Monday, May 13, 2019

When A Weekend Goes Wrong, Make Lemonade!

Do I have your attention now?
Today's post is a joint-effort; my dear wife Lucy joins me in describing our latest weekend expedition. Her input is in normal font and I'll be chiming-in occasionally.


What do you do when a weekend of geeky fun that you've invested not only $$, but hopes of meeting favorite Dr. Who personalities, goes totally wrong?  You make the best possible lemonade!  After news came that the Dr. Who convention in Maryland that we had planned to attend was cancelled, Tom and I planned another adventure.  Combining our two favorite hobbies, we set out for the wilds of North Carolina.  

First stop, Greenville, where there is an observatory/planetarium that Tom wanted to check out.  Since we arrived to town well before sunset, and had a few hours to spend, we took a side trip to a local nature park, and discovered a jewel of Greenville.  The North River Park is a former sand mine turned garbage pit, turned into a gorgeous nature preserve.  It is 340 acres of woodland, lakes, and marsh where people enjoy the best that Nature has to offer.  People were fishing; the students from ECU were doing community service by cleaning up trash; and walks were enjoyed by canines as well as hominids.  On closer examination of the city map, we came to realize that Greenville has what many cities lack--loads of green space for its population.  The Time for Science museum/observatory sits on 400 acres of donated land!  Go Greenville in supporting Nature spaces.
The observatory and planetarium operated by Greenville's "A Time For Science"  educational organization are located about 11 miles south of the city in the rural community of Grifton, far enough out to allow a decent view of the southern and eastern skies but close enough that it's a quick, pleasant drive from town--perfect for school field trips and family outings. As Lucy mentions, the preserve area is quite large, containing not only the planetarium and observatory but hiking trails and a small fossil pit!
Observatory Manager Brian Baker opens up the dome
The observatory is named for Kitty and Max Joyner, local amateur astronomers and philanthropists, and equipped with a 16" Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a beautiful "Paramount" mount and drive system. Unusually for such a facility the dome is designed to rotate in unison with the movement of the telescope across the sky--most of the parts for this mechanism and control system were produced by students at ECU working with 3D printers!
The Kitty and Max Joyner Observatory and Planetarium in Grifton, NC 

Ten of us (including two children) viewed a show on space-based high energy astronomy projected on the coated interior of the planetarium's geodesic dome (when built the plan for the dome was that a portable, inflatable planetarium was to be used within, but upon consideration it was decided to use the entire interior of the geodesic structure). Following the show our host Brian Baker gave a short talk about the evening's sky, answered questions about black holes and supernovae, an then led the group out under the partly cloudy sky and to the observatory where the Orion Nebula was on view in the telescope's eyepiece.
The observatory's 16" telescope
************************************************************************************************ Following a great day/night in Greenville, we drove an hour to the next stop on our map--Aurora Fossil Museum, and its two dig pits.  The town of Aurora is tiny, on the edge of a phosphate mine, but its museum, dedicated to local fossils, is a treasure.  Our first trip there was during winter, on a cold and windy day.  This time, the sun was out, it was about 70 degrees, and the dig pits were calling!  We had come prepared with appropriate tools of every intrepid fossil hunter: scoops, sieves, baggies and buckets for treasures, hats, and raggedy jeans, and a microscope.  As time passed, more people joined us on the pit, and the kids expressed joy and entrancement by shouting "I found something!" every few minutes.  Everyone staked a small 'claim' on the pit, and the fun commenced.
With the idea of hunting for tiny fossils as well as the larger varieties I'd brought my portable microscope. The plan was to sift through the dusty debris collected by straining the pit's rubble in search of diatoms or other microscopic denizens. My results from the afternoon were mixed; I DID find some strange objects that looked organic--tiny globes of yellow-white about 50 microns in size--but I wasn't able to identify them. So I brought a baggie of the pit's "soil" home for further study!


While Tom and I failed to score THE find, we found many treasures: sting ray barbs; bits of turtle and crocodile; vertebrae from a shark; various bits of bone; shells; sea urchin spines; crocodile teeth, and in case you're wondering, lots and lots of teeth, from several species of shark.  This material is anywhere from 3 to 16 million years old!!!!   So, not a bad haul for a few hours of playing in the dirt!

After about four hours in the dirt, we packed up our treasures, and headed for the next destination on the road, Bath, NC.  We took the ferry (free) across the Pamlico River, and after a stop for dinner reached our destination, in time to watch a gorgeous sunset settle over the inlet.  Bath is the first town to be incorporated in NC.  It was also the home town of a certain Mr. Teach, known as Blackbeard; and a local floating theater was the inspiration behind Edna Ferber's Showboat!  Beautiful place, but we agreed that it was just too close to Hurricane Alley for comfort.

The next morning we headed home, with a stop at another pretty town, Edenton.  Since it was Sunday, everything was closed, except the visitor's center and a local used book/tea shop.  Both were welcoming, and we made small purchases in each.  Lots of history here, and hoping that summer visitors don't ruin the charm of the place.

All in all, a wonderful weekend that was full of discovery and adventure.  Met lovely people along the way, and learned about a few who played roles in founding small towns.  Not a bad way to make up for a weekend that went so wrong.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

f-stop: The Charioteer

Constellation Auriga photographed from our backyard...not bad for living in the city!
A very nice evening in the backyard last night...just me, the StarBlast, and beautifully clear skies! Oh, and my old is a photo of Auriga falling toward the trees on the western side of our property. Yes, I live in the city--but with a little effort I can still see the stars.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Tickets To Ride

THIS is the nerdish equivalent of tickets for the "Big Game" for the University of Virginia's Fan Mountain Observatory Public Night on 26 April! They only open the facility to the public on two nights each year, so I'm pretty psyched about driving out south of Charlottesville with Kevin Francis to spend an evening under the stars with the UVA astronomers and their fine telescopes.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Stone Temple Pilot At Plaza Azteca

"Tom and I went to dinner last night with a friend. Just the perfect backdrop for our plus one! Many thanks to the staff at Plaza Azteca in Hampton for letting us do a photo shoot! Many fans of AvP among the personnel."
                                                                                                                                Lucy Epps

Monday, March 4, 2019

Brothers From Different Mothers

Edmund Astroscan meets Orion StarBlast
In the left corner, telescopic champion for over forty classic Edmund Astroscan 2001 wide-field telescope which dates from 1977. In the right corner, da' fresh-from-the-box Orion StarBlast, which boasts quite a few similarities to the vintage Astroscan--but some major differences as well. Our contest tonight is intended to decide which of these two stylish instruments is best equipped and capable of traveling the world in search of clear skies and faint fuzzies; which, in other words, will join me as  principle observing equipage on my next deployment--stargazing from both shipboard and shoreside sites. And may the best telescope win!

The rules are simple; both telescopes will be tested for image quality (including incidence of coma, a common artefact of short focal-length, wide-field optics), focus across the field of view, and ease of use. Identical eyepieces will be used to view a variety of deep-sky objects in the evening, to include M45 (the Pleiades), M42/3 (Orion's famous nebula), and the Hyades. If skies remain clear in the morning comparisons of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars will be attempted.
Well, we can easily see who's taller.
Despite very different mountings, these two telescopes are actually quite similar; the Astroscan's spherical lower body moves freely on a triangular cast aluminum base while the StarBlast moves ALT/AZ (Altitude/Azimuth, or side-to-side, up-and-down) on a quasi-Dobsonian wooden mounting. Both 'scopes us single-power (1X) finders; the Edmund offering has a cast-aluminum peep-sight while the more techie Orion instrument has a battery-powered red-dot finder (again, 1X) which works in essentially the same way as the peep-sight. Both are also quite portable; the Astroscan (at 12 lbs)has a shoulder-strap and the StarBlast (at 13 lbs) a built-in handle

Optically these two telescopes share very similar designs; the StarBlast has a 113mm (4.5") parabolic mirror as compared to the Astroscan's 106mm (4.25") primary, both with focal ratios of F/4.0. This gives the StarBlast a focal length of 450mm (18") and the Astroscan an f/l of 425mm (17"). These are very close numbers; in fact the only significant difference (on paper) between these two optical systems is that the StarBlast's primary and secondary mirror are fully collimatable--they can be adjusted for better performance. Astroscan's optics are pre-collimated, which means that the owner doesn't have the option of "tuning up" the 'scope.
The primary mirror collimation knobs on the StarBlast are visible in this photo.
Will this make a major difference tonight when I focus both telescopes on the Pleiades and alternate views through their identical eyepieces? I don't know. I have my suspicions and a few expectations,
but I'll keep those quiet until I file my report on tonight's comparisons.

Clear Skies, Folks!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Patchwork Cosmos

"Rain" by Sandy Curran
On both Friday and Saturday afternoons Lucy and I drove to the Hampton Convention Center for the  Mid-Atlantic QuiltFest. This was the event's 30th year, and attendance was impressive and enthusiastic! We had a terrific time exploring the products of hobbyists' labors of love, and we also got to meet an amazing woman who contributed to America's journey to the Moon. But more on that later...
The gallery is open...
I have to admit that this was my first textile-oriented event; I'm not especially crafty and have been known to avoid any sort of recreational activity that requires concentration or coordination! That being the case, why was I even there? A couple of reasons; (1) I'm a curious sort of fella, and (2) since Lucy and I are celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary this weekend it seemed rude to pack her off on her own!

In the end I was glad to have gone. The "geek" vibe was strong and vibrant (and so were many of the quilts on display), and we both had a great time walking the display areas which featured hundreds of works by quilters all over the country, some of them--unexpectedly to me--by men. Some pretty impressive work was there to be enjoyed!
"Winchester, VA" by the Ladies of Winchester
Much as in any sort of convention or like gathering the Convention Center's main floor space was broken up into display and venders' areas in alternating aisles--a clever way to ensure that strollers would be exposed to wares on-sale as well as to works displayed. I found it all interesting although I have to wonder how many $21,000 computerized quilting tables get sold per annum. Just as in Astronomical gatherings I have attended there is a serious tech-component to this sort of get-together!

This astronomer was particularly gratified by a display area titled 'Fly Me To The Moon'. This was a challenge offered to quilting hobbyists to create quilts on Lunar and related subjects, and resulted in a strong offering of "spacey" projects. I'll append a few examples of these works below, but first allow me a little hero-worship.
Helen Marie Marshall, Apollo Program Mathematician and Researcher
We met Helen Marie Marshall in the 'Fly Me To The Moon' area; she opened the conversation by complimenting me on my astronomical patch-festooned jacket. Soon we were deep in discussion of her role in developing the heat-shield technology for the Apollo Command Module, working as one of hundreds of women engineers and researchers on the Program. A brilliant, gracious lady, and it was a joy and a privilege for us to meet her--one of the pioneers of women in STEM and the space program.

Overall, we spent a pretty amazing half-dozen hours exploring QuiltFest. While I can't see myself taking up scissors, needle and fabric swatches in creation of textile art, I AM inspired to appreciate the enormous effort and patience of the hobby's practitioners. Oh, and please reserve me a ticket for next years' Fest--If my schedule allows I would very much enjoy taking another look, and seeing what NEW discoveries await!
"Earthrise" by Kay Campbell
"Eclipse" by Diane Kinney
"Faces of the Moon" by Ricki Selva
"Theia's Gift" by Kim Gibbon
"Window Into Space" by Carole Nicolas

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Luna Faces The Bull

The just-past first quarter Moon in the Hyades (Source: AstroBob)
Got plans for tonight? Got a pair of binoculars and fifteen minutes to spare? Then take a short excursion out into the chill with your loved ones to enjoy the sight of the Moon passing between Earth and the Hyades!

How can you observe this spectacle? Simple; dress warmly, step outside after evening twilight ends,  and find the Moon. Aim your binoculars at Luna, and it should be joined in the field of view by a lovely sprinkling of dim and bright stars. Focus to taste, and enjoy!

The Hyades, the V-shaped "face" of the constellation Taurus the Bull, is actually a star cluster located approximately 150 light-years from the Sun. This makes it the nearest open cluster to the Solar System. While we can see a few dozen individual stars with binoculars there are actually several hundred single and double suns to be found here. A few of these "Doubles" are circled above.

The brightest star to be seen is Aldebaran (a Tauri), which at a distance of 65 light-years is actually not a member of the star cluster. Aldebaran is an older giant star and gleams red only a couple of degrees to the lower left of the Moon;  you can easily spot it with the naked eye!

Anytime this evening you'll be able to step outside and see this lovely event. If you go out several times separated by an hour or so you'll be able to actually see Luna "backing" her way through the cluster, her eastward orbital motion slightly mitigating the effect of Earth's rotation and making the satellite appear to cruise through the Hyades until moonset just after midnight.

It's well worth a look, and I hope you'll have fairly clear skies. Be sure to leave a comment and tell me about your stargazing experience, and of course I welcome your questions!