The final flight of the Discovery

An era has come to an end as the NASA space shuttle Discovery landed earlier this week after a successful mission to the International Space Station (ISS). This was the last flight for Discovery and it will now be retired to a museum.

After Discovery undocked from the ISS their orbits began to separate with the shuttle flying across the sky a few tens of seconds earlier than the ISS. On the night before returning to Kennedy Space Center, the ISS and Discovery made two evening twilight passes across the southwestern United States.

 

ISS and STS-133 transiting the northern sky above the San Francisco Peaks.
ISS and STS-133 transiting the northern sky above the San Francisco Peaks.

The first pass came early in the evening with a still bright twilight sky. The ISS and Discovery only rose to about 17 degrees above the horizon and this made it easy to capture an image with the San Francisco Peaks and the Kachina wetlands in the same photograph.

 

ISS and STS-133 climbing out of the western sky and entering the Earths shadow as they approach the lunar disk.
ISS and STS-133 climbing out of the western sky and entering the Earths shadow as they approach the lunar disk.

About 95 minutes later a second pass occurred. This time the two spacecraft arose from the western sky and climbed higher towards the crescent moon before disappearing into the Earths shadow.

Only two more shuttle missions remain and then, truly, it will be the end of an era.

Powder skiing in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness

Good snowstorms have been in short supply this winter with long gaps between events. So when there is fresh powder on the mountain there is no time to waste. In addition, at this time of year the sun quickly turns light powder into something far heavier.

So we set out one morning recently to see what the  Kachina Peaks had to offer. After skiing up the summer hiking trail and then off trail through the trees we came to our first option. But there were still many rocks poking through the snow (see the comment above about “short supply”). So we moved on to our second choice. Much better. Rocks were nicely covered, the snow was in good shape, and no skiers had hit this slope yet.

 

First downhill run on the slopes in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.
First downhill run on the slopes in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.

So up we climbed through the lower and middle sections of the slope until the pitch quickly steepened. And down we went. The conditions were good and we had a blast carving turns on the slope in our skinny skis and leather, 3-pin boots. Old-school technology!

 

 

Pretty good ski conditions.
Pretty good ski conditions.

 

So we did it again. Fastened the climbing skins on and back up one more time. But the sun was already making a difference and on the second run the light powder was turning heavy and the downhill run wasn’t as fast as the first one. Good enough and we called it a day.

 

We left some powder in the center and skiers left for any who followed later.
We left some powder in the center and skiers left for any who followed later.

 

Crescent moon and Venus in the morning sky

One of the advantages (and their aren’t many) of working shift work is that you get to see a lot of sunrises. While many marvel about beautiful sunsets, far fewer can say the same of the sunrise.

Crescent moon and Venus in morning twilight.
Crescent moon and Venus in morning twilight.

 

I wish I could say that I planned this photograph and was patiently waiting for the right moment. But, no, I wasn’t even paying attention to the sky. On impulse, I walked to the window and peered out to see if there were any clouds lit up by the not-yet-risen sun and was pleased to see the thin crescent moon so near the planet Venus. Luckily, the camera was nearby and I shot this image of the celestial pair with some trees in the foreground to add some detailed texture.

 

Watching the International Space Station amidst the scenery of Sedona

As readers of this site already know, I enjoy photographing the International Space Station (ISS) as it makes its twilight flyovers. Most of my ISS images have been taken in Flagstaff and nearby environs. Recently, however, I made a trip to the lower elevations of Sedona to attempt to photograph the ISS amidst the scenery of Sedona.

This transit only got to about 20 degrees elevation above the horizon so it was important to find a location with a good view to the northwest — but also an interesting view. After looking at the ephemeris for the transit (rise time, highest elevation, set time, etc.) I decided that I could get an interesting photograph from the Brins Mesa trailhead area north of Sedona.

We arrived about 15 minutes before the transit so there was enough time to survey the area and select the most appropriate spot to set up the tripod and camera. After a few test shots, I was ready for the transit. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying close attention and I missed the first 10-20 seconds as it rose in the west. No problem! I started the camera but then realized I had failed to set the shutter to continuous shooting mode. I use continuous mode so that I can take a series of 10-15 second exposures then composite them later. By keeping the exposures short there is less chance of overexposing the twilight sky.

All was not lost as I only missed the first two 10-second images but managed to capture the next seven images. After compositing the individual images in Photoshop and using the Lighten blend mode, I got the following result:

International Space Station (ISS) transiting the evening twilight sky in Sedona, Arizona.

There was a bit of camera shake in the first image as I was still fiddling with camera settings while the shutter was open! But overall the image managed to capture what I set out to do: photograph the ISS as a long streak of light with the fabulous Red Rocks of Sedona as a foreground.

Dance of the clouds

The weather across much of the country has been very dramatic the past few days with snow storms, ice storms, strong winds, and brutal cold. Across Arizona we experienced exceptionally cold weather as the Arctic air mass settled in across the area. Strong northeast winds at the surface and aloft helped to drive the cold air across the Rocky Mountain barrier and deep into the southwest.

The northeast winds also created some fantastic wave clouds over the San Francisco Peaks, located to the north of Flagstaff. Normally, strong southwest winds roll across the Peaks and the best wave clouds are located to the northeast but this wind reversal resulted in a reversal of the wave clouds as well.

Delicate wave clouds dance across the San Francisco Peaks.
Delicate wave clouds dance across the San Francisco Peaks.

Video here.

Even more interesting were the clouds that were forming just below the tops of the peaks. Strong winds from the northeast drove cold air into the Inner Basin on the east side then up and over the top of the peaks. As the air ascended thin wispy clouds would form. Just as quicky the air descended on the southwest slopes and the clouds evaporated.

The rapidly changing clouds and detailed structure were fascinating to watch. A time-lapse movie clearly shows this incredible dance of the clouds as it moves across the Peaks.