My father passed away last week at age 88. This essay I finished early last year is largely about him.
On a clear, moonless night, 7,000 feet high on the Colorado Plateau, I stand in my backyard in Torrey, Utah looking at the heavens. When I shift my gaze to the ground, I realize I can see my shadow. I move my arm about to see if a shadow is really what I was seeing. The shadow moves. The night seems inky dark. There is no artificial light anywhere. I laugh under my breath. How could there be a shadow? The only light is coming from the summer Milky Way arcing overhead.
I don’t believe there are many people who have seen their shadow by starlight and that is a shame. In most of the country and much of the world people live in places where the skyglow caused by errant urban light makes it impossible to see the Milky Way. When I was born there were slightly fewer than 3 billion people on the planet. Now there are almost 8 billion and it shows in the sky. Satellite photos of the earth at night taken over the past decades show the expansion of light creeping like a fungus growing in a petri dish. As Joni Mitchell sang in my youth, Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. That dark sky over my head in Torrey is becoming a lost resource. Another vanishing piece of wildness.
My father has been an avid amateur astronomer and astro-photographer since the early 1980’s. The technology of telescopes was improving fast in those days, prices were starting to come down, and Dad was an early adapter of the new technologies. In 1986 when Halley’s comet was making its once every 75 year rounds past Earth, Dad invited a buddy and I to join him in the dark skies of southern Utah to take a look through his telescope. We went to Canyonlands, south of Moab. Standing outside his motorhome the night was thick with dark and the Milky Way hung overhead and Halley’s hung in the middle of the south sky with its tail pointing up and away to the northwest. The view through the telescope did not disappoint and my buddy and I laughed as we tried and failed to keep the comet in the telescope’s crosshairs. I could see the attraction to Dad’s hobby but I was busy with a young family and career and did not see the telescope again until 20 or so years later. By then Dad had reconverted in a fundamental way to religion and there was a growing distance between us. “I still have that old telescope, the orange tube C8,” he told me. “You can take it if you want to.” That was all the instruction I got, but I took him up on the offer.
Kirsten and I are in the banjo (a pop-up camper) heading to the Simpson Springs campground on the Pony Express road in the desert west of Salt Lake City. We need to get out and are eager to celebrate Solstice. As a double bonus, Saturn and Jupiter are going to be as visually close tonight as they have been for 400 years and will be again for another 400. Simpson Springs is remote and is typically empty. But the last time we went out this recent early summer, as this pandemic got going, the place was jammed. The whole west desert was crowded and covered in accumulating dust plumes from multitudes of RV’s and swarms of off road vehicles. As we settle in on the good dirt road heading west today we can’t see any other traffic and are hopeful the manic crowd does not have the same idea as us this time.
Cepheus is looking bad in the depiction Stellarium uses in their Western constellation art. The picture shows an old man sitting around in his bathrobe. It could be me in this pandemic if I had more hair. I would be offended if I were him. That depiction is way too close to the truth, too exposing, not nearly romantic enough. It is the women in his life making the big splash. He is just a geezer hanging out in lazy togs for everyone to see, reminding people innocently passing by, if they will listen, that he prefers to be called King. There you are old dad, taking up space in the sky, trying to think somehow you might be important. An old man’s lament.
I switched the observatory camera from the original CCD SBIG ST-10XME to my modified CMOS Canon 500D/T1i. Replacing the observatory camera was more work, of course, than envisioned. The Canon sensor is set back compared to the SBIG’s and there was not enough range for the TEC-140 telescope to get focused. Jeff Dickerman, the super helpful president at Optec, made me a new adapter to go with another receiver that shortened the camera train enough to get easily into focus. I then rediscovered (I had forgotten but found my own online forum entry!) that CCDAutoPIlot had to turn off the feature on TheSkyX that would record both RAW and FITS files and records only the FITS files. It turns out the DeepSkyStacker can work with FITS and convert the RAW files that create them in color. But I had over time come up with a dark library in RAW frames for the Canon so I could temperature match with the light frames. I don’t have such with FITS files. But if I want to use the observatory automation of CCDAutoPilot, which I do, I will need a new FITS library at a range of temperatures to do it right.
Then I had trouble with setting exposure with CCDAutoPilot on the Canon images. I’m telling a lot of technical info here, but it took a lot of wrestling directly with complex technology to get through all the unforeseen obstacles. The Canon CMOS sensor uses a 2X2 Bayer matrix to record color. Two cells of the matrix are green, the other two are red and blue each. CCD’s, like my SBIG camera,have individual sensors not organized in a matrix. In something to do with the CMOS Bayer matrix, CCDAutoPilot only sees one cell as exposed, and it was saturated, while the other three were only about one-fifth exposed. It averages them in a meaningless way and it seems hit or miss if CCDAutoPilot can get the exposure close enough to get flats. Sometimes it gives up, sometime it settles on something. Focusing is tough too, as is plate solving. CCDAutoPilot did not have a solution as you can see on their forum here, but John Smith, the creator of the software, encouraged me to investigate on my own further. You are getting in pretty deep when the software designer basically gives up and says good luck.
Weirdly, after all that, I did come up with the image below.
The Trifid Nebula is one of the most popular objects to be viewed and photographed by amateurs like me, but if you are in mid North America you have to be quick, it isn’t up for long. In mid-August it doesn’t get fully dark where my observatory is in Torrey, Utah until 10 PM. At that time the nebula is due south, right at the meridian, and at its highest point in the sky for the night at a low 26 degrees altitude (90 degrees is straight up). Boulder Mountain is south of Torrey and it is as dark as it gets in that direction, so it is a good place and time to photograph the object. But by 1 AM the Trifid is getting below 20 degrees altitude, getting close to the mountain and running into too much atmospheric interference near the horizon. The trick is to get some moonless, cloudless nights at these few critical hours. Mid-August worked out this year.
I’m working on weaning myself as much as practical from social media. I have previously written how the largest corporations today, primarily all internet related, are dangerously sucking all the oxygen out of the economy. I don’t want to be a part of that travesty if I can help it.
I have been posting my astrophotos on Facebook where I get by far the most response. But I want to lay lower playing that game. I have ad blockers and add-ins that keep me from being tracked, but I want to spend less and less actual time there. I also use DuckDuckGo to search instead of Google, have dropped my Amazon Prime, and the only Apple product I use is an old iPad to stream Spotify. It’s a start.
As part of that start I want to post my astrophotos here instead of Facebook. I may not get as much attention. I hope to be grown up enough to be fine with that.
Here is one of my latest images. You can click on it to go to my astrophoto gallery on this same website to see a larger version and to find brief technical information about how it was acquired.
On the longest night of the year, under a full super-moon, a ritual evolves in a small Utah town.
Bluff, Utah, December 21, 2018
A full super-moon rose as complete dark enveloped a crowd gathered in the December cold around campfires and torches to celebrate the longest night of the year with art, culture, and sculptural pyrotechnics.
For those like me who are not motivated by the Christian religious myth of Christmas, Winter Solstice is the natural time to celebrate the turn of the seasons. A ritual is called for and one is evolving in rural Bluff, Utah, with all the resulting tensions that come with change and growth.
Torrey House Press publisher, Kirsten Johanna Allen, in search of words from the land. 12/21/2018 in Bluff, Utah
I recently sent this letter to my daughter, Kristen, of adventures and unexpected lessons from the observatory.
Mounting the beast (Celestron C-14)
I had an experience this week that is sticking with me as a terrific little metaphor. I am the student. The thing has cast a spell. I am pondering how to take in the message.
Last Friday Kirsten [my wife] went to NYC to the annual Torrey House distributor conference and to see her dad and sister. While she was gone I scooted down to Torrey to see if I could install one of my dad’s telescopes in the observatory, one that I had not used before. It is his most powerful scope and it is a big beast. I didn’t know if I would even be able to lift it up to the mount, slightly over my head, into its dovetail fitting. I could have used help, but Torrey is far away and I have already imposed on a willing neighbor there too much. I put on some old work gloves. I hefted the thing up, got the dovetail started, but then it jammed. Before my muscles gave out I set the scope back down and waited a while. The gloves left incongruous dust prints on the pristine instrument. Throughout the day I tried 7 more times and went to bed that night thinking I should lift weights more. I thought about it and the next morning tried a new angle. On the second try I finally got it. I sat down to marvel at myself while I gave the mount the command to move to its home position. As it did so I laughed as I realized I had put the beast on upside down.
I wonder if she had bangs. The constellation Coma Bernices is named in honor of Berenices II of Egypt, who was the queen of Ptolemy III (246 – 221 BC). The queen vowed to sacrifice her acclaimed amber tresses in the temple of Aphrodite at Zephyrium following the king’s safe return from battle. After her golden locks mysteriously disappeared from the temple, the court astronomer Conon apparently made peace by convincing the royal couple that the lost sacrifice had been transformed by the gods and made into an eternal constellation. Perhaps kings then, like president trumps today, required constant creative handling. Trump might think it handy to have a blowdryer galaxy all his own for his special headdress.
M100 & NGC 4312, Torrey 5/27/2017
M100 and NGC 4312 are members of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies in constellation Coma Berenices, 50 million light years from earth. M100, also known as the Blowdryer Galaxy, is the upper galaxy seen face on, NGC 4312 is a spiral galaxy seen edge on. There are several other small dwarf galaxies also in the image. Continue reading →
In 1984 my father erected a full blown observatory in his backyard on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake City. He was in his early fifties then and my sister, who was only 14, helped him erect it. He named it the Alpenglow Observatory, created a website to catalog his deep sky photos, and worked on constantly improving it. I think of the project as his magnum opus. This month he asked me if I would like to move his masterpiece to Torrey. Continue reading →