Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Transit of Mercury

Yesterday saw the planet Mercury transit the face of the Sun from our unique perspective here on earth.  Slightly more common than a Venus transit which will not happen again in our lifetimes (see this post and this one as well), Mercury transits the Sun 12 or 13 times each century, always in May or November.  The apparent size of Mercury is rather small against the Sun, approximately 1/5 that of Venus.

We had a few programs running simultaneously yesterday for the transit-  up at the summit of Mount Lemmon the SkyCenter hosted a special program for visitors, and we also conducted an outreach event for students at Canyon View Elementary school.  The Sky School was hosting a group of 5th graders from Canyon View at our mountain based program, where I was operating the telescopes.  I set up at the Babad Do'Ag pullout approximately 2.5 miles up the Catalina Highway where we begin our Sky School programs with an exploration of the concept of a Sky Island.  Mercury began its transit prior to local sunrise and the transit is approximately a 7 hour event. I was all set by 5:30 AM and enjoyed watching the shadow profile of the Santa Catalina Mountains slowly creep across the Tucson basin as the Sun rose.  At left is the Coronado 90mm Hydrogen Alpha telescope we used for visual observation, as well as my 90mm Stellarvue triplet, 2x barlow and Canon 6D that I used to take pictures of the transit.  (Many folks ask about utility of the pink foam...it is simply to shade my camera in the Sun!)

Here are a few of the excited 5th graders observing the transit, I enjoyed the amazement of the student in the grey and red shirt exclaiming "It's so small!!"

I took a large number of images (approximately every 10 minutes until it was over) and processing them will require some time.  I did process one from near mid-transit and it is presented below.  As always, click the image to enlarge it and if your browser automatically re-sizes images you may need to click it again.

So there you have it- a fun and science filled day sharing the wonders of our Solar System with a group of our future scientists and leaders!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Springtime at the UA Sky School

I have the kind of job where I frequently look around and have to remind myself I am getting paid to do this work.  Serving as Director of the UA Sky School is rewarding every single day...from interacting with an amazing group of staff, to all the students that attend our programs from southern Arizona, I am constantly amazed at the learning that takes place.  The core of our program are the residential, immersive science programs that take place on Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The Santa Catalinas are a Sky Island, part of the Madrean Sky Island complex and serve as an amazing learning laboratory. Sky Islands are loosely defined as isolated mountains that rise up from the radically different lowlands that surround them.  In our case, the lowlands are Sonoran desert and the summit of the mountain is similar to a Canadian Alpine forest!

On the first day of our programs we typically spend time with students having them come up with scientific questions based on their observations as they slowly ascend the mountain.  Below is an image of students discussing the grassland of the foothills.

 As Spring takes hold the Cottonwood trees in the lower elevations are already displaying their magnificence.

Halfway up the mountain is a very famous lookout- Windy Point.  In addition to the rock climbing (and yes, the wind) there are sweeping panoramic views of Tucson, allowing for students to contemplate the basin and range formation of the valley thousands of feet below.

Higher up, despite being mid-April, students can experience light snow showers!  It's not all work at the Sky School, there is plenty of time for play!

Back to work!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Payette Lake, McCall, Idaho

This week I traveled to McCall, Idaho to spend time visiting with the faculty and staff of the McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS).  MOSS is an immersive, residential science school for middle and high school students affiliated with the University of Idaho, and is the program that we bench-marked when we started our UA Sky School program 4 short years ago.  It has been a great visit with our colleagues and we are returning home with some great ideas to improve our program and also to begin some longer term collaborations with MOSS.

This is a beautiful part of the country-  we flew into Boise and drove north along the North Fork of the Payette River to Cascade and then up to McCall.  (Along the way, the stretch or river between Smith's Ferry and Banks is an amazing stretch of whitewater with nearly continuous class V rapids.)   The MOSS campus is situated on the shores of Lake Payette and the lake is just beginning to thaw from its winter freeze.

Yesterday morning we had a break in our meeting schedule and drove around to the south shore of the lake where the thaw is most obvious and were treated to a beautiful view of the mountains reflected in the water.  The image below represents a field of view of about 120-140 degrees.  Unfortunately, Google limits the size of images on the blog , and the picture below is about 25% of original size!  Click to enlarge!!

I took this image with my new Sony a6000 mirrorless camera and a Sigma 30mm f/2.8 lens.  This is my first outing with the camera and I am still learning how to use it.  One of the neat features is the in-camera panoramic mode, as seen above.  The camera takes several still images while one pans the camera and then they are stitched into a panoramic image in-camera.  The resulting file is a jpeg, not raw, which does limit the ability to post-process.  Yet, it is a fun and effective way to capture scenes as above.  If one wanted a higher quality panorama, one would simply take single images in raw format for processing and then stitching together using software.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Spring Portal trip attempt 1

As we say, a bad night in Portal is better than a good night most other places.  I just returned from 3 nights camping with friends in Portal- and while we packed along all our telescopes and other observing gear, we only experienced about 2 hours of observing each of the first 2 nights.  While many would be frustrated with the high cirrus that dominated the skies during our trip, good friends and beautiful mountains more than make up for the lack of celestial delights.

I did take a couple pictures on the second night which are below.  These were both taken with my Canon 6D, a Rokinon 14mm manual lens (@ f/2.8), and were 30 second exposures on a non-tracking mount.  First, is an image of the winter milky way, and notably you can see the star Canopus just hugging the horizon left of center.  Canopus is the second brightest star in Earth's sky, with Sirius being the first.  Sirius is the brightest star in the image...Orion is visible as are the Pleiades, Hyades, etc.

Below is an image of the Zodiacal light as it reaches up toward the milky way.  (The zodiacal light is sunlight reflecting off of dust in the plane of our solar system.)

I hope that Spring attempt 2 to Portal, for the April new moon, provides clear skies and great company!

Friday, January 15, 2016

More proof I am not an astrophotographer

I think I need to make a T-shirt that says "I am not an astrophotographer" mostly to poke fun at myself.  I have no desire to devote time to either data acquisition (hours per image) or learning the processing skills to create beautiful images of space (hundreds of hours learning, several hours for each image).  Yet, for some reason, every few months I go through a phase where I stick a camera into a telescope and take some pictures to try and capture something pretty.

I stretch the contrast, try and clean up the noise a little, and assuming I did a decent job with focus call it a day.  Then, I proceed to look at my pictures and realizing that I have the potential to do better I say to myself "Self, you need to learn how to this properly."  I start to play around with photoshop, read about various techniques online and quickly retreat from the notion that I will be furthering my skills in astrophotography.  Time goes by and soon it is "rinse and repeat."  I suspect the truth is that I like taking pictures through a telescope, but am not going to devote myself to it.  The lesson of course is to be satisfied with the process and results and not compare them to the many fantastic images taken by my friends and others on the internet.

Without further ado, more proof that I am not an astrophotographer.  Three more pictures from my recent time on Mount Lemmon (see the previous post).  Again, all of these images were taken with my Canon 6D through a 100mm Sky Watcher Esprit triplet refractor, and all are single exposures.

M31, M32, M110 - The Andromeda Galaxy and companions

M45 - The Pleiades

M42 - The Orion Nebula and NGC 1977 the Running Man Nebula (at top)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A shadow grows in the east

A shout out to Lady Galadriel for the reference in my post title.  Tuesday night I was up at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter (where I am the Director) assisting some folks with a filming project and took the image below at sunset. Watching the shadow of Mount Lemmon move across the San Pedro River Valley as the sun sets and then observing the shadow rise into the atmosphere is one of my favorite phenomenon to witness.  Not only are the views singularly beautiful and serene from the summit, but with a clear atmosphere the Belt of Venus is remarkably vivid.   The picture below was taken with my Canon 6d and 24-105mm lens at the 105mm setting.  It is a handheld shot with an exposure of 1/60 of a second, ISO 200, f/5.6

It seems that throughout the year as the azimuth of the the sunset varies, the apparent shape of the mountains shadow changes slightly due to the perspective from which it is illuminated.  I have noticed these subtle changes before, yet on Tuesday night the shadow seemed markedly pointed and picturesque.  Other times during the year the shadow seems to be more rounded.  For fun I may try and take pictures from this same spot throughout the year and see how much the shadow varies or if it is all my imagination.  (Perhaps I am attributing too much to perspective and not enough to atmospheric conditions).  One final note about this image-  If you enlarge it, you can see the LBT on Mount Graham approximately 60 miles to the East.  It is the white spot on the ridge, just above the snowy area on the right side of Mount Lemmon's shadow.

I spent a few hours observing through the Phillips 24" telescope with the guys I was helping out.  Riding atop the Phillips Telescope is a Sky Watcher 100ed f/5.5 triplet refractor that provides very nice wide-field views to our guests.  I am certainly no astrophotographer, but thought it would be fun to try and take a picture through the telescope.  Below is a single 30 second shot (ISO 6400) of the double cluster (NGC 884 and 869) taken through the telescope.  Be sure to enlarge it to its full size.

Overall it was a beautiful (and cold!!) night on the mountain, one that reignited my passion for observing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The annual (almost) winter solstcie sunset trip

Several years ago my friend Dean Ketelsen carefully scouted the Catalina Highway to identify a location from which he could take a picture of the Sun setting behind Kitt Peak National Observatory, some 60 miles distant.  Dean maintains an excellent blog and I highly recommend visiting-  In addition to being a knowledgeable amateur astronomer, his professional career has led him to work at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, where among other projects they fabricate the largest telescope mirrors in the world.  His blog often features work from the lab, such as this post yesterday.

Each year Dean organizes a trip up to the spot on the Catalina Highway to observe and take pictures of the Sun as it sets behind Kitt Peak- and it does this very near the winter solstice.  Approximately 3 days before solstice the alignment is favorable, and again 3 days following the solstice just as the Sun is again trekking northward in our sky.  I have done this trip a few times in the past and you can read about these adventures on my blog from 2013 (my favorite images), 2012, and I even attempted a time-lapse in 2013.

This year I headed up with Dean and a few others on Thursday, December 17th and set up with my TEC 140 triplet refractor, Solar Prism (i.e. Herschel Wedge) Canon 6D DSLR.  I focused on the Sun in advance and had the mount tracking as the Sun moved towards the Horizon.  I had planned to try another time-lapse but unfortunately I forgot to turn off the tracking on the mount until halfway through sunset- so instead of seeing the sunset, the time-lapse would have shown Kitt Peak rising. First, a single shot of the Sun taken just after set-up with addition of a 1.6x Barlow lens (a converter).

Below is a single shot from the moment when all the structures atop Kitt Peak were illuminated by the Sun.  Note the green rim on the upper limb of the Sun caused by refraction of the sunlight through the Earth's atmosphere.

As always, click the above images to enlarge them and finally, Happy New Year to all!