Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's a Smiley Face

I've had lot of lazy relaxing time during the days.  Some of that time I've used reading Ireland's Photoshop Astronomy but after a while it was just got too cerebral.  My brain needed something more hands on and tangible.  I decided to make a Bahtinov focus mask for the 200mm and 100mm Canon lenses.

I thought I might do this before leaving on this trip so I brought a printout of template and a few supplies.  I scrounged up some glue and tape from the library here and went to work.  The problem with a Bahtiov mask for small diameter lenses is that the pitch of the gratings needs to be rather small to pick up more of the diffracted orders.  Cutting thin bars out with an x-acto knife was not my idea of fun.  I'm not sure what I came up with was any easier but the end result was nicer.

I noticed that the bars were just about the width of a bobby pin.  I brought along a pack and went to work bending and snipping with the leatherman tool.  Then taping and more glue to put them in place.  A couple long hair-shirt hours later ... here is the result.
My bobby pin grating Bahtinov.
 A number of people came by curious, asking what I was doing and what a Bahtinov focus mask was.  I was challenged to explain but my 6 year old daughter satisfied them all with her answer.

"It's a smiley face".

(dis) Connected

Stormy weather continues.  As often happens here the wifi went down for 3 days.  I've wanted to post but truth be told there isn't much to report in the way of clear skies.  I'm at the point where I was planning hoping to get some night sky time - the moon is finally rising late enough from behind Kitchen Mesa to give me exposures in the dark dark.  So one week to go.  We'll see ... but it is not looking promising.

Thursday and Friday the skies cleared between 2-3am.  Still too moon-ey at that hour.  Frustrating to get up to a perfect cloudless blue sky only to have it cloud up by 9-10am.  On Friday I got up at 6am to go on a hike to the top of Chimney Rock before breakfast.  I took what might be my only astronomy picture of the trip - even if it was of my nemesis.

See!  No clouds.  A condition that existed for about 3 hours.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Storm Front

Yesterday it was partly cloudy until early evening when a storm front moved in.  Typical of the days here are clear or partly cloudy days with the formation of thunderstorms late in the afternoon.  Sometimes they dissipate by dusk and that is the window I am looking for to shoot some pictures.  Last night that didn't happen so I decided to set up the camera to take a time lapse of the storm moving by.  A fair amount of lightening but unfortunately didn't catch many during the exposures.  About 60s increments in the beginning, 30s towards the end.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dark Side of the Moon

I wanted to try and make good use of the time before the moon gets out of the way.  I figured I would start in on my dark frame library.  Now dark frames are used to pound down the noise inherent in any long duration exposure at high ISO.  The noise increases with temperature as well.  So a dark frame library has to involve separate sets for each exposure/ISO/temperature combination.  Yikes.

This can all be done in the field right after the exposure run but that doubles the time (each dark must be the same duration as the "lights").  Not to mention that you gotta take your flats and flat darks as well.  So a library is appealing.

I've read that a common practice is to bin your darks in 10deg F increments so that any given run of light frames is within 5deg F.  Next would be to decide what your most common exposure durations will be.  For this trip I expect to be shooting 30sec, 60sec, 120sec for sure.  Next ISO.  Most likely 800 and 1600. See how this rapidly gets "hair shirty"?  Not to mention keeping the storage business alive and kicking.

I am limited by whatever the ambient temperature is on a given night and that has had me come to grips with a looming specter.  It's hot here.  Like glorious shorts and tee shirt in the middle of the night hot.  A fertile hothouse for noise.  It is just a limitation of DSLR imaging.  I suspect that this is the main thing that drives people to a dedicated cooled CCD camera.

Undaunted I proceed.  Marek and I discussed just how many dark frames to take for a library master dark.  The noise decreases as the inverse sqrt of the number of exposures so at some point taking more reaches diminished returns.  We agreed that "many tens" would be a good target.   Last night I shot 32 60sec ISO800 images and tonight I'm shooting 64 30s ISO800 images (why 64?  because I can.  because I can while I am writing this blog entry).

Last night it was 68F.  Tonight ... 74F!  And of course when and if I get to actually take some lights it will be 55F and will have to take my darks in the field anyway.  No mind ... I will have some hot darks to take home as souvenirs.  I only hope that they are not the only astro images I take while here.  Very very hair-shirt.
No, not stars.  Noise.  A hot dark frame.

Gear has Landed

The Box arrived during lunchtime today.  I asked a ranch hand to help me load it into the rental and I drove it up the Mesa for inspection and unpacking.  I freely admit to fussing a bit on the packing and thought I had probably overdone it.  Glad I did as the box was a bit more worse for wear than I expected. All the contents were safe but I won't know for sure until I actually go to set it up and see it running.

I had planned to reuse the box for the return shipment but now I am not so sure.  I might just try and find a replacement when I drive into Santa Fe this coming Sunday.  For now this part of the saga is over.  Now to work on the weather ...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Clear Sky Chart

Last night I emailed Attila Danko who puts together Clear Sky Charts.  Very cool mashup of weather data that gives amateur astronomers a "darkness" forecast for currently 3998 sites.  He graciously added Ghost Ranch, New Mexico to the mix.  So now he has 3999 sites covered :)  Scroll all the way to the bottom to see the current conditions here.

Earlier this evening there was a break in the clouds - enough to see Scorpio to the south gliding above Pedernal (Georgia O'Keefe's mountain).  The nearly full moon was washing out the milky way but once the moon is gone it should be spectacular.  To the North it was dark dark.  I've never really observed from a place with a truly dark Northern horizon so it should be fun.  Perhaps get some flashy circumpolar shots against the cliffs.

With the moon my only target I did take a few shots of the moon through the clouds.  If anything comes of it I'll post it tomorrow.


We have arrived!  Our home for the next couple weeks.  A lot of people ask why we come back to the same place year after year.  Well, many reasons but this is one.
Chimney Rock from the "Mesa"

 This was taken from the doorway to our little domicile.  I'll chat more about our room in a future post, but for now, not a bad view out the front.

The most recent tracking log for "The Box" ...

07/26/2010 9:18 A.M. ARRIVAL SCAN

Scheduled to arrive tomorrow right on time.  I let them know at check in that I had a "rather large box" arriving and they wanted to have my instructor email.  I guess only the ones that teach classes here have large shipments coming - pottery supplies, easels and the like.  I think they will find my box somewhat unusual.  Tomorrow I'll have to find a spare barn or shed somewhere to hide all this stuff.

Much less rain today - even some blue sky.  It does look like the weather pattern will be like this for a while.  I won't start getting nervous until later in the week - for now just enjoying being here.

The (too) Dark Skies of New Mexico

This place is amazing.  Pitch black skies.  So dark it eats the light of the full moon.  The moon is out there somewhere but I can't see it.  Might have something to do with the cloud deck and intermittent thunderstorms.

Yes, we arrive to some spectacular weather.  Sheets of rain on the drive up I25 from Albuquerque.  We are staying in a B&B in Espanola only a 35minute drive to Ghost Ranch tomorrow.  Here we make our annual visit to Walmart - the only time I'll suffer a journey into that special big box hell.  In addition to picking up some supplies for the week ahead I needed to secure some larger or heavy items that didn't make it into the "box that had better be on a truck speeding this way".
  • Folding camp tray table for laptop in field
  • Small folding stool
  • 20 pack of AA batts
  • Thermos to hold the coffee what will keep me awake
We were just settling in and thinking about dinner ... I hit the go button on the small in-room microwave oven when pftzzz.   Thought I threw a breaker for the room.  But no! The whole B&B went dark.  Heck ... the whole town for blocks went dark.  So either I caused a massive blackout trying to heat up some food or we have to invoke temporal coincidence. Three hours no power.  Yes,  New Mexico likes it dark.

Wunderground says:

Showers and a few thunderstorms will continue through late evening.  Rainfall on saturated ground will fill arroyos...ditches...small streams...and underpasses and block low water crossings with fast flowing water.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I fussed for quite a while on how to get all this stuff to New Mexico.  We would have enough weight allowance on Southwest to get it there via checked baggage.  But that would mean two extra big bags to lug around the airport.  As it is we already have 2 large checked roller bags and each of the 4 of us have a sizable carry on.  Mine is camera gear.  Kimi has all the useful stuff.  The girls have their school bags filled with toys, books, coloring stuff and snacks.

In the end I bought a mini-wardrobe box at the hardware store.  24'x24'x42" Three main bags (and some last minute stuff-ins).  Then a whole lot of pillow bags and bubble wrap.  Strapped in tight.  Nice and secure.   Here is our final farewell.

UPS ground - air was too expensive after insuring.  Should arrive the day after we do.  Fingers crossed.  I keep tracking the number in the title of this post ... it's halfway there ...

The Gear

You know,  I really should be packing.  Useful stuff - like underwear and water bottles.  Making sure we have what we need for 2 weeks of family vacation.  In attendance for the first week will be my wife and two daughters (ages 8 and 6).  A week later our friend Marc (ShuShu "uncle" to the girls) will join us with reinforcements (that is, all the stuff we forgot).  Yes, I really should be packing.

But instead I'm writing a few lines about what I "pulled together" over the previous 8 weeks or so.  There must be some rule about astronomy gear.  Something like "whatever your budget or think it will cost - triple it and you might have enough to get by if you have enough 1/4 screws, duct tape and batteries".

All my current gear is big.  Heavy.  As in, not shipping to New Mexico.  Must find light gear - oh, and suitable for astrophotography.  Yeah - let's add a completely new discipline to the mix just to make it more fun!  This is gonna be so cool.

The Gear.  Hey Marek ... Polar Aligned yet?
Read on for the shopping list - and my single handed attempt to keep the world economy from collapse!


This year I was was hoping to go with my astro-pals (aka Axe Men - don't ask, I won't explain) to a dark sky observing site for a few nights of glorious skies.  And every summer our family travels to north-central New Mexico for 2 weeks of vacation.  And yes, the dates overlapped.   Depressed.

Kind of like when the cafeteria at work has two dishes I really like on the same day after weeks of less appetizing fare.  Well like that but orders of magnitudes worse.

Of course the family vacation is going to happen (and I love that time) but I realized that if I could somehow get some astro equipment to New Mexico I could attend the astronomy event, well virtually, or in spirit or whatever.

I have always had an interest in astrophotography ... hmmm, maybe I could pull together (aka buy new gear) and ship it on ahead.  All without any real experience in astrophotography (though I am a complete camera hack).  All decided about 8 weeks till departure.

Some ideas seem so beautiful, so crisp, so perfect at the time.   Thus began the journey of the previous 2 months or so.   We leave tomorrow morning.  Follow along if you wish.

My hair shirt is packed.

This account is dedicated to the Axe-Men.  With you dudes!  All Hail the Axe.