Thunderstorms and lightning have returned to northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon (NAM) got off to a slow start across northern Arizona this year despite a few predictions that it would start early and strong. It did in some locations but northern Arizona was not one of them. But after a few false starts, the rainy season is in full swing here. We’ve had a couple of days with substantial rainfall and that has — finally — put an end to the extreme fire danger.

Cloud-to-ground lightning from a distant thunderstorm at twilight.
Cloud-to-ground lightning from a distant thunderstorm at twilight.

And, with all the thunderstorms, comes another chance to photograph lightning. Yesterday (15 July 2012) turned out to be a very good day for lightning. By late afternoon, storms were weakening across northern Arizona but there remained a chance that there would be another round in the evening. And there was. At one point in time, I was observing lightning in all directions — none of it close however.

Thunderstorm lit from within by lightning during twilight hours.
Thunderstorm lit from within by lightning during twilight hours.

I found myself in Wupatki National Monument during the evening. I stopped at one of the many pullouts along the road that afforded me a view in multiple directions and set up to photograph. Initially, the best storms were to my north but since they were moving to the north they eventually were too far away. At the same time, a cluster of storms was moving northward across central Arizona. I could see only the tops of these storms but they still managed to light up the sky. Because they did not fill the sky yet there were plenty of stars visible as well. I was happy with the results: bright stars overhead, distant thunderstorms lit from the inside by lightning, and wonderful colors and light reflecting off the clouds in all directions.

Stars shine overhead as a cluster of distant thunderstorms light up the far horizon.
Stars shine overhead as a cluster of distant thunderstorms light up the far horizon.

It was amazingly quiet in the Monument. Only a few cars drove by at that time of the evening and the storms were distant so that the thunder was inaudible. It was so quiet I could hear the bats flitting around.

An amazing evening.

Historic flight of the SpaceX/Dragon to the International Space Station

History was made in May when the unmanned spacecraft Dragon, perched atop the Falcon 9, was launched from the Kennedy Space Center  by the Space Exploration (SpaceX) company. This was the first privately-built spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station (ISS).

The original launch was delayed by a few days when at the last second (literally, at the last half second!) the onboard computers automatically shut everything down.

Once successfully launched Dragon then began the process of matching orbits with the ISS in preparation for docking with the station. It would undergo a series of tests to make certain that the commands were correctly executed before being allowed to dock.

As the pair of spacecraft flew overhead in the early morning of 24 May, I was able to capture a series of photographs that showed the very bright ISS close to the very dim Dragon. As I was capturing the images, however, I wondered where the Dragon was — as I was unable to see it. Only after loading the images onto the computer and zooming in was I able to see the two spacecraft.

ISS and SpaceX/Dragon as they fly in tandem across the early morning sky in northern Arizona.
ISS and SpaceX/Dragon as they fly in tandem across the early morning sky in northern Arizona.

 

ISS and SpaceX/Dragon as they fly in tandem across the early morning sky in northern Arizona.
ISS and SpaceX/Dragon as they fly in tandem across the early morning sky in northern Arizona.

The first image is a composite of three images each of 15 seconds duration. If you look very carefully you can see the dim track of Dragon just a few pixels below the bright track of ISS. The second image is a single, cropped image zoomed to 200% that does a  better job of showing the two spacecraft as they flew together.

At this time, the Dragon was likely undergoing its command tests and was only a few miles from the larger ISS.

On May 31, SpaceX/Dragon successfully splashed down into the Pacific Ocean where it was recovered by ships and taken to port.

This flight was a historic moment for the true beginning of commercial spaceflight and I feel lucky to have been able to capture a sequence of photographs as it underwent its first space test.

Night Lights in Las Vegas

The weather has been very dry and warm for much of this winter. Blame it on La Nina, if you must. It has resulted in excellent mountain biking conditions across the west. So we took advantage of the great weather and excellent trail conditions and found ourselves in southern Nevada in early March.

But this entry isn’t about the mountain biking. Rather, it is about an evening spent in Las Vegas in between days of mountain biking. I wanted to shoot pictures of the fabulous hotels, resorts, and casinos in evening and night light. So we found ourselves slowly walking along “The Strip” and stopping every few minutes.

Of all the images I think these three are my favorites.

I really like the fantasy buildings from the Excalibur Resort. This resort endeavors to re-create the Middle Ages and the fortress-like structure boasts a drawbridge, moat, turreted towers, and stone columns. And it’s all beautifully lit.

 

The night lights at the Excalibur resort in Las Vegas.
The night lights at the Excalibur resort in Las Vegas.

My other favorites are from the Bellagio. Most visitors to the Bellagio are interested in the fountain displays that are choreographed to music and, not surprisingly, most images that appear on the web are of the fountains. This image was taken at the far end of the pool is more subtle and the colors far more captivating.

Blue reflections in the pool at the Bellagio Resort.
Blue reflections in the pool at the Bellagio Resort.

Finally, this image of glass flowers was taken in the main entry way of the Bellagio. Look up because it’s part of the ceiling. This vibrant flower petal chandelier, entitled Fiori de Como, was designed by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

The Fiori de Como was designed by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
The Fiori de Como was designed by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

So it was a fun and interesting evening and we spent a total of…wait for it…nothing.

 

Edit: fixed typos.

Bright objects in the night sky — Part III

Venus and Jupiter continue to shine brightly in the western twilight sky each evening. The two planets have been converging and will be closest on the evenings of March 12 and 13 when they will have an angular separation of only three degrees (about the same as six moon diameters).

 

Conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and the ISS over the Kachina Wetlands near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and the ISS over the Kachina Wetlands near Flagstaff, Arizona.

On the evening of 01 March 2012 the International Space Station (ISS) made an evening transit low in the western sky. Its track placed it just below the planetary pair resulting in a great photographic opportunity. Shooting a total of six 30s exposures captured the ISS rising from the low hills to its high point just below the planets then moving into the southwestern sky. The 1st-quarter moon provided more than enough light to brighten up the scenery of the Kachina Wetlands with reflections of the planets visible in the water.

A bright flash in the sky

There are hundreds of operational satellites and thousands of unused satellites and satellite fragments orbiting the Earth. A few of these are quite bright and easy to see as they traverse the sky. Most are dim and generally not easily visible. And others are usually dim but briefly flare much brighter.

Satellite flare is caused by the reflective surfaces on satellites reflecting sunlight directly onto the Earth below and appearing as a brief, bright “flare.” The Iridium satellite series is especially conducive to reflecting light back to the earth and these flares can be exceptionally bright.

Satellite flare from Iridium 91 as it traverses the northern Arizona sky.
Satellite flare from Iridium 91 as it traverses the northern Arizona sky.

Here is an example of the Iridium 91 satellite as it traversed the northern Arizona sky and quickly brightened to a magnitude of -7.0 . Only the Moon (-13) and the Sun (-27) have brighter magnitudes.

Detail of a satellite flair from Iridium 91 as it traverses the northern Arizona sky.
Detail of a satellite flair from Iridium 91 as it traverses the northern Arizona sky.

Knowing when and where to look for Iridium flares is easy as there are many web sites that provide this information. My favorites are Heavens-Above.com and CalSky.com. Happy satellite viewing!