Of Pu’u and Perseids

Pu’u dot the landscape of the Island of Hawai’i. Pu’u, (pronounced poo-oo) is an interesting Hawaiian word that can mean hill, bump, pimple, wart, or any similar concept, but in this case generally means cinder cone. These reminders of the volcanic origins dot the sides of the big volcanoes like pimples on the face of the island. They are everywhere and each has a traditional name. Locals have used them since the dawn of civilization on the islands to give directions, describe legal land boundaries and name roads throughout the island.

Learning your way around the island is often learning the names of the Pu’u. I use them to mark my progress along my morning commute to work and note the weather above Wiamea. A large pu’u stands above the end of Saddle Road where it turns into the center of the island and another pu’u marks the intersection of Saddle Road and the Mauna Kea access road that climbs to the summit winding through the pu’u that cover the flanks of the mountian. Keck Observatory itself sits on the rim of Pu’u Hou ‘Oki.

The West Hawaii Astronomy Club’s dark sky observing site sits directly beside a small pu’u that goes by the name of Pu’u Kuainiho in a unit of State DLNR land named for Pu’u Anahulu. Nothing fancy, a large gravel lot just off a major state highway, but far anough off to avoid the headlights. Easy to find along the road from Waimea to Kona. It sits at about 2,000ft elevation, high enough to be above most of the low altitude tropical haze. Being in the rain shadow of a 14,000ft peak the site offers surprisingly reliable weather, it is often cloudy in the evening but almost always clears after dark. The only real issue is the often heavy formation of dew and some ground mists that will plague observers. The site is a comprimise between fairly decent skies offered by lower elevations here in Hawaii and the truly spectacular observing that can be had from sites high on the side of Mauna Kea at 9,000ft. The only issue is that those perfect Mauna Kea skies are accessed by a rough hour long drive up Saddle Road and are often windy and quite cold. Sometimes a warm site 15min from home on a good road wins the toss.

This time the target was meteors, a shower I had often not observed because it generally occured in the middle of Tucson’s rainy monsoon season. But a dark sky with no Moon and access to a decent dark site a few minutes away was simply too attractive. Except, of course, for the 2am setting in the alarm clock. I had expected a few other observers to be out for the peak, but when I got to the site I was alone. No matter, nothing new for me. I had brought along the Losmandy mount and the DSLR for a little attempted meteor photography and a lounge chair for relaxed meteor observing.

Set the mount up, a quick polar alignment with a polar scope good enough for wide field photography, bolt the camera on and let it go. Just lie back in the chair with a couple blankets and I am set!

OK, start the show now…

…I must have waited five minutes for the first meteor.

But meteors did appear. A few dim ones widely scattered and a few bright ones from time to time to annouce that something out of the ordinary was going on. I kept a few rough counts to do a quick estimate of rates using the camera’s shutter interval as a timer. I would get three to five every five minute interval giving rates of around 30-60ZHR. Nothing spectacular, just a decent show as the Perseids are so well known for. Though after the true Leonid meteor storm I witnessed in Tucson a few years back anything else does seem a little tame.

As for the photographs? A careful examination of every photo shows a staggering number of meteors were captured by my extensive photographic effort. I had to painstakingly go though each photo to come up with a grand total of…


I did get a nice photo of the Perseus-Cassiopea region of the Milky Way however…

Cassiopeia and Perseus
Cassiopeia and Perseus region of the outer Milky Way, Canon 20Da, 14 5min exposures stacked, M31 and the Double Cluster are easily visible

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

A Daytime Comet!

C/2006 P1 McNaught is currently passing close to the Sun. At a mere 18 million miles (0.197 AU) from the Sun the intense solar radiation is causing the comet to boil and vent violently. The resulting cloud of gas and dust is reflecting enough sunlight to brighten the comet dramatically. Estimates are placing the comet at mag. -5 or even mag. -6. This is much brighter than even Venus! Some observers are reporting easy unaided eye visibility, but in the sky over Tucson a lot of dust and aerosols in the air are causing a great deal of glare around the Sun. Thus binoculars or a telescope is required to see the comet.

C/2006 P1McNaught
C/2006 P1 McNaught captured with a TV-76 operating at f/5 and a Canon 20Da DSLR, 1/8000 sec, gain at 100ISO. Taken 2:29pm 14 Jan, 2007 and processed with Photoshop. Three frames aligned and stacked in Photoshop to improve the signal to noise ratio.
The challenge is that Comet McNaught is just five degrees east of the Sun. Observing so close to the Sun presents distinct dangers, I do not want to fry my retina! So I carefully positioned my TV-76 on the alt-az mount so that the Sun was just behind the edge of my carport. Thus I could pan around and locate the comet with little fear of direct sunlight down the tube. A few frames with the Canon 20Da turned out OK but not great, those dust and aerosols in the sky and the resulting glare is reducing the signal to noise in the images. The photo to the right is a stack of three images in an attempt to improve the signal to noise, then greatly cropped in and levels adjusted in Photoshop.

The view was better in the eyepiece. A sharp point of the coma with a fan shaped tail. This really looks like a classic comet, I had not expected such a good tail in the bright sunlit sky. This is my first daytime comet, and since the opportunity may not come again anytime soon, this may be my only chance to see one, truly a once in a lifetime event!

Mercury Transit

About a dozen times a century Mercury passes in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. The event is observable with a modest telescope and a solar filter, Mercury can be seen as a small black dot crossing the surface of the Sun. If half of those happen when the sun is below your horizon the average person will have the chance to observe five or six in a lifetime. Since the next opportunity will not occur until May 9th, 2016 I didn’t want to miss this one!

Photographing a Mercury Transit
90mm refractor Violet Haze photographing the transit
I took the day off.

Considering that Mercury never gets very far from the Sun means that most of the time you can observe Mercury it is low on the horizon and is typically seen through a great deal of atmospheric distortion. A transit is one exception to this, during a transit mercury is a sharp disk, very different from the multicolor jello ball that is usually seen.

The 2006 Transit was well timed for observation across western North America, starting just after noontime and ending at 5:09pm MST. This put the Sun high in the sky for all but the last part of the event. Our weather cooperated as well, delivering a cloudless blue sky the entire day in place of the clouds that had been forecast. The air was reasonably steady as well allowing good photographic and observing conditions.

I took advantage of the weather and photographed almost the entire transit, all but the very end when the sun sank below the trees in my neighborhood. I used the Canon 20Da and setup a timer to shoot every 5min. The only issue was the inability to do a polar alignment on the mount when setting up in the middle of the day. The result was I had to manually guide the scope every 10-15 min to keep the sun centered.

I got plenty of good photographic material, enough for a few single photos as well as an animation of the transit. A transit is an impressive demonstration of the scale and arrangement of our solar system. Not hard to visualize the reality of those textbook drawings of planetary orbits after you have had such an opportunity to see the real thing.

No complaints on my second Mercury transit.

Mercury Transit 8Nov2006
The Mercury transit of 8 Nov 2006 in progress. Mercury is about halfway between the center to the bottom, a large sunspot complex is visible on the left edge. Photo with a 90mm APO refractor, a Thousand Oaks full aperture filter and a Canon 20Da camera.

DSLR Astrophotography

Digital SLR cameras make surprisingly good astrophotography cameras on bright objects. Good sensitivity, low noise and a convenient form factor make these camera a good choice for shooting the night sky.

One useful modification to the camera is removing the standard IR cutoff filter present in cameras and replacing it with a filter that is tuned to let in more of the red. The new filter should allow light at 656nm, what astronomers call hydrogen alpha, or Hα, the light emitted by neutral hydrogen atoms, the most common element in our universe. This is the red glow that makes the emission nebulae so colorful. An astrophotographer can do the filter change themselves, send it to a specialist who can do the work, or buy an already “modded” camera. Canon has produced two special models specifically for the astrophotography market, the EOS 20Da and 60Da, with this special filter.

Below, one can see the results of using modified, and unmodified cameras and relatively small telescopes…

2005 Sentinel-Schwaar Star Gaze

With the first cold weather of the year I planned a trip to Sentinel, one of our favorite winter observing sites. The site features dark skies and good company. The forecast was for clear skies, so Saturday afternoon I packed up my big dob and headed down the freeway.

Dob Silhouette
Steve Dillinger’s 20″ Dob awaiting full dark at Sentinel, AZ with Venus and the Moon shining behind
The sky started a little rough, with high cirrus and contrails scarring the blue lit by the the glow of sunset. The thin crescent Moon and Venus were gorgeous among the bright gold wisps. Shortly after dark these annoyances quickly cleared leaving a clean sky. Seeing was soft all night, transparency was decent, but poor at low altitude as views into Fornax or lower demonstrated.

Violet Awaiting
The author’s setup awaiting a dark December sky with Deep Violet
I counted over 20 vehicles a little before sunset, but a least 10 more rolled in at sunset or just after. After a few hours there was a steady rate of departure as the cold night took its toll on Arizona observers.

I spent the first half of the night touring old friends and a couple new objects, but was basically killing time waiting for H400 objects to rise. After midnight the objects I had been waiting for had risen high enough to appreciate properly and I started to work, cleaning out Pyx, Lyn and Pup of a few remaining H400 objects as well as chewing on western UMa a little. It looks like I have 28 objects left, almost all in UMa, the end is in sight!

Around 0300 the breeze had become a steady cold biting wind and I finally packed it up and pulled out. I had already had around nine hours of good observing so I can call it a success. I wasn’t the last, there were at least two observers still going when I pulled out.

Telescope Line
The telescope line at Sentinel for the 2005 Sentinel-Schwaar Star Gaze

2005 All Arizona Messier Marathon

A Messier Marathon, one of the crazier ways we celebrate our love of the night sky. Try to find all 110 objects on Charles Messier’s catalog in a single night. It is possible, barely, to do this. It is a challenge of skill and perseverance, and a lot of fun. In 2005 I joined a group of friends at Arizona City at the 2005 All Arizona Messier Marathon. This site has hosted the most successful marathons anywhere, a great site and a large group of very skilled observers makes the competition tough.

Ready to Marathon
The author waiting for dark
My immediate competition was my young friend Carter Smith. Carter and I marathoned together, often racing on objects and comparing scores through the night. I had meant to quietly work on H400 galaxies in Virgo, but Carter sucked me into marathoning with him. Great night with good transparency and for once this winter and spring, NO clouds. Seeing was great at sunset with wonderful views of Saturn while we waited for full dark. The seeing deteriorated badly after dark with cool and warm breezes warring over the site. But transparency is what you want for a perfect marathon which is what we got.

Marathon Briefing
Briefing the attendees on the rules of our messier marathon
I managed to stay ahead of Carter most of the night using my 18″ while he was using a 10″. Actually parts of the marathon are much harder with a big scope, particularly the Virgo cluster where a big scope sees all of the dimmer galaxies and not just the M’s you want. I used the setting circles only to confirm objects a few times, so both of us ran this one manually. We ran on purist rules, Telrad and charts the only tools allowed to find the object! The All Arizona Messier Marathon allows setting circles and GOTO scopes, but we are free to make our own rules a little tougher.

Late in the night Carter found my weakness, the 18″ will not depress below 5 degrees elevation, so he could get objects coming over the horizon before I did, after that he was ahead most of the time. Except a few occasions when guile won out against youthful enthusiasm and young, sharp eyesight. In the end we both scored a 109, the best that was possible with M30 being impossible. We had to work on M74, M73 and M72 together to be sure, but the spottings were confirmed by both of us. All in all a great marathon!!!

Messier Marathon Mosiac
The observing field at the Farnsworth Ranch, with the Silverbell Mountains in the background and Kitt Peak just visible at far right. The field is unusually green after heavy spring rains. The clouds are rapidly departing to the east.

Grosvenor Arch

Grosvenor Arch
A look at a map of Southern Utah will show that the state is littered with natural bridges and arches. There are hundreds, each different, many picturesque, and dozens more so small they are not shown on the maps. What makes Grosvenor Arch different? maybe the effort of getting there, and the truly beautiful landscape on the way.

The road to the arch is a short-cut from Page, Arizona to Bryce Canyon NP in Utah. The choice is 150 miles around via Kanab, or 50 miles through the wilderness, 40 miles of which is on dirt road. But what a road, through the heart of wild sandstone country, passing Grosvenor Arch, Kodachrome Basin State Park and thousands of acres of countryside that would be a state park anywhere else in the country, except that here in Southern Utah this is considered ordinary.

Grosvenor Arch
Grosvenor Arch in southern Utah
The arch itself is a tall structure of sandstone arching over 60 feet of open air. In the photos you can see that is actually a double arch with a small secondary opening to the left of the main arch. Unlike the graceful arches of Arches National Park or the Navajo Reservation this arch is blocky and hardly smooth.

It is possible to climb to the top of the arch if you go around to the east. Here there is a steep slope leading to the top of the small ridge behind the arch. The slope is littered with crystals of selenite weathered from the soft rock. When you reach the top you are presented with a view through the arch from above. DO NOT climb out onto the arch however, unless you really don’t want to explore the rest of this marvelous region.

Forty miles of dirt road is not to be traveled lightly, check with the Kane Co. sheriff department or with local residents at Big Water or Cannonsville about road conditions. The first ten miles of the south end of the road is made from bentonite clay. For those unfamiliar with this wonderful/horrible material let me say this. When mixed with water there is nothing slimier or stickier than bentonite. It will instantly coat the thickest tire tread with several inches of slick mud, reducing traction to nil. I have driven this road when wet, with a four wheel drive, and it was.. interesting. If there has been any measurable rainfall avoid the road for a while. This is not to scare you off, when dry the road is normally passable for a standard passenger vehicle without trouble. When in the backcountry ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA WATER and some other minimal survival equipment is a good idea.

The times I have driven this road I have entered from the south off of State Highway 89, going north. The road wanders for a while across the prairie before entering the canyon that you will follow all of the way to the arch. The geology here is alternately bentonite clay, mudstones and sandstones. There are even some small slot canyons for those who look for them. The turnoff for the arch is signed with the typical BLM wooden signs and is a mile or so off the main road. Continuing on north from the arch you will climb out of the valley and will be treated to views across miles some of the best of Utah’s sandstone countryside. A few miles more brings you to the turn for Kodachrome Basin State Park. Do make this turn for the wild and often comical sandstone scenery. The State Park has an excellent campground with showers. The stone pillars the park is known for are everywhere, there is one that stands over the campground looking exactly like a thirty foot tall piece of male anatomy.

The arch itself stands above a small dirt loop at the end of the side road. There are even a few facilities put in by the BLM at the arch, a single picnic table under a steel roof and an outhouse. Nothing fancy, but few who venture this far off the main roads expect a four star hotel.

When you reach the arch take a while and smell the Juniper, listen to the pinyon jays, just enjoy a remote corner of this beautiful region.

Lava River Cave

Lava River CaveHidden in the forests near Flagstaff is a bit of a surprise. As you walk among the pine trees you suddenly come to a hole in the ground, a low stone wall your only clue that something is there. For the scattered pines and wide meadows that surround you give no hint of what lies below. But here fire once ruled and lava flowed across the landscape that is so peaceful now. One such lava flow has left a unique feature, a lava tube. Here is where the lava continued to flow inside a lava flow that was cooling from the outside in. Here, insulated inside the body of the flow the lava remained liquid and flowed further down the slope to emerge at the forward end of the lava flow. But when the eruptions came to an end and less and less lava was emerging from the volcano the tube started to empty. Eventually the eruptions stopped altogether and what lava remained in the passage cooled where it sat. This left a roughly circular passage half filled with solid lava. Now, millennia later, this passage remains. The fire of the earth is gone, and we can explore.

Lava River Cave (also called Government Cave) is located on National Forest land and is open to the public with no pre-arrangement except your ability to get there and into the rugged entrance. The entrance is a collapsed section of the roof of the lava tube, here you have to scramble down into the earth. Don’t despair as you enter the cave, it get easier after a hundred yards or so of boulders.

It is my opinion, backed up by a few observations, that most of the collapsed rock about you fell during the eruptions or shortly thereafter while the tube was still young. Looking at the sheer size of the collapsed boulders does give one pause. What if a few more fell while we were here? How dangerous is this place? Probably not very, The entrance probably collapsed during the eruptions or shortly thereafter. The huge number of rocks you must cross near the entrance is dramatically different than the clear floor through much of the passage.

After a few hundred feet of loose boulders the floor changes. Here the lava sits where it cooled, forming a level but very rough surface. Looking much like asphalt that the paving crew neglected to run a roller over to smooth out. This is the surface you will be walking on most of the way

Lava River Cave
A large chamber within Lava River Cave

Cave Interior

About half way along you face a decision, the passage divides left and right. The way you take doesn’t really matter, the passages join up again a little further on. But the passage to the right is more appropriate to dwarves. There is little sign when you look at the two openings, but the right passage ceiling lowers to about three feet from the floor. Not easy to pass, as the very rough floor keeps you from crawling on hands and knees.

Then look about at the cave today, the ceiling is smooth where rock must have fallen free, but there is no rubble below where it fell. A puzzle! But what if the lava was still molten and flowing, and carried away the debris? If you look around there are still plates of smooth rock embedded in the top of the flow. You can actually see where these plates fell and the still soft lava began to ooze around it as it sank into the soft surface.

Another feature is what I have called gutters (I’m sure vulcanologists have another term). It looks like the lava in the tube formed a crust along the edges, but then as the level of lava in the tube fell it left behind this crust looking like a gutter along the wall of the cave.

It is important to remember that everything here was created by fire. If you remember that lava flowed through this channel and eventually cooled and slowed. it explains what you see around you. Imagine this channel of lava still flowing, but freshly formed, still unstable, plates of rock falling from the ceiling into the lava below. Keep in mind these conditions when you look at any feature of the cave and a little logic will explain what you see.

Eventually you come to the upper end of the cave, where the ceiling takes a sudden dive into the floor, beyond here the tube is completely filled with rock and we can go no further. There may be more to the tube further uphill but it is beyond our reach and we must turn around and return the way we came to once again reach the bright Arizona sunlight.

When You Go..

Lava River Cave presents no major difficulty and is suitable for anyone who wishes a different sort of adventure. You don’t have to be a spelunker to venture into this cave.

Lava River Cave Map
Finding the way to Lava River Cave
You will need a few things however.. At least two sources of light for each person, a bright flashlight and a backup. A gas lantern is a great way to light up the large chambers of the cave and will allow you to appreciate what you see.

Another requirement for this cave is rugged boots and clothing, the floor is quite rough. Hiking boots recommended or maybe an old pair of sneakers that you don’t mind getting ripped up. Even your boots will show a new gouge or two after this hike.

The one remaining difficulty is in finding the place, the turnoff from the highway is not signed, probably a good idea since this is not a good place to show to all of the day tourists headed to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. Once off the highway the roads are dirt and passable in any vehicle. When it rains however the road can get quite muddy and it would probably be best to avoid without a high ground clearance or four wheel drive vehicle.

You will need the map. Use your odometer to find Forest Service road #245. After leaving the state highway there is a three mile drive through pine woods and meadows to a T intersection. Turn left and proceed another mile to another left turn for the cave. As of June 1998 there is no sign for the cave at the highway but the next two turns are signed. There are several other roads, look for the small sign or post just inside the turn with some numbers. When you arrive at the cave there is a fence and post barrier that stops you a few hundred feet from the cave just find a place to park and walk the last bit.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Footprints in the Sand
Many travel the wilds of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah marveling at the cliffs of red sandstone. Towers, needles and arches of red Navajo Sandstone are the hallmark of the region. These are features carved by millennia of erosion by wind and water. But where does all the sandstone that has been eroded away go? Not all of it has been carried away by the Colorado River to the sea. In southern Utah there is a place where the wind has piled the sand into dunes hundreds of feet high. This place is called Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

Death in the Sand
A small vertebra becomes a symbol if life and death in the sand
About twenty road miles outside of Kanab, Utah there is a broad valley filled with a field of dunes. A place large enough one can find solitude with the wind and the sand. Where you could get lost among the dunes. Walking is difficult in the piles of loose sand, shifting and sliding beneath your feet. It seems to take an enormous effort to climb the larger dunes. But the view is impressive, the effort worthwhile.

At first the dunes seem devoid of animal life, with few plants struggling to keep hold in the shifting sand. But a closer look revealed traces of more than is first apparent. Tracks criss-cross the dune slopes. Traces of lizards, beetles and snakes that scavenge a life out of the sand. Here or there is a larger reminder, maybe the tracks of a rabbit or coyote showing where the game of life was played for another round. And there in the sand a trace of death as well, in a small vertebra, a reminder that life is easily ended in this sea of sand.