Thursday, January 10, 2019

Wide Angle Sky Pictures

First Try

My ZWO ASI120mc color video camera has a small 150-degree all-sky lens which can be mounted directly in front of the camera. When this lens is in place the camera can be used without a telescope to take wide angle images of the sky. The next picture shows the camera with the 150-degree lens attached.
On the relatively mild, clear, moonless night of January 5th I decided to try wide angle sky imaging for the first time. It was a rare night in my back yard with fewer bright nearby house lights than usual.

The camera was attached to a fixed camera tripod and did not compensate for Earth's rotation. A ten-second exposure with camera tilted slightly southeast produced the following image.
Orion and Gemini are rising at the bottom. Taurus and Auriga are in the center. Just above Perseus at top center an airplane is passing with blinking lights. Turning the camera northeast moved the view a bit and revealed Cassiopeia at top left of center above Perseus.
A few houses away a neighbor decided to turn on an outdoor spotlight producing annoying glare. With 10-second exposures surrounding lights are overexposed.
Tilting the camera to look up at the zenith eliminated neighborhood lights around the horizon. The next picture is the best of all my trials.
The image above was produced by stacking four 10-second exposures. Although the background sky looks grey from light pollution, hints of the dim winter Milky Way can be seen slightly left of center running vertically upward through the constellations Cassiopeia, Perseus and Auriga. Pegasus, Andromeda and Ares are visible to the right of center. The bright object to the right of Pegasus' square is Mars. Even the small dim patch of the Andromeda Galaxy is barely visible. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Unfortunately, I spent most of the time trying to take single frame "snapshots" instead of capturing several frames and then stacking the results. I should have used this video camera to take actual videos! That's what happens when I rush outside on the spur of the moment without planning the imaging session.

Long exposure times were not possible because Earth's rotation would eventually smear star images. Also, light pollution washes out background darkness as exposure time increases. The next sequence of "snapshot" images shows the effect of increasing exposure time. In order, from first to last, the images have exposure times of 10, 15, 20, and 30 seconds.
Notice the increasingly bright sky background in the above sequence as the winter Milky Way becomes more noticeable. Notice also the scattering of red pixels throughout the images, probably caused by thermal noise and "hot pixels" in the uncooled camera. (The red pixels are easier to see if you click to get an enlarged image.) In the future I'll need to use a dark frame to eliminate background thermal noise.   

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Shirley Plantation

Interesting Old House

We have been driving past signs for Shirley Plantation for several years but never made time to visit. On a recent mild autumn day we finally satisfied my curiosity about the site. It was a pleasant ride along VA Route 5 followed by a few miles through flat open farm fields before eventually arriving at the tree-lined entrance to the historic house.
English colonists arrived at Jamestown in 1607. Six years later, in 1613, King James made a royal land grant along the James River to Sir Thomas West. Sir Thomas named the location "The West and Sherley Hundred" after himself and his wife, Lady Cessalye Sherley. By 1616 the land was producing tobacco. In 1638 Edward Hill I purchased the tobacco farm and added many acres to it. Over the years the plantation name changed to "Shirley". During the years 1723 to 1738 decendants of Edward Hill I eventually built the house pictured below now attractively placed beside the James River. 
The house, continuously occupied by eight generations of the Carter/Hill family, has seen a lot of American history and hosted several famous historical personalities including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. During our tour of the first floor we saw many authentic antiques and stood before the parlor fireplace where Anne Hill Carter married Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee on June 18, 1793. Anne and Henry were the parents of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The house served as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War. The following panorama shows a wider view of the house and surroundings. (Click on the image for a larger view.)
We walked around the house to see the rear.
The view from the back porch looks over a modest lawn towards the James River. (Click on the image for a larger panorama.)
This river view was much nicer in the past before unattractive industrial plants were built within sight on the opposite side of the James River in Hopewell. The smoke stacks are blocked behind a tree in the previous panorama.

On the right side of the back yard panorama above you can see the bottom portion of an enormous willow oak tree more than 350 years old. This means the tree has been there at least since 1668!
Life was different in the 1700's. There were no refrigerators. Instead, an ice house was located on the grounds shown in the next picture.
Ice was cut from fresh water ponds in winter, then compacted and stored in a deep pit under the ice house. Ice melted very slowly in the pit and lasted into the warmer months. The ice pit was lined with bricks and topped with a brick dome shown in the next two pictures.
Consider preparation of a chicken dinner in 2018. We walk a few feet to a freezer in the kitchen, open the door, and take out already butchered meat. In the 1700's if doves were to be served for dinner, servants walked about 100 yards outside to the dovecote and plucked a few doves from roosts within. The next two pictures show the dovecote and roosts arranged within the dovecote. There are 108 total roosts inside!
The kitchen was a completely separate building on the front lawn of the main house as shown below.
Servants and cooks lived on the top floor. Cooking was done on the bottom floor.
The laundry was located across the front yard from the kitchen in a building identical to the kitchen. In my modern home the refrigerator, kitchen, and laundry room are all located inside less than 10 feet apart. Residents of the Shirley house depended on multiple servants traveling outside between the ice house, kitchen, laundry, and dovecote to carry out domestic tasks. It's strange to imagine dinner prepared and cooked about 40 yards away from the main house, then carried by servants across the lawn, through the front door, and into the dining room to be served.

We spent a very enjoyable afternoon exploring this attractive historic estate.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Birthday Bike Trip

Frostburg Fossils

While riding the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail five years ago I passed many trailside rock layers that looked like good places to find fossils. One particular site was near Frostburg, MD where I found fossil leaves during the 2013 ride. I hoped to return there some day to hunt more fossils. This year my thoughtful daughter suggested a father-daughter bike trip on the trail from Frostburg to celebrate my birthday. It was a great idea. The trip was wonderful!

We drove to Frostburg on winding, hilly, rural roads through small West Virginia towns. The last seven miles on Interstate 68 approaching Frostburg were almost entirely uphill. Frostburg is a nice small town dating from the early 1800's with an undulating main street. It's also the home of Frostburg State University.

Our bike trip began on a cloudy cool morning. We stopped to take pictures of Frostburg's old rail station on our way to the trailhead.
Frostburg seemed to be the end of the rail line. There was a turntable just beyond the station for reversing the engines.
A twisty downhill road took us to the trailhead parking lot with its attractive shelter and informative signs.
I was thrilled to finally arrive here after years of wishing to return. Damp, chilly morning breezes made us glad we dressed properly for temperature in the low 60's.
The trail beckoned. We were soon on our way heading west toward the continental divide eight miles away.
Cool weather, the smell of fallen leaves, and trees on the verge of turning color made this autumnal equinox day feel very much like autumn. In a few miles we approached the Borden Tunnel, a relatively short tunnel only 0.18 miles long.
Our westward ride toward the continental divide was slightly uphill. Trail information claimed the maximum gradient is 1.75 percent. The gentle upgrade was definitely noticeable as we pedaled slowly along.
The next landmark was the Mason-Dixon line which forms the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The sign pictured below explains the historical significance of the Mason-Dixon line, the "cultural dividing line between the North and the South".
Notice the brown and gold chain-like markings proceeding outward along the ground from the base of the marker above. These represent surveying chains used the mark out the border as explained in the following sign. (Click on the sign images to more easily read the text.)
We pedaled on and soon encountered enormous wind turbines. The Twin Ridges Wind Farm consists of 68 wind turbines generating as much as 139.4 megawatts of power. The next video fails to capture how big these giant structures are when viewed from the trail. They loom overhead like intimidating Martian tripod vehicles from the 2005 War of the Worlds movie.
A nice open view was available near the wind turbines.
Now we were about to enter the Big Savage Mountain Tunnel.
This impressive 0.625-mile long tunnel was completed in 1912. It's really fun to ride through. Thank goodness it's lit by overhead lamps. The exit looks a long way off!
Not far beyond the Big Savage Mountain Tunnel we arrived at our westward destination, the continental divide.
At this point we had traveled only about 8 miles from the Frostburg trailhead, but we pedaled very slowly and stopped many times along the way. The trail continues many miles further towards Pittsburgh. I knew from previous experience the next five miles beyond the westward tunnel exit shown below were not very interesting.
So we turned around and headed back out the east side of the tunnel toward Frostburg.
The return to Frostburg was now slightly downhill, and pedaling was noticeably easier. With fewer stops we were soon at the fossil hunting location I visited in 2013. Debris from the impressive layers shown in the next two pictures falls down near the side of the trail.
We explored one or two other possible locations nearby, but found the base of the layers shown above to be the best site for fossils. We spent more than an hour here searching through many fragments.
We found some nice fossils here. Some are pictured below. (Click on the images for larger, more detailed views.) This leaf was well centered on its flat stone.
The next picture shows some star-shaped leaves, probably aligned because they were part of a branch. Unfortunately, the rock is broken. The complete specimen would have been very nice indeed.
I'm definitely not an expert on the botany of extinct plants. The few books and websites I consulted to identify these fossils only confused me. I'm guessing these star-shaped leaves, called annularia, are the foliage of extinct medium-sized trees called calamites dating from 360 to 300 million years ago. We found lots of these annularia.
The annularia were often found together with other leaves.
In addition to elongated single leaves and star-shaped leaves, we also found smaller, more rounded leaves which might be from a "seed fern" called neuropteris.
We found two examples of what are apparently fossil fern seeds ("seed pods"?) called, trigonocarpus.
An online fossil image identified the next specimen, stretched horizontally on the rock, as a calamites "cone". I have no idea if this is correct.
We spent about 1.5 hours searching through rock fragments before deciding to stop. Fortunately, relatively cool temperature and cloud cover helped keep fossil hunting comfortable. We wouldn't have lasted long on the rock face in heat and full sunshine. We happily wrapped our fossils in newspaper and packed everything into a backpack. Then we cycled back to the Frostburg trailhead to eat some lunch and leave the heavy, treasure-filled backpack in the car.

We had only pedaled 16 miles at this point with many, many stops along the way, including the lengthy fossil hunting stop. Since it was still early afternoon, we decided to pedal eastward along the trail towards Cumberland, MD. By the time we had gone about 6 miles east it had become sunnier, hotter, and humid. The trail was soft and sandy in many places making pedaling harder. We started sweating in our cold weather clothes. It was time to turn around and return to the trailhead. So, after biking 28 total miles, we finished at the trailhead feeling hot, sweaty, and a bit tired.

The next day we drove back to Williamsburg through almost constant rain. In West Virginia we passed unaware through territory with good fossil hunting potential, but I didn't realize this until I consulted fossil guide books at home.  Maybe I'll get a chance to return some day. This was an absolutely wonderful trip, and I'm so very grateful to my daughter, Ellen, for suggesting it and accompanying me.

People say I'm crazy doing what I'm doing
Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I'm o.k. well they look at me kind of strange
Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game

People say I'm lazy dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I'm doing fine watching shadows on the wall
Don't you miss the big time boy you're no longer on the ball

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

John Lennon