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Meteorite Hunting and Astronomy Time Again

California Meteorite Club Gathering

As I write this it has been a week since the gathering of the California Meteorite Club down at Escondido. It was a great party. Sort of similar to what Paul and I did years ago. But, this had a much larger group of attendees and was an opportunity to personally meet many of the Facebook and email friends we have corresponded with.

As the group picture below taken by Richard Garcia shows there was a good turnout for this first event. Several of the guests brought show and tell items. I had thought about it but could not decide what to take. I will definitely take a few meteorites next time. Many of the attendees were meteorite hunters and they had stories to tell of adventures. It was great to hear their exciting close shaves and moment of discovery tales. The only thing missing was the campfire to gather around.

There was a nice spread of food and the superloaded pizzas arrived at just the right time. Paul and I got a great opportunity to have a long conversation with Richard Garcia about astrophotography. He is quite the expert and has attended a lot of imaging conferences that we have not. Paul is always a little up on me with making the most of software programs. I have been working hard with the equipment and the software trying to make it up a steep learning curve. We have five new pieces of software that we have to master to make all of our investment in equipment give back the best results. It was good to talk to Richard and learn a few more things and see some accessories he carries with him.

I restrained myself to just a few cookies but there was a grand assortment of desserts there too. We left in the early evening for the drive home pretty happy to have met so many more nice new friends.

I think we are all looking forward already to the next gathering and I know there will be a lot of hunting going on with the desert cooling off.

Summer Summary and Fall and Winter Plans

It has been a wonderful summer. I have been super busy having tremendous fun. I have cut a huge pile of meteorite material for orders and for friends. I cut some Alamo Breccia this morning to send back East to a collector at an observatory. You cannot sell Alamo Breccia but I had enough to give this guy some. By a huge pile I mean huge. I used up three blades in two days something I have never done before. It was hundreds of cuts and nearly 15 hours of total cutting time on just the one job. But, the hardest day of cutting meteorites is way better than the best day at a job working for someone else. Every cut reveals something that no other person has ever seen before. And every cut is on material that was once roaming around the solar system.

Along with all the meteorite work the last couple months I have been working at night with my other love; astrophotography. I have posted some of the experimental pictures taken in town on Facebook and Google+ Now I am really getting excited about returning to the desert to take some shots from there. There are just a few objects I can even take pictures of from town. And the signal to noise ratio is quite poor. With stacking and a lot of processing you can bring out a nice shot sometimes. I am eager to get some good long exposures under a dark sky. The experimental shots from town have helped work out most of the bugs in my set up. Plus I have all the software working while I am still learning to use it. So when our yearly adventure to the desert for meteorite hunting and astronomy comes I will be ready to bring back some nice shots of galaxies, nebulas, globular clusters and anything else that is up there.

This an image made from a registered stack of about 30 individual shots totaling about 40 minutes. It was taken from my backyard here in town. The object is M27 the so called Dumbbell Nebula. It is a planetary nebula, which means it is actually the blown off gas shell of an old star.

I really don’t know how much meteorite hunting we will do this year. We will be up late doing astrophotography and will spend the day sleeping and processing image files. It has been a long time since we went on vacation without doing any hunting.

We have been waiting for Comet ISON for almost a year and getting ready for six months to shoot it, hoping that it would be the spectacular comet predicted early on. But, there are some thoughts being offered now by scientists that it may not be very exciting after all. Well, comets are like that we have been surprised both ways before. I remember another Sungrazer that was touted as being the Comet of the Century which fizzled out. But, I remember some truly wonderful comets too. They were back in the time of film. I am excited about getting images with my digital cameras of Comet ISON regardless of how spectacular it is.

Since this article is always about meteorites I don’t think I have told the story of going out to our astronomy club dark sky site to get pictures of comet Hyakutake. It had come out of deep space with no warning and was going to pass Earth close and fast. Paul and I were both members of the same club (that’s where we met) and we were already doing a little meteorite hunting together. We were both astrophotographers too. I was still raising four children and paying lots of bills. I did not have a lot of money and there were really not many choices for equipment to track a camera for long exposures. There was one commercial camera tracker and I could not afford it at that time. So I put my mind to the problem and made my first windup clock movement camera drive. I have collected antique clocks most of my adult life and restored them. I had accumulated a good supply of old 24 hour wind up timing mechanisms. They were used before synchronous motors to turn on switches and things during a one day cycle. I knew they could never pull the weight of a camera. However, I was sure that the gears and shafts of the movements were strong enough to support the weight of a camera and lens so it could smoothly fall under gravity as the movement turned. All I had to do was mount the clock drive so that the one turn per day shaft could be aligned to Polaris and lengthen the shaft so a camera clamp could be attached.

The final version of my clockwork trackers is pictured here. It has a nice covered movement. The main drive gear is a pair of gears stacked and loaded with a heavy spring to take out backlash. I could go as long as 10 minutes at 270 mm with little tracking error. Of course it was impossible to do any kind of guiding adjustment. I could go as long as an hour on wide angle shots.

I went through about three version of the device each getting more accurate and using better clock drives. I got to the one pictured below that I used as recently as a three months ago on Orion (while it was still in the evening sky). It still worked and I got some good shots, but, it is not as good as the Vixen Polarie that I now have for wide angle work. After taking hundreds of great shots at wide angle and telephoto over several years Comet Hyakutake suddenly came into the sky. It was a Saturday night and we caravanned out to the desert. I pulled the truck into a spot at the observing site and got out and looked up. There hanging in the sky was a spectacular comet. Bright, teal blue and bigger than the span of your hand with your fingers spread apart. I set up my rig and started taking pictures. Everyone else needed electricity and telescope mounts to do their shots. I just set my tripod with the tracker down and used an alignment scope to sight in Polaris, and I was ready. Of course I had to wind it up. All across the area the ticking of my rig could be heard among the opening and closing shutters. I shot several rolls of film and could not wait to get back to town to get them processed. The color I could get in an hour, but the black and whites would take a few days. I had gotten a lot of good shots. Comet Hyakutake was going to be visible for one more week and it was going to be bigger and closer. So I got more film and wound up my clock movement and retaped the focus ring on my lenses so they were at real infinity not where the symbol is on the barrel. I did everything else to get ready to go the next weekend again.

When I stepped from the truck that second Saturday night I almost passed out from the sight of the comet. It was so bright everything around me had a cast of blue-green. It stretched all the way across the sky. There was no way I could get a whole picture of it. I had no wide angle lens to do that. I could get a big piece though. A long night and a few rolls of film later I was back on the road to a camera store to get film developed again. I had done ok. I have put a couple pictures here to show you what that really great comet was like.

This is a wide angle shot of Comet Hyakutake about five minutes of exposure with a 50mm f2 lens using 1000 ASA Kodak Royal Gold.
This is a five minute long exposure shot of the head of Comet Hyakutake using a 135mm lens and doubler for an f3.5 focal ratio. TMAX 3200 was the film of choice for this shot developed without any pushing.

So Comet ISON is coming and I have traded in my old handmade camera tracker for an astrograph telescope on a fine heavy mount with autoguiding done at subpixel accuracy using software on my laptop. That’s a big change from a wind up clock movement. We do a lot of meteorite hunting on most of our vacations and I think we will do at least some later this year too. But, we have been working hard to get our telescopes, mounts, and guiders set up. I have spent a couple days getting the electricity components all packaged into a plastic container so I just plug things into it. I am operating with battery power too now days.

Here is a picture of my current set up ready for a night of imaging in my backyard.

Regardless of how good or mediocre Comet ISON turns out to be there will be plenty of other objects to photograph if the sky is clear. We have our fingers and toes crossed that we get good weather and don’t forget any crucial parts or cables at home.

One of my Spring cutting projects

During my cutting of meteorite material I came across a nice stone that I sent off for classification. It is chondrule rich and really cool. It is not the freshest of meteorites, but it looked like it could be a Type 3. It is shown below so you can have some meteorite eye candy in this article. I got the classification results and it was a Type 4 (nuts), but it is still a very nice meteorite. It is NWA 8008 and its complete classification is L4 W5 S1 olivine Fa 24.6±0.9 (n=15) low-Ca pyroxene Fs20.5Wo1.8 (n=15).

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