Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sun-ny News!

The Interwebs have been crackling with news of the HUGE new sunspot that rotated around the eastern limb of the sun a few days ago.  It is one of the largest in recent memory.  If you have a safe way of viewing the sun, either with a filtered telescope or popular every-blue-moon "eclipse glasses" designed for naked-eye viewing, you should definitely take a look!  After digging out the eclipse glasses from the annular eclipse from a couple years ago (that is me modeling them at left), it was inspiring enough that I had to get out the lil' Celestron 5" scope to take a picture.  Shown at right with minimal processing, the big spot near bottom center is Active Region 2192.  It is many times larger than the earth, and flares are expected that will increase the chance of seeing aurora at mid-northern latitudes, so keep an eye out for those in the northern tiers of states.  Another good way to monitor both solar activity and auroral chances as well as spectacular images, you can keep an eye on the Spaceweather website.

The other news regarding the Sun is that there will be a partial solar eclipse for most of the continental United States on Thursday afternoon, 23 October.  Again, safe viewing practices should be taken as no parts of a partial solar eclipse can be viewed with the unfiltered naked eye!  Here in Tucson about 40% of the Sun will be covered by the Moon, and just over 60% for the northern tier of states.  Interestingly, if you did not know there was to be a solar eclipse, the casual observer might not notice it was going on!  Maximum eclipse will occur about 3:30 pm Thursday afternoon in Tucson (Mountain Standard Time), and about 5:30 pm Central Daylight time.  Unfortunately, there is no place on Earth to see a total solar eclipse this time, as the Moon's shadow misses the earth above the north pole.  For more information and suggested ways to view the eclipse, check with the Sky and Telescope information page for the event.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

It's What One Does in Arizona!

In many respects Arizona still seems to be frontier territory in the old West.  Most people forget that 160 years ago, Tucson was in Mexico and since the Gadsden Purchase many of the traditional stories of the West took place in that strip of land in southern Arizona.  I'm thinking the boom and bust mining of Bisbee, Tombstone and the OK Corral, that sort of thing.  And true to tradition even today, Arizona has some of the most lax gun laws in the country.  Though rarely seen, no permits are needed to carry a gun on your hip.  No permits are needed to purchase firearms through private sales.  There are a LOT of gun stores in Tucson, and guns seem to be accepted as part of the culture here.

With my self-proclaimed liberal status, I didn't feel much need for a handgun.  But over the years, I've spent enough nights in the desert that I've got stories to curl your toes, so thought it prudent like many Arizona astronomers to pack some "heat" with the other telescope accessories.  In fact, I got my little handgun from a local astronomy store, which had been traded in towards a telescope purchase!  I bought it about a year ago, and occasionally pack it when out alone observing. 

And in order to be a responsible and safe gun owner, it is best to use it occasionally to lessen the chance of accidents.  To that end, some buddies occasionally get together to go out shooting in the desert just outside of town.  My friend (ER) Doctor Chuck (shown at left) served as the range safety officer, reminding all of us of safe practices, and in the details of the guns we were using.  At left he is demonstrating a 9mm pistol, at right is the 38 service revolver of (retired detective) Dan above, and  Chuck's 45 below.  My little Sig Sauer .380 (nicknamed the "pea Shooter" by the guys) isn't shown.

Our location in the desert was in a depression to contain shots that miss the target.  I'm not sure it was a dug-out hole for a watering hole for cattle, a mine exploration hole, or what, but it serves the purpose well.  At left, our location is shown with Chuck's "dueling tree" set up.  The targets swing around to the other side when hit, so two shooters can compete against each other for accuracy and speed.  The problem with my lil' "Pea Shooter" is that it doesn't pack enough power to swing the target. It will budge it, but not swing it around...  The location seems to be a popular place for shooting - at right is shown the ground peppered by casings and broken bottles from a wide variety of calibers of shooters from long ago, given the corrosion over the years.

It was a lot of fun to try different firearms - I did
best with my own and Dan's 38.  Hardly anyone preferred the 9mm - not sure why, we just missed a lot with it...  Sue, a new shooter shown at left shooting against Chuck, did well after some training and pointers.  Sam and Dan, who carried his 38 every day at work, did well too.  After an hour, folks had things to do, so we cleaned up our brass and packed up.  As for the part of the ammo that came out the muzzles, most disintegrated into shrapnel, but a few that hit the steel square on was located near the "tree".  Shown at right are a few of the bullet remnants I picked up - rather interesting!

We already picked dates into November.  Considering that it had been nearly a year since I've shot before, I'm looking forward to getting out again sooner!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Orbs and Pit Vipers

I was up at Kitt Peak National Observatory last weekend, assisting with an astro-photography class.  It is a 2 night, 3 day class with lots of opportunities for hands-on telescopes and cameras for getting experience in various aspects of imaging the night sky.  My little area of expertise is in some of the night time-lapse clips I make.  The staff has encouraged me to pass on some of what I've learned to the newcomers, and it is always fun and generated some good questions and feedback.

One of the things I always try to do is collect some frames and make a time-lapse "live" in front of the group.  Lately I've taken shots of the sunset thru a small telescope and make a clip out of the frames, but unfortunately, on Saturday I underestimated the effect of the haze layer when setting the exposure and the frames were a couple stops underexposed...  So no new data, but I did get a shot of the sun before it got too low with a few small sunspots.  Click on the frame to enlarge - note the little extension at the upper right.  It was low enough that layers in the atmosphere was affecting the limb of the sun as it set pretty low in the sky.

After the sun had set I also took a few frames of the Moon.  The scope used for both of these frames was the "new-to-me"  TEC 140, which gives a nice image scale with the nearly 1,000mm focal length.  Even though I wasn't tracking, the thousandth of a second exposure needed for the moon froze the Earth's rotation and Moon's apparent motion.  The image is cropped and kept near the maximum image size so the fine details in the craters can be seen.

The rest of the evening was uneventful.  We spent time shooting wide-angle tracked shots, as well as exposures through the TEC 140 mounted piggyback on the telescope we had at our disposal.  We also had classroom sessions on data manipulations once the images were collected.  We took a night lunch break, and while the students went back up to the telescope, I headed back to Tucson about 11pm.  You always have to be on the lookout for wildlife on the drive down the mountain at night.  Over the years I've seen everything from mountain lions to bobcats, skunks to ringtail cats.  Usually over the Summer snakes can be seen on the asphalt as the pavement retains heat into the evening, but haven't spotted any on my trips for ages. 

More lucky this time, rounding a corner, I saw this 3.5 foot (1 meter) rattlesnake stretched across the road.  I stopped quickly as I passed it and backed up to image it.  The temps were in the upper 50s and it was moving very slowly, so was easy to grab a couple frames.  Mostly he wanted to get away from me, and after coiling briefly for this picture (with on-camera flash), he took off for the edge of the road, as I headed back down the mountain.  I searched Google images for an identification and my snake expert confirms my guess of a black-tailed rattlesnake, from the black patch on its snout and dark tail.  When I had arrived on the mountain earlier, the visitor center staff alerted me that someone had spotted a mountain lion near the top, and another had seen a coral snake, though more likely a king snake given that the reported size was nearly 2 feet long (60cm).  So yes, wildlife proliferates even in the wilds of the National Observatory!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Another Window Seat!

Last week we flew back to Tucson from O'Hare, via Phoenix.  Because of the Phoenix connection we flew in a bigger plane than normal, an A320, a full 6 seats wide as opposed to the 5-abreast of the MD-80s on the normal Tucson non-stops.  While the flight was "full", we were literally in the back row, and actually weren't scheduled to sit together...  We found someone that would swap center seats with Melinda (a couple rows ahead), and since there were a couple empty seats a couple rows up, the woman on the aisle moved up (she needed to recline, and you can't in the rear-most seat), leaving us a little extra room.  The advantage of the A320 windows is that while a little smaller than our usual planes, this one seemed almost optical quality, with no pitting or scratches!  Things were looking up!

Of course, there had to be a bad side, right?  The catch to taking photos thru the rear of the A320 is that it has wing-mounted engines.  Normally not a problem, but of course, the vortex of hot air coming out really messes up the sharpness of the view!  It was never an issue with the MD-80s as they have engines on the rear tail...  While observing and digesting these effects, the plane took off and I was immediately lost.  Normally we head almost due west and cross the Mississippi over my home ground in Iowa, but with the weather showing severe storms in Iowa, we headed more southerly, and unknown territory.  I needed to look for landmarks that stood out, so I could figure out later where we had been.  About 10 minutes into the flight, I spotted something suitably unusual.  Out in the middle of the cornfields was an oval.  It was certainly smaller than a particle accelerator (like Fermilab in Batavia).  Perhaps it was a racetrack?  A Google search later for "oval racetrack near Chicago" found that it was the Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5 mile banked racetrack for NASCAR events, and is adjacent to Route 66 Raceway, which has a dragstrip and .5 mile dirt oval - serving all your racing needs!  Part of the dragstrip is seen at far right, and the dirt oval is off the frame to the right as well.

We continued what seemed a long ways, and I never saw any major streams, meaning the Illinois River, which we followed on the way up, was off our starboard side.  Finally, what seemed an eternity, but was only about 30 minutes, I spotted what had to be the Mississippi ahead, and sure enough, from all the loop-de-loops, I suspected it was its confluence with the Missouri.  Checking on Google later, sure enough, it was the Missouri on the outskirts of St Louis.  I took a 6 frame sequence of identical exposures as we passed, Unfortunately, Photoshop would only combine 5 of them, shown here at left.  The seemingly perpetually Spring-flooded Alton, Illinois is at left, with the Missouri River coming up from lower right.  Across the top right is the narrow Chain of Rocks Canal, which allows shipping to bypass the main channel of the Mississippi that is unnavigable in low water. 

This being the Midwest, the view out the
window wasn't nearly this clear, but was quite hazy.  The last (right-most) image that the program wouldn't align actually had a well-known landmark.  The original frame out of the camera is shown at left.  At right is shown the same image with levels set separately for each color channel and manipulated a little to retain as much detail as possible.  One of the tricks I use when knowing that the files will be reduced in size for the blog is that I do a Gaussian blur on the original frames, then reduce the image size to that desired, then use unsharp mask a bit to slightly sharpen.  It seems to reduce the noise in the original frame a bit.  These frames  were taken with the kit lens set to 70mm, and is shown in these images at full resolution.  We passed the airport a minute later, so I figure we were about 16 miles away from the 630 foot (192m) tall Gateway Arch.

Given how hazy it was in the St Louis area, I was wondering what the distance to the horizon was.  Of course, as we continued west, the haze was reduced, the humidity went down, as well as particulates.  After an hour or so of flying and taking pictures of clouds and unknown landforms, I figured we were into New Mexico.  One of the easy-to-spot landforms in New Mexico is the White Sands area in the south-central part of the state.  Gazing off to the far southern horizon, in a little while I convinced myself I could see a skinny white strip far to the south.  Almost immediately we passed a small town with distinctive highway structure (I-25), then 5 minutes later came over Albuquerque.  Backtracking on Google Maps, the little town was Rowe, NM, shown at left.  Between those two metropolii, I imaged what I thought was White Sands in the distance, shown at right.  Sure enough, Google Maps confirms, with the Oscura Mountains to the left, the San Andres to the right, the smaller Mockingbird Mountains between, and in the far distance the Organ Mountains which are 225 miles away from where we were!

I've yet to spend any time in Albuquerque, though almost visited it during rush hour when changing between northbound I-25 and eastbound I-40.  From the plane, the 3-frame mosaic at left shows it nestled between the nearly 11,000 feet (3300m) elevation of the Sandia Mountains, and the Rio Grande River, which heads nearly due south, eventually to form the international border between Texas and Mexico.  And if you recall my recent mention of the Rio Grande, we passed it 10 days before going east when we passed Socorro, about 60 miles to the south.  Note that atop the Sandias the trees were displaying their Fall colors...

We crossed diagonally across the border into Arizona.  My favorite view as we approached Phoenix was the bright blue of Theodore Roosevelt Lake surrounded by parched desert terrain.  Roosevelt Lake is the largest and oldest of the 6 reservoirs that are part of the Salt River Project.  The image at left is cropped from a 3-frame mosaic.  Off in the far distance (125 miles away!) is Mount Graham, home of the Large Binocular Telescope.  Also visible beyond the first mountain range are some of the open pit copper mines near Globe, Arizona.

Another 15 minutes of flying and we were entering the northern 'burbs of Phoenix.  While I rarely editorialize, it seems crazy that there seems to be the highest per capita number of golf courses I've ever seen!  And if it isn't golf courses, it is lakefront housing - in a city that gets typically 8 inches of rain a year!  Compare these neighborhoods to those of Chicago in our previous post...  Of course, they get nearly 5 times the rainfall...

The reason, of course, that Phoenix and environs can do that is because of the Central Arizona Project.  Water is diverted from the Colorado River and runs over 300 miles across open desert.  My buddy Valerie used to work for the water department here in Tucson and told me once that well over half the water that starts the trip is lost to evaporation and leaching through the canal walls...  Here it is shown traversing the same northern suburbs and heads south to irrigate cotton fields and other crops before heading down to Tucson.  And Tucson isn't the end of the line, as they extend the water for mining use south of the city too.

Finally we were on final approach - thankfully cameras are now approved to be powered on for takeoff and landing, so I was able to take a few snapshots as we passed downtown Phoenix.  The major interchange of I-17 and I-10 seemed particularly interesting.  And though the baseball season of the Arizona Diamondbacks had ended a few days before, they had the roof of the ballpark open to keep the turf alive.  Unlike the new football stadium where the turf rolls outside for sunshine on a rail system, BOB (the former Band-One Ballpark, now boringly Chase Field) does it the old fashioned way with a retractable roof.  One of the interesting things to note is the swimming pool in straightaway center field!  No, not for bullpen pitchers to relax, but for fans to watch the game from a pool!  Of course, the water must be cold with the roof closed for most games (Summer in Phoenix, you know), and the interior of the ball park air conditioned to 72 degrees...

We needed to traverse the airport to catch the puddle-jumper down to Tucson.  That plane suffered from pretty bad windows, so no more pictures.  But it was fun while it lasted.  It was great to spend the afternoon musing the country passing by!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Lunar Eclipse A-Comin'!

Just a quick warning that tomorrow (Tuesday) night, likely for you early Wednesday morning, the Moon will enter the Earth's shadow.  The result will be a lunar eclipse.  Unlike a partial solar eclipse, it is perfectly safe to observe, but you will likely have to set your alarm to observe it.  For us in Tucson, mid-eclipse is at 3:55am (MST - check local listings)!  Details are at the Sky and Telescope website

You might well ask what is so interesting when the moon slips into the shadow?  Won't it just blacken out?  Well, the short answer is yes, but the longer answer is that while the direct sunlight is blocked, the light from all the sunrises and sunsets around the world shine on the moon, so it turns a coppery-to-orange color as a result.  In my opinion it is well worth losing a few minutes sleep to get up and observe!  The picture at left shows the moon in eclipse last April, seen from our friend Margie's house down in Rocky Point, Mexico.

While I plan to get up and observe it, the weather isn't looking promising - we've got another hurricane bearing down on us, though weakened to just clouds and a good chance of rain.  Oh well, another lunar eclipse is coming down the pike on 4 April, 2015, though that one won't go as far into Earth's shadow, the total phase only lasting 5 minutes as opposed to tomorrow's 1 hour.  In any case, go observe it if you can!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Local Color...

As our 10-day visit to the Midwest draws to a close, the Fall colors that we went on a 3-day trip to Northern Wisconsin have finally started appearing down in our area.  This maple tree is up the hill from our house here, and is always among the first and just about the most reliable local spectacle.  I especially love how it seems to turn a complete branch at a time rather than a coordinated overall change.

From the first instant of our homecoming we literally heard that Fall was arriving!  Over our house towers a nearly 100 foot oak tree, and from minute one we heard what sounded like distant gunshots as acorns rained down on the house.  Occasionally you could hear them tumbling down the slope of the roof and roll into the rain gutter, but mostly they hit hard and bounced onto the ground.  We don't recall an acorn crop like this, unrelenting, nearly all night long.  Once in a while, a gust of wind would unleash a barrage of impacts, and at times, headgear was nearly required for head protection while walking near the house!  As a result, the gutters have a couple inches of acorns in them, and the house is surrounded by a thick layer of them and their caps.  The two shots shown here are representative of what the ground looks like in the area.  The squirrels have been busy eating and collecting, with piles of chewed husks lying about.  Just last night a gust of wind or two seems to have closed out the acorn season, and nearly none were heard today...

A few days back, in fact, it was the evening upon our arrival back from Wisconsin, I walked down to the Fox River with the camera and found some photographs.  First was one of my favorite plants of the Summer - the new-to-me swamp milkweed, with its own set of local insects confined to it!  The Summer insects from that post are all gone, hopefully the monarch butterfly is on its way to Mexico.  But now the pods are releasing their seeds and they are different enough from the standard milkweed to look interesting.  At left, a still-closed seed pod awaits a few more days before it launches its seeds.  A few yards to the right was the Fox River, which this time of day reflected the sunset colors off the still water.  An occasional insect landed or launched from the water, the source of the round waves at right.

I returned to the swamp milkweed plant today to see how it was progressing.  The singular pod at left in the above image had now cracked, revealing its seeds, but had not started dispersing them.  It made for a fascinating close-up with the macro lens (Canon 100mm F/2.8).  Another trio of seed pods were in an even-earlier stage, the seeds just barely visible within, shown at right.

The spectacular stands of Queen Anne's Lace are long gone, as are most of the goldenrod, now brown and well past their prime.  However, I found one lone torch of goldenrod over in Riverbend Park, where I ride laps of the walking path with my bike.  Shown at left, while some of the prairie flowers can be seen past their prime, for some reason, this goldenrod is at its peak of brilliance, and was popular with bees, being one of the last viable flowers.  Imagine what the plots of prairie looked like a month ago when all the goldenrod looked like this!  A close-up is shown at right, revealing the multitude of small florets that make up the whole.

Finally, I'll close out with a discovery I made while going to document the goldenrod.  I found a trio of sandhill cranes!  While cautious, they seemed unbothered by nearby walkers, and folks with their pets at the dog run.  There is intermittently a breeding pair in a nearby body of water we've seen on rare occasions, so these might be them, or perhaps they are passing through from Northern Canada headed to join their tens of thousands of buddies in Southern Arizona.  Melinda jokes that we'll pass them while on the plane tomorrow, perhaps to visit them the end of the year in Whitewater Draw!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Searching For Roy...

While in the Midwest, in late September, it is always fun to look out for Fall colors.  Of course, when you make travel plans, depending on the weather and temperatures, you can't always predict what the schedule will be, so arriving a couple days early and the local color (northern Illinois) limited to very  early yellow tints, we decided to go on a road trip north into Wisconsin, and also had fingers crossed for northern lights too...  Oh, and the "Roy" in the title???  It is a play on the spectral colors in a rainbow, or the output from a prism - in order, the colors appear red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo and violet.  Taking the first letter from each color, you get Roy G. Biv!  So our little road trip was in search of the Fall reds, oranges and yellows!

With the trees just starting to turn in St Charles, it didn't take long to see them more vividly a we moved north of Madison.  Bodies of water seemed to be a good place to view deeply into a stretch of woods, as at left.  Taken from the moving car at 70 mph, the motion of more distant woods were also well-frozen.  Other than our trip to Minneapolis this Summer (when we came up for the idea for this road trip), it didn't take long to get into territory I've never been in before, and it was quite scenic.  Any examination of a map of Wisconsin shows it to be covered in lakes (like Minnesota!), so views like this were common.

While stopping for a bathroom break and snacks in Tomahawk, we found we had to drive a mile or two off the interstate to hit the small town.  It is a really pretty area, as is all of northern Wisconsin, with lakes and rivers abounding.  It looks like its major commerce is the summer recreational and Fall hunting activities.  Anyway, we found a quiet side road with some nice colors to do a "group portrait" with the car on the way back to the main drag.

We didn't have firm plans or reservations anywhere, just drove till we found a pretty area.  It turned out the stopping point was a wide spot in the road called Minocqua.  Looking on the map, it is almost 50-50 as much lake area as land area, it seems!  Besides the fall colors, we were also looking for aurora, and much further north and we'd be in the upper peninsula of Michigan.  We even did a reconnaissance trip north of town to find the south side of a lake to shoot aurora shots from for the best northern horizons, to not have any northern sky blocked by trees...  Alas, while we were ready, and the earth's magnetic activity was approaching storm level, the clouds and rain that night prevented seeing anything...  We did find a nice spot to stay, which even had a jacuzzi in it to relax Melinda's sore back - injured in a fall a few weeks earlier...  We were kind of sorry we didn't plan to stay for the weekend - it was the 50th anniversary of "Beef-A-Rama", highlighted by the "parade of roasts", and cook-off contests...  Sounds like a destination to consider in the future!

Did you ever take a family vacation, and for hundreds of miles, see signs advertising some tourist trap or another?  I recall Wall Drug, on a long-ago trip to South Dakota, or "The Thing" not far from us in southern Arizona...  Well on this trip, it was the "Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty"!  I'd never been to a cook shanty, but it seemed appropriately kitschy that it seemed worth a visit.  While searching for an aurora observing location, we passed it, but were disappointed to see it was closed Wednesdays...  But it was remarkable in it's oversized signage, huge fiberglass sculptures of Bunyan and Babe, and the appropriate "log cabin" building.  It was spectacular in its kitschiness!  The next morning we were searching for a Perkins we had seen somewhere and saw that the "Shanty" was open for breakfast - we had to go!  I'll have to admit, it was pretty cool - $10 gets you a table where they rush you freshly cooked donuts, and everything you might want for breakfast served family style.  Included were 'taters, scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, flapjacks and French toast, and what appeared to be good-ole Tang.  And, of course, you were surrounded by the décor of carriages, oxen yokes, antique Americana of all kinds hanging off the walls and ceilings.

I'll have to admit it was worth the price of admission.  They even have a gift shop (of course!) to sell souvenirs, and big-as-your-outstretched hand cookies and muffins.  I was talking to the woman behind the counter and their big business is through the Summer when the crowds line out the door and around the parking lot.  Once Labor Day hits they lose most of their wait-staff to college, and the summer vacation crowds thin out.  They were already closed a couple days of the week (this the 3rd week of September), and they would be closing for the season soon.  I'm sort of glad we had a chance to experience it!  I even was inspired to get documented by the statue of "Babe".  It isn't often the photographer gets photographed!

The goal for the next day's drive was to head generally SW towards Door County, heading out the peninsula that extends nearly 100 miles into Lake Michigan, Green Bay guarding the path.  So we meandered on small roads without much traffic, still enjoying the sights along the way.  Melinda shot the 2-frame mosaic of the small lake complete with beaver lodge shown at left.  Assembled with the freeware "Microsoft ICE" program.  At left a close-up of trees from Green to yellow to red...

It was a very pleasant drive - I think we were near the peak colors, certainly in the northernmost extend of our trip.  The road was lonely and winding - perfect for occasional stops to take a picture.  We shared it with few cars, and more than a few motorcycles that had similar ideas.  Not a lot of reds among the maples, but lots of red in the roadside ditches in the clusters of sumac shown at right. 

We didn't tarry long in Door county - nearly drove its full length, getting as far as Ephraim before stopping for more aurora searching on Thursday night (without success).  We hustled southwards Friday - homecoming activities calling our names, as well as wanting to visit friends in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin before the final 2 hour push for home, arriving just about sunset.  It was a fun trip - all told in 3 days of driving, we figured we went about 900 miles, and would be glad to repeat it another time to explore some new territory we've not seen before.  Now if we could just close the loop on getting those auroral views!