May 23, 2014

Shine and Rain

Wednesday May 21

Went on a ranger led rim walk today. Ranger William gave a very windy walk through the ages beginning 35 million years ago at Sunset Point and ending at Sunrise Point in the present day. Learned that there are sites in the park that show evidence of ancient Native American history—petroglyphs as well as areas where flint was chipped down into tools. Though at least the petroglyphs were once advertised to tourists, they are now kept secret due to past instances of vandalism. How embarrassing for humanity that we can not even be trusted to respectfully enjoy these historical treasures.

Also learned something new about Ebenezer Bryce. He was a Scottish shipwright who converted to Mormonism and came to “Zion” ready to carry the gospel wherever church leaders directed. Upon arriving in this area, he founded what is now the small town of Tropic and set up shop as a woodworker. Beyond being a bewildering wonderland of rock, “Bryce's Canyon” proved a particularly good spot for harvesting timber. The great Douglass Firs that grow among the hoodoos are straight and tall and devoid of branches until their very upper reaches climb above the towering rocks and into the sunlight. This means their trunks are knot free and of exceptional quality for building. Unfortunately for us, this also means that most of these strong and enterprising old-growth trees are now gone from the hoodoos. One of the most iconic and photographed places in the park—the Wall Street section of the Navajo Loop Trail (currently closed for rock-fall removal)—is one place where such trees can still be found. I'm hoping it will be reopened again before the end of my term here so I can share some photos.

At the end of the hike I saw my first Clark's Nutcracker: the legendary bird responsible for caching seeds way out on precipitous ledges and fins—places that trees are otherwise unlikely to grow—and the reason I'm able to take photos like these.

Thursday May 22

What a great day for solar viewing! Unlike last time, we had NO clouds getting in the way, and with Memorial Day weekend revving up, there was a decent flow of visitors. Radar and Kara set up the Park's Coronado and I brought my Dob along for its first public appearance outfitted with a new Seymour Solar off-axis filter.

Seymour Solar is a family owned solar filter company based in Escalante—only about 40 minutes from Bryce—so on my way down last week I swung by and just picked up the filter directly from them. Saved me on shipping, I got to meet the very friendly people who built it, and the drive was beautiful...a win, win, win.

The filter is coated glass and shows the sun in white light reduced in brightness by about a million times—SPF 1,000, sunburns here! Seen through it, the sun appears as a beautiful orange/yellow disk, and I've been able to see quite a lot of detail, especially in the sunspots. Today there were four main spots grouped together in the area of the sun I chose to focus on. They looked small compared to the whole solar disk, but might have been about the size of Earth. A few tiny black pinpricks were also scattered nearby. As seen in the NASA image above right, around the sunspot's coal black centers (umbra) were lighter more grayish areas (penumbra) streaked with fine feathery detail. The whole complex of spots was embedded within faint Plages (French for “beach”)—like black islands surrounded by a lake of pale fire. Seeing the slight color difference of the Plages took some practice, but once seen, they gave the sunscape a truly fascinating dimension and texture. I feel like I also caught hints of boiling Granulation...just my imagination?

Between the two scopes—mine in visual light showing off the “Photosphere,” (sphere of light) and the Coronado displaying the “Cromosphere” (sphere of color)—we were able to show people a whole variety of features. The Chromosphere is a dimmer layer of the sun's atmosphere that is normally lost in the glare of the much brighter Photosphere. Like trying to see a candle held up against a spotlight, features like Prominences and Filaments are only made visible when all but a specific wavelength of red light—Hydrogen Alpha—is filtered out. Truthfully, the sun in H-Alpha is usually more interesting to look at than visual light. Prominences—great spires and loops of plasma—erupt off the sun's surface, and dark red filaments—Prominences seen from above—snake across the boiling red “landscape.” Comparing the two views offers an opportunity to tell people about these layers, and give them a striking first-hand experience of how filters are used in astronomy.

**Breaking News from the Visitor Center Main Information Desk: WALL STREET IS NOW OPEN!!! Stay tuned for photos.

Storms moved in late in the afternoon so our nighttime stargazing was clouded out. Ever the optimists, we still started setting up. My scope is on the left, dwarfed by "Thor" on the right.

After the official cancellation call was made, we came back to the astronomy house for “game night.” It turns out that all three of us brought a variety of board games. Last night we played Radar's “Quirkle,” a colorful combination of Scrabble and Dominoes. Tonight's choice was Kara's “Key to the Kingdom.” I'm looking forward to another night where we bring out “Eight Minute Empire.” I'm so used to playing that with only two players—Rob and I—it will be fun to see how the gameplay changes with more people.

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