Category Archives: Astronomy

Smoky October Full Moonrise

Three days ago, back before I realized that I would be triggered by a software “update” (done no doubt for “my benefit”) (YES, I’m still pissy about it, I’ll start behaving now, sorta), I was down the block looking for the first full moon moonrise of October.

There was a LOT of smoke still being kicked out by the Bobcat Fire off in that direction. (Hey, they’re all the way up to 88% contained now!) That streak above it is a plane going into Runway 08 at Burbank – we’re looking right down the flight path.

It was incredibly orange! This doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Shorter exposures that don’t show the landscape but bring out the detail in the moon do a much better job of showing what it actually looked like. Let’s hear it for the human eye with a MUCH higher dynamic range than even the best digital cameras.

Twenty-five minutes or so after rising, the moon was out of the worst of the smoke and just looking a bit brownish.

That’s one – look for a second full moon, a “blue moon,” on Halloween night, October 31st!

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Bobcat Still Burning

After last night, when some defensive backfires were set on the east side of the Mount Wilson Observatory, which looked scary but were actually controlled and to prevent worse, we were hoping that Mount Wilson was out of danger from the Bobcat Fire.

Not so fast.

This afternoon another flare up occurred on the north side of the mountain. You can see it start just after 12:30 (time stamps in the upper left) in the 12:00 to 15:00 time-lapse video, then blow up in the 15:00 to 18:00 video, and continue to spread to the north in the 18:00 to 21:00 video. (All videos and images from the HPWREN webcam system unless otherwise noted.)

Here’s where we are now:

The good news is that all of this new fire growth is pushing away from the Observatory grounds. This is all about a mile to the north on the next ridge over, pushing up toward Highway 2.

(Image from Google Maps – incredibly professional graphics from yours truly.)

There have been a LOT of water and Phos-Chek drops today. At one point someone monitoring the radios tweeted that all air tankers had been diverted to Mount Wilson to make a stand there. It obviously worked.

These are the TV and radio transmission towers on the ridge just west of the ridge where the observatory is. You can clearly see them in the HPWREN pictures I shared on Thursday. But as I said, the flare up isn’t super close to the observatory – just close, not super close.

Also, while I’m obviously invested in the Mount Wilson Observatory site being protected, this fire continues to grow almost out of control for the fifth day with thousands of homes being threatened on the south side of the mountains where the San Gabriel Valley is and on the north side where the Antelope Valley lies.

Up in the Antelope Valley, they were using our pair of Canadian Super Scoopers, refilling them on the fly from Lake Palmdale. Since that lake is a recreational site and at least the shore facilities aren’t closed off, it’s drawing crowds to watch.

(Video credit to Matt Winheim, Executive Director/Superintendent of the Palmdale Aerospace Academy)

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Filed under Astronomy, Disasters, Los Angeles

Panic Not

I tell you this in advance – this is not necessarily a terrible thing. It’s under control, even if it doesn’t seem that way. We’ll get through this and come out stronger and better on the other side.

You and I aren’t the experts. Don’t try this at home.

All images from the HPWREN cameras on Mount Wilson, run by UC San Diego. (I would also note that they put out time-lapse videos for each of the four cameras for every three-hour period, 24 hours a day, and the archive goes back a couple of years. There’s an interesting one on my birthday of it snowing like crazy up there. For those who don’t know how it can snow in Los Angeles County, remember this is at about 5,700 feet. Lots of things are different there. That’s why we have ski resorts just a 90 minute drive from the beach.)

Again, this national treasure is *NOT* burning to the ground tonight – but it sure looked like it if you didn’t get the memo. Just a few minutes after 19:00 local time, looking east, just beyond the line of big domes, there was a puff of smoke:

A half-hour later it was a huge blaze. What we had missed was this:

The “good window of opportunity with favorable conditions” equals cool(er) temperatures, higher humidity, light winds, and most importantly, winds that will push the flames away from the domes and back down the ridge to where it had already burned.

That “existing retardant line?” I think this picture from yesterday explains that:

So the pros saw their chance and took it!

It’s up on top of the ridge where the observatories are and looks like it’s only a few meters from some of the facilities. That’s because it was.

Then it started to die down a bit over there…

…before flaring up over here.

And now it’s all died down and is being put out.

Mount Wilson appears to have been saved from this horror. The fire is less than 20% contained and on the north side, leading into the Antelope Valley, there are more new evacuations tonight. Some of the evacuation areas on the south side around Glendale (where all of those lights are in the right center) have been lifted, but many are still in place for the eighth day. But for now, looking at the weather and the containment lines and defensive burns like tonight’s, it seems that Mount Wilson is safe.

So many thanks to the firefighters who have made this happen. In this hell of a year, we need to grab our victories where we can.

And for those who might think that I’ve slipped into a fugue state and obsessing over Mount Wilson because I can’t face what’s going on in the real world these days – go back and read the first sentence.

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Moon Triangle-Ish

Over the last couple of nights the moon, a little past a quarter full, has been sailing past Jupiter and Saturn, all positioned high in the evening sky, bright and beautiful.

Last night:

That’s Jupiter on the right of the moon, Saturn a bit dimmer to the upper left.

At some point the three of them made a nice, even triangle – I was on the wrong side of the planet to see it.

Instead, tonight the moon had passed that point and was now on the far side of Saturn, at least from this viewpoint.

One would assume that if the Moon had been transported to where it was literally on the other side of Saturn:

  • It would look much smaller and more dim
  • There probably would have been major headlines to go along with the catastrophic, world-wide earthquakes, tidal waves, and other calamities associated with a gravitational disruption of that scale.

We also notice that the zoomed in views both nights, with all pictures taken on my iPhone, are grainy as hell. But as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you at the time.

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No Context For You – August 21st

I thought one of the advantages of renting (which I hate) instead of owning (which I hate less) is not having to fix things.

So, yet another lie.


The happy subject to talk about is noting that it was three years ago today that we were in a gas station parking lot at an intersection of two state highways in the middle of a gazillion square miles of corn and soybean fields in Nebraska, praying for at least a little thinning to the clouds.

We got it, sort of. (Photos here and here.)

And our next shot is coming up on April 8, 2024. I’m thinking Indianapolis or Ohio, with a maximum totality of over four minutes.

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Hazy Here – Infernos In NorCal

Here we had a bit of haze, a bit of smoke, enough to make the sunset orange-ish.

There are still three major fires in Southern California and a handful of smaller ones. The closest and biggest is about fifty miles to our northeast. All of them are still less than 20% contained, but burning off into some extremely steep, rugged, and empty terrain with few structures, homes, or power lines which would need protecting. Given how thinly stretched the air resources and ground troops and equipment are, they may just have to burn for a few days or few weeks.

Up north, in the Bay Area and over toward Davis and Sacramento, a series of large storms went through a few days ago with thousands upon thousands of lightning strikes into tinder dry terrain. It seems like everything is burning up there. The only county anywhere from San Jose to San Francisco to Oakland to Sacramento to Reno that doesn’t have out of control brush fires is San Francisco County, because it’s about 99% urban.

Elsewhere there are tens of thousands of people evacuated, and it might be 100,000+ by now. Nearer and dearer to my heart, tonight we’ve been watching the webcam (here) that looks over the Lick Observatory. It’s not looking good.

(Image: University of California Observatories / Lick Observatory)

The big dome’s the 3-meter telescope, with five others scattered around the peak near it. While the original observatory was build in 1888, the first observatory built on a mountain top, the current telescopes are still in use constantly.

Given all of the homes and lives threatened, I don’t know how many resources CalFire can put into defending Lick. Let’s pray that it’s enough.

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Twelve Hours

I stumbled on a large can of worms a little over twelve hours ago and have spent the day, shuffling fairly large data files into order to figure out how many worms, how big, how wiggly, and training them to tap dance.

Another hour or so to go but the clock’s ticking and I haven’t posted today, so have a picture from a couple weeks ago when I was set up to catch a comet from my front yard.

Back to the tap dancing worms! It’s so hard to get them into those teeny, tiny, little tuxedos and top hats!

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ISS Pass – August 02

I mainly wanted to take tonight’s picture because I’ve been trying to experiment with the focusing on this new lens that’s been giving me fits. There’s progress, this is MUCH better than what I got the other night. (Which I didn’t share with you because, you know, it sucked.)

The stars are still trailing because the Earth is moving over the course of these twenty-nine images and two minutes and forty-two seconds. Haven’t figured out a way to stop that, and probably wouldn’t do it if I could because, you know, destruction of civilization and all human life. (Although there are days…)

But the focus is much better and everything’s pretty sharp. I’ve got passes over the next few nights so I’ll keep playing with it to see if I can get it better.

You’ll see the Big Dipper up there, so Comet NEOWISE is up there somwhere, probably to the left of the ISS track and about halfway to the top of the tree on a line between the top of the tree and the far right star in the “bowl” of the Dipper. But I doubt it can be seen, again with the full Moon rising in the east and a fair amount of smoke and haze still in the air.

(Image: Star Walk)

Speaking of that smoke, in this image of the ISS track you can see how red the ISS looks down near the horizon versus how it looks overhead. That’s caused by the path of the light traveling through a lot more air down there, plus the smoke, so just the Sun and Moon will look orange or red as their rising or setting, so will the ISS.

What you won’t see tonight that you might have seen last night is the Dragon spacecraft – it landed in the water off of Pensacola, Florida this afternoon. The entry, descent, and landing were just about perfect, and Bob and Doug are back home with their families tonight, while a few hundred pounds of critical science results and samples are on their way back to their Earth-bound research labs, and the Dragon spacecraft is headed back to Kennedy Space Center where it will be examined in great detail (this was a test flight, after all) and then refurbished for use on the Crew-2 flight to ISS next year.

 

 

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Hidden Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft undocked from the ISS this afternoon and is on it’s way to splashdown off of Florida early tomorrow afternoon. Sometimes when the Shuttle would be coming or going from the ISS it was fairly easy to see it during a good ISS pass since it was fairly large and reflected a lot of light. The Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft are considerably smaller than Shuttle was, but if you have a good pass and they’re near the ISS, you might see them trailing along or leading, depending on their orbit.

There was a so-so ISS pass over SoCal tonight – low on the horizon, so we were seeing it through a lot of atmosphere at best, and our atmosphere is a bit hazy at the moment. While we don’t have any storms or clouds, we have plenty of smoke to go around. The fire near us from yesterday is out, but there are a handful of others around and one HUGE one that broke out this afternoon (way out in Riverside County), so the seeing is marginal.

Plus, there’s this monstrously huge source of “natural” light pollution up there tonight:

The moon is only a couple of days from full, and with that bright moonlight bouncing off of all of that smoke and haze, it’s ugly for star gazing. On the other hand, to the right of the moon is Jupiter and its moons, and to the left is Saturn and its rings, so even with binoculars it was nice to see detail in those objects.

But I did not see the Dragon. I saw the ISS and looked carefully, but couldn’t spot the Dragon. (I also looked to see if I could still spot the comet with binoculars, but struck out there also.)

While I had my Hidden Dragon, I did not see any Crouching Tiger. Which is just as well, because, you know, TIGER! The last thing I needed today was to be eaten and killed, or killed and eaten. (The order doesn’t matter to me, both are very bad.)

What I was constantly accompanied by during my astrophotographical quests of the evening were these guys:

These two finally got tired of running away every time I came out, especially since I wasn’t going to go under that honkin’ huge street light there, so they just decided to stay. There were another three or four who were just running wind sprints across the street and into the bushes every time I came out. More power to them.

Good luck coming home tomorrow, Doug and Bob! Go Dragon!

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The Comet From The Back Yard

I think I said two nights ago that I was probably done trying to take pictures of Comet NEOWISE F3 since it was starting to fade significantly (it still is) and being a low-contrast object that has its light spread out across the tail and comet head, it was difficult to photograph well from my front yard given all of the street lights and lights from the neighbors’ houses (which are still on).

I was wrong.

The key is that the obvious finally clicked for me tonight and I realized that I was still thinking like the comet was way down near the horizon and I had to see it from the front yard just before it set. But it’s now moved way up by the bowl of the Big Dipper, so maybe I could see it from my back yard? Where the house and trees that would have blocked seeing the comet when it was near the horizon now will block the light from all of the streetlights and neighbors’ porches. Maybe?

Yes, indeedy, that works like a charm. With one little non-insurmountable problem.

It’s lovely and all, but it causes its own share of light pollution. Tonight was tolerable but in a week it will be full and freakishly bright, while the comet will continue to fade, so that will become problematic. But a problem for another night.

A 20-second exposure at 70mm shows where it is. It’s definitely dimmer by a lot, but the green color is still evident.

But without the street lights in view, I can go to a 30-second exposure and bring out more detail and color. The stars are no longer pinpoints, “trailing” as the Earth moves. The next step would be to mount the camera on my telescope’s equitorial mount so that it spins the camera “backward” at exactly the same rate as the Earth rotates “forward” – maybe I can try that later.

Zooming in to 300mm, a 4-second exposure keeps the trailing to a minimum and the green color really pops, but you don’t see much of the tail.

Zoomed in part way at 114mm, a 25-second exposure starts to bring out the tail.

Finally, zooming in to 300mm and taking a 30 second exposure, the comet’s head is trailed but really shows it’s green color, while the tail is smeared due to trailing, but has more detail showing.

Finally, because I remembered an old trick used by earlier astronomers when searching for comets and asteroids on photographic plates, I inverted the image from black to white and I enhanced the contrast in Photoshop. Now that tail is really obvious!

Not bad for haven called it quits 48 hours ago!

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