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)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Perseids @ Sea

Last night I had the exhilarating experience of viewing the peak of the Perseids meteor shower in the company of a dozen Shipmates (oddly, the majority of them seemed to be engineers) from the signal bridge, perched high on the Tanker's upper works.  The view was spectacular, with the Milky Way stretching horizon-to-horizon, the Summer Triangle ensnared in our ship's signal halyards, and golden Saturn gleaming in contrast to ruddy Antares in the south.

As might be imagined, I was in my element; explaining how meteor streams occur, are refreshed by their parent comets, and intersect with the orbit of our own Earth; pointing out constellations and asterisms; walking my companions through the "scales" of the night sky, starting with Saturn at mere interplanetary distances, moving out through light-years to Vega and Antares and distant Deneb--then taking that leap into intergalactic realms with the lovely naked-eye galaxy of Andromeda.

The evening's conversation ranged, you might say, far-afield, but every minute or so we were drawn back to the "shallow" sky by another bright meteor flashing overhead from east to west.  While not the best Perseid show I've ever experienced, the celestial fireworks were quite satisfactory to all present, and the shower was still going strong when the rising Moon began to brighten the skies.

As midnight came nigh I found myself alone on the signal bridge; a thin skein of cirrus had formed and conspired with Luna to end the evening's show.  As I gathered binoculars, star atlas and red flashlight my thoughts went back over the evening's adventures in time and space, aeons and megaparsecs.  Once again I'd had proven to me that exploring the heavens in the company of enthusiastic Shipmates is what I truly enjoy about being an astronomer;  whether on a sidewalk with "members of the public" or atop the towering superstructure of a mighty sea-going vessel with crew-mates, the true joy of observing the skies lies in the sharing.

But then, I already knew that.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

f/Stop: My August Eclipse

Last night I watched a very nice partial lunar eclipse from 'Laramie's bridge wing. A half-dozen Shipmates joined me to watch Earth's shadow obscure about a quarter of our satellite's disk. Here in the Red Sea it was easy to see the penumbra creep across Luna's surface; all the dust in the atmosphere here acts as a natural filter, enhancing the changes in brightness and tone.
Red Sea Eclipse...
I'm going to miss the August 21 Solar Eclipse that so many folks Stateside are preparing for; I suppose that the experience of observing the Moon's darkening limb could be considered a consolation prize.

I guess I can accept that.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

On Turning From Darkness...

Three days after having my hopes and dreams crushed I'm still trying to deal with the fact that I won't be able to get home for the August 21 Total Solar Eclipse.  On that date, when millions of my fellow amateur astronomers are experiencing Totality within that narrow line of darkness stretching from the Pacific Northwest to coastal South Carolina, I'll be aboard the Tanker in mid-ocean, thousands of miles away.

I had it all planned.  Gathering friends and family at a lovely B&B near Georgetown, S.C., arriving early to avoid the traffic jams that are sure to ensue as last-minute travelers rush toward that twilight zone.  I made the reservations over two years back, began planning nearly a decade ago for this combination reunion and star party.  I've waited forty years for those few minutes of Totality...and it would all have been worth it to have been there, with Lucy, Cynthia, Tara and Alexis, Carla and Larry, Zora, Peter and maybe even Lilian and Alex, watching the moon slowly block out our view of the photosphere.

Well worth it.

Now, my heart aches in my chest, my gut roils as I read again the email from headquarters;  my leave request has been denied.  The reason given is that there are several Operations Chiefs in the Pool back in Norfolk waiting for assignment; if I want to fly home I'll need to accept relief by one of them.  Essentially, I'll need to sacrifice my position here to make this happen.

But I won't do that--I can't.  If I accept relief I'll enjoy the eclipse but after reporting off-leave I'll be at the mercy of the Pool itself. And there I will sit, waiting for a ship...long months of purgatory as I abide until some other Ops Chief decides to go home (and don't forget that I would be waiting at the end of the line with who-knows-how-many before me?).  The last time I left a ship for personal reasons I spent over a year there on reduced pay while Lucy and I watched our savings suffer slow hemorrhage and struggled to make ends meet.

I can't put my family through that again.  I can't justify such a selfish and irresponsible act.

So I stay aboard the Tanker as she cruises distant waters while Luna's shadow blankets the South Carolina coast.  I'll watch the once-in-a-lifetime event that I've dreamed of for most of my life on CNN or perhaps Fox.  I'll wish all my astronomical friends "clear skies" and honestly hope for success in their observations. I'll encourage shipmates to make sure their family members back home prepare to safely observe the coming of shadows.

Oh, and I'll die a little inside.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Observing the Shining Moon

We recently had a distinguished guest here in the Arabian Sea.  The Japanese destroyer Teruzuki, one of the thriving international community of warships that patrol these waters, came alongside for fuel and an exchange of friendly greetings. As is always the case when we have customers from other nations' navies on the approach for replenishment, curiosity ran high about the new neighbors come to call!
Teruzuki's helicopter photographs the proceedings
Teruzuki means "Shining Moon", a name which I can certainly appreciate. She is quite the impressive warship, with what this sailor judges to be a well-balanced mix of offensive and defensive weapons systems and sensors.  Even more importantly, she appears to have a capable, professional crew who leaped into the task of refueling their vessel without misplaced step or wasted movement.
Taking fuel
As I've mentioned on occasion, I've always been fascinated with the ships and Sailors of other navies. It's become clear to me over the years that, though we do the same things in the performance of our duties aboard ship and for our respective nations, we all do them differently.
It's been said that variety is the spice of life; I find this very true in the fraternity of Sailors, the worldwide order of Naval ships and people.  After all these years at sea I find myself still drawn to the rail when an unfamiliar mast breaks the line of the horizon--Teruzuki is only the latest of a long, long line of ships with which I have fallen in love over the decades!
...and proceeding on duties assigned.

One of the beautiful photos taken by Teruzuki's helicopter