Friday, May 28, 2010

Rocket light on a moonlit night

After several scrubbed attempts, this Delta IV rocket finally lifted off Thursday night, but I wasn't really prepared. I was busy at work, so I couldn't split early to make it to the beach. Instead, I pulled over along the Pineda Causeway over the Indian River, only minutes from the newspaper, and quickly set up my tripod. I took one test shot a minute before ignition, then opened the shutter for two minutes during the actual launch. The moon was full, and I prefer a pitch-black sky for evening launches, but Earth's natural satellite did light some clouds that the rocket engines didn't. So that was different. This above image is a layered version that combines both the test shot and the real thing. Such a composite gives move details to the sky as the rocket streaks into the sky at 11 p.m., delivering a new kind of GPS satellite into space.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Space shuttle Atlantis' last landing

I took a shot of Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building and space shuttle Atlantis at liftoff, so I thought it was appropriate to get one at landing, too. This photo, taken from Space View Park in Titusville, isn't great because the morning sun was beating down in the background, but it represents history nonetheless: At 8:48 a.m. today, Atlantis landed for the final time -- at least according to the current retirement schedule.

About 30 people, including these ones at the end of the pier, came to Space View Park to watch the landing. Unlike launches, the shuttle's approach and touchdown are difficult to spot. There are no engines running to emit exhaust, so the spaceship appears quite tiny from 15 miles away.

Here's a video taken on my iPhone. Atlantis' sonic booms can be heard clearly despite my phone's inferior recording quality.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Green alien spaceship instead of Delta rocket

The green light from an Air Force helicopter streaks through this 19-second exposure made in Cocoa Beach. The chopper originates, of course, over the spotlights of Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral, where it had been hovering for the Delta IV liftoff that never happened.

A Delta IV rocket pregnant with a new type of Global Positioning System satellite has struggled to get off the ground since Friday. On Monday night, technicians scrubbed its third launch attempt because of a glitch.

Friday, which I had off from work, was the worst of it for me, though. That's when I drove halfway to my launch-shooting location only to realize that I had forgotten my camera. I had grabbed my camera bag, but the Nikon itself was still resting comfortably on the couch. Keeping an eye out for the police, I sped home, picked up the camera and arrived at the beach in time for the launch, only to hear that it was postponed.

That forgetful episode was the second in as many nights. After a newspaper assignment Thursday, I placed my iPhone atop my car to free my hands and load my camera equipment into the vehicle. Fortunately, as my car reached 40 mph, the phone tumbled off the roof and landed on top of the trunk. It stayed there as I pulled to the roadside and rescued it.

Lucky or not, though, I'm losing my mind, apparently.

The launch was scrubbed hours ahead of time Sunday, so no harm there. I stayed home and ate pizza. And drank some pop.

On Monday, I left work and went to south Cocoa Beach for the 11:13 p.m. liftoff, only for it to be scrubbed with six seconds remaining in the countdown. Some large clouds offshore were moving northward toward the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and they were lit by a bright moon. I placed my tripod strategically at the edge of the surging Atlantic Ocean. And as I tried to shoot the clouds and their reflections on the wet beach, an Air Force helicopter flew along the shoreline.

Not exactly the streak shot I was going for, but it's better than nothing.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blinded by love(bugs)

This happens twice every year in Florida: Flies known as lovebugs -- because they're most often seen in the act of mating -- swarm over the roads and parking lots, driving motorists to the car wash every day during the outbreak. This year's swarm, though, seems particularly ridiculous. I wrote this story about it. Above, a pair perches on a car headlamp.

The lovebugs were all over this Jaguar I found in the parking lot of a Walmart in Melbourne.

An intimate shot of lovebugs caught in the act.

Lovebugs are attracted to ingredients in car exhaust and to the heat vehicles tend to emit while baking in the Florida sun. They also like light-colored surfaces, explaining why they landed on this white car.

Another two on the hood.

A swarm is contrasted from the blue sky. When you're moving 50 mph in a car, such a swarm makes it seem as though it's snowing black bugs. They splat on your windshield, and they're not easy to scrape off unless you do so immediately.

Two hang out on the Jaguar hood ornament.

I stood alongside Wickham Road, which runs in front of my apartment complex and where the bugs seemed extremely thick, and waited for an especially coated vehicle to pass by. This SUV got it pretty bad. If lovebugs aren't cleaned off quickly, their juices can turn acidic and eat into vehicle paint. The black specks on the pavement in this photo are dead lovebugs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

At dusk, a distant conjunction of Venus and the moon

There are closer conjunctions of Venus and the moon yet to come this year (see below), but I never miss a chance to photograph these two heavenly objects during a rendezvous. This time, it was just after sunset, with a deep-blue sky.

This distant conjunction came the night after a new moon, so the waxing crescent was at its skinniest (Venus, coincidentally, also was a crescent, if only I zoomed in closer). Additionally, sunlight bouncing off Earth and hitting the moon's surface faintly lit the other 97 percent of the disk that wasn't illuminated directly. The strength of this phenomenon -- called "planetshine" or "Earthshine," in our particular case -- is determined by which part of Earth is seeing daylight at the time (land reflects more than oceans) and by the amount of cloud cover in that area (clouds reflect half the light hitting them).

Of course, the best conjunction in a while happened early one morning in April 2009. See that post here. A better conjunction-viewing opportunity is coming after sunset on Aug. 13, when Mars joins the party with Venus and the moon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lightning, sun and the end of the dry season

This week, the Space Coast reaches the beginning of the wet season, meteorologists are saying. Thunderstorms are possible each day, and on Sunday, Melbourne was grazed by one that eventually fizzled before it could bring much rain. The above shot shows a view of the storm just west of Lake Washington.

Lightning strikes to the left of the sunlit horizon just before sunset.

The plus side of not getting a direct hit from this storm was that I could shoot it without getting wet.

I zoomed in closer and got this shot. For all of these lightning photos, I mounted the camera on a tripod and readied my remote control. Each time lightning struck, I'd mash down the remote in hopes that the shot would catch a bolt. For three of the four strikes in view of my camera, I actually got the shot. This isn't an easy thing to do during daylight.

The sun eventually did peek out slightly just as it set. Too bad there wasn't any lightning for this shot.

Sunlight shines through the rainstorm, creating a red glow on the horizon, with dark storm clouds above.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

For (last) Atlantis launch, getting a little more than I didn't pay for

To my surprise, the shuttle appeared very close to the Vehicle Assembly Building from my viewing location just south of Titusville.

As a breaking-news reporter, I have a responsibility to remain available in case a story breaks. Photographing space shuttle Atlantis' final (barring backroom deals) launch Friday was bound to get me caught in traffic and cause me to be late for work. So, for the 2:20 p.m. liftoff time, my objective was to find a headache-free place to watch the launch without getting stuck in traffic after.

The place I found proved to be that and then some.

I've had my eye on this secluded spot for several months, since I rode my Harley down a dead-end road along the Indian River south of Titusville. My first thought was that the area would be perfect for a night launch: There would be no artificial lights to mess up a timed exposure. Just me, the trees and the water. And the shuttle, of course.

The road is a dead end because beyond it is the barricaded property of the Astronaut Hall of Fame at the foot of the NASA Causeway, which leads to Kennedy Space Center. Despite that, beyond the closed-off portion, there are dirt trails in the woods that meander along the shoreline. Occasionally, there are clearings, and I chose one of them Friday afternoon as a place to watch this historic launch.

There were only a few other vehicles: no problem parking. And only a half dozen or so people had gathered near me. Many of them were either current or former military members, so it was good company. We sat coolly in the shade and watched the fish jump for flies and the pelicans dive for fish. We kept the conversation light, especially when NASA developed a problem with a ball bearing, threatening to scrub the launch. Fortunately, that didn't happen.

Over a 25-yard span of the shoreline, I scouted out three stations from which to take photos during the launch. First, I'd go for a telephoto shot from an unobstructed piece of shoreline. Second, I'd capture some wider shots of the shore, a tree and maybe a spectator in the foreground. And for the third shot, with an old 2-by-8 I found lying around, I built a makeshift bridge to a log about 5 feet from the shore. On this "bridge," I'd get a photo of the arcing contrail framed by the vegetation surrounding me.

The biggest surprise was when the shuttle lifted off. Not that it was any different from usual launches, but I just had never photographed the thing from this angle south of the launch pad. I thought it would appear over the horizon far to the left of NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building. Instead, it climbed skyward just to the right of the tallest one-story building in the world. An unexpected bonus for this photo op.

There were no cries from revelers or other spectators, so the rumblings from the shuttle could be heard and felt clearly. By my estimates, I was about 15 miles from launch pad 39A. It was absolutely the most tranquil viewing experience I've had thus far for a launch. (I haven't missed one in three years, mind you, so it was also a somber occasion to see Atlantis billowing upward for the last time.)

But it also gave me an idea for the next launch.

Oh, and I didn't struggle with traffic in the least on the way into the office on U.S. 1, or Route 1, as they call it in the state of Maine.

I'm not sure of the reason, but hundreds of cars were stuck on NASA Causeway, heading away from the space center, when the launch took place. My best guess is that they were turned away from entering the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Even though the location offers only an obstructed view of the launch, such attractions are increasingly popular now that there are just a few shuttle launches remaining. And the Space Coast is milking it for all it's worth.

My newspaper co-workers enjoyed these shots with the VAB and a boat in the foreground. They certainly were views I myself had not before seen. So it's nice that they decided to print a large version of the one at the top of this post.

Maybe next time I'll wear hip waders so I can get right out there into the water.

This woman, who's in the Navy, sat on the base of this palm trunk and videotaped the launch. She was one of the few other spectators.

The photography editor at the paper called this an "Ansel Adams" launch shot, a true compliment. I briefly thought about converting it to black and white, too. This is the location where I had to make a bridge -- leading onto the log you see on the right-hand side -- to achieve this framing effect.

Before stepping into my car for the rather painless trip into the office, I took a close-up of the remaining contrails. They tend to take on a very textured look, similar to storm clouds.

The contrails get a little wispier here, forming a familiar corkscrew pattern that often happens after a launch. The wind was blowing briskly inland, so that likely contributed to this formation. I took this shot from my car while waiting at a stoplight near Port St. John.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oil-free birds

Pelly, a brown pelican saved from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, steps from his cage.

Pelly is set free by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel.

Pelly stretches his wings before flying away.

The two birds in these photos -- a brown pelican named Pelly and a northern gannet known as Lucky -- were the first two rescued from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On Monday, they became the first two to be released after a week of rehabilitation in Louisiana. They were set free at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Indian River County. I was there for the story and photos.

Lucky, a northern gannet, climbs from his cage.

Lucky splashes onto the pond surface.

Lucky is floating freely again.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Maine sky

Down East Maine's dark sky affords some magnificent stargazing. At home in Princeton, I could lie on a dock for hours, just watching the heavens, catching the shimmer of an occasional meteor and the flicker of a low-flying lightning bug. Above, the planet Venus sets, showing up as the brightest streak on the horizon in this whopping 22-minute exposure.

This 8-minute, 10-second exposure was so drastically underexposed that I had to use Photoshop to bring up the lighting and make something out of this shot of Venus. This was taken on a separate night from the top image in this post and earlier, too. The glow from the long-gone sun was still on the horizon.

On several of my four nights in Maine, I tried to watch the International Space Station pass overhead. Unlike in Florida, station flyovers happen twice just after sunset and within about an hour of each other. There's usually just a single nightly pass in Florida within an hour after sunset. But for various reasons - bad weather, forgetfulness - this above shot was the only one I could manage the entire week. It's about 3 minutes, 8 seconds long and gives a different look from the shots I usually get in Florida, where what few stars that are visible get lost in the lingering sunshine and city lights.

Focusing on a single part of the north-northwest sky, I caught the faint trail of another satellite passing overhead. Such sights are unachievable without the advantage of Maine's dark sky. This exposure is 3 minutes, 6 seconds long and was taken with my 105mm macro lens.

This is actually another stormy shot, but it's one I neglected to share in the earlier post. On my last evening in Maine, a rapidly moving rainstorm is backdropped by the sunset. The wind soon picked up, and the rain came. It was short-lived, though: It was gone in about five minutes, and the sky cleared again.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Maine spring

I didn't get much free time during my week in Maine, but a few hours did come available on a partly cloudy afternoon. I wanted to get out and document a portion of spring in Maine, at least within a 1-mile radius of my parent's house. Above, an ant climbs on a dandelion.

Another ant, in the center of a dandelion.

You can make out the specks of pollen on this ant.

A bee hangs out on a dandelion.

A bee fly, or bombyliidae, collects pollen.

Chokecherry tree blossoms.

Ah, true love is found on cherry blossoms. Not yet sure of the insect species here.

A bee on a wild apple blossom.

Another bee on more apple blossoms.

Wild strawberry blossoms.

It's ironic that the last time I visited Maine, the leaves were falling off. This time, they were growing back, like these apple tree leaves.

The flower of a striped maple tree, also called moosewood.


Alas, mosquitoes buzz at the top of a pine tree. The black flies also were out in full force when I was home.