Saturday, February 25, 2012

Nice Conjunction!

Twilight Beauty

There was a nice show in the sky tonight just after sunset. Venus and the crescent Moon were nicely paired. (Click on the pictures below for full detail.)
1/320 second exposure with a 200 mm lens
The sky darkened as the pair sunk closer to trees.
1/60 second exposure with a 55 mm lens
Moving the camera a bit I was able to capture Jupiter (on the left) in the same frame with Venus and the Moon.
1/60 second exposure with a 60 mm lens
All pictures were taken with a Nikon D40 DSLR.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hawaii - Part 6

Farewell Hawaii!

You can't go to Hawaii without seeing a tall tropical waterfall! Near the end of our stay we visited Akaka Falls State Park and trekked along a walkway to a spectacular waterfall. On the way we passed through a grove of large diameter bamboo, the largest I've ever seen, with individual stalks maybe six to eight inches across!
We passed a smaller waterfall on the way to the biggest waterfall.
Sophie was quite content in her cozy backpack as Ellen labored along the steep walkway.
The large waterfall was spectacular!
A few days later C and I went to Lava Tree State Park not very far from our vacation house. Around 200 years ago a lava flow had overrun a forest. It burned the trees but, apparently, solidified somehow around the ancient tree trunks leaving vertical lava columns where trees once stood. Here are some examples:
Although the lava trees were interesting, the best part of this nearly deserted park was the quiet, peaceful stroll we took around the paved walkway through tropical vegetation.
On our last day before packing to leave we returned to Richardson Beach Park near Hilo with Keegan, Ellen, and Sophie. It was a sunny day to enjoy a black sand beach.
I had always wanted to see a black sand beach. This section had a nice view of the rocky coast.
C and Ellen had a nice chat in one of the warm tidal pools.
While the women talked and Keegan played with Sophie I sat on a bench looking out at this magnificent view:
It was a magical moment for me. No one was near, no unwanted music blaring from radios, no inane jabber on cell phones, no insects, perfect temperature, only the sound of small waves, rustling trees, and mild breezes. Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about! Peace and quiet! I could have stayed there for hours. If I never return to Hawaii, this is the memory I want to keep of my time there.

If I had to rank the four best things about the Hawaii trip, they would be:

First, living with my granddaughter and making friends with her. 
Second, hiking to see molten lava pouring into the ocean. 
Third, visiting the surprising botanical garden with its strange tropical plants.
Fourth, seeing the Southern Cross and Omega Centauri in the southern sky. 
I had a great time!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hawaii - Part 5

Strange Plants and New Stars!

I was pleasantly surprised by the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden north of Hilo! It turned out to be one of the best attractions of our entire trip! We first descended on a scenic walkway carrying us to an unfamiliar tropical world.
Not far along this magical walkway we came upon the first of many botanical wonders, the Pink Quill:
Did this plant come from the jungle of an extraterrestrial planet? It looks like something from the movie, Avatar! But this was just the first of the strange alien plants. (Alien to us, of course! They must be normal in the tropics!) Check out these other alien specimens:
Care to climb this tree?

A dinosaur head could emerge between leaves at any point here.
Some really big leaves!
There was no end to the alien plants.
Is this a snake, or a plant?

And what in the world is this?

Long before arriving in Hawaii I eagerly anticipated seeing southern parts of the night sky not visible from my Virginia home. Lynchburg's latitude is about 37.4 degrees north. Our vacation house was located at about 19.4 degrees north. This 18-degree difference meant 18 degrees of southern sky below the horizon in Lynchburg was above the horizon in Hawaii!

It's rare to find a night with no clouds, no bright Moon, no street lights, no parking lot lights, no car headlights, no porch lights, no smoke, and no obscuring objects on the horizon. Normally, at home in Virginia, the odds are enormously against me. At our house in Hawaii, however, conditions were relatively good. Roughly half the sky was over the ocean where not a single light was present, and the ocean horizon was, of course, completely flat and unobscured. Much to my delight I discovered no streetlights visible from the house and almost no night traffic either! But astronomical good fortune only goes so far. Clouds were a big problem. Almost every night, every few hours, I would check to see if clouds had cleared, and almost every night would bring disappointment. There were brief episodes of clarity and patches of clear sky, but these were fleeting and relatively rare. Finally, near the very end of our stay, in the hours before dawn, the sky cleared. It was magnificently dark with stars visible all the way down to the horizon. I turned off all the house lights and climbed out onto the 4th floor roof with Keegan's binoculars. Strange southern constellations appeared. I saw Centaurus, Lupus, Vela, and Puppis. I also saw Crux, the Southern Cross, very low on the horizon! I was thrilled to finally see the Southern Cross! The picture below shows the view I had towards the southern horizon. (Click on the picture for full detail.)
The southern horizon in the picture above is relatively flat. It would have been wonderful to have such a flat southern horizon from my viewing position, but that would have been too much luck for this poor boy. My southern horizon, unfortunately, was on land. On my horizon, just to the right of the Southern Cross, a group of tall trees blocked the view. The stars on the right side of the Southern Cross were almost blocked by the trees. They winked in and out of view as breezes blew the tree limbs.
A daytime view of my southern horizon. Notice the unfortunate tall trees on the right. The house with the glaring interior light is located up on the hill to the left of the trees.
To the left of the annoying trees stood a house. Although all other neighborhood houses were completely dark at 5:00 am, wouldn't you know this one particular house, the one crucially located near things I wanted to see, THIS house had a glaring light inside shining directly in my eyes! Such is my luck when observing.

In spite of these annoying obstacles I was able to see some amazing things with binoculars. The easiest object was the giant globular cluster, Omega Centauri. This was visible to the naked eye as a small patch of dim light. In binoculars it looked something like this:
Omega Centauri has almost twice the apparent diameter of M13, the biggest globular cluster seen from Virginia. M13 is spectacular in a telescope. Omega Centauri must be twice as spectacular! I wished I had a telescope at hand! Next, not far to the upper left of Omega Centauri, I spotted galaxy Centaurus A, which appeared in binoculars as a dim, but clearly visible, hazy spot. Centaurus A looks like this in a telescope:
In the star chart above you notice the dim light of the Milky Way running low parallel to the horizon. I could see some of this glow near the blasted blocking trees. I believe I also saw the glow of the Eta Carinae Nebula, but only in brief glimpses between the trees. While scanning the Milky Way with binoculars I came upon NGC 3532, The Wishing Well Cluster. It looked like this with a memorable orange star on the left:
Hawaiian observing only made me want to see more southern objects and view them with a telescope instead of binoculars. Maybe someday I'll get to the Atacama Desert in Chile where I can view the southern sky under ideal conditions.

The Hawaii blog will finish next week with a farewell post.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hawaii - Part 4

Hilo and Vicinity

Steady rain finally stopped during the second week of our visit. One day we took Sophie to a Japanese Garden within Liliuokalani Gardens near downtown Hilo. We saw huge Banyon trees:
The peacefulness of the Japanese Garden was shattered by a noisy string trimmer.
Everything in the park was new and wonderful for little Sophie:
We also explored Richardson Beach Park and spotted some interesting wildlife there. While eating lunch we saw an elusive mongoose darting around on a nearby wall:
Next, we saw two(!) sea turtles grazing along the rocky shore. Only the tops of two shells are visible in the first picture below, one near bottom center, and the other near the girl in white.
Eventually, one of the turtles went out to sea and one stayed feeding among the rocks. Ellen climbed down to get a closer look:
Here is the best result of Ellen's closeup photography:
 Ellen and Sophie watched tiny shrimp in the quiet tidal pool.
On our first rainy trip to the Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo near Hilo Sophie enjoyed the petting zoo:
One strange member of the zoo was the scary looking feral "attack pig":
The white tiger was also impressive!
In addition to the pig and white tiger the zoo also had an uncaged thesaurus!
We made two trips to the zoo so Sophie and her parents could play on the magnificent playground there. First, Ellen had to try the tilted rotating gadget.
Then Keegan showed Ellen and Sophie how to properly vary the moment of inertia:
Mom and Dad are role models. Now Sophie wants to try too:
Sophie LOVED this playground!
We took a walking tour around soggy downtown Hilo, stopping in many stores along the way. Although it was difficult, we managed to resist the temptation to buy a ridiculous Obama bobble head doll.
I discovered a rock shop along the way and bought a nice specimen of cavansite to add to my rock collection. Cavansite, the blue crystal in the image below, is composed of calcium, silicon, hydrogen, oxygen, and vanadium. Vanadium sounds cool, doesn't it? It's a metal named after the Norse goddess Vanadis and sits next to titanium and chromium on the periodic table.
In one of many clothing shops Ellen had a hard time trying on Hawaiian clothes in the changing room while impish Sophie played hide and seek with the modesty curtain!
The Hawaii blog continues next week with visits to new attractions, both terrestrial and celestial.

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