Steve Coe 1949-2018

Today I learned of the passing of Steven Coe, an amateur observer well known and admired in the Arizona community and elsewhere. He had been having health issues on and off for the past few years, but would usually bounce right back and you could again find him out in the dark with a telescope somewhere.

Steven Coe
Steven Coe set up at the 2004 All Arizona Star Party
I spent many nights observing with Steve and the rest of the usual gang at star parties in Southern Arizona. Nights at Sentinel or Farnsworth Ranch, he was nearly always there, one of the most dedicated visual observers in the community.

Go to the new moon events in southern AZ, wherever they were that month, and you would find Steve, AJ Crayon, Tom Polakis, and the rest. If everyone was there, it was going to be a good night. They were very memorable nights indeed.

If you saw Steve setting up at a star party you always wanted to setup nearby, you would learn so much just listening through the night. You were always welcome at his eyepiece, and what I saw there was so often something I had never seen before. A distant quasar, or some obscure gem of a nebula not found in the usual guides. Steve knew so much about the sky, and would cheerfully share that knowledge.

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From the Archive – San Xavier del Bac

Another set of images from the slide archive as the digitization project continues.

San Xavier del Bac
The front of Mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson
This time we visit the old Spanish mission of San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson seen here during a visit in 1996.

I visited the mission several times over the years, it can be very photogenic. A little patience will allow the photographer to catch the beams of sunlight from the upper story windows illuminating some of the saints and other icons found in this richly decorated church.

The photos are obviously from scanned slides. In the original frames the film grain is readily obvious, I use a little luminance noise reduction in processing to remove some of that. The super color saturation was not added in digital processing, it is very much part of the original slide.

A Winter Star Party

In Arizona, during the heat of summer we would head for the mountains. We knew dozens of fire roads and meadows where a telescope could be set up under the stars among the cool forest pines. When the weather chilled, we headed to the low desert, our favorite site was Sentinel, Arizona. A desolate volcanic field just off Interstate 8 between Gila Bend and Yuma. It was still cool at night, a beautiful place to enjoy the desert skies…

Deep Violet at Sentinel
Deep Violet at Sentinel, Arizona for the 2015 Pierre Schwarr Star Gaze

Large Binocular Telescope

A friend of mine, Dean Ketelsen is visiting the island with his wonderful wife, Melinda and a few family members. Dean grinds big glass for a living, as in 8.4m telescope mirrors for Steward Observatory. You can read about his various adventures at his personal blog.

Posted below is Dean’s latest time-lapse video of the LBT opening for a night of observing. I suspect he will be posting something similar of Keck in the near future. We toured the telescopes today and he had a chance to setup the camera while the guys swung the ‘scope around a bit.

I have visited the LBT, many years ago before it was completed. Even without the dual 8.4 meter primary mirrors it was an impressive facility.

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.

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.