Thursday, February 21, 2013

Snow at the Observatory!

It is true!  Yesterday Tucson saw it's most significant snowfall in several years.  While the Catalina mountains outside of Tucson receive many inches of snow every year (and are home to the nations southern most ski-lift), the Tucson valley receives only a dusting every few years.  Last night driving home through the foothills from a late dinner, was quite like the days when I lived in Colorado. Snow was blowing into the windshield faster than the wipers could handle and the road surface and lane lines were barely visible.  As soon as I got home I took the picture at left, which is only impressive if you have lived in Tucson.  You can see how much snow was falling and beginning to accumulate on the ground.

This morning I went outside to take a few pictures as I knew the couple inches of snow would quickly melt off and the "blizzard of 2013" would be only a memory.  (And yes, residents with a smartphone actually received a blizzard warning yesterday from the NWS!).  Again, these pictures are most impressive to individuals who have lived in Tucson or nearby.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Great Orion Nebula...again...

I have two telescopes that I use at the Lost Pleiad Observatory: a 140mm apochromatic triplet refractor (my 40th birthday present to myself), and a 12 inch Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope (SCT).  The refractor is hands down the better instrument, as it excels in all aspects of visual and photographic astronomy.  It delivers top of the line contrast, sharpness, and by design has an unobstructed light path.  Having a central obstruction as well as two mirrors that must be collimated and that take a couple hours to reach ambient temperature, the SCT is a compromise of sorts.  The image quality is not as perfect as the refractor,  but it does gather a tremendous amount of light- making it much better for hunting down faint fuzzy galaxies and planetary nebula.  You can read more about my equipment by clicking the equipment link at the top of the page.

As I only have one pier in the observatory  I tend to leave one telescope mounted for about a month or so, and then switch to the other telescope for a month or so...this gives me opportunities to use both during each season.  I have had the refractor mounted for the past two months, so tonight I made the switch and moved the 12 inch SCT onto the mount.  I spent about 2 hours enjoying the crisp, clear night air and decided to snap an image of the Great Orion Nebula through the 12 inch.  The image below is a single 20 second exposure, taken with my Canon T2i at ISO 1600, and acquired using the program BackyardEOS.  In case you are curious, the telescope has a focal length of 3045mm and is f/10.  The only processing I did in Photoshop was to slightly sharpen the image, and to adjust the levels slightly.  Despite not checking the collimation of the telescope and  not polar aligning the mount, the result is pretty cool...and also reflective of the time and desire that I have to spend taking astrophotos.  Call me old fashioned, but I still enjoy looking through the eyepiece.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Science Matters - Solar goosebumps

Does science matter?  What is our place in the Universe?  Are we all made of stardust?

Watch the incredible video below and once the goosebumps go away see how many questions you have...

(Watch it in HD with the volume on)

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Bee's Knees

Since may grandmother passed away in mid-January, I have been busy with work and life and have not really taken enough time to do the personal things that I enjoy, such as spending time in my backyard observatory.  Last weekend, while watching the Superbowl (about the only pro football game I watch in its entirety all season) Beth pointed out our front window and said "look at all those flies out there."  I looked up and realized that from our distance, we would not see flies that well...what we were seeing was a swarm of bees coming into our yard from the east.  I quickly grabbed my camera and snapped the image below from inside our house, looking through the front window.  Not the best way to take a picture mind you, but it came out well.  Partly a testament to the camera sensor, but also a testament to the new Canon 40 mm f/2.8 pancake lens that I recently purchased.  I am not a lens reviewer but what I can say is that it takes very sharp images at a nice image scale.  Anyway, back to the bees.  Click the image to enlarge it and you can see the outline of some of the bees.

My suspicion is that when I took this picture that more than half the swarm had already passed and settled into the palo verde tree on the right of the frame.  As the Superbowl was not totally capturing my attention, I started to search the internet for information on bee swarms, having heard that most of the bees in this area are Africanized (as the media would call them "Killer Bees").  Given the importance of bees as pollinators and key facilitators in our ecosystem, there is no shortage of information online about bees- and if it is on the internet, it must be true!  Most of the information I found quickly indicated that a swarm, if undisturbed, would likely move along in 2-3 days to their new hive location.  The swarm is a subset of bees from a hive, that set off with a queen bee to establish a new hive.  Swarming is essentially part of the bees reproductive cycle- and as the bees are not protecting young or food stores, they are believed to be somewhat docile in the swarming phase, as long as you do not disturb them.  Below is a picture that my son Ian took of the swarm hanging off the tree on the third day of residence.

Given the detail in the picture above, I was curious if I could find information that would assist me in identifying whether these bees were Africanized or not.  As it turns out, it is extremely difficult to tell if a bee is Africanized as they appear virtually identical to non-Africanized bees.  Generally, Africanized bees are slightly smaller, have shorter forewing length and femurs (yes, the bee's knees!) and weigh slightly less.  If you are scientifically curious, you can read this article on identification.  The chart at left is from Texas A & M University and is a nice visual that shows just how similar the size of the bees are.

While most of the information on the internet indicated that the bees would likely move on after 2-3 days, I have since spoken with about a half dozen friends and co-workers who have had swarms in their yards and they all have indicated that the swarms only moved on after 7-10 days! So we are patiently waiting and enjoying this natural process in our front yard.  I am a bit concerned as the temperatures this weekend are predicted to drop just below freezing for three nights in a row- and that could spell problems for the several thousand bees in the swarm.