Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)—II

The comet is now visible in the evening sky but also remains visible in the morning sky. Evening twilight is bright enough to make it difficult to see the comet without binoculars or long exposures on a camera. That will change quickly as the comet moves higher in the northwestern sky in the coming days and weeks.

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is visible in the evening twilight over Flagstaff, Arizona.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is visible in the evening twilight over Flagstaff, Arizona.

Above is an image of the comet in the evening sky. Layers of clouds and moisture threatened to interfere but actually made the photograph more interesting with saturated twilight colors.

This image is a stack of ten images each 4 secs exposure at ISO 1600, ƒ/1.8, and 85mm focal length. The individual images were stacked using Starry Landscape Stacker. 

 

A Late Winter Storm

A winter storm brought snow, clouds, and fog to some of my favorite photographic locations. The early morning sun lights up a band of clouds that encircles the San Francisco Peak. Below the peaks, fog lies in the low areas of both Upper and Lower Lake Mary.

Fog and clouds wrap around the San Francisco Peaks.
Fog and clouds wrap around the San Francisco Peaks.

A smaller area of fog sits in the corner of the Mormon Lake basin and partially obscures some of the old ranch buildings.

Fog and ranch buildings near Mormon Lake.
Fog and ranch buildings near Mormon Lake.
Reflections.
Reflections.

Finally, a small patch of grass pokes up from the still water of Lake Mary while fog blurs the background.

A Winter Rainbow in Flagstaff

Over the weekend we had an extended period of rain in the Flagstaff area. Normally we would see snow at this time of year.—it is, after all, the middle of winter. Rainfall amounts were sufficient (1.35 inches at Flagstaff airport) to cause large increases in the flow of Oak Creek where gauges recorded a rise from ~2.4 feet (30 cfs) to 9.6 feet (6900 cfs). Other streams were running high as well.

A winter rainbow in Flagstaff.
A winter rainbow in Flagstaff.
A winter rainbow in Flagstaff.
A winter rainbow in Flagstaff.

I though it might be interesting to look at Lake Mary and Mormon Lake to see if lake levels were increasing as a result of the runoff. Indeed, they were, but not quite as much as I had hoped. Still, water rushing down Newman Canyon, a normally dry wash, into Upper Lake Mary was impressive.

Newman Canyon, a normally dry wash, is filled with runoff pouring into Upper Lake Mary.
Newman Canyon, a normally dry wash, is filled with runoff pouring into Upper Lake Mary.

Back in December 2004, we had a much bigger rain event. Lake Mary was frozen and the water rushing down the hillsides flowed across the top of the ice. The immense weight of the water caused the ice to break with thunderous booms. That is what I was hoping to experience. Didn’t happen because there was no ice this time.

Stream gauge for Oak Creek showing the rapid rise in stream flow.
Stream gauge for Oak Creek showing the rapid rise in stream flow.

My next stop was Mormon Lake. As I drove towards it the sun was able to break through the thinning clouds to my south. I took a quick look in the rear-view mirror to check for rainbows.

And, there it was. A winter rainbow in Flagstaff. Not rare, but certainly not common.

 

New Years winter storm

A band of clouds envelops the San Francisco Peaks.

A very cold storm system moved across the southwestern states on the last day of 2018 bringing snow to both the usual locations but in the lower elevations and the desert as well.

I awoke before dawn on New Years Day and was greeted with clear skies and a crescent Moon with the planets Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern sky. I drove out towards Mormon Lake anticipating great—albeit very cold—conditions for some sunrise snow photographs. On the way to the lake I encountered low clouds and patchy fog and there was nothing to be seen upon my arrival. It was already too close to sunrise to head back north or west so my only option was to wait and hope.

Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.
Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.

I missed the sunrise but about 20 to 30 minutes later the clouds cleared and the San Francisco Peaks were amazing. Low clouds and fog remained around the base of the peaks.

Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.
Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.

As the sun rose higher the side-lit rime ice on the wild grasses (i.e., weeds) at the Mormon Lake Overlook began to glisten and glow.

Temperatures were hovering in the low single digits and I was cold after standing around for about an hour. Time for breakfast and hot coffee.

The next day we hiked into West Fork Oak Creek knowing that the trail would be snow packed and there would be a dozen water crossings on ice—hopefully solid enough to support us. After several days of below freezing high temperatures and near or sub-zero overnight temperatures we were hopeful for safe ice.

Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
There are several locations where water drips down the cliffs even at these cold temperatures resulting in wonderful icicles and bizarre ice sculptures on the ground.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

We hiked to the “end” of the trail where it enters a narrow, rock-walled section of canyon often called “The Subway.” This was our turnaround spot.

Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

On the way up the canyon we had not run into any other hikers. What a treat!

Comet 46P/Wirtanen, Rocket Launches, and Fog

I went out to the Mormon Lake Overlook early last evening (12/08/2018) to photograph a couple of different events. First was the launch of the ULA Delta IV-Heavy NROL-71 mission from Vandenburg Air Force Base. After that, I planned on pointing the camera up towards Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

Only part of my plans worked out. The launch was scrubbed at T-7 seconds but I didn’t know about that until much later. I just kept shooting a series of 15-seconds exposures pointed towards the western horizon and hoping that I would capture it. No launch—and there was nothing to capture.

But, wait, not so fast! It turns out there was a shallow layer of fog in the Mormon Lake basin and the series of 15-second exposures over a period of about 10 minutes resulted in a nice time-lapse movie of the fog. Unfortunately, the camera was pointed at mostly sky with very little of the ground but I’m happy with the lucky result.

Time lapse showing undulations on the top of the fog layer.
Next, I shot a series of 60-second exposures of the comet. Although the skies were cloudless, there was a lot of moisture in the air. See the discussion above about fog! The presence of this moisture and very thin fog above resulted in very colorful stars. A nice effect.

Light pollution in the night sky.
Light pollution in the night sky.

For the third act, I pointed the camera back down and over the lake basin towards Flagstaff. The fog was dissipating at this time but still shows up well. What also shows up is the large amount of light pollution in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is the worlds First International Dark Sky City but it takes a lot of work to keep the skies dark. I fear we may be losing the battle.