Tuesday, February 23, 2010

M82 - The Cigar Galaxy

Among the most popular objects to observe in the northern hemisphere are the 110 Messier objects, named after French comet hunter Charles Messier (1730-1817).  Messier compiled his list of objects mostly to avoid mistaking them for comets in his routine searches.  Ultimately he discovered 20 comets, 13 of which were original discoveries.  While not many amateurs are familiar with any of the comets he discovered, most folks have at least looked at a few of the objects in his catalogue.  Objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the Great Orion Nebula (M42) are among the most famous.  For many amateur astronomers, observing all 110 objects is a rite of passage.  While I have observed the entire catalogue, I still return frequently to many of the objects.

Tonight, with a moon that is 73% illuminated, I decided to have a look at M82, also known as the Cigar Galaxy.  Now observing galaxies under moonlight is not exactly optimal, however, after a few days of cloudy weather I was so photon deprived that even the moonlight could not deter my enthusiasm.  I had planned a sketch of mars, but when I took a look at the red planet, there were not many surface features visible, and what was visible was very difficult to observe due to the unstable atmosphere. While planetary observing suffers greatly from atmospheric turbulence, viewing of deep sky objects, such as galaxies, is much less affected.  The reason for this is that galaxies are low contrast, have low surface brightness and generally lack the fine detail that can be obscured in poor seeing conditions. 

I aimed the scope at M82 and after just a few minutes decided to make a quick sketch.  M82 is a remarkable galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major.  It has been studied extensively, and the picture to the left is a composite image made from the Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra observatories.  It reveals the galaxy in visible wavelengths (the Hubble camera), as well as X-Ray (Chandra) and the infrared (Spitzer). 

Naturally, one does not see all that fantastic color at the telescope eyepiece, rather, one sees an elongateed smudge with some mottling, some bright regions, and a dust lane.  The picture to the right is a little closer to what one sees, particularly when knowing what to look for and using one's "averted imagination."  Below is my sketch of the galaxy, which you can see is reversed left-right from the photo.  I made the sketch with black pencil on white paper (a negative image), then scanned and inverted the image to provide a positive image. In other words, the sketch now appears as in the eyepiece:

Instrument: TEC 140
Eyepiece: 8mm (123X)
Time of sketch 0330 UT Feb. 24, 2010 (8:30 MST)

RA: 9h 55.8m
D: +69 deg. 41 min.

Distance: 12 million light years
Magnitude: 8.4     Size: 9 x 4 arcminutes

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

24 hours in the Old Pueblo race report

This was my 5th year participating in the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo (24 HITOP) mountain bike race, and the event lived up to all my expectations.  This is an event for anyone...young, old, competetive rider, or couch potato.  In varying degrees, based on personal preference, it is part mountain bike racing, part sleep deprivation, part binge drinking.  Above all, it is about spending time with 3000 of your closest friends and pushing yourself to whatever endurance limit you desire.

I raced on a 5 person co-ed team in the category of 200+ combined age...(at least they do not call it the "masters division" as that would really sound old!)  I have done the event every year with my very good friend Cindy Sanchez (2nd from right in photo above).  In addition we were joined this year by some of her friends from Colorado- Simon Stokes (center) and Dave Aceto (far left), as well as our amigo from the great metropolis to the north, Javier Ochoa (2nd from left).  I should mention that our team was sponsored by Dr. Will Bar hence the team name "Powered by Dr. Will Bar".  Not real catchy I admit.  But hey, the bars are awesome, the jerseys are cool (Simon modeling to the right), and check out the third athlete testimonial on the Dr. Will Bar webpage

In what has become a tradition over the past 4 years, we shared a campsite with our friends who were riding this year in the 4 person singe speed category.  Right to left in the photo - Gabe Lucero, Jeremy Killen, Rene Valencia, and Juan Rascon (yes, the Juan Rascon!).  They are all great guys and great riders and the comraderie is in many ways what makes the event.

So, the nuts and bolts on the format.  The course is a 17 mile loop through the Sonoran Desert just northwest of Oracle, AZ.  It is a very fast course with varying trail sections that each have their own personality.  It is done in a lap format with your team riding as many 17 mile laps as possible in a 24 hour window from noon on Saturday until noon on Sunday.  The race begins with the folks riding the first lap lining up about 1/4 mile down the road from where the bikes are actually waiting (photo at left).  At the sound of the gun, everyone runs like mad to find their bike up the road and begin the lap.  Words do not describe this shotgun start, you have to witness it (photo to the right).  When the rider finishes the lap, they come into an exchange tent, and pass a baton through a timer to the next rider who then heads out.  It is important not to lose your teams baton or you receive a time penalty.  On Sunday, you can not finish before noon...so if your rider comes in at 11:59 someone needs to start another lap.  If you come in at 12:00, your finished...All riders must have completed their final lap by 1:15.  Most teams who are not attempting to podium hold their rider just short of the finish until noon so that they do not have to ride another lap.  Another important rule is that a team can have no more than 2 laps between the rider completing the most laps and the rider completing the least.  In other words if someone wants to ride 5 laps, everyone else must have completed at least 3.  Lastly, each rider must ride at least one night lap.

The race started well with Cindy riding the first lap.  She was awesome on the run, grabbing her bike and heading off ahead of the majority of the riders.  You can see her in the Will Bar jersey in the picture to the right.  Cindy is certainly a fine athlete, however, do not be fooled by her dominance of the shotgun running start.  Her secret?  She wears running shoes!  While most mountain bikers utilize shoes that clip to their pedals, Cindy has found that she can dominate on the start wearing running shoes.  We certainly did not argue with her logic, but she does look awfully strange in that nice cycling kit wearing running shoes...next year, she says she will finally go clipless.  Cindy turned in a great first lap and was followed by Simon.  Simon rode like he had not seen such warm and dry weather in months...and actually, being from Breckenridge, Colorado he hadn't seen 70 degrees and sunshine in months.  I rode third and all went well.  I should mention here that each of us provides the team with a time estimate of our lap so that the next rider knows when to be in the exchange tent.  Considering I had spent 11.5 months tapering down from last year and the 15 days immediately preceeding the race in training, I estimated a 1:45 for my lap.

There is nothing too remarkable about the course, but anyone who has ridden the loop has stories of the dirt road about a mile after the start...this section is called "The Bitches"...consider it a term of endearment.  Essentially, just as you are thinking to yourself "hey, this will not be so bad!" you emerge from a nice section of fast singletrack onto a utility service road that contains 7 short intense climbs, each followed by a screaming descent.  These descents are fun, however, one must be careful as at the base of the 4th "Bitch" there is a nasty rut, hidden fom view that claims at least one collarbone each year.  Needless to say, being the race veteran that I am , I am fairly conservative on the downside of the Bitches.  I think that it helped not to attack them too hard, as somehow I rode into the exchange tent to meet Javier in 1:29!  This was a great lap for me, considering I tried to save some speed for my night lap.  Out went Javier who turned in a very fast lap, and finally Super Dave headed out for the sunset lap.

Before I detail our night rides, I need to preface the (mostly true) report by saying that I consider Cindy a very good friend and I have a great deal of admiration for her.  Dave started his lap at 5:37 PM which means that the next rider, Cindy, should have been in the exchange tent at 6:57.  Well, for some reason Captain Cindy wrote down 7:30 as the time she should be waiting in the tent...the evidence is plain to see, in her handwriting in the image of the spreadsheet.  Now we all know that Cindy did not major in math, but she is an IT professional with extensive experience utilizing databases and spreadsheets...and that spreadsheet is, frankly, embarrasing from such a professional. Fortunately, Rene's spouse was in the exchange ten when Dave finished and was able to hike back to our campsite and nicely ask Cindy why she was hagning out around the campfire and not riding.  All told, Cindy went out about 20 minutes after Dave finished.  Unfortunately, Cindy's luck was about to get worse as both her handlbar light and her headlamp failed on her ride.  She was able to borrow a battery from another rider that allowed her to finish the lap.   After Cindy, Simon rode again without incident...maybe we should have let him ride all night, as it turns out...

I headed out feeling good at about 10:45 PM.  I had good nutrition, good hydration, good energy reserves, perfect clothing for the cold night time temps, and for the first time was feeling like this was the year the race was coming easy to me.  I estimated a 1:45 lap based on my earlier lap.  As I crested the 3rd "Bitch" I came up behind a group of cyclists following a large pickup that was clearly there for race support.  I did not have long to consider why the pickup had slowed us all down when I saw a helicopter that had taken off from further up the course, out of view behind the later "Bitches."  I was told after my lap that a rider had crashed severly on the aforementioned rut at the base of the 4th "Bitch."  Many of you know of my issues with fainting, so thank goodness the mess was gone before I arrived.  In any event, on I rode.  Again, things were going great and I was really cruising through the single track on the "corral" section of the course.  In fact, maybe I was getting a little too confident...as I rode through my least favorite section of the trail, the "His and Hers" section I stopped to assist a woman who was having trouble with her dropped chain.  This only took a minute, however my rhythm was broken.  100 yards later I came to the famous "brain" cactus which marks the start of a short section of roller coaster like trail with tight turns on desert hardpack.  Needless to say, the trail turned a sharp left and I lost the trail...I went straight...straight ahead and straight off the bike.  Fortunately no injuries other than emotional (who saw that?)  I decided that I would take that opportunity to collect myself, have a cliff block, relieve my bladder and get going.  I rode through the arches parking lot, hit the "Junebug" section and started to get my mojo back.  From this point it is a sustained non-technical climb of 2-3 miles, and then a sweeping 1 mile descent to the the finish- and I have done this trail enough to know exactly the cadence I can sustain to get me through.  I was all but home free, ready for a beer and then a good 4 hour nap until perhaps a morning ride.  Then the hammer dropped in the form of my own light failure.  I only ride with  a handlebar light, but do carry a headlamp for emergencies, and this definitely qualified.  I strapped on the Petzl LED headlamp and climbed back in the saddle.  Unfortunately I discovered that the white LED's provide absolutely no contrast on the trail and I had to slow down to about 25% of my pace to avoid rocks and the like on approximately the last 3 miles.  Finally I arrived at the tent after a 2 hour lap!

Out went Javier and amazingly, his lights failed as well!  3 of our 5 team members lost lights at night...in my previous 4 years no one on any of my teams has lost a light...I guess our number was up.  In any event, despite the slow night laps we still managed to keep a rider out at all times, and finished at noon on Sunday with 15 laps.  Very close to the finish is what is referred to as the "rock option" and the picture is of Dave coming down the rock on our final lap.

All in all this was a great year despite the technical difficulties.  Cindy is an awesome captain (and a good sport for letting us tease her about the spreadsheet!), and Javier, Dave and Simon are teammates beyond compare!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Last shot at the sun...

...for now...Today I dropped my dedicated Hydrogen Alpha telescope off at Lunt Solar Systems for a pressure tuner upgrade.  Originally these scopes were built with a mechanism which allowed the user to tune the etalon filter by turning a small thumb-wheel.  More recently, Andy Lunt made a great technological advance in tuning technology by developing an air pressure tuning system.  Once I have the new system installed I will write more about it, however, you can certainly research it yourself on the Lunt website above.

Seeing conditions today were below average with a somewhat turbulent upper atmosphere and 15 mph winds here at the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  This made seeing fine detail more difficult although with patience, several active regions and filaments were observed.

Instrument: Lunt 60mm Ha/BF1200
Eyepiece: Baader Hyperion Zoom at 16mm

Time of sketch 1630-1715 UT February 15, 2010
Solar Diameter: 32.38'
Carrington Rotation: 2093

Lots of curving filaments were visible in Active Region (AR) 11047- which in the sketch above is the AR to the south. Left to right (west to east) in the northern portion of the sketch are AR's 11045, 11046, and 11048. AR 11048 was clearly the brightest of the bunch.  Not many prominences were observed today, but there were some visible associated with AR 11045.  Just for kicks, I thought that the picture to the right, taken today by the SOHO satellite a couple hours before my observation, would be interesting. 

Monday, February 8, 2010

Observing at last ~ Mars!

It has been awhile since my last post, as the weather here in Tucson has been quite wet, limiting observing opportunities.  In addition, I have been busy with my "training" for the 24 hours in the Old Pueblo mountain bike race which is happening this coming weekend.  Finally, Beth and I escaped Tucson this past weekend to the winter wonderland that is Flagstaff.  We had just enough time to do a little snowshoeing and skiing before returning to Tucson.

Tonight the atmosphere proved to be quite stable and the sky was fairly dark with no moon during my observation of Mars.  As during recent observations, the North polar cap is bright, although it is noticeably smaller than several weeks ago.  The proceeding limb is quite bright tonight (on the left in the sketch) and the following limb (on the right) also shows distinctly bright regions, with the brightest being just below the polar cap.  As an interesting aside, since the opposition of Mars on 1/29, it is taking the light from Mars .2 minutes longer to reach us, or about 12 more seconds!

Instrument: TEC 140mm APO
Time of sketch 0325 UT, Feb. 9, 2010
Central Meridian: 358.8
RA: 8h 37m 35s Dec: 4 deg 54' 10"

Illumination: 100%      Magnitude: -1.1
Distance: .681 AU (5.7 light mins.)      Size: 13.8 arcseconds

Comparing my sketch to the Mars A.L.P.O. Albedo Map, I believe that the dark feature to the upper right is Mare Acidalium; the extremely bright region following Mare Acidalium is Eden; the dark feature to the lower right is Mare Erythraeum; the dark area near the bottom on the central meridian is Solis Lacus, with the extension to the left of Solis Lacus being Aonius Sinus.