A Sneak Preview at the Restored Clark Telescope

Several years ago, Lowell Observatory recognized that the 117-year old Clark Telescope was in need of restoration and began raising money for the necessary work. One of the ways in which they were able to raise the capital was to create a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. It was through this campaign that I made a contribution to the restoration.

Yesterday, May 16, 2015, Lowell Observatory held a Sneak Preview of the restored Clark Telescope for “special donors.” Honestly, I was surprised that my contribution made me a special donor but I gladly accepted the invitation.

The evening program began with a slide show of the dismantling, cleaning, and finally, the reassembly of the telescope. The primary objective lens, not unexpectedly, was quite dirty from over a century of use. This may partly explain why I was unimpressed when I looked through the Clark back in 1999 at the planet Mars. Here’s an excerpt from an email in May 1999:

Yesterday evening I went to the Lowell Observatory since they had an open
telescope viewing night. The local astronomy club was also there with their
telescopes. I got a very nice look at Mars and was able to vaguely see the
northern polar ice cap. Later, I viewed Mars again through their [Clark]
telescope but it wasn’t as nice as through the smaller amateur scope. Oh, well.

The highlight of the evening, of course, was viewing the restored telescope and dome. The telescope itself is not ready for astronomical viewing as the restoration crew continue to finalize their adjustments and alignment. Soon, soon…

Here are a few photographs of the telescope.

The "business end" of the Clark Telescope with dials and finder scopes for alignment.
The “business end” of the Clark Telescope with dials and finder scopes for alignment.
The Clark Telescope, pedestal, and newly renovated floors and dome.
The Clark Telescope, pedestal, and newly renovated floors and dome.
The Clark Telescope. Note the truck tires used for rotating the dome.
The Clark Telescope. Note the truck tires used for rotating the dome.

Education has replaced research as the primary use of the Clark Telescope with guests enjoying both daytime tours of the telescope and viewing celestial objects in the evening. I’m looking forward to getting another view through the newly restored Clark Telescope.

Dark skies and the Milky Way

With the moon well past full combined with very clear and dark skies it was time again to do some night sky astrophotography. On an earlier outing, I had taken a few “exploratory” images of potential targets. It was now time to take some longer exposures.

My first target was Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, a dark nebula of gas and dust that is close to the star ρ Ophiuchi of the constellation Ophiuchus (and located adjacent to the better known constellation Scorpius).

Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. The planet Saturn is in Scorpio and is located in the upper right of the image.
Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. The planet Saturn is in Scorpio and is located in the upper right of the image.

My tools for the night were a Nikon D700 DSLR (fairly old camera technology by today’s standards), a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens (a short telephoto lens that works well for astrophotography), a tripod, and an iOptron SkyTracker equatorial mount for tracking the stars on long exposures.

I took 10 exposures each of 4-minutes duration and then stacked them using the (free) Deep Sky Stacker application. The resulting image was post processed in Photoshop CS6 using Astronomy Tools v1.6.

The result isn’t bad considering I’m still pretty much an amateur at this astrophotography thing. For comparison, check out this amazing version of the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex at the APOD site.

The next night was almost as clear so I returned again to my viewing location near Mormon Lake. This time, I used an ultra-wide angle lens (16mm). Here you can see the Milky Way rising in the east with Saturn in Scorpio and visible in the center right part of the image. The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is also visible to the right of the Milky Way. The glow in the lower right is from the city of Phoenix—located over 150 kilometers to the south.

Milky Way rising.
Milky Way rising.

While capturing these images I was treated to the yipping of coyotes, hooting of owls, and could hear a small herd of elk grazing in a nearby meadow.

Spring snow and apple blossoms

A late season storm brought a bit of snow to Flagstaff a few days ago. Our crab apple tree had just burst forth with blossoms earlier in the week. For just a few hours there was a delightful juxtaposition of colorful blossoms and new snow.

What? Wait! I’ve already written this! Last year, same time we had a late season snow that covered the blossoms on the crab apple tree.

Spring snow on crab apple blossoms.
Spring snow on crab apple blossoms.

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As I said in that previous post, “Such is spring in northern Arizona. Warm and sunny days with occasional reminders of the departing winter.”

Desert mountain biking in southwest Utah

Longer days and warmer weather combined to send us off to southwest Utah for a couple days of mountain biking. We made our first mountain biking trip to this area last fall and had a blast riding the trails—so it was time for a return trip.

View of Zion National Park from the trailhead on Gooseberry Mesa.
View of Zion National Park from the trailhead on Gooseberry Mesa.

We left Flagstaff on a Monday morning and arrived at Gooseberry Mesa by early afternoon. After a quick lunch at the trailhead we started off on Windmill Trail. A short distance brings you to the north edge of the mesa with amazing views to the north—and down.

View from the edge of Windmill Trail.
View from the edge of Windmill Trail.

It doesn’t take long before the trail veers away from the edge and takes you through ramps, chutes, small hills, and steps on a high-traction surface. (The geologic name for this rock is Shinarump Conglomerate.) There are no long uphills here—but many short and quick ascents and descents.

Descending one of the numerous "rollers."
Descending one of the numerous “rollers.”
Rolling into a sandstone bowl.
Rolling into a sandstone bowl.

Finding the route through here is as easy as following the painted dots on the rock.

Follow those dots!
Follow those dots!
More bowls.
More bowls.

The trail ends on the west end of the mesa at The Point which provides a magnificent view of the Virgin River valley as well as the Hurricane Cliffs trail system.

View from Gooseberry Mesa Point.
View from Gooseberry Mesa Point.

On Tuesday we headed for the Hurricane Cliffs Trail System. These trails are at a lower elevation than Gooseberry Mesa and it was a bit warmer—although still comfortable. We headed up Jem Trail, connected to Crytobiotic, and then on the newer Dead Ringer. This would take us to the top of the mesa where we could connect with the More Cowbells trails.

Hurricane Cliffs trail system: Jem Trail.
Hurricane Cliffs trail system: Jem Trail.

Although Dead Ringer never gets very steep, it is perched on the side of a hill with moderate slope.

Dead Ringer Trail as seen from the mesa top and More Cowbells Trail.
Dead Ringer Trail as seen from the mesa top and More Cowbells Trail.

More Cowbells is rated Easy and is a great trail for beginner riders. It is most easily accessed from the Upper Gem Trailhead on the mesa top rather than riding up from the bottom. We returned down Dead Ringer and connected to the Goosebumps—a trail with lots of quick ups-and-downs—and then back to Jem for the fast downhill run back to the car.

The next day we returned to Gooseberry Mesa to try the non-system trail known as Gander. This is an intermediate trail with big mileage if done out and back. It’s best done as a shuttle. Or, in our case,  we did a shorter version of the out and back as we were running out of time.

Riding the rim of Gooseberry Mesa on Gander Trail.
Riding the rim of Gooseberry Mesa on Gander Trail.

It was getting late and time to go. From Gooseberry Mesa, we drove north towards Rockville. The road was pretty good—until it suddenly wasn’t. For a brief stretch, it was steep, narrow, and rocky and I wondered if I was getting into something I might regret. It was over in about a mile and smoother roads returned. We took the scenic route home through Zion National Park and were back in Flagstaff late Wednesday evening.

Comet Lovejoy still visible in constellation Cassiopeia

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy is still visible in the sky in the constellation Cassiopeia. It is not as bright as it was a few months ago but can still be seen with a pair of binoculars. It is probably best viewed in the evening as Cassiopeia moves lower in the sky overnight and in the early morning hours. This makes it more difficult to see as there is more atmospheric attenuation at these lower elevation angles.

Sky map for locating Comet Lovejoy (03/22/2015) using the free and open source <a href="http://www.stellarium.org" target="_blank">Stellarium</a> planetarium software.
Sky map for locating Comet Lovejoy (03/22/2015) using the free and open source Stellarium planetarium software.

Using my recently acquired iOptron Skytracker for tracking night sky objects I took numerous exposures totaling 14 minutes (9x60s@iso1600; 10x30s@iso3200). These were then stacked in Deep Sky Stacker (DSS), a very good and free program designed for astrophotography.

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy on 03/16/2015. A faint tail can be seen extending to the upper right.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy on 03/16/2015. A faint tail can be seen extending to the upper right.

The resulting image was then post-processed using the Astronomy Tools v1.6 actions in Photoshop.