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—locateded 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.

More Comet Lovejoy

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy continues to be a fascinating object to photograph in the evening sky. It is now located high in the sky at sunset and sets in the northwest overnight. It is, however, growing fainter and this requires longer exposure times to bring out the details. As noted in a previous post, I have been photographing the comet without an equatorial mount and this has limited my exposures to a few seconds. That has changed as I now have a tracker mounted on my tripod (iOptron SkyTracker) and this allows much longer exposures. It takes a bit of practice to properly align the device but I’ve gotten pretty good with a few sessions. With good alignment, it is possible to take exposures of 5–10 minutes without getting star trails.

Comet Lovejoy: 17 February 2015
Comet Lovejoy: 17 February 2015

On another night, I was again taking a sequence of images when some high, thin clouds moved in. Rather than shutting down, I continued to capture images. The result of the high clouds was to create a colored area around the brighter stars.

Comet Lovejoy: 18 February 2015.
Comet Lovejoy: 18 February 2015.

Cloudy skies have returned to northern Arizona and that will be the end of comet photography for at least a few days.

Rainbows and lightning in the Arizona Desert

Over the weekend tropical moisture and an area of low pressure interacted to produce showers and thunderstorms—and even a few severe thunderstorms—across northern Arizona. A quick look at satellite and radar data convinced me it was worthwhile to drive down the hill from Flagstaff to Sedona to capture some lightning photos.

A rainbow arcs across the skies of Sedona and in front of Cathedral Rock.
A rainbow arcs across the skies of Sedona and in front of Cathedral Rock.

Light rain began to fall as I approached my first photo location and a horizon-to-horizon rainbow appeared. As I arrived, the southern end was quickly fading while overhead and to the north the rainbow remained brilliant. And, then, for just a brief moment, the southern end brightened again and a swath of color painted itself across Cathedral Rock. In another moment it was gone. Note, also, that there is a supernumerary rainbow visible in a portion of the bow. Supernumeraries are the closely spaced greenish purple arcs on the inner side of the primary bow.

Lightning and sunset colors over the Verde Valley.
Lightning and sunset colors over the Verde Valley.

As these storms moved to the northwest it was time to reposition and hope for some lightning. The first image shows a thunderstorm moving across the Verde Valley and the storm is lit up from below by the lights in the town of Cottonwood. Sunset colors are still faintly visible in the west and stars can also be seen. This was followed by a bolt with numerous downward stepped leaders and a brilliant return stroke.

Lightning bolt with numerous branches.
Lightning bolt with numerous branches.

Not too bad!

Snow and crab apple blossoms

A late season storm brought several inches 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.

New fallen snow and crab apple blossoms.
New fallen snow and crab apple blossoms.

 

Such is spring in northern Arizona. Warm and sunny days with occasional reminders of the departing winter.