Astro 28D: Field Astronomy in the Eastern Sierra / Death Valley

April 5-7, 2002

This course took us to the high desert country of the Owens Valley. We camped at a spectacular vista point underneath famed Gene Autry Rock in Movie Flat in the Alabama Hills in the foothills of the Sierra, between Lone Pine and Mount Whitney. Here we had horizons of weathered granite rocks and hills, the scarp of the Eastern Sierra, and beautiful views of the dark galaxy-filled skies of Spring. Our grazing occultation expedition to the western "shores" (the lake's dry, after all) of Owens Lake was frustrated by clouds, preventing data-taking. However, our telescope viewing and photography of the conjunction between Comet Ikeya-Zhang and the Andromeda Galaxy went well, with Rick and Jay teaming up to put together Cabrillo's ST7e and Nikon camera lenses, mounted on our 8" Meade for guided digital astrophotography. During the day we climbed Crystal Ridge, examined the sun and sunspots through the filtered 8" Meade, toured the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, visited Keogh Hot Springs and photographed the ghost town of Darwin in Death Valley National Park.

Check out the syllabus here

Post-Trip: Enjoy some scenes of our adventures below...

Our campsite was amidst the rocks of Movie Flat. Jay and Rick staked the high ground for grand views of the Sierra, and mainly to enable photography of beautiful Comet Ikeya-Zhang as it passed by the Andromeda Galaxy (above). We set our photo equipment beneath famed Gene Autry Rock, familiar to film connoisseurs of the classic westerns of the '50's. This view is facing west, towards Mount Whitney, as the Sierra catch the first rays of the rising sun.

We attempted pictures of the comet on Friday evening which were frustrated by some lingering clouds. Saturday morning was clearer, and we bagged a nice picture of the comet and galaxy rising over the huge granite boulder landscape around us. I set up in the cold, at 4am, waiting in vain for Jay to wake up. A well-tossed rock down to his tent finally got him moving. The effort was well worth it. Jay and I got the excellent image of Comet Ikeya-Zhang and the Andromeda Galaxy shwon at the top of the page. We used the ST-7XE CCD camera and Nikon 24mm lens, taking separate red, green, and blue images. Jay did the post processing, tri-color stacking in MaxIm DL and importing the result to Photoshop along with a second image of the exact same scene an hour later with the light of dawn on the boulders of our Alabama Hills campsite. Adjusting the brightness of the foreground produced an eerie image.

Here I am explaining the principles of collecting radio waves from distant astronomical sources, at Owens Valley Radio Observatory. The array of dishes are independently steerable.


The main instrument is the massive 40m dish. During our tour astronomers were studying carbon monoxide emissions from the core of a distant galaxy in an attempt to better understand the interstellar clouds which generate star and solar system formation. Note our tiny ant-like selves next to the right corner of the base. This observatory is owned by a consortium of universities, including UC and Caltech, and was situated here because the Sierra and the White Mountains together with the sparse population provide a radio-quiet environment.


A rock band poster? Nope - my flock! Saturday morning we caravaned to Darwin, an old gold mining town on the eastern rim of the Panamint Range of western Death Valley National Park. There are still a few residents - retirees, artists, and general desert folk. Most of the town however is a ghostly reminder of the area's mineral wealth and mining heyday of the past, especially the old dance hall.

Our leader, in Darwin - all camera'd up and ready for action.