Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Snagging a Supernova (SN 2014j)

Last week Tuesday, January 21, an astronomer at the University of London Observatory was teaching some undergraduate students how to run the CCD imager on a 14-inch telescope during a short break in the clouds. At about 7:20 PM local time, they noticed a new star in the nearby galaxy Messier 82. This star did not show up in archival images of the galaxy, and after using a second set of equipment to make sure it wasn't an artifact they realized they were dealing with something very real. It turned out to be the closest type-Ia supernova in 42 years, and was duly designated SN 2014j.

Messier 82 is a funny-looking galaxy located at a distance of about 11.5 million light-years away, close to another galaxy called Messier 81. They're practically next door in galactic terms – only 6 times further away than the Andromeda Galaxy – and are easily visible in moderately sized telescopes.

I know this personally both because I've seen them before at the Vis, and because I went up there Sunday night in order to try to get an image of the supernova. When I got there I discovered some bad news: I couldn't get the telescope mount to connect to the control software on the computer (probably a cable went bad). The telescope mount still had its built-in control software, so on a whim I polar-aligned it as best I could then told it to go to Capella, the brightest star close to M82. Amazingly, when I took a short exposure with the CCD Capella was visible on the first try. I then tried sending it to M82, and while that wasn't visible in the resulting image, its neighbor M81 was. Finally, after some touch-and-go work manually directing the telescope with its built-in directional controller I was able to get both M81 and M82 (supernova easily visible) in the same frame.

Having miraculously overcome the first major hurdle of finding the target, I was left with the sad reality that without being able to connect the mount, I couldn't get auto-guiding going, which meant that exposures longer than about 12 seconds started to show unmistakable signs of star trails. This kept me limited to short exposures. The resulting picture is hideous, not helped at all by Blogger's re-scaling of the limits. I'm a bit embarrassed to be showing such a poor piece of work, but it's a supernova, I simply can't refrain from talking about and showing it. Here's the picture I got, with M81 the blur at the top, M82 the blur at the bottom, and SN 2014j marked by the tiny straight lines.

I looked back through my blog and saw that I've never imaged this pair of galaxies before, so for the record M81 is actually a lovely face-on spiral galaxy, while M82 is...odd. It's apparently a spiral galaxy too, but it's almost edge-on to use, and it has these really weird filaments of dust in front of it in optical light. (You can kind of see the thickest of them in the image near the middle of the galaxy, as a dark bar that bisects it.) These filaments often make it look as though the galaxy is exploding in long exposures, and it has the amusing nickname of the Cigar Galaxy due to its shape in small telescopes.

I hope to get a better picture of these beautiful galaxies and perhaps the supernova that graces one of them, but my near-future plans have been put on hold by the arrival of a large storm system bringing snow and cloud cover to Mauna Kea. The forecast is bad through the weekend at the moment, but, as always, we shall see...

Sunday, January 19, 2014


I've mentioned before on this blog that I discovered a love of guacamole while living here in Hawai‘i. At least, my idiosyncratic version of guacamole. I've had some commercial stuff that I didn't particularly care for...

Anyway, for Christmas my family got me a guacamole-making...thing. I have no idea what to call it. If anyone knows the name for the thing below, please let me know.

Guacamole-making thing-a-ma-jobber.
I'll admit – I was slightly skeptical of its efficacy, but thought I'd give it a try, so the first trip to the store after getting back I picked up some avocados. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is actually perfectly designed and engineered to make guacamole – the sea-shell shaped end works amazingly for scooping the flesh out the avocado, and the spiky flower-y end does a smashing job of mushing the scooped-out avocado flesh up. I can see how it wouldn't work in the scenario I was imagining, as an unripe and hard avocado would be difficult to scoop out and mash (amazing tool or no). But for a ripe, soft avocado it works wonders. So thanks guys! I'll probably try to make guacamole a bit more often after this.

Since I put up my chili recipe a few weeks ago, I might as well close by putting up my guacamole recipe if anyone is feeling adventurous. It's pretty simple: take two ripe avocados and clean out the flesh. Add “a heaping spoonful” of mayonnaise – I'm not sure how much, about half a cup I'd say. Mix it well. Finally, mix in a can of tuna (drained). Add other seasonings or flavors as desired. (I usually see what I have lying about and toss small quantities in...minced garlic, onion flakes, various herbs, etc.) Consume on its own or with chips (my preferred method, sea salt and vinegar chips work quite well). Enjoy!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Back to (Power)Bocking

Last month before I left for vacation I took my powerbockers out for a walk and discovered that one of the rubber feet (colloquially called “hooves”) was starting to crack, and that the other was rather worn down. This isn't unexpected, as they will wear out over time no matter what you're walking on, but it doesn't help that Hilo (and Hawai‘i in general) has lots of nice sharp basalt gravel lying around. Luckily they're made to be easily replaceable, so when I got back to Hilo I ordered a new pair.

They arrived this week and I eagerly swapped in the new pair. I was able to take them out the next day for an hour's walk and it felt so good be back the saddle, so to speak. I was definitely a bit rusty, not having been able to practice for almost a month, but I could feel it all returning to me pretty quickly. One of these days I really need to get around to putting up a video or something so you can see them (and me) in motion. Still, even without that it's nice to be back on my bocks! A hui hou!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New Food for the New Year

As the title says, what better way to ring in the new year than with a new recipe? Last year, rather by accident, I came up with a new recipe for chili. I made it off-handedly for some friends while I was back in California, and ended being told by two people who self-identified as “not liking chili” than it was “actually pretty good.” I considered that to be approbation enough for me to present it in case anyone else wants to try it.

The recipe is pretty simple. Simply mix the following ingredients in the proportions listed in a large pot or skillet and heat:

1 can chile con carne with cheese
1 can corned beef hash
2 cans diced tomatoes of whatever kind you like

Let it simmer on medium heat for about 10–15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it reaches a consistency you like. Let it sit longer if you want it less watery (you could also try draining one of the cans of diced tomatoes before adding them to cut the amount of liquid). Feel free to add anything else you like, such as minced garlic or spices. Serve with sour cream or cheese. The basic recipe should provide about 4 to 6 servings.

I came upon this recipe through a process of trial and error. It came about (as most of my impromptu culinary experiments do) with me standing in the grocery store aisle and wondering how corned beef hash and chile con carne with cheese would taste mixed together (shouldn't it really be “chile con carne con queso” for consistency?).

The first test was alright (good enough for me to continue iterating on it, at any rate). I really like corned beef hash but it's very dry, so I thought mixing it with the chile would add some moisture. Not quite enough for my taste, though, so I added a can of diced tomatoes the second time around. This was better, but still not quite enough. Adding a second can of tomatoes (I do love tomatoes) brought the ratio to an acceptable place in my mind, and I've made it several times in the past few months. At this point I consider it a stable base recipe and after successfully testing it upon family and friends I figured I'd put it up here. Just today I had an idea to make the next batch with some peas, chopped carrots, and minced garlic added, so we'll see how that turns out.

If you do try this recipe and enjoy it, let me know in the comments! It's always nice to know you've shared something nice with someone. A hui hou!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ka Makahiki ʻElua Kaukani ʻUmikūmāhā

That's Hawaiian for “the year two-thousand fourteen.” I'm back safe and sound, enjoying the warmth and humidity again. Despite living here for four and a half years, this is the first New Year's Eve I've actually spent in Hawaiʻi. People celebrate the New Year here with firecrackers.

Lots and lots of firecrackers.

It's been reminiscent of a warzone here for the past two days with explosions loud and soft ringing out every few minutes, the acrid tang of gunpowder wafting about on the convenient breeze, but it seems to finally be quieting down a bit now. Thankfully I was so tired last night from traveling I slept straight through the night. Anyway, I need to go finish unpacking. A hui hou!