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 wake up shortly after 5AM and decide to get up, since the skies are clear and still dark, and the Milky Way looks spectacular curving over the Dragoon Mountains in the east to the south, with Venus, Saturn and Jupiter in a broad alignment in the same region. I use my new Sony a7 III camera and the Sony Tessar 24-70mm zoom operating at 24mm for the first few photos, and then switch to my Canon 8-15mm fisheye zoom and Sigma MC-11 converter to gain some wider perspective of the Milky Way all the way from the south to the north. Focusing manually using the Sony a7 III is dead easy, since when I touch the focus ring on the lens, the camera displays a magnified image of the star I’m using for focus.
My photos of the Milky Way turn out well, however I’m in for another treat an hour later after I spot the old but very thin Crescent Moon hanging over the Dragoon Mountains. I get my Sony 70-300mm zoom and take several photos with my Sony a7 III on Aperture priority and a -3 EV setting that seems to work very well. I have used my travel tripod up to now, but can handhold the lens for the final few shots as the Sun rises.
Garry takes us on a hike into Council Rocks, so I take my Mavic Pro drone along. I fly the drone at the two rest stops we make, and capture some wonderful video and photos, despite me losing sight of the drone several times in the bright sunshine.
There are clouds building in the sky this afternoon as I prepare dinner for the group. I make a double batch of ground turkey pasta, made with egg noodles and Classico pasta sauce, and served with vegetables. As expected, there is no observing or photographing the night sky tonight due to cloud cover. I show the video and photos from my Mavic Pro drone taken earlier today on our hike into Council Rocks. Everyone is blown away by the high quality and smooth motion.
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
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.
Today is a “down day”, meaning we have no daytime activities planned, so the group can relax and do what they want. I catch up with my social media and email, and work on my journal entries. My blog is still behind – the last entry was for Victoria-Seattle – the first days of my travels, but at least I now have the material to write those blog posts.
It is my turn on the imaging telescope this evening, but when we try to take some flat frames before sunset, the sensor ices up. This means the desiccant inside the CCD camera is saturated with moisture, and needs to be baked so it dries out to make it effective again. Dealing with this issue delays my imaging session of M1 the Crab Nebula by an hour and a half, however I am imaging on the 20” Newtonian Astrograph by 9:20PM and wind up my run just after midnight. Without a doubt, this is my best image of the Crab Nebula. The detail within the object is fantastic, and this is the first time I’ve imaged the green fringe around the nebula! My observing report
After my arrival this morning in Tucson aboard the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Los Angeles, I rent a car from Enterprise for the next two weeks and then drive to my friend’s ranch. I drive east out of Tucson on the I-10 freeway, stopping in Benson to pick up a few groceries before driving the rest of the way to the ranch. It takes me about a half hour driving on dirt & gravel roads through the Dragoon Mountain Ranch, which is 8,400 acres (13 sqmi) in total.
As I arrive, it is overcast and raining lightly, but I hope it will clear off for the coming week when my astronomy buddies will be here. We go over to his neighbour’s place, which is where I am staying along with some other friends, who are already settled in.
As it turns out, I have a bedroom in the adjacent garage, which is massive, and has an apartment with a kitchen, great room, bedroom and bathroom. I am quite comfortable once I turn up the heat to get the place warmed up. The temperatures in this part of the high range land plateau can get close to freezing at night, and daytime temperatures are not hot, although the Sun can be intense. The reason I’m here? The very dark skies, of course!