (left edge) and Newman Peak to its north (right edge) were visible in the twilight glow.  If you click the image to load the full-size image, look just to the left of Newman Peak.  What looks like a linear set of lights is actually the twilight reflected off the water in the Central Arizona Project canal, bringing Colorado River water to the Tucson vicinity!  An hour later and the same view is transformed significantly - between the two mountains is the major travel corridor between Tucson and Phoenix on Interstate 10.  Shown at right, the headlights trace the interstate, the town of Arizona City at center, the bright lights of Eloy behind the curve of Newman Peak, and the outskirts of Casa Grande in the far distance.  Airplanes making the short hop between Tucson and Phoenix are visible, as are a few star trails - I believe the brightest star trail left of center is Arcturus.  This is a 30 second exposure with the 70-200 zoom set to 145mm focal length and F/3.5.

While I was shooting the lights to the west, I took the exposures to do a sizeable mosaic.  Ten frames were taken showing the lights from Phoenix down to Tangerine, the major E-W road through Marana and Oro Valley.  Catalina is at bottom center, with Rancho Vistoso development to its left, Saddlebrooke on the right side.  In the far distance, nearly 100 miles away, the radio towers above South Mountain can be spotted, with the lights of the southern suburbs of Phoenix visible.  Of course, our 9,200 foot elevation helps see that distance directly...  I'm limited to 1600 pixel wide images here, but the original image was nearly 10 times larger...  I need to find a home for those oversize images for you to see!

While I was having fun entertaining myself in the dark, the star gazing program inhabited the dome of the 32" telescope for some visual observing.  I joined them for an object or two - the view through a telescope that large is quite stunning for bright astronomical targets.  I shot a few exterior shots too in the early evening - this shot one of the few that didn't have plane or satellite trails through them.  The raw shot is shown at left, and a labeled version at right.  besides a few bright constellations, a few of the prominent deep-sky objects that show up in the 60 second exposure are labeled as well.  My 16mm Nikon fisheye lens was used on the Canon XSi for this exposure.

Still more to come - I had a camera running all night on a tracking mount, so a few more sets of images to stack and display.  Stay tuned!