Saturday, June 24, 2017

The June Tradition!

For over a quarter century now I've followed a tradition. Back in 1990, my first wife Vicki and I ran off to Vegas to get married. Pausing at the Canyon for a brief honeymoon before a road trip to the Midwest to meet my family, we noticed that a telescope set up at the rim to look within immediately gathered a crowd. We decided then that we'd invite a few friends to join us on our anniversary and have a star party. Thus was started the Grand Canyon Star Party, our anniversary in May of 1991 (4 telescopes over the week!) was butt-freezingly cold, so have held it dark-of-the-moon in June since the second interation in '92.

The early years the rangers seemed to tolerate us, and it took a decade to grow into the full partnership it is now between park and astronomer. I've managed to be the only attendee that has attended at least a night at every year's event, sometimes over the objections of my boss or my responsibilities of a care-giving spouse.

Today is the last day of this year's version, and I was able to attend the first 3 nights last weekend. It was a great time, and an affirmation of what I found the very first event in 1991 - the joy and appreciation in feedback from the tourists that may be seeing a dark sky for the first time is the highest payback that us as astronomers can receive in sharing the views through our telescopes! I ran the event for a generation (about 18 years), and it is nice to see it thriving under Jim O'Connor's and the Park Service's attentions. At left is a selfie I took in our parking lot at sunset with the venerable Celestron 14" - here with a piggy-backed 500mm lens for some late-night imaging...

This year's trip up was uneventful. An early-morning start of 6am got us through Phoenix before reaching the 115F+ temperatures that were expected. The road typically taken between Flagstaff and Canyon was closed because of a fire, so went west to Williams before north to the Canyon. Interestingly, the fire could be seen at one of the many cinder cones connected to the volcanic field with the San Francisco Mountains. The smoke from the fire made it look as though the ancient cinder cone was active again!

A quick stop at the telescope field, a run to the campground to set up the tent, a bite of dinner and then back to set up the telescope for the night. It wasn't until about sunset that I had a chance to roam and meet up with friends from over the years. At right, Bernie Sanden at left had a trick played on him - Dennis Young at right had hidden Bernie's expensive Tele-Vue eyepiece and replaced it with a cheap substitute. Before too much anguish, Dennis 'fessed up, and Bernie managed a smile at being "scammed". That is Joe Bergeron, long time artwork contributor for our t-shirt designs in blue at left...

The first night was fantastic! I had an immediate crush of public as soon as we were able to get Jupiter in the eyepiece. I had 30 people in line at my scope most of the night, so was difficult to change objects without upsetting folks in line for a while. Managed some great views of Jupiter, Saturn and Messier 13 in Hercules. The seeing was near-perfect, and, of course, as soon as the crowd departed after about 10:30, I fine-tuned the collimation of the C-14 and was able to run the power on Saturn well in excess of 300X without any breakdown!

After a reasonable night's sleep in the cool temps, I made it to the rim after nearly 24 hours there! It looked about the same as last year! Looking for a nice shot of it, over near Yavapai Point (where the star party was held for decades!), took some shots from one of my special viewpoints from where I used to set up my binoculars for hours and days to attract people's attention to the star party. Here I took a pair of HDR (High Dynamic Range) images with both the standard camera (Canon 6D) and an IR-modified camera (an old converted 20D). While the color image looks nice, I always like the alien view of an IR image, whose longer wavelengths cut haze, darkens a clear sky and turns vegetation white. The HDR image uses 3 different exposures at differing exposures to compress the shadows and highlights to see all details in the single frames...

When I had arrived at Yavapai, I noticed a little something out-of-the-ordinary. As I left my parked van, I spotted an elk as it walked past me towards the rim with single-minded-purpose! With a quick pace, looking neither left nor right, it seemed to be late for a meeting... After my own stop at the bathroom and collecting camera gear, I headed rimside too. As I approached, I found the reason for his being there! Right at the rim was a water bottle filling station and there was the elk... He had managed to open the valve and there he was slurping water from the valve!

Now realize these are NOT pets, nor raised in captivity. They are wild creatures capable of dangerous behavior if started or if fawns were around. Yet there was a crowd of people gathered around, most turning their back to it to take a selfie. The three girls at right asked me to take their photo, but I declined saying I wanted to document their selfie because they looked so stupid! There has been a huge uptick in elk over the years and they were pretty much everywhere around the park, at all hours of the day and night, so whenever driving you had to keep an eye out!

On night 2 there was a little smoke coming up from the fire near Flagstaff, but it dissipated and cleared just after sunset, never really affecting the observing. Huge crowds again, and I met some amazing people, whose story I'll save for a subsequent post. The top photo shows the 500mm lens recently obtained mounted on the scope and I hoped when the crown thinned, to take some photos to better show people what we were looking at with a few seconds of exposure. About 10:30 again the crowds thinned and I went looking for Comet Johnson C/2015 V2. It was in a very sparse field and took me a while to locate it, but a brief exposure showed the characteristic green glow, caused mostly by the dissociation of carbon in the vacuum of space as it approaches the sun. The exposure at left is a stack of 6 exposures of 2 minutes each and show a short stumpy tail that we could only imagine visually in the 14" telescope...

Those who have seen my photos before know I'm a fan of dark nebulae - seen mostly by silhouette against more distant star clouds. For that reason I show the exposure of Saturn at right - extremely overexposed at center. It happens to be crossing the Summer Milky Way and a long-ish exposure shows many of these distant dust clouds in profile. For that reason alone this is a favorite exposure from the Canyon!

Similarly, not far away, I tried the same thing on one of the coolest sights in the sky, Messier 22. A globular cluster, it contains the mass of about 300,000 solar masses, and is quite spectacular with the rich star fields in the background. In the full field at left, you can see the thin wisps of dark clouds in projection against the star clouds near the galactic center. While the 500mm is nice for showing extended clouds like this, it isn't optimum for showing details of objects like this cluster. A full resolution crop is shown at right and starts to show some details of the star cluster. It also has a lil' buddy to the upper right - what looks like an extended bright star is actually another globular NGC 6642. This smaller cluster is also nearly 3 times farther away (26,000 light years, vs 10,000) than M22, making it look diminutive.

Also nearby is a pretty pair of objects if you do wide-field imaging like this with the 500mm. You might have spotted them here before because M20 and M8 (Triffid and Lagoon Nebulae) are a common target of mine. Both glow with the characteristic red tint of hydrogen emission, as these star-formation clouds are predominantly hydrogen. The Triffid Nebula at top is so-named because it is split into 3 pieces by narrow dark clouds. It also sports a striking blue shade on top - the result of the dust and gas reflecting light from a nearby blue star.


Finally as I was considering closing down for the night, I noticed that the Andromeds Galaxy was getting high in the northeast. The 500mm is a perfect lens for the object as it barely fits in oriented diagonally. Messier 32 is the nearest bright galaxy to the Milky Way at about 2.5 million light years. It is also the farthest you can see with the naked eye if you have a dark enough sky!

Tuesday brought something rare - clouds! There was even thunder and lightning scattered around the Canyon. I spent some time along the Canyon edge. Shown here is an interesting sight - a single condor attracting a LOT of attention, not unlike a Hollywood starlet and a gaggle of press corps!

I ended up heading home after dinner, avoiding the 120+ degree heat of Phoenix by traversing it at Midnight! So I got my dose of the star party - glad I made it, always wanting more, but sometimes life gets in the way!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Another Momentous Day...

Today marks yet another milestone date - the 9th anniversary of Melinda and my wedding in 2008! It also starts the inception of this blog, but back then we didn't do a lot of photos on the blog, so some of these might not have been well-circulated. Since it was the second marriage of each, we took the easy route - took advantage of the Riverwoods Camp grounds to hold the wedding, and held the reception in their outdoor pavilion. Melinda's sister Susan funded the pig roast, and we decided on a Hawaiian-themed event. Melinda happened to have a surfboard (rare in Illinois!), which sister Maj painted to reflect our anniversary date. It was a spectacular event and we were married 50 yards from our house, circled by friends and family on a warm sunny June day. We were even married by the minister that oversaw operations at Riverwoods - Tony Danhelka! That is Tony with the bride and groom at right. Seems like we kept all details "in the family"!

But as we all know, life is anything but predictable, and Melinda left us last year. Eight years of marriage wasn't nearly enough, and sometimes I dwell on the what-ifs, but if anything, I'm grateful for the time we did have together, as do you all who knew and loved her like me. So I mark another date with tears and smiles, as I encourage you all to do the same if you knew her, or have lost your own "love of your life". "Gone, but not forgotten" is an oft-used phrase, but appropriate when remembering her smile lighting up every room she entered. Happy anniversary, my love!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Out And About!

After a month in the Midwest and a brief taste of dark skies on the CAC bus trip the weekend before, the draw of dark skies on the long Memorial Day holiday was enough to get me out to look at the stars! On Friday, after feeding the kitties, I headed out towards Kitt Peak and set up on a favorite pullout along the access road. Unfortunately it had been a windy day and the winds failed to drop like they were supposed to. I was way underdressed for the gale winds and cool temps at elevation - fortunately the snow mobile suit I keep in the van was still there and made the night's observing possible! The wind also limited the scopes I could use - I stayed with the 500mm Canon lens and the 70-200 zoom for some wider-field imaging.

The highlight of this time of year is always the rising Summer Milky Way! How can I avoid shooting my favorite area of the sky yet again - the area around the orange supergiant star Antares in Scorpius? At left is a spectacular 2-frame mosaic with the 500mm lens. Antares is the orange star very near the center - its light scattering off the dust cloud through the center of the frame. Right of Antares is the huge globular star cluster Messier 4, while between them and a little above is another globular - NGC 6144, located more than 4X the 7,200 light years of Messier 4. I love this field of view because of the complicated mix of dark, reflection and emission nebulae.

But I knew there would be another visitor as well! I recently saw a finder map for comet 71P/Clark. It is not particularly bright, but visible as a small greenish smudge not far from the left edge. The right image shows it a little better, complete with a little tail trailing off to the upper right! Comets that display any color usually show some green - caused by the sunlight breaking up carbon molecules that will glow green in the vacuum of space.


Another target on Friday was an emission nebula in Scorpius. I was shooting with 2 cameras - a recently-obtained T5i that has been modified for increasing red wavelengths to better record the red nebulosity of ionized hydrogen clouds. My other "new" camera (now over a year old) is the full 35mm format Canon 6D which also seems to excel at recording red nebulosity. I headed for what is called the "Cat's Paw Nebula", NGC 6334. At left is a wide field with the Canon T5i and 70-200 lens working at 175mm focal length. The two bright stars at lower left are the "stinger" stars of Scorpius, so this field is quite low in the sky. But right in the center is the "Cat's Paw" - looking like a red-ink print of the paw of a cat. The red coloration, of course, is caused by the ionization of hydrogen by ultraviolet light from hot stars in the cloud of gas. At right is the view with the 500mm and 6D, and again, has good red sensitivity for these hydrogen clouds. Both are relatively short exposures - the wide field at left is 12 minutes total exposure, the right is only 10 minutes! I've still got some exposures from Friday to look at, but these are gonna be my favorites!

On Saturday, I decided to head out to the Chiricahua Astronomy Complex (CAC) of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA). Even though I had just been out the weekend before, with the 40" scope as a potential viewing instrument, and the dark skies there is a powerful draw making up for the 2 hour drive... I got there just before sunset and set up my mount and the same setup as the night before on Kitt Peak. However, this time there was no wind and it was much more pleasant! At left Carter Smith is at right with his trainee John Meade, getting the 40" telescope ready for the evening. While it looks like a shot taken about sunset, it was considerably darker, but thanks to the "magic" high speed of the 6D, 1/3 second at ISO 8000 makes it no problem! Returning to the pads where my gear was set up, the same shot reveals the hubbub of observers preparing for the night...



My main goal for the night was a "bright" comet - C/2015 V2 Johnson! When it comes to comets, most anything visible in a small telescope or binoculars is considered bright, and unfortunately, this one will not quite be visible to the naked eye. Some of you know that Melinda's maiden name was Johnson, and as far as I know, the discoverer of Comet Johnson is not a relative! He is Jess Johnson, and works for the Catalina Sky Survey right here in Tucson. This comet was discovered as a faint smudge in November of 2015, and is just now at its closest point to the sun and the earth. We'll be able to show it as part of the Grand Canyon Star Party this June, after which, it will slowly be leaving the solar system - its hyperbolic orbit means it will not return to our part of the solar system again. With the 500mm lens, I got 10 frames of 2 minutes each and used the "Nebulosity" program to stack the images on the slowly-moving comet image. The result is at left. The bright star at right is Epsilon Bootes, and the comet is slowly moving almost due south.
What is interesting about the comet is that when zooming in, a sun-ward pointing spike appears!  This usually indicates that the earth is passing through the orbital plane of the comet.  At right is a cropped, stretched version perhaps showing it more clearly.  These sunward spikes are illusions and are actually well beyond the comet.  The solar wind pushes released gas and dust away from the sun to make the tail, and as we pass the plane of its motion, long-ago releases material can appear to point towards the sun.
 
That was the highlight of my Saturday at CAC. I tried some similar low Milky Way objects, but ran into some of the light dome off of Douglas 20 miles south of the observing site. Best to stay higher in the sky! I'm spoiled by the black high-elevation skies of Kitt Peak... Oh, and I did get a glimpse thru the 40"! While my camera was shooting comet Johnson, I ambled up and was just in time to view the huge globular cluster Omega Centauri. With it so low, no stepstool was needed, so extremely comfortable to observe. The cluster looked for all the world like a swarm of fireflies as the long path thru the atmosphere made the stars dance wildly! It was a sight not easily forgotten!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

CAC Dedication!

I don't set out to only post every 3 weeks or so - it just happens to work out that way! Last night the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) threw a party! Over the last couple years the club has developed a relationship with a benefactor that funded a warm/meeting room along with a pair of ginormous telescopes! Last night was the dedication of the Reynolds-Mitchell Observatory at the TAAA's Chiricahua Astronomy Complex (CAC). Bob Reynolds has generously contributed to a large roll-off roof observatory, but the star of last night's show was dedication of a 40" telescope! The TAAA wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted to attend could make it, so went to the trouble of leasing a big tour bus for hauling members on the 90 mile drive from the TTT truck stop at I-10 and Craycroft. Who could turn down a free bus trip, box dinner included, highlighted with viewing with a 40" telescope?! Not me! At left, our travelling hostess Mae makes sure we all have what we need!

I can't recall riding a big tour bus since our Senior Class Trip to Washington DC 45 years ago, so it was a fun time. Our seats were higher than the truckers in the big semis that we passed, so was a nice view of the passing scenery. Of course, some might claim there isn't much scenery in Southern Arizona except brown-colored desert, but Texas Canyon, shown at left is always amazing, especially if you don' have to pay attention driving! And, of course, once you've made it to Texas Canyon, you've already passed about a million of the signs at right - "The Thing" is a tourist destination just east of Texas Canyon, and is actually kind of a cool-kitschy stop worth a visit - especially if you need a rest room or a Dairy Queen stop! As mentioned, the TAAA also sprang for meals - boxed dinners from a local deli, with 4 choices of sandwich - pretty high living!


The trip seemed to fly by, and we got there a bit before sunset. There was quite an agenda on the night's program and after a rush to the bathroom (twin flush toilets!), the facility tour started. First up, former TAAA president and site manager John Kalas gave a guided tour of the site from the ramada. That's him at left, taken in a 4-frame mosaic taking in the sweep of members present (nearly 100 I'd guess), ramada and the new scope/warm room at right.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, I skipped the treasurer's tour of further development plans, instead staying and documenting some of my friends that I recognize from my travels up and down the Sulphur Springs Valley. From CAC, as from down to not-to-distant Whitewater Draw to the south (sandhill crane site) views of "Cochise's Head" as well as the 60-mile-distant Mount Graham topped by the LBT telescope showed up as familiar friends!


A few minutes later and it was time for more speeches! Former TAAA president Tim Hunter and owner of the Grassland Observatory reviewed the club's search for a dark-sky observing site, culminating in CAC. In the photo at left, Tim is shown at left, and Carter Smith (Chief Telescope Operator) prepares the 40" for use as John Kalas introduces our benefactor. At right, Bob Reynolds says a few words before handing off the sissors to his wife to cut the ribbon opening the warm room and telescope!







All too slowly, it got dark and the scope operators did an alignment to get the giant 40" telescope pointing and tracking and finally ready for use. The first object - a stunning view of Globular Cluster Messier 13. This view is taken with the Canon 6D with Nikon 16mm fisheye lens wide open at F.2.8. The 20 second exposure (ISO 5,000) shows stars and objects much fainter than the naked eye can see, including Omega Centauri just upper left from light dome from Douglas at right. Messier 13 can be spotted at upper left if you can make out the keystone of Hercules. At the upper edge is Jupiter, and between it and Scorpio rising at bottom center, a faint section of the zodiacal band can be seen!

A bit later and the scope was turned to Messier 82 in Ursa Major. The edge-on galaxy, 12 million light years distant displayed very nice dust lanes crossing the luminous band. In the photo at right (exposure details same as above), besides the scope, dominating the sky is the bright glow of Zodiacal light in the west - the Beehive Cluster (Messier 44) can be spotted in the midst of it! While both photos seem to show the area was brightly lit, the exposures seem to amplify the amount of ambient red light about. It certainly didn't look brightly lit to eye!

Before we knew it, 9:30 had arrived and we needed to board the bus for the return trip to Tucson. By the time we disembarked, loaded up the small amount of gear into the van and dropped off passengers, we walked into the house right at Midnight. A very special night of observing "in the can"! All I can say is that an observing trip down to CAC with the 40" is a rare treat - about to become less rare!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Fishing Season!

I'm currently at "Ketelsen East" in the western suburbs of Chicago, enjoying some "real" Springtime weather! After already threatening to break 100F about the time I left Tucson 10 days ago, the cooler temperatures, rain, flowers and outbreak of green here is a welcome sight! And we've had it all - 4" of rain over last weekend, and tonight there are freeze warnings in the area, so Summer still seems a long way off!

But with the downpour this weekend, on Monday the Fox River jumped out of its bank and got within about 50 feet of the house here! The image at left shows the water as it came up the "canoe beach" at far left and filled a depression in the middle of the lawn as shown. As the water drops back down, usually carp, some of pretty good size (I've seen up to 20" long!) are trapped in the "yard pond"! Somewhere I've got pictures that Melinda took of me trying to catch them by hand (hard) or with a large fishing net (easier) to dump them back in the river. After I gave up that earlier time, the herons and egrets move in and they were gone in a day.

So I wasn't really surprised, but startled when I saw my first great blue heron appear just before sunset tonight. The only telephoto I have is a 500mm Nikon mirror lens of '70s vintage given to me by a friend, and I rushed to install the adaptor that lets me use it with my Canon camera. Unfortunately I missed his playing with a sizeable fish, but got a nice portrait at left in the "yard pond" before he moved back over to the main river channel for some fishing where only his head is visible.


It started raining pretty hard again, and my last view of him was standing on the bank looking across it, or perhaps looking downstream at a kayak that was bearing down on him as he took off a few seconds later as they passed going upstream. If there are still fish in the pond, they will be back, though other than the one I saw the heron play with, I've not spotted any...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A New View of LBT!

It is never my intention to go a month between blog posts - it just seems to work out to that lately - I have no excuse! Case in point is this post about the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) - the photos were taken nearly 2 months ago! I was initially looking for permission from their director to ok the release of the images, but after so long, I guess I'll be looking for forgiveness rather than permission if they complain!


I feel sort of possessive of the LBT telescope as I supervised the polishing operations on the primary mirrors. Entering "LBT" in the upper left search window will return a number of posts, including some on the ARGOS instrument - my current favorite. ARGOS, of course, stands for "Advanced Rayleigh guided Ground layer adaptive Optics System" - an instrument mounted on the telescope that uses lasers to focus 10km above the telescope, those artificial "stars" are used to analyse and correct the atmospheric turbulence along the path. It really is exciting stuff, as it can improve seeing over a relatively large (up to 4 arc-minutes) field by a factor of 2 or 3.  While a factor of 2 or 3 doesn't sound that groundbreaking, note that the INTENSITY or brightness of a focused star goes up a factor of 4 or 9, by improving the sharpness that factor of 2 or 3.  Improving your star detection ability by a factor of up to 9 really is a big deal! This post really isn't about the instrument, merely observations of the lasers involved. For more information of the system and results, even from this run, go to the Max Planck Institute site - the sponsor of the instrument.

There was an ARGOS run in early March. With fresh snow on the mountain, I didn't even consider an observing site on Mount Graham, instead, went to the town of Safford, some parts of town enjoying a direct view of the telescope. I had obtained telephone permission to observe from the Discovery Park campus, but their view was a bit too obscured, so moved about a mile eastward for the good view shown above right at about sunset. You can see in the photo if you go west or north, the rise to the right of LBT starts blocking it. From my vantage point, LBT was 12 miles away - the closest I've been for an ARGOS run! The image at left shows my setup - from 2 sturdy tripods I was running a 500mm lens on the Canon 6D (full 35mm format) for a wide angle shot of the telescope, and the TEC140 (1,000mm with Canon XSi APS format) for the narrow field-of-view.

Looking very carefully at the above image, the laser projecting upwards from near the peak of Mount Graham can barely be seen. It was much more obvious through the optical aid of the telescopes and telephotos! At left is the view through the 500mm. Coupled with the larger format of the 6D, it gives a very nice wide field of view.

Through the TEC140, as with the photo at the top of the post, lots of details can be seen, including antennae in the sunset shot above! I took a series of photos with both setups, typically 30 second exposures under the nearly full moon was sufficient to get a good histogram. In the wide shot above, a wisp of clouds can be seen hugging the mountain. There was a layer of smoke that I suspect was from a controlled burn from the Tucson water treatment plant. The "Sweetwater Wetlands" had a burn of vegetation to control mosquitos, and can be seen as an enhancement in the laser scatter just over the telescope in some of the shots.

I chose to use only the narrow field in making the time-lapse of the evening, since the details were so stunning. In addition, I was able to start taking images before the dome opened, another advantage of knowing the phone number of the telescope operator and getting briefed on the observer's plans. So shown here are about 270 frames taken over a 3 hour period covering the dome opening, setup and following the first object of the evening. While it looks like the telescope is tracking across the sky much more slowly than the stars in the field, realize we are looking just over the horizon with a considerable focal length while the telescope is looking much higher in the sky.




Note that at no time was the green beam of the ARGOS laser visible to the naked eye. Even in my decent pair of 9X63 binoculars was it barely seen. Of course, as seen above, it photographs well! Finally as I was driving home with the telescope on its second object, I could barely detect a "green star" from inside the enclosure directly by eye, but that was all that was visible in my nearly 4 hours there! I've heard rumors that locals are upset at the lasers, but as you need optical aid to detect them, it hardly seems obtrusive! At the same time, with the gains in observing efficiency they are seeing it is proving its worth.

Before leaving, I took a few frames of the Discovery Park campus a mile to the west from my location. It is a cool place with interesting displays of both historical interest from the region, and the ground-breaking science going on at LBT and the optics from the Mirror Lab, including a cool 20" Tinsley telescope in the dome. Shown here is a 2-frame mosaic illuminated by ambient moonlight, and some security lights on the grounds that give it a nice glow...

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

South O' The Border!

With the lack of posts recently, you might well ask what the heck I've been up to. Well, part of my recovery from Melinda's passing is to live more "deliberately". While I'm busy part-time at work, I'm sure to take time for myself every day, including relaxing, interacting with friends, watching my "lesbian girlfriend" (as Melinda referred to her!) Rachel Maddow, dealing and spending time w/the cats, that sort of thing. I try to make time for the big things as well as small.

And another thing I've done, at least twice over the last 4 weekends, was to visit with my buddy Margie in Puerto Peñasco. As the nearest real beach to Tucson, it is only about 210 miles away, but generally works out to a 5-hour drive with a refreshment stop and some slowing at the border crossing. While some would consider the drive rather dull, the Sonoran Desert is far from boring, and in the 3 weeks between trips, the desert changed considerably, with a multitude of wildflowers in early March, and the start of cactus flowers by the end of the month. One of the interesting sights too is the road seemingly going off to infinity, shown at left. Just west of the Tohono O'odham capital of Sells, the straight-as-an-arrow road extends a good 16 miles here. And on the return trip from about this same point, there is an excellent view of Kitt Peak National Observatory from the west side of the mountain - a view not often seen by those of us normally travelling to the Observatory from Tucson.

I've known Margie for a couple decades - I think we met at the Grand Canyon Star Party back in the 90s, and she has always been generous with her hospitality at her "Beach Casa" in a residential neighborhood on the Sea of Cortez. That is her on the left, where I caught her while we worked on a crossword puzzle on her second floor exterior dining room. Yes, that is the Sea of Cortez off in the background... Mostly we seemed to relax, interrupted by eating, though we did some excursions, like to the visitor center of the Pinacate Volcano Reserve, as shown at right. It is an unusual place - that is the main volcano in the background, with black lava in foreground, some lighter-color mountains that preceded the volcano (Sierra Blanca - White Mountain), and outside the photo to the west are sand dunes from the Sea of Cortez and the Colorado River, which exits the mainland off in that direction.

While hanging out, we always kept an eye out for the small details! A few years back, well, way back in Easter of 2010, I caught an osprey bringing home a flounder for lunch - that is mom and baby waiting in the nest...

This time the nest is still occupied, though don't know if it is the same pair. Never saw them carrying fish home, but did happen to turn that way while they were silhouetted by the post-sunset twilight. This nesting season they apparently have two nestlings! The nest is a good 150 meters away from Margie's. The left image was taken with the Meade 80mm F/6 APO telescope at full-resolution on the XSi. At right, the current image is taken through the TEC140 (1,000mm focal length) with the Canon 6D.


One of the more amazing phenomena I witnessed on the earlier trip was the view of Bird Island. Located about 20 miles off the beach at Margie's location, it has served as the subject of blog posts on several occasions! This time though it had outdone itself! Shown at left is what I would consider a "normal" view of the island from Margie's "astronomy deck" atop her house. But on my visit in early March, an inversion layer in the atmosphere transformed it into a fantastic sight. Over the 3 days I spent there, it never appeared "normal", but was always distorted into weird shapes. At right is a representative offering - bizarre stuff! And what is more interesting that it changed minute-to-minute. I took several series of exposures lasting up to 3 hours, so should make for some interesting time-lapse clips!

Both trips down I brought along the TEC140 which was great for capturing fine details at great distances like the island and ospreys above. My first trip was at full moon - one of the reasons was the extreme tides they get at Puerto Peñasco - over 6 meters! Analogous to the sloshing of the water at the rear of the bathtub, the tides there are six times what they see at the mouth of the Sea of Cortez at the southern tip of Baja! Of course, the reason for the tides is the moon of course. At left is the distorted full March "Worm Moon" as it rose over the eastern horizon. The later trip 3 weeks later the pretty crescent was high in the west during evening twilight, shown at right. Both shots taken with the TEC140 and Canon 6D.



This later trip last weekend, Margie went around the neighborhood and invited most everyone she saw up to her roof to do some observing. Besides the crescent Moon, we also had a crescent Mercury low in the west and Jupiter low in the east. The sky wasn't real dark, but all got to see the Orion Nebula too. On the trip in early March, the crescent Venus was star of the show. While the iPhone isn't a star at astronomical shots, at left you can see the last of the western twilight with stellar-looking Venus in the west, while in the camera viewfinder, the crescent can be seen.

I also got some beach time both trips, the most recent one these green sand worms were brought to my attention! I'd never seen them before, and on the Google they are frequently mentioned, but no one seems to have a positive ID on them. They are quite striking, and I'll keep on the lookout for more and an identification!

You may still see more offerings from these trips, but thought it was about time to share some of these goings-on!