Thunderstorms Captured by the Keck CloudCam

Our new CloudCam is undergoing testing. It assembles a video each night, just like the original CFHT CloudCam. The website is not quite public yet, but I had to share this one…

Heather mentioned at breakfast that she had been watching thunderstorms on CloudCam as she ran the telescope through the night. Thanks to the new camera we can all enjoy the spectacle.

Naked Eye 100 Challenge

Amateur astronomers love lists… The Messier observing list, the Hershel 400, the Hershel II, and on. Some lists can be complete on a night or two, some lists may take years, or even a lifetime to accomplish. Amateur astronomy is not the only avocation to use lists like this. Birders attempt to see all of the birds known to occur in their home country. Aircraft spotters love to see each model of aircraft in the air. Divers keep lists of species seen underwater.

Rainbow Wheel
A rainbow and cloud shadows produce a rainbow wheel
Lists like these are not only fun, but allow the list chaser to sample the wonders our universe has to offer. The challenge of finding and observing each of the items is worthwhile. Each object is a lesson into the science, hunting each object allows skills to be practiced.

Most of the astronomy observing lists require a small telescope to accomplish, or at least a pair of binoculars. One list is a bit different, it does not require any optical aid at all… The Naked Eye 100.

Continue reading “Naked Eye 100 Challenge”

Rainbow Wheel

As I have mentioned previously, Waimea has rainbows.  Not just a few rainbows either, but multiple rainbows through the day.  Add a few cloud bows, and moon-bows into the schedule and you get the idea of how common rainbows are in this town.  The last couple weeks have been above average, with rainbows even us jaded rainbow viewers have stopped and taken notice of.

I stopped for this rainbow as is looked like a good photo op,  I was just on my way home from work and had plenty of time to play with a camera.  To my surprise I noted that some cloud shadows were cutting the south end of the bow, creating a wheel, something I had never seen before.

Rainbow Wheel
A rainbow and cloud shadows produce a rainbow wheel

Green Flash

It was a beautiful evening as I drove home from work. The clear air allowing appreciation of all five volcanoes that loom over South Kohala. Indeed, the horizon was completely clear, the island of Kahoʻolwe visible over 60 miles away.

As I drove I noted the Sun beginning to settle into the distant horizon. At the wheel I couldn’t look long enough to be certain, but I thought I saw an Etruscan vase effect as the solar disk made first contact with the horizon. Curiosity peaked, I pulled over to properly watch the end of sunset. A pleasant surprise rewarded my view, a decent green flash was apparent as the last glimmer vanished.

Better yet, the camera caught the effect as well. Of the dozens of sunsets I have stopped and watched, this was the best green flash seen yet from such a high elevation. Still, it was modest compared to a couple flashes I have seen from sea level. I can only wonder how good this evening’s flash was as seen from the shoreline, 2,000 feet below.

Green Flash
A modest green flash as seen from the Mamalahoa Highway outside Waimea, 1 Dec 2011

Postcard from the Summit – Red Bow

Waimea is a place of rainbows. So common are they here it is a rare day that goes by without at least one rainbow.

But what does a rainbow look like at sunset? When the Sun’s light is reddened by passage through so much air and haze. The bow will begin to lose all color except for red, this creates a red bow…

Red Bow above Mauna Kea
A snow covered Mauna Kea at sunset as seen from Wiamea, with a bit of a red sunset bow above the western slope

Lunar Halo

A lunar halo may be quite pretty, but along with pretty sunsets, it indicates lousy sky conditions for astronomy.

In this case a high layer of thin cirrus, consisting of small ice crystals, cover the sky. The crystal shape is just right to bend the light at a specific angle, creating a halo 22° from the light source. A faint hint of color can be seen at the inner edge of the halo.

Lunar Halo
Lunar 22° halo over Mauna Kea

Lunar Halo

Damon alerted us to a nice display of a lunar halo currently gracing the skies over the Big Island. A nice example of a common 22° halo that can occur any time there is a thin layer if high cirrus. The 22° angle from the Moon is a result of refracting moonlight through ice crystals. These high altitude crystals act as little prisms, catching and deflecting the light at specific angles. The halo is actually very large, extending from 22° to 50° away from the Moon, but is brightest at the inner edge.

Lunar Halo
A 22° lunar halo produced by ice crystals high in the atmosphere over Hawai’i on 8 Dec 2008
Halos like this are really quite common, but always seem to catch the attention of those who do not regularly watch the sky. There are many fantastic sights that occur regularly around us, all we have to do is keep an eye to the sky. It has taken centuries to learn how these effects are created though the play of light and water, even now there are some that are poorly explained. It is fascinating to learn what can occur and how it works.

There is a great website, Atmospheric Optics, that has examples and explanations for the many beautiful effects that the play of light can create in the atmosphere. Sun dogs, rainbows, parhelic arcs, glories, specters and more.

This halo is fairly broad and ill defined, probably because the ice crystals are randomly arranged. The halo could be sharper if the crystals were all at the same orientation to us, something that can occur if the winds are right. I attempted a shot of this one, the first time I had attempted to photograph a lunar halo. Not the greatest photo, this was pressing the camera to it’s limit. Even so the image starts to show effects invisible to the human eye, including a hint of color at the inner edge of the halo.

The Symmetry of Mountain Shadows

The sunset view from the summit of Mauna Kea is truly spectacular. From the summit you are usually above the clouds, watching the sun sink into a cloud layer thousands of feet below. The colors are intense, the deep blue sky, the red cinder and the gleaming telescope domes. This spectacle draws tourists from across the globe, trekking up the mountain just in time to witness sunset.

The Shadow of Mauna Kea
The shadow of Mauna Kea rising through the haze at sunset with the pink of the Belt of Venus above
One part of this spectacle is the enigmatic shadow that rises through the eastern haze, a beautiful pyramid of darkness that stretches to the distant horizon. A serene and yet awesome sight, the shadow reaches for infinity through the pastel shades of the Belt of Venus above the blue-grey shadow of the Earth itself. The shape is a perfect pyramid, with a symmetry not expected in a natural phenomena.

Oddly enough, it seems that the actual shape of the mountain is not that important in the creation of such a triangular shadow. The shadow will show that beautiful shape regardless of the mountain’s profile. Even a flat topped mountain will have a shadow that converges to a point at the top. This contradicts our experience, where common shadows match the shape of the casting object. We expect a shadow to portray the object.

A mountain shadow is different, the shadow is elongated to a great distance by the scales involved, in this situation the geometry dictates a different result. The secret to the shape of the shadow is that it is driven by the effects of perspective, with the shadow reaching to a vanishing point in the far distance. In 1979 the problem of the mountain shadow shape was mathematically modeled by William Livingston and David Lynch. They showed that regardless of the mountain’s profile a conical shadow would be perceived by a viewer near the summit. The proportions may differ depending on the profile of the mountain, but the conical shape would remain.

In the case of Mauna Kea, the effect is not obvious, the mountain does have a fairly symmetrical shape with steep sides. A viewer might not recognize the fact that the projected shadow does not match the shape of the volcano. An astute observer may notice a discrepancy, Mauna Kea is notably rounded at the summit, yet the shadow possesses a sharp apex.

I was completely unaware of this until it was pointed out to me a few days ago by Dean Ketelsen when I posted the Mauna Kea mountain shadow image. I suspect Dean has had many opportunities to see this phenomena from atop Kitt Peak, a flat topped mountain that casts a conical shadow.

Unaided Vesta and a Moonbow

See a naked eye asteroid? Why not? I had never seen an asteroid with the unaided eye before and here was a good chance. Was it worth setting the alarm clock for 2am? Sure, you cannot answer that with a no if you are truly an amateur astronomer.

Off goes the alarm… wife starts grumbling… throw a few things in the vehicle… a few more complaints from my wife now up and awake… feed the cats… A kiss… and off into the dark. I setup at the end of the development where the streetlights have yet to be turned on, at the end of a dead end road surrounded by lots that have been graded but not yet built on. While setting up the gear I discover I am not quite alone, listening to hooves clattering up the road towards me. Someone riding by moonlight? No, just three feral donkeys that wander past. Later, the calm was broken by a male donkey being, ah, quite energetic, just up the hill, and willing to tell the world about it.

Conditions could have been better, Jupiter was a swimming ball, so much for a little planetary viewing to pass the time awaiting moonset. Transparency was only so-so with the usual low altitude tropical haze and the occasional cloud scudding through. So just sit back and enjoy the night for a while, and try to ignore the loud braying that occasionally disturbed the otherwise peaceful night.

As I waited for the moon to set I noticed a bank of clouds approaching from the northeast. The usual cloud bank over the Kohala volcano was reaching out a little further than it usually does. This was a bit of a concern, when the trade winds are blowing this cloud bank usually forms over the Kohala and with it a heavy misting rain that drizzles constantly in Waimea. I looked about at my gear and decided to cover some of it up in case this cloud bank got closer.

And it did, and as usual the mist was falling ahead of it driven by the steady breeze. Combine a wall of mist and a setting bright moon and the unexpected can occur. I looked out to check the cloud’s position and quickly did a double take. Hanging there in the wall of mist was a beautiful, ghostly moonbow. Grab the camera time!

Camera, tripod, remote shutter release… dash 50yds to where the big power lines would not dominate the picture… hope not to find the donkeys that are around here somewhere… find a spot on the rocks of the ancient lava flow where I could setup the tripod without endangering the camera or my ankles… in the dark… focus the camera… in the dark… frame… program the shutter release for a one minute shot… fire! Time for two frames before the moonbow faded from sight. A quick check of the frames and victory! Got it!

Waimea Moonbow
Moonbow! 1min, Canon 20Da, 17mm@f/4 with the lights of Waimea at center

With the fading moonbow and the setting Moon I was able to return to my mission objective, Vesta without optical aid. Finding the asteroid was trivial, just starhop up from Jupiter or down from ζOph and there is was. Swung my little TV-76 to the correct location and there it was, right on the location plotted. Easy to see at about 5.5 mag. a little brighter than HIP80793 at 5.6 mag. that was located about 1°sp. Naked eye was tougher, there was a line of 4-4.2 mag. stars coming up from Sco that was relatively easy, but it took averted vision to find Vesta and then only occasionally as it would appear and dissapear before my eye. I was clearly being hampered by the lousy seeing and poor transparency down lower in the sky. I am sure from a better site, possibly up on the side of Mauna Kea without the moonlight it would be quite simple to spot. I will need to try again before this opposition is over. That will have to wait a bit until after full Moon.

Vesta 28May2007
Vesta (marked), Jupiter and Summer Milky Way, 40s, 17mm@f/4, fixed tripod