Observatory 12: Griffith

In my last entry I described the day I arrived in Los Angeles, including my visit to the California Science Center. That was a Wednesday, August 29, 2018. The next day, according to my journal and my now vague memories, was spent doing laundry, getting groceries, and watching Netflix, a luxury with which I was pretty unfamiliar at the time. Doing laundry was also a luxury, as I didn’t have the opportunity during my week in Arizona, and my last attempt was that time in New Orleans when the machine flooded the kitchen in my apartment. Good times. This was a much better experience than that, entirely without incident. But that’s not why you’re here reading this! So let me tell you about the next day.

Griffith Observatory – Short Form

Here’s what I wrote in my journal a week after I left L.A., then I’ll add some details after that.

Griffith Observatory [is a] classic science center from the 1930s with a huge underground gallery added in 2003. Saw the sky show and got to look through the 12″ Zeiss refractor at Saturn. View was nominal, expected for look over LA, but still glad to have done. Four moons visible, Cassini Division, disk shadow. Stood in line with Gita, a science teacher from India. She was fairly knowledgeable about many things, some more than me, some less. She had never seen a planet through a telescope. I think she was a little disappointed at 175x, but that’s how it goes. There were a lot of people there, which is heartening. Lots of adults.

My Journal, 9/5/2018

Griffith Observatory – Long Form

The Approach

I’m sad that I didn’t write more in my journal, and I’m sad that I haven’t written up my memories before now, because things are getting pretty foggy after two years. But let’s see what we can do here. I was not really familiar with Griffith before going there, so I didn’t know what I was getting into. Well, that’s not entirely right. I had explored the website, of course, so I knew it wasn’t a research facility. And I knew that they had public telescope viewing every clear night. What more do you need to know? Let’s go! Sundown was about 7:30 p.m. local. Since I wanted to do the viewing, I knew it would be a late evening before getting home. Consequently, I wasn’t in a hurry to get there when the doors opened.

It wasn’t very far from my apartment to Griffith, about six miles, but decided to take a Lyft. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon. My driver was an interesting young man, a musician and song writer, as it turned out (hence a Lyft driver?). When I told him I was a pastor on sabbatical, he said he was a PK (“preacher’s kid”) and had learned his love of music in the church. That was cool. So after that pleasant drive, I was in the parking lot. The Griffith is a beautiful building to begin with, but there’s also the view. Griffith Park is in what I think is the Hollywood hills. One reason I think this is you can see the Hollywood sign just opposite the observatory! It was surprising to me to have these lovely, rugged, sort of wilderness hills overlooking one of the most populous cities in the world.

Art Deco. Very nice!

The observatory itself is, again, the beautiful, white, art deco building with a decorative dome and planetarium dome in the center and observing domes on either end. There is a monument in front, also art deco in style, commemorating six great historical astronomers. The approach to the front door also has markers in the sidewalk showing the scale distances of the orbits of the solar system planets. There were quite a number of people of all ages milling about outside, making their way in or out. I was excited to see the inside, because the outside was such a pleasant start.

Remember the Buhl!

Inside, the Griffith Observatory is a classic planetarium. High ceilings, subdued lighting, two main wings for displays and the planetarium / sky show theatre in the back. It reminds me of the Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh that I loved when I was a kid. Another similarity is the Foucault pendulum in the lobby. This is a 19th century experiment in which a pendulum, free to swing in any direction, with a very long cable for its arm and a large bob demonstrates the rotation of the earth. The pendulum thinks it is traveling in a the same plane with each swing and wants to do so, but it is actually moving in a slight arc as the earth turns under the pendulum. This is proven by a circle of little pegs set up on the floor that the pendulum very slowly knocks down every so incrementally.

Anyway, the one wing had a variety of telescope models, replicas, and displays including a replica of Galileo’s telescope and a Faraday cage with a big Tesla coil, and the other had various science-y alcoves, ending with displays about the sun. This part is under the solar observatory/coelostat in one of the two domes on the roof. There is a large screen showing an image of the sun’s surface, which unfortunately was blank because the sun was in the minimum phase of its 11-year activity cycle. I enjoyed exploring all these displays for some time.

I took in the sky show in the Oschin Planetarium at about 6pm, as I recall. It was a pretty standard planetarium show with digital images, star patterns, and whatnot projected on the dome with dulcet narration. I don’t really remember the content, just the pleasant contentment of sitting in the big comfy reclining seat in the dim light, digging on the science, and feeling nostalgic about the whole planetarium experience. I always love the giant spider projectors, again, going back to Buhl Planetarium in my childhood, and more recently in the Hopkins Observatory in Williamstown. This one, like many such, is made by Zeiss.

The Zeiss star projector in the Oschin Planetarium, not quite as buglike as the older ones were.

Space, Underground

Had I visited Griffith in my youth, that is all I might have found. Some years ago (2002-2006), though, they underwent a major renovation by adding an enormous gallery and a second theatre underground! They actually have a movie about this in the underground Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, which I watched dutifully and enthusiastically. It was a fantastic engineering project! They didn’t want to change the beautiful original art deco building, and since it is perched on the edge of a hill, there was no room to expand outward. Their only option was to go down. So they had to figure out how to dig out a cavernous space under the building while artificially supporting said building so it wouldn’t fall into the new hole. This they did successfully! The result more than doubled the size of the facility. 

The Big Picture in the grand gallery downstairs. It shows a bit of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies.

Much of this space is given to the cosmos beyond earth, so the solar system (displays about each of the planets and whatnot, with scale models hanging from the ceiling) and beyond to far-flung galaxies and discussion of cosmology. The entire back wall is a single photographic reproduction of a section of sky that includes the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. According to my notes and a short film telling about it on the floor of the gallery, it is the largest such astronomic reproduction in the world and includes millions of galaxies and hundreds of thousands of foreground stars. The whole area on the sky can be hidden by your thumb at arm’s length. This is brought home by a sculpture of Einstein sitting on a bench holding up his thumb to do exactly that. It is a remarkable display, and all the more because they have telescopes on the balcony that you can use to look at it as if you were under the night sky. I found this to be very cool, as I have explored that region of sky with my own telescopes.

Into the Night

Sunset was about 7:12 p.m. on September 5, 2018, with astronomical twilight lasting until about 8:30 p.m. I don’t remember if they said when the viewing through the big telescope would begin. I do remember getting something to eat at the Cafe at the End of the Universe (with a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams). I’m not sure if I did this before or after looking through the telescope. I think it must have been before, because the time stamps on my pics shows I was at the telescope at 8:52 p.m., and the cafe closes at 9:00, as does the gift shop. I distinctly remember eating in the cafe and then going to the gift shop for some time. I also remember that there was not much available at the cafe other than grab-and-go stuff like microwave hotdogs, which I think is what I had. This was somewhat disappointing as meals go, especially since the cafe is listed under WolfgangPuck.com. I also remember that some staff person was mopping the floor and putting chairs up. My reconstruction is that I was eating at around 8:00, well after the dinner rush. It was a disappointing meal, as I said, also because I was really hungry. It had been pretty long since lunch, and I had been burning a lot of calories in walking and braining. Afterward, as I said, I went to the gift shop where I bought some refrigerator magnets and not much more. At this point I was still thinking I didn’t want to get too many t-shirts, because I had very limited carrying space. Eventually, I gave up on that, as I was able to pack more and more efficiently with every move. But really, this isn’t very important, is it? Let’s get on with it, shall we?

It was in fact dark by 8:30 p.m. when I emerged on the roof. The sky was clear and full of light pollution from the remarkable lights of Los Angeles. The city (at least its downtown) is like a lonely mountain in the middle of plain. Just a flat grid of lights all leading to a central peak of skyscrapers. It is kind of pretty, but of course it blots out all but the brightest stars and planets. The line for viewing through the 12″ Zeiss refractor was long enough but not depressingly so. I fell in, and it took about 20 minutes. As I mentioned above in my journal entry, I got to talking with a science teacher from India named Gita who was ahead of me in line. It took me quite a while to realize she was from India, because she had virtually no discernible accent. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, except that she was well versed in earth sciences but had never seen a planet through a telescope. I remember being eager to engage and encourage her about astronomy, and also feeling somewhat rebuffed. I wish I’d written more down at the time. Otherwise, there were quite a lot of people in line or milling about on the roof. It was a very pleasant night weather-wise, and there was a pleasant atmosphere among the museum patrons, with lots of lighthearted banter and the murmur of many energetic conversations going on at once.

The target for the evening was Saturn, which was high in the southern sky. Venus and Jupiter were low in the west and close to setting if not already set by 8:30. Mars was rising over the city. As you may recall, it was near its close approach but had been covered by a global dust storm since the end of spring. That left Saturn as the best candidate, and let’s face it, Saturn is always a good candidate. The line made its way into the observatory dome and wrapped around and up a narrow wooden staircase to the eyepiece. Staff were stationed here and there to direct and assist, and while I seem to remember someone being at the top of the steps, my pictures show that wasn’t the case. Huh. Anyway, one would go up to the eyepiece, get in a good look, then come back down and head to the exit, and then the next person would go.

The Zeiss 12″ refractor, looking as much like an antiaircraft gun or laser turret as weapon of scientific inquiry.

The Zeiss refractor is a 12″ diameter tube, about 16 feet long (f/16, I guess). It has a variety of other scopes mounted with it for guiding, spotting, and additional views, whatnot. The whole lot is on an equatorial fork mount, kind of. As noted above, the view of Saturn was, well, standard and adequate. Since Yerkes I had been tempering my expectations, and what would one expect of heavily light-polluted skies over a major metropolis? So, the seeing wasn’t great, kind of wavy. The magnification was 175x, which I can often beat at home. On the other hand, it is a 12″ refractor, so lots of photons to look at, which makes for a brighter image, which probably counters the light pollution some. Plus, it’s the Griffith Observatory Zeiss refractor, which is said to have had more humans look through it than any other telescope in the world. That makes it worth being on my list.

After admiring the view of Saturn for a minute or so and then the view of Los Angeles for a while, I decided to call it a night. I made my way to the parking lot and called for a Lyft, which was also true of about a few hundred of my close Griffith friends, or so it seemed. Anyway, it was pretty crowded. While I waited for my ride, I could hear the sounds of baseball from the valley below, which was I guess coming from Dodgers Stadium, about 5 miles away. It sounded like it was just over the hill from me. My Lyft driver had to make a couple passes, as I didn’t see him on the first one. We eventually connected, though, and had a quiet ride back to my abode, as he was pretty much the opposite of the driver I had on the way to Griffith. Well, it takes all kinds.

Conclusion

My trip to Griffith was a delight. I thoroughly enjoyed the blend of old and new, nostalgia and innovation on display there, as well as just soaking up the astronomical goodness of it all. I was very pleased to see how many people, and particularly adults, were there, not just for the displays but for the nighttime observing, on a Wednesday. Although I hadn’t been familiar with Griffith before, I am really glad I put it on my list and that I got to look through their historic Zeiss refractor. With the possible exception of those hot dogs for dinner, it was a wonderful experience.

To see the rest my pictures from the Griffith, click >HERE<.

My First Wide Field Astrophotos

After the encounter with the Pretty Good Comet of 2020, F3 NEOWISE, and not getting any good pictures of it, I got it in my head to get DSLR camera so I could do wide field astrophotography. That means wide shots of the sky that look sort of like what you see with your eyes, not a closeup through a telescope. The idea wouldn’t go away, even though the comet did. So I set out to find something used and useable that I could afford, something that would be good for a beginner and with enough capacity to grow with me for a while. After a few weeks of research and shopping online, I found a Nikon D3100 body in great condition for what seemed to be a reasonable price. After a misfire, I found an AF-S 18-55mm DX f/3.5-5.4 zoom lens, also in great shape, to go with it, and again for not too much money. So off we go.

My Photographer Cred

My dad used to do a lot of photography as a hobby. He even had his own darkroom, developing his own film and printing his own pictures in black and white. My brother was something of a photographer, too, having got in pretty early on the digital revolution with a Canon Rebel, which my daughter now has. While I’ve never owned an SLR before, being around a couple good photographers gave me a general conceptual knowledge of how they work. Plus, I have used plenty of point-and-shoots and have developed a pretty good eye, I’d like to think. Still, actually using a DSLR, and for a specialized brand of night photography, presents a pretty steep learning curve.

Not Gonna Do It

For one thing, on my first attempt, I found that my camera is finicky and stubborn in low light conditions. Even having figured how to set the aperture wide and the shutter speed long in manual mode, I couldn’t convince the D3100 to actually take a picture it was sure would be bad. This led to a great deal of frustration on my part, causing me to question whether I had made a terrible mistake. I managed not to rage quit and instead resigned myself to discover through further study how to be smarter than my camera. Reading the owner’s manual seemed a good first step, but before too long I got bored and did an interweb search for my problem.

It turns out the “AF” in the AF-S lens stands for “auto-focus,” which the D3100 takes very seriously. This line of cameras performs auto-focusing with motors in the lens rather than in the camera itself as the lens and camera discuss the shot you are trying to take. Consequently, there is a switch on the side of the lens to go between automatic focus and manual focus. When in auto mode, the camera tries to give the lens all the information it can in order to get a sharp focus. If the camera can’t see well enough to know if the shot will be in focus, it won’t flip the shutter. Putting the lens in manual focus mode solves this problem. The camera still boldly announces that the shot is too dark, but assured by the now-manual lens saying, “I got this,” it allows the picture to go ahead, even though you clearly don’t know what you are doing, in its not so humble opinion. Thanks, internet photography forums! You saved me from having to slog through the boring owner’s manual!

And so it was that, having switched to manual focus, I accidentally took a 20 second exposure of the inside of my lens cap. At first I was confused, because, as noted, the camera was still declaring the shot to be invalid. But having heard the shutter flip, I realized I had broken the code. Actually, taking a “dark frame” is an important part of astrophotograph processing, as it reveals any hot pixels and biases and stuff that the camera and lens may have that can then be subtracted from the final product, or so I’m told. I’m nowhere near ready for that level of postproduction yet. Nevertheless, that first unintentional black picture was the start of something wonderful. I hurried outside with my camera and tripod, found a mostly clear sky (not sure how this was allowed, but I’ll take it), and started taking long, dark pictures of the night sky at 1:00 in the morning.

The Pictures

You can see the whole collection except the dark frame >here< (plus all of what you just read), and I’ll put a few in here directly below. I’m pretty pleased with how they came out straight from the camera. Obviously there is so much more that can be done that I intend to learn, but for the first run, this is pretty cool.

Technical

Most of these shots are 25 seconds long, with a couple at 20 seconds. If you zoom in you can tell there is just a bit of a trail on the 25 second stars, but not so much that you notice it much when zoomed out. As expected, the 20 second exposures have less of that effect, but they are significantly darker. I suppose about 20-25% darker. The 20-25 second figure is a product of what is called the “500 rule” that I read about on a number of websites. Divide 500 by the lens focal length to get the max shutter speed without trailing. For certain types of digital sensors, such as the one in the D3100, you have to adjust for the architecture by using 1.5 x the lens focal length. So I was shooting at 18mm zoom, times 1.5 is 27, and 500 / 27 = 18.5. So I was really going too long at 25 seconds by that calculus. Some folks I read recommended more like 8 seconds, take lots of images, and stack them in processing. That’s a lot of work for a beginner. The other option is to get a tracking mount of some sort that would essentially remove the limit altogether. By following the stars as the earth turns under them, you never get any trails. Well, we may get there eventually, but for now I’ll play with the math.

Observing at Home (mostly) – Comet 2020/F3 NEOWISE – 14-22 July 2020

First of all, the featured image on this post comes from JPL-NASA. It’s Comet NEOWISE over Deer Valley, Utah. I tried to take some pictures of the comet with my phone. They all came out like this:

My 8th image of C2020/F3. Or is it the 6th? Oh, no, that’s right. It’s what EVERY single image I took of the comet looks like!

NASA photos are public domain. Thanks, NASA!

14 July: 21:30-23:00 EDT

Conditions

Warm – 70s; breezy; variable clouds; humidity 35%; seeing average, transparency average-below average

Observations

This is the first naked-eye comet to come our way since… Hale-Bopp 1997? There was McNaught, but it fizzled in the northern hemisphere. And this is just barely naked eye here, but we’ll get to that.

Molly and I went up to the top of the “mountain” at the commuter parking lot on the SE corner at the intersection of Rt 9 and Rt 115. Good clear view to the NW, but looking across the lights of Charles Town/Ranson and under several bright street lights. Several others standing about when we got there, about 9:30 pm. At about 9:40 I spotted the comet in my 10×50 Bushnell binoculars. There was still a good bit of fading sunlight low in the sky, but the comet appeared, as you would expect, just where the sky got dark. It was about 12º above the horizon in the constellation Lynx (as charted later). The head was obvious, bright, and had a slightly brighter center, all fairly compact. A bit of a halo and a long and obvious tail slightly wider than the head. If my binocular field of view is 5º, the tail appeared to be 1.5-2º long, but a good solid 1º any way. The tail was tilted maybe 10º from horizontal, tipping slightly to the east. As night continued to fall, we were both able to see it with our naked eyes. It appeared as a faint, fuzzy strip of white, about “an inch” long (two finger widths at arm’s length), better with averted vision.

My sketch, inverted
View from the top

A family in a pickup was there, and I asked if they had found it. The dad came over, and I showed him where to look. He was excited to see it and went to show the family. It was fun to hear the kids yell, “there it is!” and “oh, wow!” We decided to go down away from the streetlights and stopped on a side road near Rt. 9. The sky was about full dark by then, and the comet stood out better. Still much better with binocs or averted vision, clearly there.

The ISS made a nice pass from SW to NE.

15 July: 21:45 EDT

Saw C2020/F3 from the back deck, low ever the trees in the NW. First with binocs, then vaguely naked eye. Similar in appearance to last night. Near 26 Lynx.

17 July: ~21:15-23:00 EDT

Started the evening with a great pass of the ISS – very cool!

Slightly enhanced photo of humans orbiting earth

As to the comet:

Head and tail seem to be spreading out slightly. Rising eastward night by night. Tail angled higher, maybe 45º to horizon? Streaky clouds.

18 July: ~21:30-23:00 EDT

Neighbors having a bonfire to the south, shooting fireworks to the west. Not helping my observing – the nerve! Any way, C2020/F3 continues to march east. Between the toes of the Big Bear tonight in a beautiful arrangement. Something like this:

A thorn in the Bear’s paw?

Mostly clear, some clouds to the south. “Heat lightning” filling 1/2-1/3 of the sky. Turns out to be from a storm near Staunton and Harrisonburg, 75-100 miles away (120-160 km). Must be a heck of a storm.

19 July: ~21:45 EDT

Saw it briefly through clouds, which soon overwhelmed.

20 July: 22:10 EDT

Conditions

warm – upper 70s; humid; variable clouds – 10-40%; new moon

Observations

Another triangular setting; inverting didn’t work as well on this on, so….

About 25º above horizon, visible naked eye in Ursa Major. Angled at about 12:45 ~ 20º from vertical? Tail is wider and longer looking, 3-4º long visible in binoculars. It fades a lot toward the “open” end, giving a suggestion that there is more out there. The head is wider and more uniform than before.

22 July: 21:30-23:00 EDT

Conditions

warm – upper 60s-lower 70s; very damp after rain; no moon (2 days old); seeing good, transparency, no so good; some clouds, then fewer, then more

Equipment

10×50 Bushnell binoculars; Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ f/10 SCT

Observations

Arrangement (above);
Binocular view (below)

It was clear enough after an afternoon of heavy rain to try the scope on C2020/F3, which was visible naked eye (averted) over the trees from the deck, and clearly visible with binoculars. About 3º NE (straight up) from 𝛌-UMa. So that µ-𝛌-F3 made a right triangle with 𝛌 at the corner. The tail still looks pretty solid for about 3º in binocs, but with the sense that it goes further. It is still fairly compact laterally, broadening slightly as it stretches from the nucleus. It’s a little stronger on the northern edge.

As for views in the C8 NexStar, it was not a great improvement over binoculars. There is a bright, tiny nucleus, then a much larger coma that is pretty even for maybe 0.2º (based on 0.8º field of view in 32 mm eyepiece at 62.5x). The coma then fades gradually for quite a ways, so that it is hard to say where it ends. The tail went off to the east mostly.

I did have the experience of seeing a gap or a dark patch with averted vision, at the edge of the uniform coma. This gap/patch would move around depending on where I looked. Not sure if it was an illusion or an actual feature. I found a graphic of comet structure online that showed a gap between the coma and the surrounding hydrogen envelope. If that’s a thing, that might be what I saw.

Telescopic view, annotated

I first found the comet in the scope at around 21:45, then went in for a bit to finish watching the finale of the Great British Baking Show, season 5, with Molly. We both then came out at maybe 22:15, and F3 was no longer centered in the field of view but was about 1/3 from the top — not a lot of motion, but noticeable! It could be because of the tracking on the telescope, but that seemed to be pretty steady across the rest of the night. So I presume it was the actual motion of the comet. Neat!

Astromechanics in action

I eventually tried higher magnification just to see how it looked – 9mm eyepiece at 222x – a big jump from 62.5x. It did not improve the view. It really didn’t look that much different except that the fuzziness of the coma filled the field of view. Probably should have tried a lower magnification, like 50x with 40mm, but I didn’t. Sue me. About then, a bank of clouds started creeping up from the west, and it wasn’t long before the comet was enveloped and disappeared.

Other stuff

I pressed on for a bit with a few other objects. Sky&Telescope had had a feature article about M101 (face-on spiral galaxy) not long ago. I’ve never had much luck observing it, even with the 25″ scope in New Mexico (2010). I’ve been trying to see it with my binoculars all summer with no success. But I thought I’d give it a try. The GOTO went and found… nothing. I poked around some but still saw nothing. You’d think an enormous galaxy would at least give you a hint of its existence. I mean, Messier saw it with a tiny telescope, right? I tried M51 (face-on, interacting spiral galaxy), which I know I can see with this scope, just to make sure all was well, and because I love looking at it. The GOTO went and found… nothing! Hmm. I poked around again, and finally found it about a field of view to the north. Aha! The GOTO alignment was off. (M51 was beautiful, as always, with both partner galaxies clearly visible.) Went back to M101, corrected for the GOTO, and found… nothing? Well, wait. Is that…. ? Yeah, I think so. Found it. It appeared about as large as C2020/F3, but much fainter. Mostly a fuzzy blob, maybe some hint of structure? Maybe?

Went on to M97 – Owl Nebula (planetary nebula) just under the bowl of the Big Dipper, but the clouds beat me to it. Went up to Mizar (double star, 14 arc-second separation), which split easily at 62.5x and looked very cool at 222x. (Descriptions from here out are a little fuzzy as I was rushing to beat the clouds and not taking my time to observe.) White primary with a bluish companion to SW (? – lower right). Looking at a suggested list of double stars on the paddle control, I went to Xi Boötis and then Epsilon Boötis. Both were tighter (7 arc-seconds and 3 arc-seconds, respectively), just hinting at their companions at 62.5x. Both yielded at 222x. Xi was a yellow primary with an orange companion (I think), while Eps was a white primary with a reddish companion. I even tried 4mm – 500x – on Epsilon, but the vibrations were crazy on the deck, making it virtually impossible to see anything. It wasn’t really much better at 222x, to be honest.

Between the vibrations, clouds, and lateness of the hour, I called it a night.

Observatory 11: Lowell

The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, was oddly not originally on my list of places to go. I’m not sure how I had missed it, but when I was preparing for the sabbatical, one of my support team, Paul, noticed it wasn’t listed. Since he had been there, he asked about it and insisted that I go there. I’m really glad he did, because Lowell is one of my favorite observatories now!

Because it is sort off by itself in north-central Arizona and not very near to the other Arizona sites I was planning on, it became somewhat problematic figuring out how I could get there. Flagstaff is on an Amtrak line, but there is no line connecting Flagstaff and Tucson, my primary base in the state. What I had figured to do was spend the week in Tucson (see previous entries), go on to California for a week, then stop in Flagstaff on the way back to Albuquerque, NM. The problem there was that the train arrived once a day in Flagstaff at 4:00 a.m. So I’d have to get off then and kill six hours until the observatory opened at 10 a.m., hang around until it closed at 10 p.m., and kill another six hours before catching the train again at 4 a.m. the next day. This did not sound like a good plan, but I couldn’t quite figure another way.

And this is the way things went through the entire trip. I spent a lot of time sorting out how I was going to get from here to there and where to stay and all, but in the end things just fell together. So here’s what happened. After making my trips to Kitt Peak and Mount Graham, I was planning on the following Monday to go south from Tucson to the Fred Lawrence Whipple VERITAS Gamma Ray Observatory. I was pretty psyched about it, as it was one of the few non-optical observatories on my list, plus my wife’s maiden name is Whipple. So just to be sure, I called the visitor center to see about tour details and such, and I learned that they were closed for the week because of road construction. It’s a pretty remote site in the mountains about an hour or more south of Tucson, so if the road needs some work, there aren’t a lot of options. Well, that put the kibosh on gamma rays. So I had a couple empty days to kill in Tucson. Eventually, it hit me that I could drive to Flagstaff to see Lowell Observatory and back and easily make my train to California on Tuesday night. Then I wouldn’t have to do the convoluted nonsense stop I had imagined! It was like a dream come true, except without any gamma rays.

Driving to Flagstaff

I made a hotel reservation for Monday night in Flagstaff and got in touch with my friend Jelena from Kitt Peak who works at Lowell to tell her I was coming up and would be there Monday afternoon. She said she’d meet me when I got there. Tours run all day, and they also have observing every clear night. This was going to be great!

I set out relatively early in the morning Monday for the 4+ hour drive. From Tucson to Phoenix was pretty easy with little traffic and wide open vistas. Phoenix is an impressive, sprawling city in the desert to drive around. Eventually, it gives way to the open vistas again. I stopped at a rest stop about an hour from Phoenix and from Flagstaff, and it was one of the most picturesque views at a rest stop I’ve ever seen. Took a bunch of pictures, but they don’t do it any justice. Rolled into Flagstaff around noon and grabbed a quick lunch at Wendy’s. Not great, but it was the first thing I saw that I recognized.

Sunset Point Rest Stop on I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff

The Lowell Observatory

Flagstaff is a pretty town, at least what I saw of it, with a cool college-town vibe (University of Northern Arizona is there), plus it has the observatory where Pluto was discovered, which pushes the cool factor to 11. It’s also got some ski resort vibe, although probably less of that in August when I was there. Still, pine trees on jutting and rolling hills – it’s nice!

And the observatory campus is beautiful! You wind up a hill (Mars Hill, I think) through treelined neighborhoods, and then you come to this place that looks like summer camp. The visitor center is a modern building with lots of lecture rooms and exhibit space and gift shop (of course!). It serves as the gateway to the rest of the campus, which has a variety of old and new buildings, observatory domes, offices, labs, and lecture halls, with long, broad, winding pathways and trees and flowers everywhere. This is a space designed for people to enjoy, not just a utilitarian scientific site. Many of the buildings are made of stone and several of the historic domes are made of local pine, shaped like an upside-down stave bucket. It turns out the strength characteristics of the soft pine wood doesn’t allow for making a traditional dome. It’s okay. The bucket shapes are unique, functional, and fit the campus. On the inside they are homey and rustic, which I really liked.

The Pluto Finder Dome

Tours

I started in the museum lecture room where our docent Liza (“Lisa with a Z”) was talking about Percival Lowell, his quest to find Planet X, and his study of Mars. The museum includes several of Lowell’s notebooks with sketches of Mars. You can see how he believed he was seeing alien structures – canals – on the surface. It was probably a feedback loop where the way he interpreted what he was seeing affected what he was seeing that supported his interpretation. We know now, of course, that there are no canals on Mars, but at the turn of the 20th century Lowell had some of the best views of the planet available, and nobody knew any better.

Lowell’s sketches from the 24″ Clark refractor, c. 1905

Pluto Finder

Docent Liza wrangling the Pluto Finder

After the introductory lecture, we made our way the Pluto Finder dome. This is where Clyde Tombaugh did the grunt work observing to find Planet X. Along the path to get there are markers for the planets of the solar system at scale distances so you get an idea of how far Pluto really is from us. (Spoiler: REALLY FAR!) The dome is two stories with a wee museum downstairs, which we did not investigate, and the telescope up a narrow staircase running along the curved wall. The scope is a 16″ refractor astrograph, that is a telescope specifically designed for astrophotography and not optical observing, designed by Alvan Clark. Tombaugh would take photos on glass plates of small sections of the sky and develop them. Then after several days or weeks he would take more pictures of the same sections and develop those. Then he would compare the two plates, which were about a foot square, side by side, inch by inch, with magnifying lenses and a “blinker.” With the two plates side by side, the blinker had a lever or switch that would close off the view of one plate, and then with a flip of the lever it would block the other plate, so the viewer could compare the two. It was painstaking work! Eventually, he happened to notice one small dot that moved between two plates. That was Pluto! According to Liza, Tombaugh was looking at that piece of sky because some mathematical calculations suggested that an object in that region could account for a discrepancy found in the orbit of Neptune. It turns out that (1) the calculated discrepancy was an error and didn’t really exist, (2) Pluto has no significant effect on Neptune’s orbit, and (3) Pluto just happened to be in that part of the sky. It was lucky happenstance that it was found.

Clark 24″ Refractor

By now if you’ve been following my blog you should be familiar with the name Clark. Alvan Clark was the premier telescope maker in America in the late 19th century. After his 7″ refractor at Williams College, his 40″ refractor at Yerkes, and the refigured Fitz refractor at Allegheny, the Pluto Finder and the 24″ refractor at Lowell were the fourth and fifth Clark telescopes that I got my hands on. That’s pretty cool!

The 24″ refractor is pretty much what you would expect at this point, then: a big, beautiful, well-balanced scientific instrument that has been in use for about 125 years. Lowell used it, as noted above, for his observations of Mars, but it was also used for early observations that led to the discovery of the expansion of the universe. Like the Yerkes scope, it has been modified with various electronics and such, but most of the equipment attached is original. The multi-ton assembly is balanced so well that Liza (probably every bit of 100 lbs.) was able to slew it around without difficulty. Again, the pine dome, walls, and floor give the observatory a cozy feel. I like my science to be homey. Nowadays the 24″ is used primarily for public outreach. While Flagstaff’s light pollution isn’t as bad as a lot of places because it is the world’s first International Dark Sky Place, there is a highway and a train track that point headlights right at the Clark dome, which is enough to trash a lot of science. Plus, the instrument is not really up to leading edge science in an age of giant reflecting telescopes. (The Lowell Observatory owns and operates several large research telescopes, including the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel telescope which live on other campuses.) I mean, I’d take it to do some science, but they aren’t selling.

The Afternoon

The rest of the afternoon was less structured. I spent some time just walking around the campus, which as I’ve mentioned, I found to be just a beautiful place. The weather was perfect, so that helped, but the lodge pole pine trees smell really good, and the wind makes a lovely sound blowing through them. I took a video to catch that sound, but now I can’t find it. I also took in a presentation on Mars exploration, its history, present, and future plans, that was good. I was pretty familiar with most of the material, as I recall, but it was still fun and informative. Mars was in the public eye at that point because it was just past its close approach and it was undergoing a global dust storm. This combination was very frustrating to most astrogeeks! It was one of the closest approaches since 2003, which promised better viewing opportunities than usual, but the dust storm obliterated all detail visible from Earth. For the average non-astrogeek citizen, the fuss about Mars was probably more about whether or not it would be the size of a full moon. (Spoiler: It was not.) After the presentation, I spent some time watching a few movie loops and shopping in the gift store. It being about suppertime, I went in to town to find some food. I happened upon the Beaver Street Brewery, where I had a nice brown ale and a roasted garlic pizza. Very nice.

The Evening Program

Every clear night the Lowell Observatory opens to the public for sky viewing. This was very pleasant on a very pleasant evening! The sky was clear, temperature was warm, and there was waning moon. Several local volunteers bring their equipment for people to look through, and staff members are available to run some of the official scopes, give informative presentations, and answer questions. For example, one fellow was telling star lore from some of the ancient cultures, mostly Greek and some Native American, about the characters that ended up as constellations. He was really hamming it up, but it was interesting and fun.

A woman had her 20×80 binoculars set on M7, an open cluster. A man had his classic orange Celestron 8″ SCT lined up on Jupiter and later on Mars. The aforementioned Martian dust storm was beginning to subside, and I was able to make out a little bit of detail on the planet, with some patience. Another fellow had a 16″ Dobsonian pointed at globular cluster M13, which was beautiful. The official Lowell scopes were a 16″ Cassegrain reflector (The McAllister telescope) through which I saw open cluster M11, and of course, the 24″ Clark refractor.

The Clark was trained on Saturn, and there was a line to take a look. The sky was clear but seeing was wavy. The magnification was 175x, which is about what I use at home on a bumpy night. So you could see the Cassini division and some color on the disk, and a bit of ring shadow and shadow on the rings (it was close to opposition). Not bad, but of course it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Again. I asked the docent what magnification the Clark could take, and he said, “It might start to break a sweat at 1250x on a good night!” Wow! That would be something to see. Maybe someday I’ll get to one of these places on a good night. As it was, 175x would have to do, and it did well enough that I got back in line for a second go.

Load out

The program went until maybe 9:30 p.m. It having been a full day, I made my way across town to my hotel for the night. I kind of took my time leaving in the morning and made the four hour drive back to Tucson. Somehow I got confused about time in this unexpected side trip. I got back to the apartment at midday and thought I had plenty of time to get to the train station by 6:00 p.m., but what I forgot was that I was supposed to have checked out of the apartment at 11:00 a.m.! I was just about to get into the shower when there was a knock at the door. It was the cleaning crew! I threw some clothes on and went out to tell them I’d be out in just a few minutes. Took a super-fast shower and packed all my stuff and was out the door in about 15 minutes! I left a bigger tip than I would have otherwise and apologized to the guys on my way out.

Now I had several hours to kill and no place to be. I went to the Himmel Park Library, where I had spent some time before going to the UA mirror lab a week before. Killed those hours, took my car back to the airport, got Lyft to the train station, waited the extra hours the train was late (of course), and set out for California.


If you’d like to see my full set of photos from Lowell Observatory, click here.

Observing from Home – Mercury Transit – 11 November 2019

On Monday, November 11, 2019, the planet Mercury lined up in such a way that it crossed the face of the sun from our vantage point on Earth. Because of the eccentricities and inclinations of the planets’ orbits, this is something that happens from time to time, like a lunar or solar eclipse. The last Mercury transit, as it is called happened in 2016, and the next will be in 2032. As it happened, this time our house was in a prime location to observe the event, and it was my day off. So I made some plans to have a look.

If you ever have opportunity to look at the sun, DON’T!! At least not if you don’t have the right equipment. Here’s a link to an article at Sky & Telescope with the right way to do it. If you follow the steps in the article, then it is a pretty cool thing to be able to do. Just be careful, or you or someone with you could go blind. You have been warned.

First viewing – Binoculars

Fortunately, I have the right equipment. I started out with my 10×50 binoculars equipped with solar filters that I had made for them before the 2017 solar eclipse. The sky was mostly clear but with patchy, high-level clouds, so not ideal, but a lot better than I expected. The transit started at about 7:30 a.m. EST, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I was going to be able to see anything yet, due to clouds, trees, and breakfast. I mean, it was my day off, and I don’t like getting up that early. By 8:15 I finally had enough coffee to begin executing my aforementioned plan. As you can probably tell, I’m not a really good planner, so when I say “I made plans to observe” what I mean is “I decided that I might give it a try and had a few options in mind about how to do so.” Any way, I went out in the front yard, which faces east and also a mess of trees, and found a spot on the front steps, actually, that had a clear line of sight to the sun. I got my binoculars fitted with their filters. Looking freehand was pretty much a No-Go. I had some hints that there was something there, but it was nothing I would swear to. So I got my camera tripod and attached the binocs, and that made all the difference.

I was surprised at how very small the planet Mercury appeared to be against the face of the sun. VERY small! Just a pinprick at about 8 o’clock and in from the edge maybe 1/6 to 1/4 the sun’s diameter. It’s no wonder I couldn’t make it out freehand. The streaky clouds often obscured it altogether. I tried taking some pictures with my phone, but that didn’t work well at all. The clouds were increasing, the sun was heading behind a tree, and I had seen the thing, so I felt pretty good, and went in, thinking I might be done. Then again, I might not.

Typical fall sky making it a little tough on solar astronomers, but I still had a good observing experience of the transit.

Second Viewing – Reflector

The sky cleared a bit, and the day warmed a bit, so I decided to break out a telescope. I thought about trying to quickly build a filter for my 8″ Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, and this is where being a real planner would have been useful, but there just wasn’t time on the spot to get a workable and safe solution. The other choices I had were that I have full aperture filters for my 60mm Meade ETX Maksutov-Cassegrain and my 5″ Orion SpaceProbe reflector. The 60mm is motorized for tracking, but it’s only slightly bigger than my binoculars. The 5″ is significantly larger but was at the time unmounted. I have two manual equatorial mounts that would work, one that came with the 5″ that is pretty wobbly, and one that came with my 8″ reflector that is more stable but sticky in its movement. I opted for the functional but wobbly 5″ reflector set up.

Wide angle view of the sun with Mercury left of center. North is down, west is left.

About 11:45 a.m. EST, I set up on the pool deck, which worked out well with an unobstructed view of the sun. Clouds were intermittent and didn’t hinder the viewing as much as they had through the binoculars. I was able to watch the second half of the transit. Using a phone adapter by Gosky or GoSky, I was able to take pictures and video of the event with my Samsung Galaxy J3. This was a mixed blessing as I have documentation of my observing and pictures and video I can share with you, but it’s a different experience viewing directly through the eyepiece as compared to viewing through the camera. I took turns between the two. I did enough direct visual to say I saw it, but I felt especially unsatisfied and satisfied for having video-recorded the 3rd and 4th contacts, that is the end of the transit, which was about 1:05 p.m. EST.

I used 20mm Super-Plössl, 10mm Plössl, and 8.8mm Wide Angle eyepieces with and without a 2x Barlow lens. This provided magnification of 45x, 90x, 102x, 180x, and 204x. Mostly I kept to the midrange 90-102x. The planet was much more obvious than in the binoculars and clearly a disk and not just a dot. Using the zoom on the phone camera means that I have no idea what magnification I actually had for any of the pictures. Because I changed the camera zoom many times, it has been very difficult to try to compare or stack the images, as they are at different magnification with different parallax error and different color balance. Because a Newtonian reflector gives a mirror image both left-right and top-bottom, Mercury appeared to be backing out the way I had seen it coming in through the binoculars, but it did in fact travel from SE to NW all the way.

I’m glad I got the chance to observe this transit directly. The last transit of Venus a couple years ago got completely clouded out. As I mentioned, the next Mercury transit will be in 2032. I wonder what sort of tech we will have to observe that event. I hope we’ll still be around to see it.

Here’s a link to my collection of photos for the event at Google Photos.


Observatory 8, 9, and 10: Mt. Graham International Observatories

It’s been over a year since I was in Arizona and made my way to Mt. Graham. That’s just ridiculous. I don’t understand how it’s possible. So, I guess I better get back to the work of recording my experiences before my memories have entirely evaporated. I’m hoping it’s not too late already. Fortunately, you can find some of what I did with my pictures and comments over >here<.

You have to make a reservation to visit the >Mt. Graham International Observatories< through the East Arizona College Discovery Park, and the tours are infrequent. Well, they are supposed to be regularly on the weekends, but they had the Fry forest fire in June 2017 that had made it a bit dicey to go up the mountain for some time. In fact, they didn’t do any tours for about a year. I was able to make a reservation for Saturday, August 25, two days after my trip to >Kitt Peak<. It is on the order of two hours to the east of Tucson near Safford, and the tour was at 9:30 a.m. So I was up and at ’em at an uncharacteristically early 6:30. I got one of the worst meals of my trip, a fast food breakfast on the way out of town, and down the road I went. It was actually a very pleasant drive through some beautiful country, mountains giving way to plateaus.

Started from the bottom…

The Discovery Park is a small campus of about 4 buildings of various sizes housing, among other things, a small observatory and the museum where we met for the tour. If I remember, the tour was $40, which included the gas to get up the mountain, lunch, probably some permits, and a bit to keep the program going. Permits, because there is an endangered red squirrel on the mountain that is protected, so not just anyone can go gallivanting about on Mt. Graham. In fact, after a brief introduction, anyone going on the tour has to sign a form promising not to harass the squirrels under pain of federal penalties. Okay, MtG red squirrels, be cool; do your thing. (As it turned out we didn’t see a one of them.)

The three observatories on the tour are the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Radio Telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT, and yes, that Vatican, the Vatican), and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT). The latter is by some reckoning the largest optical telescope in the world at the moment, but more on that later.

Movin’ on up…

There were about a dozen people there for the tour, enough for two vans. The trip up the mountain takes an hour and a half to go a linear 27 miles. However, that 27 miles includes a 5600-foot vertical ascent and 109 switchbacks. Our two docents were very knowledgeable about the environment on the mountain, and the gentleman driving, whose name escapes me, gave a running description of the different zones to the three or four of us in our van. There are five distinct climate zones as you ascend from the plain to the summit, and oddly, these are the only bits I wrote about in my journals for the entire trip to Mt. Graham. (That whole journal thing didn’t work out quite the way I imagined, but then, what does?) For those who like to keep score my notes record something like this:

  1. Lower Sonoran desert at the base, 3400′ elevation, 3-12″ annual rainfall; ocotillo (a spiky, alien-looking succulent shrub) grows here
  2. Upper Sonoran at 5000′; manzanita, juniper, oak
    • highest density of black bears in the southwest on the mountain
  3. at 6000′ – ash, walnut, pine; 10-20″ rain;
    • Heliograph Point used in the 1800s to transmit messages by mirror from NM to CA
  4. Transition zone from 6500′-8000′; Douglas fir, ash, sycamore, black walnut; 18-28″ rain
    • One of the switchbacks is called Cadillac Curve – an old couple drove off the cliff at a switchback because they were confused by the arrow signs above and below point in to the vertex of the curve. A tree stopped the car, and no one was injured. The signage was changed so you could only see one or the other at one time. Also, they were driving a Lincoln and not a Cadillac.
    • the mountain in national forest land; some cabins, no power grid
  5. Canadian zone from 8000′-9500′; Douglas fir, white and ponderosa pine, aspen; wild flowers, columbine, Indian paint brush
    • Arrow tree – there’s a tree along the road that hunters shoot at; if they hit it, it’s good luck for the hunt! So the poor old tree is spiky with arrows.
    • Naturally, clouds started settling in as we ascended.
    • We ran out of pavement 7 miles from our destination
    • They used to get 200″ snow pack up here, but lately it’s been more like 50″
    • Lots of fresh washouts and alluvia from monsoon rains and fire-cleared mud
    • Our guide said over management of the forest has allowed dense growth of trees that naturally would be about 100′ apart but now grow right beside each other, allowing for easy spread of fire and disease
  6. Hudsonian zone from 9500′-11,500′; 10-12′ of snow

They brought the mirrors for the Large Binocular Telescope, each 8.5 meters in diameter, up this same road with all its switchbacks. It took them three days to drive the 29 miles.

Now we here…

We stopped at a national parks area with restrooms (yay!) and a picnic shelter where we had lunch – a Subway combo meal. As you may see in my pictures, my chips had puffed up to ridiculous proportions with the change in altitude and fairly exploded when I tried to open them. It was really loud! Several of us were becoming aware of the altitude, too, as we walked around, sensing a distinct lack of air pressure. Not dizzy or anything, just feeling the need from time to time to gulp what air there was.

After lunch we piled back in the vans and headed to the MGIO site proper. The three observatories stand side by side by side, maybe 100 meters from each other. The VATT to the left, the LBT to the right and the Submillimeter in the middle. There was ample evidence of the recent forest fire, which as it turns out came within a few dozen meters of the Submillimeter observatory. This came to light when someone asked, “Why is the observatory all streaked pink like that?” It turns out that when they were fighting the fire, they airdropped slurry on the site and actually hit the observatory. They were successful in saving all three observatories, thank goodness.

Okay, so I notice I’m starting to repeat the things I wrote as comments in my photo album, and that seems a little silly. So please take the time to click over there to see the pics and read what I wrote there, and I’ll see if I can give some other different impressions here.

The three facilities were similar in some ways and unique in others. They all have control rooms that are pretty much a series of computer stations. They all have a certain industrialism to them, by which I mean there is at least some area that is like a machine shop with lots of tools, instruments, wires, spare parts, and a smell of oil and solvents in the air. The Vatican observatory, while it has such things, felt more balanced with the residential area we saw, which includes thick carpet, comfy chairs, and bookshelves. It felt homier. I suppose that’s not really so, but that was my impression. The LBT is the most industrial because it is an enormous machine with hundreds of smaller mechanical subsystems. All three have a hand in some revolutionary technology. The VATT and LBT are among the first to have spin cast, honeycomb mirrors from the UA Caris Mirror Lab. The Submillimeter dish, as I added to my photo comments, is part of the Event Horizon Telescope, a virtual radio array the size of the earth that is taking pictures of black hole environments.

I was disappointed with the interpretation we got from the docent leading the tour, especially at the Submillimeter dish. I think it was maybe her first time giving the tour, but she really had no idea how radio astronomy works. I knew because I had just been at the Green Bank Observatory a couple weeks before. It’s a fascinating field of astronomy that not a lot of people are familiar with, and while she gave it the old college try, as they used to say, but jeez. Here’s an example. With radio astronomy they cool the receivers and electronics because otherwise they produce radio frequency noise that interferes with the signals they are trying to detect. Our docent, though, said something like, “they cool the receivers to freeze the radio signals coming in so they can read them.” I mean, come on.

The Different Scopes

The Hertz Submillimeter

The 10-meter radio dish was cool and all, but it wasn’t jaw dropping since I had climbed up the GBT and had used the GBO 20-meter dish for fun. They have very different missions, of course, with the Submillimeter dish doing high-energy radio astronomy, while the Green Bank dishes are more relaxed energy, so to speak. I would have liked to see the shutters open and the dish in action, but the monsoon was in effect.

Speaking of the monsoon, as we made our way from the radio observatory to the VATT the clouds were moving in, fast and hard. I took some pictures and vids where you can see how fast. The sky was half clouded when we went in the VATT facility, and by the time we came out, maybe 45 minutes later, we were socked in. By the time we were done at the LBT, the temperature had dropped by 20 degrees and the wind was whipping through. Later still, when we got back to the Discovery Center the sky was just mostly cloudy with patches of blue. Very dynamic weather that time of year.

The VATT

Back to the telescopes, the VATT was, again, pretty cool for being the first of its kind, with the 1.8-meter (6 foot) prototype spin casting mirror. It’s a fast, open cage, Cassegrain-style reflector on a fork mount. In that regard, it is not unlike the 2.1-meter scope at Kitt Peak. It does some work in infrared, which is pretty uncommon and made it somewhat unique on my list. And I mean, if someone gave me a 1.8m scope, I’d be delighted, but otherwise, in many ways it was just another reflector. So I found that one thing with a pilgrimage like this is that not everything is going to blow your socks off, because you’ve seen something like it already.

The LBT

I had not, however, and would not for the rest of the pilgrimage, see anything quite like the Large Binocular Telescope. This is a truly impressive piece of equipment. There was a fellow who worked there who took over the tour guide duties (thankfully!) and did a great job. The first thing we got to see was the vacuum chamber that is used to re-aluminize the mirrors. This in itself was enormous. Next we got to see the wheel mechanisms that rotate the part of the building that serves as the azimuth bearing for the telescope. The steel wheels rest on a steel track, sort of like train wheels, and are close to three feet in diameter. Several of these wheels are in each of four “bogies” that include the motors that drive them and various electronics systems to coordinate their movement together and safety systems, etc. These bogies are about 8 feet tall and 20 feet long. We also got to see the control room, which is pretty much like the other control rooms, only more so, with about a dozen computer stations.

Finally, we made it under the dome, as it were (except that it’s actually more of a box), to see the instrument, which is colossal. An 8.5-meter mirror is the size of a swimming pool. (Remember those mirrors they were making at the >U of A mirror lab<, polished smooth to a millionth of an inch?) Surround that with a rigid cell to hold it and the detectors you’ll use. Then add the cage and supporting structure to hold the secondary mirror or other detectors at the right distance to get your focus. Then double all that. Then add enough supporting structure to hold both sets rigidly so there is no relative displacement between them to thousands of an inch tolerance. Then put it all on a mount so you can tip it up and down and turn it in any direction, and smoothly enough not to disturb the alignment of the two systems.

Okay, this one is jaw dropping! In fact, I was so impressed by it that I forgot to take a selfie with it. Imagine!

Odds and Ends

I haven’t written much about the people I met on my travels. This is unfortunate, as I didn’t write about many of them in my journal, either, and they are starting to vanish from my memory. I do remember meeting a family of four from the U.K. at the LBT. The parents were maybe in their 40s with two teenagers. I don’t remember their whole story, but they were on a nerd tour, sort of like mine, although, if I recall correctly it was maybe space stuff and outdoor stuff in the southwest U.S. Ugh, I wish I’d written it down, because it was pretty cool.

After we got back down, I drove through the nearby town of Safford to see if there was anywhere interesting to eat or shop. As seems to be typical of small western towns, the streets are wide and few. There were several places that might have been interesting, but for whatever reason (maybe I just wasn’t that hungry yet), I decided not to stop. I headed back to Tucson, about a two-hour drive. When I got there, I was faced with essentially the same problem of where to eat. My apartment was not well equipped, so eating out was the norm. I wanted something local, southwestern, not fancy, quick, and still open. After a few passes up and down the main drags, I settled on La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill. This turned out to be a fast order burrito place with counter service, which was a little less than I hoped for, but I was really tired, and it was getting late. As you can see in the pictures, I ordered something called La Grande and had the nerve to be surprised that it was big! No sides except some chips. They had a salsa bar, so I tried a couple. I don’t remember much about them. The food was good enough that I ate it all, in spite of my not being especially hungry. I remember the manager being helpful when I came in and when I ordered. There were several other patrons, well after normal dinner time. All this notwithstanding, apparently the place has gone under and been replaced by Famous Dave’s BBQ. Too bad. I liked the idea of a salsa bar.

It was a long, long day with lots of astro-adventure and fresh air. I made it back to the apartment and was done.

Observing from Home – 11 August 2019

Conditions

  • 11 August 2019 – 22:00 (8/11) – 00:30 (8/12) EDT
  • mild – 60º-65º F; humidity 80-85%
  • Moon +11 days ~90% illumination
  • still; clear at first, but increasing clouds toward midnight
  • seeing – 6 or 7/10 – pretty good
  • transparency – inconsequential, as I was hunting orbs

Equipment

  • Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Eyepieces
    • 32 mm
    • 15 mm
    • 9 mm
    • 6 mm
  • 2x Barlow
  • Filters
    • Moon, blue, green, yellow

Objects

  • Moon
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn

Observations

A pleasant Sunday night. I pondered long about going out, because, much as I love the NexStar 8, it is a pain to drag it down to the pool deck. I finally discerned that my 3 targets – Jupiter, Moon, and Saturn – would be visible from the deck, so I set up in the northwest corner there. The problems were shakiness (really need to reinforce the deck at some point) and the TV aerial, which turned out to be right in the path of the moon and Saturn. The moon was just a few degrees W of Saturn, both sitting just above the Teapot of Sagittarius. Jupiter was 15º or so to the west just above Antares in Scorpius/Ophiuchus.


Moon

Southern region of the Moon. North is up. Just inside the terminator on the right (West) from bottom to top you can see Schiller, Gassendi, and Kepler, mentioned in the writeup.

I started with the Moon, using 32 mm = 62.5 X with moon filter and variations with 15 mm, 9 mm, and 2x Barlow. I don’t know the moon that well, so didn’t do much more than identify several craters. In the SW quadrant; Schiller, , a long, squashed crater; Gassendi was just east of the terminator – large with prominent central peak; small Flamsteed; up to Encke and Kepler, just on the terminator. On into the NW, Prinz on the terminator, and I think it was breaking dawn on Aristarchus, which sounds like a new age album. Saw Bianchini and Sharp just outside Sinus Iridum. After that I made my way to Mare Tranquillitatis to see if I could find the Apollo 11 astronaut craters: three small craters in a row just north of the landing site and named Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong. Turns out they are quite small. While theoretically in reach of my scope, I had two problems (at least): 1) I had neglected to add my dew shield and was starting to fog over, and 2) the aforementioned TV aerial was now sitting across the heart of the moon, so that I wasn’t getting good resolution, even at 222 X. [An article in July 2019 Sky&Telescope suggests a 6″ scope can make them out at 250 X with steady seeing.]


Jupiter

Moved on to Jupiter, sitting low in the SW. Tried pushing the magnification to 333 X, and it was just a bit too much. 222 X wasn’t quite enough, but I didn’t think to use the 15 mm + 2X for 266 X, which might have been Goldilocks. Oh well. The GRS (Great Red Spot) was just past transit, very well placed, but so small! It was fairly obvious but just a tight, dark knot (nought? not.) in the SEB (Southern Equatorial Band), which itself was quite light. The NEB (Northern…) was dark and thick, and some “barges” were visible. The equatorial zone remains heavily shaded, darker than the temperate zones. One northern temperate band was visible. The GRS rotated about 2/3 to the limb while I observed, or so it seems to me as I write this. I tried a variety of color filters, including blue, green, and yellow. The blue highlighted the bands and GRS the best, as one would expect. Green and yellow both gave interesting interpretations but were ultimately not that helpful. Of the Galilean moons, I had just missed Io disappearing in eclipse as it turns out, and also just missed Ganymede emerging from eclipse at the other end of my observations. Oh well. Meanwhile, Europa was about 4 Jupiter diameters from the planet to the west. Callisto was about four Europa-Jupiter distances further to the west. I made a sketch at the eyepiece that shows the distances more or less. The GRS in the sketch is bigger than it appeared.


Moon, redux

Went back to the Moon for a bit after it cleared the tower, as it were. Took another stab at the Apollo 11 craters, but no. Poked around the southern highlands for a bit. I’ve always had a soft spot for Clavius, so I looked there for a bit. Noticed a few clouds moving in and wanted to get some Saturn time in, so moved there.


Saturn

Even with deteriorating conditions, Saturn looked pretty good. Again, pushing the mag, it was just a bit much at 333 X, so ended up with the 266 X combo I hadn’t thought of earlier. The rings are tilted so that the other edges are about lined up with the edge of the disk. It’s just a bit past opposition (okay, a month past), so there is just a little bit of shadow on the rings right at the pole, or that’s what I’ve gathered. Any way, the rings kind of squish at that point. Not much color tonight, just a yellowish tint. Darker in the N temperate to polar region with a slightly dark band at the bottom. Very 3-D. Cassini Gap easily visible.


Pics

I took several handheld pictures and videos with my phone at the eyepiece for all three targets. Moon was best, of course, then Saturn. Jupiter was washed out. Clouds were moving in, and I was tired, so I washed out, too.

Best shot of the Moon for the night. North is right and West is down.
Best of Jupiter for the night, which is not that great. North is upper left, West is to the lower left. More or less.
Saturn. Not as impressive as seeing it live. You sort of see the dips where the rings and the disk limb cross, right? North is right.

You can see the full series of pictures I took at my Google Pictures album, >here<.


Observing from Home – 1 July 2019 – The rest of the story

In my last entry I included my first serious attempts at astrophotography with three pictures of Jupiter. Here, then, are my notes from that night’s observing in general.

Conditions

  • 1 July 2019 – 22:00- 00:30
  • warm – 70’s; high humidity – 80%!
  • new moon, essentially
  • still, no wind
  • some streaky clouds, increasing through the night
  • seeing – 6/10
  • transparency – good enough

Equipment

  • Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imager IV
  • 2x Barlow
  • Eyepieces:
    • 32 mm – 62.5x / 125x
    • 15 mm – 133x / 266x
    • 9 mm – 222x / 444x — too much for tonight!
  • Filters:
    • blue, red, purple, yellow, sky glow

Objects

  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • M4
  • M8
  • M20
  • M17
  • M22
  • M27
  • NGC 6995

Tech!

Writing this several days after the fact, so we’ll see how bad my memory is. Of course you won’t know unless I tell you! A good bit of time was spent on the new attempt at technology and astrophotography, which ultimately proved successful, but it took a while. The interface between camera and computer is a bit dodgy at first. No image coming through, even though the cam had power. This may have been an interface issue or that the object in view wasn’t centered enough or large enough or focused enough to produce an image. I eventually added the 2x Barlow, doubling the image size and found Jupiter on the monitor in the preview window of the settings screen. In the actual preview window, though, the image was tiled into 4 images that were raked with horizontal lines. Unplugging and restarting the camera seemed to do the trick, and after only half an hour fiddling, I took my first .mov of Jupiter. It was grainy as hell, but I could sort of see that the GRS (Great Red Spot) was on the limb. Over the next 45 minutes or so I took 8 movies of 50-75 seconds each. I tried one of M4, the globular cluster in Scorpius, but that was just dark frames. This camera is not sensitive enough for faint deep sky objects. It barely noticed Jupiter! Any way, I’ve been processing the movies into pictures with some success. They are grainy, and I have much to learn about processing, but they aren’t bad for a first effort. I thought about recording Saturn, too, but I decided to keep it simple on the first try. I also hoped to see several objects by eye on a rare clear night. So I put the tech away and switched to visual.

Observations

Jupiter

I stuck with Jupiter for a good while. It is just past opposition, so it is a great time to observe it. It isn’t very high, sitting on the north side of Scorpius, a few degrees north of M19, about 28º above the horizon according to an app. It’s super bright at -2.6 magnitude. At 62.5x (32 mm) I could see 2 stripes on the disk, on moon to the W (Io), and three to the E. Mostly viewed with the 15 mm and 2x for 266x. It was a pretty stable view. Could make out the GRS easily. The NEB (north equatorial belt) was thick and rusty colored. The SEB was thinner and darker to the … W? of the GRS (toward the direction of rotation). The equatorial zone was orangy and the higher latitudes were lighter. Could occasionally make out another stripe or hints of one above the NEB. I think. Maybe I’m applying that back from my pictures, though.

I tried a couple filters – blue, purple, red, yellow. The purple was a complete washout, making for a big pink blob, and red wasn’t much better. Yellow was okay. Blue was by far the most helpful. That’s when I saw hints of other bands and hints of detail downstream from GRS. This sketch doesn’t look like much, but I watched for a long time with great enjoyment and fascination.

M4 Globular Cluster

I had swung over to M4 before as I mentioned, but went back for more visual. For as big as it is, it’s a challenge. Not to find it but to see it. The surface brightness is pretty low, and I often strain to keep looking at it. Maybe I should have dropped the magnification. I had a hard time making out any detail at all. Just a mess of stars on the verge of vision so as to make my eyes twitch.

M8 Lagoon Nebula

Moved on to several Sagittarius favorites. M8 Lagoon Nebula was beautiful as usual. Not as stand-outish is M42, but up there. Wisps of nebulosity with an X across the center and a swarm of small stars on the east side. At some point in the night I added my sky glow filter – I think much later and then I returned here, I forget – and it really helped bring M8 out from the background.

M20 Triffid Nebula

M20 is hard to compare to M8. Not fair, really. It’s a beautiful thing but so small vs. M8. I think I didn’t use the filter on M20, and it suffered for it. About 1/4 the size of M8 or less. Hints of more complexity maybe and hit of the central star. Should have used higher magnification and the filter. Next time.

M17 Swan Nebula

M17 is always fun to observe. Mostly looked like a checkmark, more than the full swan this night. Not as sharp a line on the swan’t “water line” as often appears.

M22 Globular Cluster

Just a quick look at M22. Enough to say I saw it. I think I was starting to get tired already. Sorry.

Saturn

Not sure of where it fits in the order now, but somewhere in here I went to Saturn. At fairly low power about 4 moons visible. (… Not sure what power I was using now that I think of it. I really need to start writing this stuff down as I do it.) At 266x it was a little rough but some detail. Still very low in the sky, about 20º above the horizon, so not great detail. Plus, it’s just about at opposition, so almost no shadows. Could generally make out the Cassini Gap, some shading on the planet disk. Rings are crossing in front of the disk. A dark band and gray cap on the top of the disk, but not much color.

M27 Dumbbell Nebula

Turning to the north, Cygnus had risen over the house to about 45º. I slewed to M27, a planetary nebula. It is large enough and bright enough that I wonder if it might appear in the SSSSIV camera. Round, but uneven, brighter on the “sides” than on the “top” and “bottom,” and brighter on one side than the other. It seems to shift as you look at it, though. I used 266x pretty much across the board on everything… I think, and I think I used the sky glow filter? Or maybe I came back to it after I added the filter? Maybe that, because I seem to remember adding the filter on the last target of the evening.

NGC 6995 Veil Nebula

I went to the Crescent Nebula, which isn’t really where I meant to go, which is fine, because I couldn’t see it any way. I chose it from the list of named objects on my paddle control for the C8. What I meant to look at and eventually got to was NGC 6995, the Veil Nebula. It turned out to be the Eastern Veil. This is a pretty bright ribbon of cloud in a long, flowing arc. There are two relatively bright stars nearby and not one bright one in the midst, the signature of the Western Veil. It has a few kinks and bulbs, as it were, and is quite an interesting object. Regrettably, I was definitely getting tired and didn’t give it the attention it deserves. It definitely benefitted from the sky glow filter.

I revisited a few previous targets, but as I said, I was getting tired. Plus more clouds were moving in. Plus the dew was getting heavy. In fact, I noticed as I was packing up that the scope’s corrector plate was starting to dew over. On the whole, a good night.

Observing from Home – 1 July 2019 – Pics or Didn’t Happen.

I haven’t written up my notes on this session yet, but I started trying some astrophotography, and that’s been taking some time and attention. It has taken almost a year to get the right combination of learning, confidence, and clear skies, but I finally got out with the astro camera I won at the Green Bank Star Quest 2018. It’s an Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imager IV, and it doesn’t work with OS X above 10.10. So I had to partition my hard drive and reinstalled 10.8.5. Even so, it is a glitchy proposition. Nevertheless, I succeeded in taking a series of videos of Jupiter on 1 July and have been processing them into stacked photos with an old program called Lynkeos. It’s pretty easy to follow the steps. What is difficult is learning how to fiddle with the settings to maximize the results in the photo. I’m getting there.

So herewith are the three photos I have produced so far. They are stacks of about 350 images each, +/- 100. The images are from video taken between 22:30 and 23:18 EDT. I used the Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8″ SCT with a 2x Barlow lens. I did the stacking and initial processing in Lynkeos, as I mentioned, and finished the processing in GIMP. The first is larger because I processed it on my lappie while the other two were done on the desktop and the resolution settings were different. Haven’t really tracked down the exact cause.

Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 22:30 EDT, CT WV
Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 22:35 EDT, CT WV
Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 23:18 EDT, CT WV

So there. Now I’m an astrophotographer.

Description of the whole observing session to follow in a separate post.

Observatory 7: Kitt Peak, Part 2

This post is about the evening program at the Kitt Peak National Optical Astronomy Observatory. For my post about the 3-tour daytime program, look >here<.

As I mentioned in that article, I signed up for both the daytime and nighttime programs for less than $100 total. They have several night programs, but the ones being offered that night were the Parade of Planets and Night of the Marvelous Moon. The former would enjoy the favorable alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn with, I think, a 20″ reflector in the dome at the visitor center, while the latter would probe our faithful sky companion, the moon, with a 16″ Ritchey–Chrétien reflector in one of the roll-off observatories up the path. I chose the Marvelous Moon based on the poor performance of planetary observing I’d had from the big scopes so far and on the forecast for a “mostly cloudy” evening due to the monsoon season. I figured if we were going to get to see much of anything, it would have to be big and bright.

The evening began before sundown with introductions and supper in the visitors center. Supper was a box lunch with a sandwich, chips, and a cookie (as I recall these several months later). There were about 16 people there for the programs, and it turned out that only two of us had signed up for the moon. The sky, which had been vacillating wildly all day between sun and storm, was still patchy, so there was hope. That made me feel a little bummed, though, because if there was hope, then there might be cool views of the planets, which I was going to miss. I had to discipline myself to enjoy the program I had chosen.

Sunset

Our first observing of the evening would be of the occultation of a nearby star behind the limb of a local planet, also known as “sunset.” (A little astrogeek humor there. Okay, very little.) We walked up the path to the rim of the mountain with a spectacular view across the valley to the west. The clouds were still hanging out but had broken up some, and as the sun got lower, they lit up spectacularly. Lots of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and purples. There were places where I could see patches of rain falling miles away, even while the sun glinted off lakes and such in other parts. I experienced a good bit of it through my phone camera, I’ll admit, although I did stop a number of times to drink it all in directly with my own eyes. The good news is that you can share the experience since I was so digitally consumed. Click on >over here< to see my sunset pictures.

Marvelous Moon

Now that it was starting to get dark, we split into the two groups, going to our respective observatories, to respectively hope the clouds would respect us and dissipate. As we began our program on our Marvelous Moon, we had introductions, which was quick since there were three of us altogether. I have forgotten our instructor’s name, but my fellow participant was Jelena. It turned out that she works at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff as an event coordinator, and she was spying out what they could learn from Kitt Peak. Meanwhile, there was some lecture about our target that was clearly intended for astro-novices, so Jelena and I aced all the questions. I think Instructor was a bit new at that presentation, as he kept checking his notes and didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his patter, but he did a good job, nonetheless.

After our classtime to prepare us for looking at the moon, we went up to the scope, opened the roof, and …. well, crud. It was totally socked in. Of course. The clouds weren’t so dense that you couldn’t tell where the moon was, but they were dense enough that you could only make out the glow. We talked a bit about the telescope, its specs and mount and software and such. And we talked about some other stuff, stalling to see if maybe the sky meant to clear up after all.

It didn’t.

Plan B

Well, the various instructors and leaders were chattering away on walkie-talkies and arranging a rendezvous and a plan. It turns out the other group was also under cloudy skies and couldn’t see anything. Imagine that 😉 . So we all stood around on the patio by the visitor center for a while. When the leaders were firmly convinced we had no chance to observe anything beyond our planet, they revealed the backup plan. They had arranged a special opportunity for us. We would get to tour the 3.5 meter WIYN Telescope, which is usually not open to the public!

Of course, if you read Part 1, you know that this also ended up as the Plan B for my afternoon tour, so I had already had the rare chance to tour the WIYN. If you haven’t read Part 1, I recommend that you do, because I’m not going to repeat my description here, as it looked pretty much the same as it had a few hours before.

Epilogue

After the tour of WIYN, we returned to the visitor center and chatted a bit. I told Jelena about my pilgrimage and that I was planning to hit Lowell in a week or so. She gave me her card and told me to let her know when I was going to be there, and she’d show me around the joint. Cool!

Then came the part where we all would be driving down the mountain together with our headlights off, because, you know, astronomy was going on! Except it was socked in, so there wasn’t any astronomy going on. So we didn’t have to do that after all, but we still had to go down the mountain in the dark. That was still pretty exciting! And when you get down to the bottom, it’s open range, so you have to be careful, or a cow might jump out into the road in front of you! But none did this time. I made it back to Tucson in about an hour and a half, having had to stop for border patrol check point. I can’t find my journal at the moment, so I don’t know if I wrote it down, but it seems to me now that the skies over Tucson were clear.

So all in all, the night program at Kitt Peak was fun and enjoyable and even useful for making a contact or two, but ultimately, in terms of its intended outcome, it was a bust. But I can say I spent a night observing on Kitt Peak, and not very many people can. And I can say I’ve seen the WIYN Telescope – twice! And not very many people can say that, either. So, take that, very many people! I’m an astro-nerd!