Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Winter Storm Stella, March 14, 2017

21 inches of snow on the front porch by noon on March 14, 2017. Snow was still coming down. Three hours later, when it seemed to have stopped, I measured it again at 22 inches.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Moon occults Aldebaran, March 4, 2017

8:51 PM. Orion, the Moon in the Hyades,and the Pleiades
Saturday night I got home too late to get an image of the thinning and widening crescent of Venus. But I did get a clear view of the Moon in the Western sky between Orion and the Pleiades - smack on top of the V-shaped asterism of the Hyades.

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8:53 PM
At that point, the Moon was smack in the ridiculously symmetrical vertex of the Hyades. Its dark side - lit up dimly by Earthshine, not bright enough to be visible to the naked eye - was aimed directly at the bright star at the upper left of the V.

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8:55 PM
I had to look the star's name up - Aldebaran. While I was doing that, I came across an article that stated that the Moon would be passing in front of - occulting- the star that night.

The timing didn't seem right. For New York City, the occultation was slated to begin at 11:10 PM. But the exact details of an occultation vary depending on the location of an observer on the surface of the Earth - the Moon, after all, is a three-dimensional object and is much closer to the Earth than to the star it is covering, so its position relative to the background stars will be different for different observers. Surely the event would take place sooner in Northeastern Pennsylvania?

9:54 PM
Saturday night was a cold, cold night. But I had never observed an occultation before, and I didn't want to risk missing it. So when I went out again at about 10:20 that night, I decided to stay out for the night.

10:24 PM
 That was the plan, at least.

10:38 PM
I was wrapped up pretty well. But my camera had no real protection from the cold. Cold will sap the life from a battery, at least temporarily. Even though it had been recently charged, the low battery warning started showing fairly early in the night.

The words BATTERY EXHAUSTED appeared a few minutes before 11:00 PM, and the camera shut down.

I've been meaning to get a spare battery since I got my camera. I never got around to it. But I remembered that a cold battery can be brought back to life by warming it. To get the battery out of my camera, I needed to take the camera off the tripod, remove the tripod quick-release mount, open the compartment, and pop out the battery. I did this, and started warming the battery in my cold hand.

I dropped the quick-release mount.

It went bouncing across the frozen lawn in the dark. I felt around with one hand while holding the camera in the other, which was also closed around the battery. Nothing. I could try propping the camera on the tripod - no good, not stable. I would need to go into the house to get a flashlight.

I found one. In another minute, I found the quick-connect mount, far from where I had dropped it, with just a few minutes to go.

11:05 PM

After a few shots, the battery died again.

Fine, I thought. I popped the battery out an warmed it again. I held on tightly to the mount this time. About a minute left.

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11:08 PM. Aldebaran about to be covered.
And then...
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11:09 PM. Aldebaran is now covered by the Moon.

I went back in the house. A glance at the clock revealed that the timings for New York City were pretty accurate for my location, too. It also revealed that I had been outside a heck of a lot longer than I had realized. I uploaded a selection of my images, watched the opening of Saturday Night Live (with Kate McKinnon playing Jeff Sessions in the manner of Forrest Gump), started recharging the camera, and went to bed.

I suppose Aldebaran popped out from behind the Moon eventually, but I was too cold and tired to watch.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Clouds, Moon, and Venus, March 1, 2017

March came in like a transitional lamb-lion this year. The day started out warm and later turned rainy, with the promise of high winds overnight. Clouds blocked out the sun most of the day, but sunset turned those clouds golden-orange.

I was slow to photograph them. Seconds count at sunset, with each passing moment bringing different light effects. The clouds in the east burned with a bright orange-yellow, while those in the west were red and pink. I focused on the ones in the west.

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Facing west after sunset. First glimpse of blue sky all day.

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A different view of the same scene.

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After a bit I remembered that the Moon would be visible as a thin crescent in the west. A break in the clouds revealed it

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The Moon and Venus, March 1, 2017. They had been much closer the night before, but we were completely clouded out. Fortunately the clouds broke long enough for me to grab a few images.

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The Moon, March 1, 2017.
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The crescent of Venus, March 1, 2017. I have never observed this before, even though it should be visible at least once a year. The crescent will become wider and thinner over the next few weeks. The zoom in this image, 42x, is the same as the zoom in the Moon image above. 

I'm heading back to work tomorrow, and will probably be in work past the time that Venus sets for the next five days. Will we have clear skies next Wednesday and Thursday? How much different will the crescent of Venus look then? We'll find out!

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

July 17, 2016: Pale white disk in a pewter sky

That's no moon...
Saturday, July 16, 2016, rain fell hard in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It left the ground saturated, and the air as well. The next morning a fog formed, hiding the rising sun.

I was scheduled to work that day. I went through my normal morning routine: make coffee, feed the cats, eat breakfast, get lunch together. As I washed my breakfast dishes I glanced out the window over the kitchen sink. A strange pale disk hung in the pewter-gray sky, Moon-sized but not the Moon.

I knew not to stare. Even with miles of fog and clouds attenuating the onslaught, there was still plenty of ultraviolet and infrared radiation heading into my eyes. But I wondered: could I safely take a photo of the fog-dimmed Sun?

I decided to chance it. I would use the high shutter speed setting that I routinely use for imaging the Full Moon. I would aim the camera freehand, to reduce the risk that I would burn out the imager.

I started out with the context-setting image above. In addition to shooting through fog and clouds I also had a layer of window glass between me and the Sun. Window glass inevitably has dirt on it, especially after a rainstorm. I worried that dirt might mess up any image I took. Reviewing my first shot, I saw that my fears might have been justified. There were spots on the Sun.

Aw, geez. Spots on my image of the Sun.
I changed position, took another image of the Sun through another part of the window. Same spots. The spots were on the Sun, not on the window.

Same image as above, brightness and contrast adjusted.
I tweaked the best image by adjusting the brightness and contrast to enhance what I now knew to be sunspots. Surprisingly, the image also seemed to show granules, the convection cells that break up the surface of the sun, though that could just be an effect of the clouds and fog and image enhancement. The image also showed obvious limb darkening, which is a real thing and not an image artifact.

SOHO image showing sunspots for July 17, 2016
I pulled up the SOHO daily sunspot image for that day and compared it to my image. Rotated about 50 degrees,  it was a perfect match. So thanks to fog, clouds, and my Nikon Coolpix p520, I had just gotten an image of the Sun, with sunspots!

NOTE: DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME. There are special filters that will allow you to view and photograph the sun safely, without risking damage to your eyes or camera. I was not using any of these. I got lucky because of the extreme atmospheric dimming. You might not.