We leave Dragoon Mountain Ranch just after 7AM with three of my friends in the Tesla Model 3, heading to Phoenix airport. We make a couple of quick stops along the way, arriving right on time at 10:30AM. I find the Terminal 4 doors where I return the Tesla to its Turo owner. At this point, we split up to find our flights, and one friend going to Sedona for time with family takes a bus.
I’m incredibly early for my 5:30PM flight to Calgary, so end up waiting around in the ticketing area, since I can’t even check my bag until two hours before the flight. After finally checking my bag with WestJet, I have a late lunch downstairs and then go upstairs through security and into the gate area. My flight is delayed from 5:25PM to 5:40PM, but the boarding goes quickly. We takeoff at 5:47PM, and the flight duration aboard our Boeing 737-700 is 2:43 instead of 3:06, so WestJet is obviously trying to make up some time.
Time is tight to clear Canadian Customs & Immigration and find my next gate in Calgary, but full credit to the WestJet staff in the airport, since they have expedited the way for those of us with tight connections. Our Boeing 737-600 takes off at 11:15PM and the flight duration will be 1:14 to Victoria. Once we are airborne, the flight attendant dedicated to our dozen-seat Plus Economy section serves us drinks and snacks more-or-less continuously. I have a gin and tonic, and eat as many snacks as I can before we start our descent!
After arriving just after midnight, I take a taxi from Victoria airport to home – a very long and stressful day, but a wonderful trip overall!
Some of us visit the Pima Air & Space Museum today, and others go to downtown to see the Tucson Museum of Art. Since I’m a confirmed aircraft nut, I make my third visit to Pima with my buddies, finding some fascinating new aircraft and equipment to learn about. We meet back at the main building at 12:00 noon to take the tram tour around the grounds, and then it’s time for lunch in the cafeteria before carrying on with exploring the hangers and field until we are picked up at 4PM to return to the ranch.
We then meet the rest of our group (and others) at Argenzianos restaurant in Vail (Yelp review), which is between Tucson and Benson. This dinner meeting was arranged by one of our fellow amateur astronomers from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who happen to all be staying in the area, with the guest of honour being a fellow RASC member and famous comet hunter David Levy and his wife Wendee. The food and service is great, and the conversation is fascinating. Who knew there were so many RASC members in southern Arizona!
March 7, 2019 – Dragoon Mountain Ranch
I’m up early to see another beautiful sunrise over the Dragoon Mountains. We stay home today, but some go into Benson to shop. I observe a Northern Mockingbird on the birdbath at lunchtime, and manage to get a pretty good photo through my telephoto lens. This evening we celebrate one of our group’s birthday with steak and a birthday cake.
March 8, 2019 – Dragoon Mountain Ranch
I fly my drone over the observatory this morning, but otherwise I just sit around inside the house. Everyone else is doing the same thing since there is a wicked wind outside – gusting to 60 mph by this afternoon. We have a spicy ground beef casserole with cheese on top for dinner – very tasty! I dash outside for the superb sunset lighting the Dragoon Mountains east of us, and a rainbow appears just to put a cap on it.
The cloud cover and wind dissipates as forecast by 8PM, so the group go out for observing and night sky photography. One of the beautiful celestial targets tonight is the very faint and wispy Witch Head Nebula (see banner image above).
I drive some of the group across Dragoon Mountain Ranch to St. David, and then to Bisbee and Tombstone in my rented Tesla Model 3. We drive to Bisbee first and have a very nice lunch at the High Desert Market before splitting up to see the historic mining town. (Bisbee photo gallery) Once we meet up again, I drive to Tombstone, where we only spend about a half hour walking the infamous main street, since it is raining.
It is a wonderfully clear night back at the ranch. Tonight, I take images of the beautiful NGC 2174 – Monkey Head Nebula through the superb 20” Newtonian astrograph telescope. This combination reflection and emission nebula is located in the constellation Orion. Since the image acquisition is automated and I’m not feeling too well, I sit inside the house while the imaging runs in the observatory. I go out once in awhile to check on things and join my fellow astronomers to observe visually under the beautiful dark skies.
I get up around 7AM and make some coffee, and others soon join me. This is a day with nothing planned, so we can recover from our travel. After everyone is up and have breakfast, some of us walk around the ranch fence line. It is quite pleasant since the weather is cool, clear, and sunny. I fly my DJI Mavic Pro drone this morning, capturing some nice still photos, panoramas and video of my friend’s property.
Some of the group have afternoon naps, but I stay up familiarizing myself with my new Sony a7 III mirrorless camera, in order to get ready for imaging in the dark this evening. I also get my list of targets for the big imaging telescope ready, since the skies are clearing this evening. When it starts to get dark, we go out to the observatory to start an imaging run using a 20″ Newtonian astrograph telescope, and the visual observers setup with their own equipment and also use a 25″ Newtonian telescope.
The procedure for imaging in the observatory uses a script to conduct the imaging runs automatically. After troubleshooting this system for the next hour or so, we successfully get our imaging runs working, which run all night automatically until dawn while we sleep. My target for this evening is the Jellyfish Nebula – a galactic supernova remnant in the constellation Gemini. My observing report
I have coffee and my wonderful breakfast of French Toast and fresh berries at the B&B this morning. As a dedicated amateur astronomer, I have always wanted to visit the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, so this morning I finally get to take a personalized tour kindly offered by their public outreach officer. The instruments I see up close:
John A. Galt Telescope – 26m prime-focus, equatorially-mounted telescope. The first astronomical radio observations using Very Long Baseline Interferometry were proven using this dish and another one located at Algonquin Park in Ontario on Apr 17, 1967.
22MHz telescope – This instrument consists of 1,700 telephone poles supporting miles of wire. It mapped the entire sky in very long radio wavelengths (13.6cm) from 1960s-70s. There is a panoramic image of the Radio Milky Way on display in the main building foyer, which is derived from data from the Galactic Plane Survey done by this radio telescope over 10 years.
I drive to Penticton to charge my Tesla Model S using the DC Fast Charger located downtown, and then return to the B&B for a light lunch. The main reason I am staying two nights in Okanagan Falls is to reconnect with a school friend who lives in the area. We went to school together when we were kids, but only reconnected a few years ago after decades went by. I drive over to his place this afternoon to reunite and to meet his family. We go on a short wine tour south of Okanagan Falls, but since I’m driving, I abstain from most of the tasting as we visit:
Wild Goose winery – wine tasting – I buy their Pinot Gris 2017, and my friends also buy wine
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s General Assembly held at the University of Calgary is probably not too interesting for people who are not members of RASC. That said, I’m going to combine the three day conference into one report on this page, just to complete my road trip travelogue.
June 28, 2018 – Arrival at the University of Calgary and the Welcome BBQ
I arrive in Calgary in the late afternoon. The RASC General Assembly (GA) registration desk is setup in the hotel lobby, so after I get settled in my room, I go downstairs to pick up my delegate’s package. I connect with a few people I know in the lobby while we wait for buses to take us to the Members’ Welcome BBQ dinner and First Nations performances at the Rothney Observatory, in the country south of Calgary. We also get to tour the observatories operating from this site.
June 29, 2018 – First day of the General Assembly
The Calgary Stampede puts on a Stampede Breakfast for delegates this morning before the GA starts, serving pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage in the end-field zone of the home stadium of the Calgary Stampeders Canadian football club.
Dr. Robert Thirsk, astronaut and Chancellor of the University of Calgary welcomes delegates to Calgary and the University. Today is his last day as Chancellor, and our event is his last function before leaving. He tells us that being in space showed him the interconnection of the natural world with humans. He illustrates the point with many spectacular photos taken from the International Space Station, and also speculates on the question –Will we be here into the future? (100 years probably, 1,000 years probably not), and also reviews the next steps humans will make in space. He offers the opinion that a Moon base will be part of this new wave of exploration.
In the afternoon, I take the Nocturnal Preserve Tour to the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area south of Calgary. This is a RASC-recognized nocturnal preserve, which supports the notion that pristine night skies are not only good for humans, but all creatures on this Earth. We all depend on darkness to restore our health while we sleep, which helps all lifeforms prosper, not just those that are active at night.
We walk part of their extensive property to appreciate the varied ecosystems found in what is now mainly the farmland of southern Alberta. Grass suitable for grazing cattle displaces the native grasses, which disrupts the ecology in the area, but remediation is possible.
After dinner, the Plaskett Medal Award Lecture is “Dicke’s Superrradiance in Astrophysics” by Dr. Fereshteh Rajabi, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Rajabi gets into quantum mechanics and masers, and how they cause celestial objects to emit previously-unexplained bursts of intense radiation. I’m always happy to see such smart people working to understand our universe better, despite me not always fully appreciating what they are describing!
June 30, 2018 – Second day of the General Assembly
The Annual General Meeting is held in the morning, and our President highlights the robotic telescope located in the mountains of California which RASC recently acquired, and is in the process of making available online to all members. Other presentations of note today include: RASC Calgary Centre’s 60th anniversary and history; Early Women Astronomers in RASC; Aurora image processing using Hugin software; Eclipsing Binaries; NOVA Junior Program (astronomy basics); Space for all Learners (bringing astronomy to undergraduates); Telescope in “Rainy” Victoria Celebrating 100 years of looking up (the historic Plaskett telescope located near Victoria); Public Outreach at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (the observatory was/is a tourism draw); Minor Planets (asteroids that might hit Earth, and landing missions on small rocks in space); Once Upon an Eclipse (upcoming eclipses); First Race for the moon 1609-51 (first observations of the Moon);
After a buffet dinner with my fellow astronomers as part of the conference, I attend the public lecture: “The Golden Age of Solar System Exploration” given by Emily Lakdawalla, The Planetary Society. Emily reviews many of the more exciting recent missions to explore our solar system: Hayabusa2, New Horizons, and Cassini, to name a few. She also highlights how amateur astronomers are using data from these missions, and how they are contributing to the resulting scientific discoveries. Emily takes lots of questions from the audience.
July 1, 2018 – Final day of the General Assembly
There are more presentations this morning, concentrated on the history of RASC and astronomy: RASC in Travelling Mode (historic solar eclipse expeditions); Styles of Observing in the RASC Since 1868 (taken from the RASC archives, including telescope-making); RASC and the Space age (amateurs as both participants and spectators); The Cultural/Social Anthropology within RASC (who makes up the ranks of RASC members?); Female Participation in the RASC (RASC leads as an inclusive society in Canada).
The speaker at our banquet is Dr. Tanya Harrison “The Past and Present of Water on Mars”. She brings the missions on Mars to life, including the Curiosity Rover, which she was involved with. She also describes what “water on Mars” really means. There were lots of questions…a fascinating talk!
The reason I wanted to charge the Tesla last night and not have to drive east for 15 minutes to the Tucson Supercharger is that I want to take the 11AM solar telescope tour at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. It takes an hour and 20 minutes to drive westward from the hotel, so driving east to the Supercharger would be inefficient and wasteful of precious time.
I have breakfast downstairs in the hotel, and I’m on the road by 9AM in my fully-charged Tesla. The Model S uses about triple the energy to climb the 1,200 metre (3,400′) elevation change up the mountain, but there is only about nine miles of actual steep climbing. The Model S still has 120 miles of range by the time I reach the summit.
Since I am so early, I am the only visitor for the telescope tour when I meet the Docent in the Visitor Center. She convinces me that the 2.1 meter observatory tour would be a better choice, since the solar observatory is closed, so all we can do is walk around it on the outside. A Docent-In-Training and a few more people show up before the tour leaves – we all agree to stick with the plan to visit the 2.1 meter telescope.
I take a few photos, but restrict myself to areas of Kitt Peak that I didn’t photograph last year. By 1PM I’m ready to return to Tucson, so I rig up my GoPro Hero 5 Black as a dash cam and drive down the mountain and along the highways back to the hotel. The Tesla gains about 25 miles of range due to the regeneration on the way down the mountain road, so I still have just over 100 miles of range after arriving at the hotel. Since the staff have left the Tesla Destination chargers powered up, I plug in for about four hours to top up the charge for tomorrow’s adventures.
There is fog on the ranch in the early morning and clouds but no rain today.
One of our group leaves us this morning to pick up her rental car in Tucson, and drive to Sedona to visit with her family. I plan to drive to Sedona tomorrow to stay two nights, so we might connect up there for a visit. I also plan to drive further north to see the Grand Canyon, but we’ll see how the weather cooperates for that adventure, because if there is too much snow, I won’t go!
By sunset, there are only clouds on the horizon – it is clear overhead! Everyone gets their gear together, we open up the observatory, and pull an all-nighter. One of our group is a dedicate visual observer, so she operates the 25” Newtonian, climbing a ladder every few minutes to observe visually, and sketching many celestial objects. I join her to enjoy the wonderful views through this massive telescope, and add many entries to my astronomy log book.
The three of us who are photographers are using the 20” Newtonian astrograph this evening. Since my images taken a few days ago on Feb 11th turned out so well, I have some time to take more photos, but after taking two good images, we soon run into problems. I decide to enjoy some visual observing instead., so my buddies use the rest of the night to take some images of objects they are interested in while I observe using a 25″ Newtonian, my binoculars, and unaided-eye visual observing. I only last about an hour in the cold before I have to pack it in and go inside where it is warm.
February 18, 2018 Saturday – Dragoon Mountain Ranch
I am the first up this morning since everyone else stayed up into the early morning hours observing and photographing the night sky.
It isn’t raining today, but there are big clouds drifting overhead constantly. I decide to shoot a time lapse video of the clouds forming and passing over the Dragoon Mountains. I rig up my Canon 6D dSLR on a tripod with an intervalometer and shoot medium-sized JPG files all afternoon until sunset when the battery dies. After dinner, I make it into a one and a half minute video and show it to my friends on the living room TV. I also show them the video I shot of the wildfire on the day we arrived.
The rain returns this evening with a vengeance – we can hear downpours happening outside all evening. I check the forecast for Sedona, and it looks abysmal, with torrential rain, hail and winds! I go online to cancel my arrangements up there, and also for Grand Canyon. My Plan B is to stay in Tucson for the next few days, so I reserve a hotel at the last minute. Thank goodness for online booking systems!
The rest of us are all leaving tomorrow morning, so we all use the down time do some laundry, pack, and cleanup the house.
My Tesla Model S rental car (Turo.com) is delivered to me mid-morning in the hotel parking lot. Both the owner of the car and I inspect it for damage, using the Turo app to document and photograph for the handover process. After the formalities are completed, I am handed the fob and the car is mine for the next two weeks. I then drive my friends to the downtown car rental location so they can pick up their rental car. We then go to the old part of Tucson to walk around the El Presidio area and have some lunch at La Cocina Restaurant & Cantina. We take a few photos in the area and we then split up. I find the Tesla Supercharger east of Tucson, since the car needs to be charged up. We buy a few things in the adjacent convenience store, and then leave for the Tucson Airport to pick up another friend arriving on a later flight.
We drive about 45 minutes from Tucson east on the I-10 freeway to Benson, where we pick up a few groceries and other supplies from Safeway. Our friend at the Dragoon Mountain Ranch calls ahead to advise us that there is a wildfire near his place, however the danger level is low since the prevailing wind is blowing the fire further away. There are road blocks into the area, but he has asked the officers to let us through. Needless to say we are all concerned since the flames and smoke from the wildfires are clearly visible in the area we are heading towards! The officers let us through the roadblocks and we arrive at our friend’s place before dark, which I’m thankful for.
I park the Tesla Model S in my friend’s garage, so we can plug it into a 115 volt 15 amp outlet. The car starts charging slowly at 12 amps, which means about a 20 hour charge time to 90% state-of-charge. This isn’t an issue, since I don’t expect to be driving anywhere close to the maximum range of the car – about 210 miles at 90% SoC. We have some pizza and salad for dinner, and get settled in after our travels. After dinner, we all go out to see the wildfire in the distance, and then go to the observatory for a quick look through the 25” telescope. There is a beautiful sunset with an arched cloud formation in the west, but ultimately there are too many clouds for observing tonight, so we call it an early night and go to bed.
Garry reserved (a few days ago) the Big Room Tour for the Kartchner Caverns for this afternoon. We depart around 1PM so we have time to look around the visitor centre before the tour starts. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed, and they even insist that we leave our cellphones behind in a locker. The tour starts by everyone being taken up the hill in a tram, and then we enter the caverns through a series of doors and air locks. The Big Room is indeed very big, and the history of the caves is interesting, with lots of stalagmites, stalactites, and other cave objects to see. We also learn about the bats who inhabit the cave and use it as a nursery.
On the way back, we go to the Benson Golf Course for dinner. It is a modest place, but the food is good and reasonably priced. This is our last meal together, since we leave tomorrow for home or further travels.
We head back home to do some observing – my last night observing from this special place. We struggle to get focusing working while using the Ha filter, and eventually have to admit defeat. Once the system is restored back to normal settings, I image an object that interests me – NGC 2174, an emission & reflection nebula. I stay inside the house to keep warm while the system takes the images automatically until the series finishes at 2AM. A couple of my astronomy buddies get up at this time to observe Omega Centauri (photo), so I join them to have a look before heading off to bed. My observing report