MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 7: Poopie Suits & An Ancient Mystery

I was actually aghast that Logan’s post last week was the very first appearance of the Poopie Suit on this fine blog. After nearly 8 years and more than 560 blog posts, it’s utterly ridiculous that a surface sailor posted the first poopie suit pic. She probably wasn’t even wearing tennis shoes.

So let’s rectify the sitch. Here are a couple of pics from when I was on the USS Pasadena (SSN-752).

That’s me on the right. Colby Matthews is relieving me as Officer of the Deck on the surface. It’s kind of rare to catch an SSN on the surface, but it was also always our favorite watch. Lots of wind, you usually got wet (we’re strapped in for a reason), and you got some sun. Since we both have smooth chins this must be shortly after we left Pearl.
This is maybe more recognizable after a couple of weeks out (and maybe not sleeping for a day or three). Note that I’m keeping it neat though, that fire fighting mask still needs a good seal. Kinda apropos.
The insignia you see on my poopie suit are the Submariner’s Dolphins. You basically have to be able to draw every fluid/mechanical/electrical/air system on the ship from memory, know how to operate everything, and prove it during a bunch of drills, to earn that. Logan is wearing the equivalent “water wings” for surface sailors. For U.S. submariners, it’s actually the fish (mahi mahi), not the mammal. But we always felt special when Dolphins joined us on the surface. Our Captain had even figured out that all ahead standard turns for twelve was the optimum Dolphin amusement speed in a 688 class.
Some more dolphins from the bridge of Pasadena off Oahu. Just because they’re pretty.

So one of the things that some of my shipmates and I have been talking about is how similar our current globally mutual situation is to going to sea on a submarine. Feeling isolated? Same small cramped space every day? Stuck with the same small group of people/cats (not necessarily of your choice)? Pervasive smell of diesel, monoethylamine, and sewage? Ok, if the last one applies maybe call a plumber and/or move.

Now if you really want to get a good submarine simulation, follow these guidelines. Seriously, I feel every one of those. But I lost it when I got to “Every so often, yell “EMERGENCY DEEP!” run into the kitchen and sweep all pots, pans and dishes off of the counters onto the floor, and then yell at your partner for not having the kitchen area “Stowed for Sea!””. All too real. My key lesson learned for our current situation is that if we all end up eating canned three bean salad that we were storing on the hallway floor (and walking on), it will have gone on for too long.

The best modern submarine movie to get you in the groove is The Hunt For Red October. When on the Dallas, most of the extras were submariners, and the background chatter is A+. Listen for things like “conn, maneuvering, aye”, and the word perfect “concur, possible target zig based on bearing rate.”

If you really want to get claustrophobic, any WWII sub movie will do, but Das Boot is the clear winner.

We don’t talk about Crimson Tide.

And now for a message from our sponsors

Like space drafts, only on your own couch.

Many astro-towns have a public talk series, hosted in bars oddly enough (see below), where local astronomizers present their work for a non-specialist audience. In Tucson it’s called Space Drafts. The COVID hasn’t crossed this off the calendar completely: tomorrow from 1200-1900 MST/PDT you can learn all about a bunch of exciting astronomy topics, live streamed here:

Our very own Logan Pearce is up from 1800-1830 MST/PDT Tucson time. Grab a cold one and tune in!

Now on to the ancient mystery. This is one of my favorite pics from the 752. It was a long time ago, but I’ll try to describe it. . .

This is taken at a place called Jim’s in Bahrain, in late March 2003. If you’ve seen Casablanca you kinda know the role Jim’s played there, though not with the same panache. Shown are most of the junior officers on Pasadena and the Eng, an MMCS (senior chief), an MM1, and a couple of O-gang friends who were on a CG out of Pearl. I’m pretty sure that “Nerd” and the Weps had the duty on the boat, and the XO is the photog. (inside baseball: b/c I was the Damage Control Assistant at the time, I almost certainly bought every single one of the senior chief’s beers that night)

Now you might notice that not every sailor looks completely ready to stand watch. Which leads to the mystery posed in one of my favorite songs:

Not actually the best version by USNA Glee on youtube, but I picked it for the venue. Honest question: what amateurs use a motorized stage to focus a camera? It’s all worth it at 1:55 though.

Here’s a more traditional version:

Fun fact: I’ve actually been kicked out of a bar in Charleston for over-requesting this song (Charleston S.C. is the home of Navy Nuclear Power School). Long story, it was a group effort and Irish folk bands can get touchy.

The final version really captures the essence of the song:

MagAO-X 2020A Stay at Home Day 6: Reconnecting with the Past

Hello to all the wonderful blog readers out there. Although I am a long time member of the team, y’all don’t know me yet as this is my first post to the XWCL blog. So who am I? That’s a good question that I am still trying to figure out. But anyway…I (think I) am the only native Tucsonan in the team. So you may from time to time hear me talk about a Stravenue, or perhaps the latest “ganga” at a store. Or the dark days of Hidden Valley Inn (a restaurant that was amazing) closing, or Macayo’s leaving for the greener pastures of that place to the North. I don’t often agree with the Urban Dictionary definition of things, but I think they got Tucsonan right:

3. A Kind gentlemen who wears; big hats, shorts, beards, and yes flip-flops. They often study Science, Art, or Architecture. They may be spotted wearing a University of Arizona t-shirt or a NASA t-shirt.

I mean that pretty much sums me up. Except for the flip flops. That only happens around the neighborhood…

So what has kept me here for the last nearly 30 years? Aside from the good food, relaxed culture (so long as you happen to not be driving behind a snowbird for the 10th time in a day), and the never ending hope that at some point soon one of the statewide sports teams (of any level of amateur- or professional-ism) won’t be terrible, I have always had a few interests that are well supported by this desert outpost. From as far back as I can remember, having grown up in a home that supports both Star Wars and Star Trek (I am much more on the Star Wars side, to put it mildly), I would wander out into the backyard at night and look up at the stars and be amazed at all that was out there. As I aged, the thoughts changed. “Wow that is cool. Lot’s of Twinkles.” “I wonder why they Twinkle” “Is that a planet?” “Is that a galaxy?” “I wonder if some creature somewhere is out in their yard right now looking up at a point of light that is the Sun and wondering if something is in their yard looking back at it”. I know what you are thinking, blog readers. That those questions seem to fit really well with the science that is we talk about in this blog a lot, so that must be why I am here, at the UofA (I will not apologize for not using UArizona…..It will never happen. Ever.), working on a PhD in optical sciences applied to astronomy. Well, it isn’t.

Nope. I stayed here and went to the UofA for optics because when I was a high schooler, I broke a portable CD player (old man alert) so that it would play music without the lid closed. I sat there watching nothing touch the disc, and yet music played, and couldn’t understand the magic that had suddenly been thrust into my life. After a trip to the local library (wow another old man alert) to learn about something called optical data storage, I felt I knew the direction my life would go. It even turned out that the university down the street had a world renown program in just such a thing!

So now how did I actually end up here. Writing this blog post for something much better aligned to my childhood dreams than my adolescent life plan. Well it’s a pretty short story, so I will tell it. One semester of undergrad, I was in need of 3 more units to maintain my scholarship funding. Having taken a few gen ed astronomy classes to fulfill requirements to graduate, I decided it would be interesting to take one through the Optical Sciences department. It turned out to be quite interesting and unlike any class I had taken. No homework. No written exams. Just 3 team projects and an oral exam final (Olivier if you are reading this, I still remember what a blazed grating is because you made me derive the equations for you in that final exam). Throughout the class, it became clear to me that I cared more about the team projects and what I was learning than I did about anything in any of the numerous classes I had taken relating to photonics, and my mind was starting to change on my direction. Then came “the incident.” It turned out that the entire class was interested in working on the same idea for the third project. There was some disagreement between parties on how things should go. A certain “man who must not be named” on one side, and fellow blog poster (before she was even a master, let alone a Dr.) Kelsey Miller on the other. And although for the next five or six years Kelsey would claim I was on the other side, I really was on hers. And I think the fact that I enjoyed working with her especially, and Olivier Guyon the professor too, enough to apply for an undergraduate NASA fellowship (and luckily get it!) to work with them immediately following the conclusion of the class is evidence enough. If not, then immortalizing it here in the blog sure is, right?? So that’s it. I am here because I had to take another class to keep the money paying for me to be in school, met Kelsey in it, and found a path to reach for what I dreamed as a child.

That’s probably enough about my past for now. In the present, I am working on a new algorithm that doesn’t yet seem to have an official mathematics name, so I will just call it the Joint Real-time Estimation of NCPA (non-common path aberration) and Exoplanet Imaging algorithm. I have also taken to referring to it by the name of its creator, Dr. Richard Frazin, but as he is a collaborator on all my work, it doesn’t seem right to make it seem as though he named it after himself. Essentially, it is a statistical framework in which all the information that can be gathered from MagAO-X or any system (ms WFS data synced with Science camera images, System models of the WFS and coronagraph, and knowledge of the statistics of the Adaptive Optics Residual phases) is brought together to construct a regression to solve for the stuff we want to know, like any NCPA that is present, or for that matter any exoplanet that might be hiding under all the speckles. It can be thought of as using each AO Residual as a probe, meaning in just 16.67 minutes you have already gathered 1 million probes to set up the system of equations. However, one, at least in the time of writing this post, can never know the true AO Residual. One can only know what the limited spatial bandwidth and noise content of the WFS can tell you about it. So in addition to figuring out all the unknowns we want, we also have to account for terrible bias in the estimator caused by this imperfect knowledge. I think I will spare the readers that have already trudged on this far from any more detail than that though. Luckily, with all my work being done on a computer for the time being, being trapped at home is of little disruption to my work life.

Picture Time (perhaps more in the coming days…things didn’t go well with my camera tonight trying to snap an inspiring image of the ISS flying overhead)

The home office. Cat nearly always included.
Custom GPU cooling. Turns out running a GPU at 100% for 11 hour simulation runs exceeds the ability of stock coolers. Eagle eye viewers of the above picture will see just how hot it gets. Note also the presence of the case panel propped between the wall and the fan. This is so the aforementioned cat does not enter the danger zone

Song of the Day

Finally, one more story that will lead to my choices for song of the day. One thing I like to spend some of my down time doing is reading about, as Bernard of Chartres would say well before Isaac Newton said it, the giants whose shoulders I stand upon. About a year or so ago, when I was reading about the life of Richard Feynman (which I highly recommend; he has many interesting stories to tell), I came across a story I had never heard before. That of his so called last journey, that started when he once asked his friend Ralph Leighton, “What ever happened to Tannu Tuva?” Now I never read Ralph’s book on the subject (Tuva or Bust!), but as I understand it, Feynman spent roughly the last decade of his life attempting to get a visa to visit this small region of southern Siberia, near Mongolia, to serve as an allegory of sorts on always having curiosity. Unfortunately, he ended up passing away before he ever made it, but his daughter was able to go there in 2009. So to honor his purpose, I followed my curiosity as to why Feynman would have chosen this particular corner of a vast world, and started to look into what made Tuva unique. It turns out that they are the keepers of a unique form of music, known generally as Khoomei (although there are many styles that get separate names), but known better in the West as throat or overtone singing. After a dive into the YouTube machine, I found an old Tedx “talk” of a group known as The Alash Ensemble performing this type of music in Baltimore, and I was truly astounded by it. It was the same feeling of witnessing some magical thing as when I broke the CD player. Like here was a simple way to reconnect to not only what it means to be human, but to feel the sort of raw ancestral power of nature that I never knew before was a thing. Without going much further, this music has become a larger piece of my life, especially in these turbulent times, as a means to find balance with myself and nature in a sort of musical form of mediation, both through listening to and singing it myself (who knows, maybe someday the local team will someday get to hear me attempt to do it).

So although it is likely quite different than previous Song of the Day choices, I present, with the hope that maybe one of you readers out there that stuck through the telling of some of my life story will find the same connection with nature I did, that same Tedx talk that I found a year ago, and then to perhaps better connect to an “Astronomical” topic, a second, more modern interpretation of this kind of music by a band that went viral awhile back for a different song named the Hu Band, performing a song they wrote for Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order. (see? I told you I was a Star Wars nerd. And also a throat singing nerd. So this was like a mind blown moment when I came across it in Star Wars canon)

MagAO-X 2020A Stay at Home Day 5: Trials with Dalgona Coffee

Welcome, dear reader, to day 5 of XWCL’s quarantine journal entries (alternatively, your Monday distraction). We’ve had great entries so far showcasing hobbies and activities of the various XWCL members. To keep in theme, this post will cover a few of the things that I enjoy and how it’s been helping me through quarantine.

Anyone, graduate school or not, will agree that food induces happiness. Cooking is my main go-to comfort habit, whether because I feel homesick or it was a rough week where nothing worked. Scent has been known to trigger memories; the term “Proustian memory” is coined from his novel A la Recerche du Temps Perdu where Proust ate a madeline cookie which triggered an involuntary memory of his childhood. For instance, when I miss my family (hi Mom, Dad, and Kuya!), I make a cup of roasted brown rice green tea because that’s our choice beverage while we talk at the table after sharing a meal together at home. Whether small family meal or big family gathering, this roasted brown rice green tea is always present. For me, every step in the process of cooking is a small marathon that instills tremendous joy: exploring the various specialty stores in Tucson for procuring ingredients, setting up all my ingredients “mise en place“, listening to the crackling of ingredients in the hot oil, basking in the aroma of the food simmering, and, of course, eating my rewards (especially when it’s my weekly meal prep). Cooking is a methodical and experimental activity I love to do both solo and group settings. I eagerly try to widen my skillset – my 2 best friends from when my PhD began (hi Bharati and Liliana!) are both vegetarian and enthusiastically helped me as taste testers when I wanted to explore meat alternatives. I’ve gotten better at making lentils, but tofu needs further work to get the texture I want.

I believe that a significant portion of why I’ve enjoyed cooking is having the correct tools. Therefore, it’s no surprise that I’ve accumulated a collection of various kitchen appliances. Given my graduate student budget, I acquire many of my appliances through Tucson’s Craigslist or following department store sales (sometimes for months). My best Craigslist purchases have been a KitchenAid stand mixer Pro500 for $100 in 2015 and a Breville deep fryer for $25 in 2018 (this is a fun story for another time), where each were practically brand new. Many people have benefitted from these appliances – XWCL, CAAO, Steward Observatory and OpSci graduate students, to count a few. Some appliances/tools have failed me though – I borrowed a mandoline slicer once to try out and from that experience, I’ll stick to chopping all my vegetables manually, even if they come out uneven or not fine enough. I told myself that when I’m employed after completing my PhD, I’ll buy a brand new Le Creuset enameled cast iron pot. (On sale, of course. Some habits will never cease.)

Given that cooking can be categorized as a DIY activity, I’m always in the agenda to try out making trendy foods. I’ve attempted some recipes posted in social media videos – some good, but also many where I failed epically (like Tasty’s no-bake matcha cheesecake video recipe). Although quarantine in the US began at least a month ago, I’m expecting social media will produce some trendy recipes to try.

All of these things have led me to attempt a trendy recipe roaming about the internet: Dalgona Coffee.

Dalgona coffee is a latte which has a thick, sweet whipped coffee foam placed on top of a cup of milk. This viral trend originated in South Korea, where Dalgona is a sponge candy and is derived from the word dalgoona (English: “sweet”). Dalgona coffee is made with 3 ingredients: water, sugar, and instant coffee (yes, instant coffee). To make it, you mix them together and whip A LOT.

Here’s a video that shows the process:

This video also has pretty sweet ASMR-esque sounds

This really perked my interest – I had all the ingredients without needing to go to the store. I had both instant coffee and instant espresso from my experiments at making coffee-filled dark chocolates. I had the tools. There was nothing stopping me from trying this out, especially since I needed a distraction while staying home.

Additionally, if I need any further convincing, it’s a scientific fact that Astronomy and coffee go together as a combination. Given that we’re doing this blog posts in the style of an observation run, making dalgona coffee fits into the theme.

Through the course of many evenings, I attempted making dalgona coffee and experimented in other variants of it. I’ve documented my learning experience here, so you get to know what works just by reading this whole post.


  • The ingredient portions for all my experiments are for 2 servings. Scaling up or down is possible by maintaining a 1:1:1 ratio. I didn’t test this out, but that’s what the recipes said.
  • I recommend using a tall, wide container for mixing. It can get messy doing this. I used the tall measuring cup that came with my immersion blender.

While I am always eager to cook with minimal and manual tools, I’m not in the agenda to sit with a whisk for 10 minutes trying to whip this foam. My friend has done it manually and commented the experience “like some Edwardian kitchen maid” (hi Jordan!). I use a $3 milk frother when I make my morning caffeine drink (Mexican hot chocolate with instant espresso), so it’s obvious that it should do the job for making dalgona coffee, right?

INGREDIENTS: 2 tbsp instant espresso, 2 tbsp granulated white sugar, 2 tbsp room temperature water

VERDICT: The milk frother does help with starting up the foam. However, the frother is neither strong nor fast enough. It couldn’t bring in enough air into the foam to make it thicken up like in the video. A successful dalgona foam is light and thick, but this one did not come out light enough. I’ve been told (hi Martin and Jastine!) that even if you tried with using a hand whisk after the milk frother, the foam is still not good enough. Therefore, I do not recommend using a milk frother to build the foam exclusively.

HOW DID IT TASTE: Really good! Really sweet, though.

Within my cupboards of kitchen tools and appliances, I have an electric immersion blender which has an attachable whisk and food processor unit. I didn’t want to bring it out the first time because it’s a large, clunky item that requires a wall outlet for power. Plus, I store it on a shelf that requires me to use a stepping stool to reach. After perusing through a few articles, I learned that using hot water instead of cold water creates the foam faster.

INGREDIENTS: 2 tbsp instant espresso, 2 tbsp granulated white sugar, 2 tbsp hot water

VERDICT: This worked super well! I used the milk frother in the beginning to initialize blending the ingredients together. Then I used my electric whisk attachment to bring up the foam. My immersion blender has 3 speed settings and the fastest one worked best. It worked very fast – in less than 5 minutes, I got the thick foam! The foam stuck to itself so well that it made transferring to a mug with hot milk very easy.

HOW DID IT TASTE: Really good! But it was also very difficult to mix the hot milk and the foam together. The foam also starts hardening up on the edge of the cup.

With one successful case* after two attempts, this convinced me to start experimenting with the recipe.
* Please don’t use this statistics logic for your research

One major problem I had with the original recipe is that it’s too sweet. I do like sweet foods, but not to this level of sweet. To cut down the sugar, I used 2 tbsp powdered sugar, which has the same sweetness as 1 tbsp granulated sugar. I had powdered sugar lying around from the gatherings I attended pre-quarantine where I bring my deep fryer to make fresh deep fried oreos. Also, to get into the spirit of the recipe, I replaced the instant espresso with some Folgers instant coffee.

INGREDIENTS: 2 tbsp instant coffee, 2 tbsp powdered sugar, 2 tbsp hot water.

VERDICT: This one came out BEAUTIFUL. However, since powdered sugar was used, the foam came out much less heavy than with granulated sugar. There were a lot more air bubbles that made the foam lose its form after a while. The instant coffee also made the foam pick up super fast.

HOW DID IT TASTE: Love that it’s less sweet, but not enough coffee punch. I’ve rediscovered that Folger’s is cheap for a reason.

As you may know from a past blog post, I’m a hobby chocolate confectioner. I started making green tea chocolate when I began my PhD, and have recently figured out how to make coffee-filled ganache dark chocolates. Therefore, for this dalgona coffee challenge, the next logical test was seeing how I can mix in chocolate for this foam. Should taste good, right?

INGREDIENTS: 1 tbsp granulated sugar, 1 tbsp powdered sugar, 1.5 tbsp instant coffee, 1.5 tbsp hot water, 0.5 tbsp dark cocoa

VERDICT: I mixed together the sugars, instant coffee, and water together with the frother to get the foam going, then added in the cocoa powder. After that was mixed together well enough, I went to the electric whisk. However, the foam started collapsing and turned in syrup-like form. Even after 10 minutes on the highest speed of my electric whisk and tilting the container to add more air, the foam refused to build up. Back to the drawing board on how to add in chocolate!

HOW DID IT TASTE: Didn’t want this to go to waste, so it was mixed with cold milk to make chocolate milk. This was the most effort mocha chocolate milk I have ever made. Tasted good, but no dalgona coffee.

As you may notice, the recipe makes up to 2 servings (or more) worth of foam. But for all that effort and you only wanted 1 serving, how do you make the rest not go waste? I’ve read in some articles that the foam can last for a day or two inside the refrigerator. Is this true? Let’s test an overnight case.

INGREDIENTS: 2 tbsp instant espresso, 2 tbsp granulated sugar, 2 tbsp room temperature water

Here’s photos of the foam the night before:

And here’s the photos from the next day after 11 hours sealed in the refrigerator:

VERDICT: I didn’t document this part, but the reason the foam shrank was because the coffee was separating from the foam. This was easily fixed using a small whisk and whipping for a minute or two. It didn’t build up to the level from when it was freshly whisked, but that’s easily attributed to that I didn’t work hard in adding more air back in. The foam returned to a lighter color and was nice and thick like it was fresh, but maybe a bit more dense than freshly whipped with an electric whisk.

HOW DID IT TASTE: Pretty good! It fueled a lot of writing this post.

Someone challenged me to try it with matcha (hi Jaren!), but it ended up with the same watery result like the chocolate one. I read somewhere that the foam forms because of fat/oil present in the coffee that interacts with the sugar. I suspect that there’s probably something going on with the cocoa powder and matcha that inhibits the foam from taking. I’ve talked with someone who made a matcha version (hi Jade and Adolfo!), but it only worked when they adding in milk, which formed a whipped cream type foam. I read one recipe that recommended using egg whites so the foam builds up like meringue, but that would require me pasteurizing the egg (I am not taking any chances with this pandemic). I’m no food scientist and only a hobby cook at best, so I welcome an explaination to what happened. It’ll make me a better cook!


  • Hot water versus room temperature water: I’ve experimented using both and found that there wasn’t a distinct difference between the final result foam. I did find that the hot water mixed the coffee and sugar much easier than room temperature water. This may change depending on the sugar and instant coffee you use.
  • Instant espresso versus instant coffee: besides the obvious flavor profile, I did not find the foam any different from either. I won’t ever recommend Folgers, but I do recommend the instant espresso I used. If you’re in Tucson, you can find it at Roma Imports (assuming it’s in stock when they reopen during quarantine). Alternatively, I’ve found it on Amazon.


  • Using real coffee: I imagine it’ll taste good, but the coffee will need to be concentrated. Too much fluid might be too watery for the foam to take.
  • Alternative types of sugar: I only tested using granulated cane sugar and powdered sugar. But would it be different if you used raw sugar? How about sugar alternatives like monk fruit sugar or splenda?

I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through experimenting on dalgona coffee. I recommend trying it out – even if you don’t get the foam, it still tastes really good mixed in with the milk. Please let me know if you try it out – I’m always welcome to discussing this. Post up some really pretty pictures of your attempts.

Special thanks to Aldo for exploring through this whole process with me and consuming the second serving of all the successful attempts.

The song of the day comes from 2 things I’ve been doing while under quarantine – experimenting on whipping dalgona coffee and listening to synth wave instrumental music while wranging my simulation code. The venn diagram overlap of these 2 things comes in the form of this song:

Get it into shape!

Okay dalgona coffee, let’s post-process out some zernike modes from these mirrors.

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 4: The Joy of Painting with Blog Ross

Hello, and thanks for joining me. Today marks the end of week three of self-isolation and quarantine for a lot of us here in Tucson. Based on what I have been seeing on social media and my own personal experience, a lot of us are starting to get a bit stir crazy from staying at home everyday. The self-isolation survival advice that I have heard the most is to try and cultivate a new hobby. For me, I have started playing Stardew Valley, a farming simulator game. A lot of hobbies however, require a lot more materials then a video game, making it frustrating and expensive to start up a new one. I thought I would share one of my oldest hobbies, painting. I may be Blog Ross, but I am no Bob Ross. Regardless I will try and step you through a simple painting, and give some advice on how to start painting using cheaper materials to keep the cost down.

A lot of us are missing astronomy and the great outdoors. Today I thought it would be nice to combine the two into a simple night sky in the desert painting. To give you a preview of what we will be painting today, here is my finished result.

To start, collect your materials.

For this painting I used five colors of acrylic paint: black, white, cadmium red hue, cadmium yellow hue, and cerulean blue hue.

My favorite brand of paint is Winsor & Newton Galeria Acylic. This is found in the Level 2: Artist section in Michaels. Almost all of my canvas, paints, and brushes are from this section. I have bought from their Level 3: professional level but couldn’t see a noticeable increase in quality to justify the steep increase in price. I do see a big increase in quality from the Level 1: Academic, and the price increase isn’t much between level 1 and 2 so I do suggest investing a little if you plan to continue painting.

Brushes: I used four of my go to brushes for this painting. A medium sized brush with a rounded tip, a small brush with a clean square edge, a fan brush, and a tiny detail brush.

Other materials: palette (a plastic TV dinner tray from the dollar store is a good alternative), and some water.

I used a canvas sheet that can be bought in a pad, as a cheaper alternative to a full canvas. I taped it to a board, and then drew some reference lines. I looked up some photos of saguaros for inspiration, and based the rock features off of Javelina Rocks at Saguaro National Park East.

To start painting we work from the background to the foreground. For our base color mix a Navy/dark-purple (2 parts blue, 1 part red, and a little black). Paint onto canvas using an up and down stroke, all the way to the rocks and around the saguaro. (I didn’t go all the way because I wanted to add a sunset effect that I decided later on was unnecessary and fixed that mistake). If you accidentally get some in your saguaro or rocks it is not a problem.

Looking at long exposure photos of the night sky, we see that it is not a uniform color. To add contrast mix 2 parts blue and 1 part red. Taking the medium size brush with the rounded edge, use a dabbing brush stroke over the background color. Don’t completely cover the background.

For some reason the photo makes this look purple, but it is actually pretty blue in real life.

With the leftover paint from the last step, add in a little bit of white (should be: 2 parts blue, 1 part red, a little white). Dab onto canvas again, concentrating the density to the band where you want the Milky Way to be.

To start making the Milky Way I mixed a lavender color ( 1 part white, with a little bit of equal parts blue and red). I used a back and forth brush stroke to make a line/ steak effect. You could probably continue dabbing the color on if you like that look more. Put this color over where you want the Milky Way to be. Over the lighter color you just laid down, add some darker color for the dust lanes in the Milky Way. I used dark purple (1 part red, 1 part blue, a little black), but dark blue would work too.

Now I took my smaller brush with the square edge and white paint, and added highlights and small dust clouds to my Milky Way. I used both small dabbing brush strokes, and some half-circle brush stokes. There is a bright bulge in the Milky Way that faces towards the ground. Decide where you want the bulge and concentrate more white in that area. There is a second smaller bulge on the opposite side at that location. If you go too wild with the white (like I did) go back in with your dark purple or blue and add back in some dust lanes.

Looking at photos of the Milky Way, near the bulge the color is more yellow and less white. Mix a very light yellow (1 part white, a little yellow), and add in some yellow to your light spots. I used my fine detail brush to do this. I then went back over the edges of the yellow parts I put down with some white, to blend the colors a little better. I used a dabbing brush stroke for this.

Once you are happy with how your Milky Way looks (maybe adding in more dust lanes, maybe more bright spots) its time to add stars! Mix white paint with water (something like 2 parts water, 1 part white). Mix it well so that there are no clumps, should look like milk. Take the fan brush, or any large, flat brush and using your fingers flick the hairs of the brush to create the stars. If this explanation is confusing you can find a tutorial on YouTube. Do this until you are satisfied. I found that this made a lot of really small stars, so I took my small fine detail brush and added in some larger stars concentrating them in the Milky Way. I added a lot of these white stars into the brighter areas of the Milky Way.

As we know from astronomy stars aren’t all the same color, so lets give the white stars some friends. Mix some light blue (1 part white, a little blue), and using the fine detail brush add in some blue stars. Concentrate these outside of the Milky Way. I even added 2 or 3 red stars.

unlike us the stars are not self isolating so give them lots of friends

At this point my painting looks like the image below. (Noticed I fixed that mistake I made earlier. Acylic is great for beginners because it is very forgiving).

Now it is time to paint in the rocks and the saguaro! Take black paint and the small brush with the clean square edge and fill in the saguaro and rocks with black. I decided to mix a little bit of blue into the black for one of the rocks, so it would look like one rock is in the foreground, and the other in the background.

Now wait for the painting to dry, then add in your signature and it is done!

And don’t forget the important last step, give the painting to a friend who is struggling with isolation :). (While maintaining proper social distancing guidelines.)

Happy painting,

Blog Ross

Here is a relaxing song to paint to for the song of the day.

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 3: Lonely Walls, I’ll Keep You Company

It’s the first Saturday since the stay-at-home orders were announced, and I’m unwinding this weekend by, well, staying at home. Unlike most of the MagAO-X team, I’m sheltering not in Tucson but instead in my occasional residence in a corner of DC (where stay-at-home orders went into effect just a few hours after AZ). Fortunately, MagAO-X is set up for remote operation, and I can amuse myself by spinning filter wheels and commanding deformable mirrors from the other side of the country.

Since there’s relatively little of astronomical or optical interest within my apartment, and in keeping with blog tradition, I’m dedicating this short blog post to the flora and fauna found within my immediate vicinity (my apartment and the surrounding ~50 ft).


Since I can’t be in Tucson, I’ve been attempting to reproduce the Tucson biome on my desk with a collection of cacti and other succulents. It’s not quite spiky or perilous enough yet, so my next task will be figuring out how to relocate and squeeze a 30 ft saguaro into my living room.

succulents on a desk
Tucson in miniature


Wild beasts also roam these lands and occasionally drop by for treats. The most frequent visitor is a well-fed (but always hungry) tabby cat with one and three-fourths ears. His once-daily visits have dropped off recently, so the only reasonable conclusion is that he’s doing the responsible thing and staying indoors.

In addition to a small army of rats, the alley behind my apartment is home to what is possibly a groundhog, whom I’ve spotted only once from afar. Expert (and inexpert) opinions on the identification of this animal are welcome.

A good kitty
Bonus cat

In recognition of our collective newfound familiarity with the interiors of our domiciles, I leave you with “Hello Walls” by Willie Nelson: