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.

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.


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!

Observing from Home – June 3, 2019

Conditions

  • 23:15-01:15
  • cool – low 50s F, maybe into the 40s
  • still, no wind
  • no clouds
  • no moon (+1 day)
  • humidity 75-80%
  • seeing: poor – 2/10
  • transparency: good

Equipment

  • Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Eyepieces:
    • 32 mm = 62.5 X
    • 15 mm = 133 X
    • 9 mm = 222 X
    • 8.8 mm = 227 X
    • 2 X Barlow

Objects

  • Jupiter
  • M104 Sombrero Galaxy
  • M58
  • M60
  • M59
  • M51
  • Saturn
  • a wee satellite going past M104
  • a wee satellite going past M51 (don’t think it was the same one)
  • a flaring satellite drifting through Ursa Minor
  • a fireball, due south, just above the trees

Observations

Jupiter

I’ve really been wanting to see Jupiter lately as the GRS is “flaking” and doing weird stuff and shrinking. It’s been months since we’ve had decent night weather when I was free, but tonight was good. Well, clear. The seeing was crap. Any way, I debated going out at all because it’s a pain to take the scope down to the pool, and the deck is full of plants for the garden. I hit on the idea of setting up in the front yard. At 11 p.m. this would give me about an hour on Jupiter before it hit a tree, so to speak. Lots of trees in the front yard. So, that’s what I did!

Quick sketch of Jupiter, ex post facto

Did I mention the seeing was lousy? I could watch the waves of atmosphere rolling over the face of Jupiter. So it was mostly fuzzy and indistinct, even though I was well below the useful minimum magnification for planetary detail. I started at 62.5 X (32mm) and could identify 3 moons (Io was occulted, and I had just missed its disappearance) and the NEB and the SEB. As I’ve seen in pictures lately, the equatorial zone is relatively dark with a tan color. I have to admit I still get confused about image orientation. I think, from pictures, that S was up, but it should have been corrected by the diagonal. But when I pushed the scope toward the N, north was at the bottom. It doesn’t help that I had turned the diagonal to about 4:00 so I could sit and observe. I think that changes the orientation. Well, let’s say S is up. In watching for about an hour with increasing magnification (133, 227, 266, 444) I could see the NEB was thicker and darker, and I thought I could see some gray blocks along the SEB. The polar regions were quite washed out. The GRS was on the flip side, I think. It may have been just on this side about to roll over, but I couldn’t make it out if it was.

I did manage a few pictures holding my phone up to the eyepiece at 133 X and 444 X. Higher power was better for those.

I processed a bunch of pics into this one image using GIMP and Preview. Not very high tech, but it is my first attempt at planetary image processing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right.

Flaring Satellite

While I was looking at Jupiter I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I thought maybe someone turned on a light in the house and it caught in my glasses. Then a few moments later, there was another flash. I looked away from the eyepiece. I was facing north. A third flash, and I found it just to the right of the “handle” of the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor. As I watched, this object, which I surmised to be a tumbling satellite, flared at least a dozen times as it moved from NW to NE until it went behind some trees. The flares varied in intensity from … I’m going to guess magnitude 1 to -4 or more! (The smaller the number the brighter the object, and each magnitude is a factor of about 2.5). That brightest flare got me to exclaim, “Holy moley!” out loud. It was just a few seconds between flares, and the difference in brightness wasn’t uniform, which is why I think it was tumbling rather than just rotating. Any way, this was very cool. I also noticed how clear the sky was, as I could see all the stars in the Little Dipper.

M104 – The Sombrero Galaxy

Quick sketch of M104 ex post facto.
That’s a star on the left, not just a random dot.

Once Jupiter got into the tree, I went looking for galaxies. My observing spot was not ideal, as I’d be looking just over the house, which can produce heat issues, with some lights on in the bedrooms, but it turned out okay. I used 62.5 X and 133 X mostly. M104 is a longtime favorite and was still just visible from my position. It never appears very large or much at all like the pictures, but I like it anyhow. Sitting next to a 6.5 magnitude star (going by the Pocket Sky Atlas), it was more radiant than I remember seeing it before. Still best seen with averted vision, there is a bright core – really quite bright tonight – surrounded by nebulosity, but it did appear to have rays of light shining to the … I don’t know.. South? I’m not sure how to explain this. Perhaps a defect in my eyes or optics, although nothing else gave this effect over the night’s observations. Maybe it’s just a really, really bright core, seen on a really clear night. Having spent a long time on fuzzy Jupiter, you might think I’d spend more time on this beauty, but I kind of said, “Oh, that’s pretty,” and moved on. Having added a sketch in my notes, I thought that I had drawn something like it before. Looked through my previous journal entries and sure enough, on 1 May 2013 I have a very similar sketch. The rays aren’t as pronounced, but they are implied (or at least inferred). That was with the Meade ETX90, so more than doubling the aperture perhaps makes a difference.

Virgo Cluster Galaxies

I moved on to a couple of the Virgo Cluster galaxies, starting with M58, because that’s one of the numbers I remember being there. Here my weaknesses as an observer really start to show up. First, I was not prepared. I didn’t have a plan for what I was going to look at and had done no research. This is greatly enabled by having a GOTO scope. Second, I have no patience. (This is an obvious lie, as I just spent an hour looking at fuzz ball Jupiter, but what I mean is….) I don’t take time to soak in the details of what I’m looking at. Well, often that is the case. Third, I don’t know the basics of observing, like image orientation in the eyepiece, angular size of objects and how to estimate them, visual magnitudes of objects and how to estimate them, stuff like that. None of this means I can’t enjoy my observing. It just would be more… insightful if I knew what I was doing, and I’d feel more confident. Any way….

M58 is a fairly large, diffuse, fuzzy object. I didn’t notice any bright core, but I didn’t really study it very long. I would say it appeared larger than M104 and not nearly as distinct. There was a star nearby both of them, though.

I followed an urge to move on to M60, which I knew to be close at hand, although it turns out to be in the opposite direction from what I thought. Hard to tell with the GOTO, which jumps away and slews back slowly rather than just gliding a few arcminutes over. M60 has much the same appearance as M58 – big, fuzzy patch with no noticeable core. I scanned around the area a bit, thinking I’d find M58, and I did find another galaxy, but the neighbor star was missing. Upon review, I think this was M59, another elliptical galaxy that lies between M60 and M58. I hadn’t even brought my sky atlas outside, so I had no idea what the layout was. Rather than going to get it, I abandoned Virgo until another night. This was also partly informed by it getting late and cold, but I wasn’t quite done yet.

(I later found my journal entry for 11 March 2019, the last time I was out with the scope, with a similar entry for M58-59-60. Maybe someday if I do it often enough, I’ll learn and remember.)

M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy

Ex post facto sketch of M51. There’s a star in the upper right, and another in the disk of the galaxy. This second was actually not as bright as the first, although it looks the other way around.

I thought I’d end on a high note, literally and figuratively, turning my scope upward to another favorite, M51, the Whirlpool, the large face-on spiral galaxy and its companion. This was the best I’ve seen it since Mayhill, NM, in the 25″ Dobsonian in 2010. Two fairly large, bright, distinct objects of comparable size at first. As I’m writing two days hence, I forget exactly what eyepiece I was using, but I think I started with the 32mm and pressed to the 15mm for 133X. Any way, as I looked, the larger spiral, which was fairly vague, began to reveal itself. It remained pretty ephemeral, but it seemed to show indications of its structure. The whole was quite beautiful. I kept getting glimpses of a star in the bounds of the spiral playing peekaboo with me. Definitely the best object of the night. Again, though, the orientation has me baffled, to the point that, upon reflection, it is possible I have sketched the reverse of what I was actually seeing. It may be that the larger spiral galaxy should be on the right and the companion to the left.

What is reality?

Saturn, Sort Of, and Out

By this time, Saturn had risen high enough to be seen. So I took a look. It suffered from the same poor seeing and thick atmosphere as Jupiter. No detail at all – no color, no shadows, no Cassini Division in the rings, no nuthin’. I should have left well enough alone and quit on M51.

The night had grown cold, and I with it, so I packed up. Not a bad night on the lawn.

Observatory 4 – Allegheny

To begin with, here is the link to my pictures from the Allegheny Observatory over at the Googles, taken on my trip there Friday, July 27, 2018. There is some commentary there that will likely overlap with this entry, the core of which was itself written on August 4, 2018, on the train to Chicago at the beginning of the Grand Tour. Here we go.


It has been a wild week or two. I went to Pittsburgh last week for Dad’s birthday and went with Meredith to the Allegheny Observatory. That all came together suddenly, of course. I arranged to go to a Pirates (baseball) game with Dad and Meredith, and in communicating that to Dad, he sent me a note reminding me about the tour schedule at the observatory – Thursdays and Fridays only. Well, the ballgame was on Saturday, so…. I called and left a message Thursday hoping for room in the Friday tour. How popular can this be? I thought to myself.

An Unexpected Journey

Went hiking with Ken K. in Harpers Ferry on Friday morning and heard from the observatory at 1:30 that there was no room on the tour that night. Huh. Not expecting that, but oh, well, okay. I lallygagged around the house a bit, thinking there was no urgency to get to the Burgh. Then I got a call from the observatory at 4:30 that there was a cancellation, and they had spaces available at 8:00! Well, it’s a four hour drive, but yes, of course I’ll take 2 please!

I threw myself and my stuff in the car and drove like crazy to get there. I called M. to have her meet me there. When I hit the turnpike I realized I didn’t really know where I was going. This will end up being a recurring theme, as I had the same problem finding the Holmdel Horn, you may recall. I didn’t have an active smartphone, just my flippy, and I didn’t even have a GPS box in the car. Turns out I didn’t have a PA map in the car, either, let alone a Pittsburgh map. So I stopped at one of the rest areas along the way and set about to buy a map. By the time I found one, about 6 or 8 people had lined up at the counter ahead of me. Ugh! I don’t have time for this! So I opened the map and took a couple pictures of the area around the Allegheny Observatory, and hit the road. Not really proud of that, but it got me there. Except for the part where I missed a turn and ended up going over the Fort Pitt Bridge and through the tunnels toward the airport instead toward the Northside. A little looping around, back across the Westend Bridge, and I was back on track with minimal panic. I arrived about 8:20 p.m., so Whoohoo! Don’t do the math; I was driving fast. Even so, I missed all the introductory lecture and history. The group was just starting on the tour of the building, and M. saw me at the door and let me in.

The Observatory

The large dome of the Allegheny Observatory in sunset and clouds.

The building is a mix of Art Deco, Greek revival, and 20th century scientific lab. We saw some of the museum pieces and labs and such before seeing the two big refractors, which were both very cool: the 30-inch Thaw refractor, which is f/18.8 with a 47-foot long optical tube (!) having been designed and built by Brashear Optical in 1912 (according to the website), and the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor. This latter was originally designed and built by Henry Fitz Optical of New York in the 1860s. There is a fascinating story of how the objective lens was stolen and held for ransom, but the director wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. It was eventually returned, but it was ruined in the process. The observatory hired Alvan Clark to refigure it, which he did, making it a greatly improved instrument. Hence, it is the Fitz-Clark. The tour was quite interesting. Our docent was knowledgeable, having worked or volunteered at the observatory for something like 25 years. He did have an odd verbal tic of sighing dejectedly in the middle of most of his sentences, but otherwise, he was quite good. We got to see how the Thaw scope slews and how the floor is actually an elevator to line you up with the instrument so as to avoid ladders and falls and broken bones. This was fascinating and some brilliant engineering, considering everything was designed to be run without electricity!

The Observing

We got to take turns looking through the Fitz-Clark at Jupiter, as Jupiter was the only thing peeking through the clouds. [Clouds will also become a recurring theme.] Beautiful view, nevertheless. Some detail on the disk, and Ganymede was just on the limb about to disappear. There were about 40 people on the tour, so there wasn’t much chance to hog the scope, unfortunately. Any way, it was very fun to be there with Meredith, and she enjoyed it, too.

My sketch, ex post facto, of Jupiter and Ganymede as seen through the Fitz-Clark refractor.

Epilogue

Just a couple weeks ago Jacob and I watched a documentary about the Allegheny Observatory and some of its key figures on Netf… a movie streaming service. It’s called Undaunted: Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory. It was fascinating! It made up much of the knowledge I might have gained in the lecture if I had lived an hour closer to Pittsburgh, or if I had better planning skills.

Observatory 7 – Kitt Peak, Part 1

Okay, right off the bat, you can see my annotated pictures of Kitt Peak >here.<

I am now writing this in March, so –– Good Lord, it’s more than six months since I was there??!!! I didn’t write much in my journal at the time, or here. Fortunately, I did add some commentary to the pictures linked above. Well, let’s see how much I remember.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak is about an hour’s drive and change west of Tucson. They run three tours through the day most days: the solar observatory, the 2.1 meter, and the 4 meter. They open at 9:00 a.m. and tours start at 10:00. It was my intention to get there for the tours, because that was sort of the point of being in Arizona, so I was up and out by about 8, which is pretty good for me. Had breakfast from McD’s in the car, which was about the worst food I had on the whole trip — except for breakfast on the Capital Limited. After driving about an hour on that beautiful morning, I was starting to see some mountainous terrain pop up, and not much later started thinking I was seeing a shiny white or silver dot on top of one of the mountains. As I got closer I became convinced it was a dome. Sure enough, I soon came upon the turn off to Kitt Peak! I was very excited. The road up the mountain was quite a drive, a bit of a white-knuckler in places with some pretty serious switchbacks and sheer drop offs. Nevertheless, I made it safely to the top.

One of the first things I noticed when I got out of the car in the parking lot was that it was very, very quiet, except for some wind in the trees. I liked that. Which is good, because I spent all day and a good bit of the night there. Well, about twelve hours or so. I made my way to the visitors center, which is a small brick building with a beautiful mural, a fair sized patio with some tables and benches and sciency things, and an observatory dome on the roof of the building. Inside, it is filled with sciency displays in about 2/3 of the space and a gift shop in the remaining 1/3. Went to the counter and paid for the three tours ($15 for the lot) and for the evening observing program ($75). There were two choices for observing, a general objects and deep sky program and “Our Marvelous Moon.” It still being the monsoon season, I had reserved a spot for the moon program as I figured you can see the moon pretty well even in pretty bad conditions, but you can’t see all the faint fuzzies unless it’s pretty good.

Tour #1

The first tour was led by docent Katy, who is a professional astronomer, retired with 50 years experience. She was very knowledgeable as you might expect, and very engaging, as you might not expect. About 15 people had appeared for the tour, which began in the center with a little history about how the site was chosen, negotiated with the Tohono O’odham Nation, and developed as the National Observatory. The object of the tour was the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which had been retired earlier in the year. It is fascinating design and an exceedingly large instrument. As you can see in the pictures, there is a large vertical column connecting with a diagonal structure that extends underground. This diagonal column is north >polar aligned<, that is, it is aimed at the north celestial pole, the point to which the earth’s rotational axis points in the northern sky, like an equatorial telescope mount. Because it is, sort of. Turns out there is a rotating flat mirror at the top of the structure on the diagonal axis, and it tracks the sun. The sunlight reflects off the mirror and down the axis through a 500 foot optical tunnel to a concave secondary mirror, then back half way up the tunnel to any or all of three more mirrors. These mirrors reflect the light down into a variety of spectrograph instruments in a subterranean laboratory (which sounds more evil than it is). We got to look in from an observation room about half way down the optical tube, which looks kind of like a subway station. We also got to go down to the lab, although since it is closed now we could only look in. They did 5 or 6 decades of groundbreaking solar science there, but now it is considered obsolete. So we’re back to the question of what do you do with giant, historic, obsolete astronomy equipment? Oh, fun fact. While we were walking around the solar observatory, half the sky was clear blue and the other half was entirely socked in and producing lightning and thunder, so that was kind of exciting. What happened to that beautiful morning I drove in on?

Tour #2

We made our way back to the visitor center to see if there was anyone new going on the next tour. I don’t remember now if there was or not, actually. Katy led the second tour, too, which was to the creatively named >2.1 Meter Telescope< (that’s about 84″ or 7 feet). It is a large Cassegrain-style reflector on a large, equatorial fork mount. That it is equatorially mounted means the base is at a 32º angle from vertical. As the mirror alone weighs a ton and a half, having this enormously heavy yet super-sensitive piece of equipment standing at NOT perpendicular to its base felt a bit unsettling, like something was not right. Like the angles! (See what I did there?) Any way, this telescope has done lots of groundbreaking science and is particularly notable for being the first scope to use >adaptive optics<. At this point, several months after the fact, I don’t remember why, but I felt oddly bored with this telescope. Maybe it was that Katy spent a good bit of time explaining adaptive optics, with which I was already familiar. I remember being grumpy about that guy in the group who thought he knew more than the PhD astronomer, so maybe I converted my anger to boredom. Maybe I was hungry. I don’t know. Looking back, it’s an impressive instrument that I’d love to have in my back yard.

Break

We returned to the visitor center, and those of us who were staying on (pretty much everyone) could have lunch if we’d brought it, which it says to do in the literature for the tours. There is no food service for visitors. So I had brought some leftovers from dinner the night before at Za’atar, a mediterranean restaurant in Tucson. The weather was stable and pleasant at that point, so we ate out on the plaza. There are a couple of tables and benches, along with a couple cool sundials that have no practical application to lunch. I sat with the woman who manages the gift shop and schedules people for tours and night programs. She was very interesting to talk with. She is a member of the Tohono Nation and active in her church. She told me that she loves the quiet and the peacefulness at the top of the mountain (me, too!), and that people in her church ask her to pray for them while she is at work because she will be closer to God. We were both a little disappointed in their theology, but she prays for them nevertheless. She told me about her family and some of their struggles, so through the rest of my travels I prayed for her. 

Meanwhile the weather began to deteriorate, with clouds and fog moving in across the valley and across the mountain, too. Great. Made for some interesting photos, any way.

Tour #3a

The third tour was to the Mayall 4.1 meter telescope, the largest on the mountain. This part was led by a different docent, named Dave if I remember correctly. We began with some background and history at the visitor center, then moved to the parking lot. Two reasons for that: first, we were driving to the Mayall dome, and second, in the parking lot is a large cement donut with a mural painted on it. I had noticed it on my way in but not really looked at it. It turns out that the donut is a slug the same size and weight as the mirror for the 4.1 meter telescope that was used to balance the scope during construction. Once everything was finished and nothing was likely to fall, then they put in the actual mirror. Once that was done, they had to figure out what to do with a giant cement donut. Rather than roll it down the mountain, they invited a Tohono O’odham artist to do a mural on it, and it was put on display in the parking lot as you walk toward the visitor center. It’s pretty cool on all counts. Dave pointed out that a 160″ disk of glass weighs a couple tons, or at least this one does. What is remarkable is that the aluminum coating on the glass disk that makes astronomy possible is equivalent to about two paper clips, just a few molecules thick. Amazing!

We all loaded in a big white van to head up to the Mayall dome. We hadn’t gotten a quarter mile down the road when someone raced up, flagged us down, and told us we couldn’t go, because it was a hardhat day. They were renovating the dome and moving stuff with cranes, so it was declared unsafe for visitors. Well, that made for a short tour. We ended up back on the patio, and Dave continued his lecture valiantly. Shortly, though, Katy showed up, talked with Dave for a minute, and then excitedly told us they had arranged to let us see one of the other telescopes, the WIYN 3.5 meter.

Tour #3b

WIYN stands for Wisconsin, Indiana, and Yale Universities, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO, i.e. Kitt Peak). The WIYN scope, a large (obviously) alt-az-mounted Cassegrain reflector, is generally not open for public tours, but it was also down for maintenance, so we got lucky. It is about 20 years newer than the 4.1, and consequently it is vastly lighter and more compact and housed in a much more efficient box with shutters instead of a classic dome. Because the mirror was spin cast and honeycombed, it weighs about 1/8 of what the 4.1 meter mirror does. This means the mount can be correspondingly smaller and lighter, and the whole thing is just a lot easier to deal with. It has capacity for detector instruments in three different places at once that can be switched between easily by, well, I guess throwing a switch to move the tertiary mirror. There are dozens and dozens of actuators on the back of the primary mirror, which are not so much for adaptive optics as to correct for stresses when the mirror is tipped at different angles. Engineer Emily gave us the tour. She has been working on this scope since she was an undergrad, and now she’s the managing engineer for it and probably not yet 30 years old.

That concluded the daytime program, three and a half telescope tours for $15. Not a bad deal. I spent quite a while browsing the swag in the gift shop and exploring the displays in the visitor center before the next part of the adventure began.