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!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Occultation of Venus

Yesterday, observers in North America were treated to a rare celestial alignment as the waning crescent moon passed in front of Venus.  At approximately 9:23 AM Venus was covered by the illuminated edge of the moon as it (the moon) slowly trekked eastward across our sky.  I had my eye on the sky all morning in anticipation of this event and did not think I would get to see it as the sky had a thick covering of cirrus even before sunrise.

If I have learned one thing in my life as an amateur astronomer, it is much better to attempt to make a trip or an observation in the face of uncertain weather,than to throw in the towel in advance.  It is weather after all- it is unpredictable.  Countless times I have awoken during the night to make an observation that others skipped because it was overcast when they went to bed...and certainly I have driven 16 hours to a star party and been clouded out for 4 nights! (Texas Star Party).

In this spirit, I loaded up my binoculars, camera, lens, extender and tripod into a backpack and took them to work with me...At 8:30 AM I looked outside and the sky was a mess in the area where the moon would be.  So much so that I went back inside and nearly forgot about the occultation.  At 9:15 I remembered it was about to happen and grabbed my equipment and ran outside.  Sure enough, the haze had thinned just to the point where I could barely see the moon! It was difficult to focus and I was in a terrible hurry to catch Venus before it disappeared, yet I managed to get the image below.  It is nothing to write home about, but considering the effort I went to observe this occultation, I figured it deserved a post!

My friend and comrade in astronomy Dean Ketelsen has a very nice post on his blog with better images of the occulation.  In addition, Dale Cupp (also a friend and a volunteer who works with me) took the amazing image below through his 11-inch telescope.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trident Missile Test from Portal, AZ!

This past weekend I spent in Portal, AZ for what was again a spectacular 4 nights of observing with great friends.  The skies are wickedly dark, and when the atmosphere cooperates, some among us can see stars around magnitude 7.2 - 7.3 at zenith!  Over the years the El Paso light dome has grown slightly to where it can be seen faintly rising about 5 degrees above the southeastern horizon.  It does not impact observing in any fashion, yet it is a stark reminder that even in the proverbial middle of nowhere, our dark skies are a diminishing resource.

The two images of the milky way seen here are each a 30 second shot- taken with my Canon 6d and a Rokinon 14mm wide angle lens.  (At left, you can see my very sexy TEC 140 posing with the Milky Way.)  The picture below was taken with the camera tracking the stars on my Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount.

As pretty much everyone has heard, there was a Trident Missile (ICBM) test conducted off the coast of Huntington Beach, CA on Saturday night.  While this is approximately 525 miles northwest of Portal, AZ, the test lit up the sky to the point where the milky way was nearly invisible!  The expanding cloud of vapor from the test rose at least 40 degrees into the sky and appeared to be rather layered.  As we later learned, the layers were caused by the separating stages of the rocket as it rose into the upper atmosphere.  Anyway, after watching this military muscle flexing freak show for a few moments, it occurred to me that I should take a picture of I ran and grabbed my camera and quickly tried to capture it before the missile itself disappeared behind the Chiricauhua mountains just to our west.  Below is an image that represents what we saw, and given how quickly I was trying to get the camera on tripod and working, came out better than I deserved!  I got several more, but this one has a little of everything from the stars to the layers of vapor to the missile itself.  Be sure to click to enlarge it (and this is reduced in size for the blog...thanks Google!)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lunar Eclipse

By now, there have been many images of the Total Lunar Eclipse this past Sunday circulating around the internet.  I was leading a public eclipse observing group of about 75 folks so taking pictures was not my primary objective for the evening...yet, I did try and capture some between talking about the eclipse, debunking the "blood moon" nonsense, and generally just enjoying the warm fall evening.

Two images below, one of the partial phase prior to totality, and one image from near totality.  These were taken with my Canon 6D and a 70-200mm f/4 set to 200mm with a 1.4 extender.  There was a slight breeze and I wish I had more time to play with the camera as I would have set the ISO a bit higher in order to capture images a bit faster (resulting in sharper images).   As things were, the images near totality was a 2 second exposure.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hawkish behavior

No, this is not a post about politics or the Presidential campaigning shenanigans that we are already suffering on a daily basis here in the U.S.A.  Rather, it is a post to share some pictures of juvenile Red-Tailed hawks that I took yesterday on the summit of Mount Lemmon at Steward Observatory's field station.  I had spent the better part of the day on the mountain working as we had a group of students from Catalina Foothills School District visiting us at the UA Sky School (you can see pictures here).  Following the students departure there was a group of three hawks that were playing near the summit.

The hawks often circle overhead, floating on the laminar airflow that rises over the western summit ridge line and flows to the east.  Sometimes they can 'surf' the air current and appear nearly motionless overhead for 10-20 seconds, or longer.  (It is this same laminar airflow that is a factor in our frequently excellent astronomical seeing conditions).  Below is an image of one of these hawks 'surfing' taken with my Canon 6d and a 70-200 mm lens at the 200 mm setting.  The exposure was 1/1600 of second at ISO 100, with an aperture of f/4.5.  Click on it for the full size image.

The picture below shows two of the hawks playing- the one on the left had landed in the tree and was then dive bombed by the one on the right.  I took the image a fraction of a second too late as I was hoping to get the hawk on the left still in the tree looking at the incoming hawk.  Both of these pictures are crops from the center of the original image but have not been reduced in size. (EDIT: Apparently, however, Blogger does compress them...)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Zodiacal light

As I catch up at work and attempt to at least get my desktop organized (the Windows desktop on my laptop that is...) I found this image of the Zodiacal light that I took out in Portal Arizona this past winter.  I had just acquired a new Canon 6D and a small German Equatorial tracking mount to take long exposures of the sky...It is a fun image with the Milky way on the right running parallel to the Zodiacal light on the left.  Brian Koberlein published a nice explanation of the Zodiacal light on his blog, check it out.

I actually did not set out to take pictures of the Zodialcal light, but was just trying to practice using the camera-mount system as it darkened, in preparation to take pictures of Comet Lovejoy.  I do not remember the details of this capture at all, other than it was 90 seconds at ISO 1600, and I suspect I was using my 14mm Rokinon wide angle lens.  If you look at the upper part of the image, just to the leftt of the Milky Way, you can see the Andromeda Galaxy.  The light dome above the horizon is likely Sierra Vista, and is invisible to the naked eye.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Here Kitty, Kitty

A quick post to share another of the local denizens...this bobcat was wondering through the yard on the 4th of July, and by the time I grabbed my camera the cat had headed across the street...Having no time to change lenses either, this was shot with the Canon 24-105L, at the 105mm setting.  Below is a crop from the center 20 percent or so of the original image.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Beep Beep!!

Wow...I avoided going 4 months between posts by two days!  I really need to prioritize posting more frequently but between an amazing job that has me working nearly every day between March 15 and May 30, spending my few free days with the family, and trying to learn to play guitar in between...well, the blog has just fallen off my radar.

I am working today so will keep this short and sweet.  This morning, I awoke to the noisy fellow below making a racket as s/he used our backyard as his (her?) personal hunting grounds and dining facility.  A quick search online and I learned that there is no easy way to identify the gender of the Greater Roadrunner from looks alone.  This particular noise monger is likely a juvenile, given the gray color of his facial skin.  When the roadrunner matures its facial skin becomes colored red and blue.  In any event, despite the cacophony, this young bird (in the cuckoo family) was obviously happy and satiated (shout out to the memory of the fence lizard) and did not at all mind me coming within about 10 feet for a picture.  He did not, however, agree to a selfie with me.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

Comet C/2104 Q2 Lovejoy has been putting on quite a show for observers in the northern hemisphere for the last month, and as the moon begins to wane there are again a few hours after sunset to observe this beautiful comet.  I had not taken a good look at Lovejoy since the last new moon weekend when I was camping with friends in Portal, AZ and the comet was very near the Pleiades in Taurus.  Tonight it was very near the bright star Almach in the constellation Andromeda and made for a very pretty sight in both binoculars and in my TEC 140mm refractor.

I recently acquired my first full frame DSLR, a Canon 6D, and below is a 120 second exposure of the comet at ISO 800 taken through the telescope.  I had to stretch the image a bit to bring out the tail, but it was visible with averted vision in the eyepiece.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

16 Candles

This was an exciting week on the home front, as Thursday marked Ian's 16th birthday!  The years are definitely flowing by quickly and I am thankful that we have so many great memories, from what feels like such a short period of time.  Over the past 16 years, we have been very fortunate to be able to take trips nearly every year.  Just thinking of the trips we have taken, we have visited: Arizona, the Navajo Nation, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington (and the San Juan Islands), Colorado, Utah, North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Washington DC and well as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and St. Kitts...I am sure I am missing some.  I can't imagine where our adventures together over the next 16 years will take us, but I am looking forward to them tremendously.

Just a couple pictures from one of the celebrations we have had this week are below (hey, when you are 16 you get to celebrate a few times!)...with the disclaimer that I just purchased a new camera and I do not have a flash...and as I did not prepare to take the pictures they are also handheld which is a challenge in low light.

Now, if someone could help me figure out, how I have a 16 year old son, when I am only 29 years old myself...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Solar flashback and why I am not an astrophotographer

One reason I am not a serious astrophotographer: Patience.

I enjoy taking some casual images of bright targets such as the Sun, moon, or a planet but I rely heavily on being able to process these images in a quick and efficient fashion.  I do not have the motivation or desire to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of varied software packages to create astronomical images of the highest quality.  Many call my approach to obtaining a nice image "lucky imaging."  At left is a single shot of the Sun taken back on October 23rd when we had the largest sunspot in 24 years near the center of the Solar disc.  On the same day I made a video (AVI) recording of the Sun using my ASI120MC astronomical video camera in the hopes of stacking multiple frames to achieve a sharp, high resolution image.  Below is the AVI file as captured.

This is where the story takes a long break.  Back in the fall I broke down (and nearly went broke...emotionally and economically...) and purchased a new laptop.  I had a very nice 5 year old laptop that was still humming along quite well, yet technology has improved dramatically and doing a lot more work on the go I wanted something a bit lighter than the old 5+ pound beast.  I did my research, moved through periods of analysis-paralysis, wavered on what features I was looking for, and ended up with a Samsung Ativ Book 9 plus.  It is a very nice laptop and I only have two issues that remain.  One is Windows 8.1 which I can't do anything about, and the other is that the display has a resolution of  3200 x 1800 pixels, in a 13-inch class screen.  While this produces stunningly sharp images and can be useful in processing photos, it is somewhat of an annoyance in that several software programs do not always display properly and one can end up with text that is so small as to render it unreadable even with reading (magnifiers) glasses!  There are work arounds and settings that can be tweaked and for the most part things can be set effectively.

Two specific examples that are driving me nuts are Registax 6 and Adobe Camera Raw, both of which I use in the image processing I do.  Registax is used to align and stack multiple frames from AVI recordings (of say the Sun) and is just not displaying properly or working properly on the new laptop.  I have been fighting it since the fall and as a result have not been able to process a single AVI file.  I have known this day was coming but I finally decided to try another program and this morning downloaded and made a first attempt using a freeware program called Autostakkert2!  It seems to work fine, but does not contain the wavelet sharpening tools that Registax does.  Fortunately that functionality of Registax is still usable.  I Also will try a program called Avistack to see which I like better.

Adobe is particularly frustrating in that I was able to get Photoshop to display in a small but reasonable fashion, yet when opening a raw file the window does not display at the proper settings. See the image below and compare the text (not the title bar, but the controls) in the raw window to the application window in the background.

In any event, back to the AVI file I captured back on October 23rd.  Using Autostakkert2! this morning, I did stack and align the best 50% of the frames (out of about 1000) and then use the wavelet filters in Registax to create an image.  While not perfect, you can immediately see it is sharper than the single shot at the top of the post.  I think I can do better as I learn to use AutoStakkert2! (or Avistack) but at least I am back in business with AVI files.  Jupiter season is here, we have a bright comet in the sky, and stacking images is a must to capture these sights!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year and Anniversaries!

My Lost Pleiad
2015 is here and with it comes the 5th anniversary of this blog.  I began on January 1st, 2010 (inspired by my friend Dean Ketelesen) with two posts, including this one detailing the inspiration and story of the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  While 2014 saw the least amount of blogging, I do hope to bear down and do more writing this year-  Life certainly has no shortage of material for the blog.

In addition to the blog anniversary, it is also our 19th wedding anniversary!  I am reaching that point in life where despite how long 19 years seems looking forward, it feels like an instant looking in retrospect.  Hairs are graying, my dear son is about to turn 16 and there is an increasing realization that every moment matters.  I look at my lovely and wife and (increasingly GQ) son and know that I am amazingly fortunate.

In addition to being the first day of 2015, I believe that in all my years in Tucson, Arizona this is the first time I recall snow on New Years day!  Yes, you read that right, we awoke to a dusting of snow this morning.  True to most snowfalls in Tucson, it only takes 2-3 hours of sunshine to erase all traces of this beautiful event, but nonetheless it was an awesome anniversary and New Year's present.

Cosmo, our dog (he had that name when we adopted him 11 years ago), let me know at sunrise that it was time for him to go play in the snow.  He has seen snow before, traveling with me to Mount Lemmon and something about it gets him riled up to play like a puppy.  He also let me know that I do not give him enough attention on the blog, so without further ado, here he is enjoying himself in the white stuff.

Finally, here is a picture I had taken a few weeks back from the 7 Cataracts Vista on the Catalina Highway.  It is looking over Thimble Peak towards sunset and just to the left of Thimble Peak you can just make out the dome of the  Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory on the most distant ridge.

Happy New Year!