Astrophotography, radio telescopes, and mountaineering in West Virginia

After a overwhelmingly busy summer, I finally had the chance to go forth and camp (first time since February of 2014 in Vermont) and actually try my hand at astrophotography (taking pictures of the stars and ideally the planets) this past weekend.

It. Was. SO AWESOME.

The plan was to stay at Seneca Shadows, in West Virginia.  My friend Ethan, his (and now my) friend Nathan had been there many times in the past, approximately 5 hours away from NE Ohio, to do rock climbing on the Seneca Rocks.  I drove over to Kent after work, piled into our trusty steed (a red and white Ford Flex) and we drove down for many minutes, only setting up tents after 1am.

Join us, then, as we pile aboard the West Virginia “Short Bus”…

One of the MANY car clubs we saw out and about over the weekend... this Jeep was particularly interesting.

One of the MANY car clubs we saw out and about over the weekend… this Jeep was particularly interesting.

… and travel to:

Seneca Rocks, West Virginia – rocks and climbing and mountains!

The main attraction in the area of Pocahontas County we stayed in was Seneca Rocks: a set of majestic peaks shooting skyward from the Appalachian Mountains.  I myself am not a fan of heights so I wasn’t into the notion of scaling the rocks myself… but that is the main draw for tourism to this part of WV, it seems.

The Seneca Rocks Climbing School was our base camp in a way – for wireless internet.  This county is part of the National Radio Quiet Zone,  which I will explain further below.  Suffice to say, we didn’t have cell signal at or near the campsite.

A very rustic climbing school...

A very rustic climbing school…

We got to meet up with Tess, a friend of Ethan and Nathan, who is a guide at this school, and seemed to really love this sport and helping those who pursue it.  I am not at all interested in climbing, but I love meeting people who are passionate about something, and Tess was one of those folks!

Nathan and his friend Tess, one of the guides and employees of the Climbing School

Nathan and his friend Tess, one of the guides and employees of the Climbing School

One of the most tempting things I saw all weekend was the footage on the laptop below, taken by a DJI Phantom drone, the white thing on the back of the table.  I do not really want to spend $1400 or so dollars on a remote controlled HD video flying vehicle… but perhaps that is a sacrifice I will eventually make.  Because the guy in the grey shirt below was the owner and operator, and being an amateur got National Geographic quality footage:

The footage of the Seneca Rocks on the laptop was taken by the Phanton drone (white, on the table next to the kid in green). Better than NatGeo or Discovery, to be honest.

The footage of the Seneca Rocks on the laptop was taken by the Phanton drone (white, on the table next to the kid in green). Better than NatGeo or Discovery, to be honest.

The weekend’s pace was a much-needed (for me, at least) “well, how about we take a nap and slum for a bit, and then go do an awesome thing… in between slow-paced, work-free meals out.”  Our campsite was nice, with large tables and plenty of shade:

Friends, Flex, Fotos

Friends, Flex, Fotos

We took a drove up to “The Top” which was a great showcase of SPI.  PSI is a unit of measurement for pressure per square inch; SPI, in West Virginia, is a unit of measurement of Squiggles per Inch (of Road).  The mountains have caused the roads to be extremely poorly straightened out, meaning that driving is a bit stressful, even during the day time without any traffic.

In any event, up and up and up we drove until…

We cheated and drove up this one.

We cheated and drove up this one.

The drive was arduous, but well worth it, for the gorgeous views:

Beauty. Natural beauty everywhere.

Beauty. Natural beauty everywhere.

I honestly can’t explain why clouds casting shadows are so gorgeous to me.  I also can’t explain why I haven’t made more time for camping over the past 18 or so months since last I ventured forth.

So gorgeous.

So gorgeous.

We drove back down, had a typical meal for our time in WV (cheap, not necessarily the highest quality, but very satisfying given the hiking and so forth.  Then, we went back over the Seneca Rocks parking lot, as the sun had shifted (so I could get the following photos with the Solar Brightness behind me!):

Seneca Rocks in their morning glory...

Seneca Rocks in their morning glory…

I love the Sigma telephoto lens I got from Japan, and this day was a good reason as to why.  From the same spot in the parking lot where I got the above photo with the stock lens, I got this sort of picture of climbers near the summit:

... and the insane people climbing these Rocks.

… and the insane people climbing these Rocks.

Photography in general is more and more fun each time I get into it, but in particular this trip was focused on…

Astrophotography, Round I

As I learned about during my time camping in Vermont at the amateur telescope club there, there is quite a fascinating hobby one can get into in their own back yard.  Using a DSLR camera and a tripod, you can get really amazing photos of starfields from your own yard, after you spend time fiddling with manual photo settings and angles.  That said, if you were to, for instance, travel to Seneca Rocks WV like we did, you would escape the VAST majority of light pollution.  In our case, we decided to get as elevated as we could, to escape what little light there was from the “town.”

We began Saturday evening with a VERY dark hike up the wooden mountainside to the North Face observation post on Seneca Rocks:

Headlamps were a light unto our feet (and also unto the rocky path)

Headlamps were a light unto our feet (and also unto the rocky path)

… VERY VERY dark.

The fact is, I didn’t realize at first that I needed to get some horizon, or trees, or other foreground object, as a starfield, while amazing and gorgeous itself, is sort of just a black background with white and bluish speckles by itself:

My first decent capture of a starfield... and only a starfield. I quickly learned that without a high powered telescope, I need an Earthbound frame of reference, like the horizon or the nearest tree line, to set the photo in perspective. Still, very exciting to capture the stars in a visually pleasing way for the first time!!

My first decent capture of a starfield… and only a starfield. I quickly learned that without a high powered telescope, I need an Earthbound frame of reference, like the horizon or the nearest tree line, to set the photo in perspective. Still, very exciting to capture the stars in a visually pleasing way for the first time!!

The “town” of Seneca Rocks was actually a pair of small plazas of shops, with some floodlights in their parking lots, which seemingly wouldn’t produce THAT much light, right?  Well, as seen from the observation deck on the North Peak, there actually IS a lot of ambient light being shot off into the air:

The tiny "downtown" Seneca Rocks (a general store, a restaurant, and two climbing schools) provided a noteworthy amount of light pollution as seen from most of the way up the Rocks (the red lumber in the foreground is the railing of the observation deck we hiked up to at night)

The tiny “downtown” Seneca Rocks (a general store, a restaurant, and two climbing schools) provided a noteworthy amount of light pollution as seen from most of the way up the Rocks (the red lumber in the foreground is the railing of the observation deck we hiked up to at night)

Even still, though, we had driven far enough, and climbed high enough, to capture some truly glorious, majestic photos of one of the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy:

Arguably the best photo of the weekend for me, this is unedited. 30 second exposure with carefully chosen manual settings... add the low light pollution of the area and you get *magic*

Arguably the best photo of the weekend for me, this is unedited. 30 second exposure with carefully chosen manual settings… add the low light pollution of the area and you get *magic*

Having waited 18 months to get into this sort of photography of the cosmos, it was WELL worth the wait 😀

Seeing the NRAO Green Bank Radio Telescope (or: “Putting our amateur astrophotography to shame“)

Sunday morning, we ventured about an hour away to the heart and cause of the aforementioned National Radio Quiet Zone: the Green Bank Radio Telescope, the central part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.  In short, the Federal government imposed a wide ban on all sorts of signals in this area, in order to build a bank of radio telescopes for observing the mysteries of outer space.  The following shows how valuable a radio telescope is, for putting together a different sort of “picture” than visible light would show: radio telescopes can detect the different wavelengths put off by different materials and so can denote the actual chemical composition of objects thousands of light years away.

That is, quite seriously, some Star Trek shit right there.  Astronomical science is my favorite thing.

One of the exhibits at the NRAO, this series of images is all of the same dust cloud in the Orion constellation. X-ray, gamma, radio wave, visual light... all necessary to get the full picture!

One of the exhibits at the NRAO, this series of images is all of the same dust cloud in the Orion constellation. X-ray, gamma, radio wave, visual light… all necessary to get the full picture!

The tour was on a diesel vehicle ( 🙂 ) because spark plugs put out a faint radio signal, which they cannot abide and so all vehicles on the grounds of the NRAO are diesel ( 😀 ).  As a matter of fact, that seems really unreasonably picky, until you see the sheer scale of this freaking telescope:

The Green Bank Radio Telescope as seen from afar... towering over nearby trees.

The Green Bank Radio Telescope as seen from afar… towering over nearby trees.

Towering above the trees, with over 2 (two) acres of surface area, the Green Bank Telescope is MASSIVE.

As such, the obsessive/compulsive tendencies of this location about extraneous radio signals (they call them Radio Frequency Interference, or RFI) makes sense.  The NRAO has their own diesel Dodge Ram which is STACKED with radio antennas and sniffing gear, and they mean business.  One story they shared: a dog in a local town chewed through a corner of its electric heating blanket, and the electrical signals caused by that blanket were tossing extra signal noise onto a radio telescope pointing at outer space.  That is a CRAZY level of signal sensitivity.  The telescope’s optics are kept near absolute zero in order to reduce the motion blur induced by the movement of atoms.  That place was so awesome.

This diesel Dodge Ram is *loaded* with radio sniffing equipment. Their most recent successful hunt - a dog had chewed through a portion of its electric blanket, which was allowing radio frequency interference out in a way that was skewing data by the radio telescope pointed at space. That is CRAZY sensitive. I now feel even worse, having not even gotten a single amateur radio antenna on my Subaru :(

This diesel Dodge Ram is *loaded* with radio sniffing equipment. Their most recent successful hunt – a dog had chewed through a portion of its electric blanket, which was allowing radio frequency interference out in a way that was skewing data by the radio telescope pointed at space. That is CRAZY sensitive. I now feel even worse, having not even gotten a single amateur radio antenna on my Subaru 😦

The telescope looks like it might lumber, and by no means does it spin THAT quickly – but as the largest mobile land object, it moves around its circular track with surprising alacrity.

The intricate steel beams holding up this monstrous device are being repainted all the time to keep it free from rust - a repainting cycle takes 10 years to do the whole structure, at $90 per gallon of highly reflective paint

The intricate steel beams holding up this monstrous device are being repainted all the time to keep it free from rust – a repainting cycle takes 10 years to do the whole structure, at $90 per gallon of highly reflective paint

We had one of the best meals of the weekend at the NRAO (they advertise their soft pretzels in their pamphlet, and hot damn were they delicious).  That was the literal icing on the cake of a fascinating visit.

*I* explored the invisible universe. And later that night, the visible universe thanks to my Pentax!!

*I* explored the invisible universe. And later that night, the visible universe thanks to my Pentax!!

The attached exhibits were fascinating, and while perhaps geared towards a slightly younger audience than us with the hands-on aspects of it… it was also chock full of delightfully specific and arcane facts about radio telescopes!

A scale model of the radio telescope inside the exhibit hall at the visitor center.

A scale model of the radio telescope inside the exhibit hall at the visitor center.

We departed and drove back through some rain to our campsites for another atypical afternoon spent napping.

After all: there was astrophotography to be done late at night!

For such a gigantic machine, this telescope constantly moves back and forth to track each successive scientist's area of study

For such a gigantic machine, this telescope constantly moves back and forth to track each successive scientist’s area of study

Astrophotography, Round II

We didn’t go up the mountain for the second night of photos (not least of all because we were several days beyond the peak of the Perseid meteor shower we wanted to see), but we still got some grand shots.

A glow from the parking lot caused an interesting lighting effect, enhanced with a little post-processing from Adobe Lightroom (my first-ever attempt at it)

A glow from the parking lot caused an interesting lighting effect, enhanced with a little post-processing from Adobe Lightroom (my first-ever attempt at it)

I don’t mean to overcommunicate this, but I *LOVED* this weekend 🙂

The starfield above Seneca Rocks

The starfield above Seneca Rocks

I definitely need to purchase some more in the way of lenses for my camera (a wide angle is in my future).  I also figure on buying an astrophotography-specific camera in the further-off future (any camera with the “R” designation has specific infared filters to REALLY help nighttime sky shots pop).

For now: I will continue to use my lower end tripod and my very trusty Pentax K30 to make the photographic magic happen:

Me exploring the cosmos (photo by Ethan)

Me exploring the cosmos (photo by Ethan)

In short…

Friends and Flex!

Friends and Flex!

… this was an awesome weekend with outstanding celestial views and delightful friendship.  I need to do this more often.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s