Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Winter Milky Way

Time for what is becoming a quarterly tradition...a blog post!

In February, I made a trip to the dark skies of Portal, AZ with my good friends, "The League of Extraordinary Ordinary Observers" for our regular gathering of opinions, half-baked ideas, conspiracy theories, and of course telescopes.  We had our usual good time and saw some wonderful celestial sights.

I have posted pictures before of the summer milky way from Portal (see my previous post, for example...remember, quarterly tradition!), yet I do not believe I have ever captured a decent photo of the winter milky way.  One reason for this is that we tend to take our trips when it is warmer than February and the other is that the winter milky way is much fainter than the summer.  To explain quickly, in the summer night sky we are looking toward the central bulge of our galaxy in Sagittarius, and the center of our galaxy contains a much higher density of stars.  In the winter night sky, we are looking out away from the center of our galaxy and our view across the plane of the galaxy is not nearly as bright as when we look inward toward the center.

Below is an image of the winter milky way, that I captured in Portal.  It is a stack of 3 individual frames and is to me, quite striking.  Not only can you see detail and dust lanes in the plane of our galaxy that are invisible anywhere near a city or town, but you can also see several subtle (and I mean subtle) pink nebula such as The California Nebula, Barnard's loop, The Rosette Nebula, etc.  Be sure to click the image to enlarge.

These nebula would be more visible if my camera was astro-modified to be more sensitive in the red, however, I am impressed that the Canon 6D and Rokinon 14mm combination caught them at all.  The (distorted) bright star lower left is Sirius and the double cluster in Perseus is visible in the upper right, just to give you a sense of how wide this shot is.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the zodiacal light reaching from the lower left up through the Pleiades into the milky way.  The Zodiacal light is sunlight, scattered by dust in the plane of our solar system left over from the time of our solar system formation.  It is visible in dark skies after sunset and before sunrise, and is brightest in the spring and fall.

The other fun thing that occurred during the trip to Portal, is that I took a day to drive to Socorro, NM where I met a fellow amateur astronomer from whom I was purchasing a dobsonian telescope.  It is my first dob after all these years and it reminds me I need to update the equipment page of this blog as the only telescope that I currently have listed on that page is my TEC 140!  In any event, at left is the new scope and I hope to share some adventures with it soon...In case you are wondering, it is a 12.5" Obsession Dobsonian, with a mirror by OMI.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A picture (or several) is worth a thousand words

I just returned from 3 nights attending to my favorite dark-sky astronomy activity...a new moon trip to Portal, AZ hosted by my good friend Jerry.  Accompanied by several other great friends- and most importantly my son, Ian, this trip was just what the doctor ordered  It had been a long time since we had a father-son trip and it fed my soul to be with him for just a few days.

Despite our best astronomical intentions, we only had one clear night (which was tremendous).  We were instead treated to some intense and dramatic monsoon storms for two days.  Below are several pictures from the trip- so instead of rambling on about spending time with my son and good friends, here are some pictures...

Thursday night thunderstorm- looking north

Same cell, a few minutes later!

After dark, cloud to cloud lightning illuminating the sky with stars in the background

Friday night, a pass of the International Space Station through a hold in the clouds

Clouds did clear somewhat late Friday night, allowing for this shot of the Milky Way

Milky Way at last!  Saturday night was our reward (Horizon is blurred due to tracking on stars)

Looking to the northeast Saturday night, lots of green airglow (which was noticeable to the eye)

 So that is the Portal roundup-  we observed many objects through several telescopes, but the best part was being with great people under desert skies.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Venus-Jupiter conjunction

2065.  That is the number running around in my head this morning...or to be clear, the year 2065.  In 2065, should I still be kicking and screaming, I'll be in my 96th year here on the 3rd rock from the Sun...and that is the next time that Earth, Venus, and Jupiter will be lined up as closely as they are now.  Below, is a picture I took from the roof of our home last night of Venus and Jupiter in the western sky just after sunset.  You will need to click to enlarge it to appreciate the planets near center.

Click to enlarge and see the planets near center!

I arrived home later than anticipated and barely had time to climb up to the roof and take pictures of the conjunction- and for the life of me could not seem to get a decent exposure quickly.  Of course when I came back into the house it was then that I discovered I had left my circular polarizing filter on the lens.  Very good for landscape, not so good in low light!

Venus is the brighter planet above and to the left of Jupiter.  Last night these planets were separated in our sky by less than the diameter of our full moon!  Keep in mind that these planets are not actually near each other in space-  after all Venus (the 2nd planet) is inside our orbit to the Sun and Jupiter (the 5th planet) much further outside our orbit.  It is just that from Earth, looking out on a line to Jupiter, we see Venus in its orbit right next to that line.

So, 2065 until we experience such similar geometry...if I'm around, I hope we have limited artificial lighting enough to see the alignment...and if not, perhaps my family members will have opportunities to see an Earth - Jupiter conjunction from Mars!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Perseid Meteor Shower

This week saw the Earth swing through the debris trail left by comet Swift-Tuttle, producing the annual Perseid meteor shower.  Prognosticators and Astronomers alike were suggesting that due to perturbations of the comet by Jupiter, we would be plowing through a particularly denser area of the debris stream and that we would experience an active shower compared to many years.  Predictions were for upwards of 200 meteors an hour, and I believe these were accurate.

I packed up my camera and friend Travis, and we headed up the Mount Lemmon Highway to the Geology Vista pullout at about 9 PM on Thursday evening...we were joined by the entire meteor shower watching community of Tucson, who apparently had the same idea...the pullouts on the highway were all full by 10 PM!  I set up may Canon 6D with a 14 mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 and took 60 second exposures for several hours.  I obtained about 10 exposures with meteors and below is a crop of one of them, with the brightest Perseid I captured.   (Be sure to note the Andromeda Galaxy, below the left edge of the Perseid).

Despite being at nearly 7000 ft in elevation and looking to the northeast (away from the glow of Tucson), you can see a lot of scattered light in the lower portion of image...the bulk of this is from the constant parade of traffic on the highway as well as cars that would pull into Geology Vista, leaving their headlights on, despite the lot being full and filled with obvious meteor watchers.

Finally, a quick bit of clarification on terminology...in space, these objects are called 'meteoroids' (like asteroids)...what differentiates them from asteroids is simply their small size.  They are called 'meteors' only while plowing through our atmosphere and burning up.  So a meteor is actually the bright streak we see, or what is commonly referred to as a shooting star.  Should a piece of one of these actually survive the trip through the atmosphere and land on the ground, we then have a 'meteorite.'  So, in space - meteoroid; burning up in atmosphere - meteor; safely on the ground - meteorite!

Finally, lots of excuses for not blogging much anymore, but the most honest one is lack of time...life continues to be busy and fulfilling and when I have down time, I seem to spend it relaxing and not at the computer.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Rattle and Hum

We have lived in our house for over a dozen years and in that time have had all manner of wildlife remind us that we are simply squatters.  We have the daily rabbits, ground squirrels, hawks, coyotes...we commonly see and her packrats, owls, bats, and tarantulas...and occasionally even a bobcat.  Just this week a scorpion came indoors and stung my niece on the toe in the middle of the night.  In the summer months we sometimes see a large gopher snake around the front of our property and a medium sized king snake perusing the backyard.  We have never had a rattle snake in our space...until today.

While enjoying an early morning cup of coffee and cinnamon roll at the local coffee house with my lovely wife, I received a text message from my son that he had walked into the backyard and as he looked at our dog Cosmo he immediately noticed a large snake just ahead of the dog.  Fortunately, the dog had not seen the snake and he was able to get the dog inside.  Upon closer inspection (not that close) he saw it was a diamondback rattlesnake and not one of our known, local denizens.

Click the pictures to enlarge and enjoy him/her from the safety of your monitor.

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!