Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In the path of The Ring of Fire!

For my close friends out there they know of a few of my passions. My wife and two dogs of course being #1 on the list. Most of my friends also know I love hiking, backpacking and photography as well. But my closest friends also know of another of my hobbies. Astronomy
When I was about 13 years old I was helping my dad clean out our attic one spring day. I ran across a small Sears telescope in a box. It wasn't mine, it must have belonged to one of my older brothers. In fact, I never even remembered seeing it before so my guess is that they got tired of it many years before. I decided to take it out of the attic and play with it and that is how my love of astronomy began. I waited till dark and set up the scope to look at the crescent moon. The scope really was a piece of crap but I persisted and eventually was able to train it on the moon and was amazed at being able to see craters on the surface! Weeks went by with me looking at the moon every evening, fascinated by the changing phases, I started reading and learning about what caused the changing look of the moon. Then one evening just as I was about to bring the scope in for the night I noticed two bright "stars" rising in the east. They were very bright, brighter than any other stars in the sky and they had a strange look about them. They didn't "twinkle" like the rest of the surrounding stars. In fact they glowed steadily without the slightest flicker. I decided to point the telescope at them and see if I could find them. Up to this point I had only looked at the moon and it had gotten fairly easy to find in the very narrow field of view of this scope. Eventually I was able to spot the larger, brighter of the two objects. It looked like a tiny beach ball with a couple stripes on it and there appeared to be four other tiny lights lining up around it.
This is roughly what I saw though not quite this clear.
I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking at but I was positive it wasn't a star.
next I decided to point to the other object just above it but not quite as bright. After fooling around a bit I was finally able to get the object centered and in focus. Holy Cow! Saturn!

This again is roughly what I was looking at. The two images above are NOT mine. They are samples found online of what got me hooked on astronomy.
Putting two & two together, I realized the first brighter object had to be Jupiter and its four Galilean moons.
I immediately started saving up for a bigger, better scope and eventually purchased another larger Sears refractor and continued exploring the sky and learning the constellations.
The new scope also came with a solar projector. A small filter that went over the front element and a plate that attached to an arm on the scope to allow you to safely view the sun. I remember sitting in the yard with a drawing pad and trying to draw the image of the sunspots projected onto the plate. I really thought I was doing good scientific work then!
Eventually, like all hobbies, it got even more expensive and I bought an 8" Celestron SCT scope. This one had a motor and would guide with the stars as they rotated above. It was with this scope that I had a chance to view and photograph my very first solar eclipse. It was July 11, 1991. I couldn't afford to fly to Hawaii or drive all the way down to the tip of Baja California to witness the total eclipse but I had a friend living in Flagstaff, AZ at the time and I packed up the car, scope and all, and headed across country for a solo trip to observe/photograph the eclipse from the parking lot of Griffith Observatory. Somewhere I have slides from this trip. I'll get them scanned and post some other time.

By now I'm sure many of you are wondering where the heck are the pictures from the solar eclipse this past weekend, right?
Keep your pants on, they're coming.
Living in Las Vegas we were fortunate enough to be close to the center line of this past Sunday's annular solar eclipse. Had we stayed in Vegas though we would have only seen a partial eclipse and I've already been there, done that. A good friend of mine, Fred Bell, and his family and my wife decided to drive up to the Wayne E Kirch Wildlife Management Area about 180 miles north of Las Vegas. They have camping spots and just so happen to be right under the path of the "Ring of Fire".
We drove up to the area Saturday afternoon and camped out overnight under the stars so we'd have a prime viewing area for the eclipse. As it turned out, the road access to the park would be closed most of the day Sunday for the Silver State Classic Challenge auto race so we didn't have much company in the park other then a few fishermen that barely knew anything about the eclipse.

We made it to the campground and settled in before sunset and I captured this image from our camp site.

Sitting around the campfire, smores, blankets, clear skies and Iridium Flares!

Speaking of Iridium Flares......

The summer Milky Way rises above our campsite. The red dotted line in the upper right is an airplaine flying overhead during the 30 second exposure. Looking at the image full sized you will notice four faint "scratches" also in the image. Those are passing satellites.

Another image like the last except I used a red flashlight to light up the campsite.

The next morning, Sunday, May 20th, we packed up camp and moved a few miles down by one of the lakes to our planned observing site. The surrounding area of the lake was very marshy and had plenty of waterfowl and other birds to shoot.

OK, OK, enough teasing. I know everyone wants to see the eclipse photos so just a couple more shots to show off the setup and they are coming.

My latest telescope, a Meade 12" computer controlled scope. When photographing through the scope it is equivalent to a 3050mm f/10 super telephoto lens. The other tripod has the 600mm f/4 Canon super telephoto with a 1.4x extender on it. So that setup is an 840mm f5.6 setup. Followers of my safari adventure will remember many of the great close ups were captured with that rig. Both the scope and the lens are covered with solar filters to safely view the sun during all phases of the eclipse. A special thanks to my friend, Glenn Petrichick, for loaning me his solar filter while he was out of town and unable to view the eclipse. It was used on the 600mm lens.

Our exact location, very important to know....

This angle shows the solar filters attached to the front of the scope and lens.

Checking out the sun wearing my stylish solar glasses I made using safety solar film and an old pair of 3D movie glasses. NO, you can't safely view the sun using movie theater 3D glasses. I only used the frames and attahed the solar film to the front to block 99.998% of the sun. Looking through these you can see nothing but the disc of the sun.

Checking focus and alignment on the big lens.

Our own private viewing area, just us and the birds!

The view of the sun through the 840mm lens.

And through the telescope. The image is too large to fit on a single frame. Notice the sunspots? The smallest spot visible here is larger then the Earth! Kinda puts things into perspective for just how tiny and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.

First Contact! The name for when the outline of the moon first blocks the solar disc. In the bottom right you can just see the beginning of the eclipse.

First Contact through the 840mm setup.

A little bit more of a bite here.

A cool view taken with my P&S held up to the telescope's spotting scope.
This shot was taken just a minute or so before second contact. Second Contact is when the entire outline of the moon is visible with the surface of the sun showing an unbroken ring around it.

Second Contact!

The one time I wish the scope's magnification wasn't quite so high. With it we are unable to view the entire Ring Of Fire.

Third Contact, when the moon breaks the ring once again. Total time for the Ring of Fire from our location was 4:05 seconds. And just like that, it's over.

Now we wait for the end of the eclipse or sunset. Which will come first?

Another shot with the P&S through the spotting scope.

Just minutes before the eclipse is about to end, Fourth Contact, the sun makes contact with the horizon.

And there it is, the end of a perfect astronomical event. The sun sits on the horizon and I quickly started breaking down the scope because it's been a very long day and we still have a 3.5 hour drive back to Vegas. I wish I had remembered to take a photo of the back end of the Xterra while it was fully loaded. I had just a sliver of a view through the rear-view mirror yet we managed to break down and get the truck packed in a record 30 minutes.
The following image is a composite of 13 images taken throughout the series, edited in Photoshop to combine them into a single "multiple-exposure" image.

DO NOT copy, print, re-post without prior written permission.

The end of a great weekend, camping with family and great friends.
Next on the astronomical agenda, June 5th, Venus will transit across the sun. If you think solar eclipses are rare, they are as common as water compared to Venus/Solar transits. Since man has had the technology and understanding of astronomy to safely view the sun, Venus has only passed directly in front of the sun seven times. After the June 5, 2012 event, the next time it will happen will be the year 2117! Click HERE if you'd like to learn a little more about this event. Remember, the same rules apply for viewing the Venus transit as apply during a solar eclipse. Safe filters are mandatory! of course, you can always visit my blog here the day after the event for my coverage.

::: Edit 5-27-12 :::
I finally completed the edit of the entire sequence of images taken with the 840mm lens/camera. The camera triggered a shot every 15 seconds throughout the entire eclipse and I finally finished editing the sequence together to create this short video clip. Watch with the sound up and the highest possible resolution to get the most out of it.