Sunday, December 26, 2010

Mt Lemmon Sky Center-Total Lunar Eclipse/Winter Solstice

Our journey up the mountain begin with participants gathering at the Babad Do'ag trailhead which is the first overlook as you head up the highway towards Mt. Lemmon. We were met by Adam Block who would be our guide and teacher for the program put on by the Mt Lemmon Sky Center. skycenter.arizona.edu/ Our mission was to ascend to the Sky Center stopping first to see the sun set directly behind Kitt Peak from a vantage point near mile nine on the the highway. Kitt Peak is another renowned southern Arizona observatory located about 35 miles from Tucson to the west. I have visited Kitt Peak a number of times and there are a couple of blog posts in the archives on this site that may be of interest to you.



Twenty-five participants with various telescopes, binoculars, cameras and tripods set up along side the road in hopes of viewing this unique sunset behind Kitt Peak that happens for only a few days each year in this spot. It looked promising for a while but clouds were moving though the Tucson area and as luck would have it the clouds prevented us from seeing the sunset at the precise moment we had prepared for.

As you can see from this picture the sky was quite clear behind us but clouds were the order of the day as we looked toward Kitt Peak which is the flat mountain top to the left in the shot below.



Even though we missed the sunset we had hoped for it was still quite beautiful and nobody was too upset. We headed up the mountain in a caravan until we reached the ski area near the top of Mt. Lemmon. The wind was blowing quite hard and it was apparent we were in for some chilling hours ahead as allot of the program was to be held out of doors. At this point we all loaded into a Sky Center bus with chains to travel the last couple of miles to the education center over snow covered road.

Once at the education center Adam used his computer to see what we could expect for clouds here in the Tucson area. The news was not all that promising for an unobstructed view of the eclipse but it looked as if anything could happen and that meant there was hope that we would have a chance to see this once in a lifetime event.
At around 7 Pm MST, with several hours to go before the eclipse was to begin Adam set out to help us understand the vastness of our universe and our galaxy and other galaxies beyond and to understand the distances in light years that separate us from our nearest known neighbors. It was truly fascinating and Adam's command of the material was evident throughout the presentation. It was also apparent that he loved his avocation and was rightfully proud of his accomplishments in his field. No question went un-answered and it was clear that there was a great deal to be learned from this man on this special night.

We made several trips from the education center to the Schulman 32" Telescope that Adam and the Sky Center use to do their work. At this point I'd like to provide a link to what it is that Adam actually does and some of the remarkable things that he has accomplished. You can read about Adam here: www.sbig.com/award/Block/Block.htm

The Schulman Telescope is an amazing piece of equipment and even though conditions for it's use were less than ideal we were able to open up the observatory and take turns looking at Jupiter and three of it's moons as well as a binary star. These are worlds that most people will never have the chance to see and I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to view them in this manner.

This was only my third outing with my new camera and my first taking pictures in these light conditions so as you can imagine I'm not totally happy with the results especially the shots of the eclipse which were either over exposed or under exposed. I am however happy with the overall experience (even the cold) because seeing new things and being new places is what drives me and if I get a few good pictures along the way to share that's great.

Everyone had multiple chances to use the telescope. At one point Adam showed us a program that he had developed that showed the projected orbits of two stars, three stars, and many stars. It was very helpful in understanding that stars don't follow the same orbital path over millions of years.


The clouds were fairly heavy most of the night and this picture looks allot like what we were seeing with the naked eye. The moon had a bright corona and clouds streaming past at a rapid rate.

photomas.net/pmaspages/appblock.htm

We took a short visit to the 60 inch telescope used by researchers to find asteroids and objects that could possibly impact the earth in the future. This telescope is responsible for finding the most near earth objects of any in the world. Quite an accomplishment. www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/Saving-the-World-From-Asteroids.html

Just before the eclipse was too begin something amazing and unexpected happened. The clouds disappeared and the moon shone brightly.

I took a few shots but frankly was more interested in watching the eclipse and also watching Adam use his telescope mounted camera to photograph the eclipse. You can see one of Adams photos here as well as others taken elsewhere. bb.nightskylive.net/asterisk/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=22361

I highly recommend a trip to the Mt Lemmon Sky Center and want to thank Adam Block for sharing his interest with those of us that just want to know a little bit about what's out there.



video

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter Solstice/Total Eclipse of the Moon

We will be headed out to Mt. Lemmon Arizona tomorrow afternoon to participate in the Sky Center's Winter Solstice/ Total Eclipse of the Moon program. The program lasts through the night and includes use of the Sky Center's 32 inch Shulman Telescope.
The program takes place mostly outdoors atop Mt Lemmon which is sure to be a challenge for us as we are used to the warmth of the valley which rarely dips below freezing. Information on the upcoming eclipse can be found here at: eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/OH2010.html

I of course will bring my camera and attempt to get some interesting shots to share on this blog in the very near future.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Whitewater Draw Sandhill Crane Visit

I traveled to Whitewater Draw near McNeil Arizona to see what was up with the Sandhill Cranes that migrate here each year. This was my fourth trip to the area this year with each one filled with Sandhill sightings. Just as I arrived a small plane circled low over the roosting area and a large number of the birds took flight and headed towards Willcox. For the next hour and a half the birds continued to head off to feed in the fields or perhaps to Apache Station. The numbers dwindled until there were no cranes visible from my location. As soon as the last cranes had flown away others began to return which was around 10:30 A.M.. There were allot more people here on this trip, as many as ten cars including one large group of about 10 people. Usually it's very quiet with little if any other activity.
As the birds returned most of them joined the large group but there were a few that landed in the first pool which I find interesting as cranes find comfort in numbers and usually stay together for safety. Fortunately this pool is closer and allows for a more up close view of the birds.

As time when on the Sandhills returned in flocks of varying size from a few birds to one that I estimate contained a thousand or more. As I have discussed before the cranes fly in formations that are not as defined as geese but they do seem to have a coordinated plan and larger flocks tend to break into smaller groups as they approach landing. There are times in flight that the formations disappear into momentary chaos but the birds reassemble and continue without much trouble.
While I was there the smaller flock roosting in the first pool grew to several dozen birds, a few at a time. Just before I left for the drive back to Tucson about half of the birds suddenly flew up and joined the larger group.

I have been listening closely to the vocalizations of the cranes which go from a quiet low guttural sound to a more boisterous vocalization when an individual thinks their space has been violated, to the calling that takes place between groups on the ground and flying birds. They have quite a range of communication skills.