Posted in Life, Travel

Is the second total solar eclipse as good as the first?

Is the second total solar eclipse as good as the first? This is the question I believed never needed to be asked, because of course it is. In fact, I was sure it would be better because I knew what was coming. On this day, 1 year after the solar eclipse in Chile, let me give you my answer to this question.

My first total solar eclipse was the Great (North) American Eclipse of 2017. We traveled far, slept little, and had a life-changing experience. I saw black circles everywhere for weeks afterward.

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2017, Idaho

Even before the 2017 eclipse, I realized that the following eclipse, July 2019, would pass within half a kilometer of my former employer’s worksite in Chile. Soon, others at work realized too, and a huge event, involving a hundred guests and many staff, was planned.

The kind of event we were hosting is always a huge challenge, but I told everyone involved in the planning who cared to listen that it was going to be worth it. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENED, no matter the six months of planning, and the week on the ground, the stress and chaos, the lack of sleep, it would be worth it for that minute and a half of totality: the most spectacular thing your eyeballs will ever encounter. I told myself this too.

Totality was going to happen in the mid-afternoon of July 2, 2019. We traveled as a group to just inside the zone of totality in the Coquimbo Region of Chile. There was a vast tent set up on an even more vast carpet of green hessian sacking.

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2019, Chile

On arrival, we refreshed on pisco sours, then we sat down for lunch (well, I didn’t because I was managing a crisis, but I saw that others had lunch). There were solar telescopes set up outside and a live feed projected in the tent of the sun being slowly covered by the moon.

Since I didn’t get lunch I decided to bail on the speeches and headed out to the front of the green carpet where all the photographers were setting up. I got the tripod up, got the big (300mm) lens on and got out the solar filter for the lens (recycled from 2017). All the first-timers had a screw-on solar filter (or no filter) and I felt very smug knowing that my paper one was going to do the job just as well, and would be much easier to get off at totality. I also had a solar timer app I used in 2017. (Well worth the $2-$3).

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I knew that first part of the eclipse, where the sun slowly covers the moon (the partial phase), wasn’t going to be that interesting a second time, so I half-heartedly clicked the camera and mostly lent my filter to my teammate and discussed exposure times and apertures with people.

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I also explained what was going on to the non-astronomers, and showed them the pinhole effect and generally talked them through the approach to totality. I emphasized that they should not try to take photos on their cell phone, and just watch instead. As we got closer I set up my GoPro to do a timelapse.

Since we were on a valley floor it was very easy to see the moon’s shadow approaching  – seemingly much faster than in 2017. With help from the app, I counted it down for the people and told them when to take off their solar glasses.

Totality was as beautiful as in 2017. The corona was different, and for some reason, I noticed the color of the horizon and the color of the landscape more. It was mesmerizing. I clicked the camera a bit and warned people as we were coming out of totality.

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2019, Chile

Afterward, the newbies around me were either crying happy tears or exclaiming with excitement. It was truly as good for them as it was for me in 2017. But, you may have guessed, it just didn’t have the same impact for me the second time. Perhaps I was shattered from the trip and from the drama of the day, or maybe this is what it’s like for everyone. (Later, I discussed this with a second-timer who agreed with me).

But, it was still great fun to look at the photos on the back of the camera, and to get a totality photo straight onto work’s social media from the desert. Our team was also unwittingly featured in one of the best photos of the event.

So, in summary, please go and see a second total solar eclipse, but my suggestion is to find a way to make it different from the first experience (e.g. go on a boat, a plane, or try for a cool angle on the photo). The next one is December 14, 2020, visible from the southern part of Chile and Argentina.

 

Posted in astronomy, Travel

Our first rocket launch: Orbital ATK, Wallops Island, Virginia

In May 2018 we were invited to watch the launch of an Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus capsule that was carrying an experiment that J worked on at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. This experiment, a tiny “cubesat” called CubeRRT, would be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) by private company Orbital ATK from Wallops Island, Virginia. We would be VIP guests, along with a select 200 others. We were determined to be there, no matter how inconvenient it was going to be to travel to the East coast for a weekend!

The launch window was 3 days, at very specific times of the middle of the night. The first launch window was in the early hours of Sunday, May 20. To minimize time off work, we initially planned to fly to Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday morning, drive up to the launch overnight, then fly back on Sunday. No hotel, no sleep. Thankfully, on Thursday, May 17, the launch was pushed to the early hours of Monday, May 21, so we rapidly changed our travel arrangements.

Thus, on Saturday, May 19, we flew  from Burbank to Baltimore BWI (changing in Phoenix), arriving after dark. We spent the night in the Holiday Inn airport hotel.

It was a hot and sweaty morning as we drove down to Chincoteague, Virginia, a well-known tourist destination. The drive took a couple of hours and the scenery along the way was verdant.

On arrival we went to the town’s community center to check in with the launch people. After lunch at the nearby Sea Star Café we came back for the 2pm briefing by Orbital ATK. Everyone was upbeat and there was lots of chatter in the hall as friends and colleagues found each other and said hello.

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At the briefing, we heard from a variety of VIPs, including the CEO of Orbital and the new NASA Administrator Jim Bridensteine, about Cygnus’s resupply mission. The Cygnus capsule separates from the Antares rocket at the appropriate altitude and continues up to the ISS bringing supplies for the astronauts, as well as scientific experiments (such as CubeRRT). It later takes away the trash (and burns up in the atmosphere).

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridensteine

After the briefing a member of the CubeRRT team the produced the best mission swag ever: a specially-commissioned case of CubeRRT beer!

At around 4:30pm we headed to our hotel – the Comfort Suites. We had dinner at the highly-recommended  Bill’s PRIME Seafood and Steaks. Then, since we were technically on vacation, we sampled the local ice-cream place, Island Creamery, where we got a “single scoop” each, which turned out to be more like half a pint. It was delicious!

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View from Comfort Suites, Chincoteague, Virginia
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Island Creamery – yum!

With that, we tried to have an early night, turning out the light at 7:30pm. Very soon, our 1:00am alarm went off.

So very early Monday morning, we walked in the darkness back to the community center, arriving at 1:45am as instructed. This time the hall was filled with bleary eyed people, some dozing. Some of J’s collaborators had pulled an all-nighter so were more awake than us.

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Taking photographs at 2am…

We sat around for over an hour until we were shuffled onto different buses according to US citizen status. Our bus was dark and quiet and soon snoring could be heard. The bus didn’t move for another 30 minutes but then we set off in a convoy with a police escort. We really felt like VIPs at this point!

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Bus convoy

It was about a 20-minute ride to the launch viewing area and we got there at about 4:00am. In the marquee tent everyone fell on the coffee and donuts that were lavishly spread on several tables. There were TVs showing a live feed from the launch.

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How hungry could you be at 4am? Answer: very
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Live feed of the launch inside the tent

We headed outside into the darkness to see the rocket in real life, several miles away across the water, lit up with massive floodlights. The launch veterans had already set themselves up on the small set of bleachers with a good view of the countdown clock. We novices just hung around on the grass and used phone apps to monitor the time. The voice from the control center was broadcast over loudspeakers.

(Apologies for the poor photos – we were traveling hand luggage only, so no tripod, or long lens)

At this point, after all this effort, we still didn’t know if the launch was going ahead. There were two 5 minute windows this early morning. It soon became clear that the first window was scrubbed.

Then, after what seemed like no time at all, the voice from mission control was starting a 10-second countdown. It was about 4:45am. When he got to zero we all held our breath and nothing happened. Then about a second later there was a flash of light from the launch pad. The rocket took off exactly like in a cartoon and everything went really bright. The rumble of noise from the rocket came after about 10 seconds and was rib-cage shaking.

The rocket quickly entered the low cloud deck but we could see it peeking in and out. After the initial cheer we all stood in open-mouthed silence, watching it the whole way up until it reached orbit, a process which apparently took about 5 minutes, but seemed like only 10 seconds. When mission control announced the separation of Cygnus from the Antares rocket there was another cheer – the launch was a success.

With nothing else to see outside, we all crammed back into the tent and champagne and cake was passed around. Several people gave speeches, which we couldn’t hear over the hubbub.

Then it was time to head back. The chatter on the bus was animated and people were replaying the launch on their phones. We said goodbye to J’s colleagues then went back to the hotel, walking in the door at 6am as the sun was rising.

We had a short nap then packed up and hit the road back to Baltimore, back to Burbank via Phoenix, and got home in Pasadena at 10:30pm on Monday night, absolutely shattered.

Like our total solar eclipse adventure, this was a lot of traveling for a short event, but it was well worth it, and to be invested in its success made it even more special.

Posted in astronomy, Travel

Very Large Array: New Mexico

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Back in January this year, my husband, Jonathon, and I traveled to Socorro, New Mexico, so that he could give a talk at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). This was a new state for me, so I was keen to see what it had to offer.

We flew into Albuquerque on a Thursday afternoon and picked up a car. It was already  late when we arrived so we didn’t hang about and drove south to Socorro, about an hour away.

Jonathon had been talking up the food at Socorro Springs, and it didn’t disappoint. We refueled on pizza and beer then headed to the NRAO guest house on campus via Walmart for some supplies for breakfast.

The guest house was perfect: spartan but comfortable, and very quiet.

Next morning it was cold and grey outside. I stayed in the guest house, working, while husband gave his colloquium.

In due course it was time for lunch and I met everyone at Frank & Lupe’s El Sombrero. It was serving authentic New Mexican food, and I found the menu a little opaque! To save time, someone ordered for me and I found myself eating something delicious and full of chillies.

That afternoon we were given a tour of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) correlator. I know this already sounds boring, but bear with me. The VLBA is a global network of giant radio dishes which collect signals from space from telescopes around the world. The correlator is the important bit of computer kit which takes all the signals and smushes them together to make one coherent signal. Amazingly, data from telescopes all over the world are mailed here on tape drives and correlated using the computers in this building on the UNM campus. The scientific results are spectacular (e.g. “Astronomers Detect Orbital Motion in Pair of Supermassive Black Holes“).

Once we had finished in the correlator room, our host, Frank Schinzel offered to drive us down to see the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), about an hour east of Socorro.

So along we drove, through terrain that was desert-y but somewhat green, hilly but not mountainous, until we reached a huge plain and saw our first VLA dish (technically, antenna). Each is 25 meters in diameter and steeply curved.

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Very Large Array (VLA) antenna

Because we were with Frank we were lucky enough to get the VIP tour – the first stage of which is to get very up close and personal to one of the antennas. Periodically each of the 27 antennas goes into “the barn” for maintenance.

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We climbed up the outer staircase and went through painted white doors, stepping over ledges and hard pieces of metal, before scaling a ladder to emerge through a hatch into the bowl of the antenna.

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We were instructed not to step in the middle of the panels, but keep to the joints. Standing  more than a view feet up from the center of the bowl was nearly impossible and our perspectives were skewed by all the white around us.

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Next stop on the tour was the site of the Long Wavelength Array (LWA), a project my husband worked on while we were in Boston. It consists of a bunch of funny looking antenna in the field and a trailer full of computer bits which is the loudest place in the world.

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Long Wavelength Array

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Frank stepped into the trailer to do some tinkering and we tried not to become submerged in the cold mud layer beneath our feet. The sunset was magnificent as we left the LWA for a quick stop at the small but impressive visitors center.

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As it was already late, Frank drove us back to Socorro in time for drinks and dinner and conversations with more people from the university. We were well and truly ready for bed that evening!

The next morning we had a few hours to spare before heading to Albuquerque airport, so we decided to go for a “hike” (walk) in Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. This, coincidentally, holds another array that is part of the LWA.

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Another LWA station – white patch in center of image

We had a look in the excellent visitor center, complete with stuffed animal nature displays, then got a map from the guides then headed off on the hike.

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The rain in the distance was a little worrying but it didn’t approach. The fresh air and the calmness was a welcome relief. Though we didn’t see any wildlife to speak of, we appreciated the geological formations, including a fault line!

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The scenery on the drive back to the airport was spectacular, with snow capped mountains and puffy clouds.

I’m happy to check off another telescope from my list! Hope we’ll be back one day.

Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

Astronomy from the inside

About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.

The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.

Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.

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200-inch Hale telescope dome at Palomar Observatory

We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.

This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.

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The 200-inch up close.

Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze.  It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.

An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.

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Inside the control room

By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.

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The Monastery
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Spartan but comfortable

We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.

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George Ellery Hale
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Concrete blank of the 5 meter mirror

Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.

To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”.  Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.

Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.

Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.

At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.

We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.

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Working on the instrument at the prime focus

Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.

Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.

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That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.


Thank you Gregg for an amazing weekend!

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Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles, Travel

Owens Valley Astrophotography Adventure

Our February adventure had an astronomical theme – we went to Owens Valley, California.   The husband had been here many times thanks to his work on the LEDA project but this was my first time – and the first time his visit didn’t require a transcontinental flight followed by a 5 hour drive.

We picked President’s Day weekend and set off at a civilized 10am.  Our first stop was still in Pasadena – at Samy’s Camera Shop. This is a fabulous store packed with absolutely everything you could possibly want as a photographer.  As someone who grew up in a house with a darkroom, it was strangely fun to see boxes of photographic paper on the shelf.  We picked up a roll of 200ASA film and got the nice man to load it into my Nikon FE. I also packed my camera clamp which I would use instead of a tripod.

We set off up the 210 North and turned off at the nasty 5/210 junction along the 14 then the 395 towards Bishop, CA.  Along the way we stopped at Lancaster and spotted a donut shop in an otherwise sketchy looking shopping center.  Sugary Donuts turned out to be an excellent find.

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Back on the road we found ourselves leaving civilization and heading into the mountains.  Near the turn off to the 136 we spied a Visitor Center (the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center) so we stopped to stock up on maps and eat our donuts.

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Just before we arrived in Bishop we turned up the 168 towards Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory. We had been given a key to the LEDA facility (a tricked out shipping container) so my husband was able to show me all the work he had done for the two years we were in Boston.

The LEDA telescope is an array of 251 antennas like the ones below, arranged over a wide area, with another 5 different type of antenna spaced around the edges.  These antennas work together to produce a picture of the sky – but not a normal picture – one taken with radio waves.  The scientists are hoping to ‘see’ what the universe looked like soon after the first stars turned on after the Big Bang.  Their ‘first light’ image is here: https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/LEDA/firstlight.html.

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LEDA
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Other telescopes on the site

After all this excitement we headed to our hotel in Bishop (Creekside Innmy review here).

Once it was fully dark we got back in the car and headed back to the Observatory.  After only a mild amount of swearing and dropping parts in the sand we hooked up the camera to its clamp, and clamped the clamp to a handy fence post. We opened the shutter and waited. It was at this point we realized it wasn’t exactly warm outside…

I pointed the camera at Orion/Taurus/Pleiades wide field.  Then I pointed it at the North Star.  Then we switched locations and got some foreground telescope action happening.  Exposures were all less than 10 minutes (we didn’t time it). [Later, I got the film developed and scanned at Samy’s, then rinsed the images through Photoshop on ‘auto correct’].

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Orion/Taurus/Pleiades
Pointing at the North Star
Pointing at the North Star
Pointing north-ish
Pointing north-ish

The next day we drove up towards the Bristlecone Pine Forest.  We drove up from 4000ft to something like 8000ft, saw a bit of snow on the road, and caught glimpses of some spectacular views.  The vista at the top was breathtaking and the car smelled hot. Along the way I used up the last few frames of the roll of film, and found it interesting to compare the same shot taken with the digital camera and the film camera.

On our way home we tried to get lunch at the Copper Top BBQ place (somewhere my husband and his colleagues ‘discovered’ when it first opened a couple of years ago) – but the line was more than an hour long…

For those interested, here is a recent article about Owens Valley and its dust issue: http://www.latimes.com/science/la-me-1115-owens-20141115-story.html

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Question: When was the last time you got a roll of film developed?

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