Thursday, November 16, 2017

Doing Domes

The 20-inch Refractor at the Chabot Center
Regular readers (or anyone who knows me) will confirm that I love visiting Space Places; observatories, planetaria, museums featuring space themes, etc, etc. Its been a fairly consistent theme in my life--if it has anything to do with astronomy, space travel or related subjects I just can't walk past without a look-see.

Up til now this obsession has been pursued in a random, careless fashion. Ill stop by a planetarium in a city I happen to be visiting or an observatory that my route takes me near. This is how I visited the Chabot Center and Palomar in California, Kitt Peak in Arizona and Cranbrook Institute in Michigan.  Its also how Lucy and I came to Green Bank just last month. I’ve been to quite a few Space Places in the course of a lifetime of fascination with the skies and what we can experience of them, but not in any kind of organized manner.

This changes now.

Beginning today, I'm upping my game. From here on out, my intention is to conduct a more focused program, seeking-out and checking-out those great telescopes in their secluded domes, those all-sky projectors, those launch sites and support facilities amenable to visitation.

If a planetarium lies in a town a am visiting, I will make every effort to get there. If an observatory can be reached with a realistic side-trip off the Interstate, Ill give it my best shot. And if a space-related historic site is anywhere near—then I’m there as well.

It’s a quest, you see. Ill never be able to visit all the domes, climb all the mountains, travel to all of the sites where big rockets roar aloft, but I can try.  It should be a lot of fun.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

f/Stop: Sunset Colors Over Hampton Roads

Last night Lucy picked me up at the base; as I walked toward her car I was struck by the deep colors and rays of twilight.  It really DOES pay to carry an actual camera around, non?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Watch a star disappear this Sunday night (05NOV)

Looking for a good show on Sunday evening? Well, the bright star Aldebaran will be occulted
(“eclipsed”) by the Moon, and it’s worth making the effort to watch.  Viewing from eastern Virginia
area the actual disappearance can be seen at +/-0056Z (1956 Local) {check online for local times
if you’re not in Va.}, but it’s best to start checking it out periodically up to an hour beforehand.

An hour before the event the Moon will still be a considerable distance from the star, so if you go
out and look every few minutes after that you’ll be able to actually SEE the orbital motion
of the Moon as it closes-in on Aldebaran.  About ten minutes before the occultation is a good
time to begin watching closely as the separation between Moon and star shrinks to nothing…and
then the star winks out!  Can you catch the exact moment when Aldebaran disappears?

Tip for watching: The Moon will be low in the east, but still pretty bright.  The glare may tend
to drown-out Aldebaran’s orange-ish light.  Use a telescope or a pair of binoculars, focus on
the star and follow it, keeping most of the bright Moon out of the field-of-view except for the
edge (“limb”) creeping in from the upper right.

Watching the disappearance of a bright star in occultation is pretty easy…star and Moon seem to
move together until…lights out!  If you want a REAL challenge, try watching for Aldebaran’s
REAPPEARANCE, when the distant sun seems to wink back into existence!

Here’s a good link for more information about this semi-rare event…

Questions? Drop me a note at  If you DO go out to watch this event
I’d like to hear your comments and observations--I am always up for a conversation on the subject
of star-gazing!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Calling All Junior Birdmen...

The Main Hall of the VASC
I'm like a little kid again whenever Lucy and I visit the Virginia Air and Space Center (VASC), and yesterday's tour was no exception to the rule. This Hampton museum doubles as the visitor's center for NASA Langley, so there is always something interesting going on...

"Yankee Clipper" and the Mercury and Gemini 'test items'
My favorite display, as usual, is the Apollo 12 Command Module, "Yankee Clipper", which orbited the Moon while Lunar Module "Intrepid" made the second manned landing on the lunar surface. (I noticed that they've expanded the "do not touch" perimeter of the display--but I would NEVER try to touch such an artifact. Take it home, maybe...)
Mercury Ascendant

Mercury and Gemini "Test Items" are on-display nearby--these are the capsule mock-ups used for parachute and drop-tests. The "Gemini" has a dozen little parachutes painted on it's side--I'm guessing that the upside-down 'chutes represent less-than-successful deployments!
"Open the Pod Bay Door, HAB..."
Along with a couple of new missiles, there were three major additions to the Center since our last visit a year back; a working demo of an inflatable "HAB" module similar to the one currently being tested on the ISS, an "astronaut training" area complete with simulators for practicing your orbital rendezvous technique or rover driving (I tried that one out and discovered an aptitude for NOT driving off cliffs into Valles Marineris!), and--WOW!--the "Solarium", a theater displaying dramatic imagery of solar activity, up-close and personal! THIS was both Lucy's and my own favorite new display--the ever-changing wide-screen vista is mesmerizing!
Yes, the Moon Rocks. A sample from the Apollo 17 Mission.
Overall, I can't think of a better way to spend a rainy afternoon than doing the VASC--if you haven't checked it out yet, it comes highly recommended.

For grown-ups AND born-again kids!

Lucy inspects a mock-up of NASA's "ORION" Crew Module
Hanging in the HAB...

Monday, September 25, 2017

Saturday Stars

Observatory on the York River
I was right about the sky conditions for Saturday night. Had a terrific evening under unusually impressive skies at York River State Park. Five other observers braved the moderate mosquito threat to enjoy faint fuzzies, and we had fun giving "deep" tours to the dozen or so Members Of The Public who came by.

My favorite part of the evening: I asked a party of hikers what they would like to see and a young lady in the group answered immediately with "something awesome!". There followed a whirlwind tour of my favorite brighter objects...the Double Cluster in Perseus at low-power, globular cluster M-22 in Sagittarius, the distinct red supergiant Mu Cephei ("Herschel's Garnet Star"), doubles Nu Draconis and Albireo, planetary nebulae M-57 (the Ring) and M-27 (the Dumbbell), and finishing with the lovely trifecta of M31/32/110 (the Andromeda Galaxy and it's satellites).

Awesome enough? I got the feeling that the young lady was pretty impressed.

To sum up, a great evening, and for me a terrific way to get back into the local astronomy scene after a long dry season. I can't wait for the next event!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Beating the Drum

(I posted this yesterday on 'Laramie's LAN...working hard to spread the Gospel of star/sun-gazing!)
The Sun Rises in Eclipse: Nov 2013 (Photo by Lucilla Epps)
Hello Shipmates!
By now I’m certain that all of you have heard of the Total Solar Eclipse, happening back in the
‘States on Monday.  If your families back home are within the band of Totality (which runs
across the country from Oregon to S. Carolina) then they are in for a treat; a total eclipse
of the Sun is one of natures’ most amazing spectacles.  Even the partial eclipse, viewed from
rest of the USA, is an impressive sight and worth taking the trouble to view.

That said, please pass this warning to your loved ones: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE

So, how can they enjoy the eclipse if they cannot LOOK at it? 

My strongest recommendation is for the folks back home to avail themselves of the public
observing sessions being run by museums, planetaria, observatories and astronomy clubs in
all major cities and towns. These organizations will be using telescopes and other viewing
tools equipped with professionally-made filters to allow SAFE close-up views of the Sun’s disk,
sunspots and prominences (solar weather) and of course the Moon as it blocks-out the Sun.
A quick search on Google, say “eclipse (name of city)” should bring up several options.


There are also several ways to safely view the Sun without driving or dealing with crowds. 
Making a pinhole projector viewer is a simple and fun crafts project for the kids and when the
eclipse happens they will be able to view the progress of the Moon’s disk as it blocks out the
Sun. You can project the image of the Sun/Moon duo with a colander or cheese-grater!  Check out
these links for more “grate” ideas.

So, what will WE see, here on our floating observatory?  LARAMIE will be in the eastern Atlantic
and right on the edge of eclipse coverage; the event itself won’t begin until just a few minutes
before sunset on Monday.  We won’t observe Totality (unless you count the Total Eclipse of the
Sun by the EARTH!) but, weather permitting, we SHOULD be able to see a Partial Eclipse begin-
Ing as sunset approaches.  Here’s how…


I’ll be in my usual observing location on the bridge, with solar filter-equipped binoculars and several
pairs of eclipse shades, starting an hour before sunset.  Given the intended speed of our transit it will
probably be too windy to watch from on-deck; if so we have permission to utilize the port-side
of the bridge itself as an observing site. If you decide to come up, be careful to avoid distracting the
watchstanders.  I’d recommend you bring a camera with some zoom capability; as the Sun approaches
the horizon haze and mist can act as an excellent filter for some literal last-minute photography!

Just sayin’.

I hope that this information will help your families enjoy the eclipse, and that you’ll take the opportunity
to glimpse this historic event for yourself!

Questions or concerns? I’m always happy to talk about my favorite subject!

Thomas L. Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Laramie (T-AO 203)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Pale Blue Dot

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Ann Druyan suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot of the preceding chapter. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?”

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)