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!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Eclipse - Highlight of a Long Thursday!

As the last post mentioned, we had a nice solar eclipse Thursday.  Only a partial with just over 40% of the Sun and Moon's disks overlapped in Tucson, but a good excuse to go out and observe the sun.  My friend Bob, visiting from Ohio, had scheduled an "Astronomer Night" at the University of Arizona's Mount Lemmon SkyCenter with their 32" Schulman telescope.  The program was for up to two attendees, and he invited me to join him for a night of CCD imaging - I didn't need to be asked twice!  Unfortunately, the day started early with Melinda's 4th cycle of her current round of chemo at 7:30, so with pulling an all-nighter, it would be a memorable day!

Image courtesy Travis Deyoe/Mt Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
After Melinda's treatments, Bob and I headed up the mountain a little before 1pm, stopping for snacks and gas before leaving town.  We arrived about 3, the solar eclipse already well under way.  By the time I set up my little tripod-mounted vintage Celestron 5", it was nearing mid-eclipse.  The focal length of over 1200mm is perfect for the Sun and Moon, yet is easy to carry, setup and move.  Even with the solar filter in front, exposures were short enough (300th second), that tracking wasn't needed, though the telescope had to be moved frequently to keep the Sun centered.  Setup is shown at left, and in the background, the staff at the SkyCenter was using a pair of telescopes.  One was for visual observing, the other for streaming images to the Internet. 

Shown at right is an image from their sequence about the time we arrived.  This is the view from a Hydrogen-Alpha telescope - an image from a single red wavelength that shows solar activity due to hydrogen reactions.  The magnetic fields associated with sunspots can throw up loops of plasma, seen as "flames", called prominences at the edge of the Sun's disk. When these same prominences are seen silhouetted against the disk, they appear as darker filaments.  The image was converted to black and white and contrast-adjusted to better show both the edge and disk details.

Compare that image to the "white light" view of the eclipse through my C5 with solar filter taken at about the same time at left.  Note that the "flames" at the edge (prominences) are not visible in white light images, and though the sunspot views are different, the fine details in each image are complementary, each showing spectacular details!  Arriving near mid-eclipse as we did, it was impossible to catch earlier phases, but at right is a trio of images taken at 20 minute intervals showing the motion of the moon past the sun.  In all these images, north is approximately up and the local time is indicated.

Note also by clicking the image to load the full-size image, that the Moon's edge is not smooth.  Some of that is due to seeing effects of atmospheric turbulence, but some of it is also due to mountains and valleys along the edge of the Moon's profile.  One of the fun things for me to observe at almost any Moon phase are the bumps and wiggles of its edge profile.

As I mentioned in my previous post, with about 40% of the disks overlapping, much more of the sun's area was exposed, and I didn't really see any outward signs of an eclipse occurring.  It would have had to be much more coverage to detect darkening of the sky.  Shadows cast by the trees formed pinhole-like images of the crescent on the ground and against the telescope domes.  I grabbed the binoculars and demonstrated another safe way of observing the eclipse if the special solar eclipse-viewing glasses were not available - project an image on a screen, or in this case, my card table.  Note in the close-up ahown at right, even the large sunspot is easily seen.  Note also that the arrow points to an "accidental" pinhole projection caused by the strap also casts a crescent shadow!

As I mentioned, this was just the appetizer of a very long day's observing - stay tuned for a couple more posts!

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!