Postcard from the Universe – Jupiter and Moons

A nice image of Jupiter with the moons (left to right) Europa, Ganymede and Io. Taken early Sunday morning from Hale Pohaku. Conditions were quite nice, both for photography and simply observing by eyeball through the telescopes set up.

The telescope used is not mine, but belongs to fellow club member, Maureen. We had just collimated the ‘scope, aligning the optics for optimum performance. I wondered just how good the performance might be. The answer? Pretty good!

I used the Canon 60D to shoot the video. The ‘scope was a Celestron 9.25″SCT operating at f/10. The camera has a 640×420 cropped video mode that is ideal for this sort of use. Shooting at 60fps it generates very high quality video.

The frame is a stack of 900 frames selected from well over 1500 frames in the source video. The result is quite pleasing, particularly the moons. Three of the four large Jovian moons are visible. They appear as disks, with the larger Ganymede notably bigger than the smaller Io. The disk of Jupiter shows good color and cloud formations. Overall the result is excellent and shows the promise of using the DSLR to shoot planetary video. I will be experimenting with this method and expect even better results in the future.

Jupiter and the moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (left-right)

Shooting in the Dark

A supernova, a comet, a new camera and a dark night.

I have had the Canon 60D for a while now. Since April in fact. It was my main carry camera in Alaska this summer. This was the camera used to produce the laser shots and videos that were published far and wide. But I have never used the camera on a telescope. A new Moon observing weekend is an opportunity to change that.

Astrophoto Setup
The NexStar 11″, the TV76mm and a Canon 60D setup for astrophotography at the MKVIS
I have recently re-assembled my astrophotography rig in the garage. But that rig has some technical issues that need to be solved before it is ready to use. Instead I packed up the NexStar 11″ scope, a scope usually used for public observing, but also a nice photographic platform. Piggyback the TeleVue 76mm atop the larger scope, attach the 60D and I am ready to shoot. Well? Maybe a bit more work than that. With alignments, focusing and more it was an hour before the first exposure.

While my camera was busy shooting sequences, I wandered around and visited with the other folks enjoying the night. A few peeks through other scopes at favorite objects was about all the visual observing I did. There were a couple groups using cameras without telescopes to shoot stars capes under the dark sky. We traded hints as multiple cameras worked the night.

An orange glow in the clouds betrayed new lava flows on Kilauea. Even thirty miles away we could make out bits of a channelized a’a flow. The pair of binoculars I had brought became one of the most popular optical instruments around.

I was using the rig without any autoguiding, as a result guiding errors spoiled a number of exposures. I kept the exposures short, and shot bright objects. I have sequences to process of a lot of old favorites… M31, M42, a few open clusters like M11 and M38, the Pleiades and more. Just before dawn I even shot a sequence of the Tarantula Nebula skimming the slope of Mauna Loa. Two 8Gb SD cards filled and part of a third. I will be some time processing the many images taken through the night. There is even some video of Jupiter and Mars to process into high resolution planetary images.

There were three telescopes still operating when dawn appeared. Maureen, Cliff and myself watched as the sky grew bright and a thin crescent Moon rose above the slopes. Even then we spent a little time observing and photographing the Moon or Mars as the stars disappeared. We were still breaking down gear as sunlight swept the hillsides around us. Tired and yet elated we greeted the Sun.

The usual suspects setting up gear for a great night of observing on Mauna Kea...

Laser Susan

The old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” has a certain truth to it.

In this case the necessity is created by the conditions. Sub-freezing temperatures, bone chilling wind, and the need to be outside under these conditions. The summit of Mauna Kea can be downright miserable for mere human beings. Yet, in order to operate the laser, someone has to watch and insure we do not illuminate some passenger aircraft on the way to Australia.

Thus we have laser spotters, a hardy crew indeed. Braving the conditions, spending hours watching the sky to insure we operate safely. We are attempting to introduce technological solutions to the problem. The FAA however is an extraordinarily conservative organization, rightly so when hundreds of lives are at risk on any given flight. It takes time, many years, to approve another method of insuring safe laser operation.

It is a cold job. I have done it for a few hours, just enough to instill a real respect for the guys who do it all night. You bundle up in many layers of insulation and attempt to get comfortable in a position that allows observation of the area of sky around the beam. Given the heavy clothing it is a pain to simply sweep the sky, and completely reposition each time the telescope changes target.

Given the problem, Doug Macilroy, one of our intrepid Keck crew, saw a solution. It took time, and a number of prototypes to get it right. But he now has a neat way to stay comfortable and warm while scanning the sky. Now we have the “Laser Susan”!

YouTube video for the Laser Susan

Postcard from the Reef – Fellows Nudibranch

I have seen and photographed these fellows a few times. Endemic to the Central Pacific, the species is commonly seen in dives on the west coast of Hawai’i. The surprise this time was what I found nearby. A flash of bright white is quickly spotted in the beam of my light as I explore the cave. Two spots appeared on the cave roof. The first is the nudibranch, quickly recognized as a Fellows Nudibranch.

I take a couple photos, even though I have seen this species often enough before. I do not immediately notice that the second spot, somewhat hidden in a crevice, is not the same. Upon another look it turns out to be an egg mass, bright white like the slug that laid it. A neat spiral of white eggs against the algae covered rock.

Fellows Nudibranch
A Fellows Nudibranch (Hiatodoris fellowsi) on a cave roof at about 40ft, Malae Point, Kohala, and egg mass was about 6″ away
FFellows Nudibranch Egg Mass
An egg mass from a Fellows Nudibranch (Hiatodoris fellowsi) on a cave roof at about 40ft, Malae Point, Kohala, an adult was about 6″ away

A Last Look at UARS

Just watched UARS go overhead. Possibly the last chance before it reenters the atmosphere tomorrow. Pretty too, I was outside Waimea and the satellite went right over Mauna Kea. The bright satellite was skimming through high cirrus lit by the last rosy glow of sunset. Notably brighter than the predicted -1 magnitude, I would say at least another mag brighter, with a couple flashes near -3 or -4.

Pits in the Ice

You know it is cold when the very air starts to freeze.

This is what happens in a Martian winter when no sunlight reaches the polar region. It grows so cold that the atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide, begins to freeze and fall to the ground as snow. Frozen carbon dioxide, dry ice, accumulates into a permanent polar cap. While the extent of this polar cap waxes and wanes with the Martian seasons, there is always some ice.

The image below, taken by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows of a section of the southern permanent polar cap. Late summer has caused much of the polar cap to sublimate (convert back to gas), exposing some of the rock under the ice.

Here much of the terrain is shaped by the annual freeze and thaw cycles. These pits are probably the result of these cycles and are about 60m (200ft) across. Soon the region will return to the darkness of winter and the pits will be re-buried in the ice.

Pits in the Polar Cap
Pits in the southern Martian polar cap exposed by late summer sunlight, image taken July 29th 2011, credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Neptune and Triton

Mike Brown did more than give a lecture while in Hawai’i. He just finished a four day observing run using Keck 2 with AO and OSIRIS, as well as gathering data with NIRSPEC. The target? Among other things Mike and his team observed Neptune and the large moon Triton. Triton is thought to be a captured KBO (Kuiper Belt Object). These objects, including well known Pluto, and lesser known, but just as large objects like Eris, Haumea, Makemake and Quaoar, are Mike’s area of expertise.

It is always nice to see a system I help maintain operating well and producing images like this…

Triton and Neptune
A Keck AO / OSIRIS photo of Neptune and the large moon Triton, credit Mike Brown/CalTech

Diving Malae Point

Called Black Point by most divers, found as Malae Point on maps, whatever the name it is a great dive area. The plan is simple, rendezvous at Kohala Divers. Some folks need fills, and others need to toss their gear into one of the 4WD vehicles needed to reach the shoreline. The Kohala coast is a diver’s delight, just about anywhere you can get to the water you will find a good dive site. But there are few easy access points, anything else requires a rough ride down rocky roads to the water. We have a few routes we have explored, this weekend we would use one of our favorites, a small strand we have named Lone Kiawe Beach.

Kohala Diving
The crew preparing to dive near Malae Point, Mark and Patti, Sky, Kirk, and Pete joined me for a two tank morning
The water is rougher than we would like. No problem once beyond the rocky shoreline. But enough to make entry and exit interesting. We find a small rock shelf that drops into five feet of water allowing a safer entry with a quick getaway from the rocks. It would be easy if we were just snorkeling, but the heavy tank and buoyancy weights of the scuba gear make for cumbersome movement. The first folks out quickly doff gear and return to the ledge to assist the others. Still, I pick up a couple bruises and a bloody scrape getting out.

Just out from the beach are several great caves in about 30-40ft of water. These are pretty big caves, with multiple entrances through the heavy coral. Perhaps they were originally lava tubes, though eons of wave action have sculpted and expanded the caverns to include numerous nooks and shelves. Many are in a ledge about 20-30ft below the surface, a structure that may have once been a shoreline during some age of lower sea level. Lobsters, nudibranch, cowries and more to be found during a careful exploration. I attempt to move slowly to avoid stirring up silt. Adjusting my buoyancy I hover and probe the recesses with the light. Dozens of red ‘ala’ihi scatter, avoiding the beam, withdrawing into narrow places I cannot reach. Here and there ‘upāpalu hover, awaiting the night to leave the cave and hunt.

Pete's Attitude
Pete Tucker hamming it for the camera while diving near Malae Point
One oddity catches my attention… Dozens of juvenile Humuhumu Lei (Lei Triggerfish). They seem everywhere, 2-4 inches long and clustered in small gangs across the reef. A good recruiment year for this species? In general the fish population seems healthy. This area is outside the Lapakahi Replenishment Area, but also a long way for the aquarium collectors from Honokohau to run.

We spend our surface interval talking story in the shade of the large kiawe tree. Breaking out drinks and munchies there is time to simply enjoy good company and celebrate the experience. Sit back, gaze at the blue water and remember… We live in Hawai’i.

The second dive goes much as the first. Nothing particularly spectacular found on the dives. No great photos on the card when I downloaded the SD card. Just a nice morning spent underwater on a beautiful Kohala day. Returning to Kawaihae we celebrate yet another local experience, burgers at Kohala Burger and Taco. A day to remember.

ISS Time Lapse

I do not usually post random YouTube vids here. But sometimes I just have to. I seriously suggest you select 1080pHD and expand to full screen now.

The shot starts over the west coast of North America heading south. This particular orbit went right down Central and finally South America. You can pick out a lot of major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Mexico City, etc., by the lights. Also spectacular is the lighting in several storm complexes along the coast of Mexico and further into South America.