Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Dip In The Pool

Waiting for a ship...
For the past month I've been languishing in the "pool", the informal name for the MSC Customer Service Unit--East. Essentially a union hall, it's where Mariners report and stand by whilst waiting for a ship assignment. We talk (complain!), read, play Scrabble and Settlers of Catan and Risk, and otherwise occupy ourselves as the Detailers work to find US work.

Not a lot of fun, though we try to put the time to good use--one of my Shipmates is completing his Distance Learning course in Mandarin, another works on his book, and I am completing renewal paperwork for Mariner's documents.

There has been talk of a "virtual" pool, where we can stand by at home whilst waiting for assignment, but I doubt that it will come about anytime soon. I'm not counting on seeing it before I retire from the sea.

This is NOT the best part of being a Mariner, but it certainly whets the appetite for the feel of a deck beneath one's boots and spray on one's face; after a few months in this "working" environment I think most of us would accept orders to 'Titanic'!

Monday, December 28, 2015

In The Observatory

The Abbitt Observatory

I spent Saturday morning at the Virginia Living Museum (VLM), where I volunteer on weekends when not actually away at sea.  On these rare but happy occasions I man the dome of the Abbitt Observatory, trying in my way to present the wonders and amazements of the sky to guests of the Museum. I answer questions and do my best to instill in them the same feelings of awe and delight that I feel when I contemplate the heavens.
Really, this is my other job, perhaps even the one where I feel most comfortable and productive.  Beneath the curving roof of the observatory dome I am privileged to be able to communicate with people from both the local area and afar; I can let my enthusiasm and love of astronomy have free rein as I show guests (safely, through filtered telescopes) the roiling photosphere of the sun by day, the rugged surface of our Moon or delicate jewelry of Saturn's rings and satellites by night at the Museum's monthly public Star Parties.

The 16-Inch Meade Telescope

I've been volunteering in the VLM's dome since 2004 but my relationship with the Museum goes back much farther.  I can remember visiting the Peninsula Nature  and Science Center as a young boy in the 1960s; many times walking along the railroad tracks that lead from behind my family's old white-brick house in Hidenwood to the dark, wet culvert under those tracks leading to what to a young man seemed a wonderland of mysteries and discovery. 
The original Museum building, now the Education Center 
The facility was much smaller then; a single building which contained planetarium, observatory, aquarium and gift shop (plus, I suppose, the offices and other infrastructure that supported them--though as a boy I hardly noticed such essentials!). That building still stands today behind the massive edifice that the VLM has grown into over the decades; the lesser structure still supports the planetarium and classrooms under the aegis of the Education Department.

The new building, commissioned in the early 2000s, has allowed the Museum to expand its scope and horizons, though I'm happy to say that growth hasn't gone to the VLM's metaphorical head; our mission remains one of education and outreach.  From the tremendous aquaria representing both coastal and inland environments to the aviary, coastal touch-tank to alligators basking in their shallow ponds, red wolves to otters to sea-turtles, the Museum continues to showcase Virginia's tremendous biological diversity and natural beauty to hundreds of guests a day.
The current Virginia Living Museum
And I'm pretty well thrilled to be a small part of this experience.

But back to Saturday in the Observatory...

The sky was completely overcast--which can make it difficult to use telescopes effectively--so I prepared some "static" displays of the dome's equipment, a demonstration of the Earth-Moon system and computer presentations of current solar activity.  I wasn't expecting a large number of guests as it was the day after Christmas, and so relaxed in the cool, moist morning air as cold "steam" rose from the metal roof of the Museum, enjoying the solitude of the moment.

A "Vee" of geese passed overhead; even as their honking faded into the southern overcast I could hear the sounds of voices from the elevator leading to the Observatory deck.  I straightened my hat and made one last check of the dome's interior; first impressions are so important.  The door opened and a young family--father, mother, and two girls--emerged blinking into the watery light of day; I stepped forward to greet and welcome them to my Universe and to invite them to consider it theirs as well.
After all, it's big enough for all of us to share, isn't it?
What it's all about!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Basking Shark in the North Atlantic

Just some pics of a Basking Shark I saw a while's amazing what you can see whilst standing lookout on a cargo ship! Just one more reason why I love the sea!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Slowly--SO slowly!--recovering from a case of Bronchitis. A course of Antibiotics and inhalers and about three hundred cough-drops later I am beginning to feel human once more, though I suspect the coughing might go on for a while yet.

Lucy has I think been considering moving out--or perhaps having ME move out due the combination of coughing and snoring from my side of the bed. (Odd that I never seem to have trouble with the ZZZZZZZ from HER side!) Perhaps now we can get back to some normalcy...

Of course my star-gazing and photographic pursuits have been on-hold for a while. I'm hoping that things will settle-down enough by Saturday so I can go out into the cold for some deep-sky observing with the Back Bay gang. I'll let you know how that goes!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Lunation 196: The 10-Day-Old Moon

When I observe Luna (with the naked eye and binoculars while at sea, and with telescope on land) I am always struck by how different it can look from hour to hour and day to day.  Not simply the change of phase as the Terminator creeps slowly across the Moon's face, constantly revealing or concealing seas, craters and mountain, but other effects that affect what we can see as we gaze at our natural satellite.

There is the effect of weather.  I have found that profound changes in apparent brightness and hue can occur with only a thin layer of cloud or haze between our eyes and Luna; even greater effects can be observed soon after moonrise (or just before moonset), those times when we stare through the thickest atmospheric "filter".

Then there is the Moon's Libration. This is an effect of the elliptical orbit of the Moon; its shape and tilt relative to Earth result in an apparent wobble which, from our perspective, brings tantalizing glimpses of a small area of that part of Luna that we normally think of as its "far side".  Libration changes what we see of our Moon in subtle ways, but the differences are there.  Check out this terrific video on the subject at...

So the Moon always looks different.  And that's why I find myself drawn to it; why after 45 years spent exploring craters Tycho, Clavius, and Petavius, "moonwalking" Mare Imbrium with optical aid and imagination, and exploring Valles Alpes and the Straight Wall at extremely high powers when the weather allows, I am still captivated by it's light and landscapes.  

After all, the Moon is another world.  The only one which we can explore in detail without the expensive requirement of a space program, and the only one where human beings have walked and wondered at its "magnificent desolation", to quote Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man to walk its surface.

Based upon my own study of our satellite, I tend to think that "Buzz" summed it up perfectly.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Lunation 196: The 9-Day-Old Moon

The Moon, aged 9 Days. We've missed a few images due to overcast and rainy weather here in coastal Virginia, but tonight Luna shone bright in a clear sky as members of the VPAS (Virginia Peninsula Astronomy/ Stargazers) group--and a few members of the Public--met at Grundland Park (Hampton) to enjoy a few hours' observations.

I was particularly fascinated by the sight of craters Copernicus (left of center) and Clavius (far to the south); they've recently emerged from darkness and are nicely accentuated by the sharp shadows cast across their floors. Beautiful!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Lunation 196: The 5-Day-Old Moon

Our binocular tour of Luna continues; at five days "old" the retreating Terminator has now revealed Mare Serenitatis, the Sea of Serenity crowned at its north-eastern border by the walled plain Posidonus (at three o'clock). Slightly further south the Sea of Tranquility is nearly exposed to the long Lunar day.

At the halfway mark of the Terminator we can see a series of remarkable crater and walled plain formations--formed by the impact of asteroids and other solar system debris. Note how the Terminator itself dimples into the darkness just above crater Theophilus--imagine the rugged terrain where dawn would rise many hours ahead of the regular line of daylight!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Lunation 196: The 4-Day-Old Moon

At four days into Lunation 196 we can see still more detail on the face of Luna. At the top of the growing crescent we can see the twin craters of Hercules and Atlas; just above them we see the fairly featureless plain that is the beginning of the Frozen Sea, or Mare Frigoris. South of the twins the small, distinct crater Macrobius stands as the gatekeeper to the large oval of Mare Crisium and irregular edge of the Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis), that basaltic plain where the first human steps were taken back in 1969.

The Southern Highlands are coming into view, a vast jumble of impact (and possibly some volcanic) craters. Along the Terminator at six o'clock we find the odd complex of craters Brenner, Fabricius and Metius, and following the line of daylight another pair of twin craters, Rosenberger and Vlacq.

Finally, far to the south (seven o'clock) we can see that broken effect caused by crater walls' shadows creating pools of darkness; the floors of some craters at the Moon's poles never see sunlight, and might someday be a source of water ice for future Lunar explorers and even colonizers!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lunation 196: The 3-Day-Old Moon

Observing the 3-day-old Moon at the James River Crab Shack. Luna continues to slowly unveil details as the Terminator moves across its disk. Tonight we see revealed all of Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises) and part of Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fertility).

Whilst "on station" I tried my hand at time-exposures, using my observing partner Larry E Hastings as foreground subject as cars cruised past on and off of the nearby James River Bridge. The results were pretty encouraging for me (I'll try further imagery of this type in the near-future!) and I think Larry's wife Carla Burroughs will enjoy as well.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Lunation 196: The 2-Day-Old Moon

The "old moon in the young moon's arms"; a 2-day-old Moon hangs above the western horizon. Already we are able to see some details along the sun-lit edge; the Sea of Crises (Mare Crisium) can be seen at "three-thirty" while further down the curve of the crescent we can make out craters Langrenus, Vendelinus, Petavius, Hase and Furnerius. Far down the bright limb its line is broken--this is the result of mountains and crater walls blocking the Suns sharply-angled light--casting long shadows that we can see from a quarter-million-miles away!

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the slender crescent Moon at this time in its lunation is "Earthshine"--sunlight reflecting from Earth--dimly illuminating that face of the Moon which still languishes in night. We can see all of the major "seas" and a suggestion of the cratered "highlands", but it seems more a rough sketch than clear image. Imagine the sight (still unseen by any human) of a cratered moon-scape lit only by the light of distant Earth!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Lunation 196: The 1-Day-Old Moon

The Thinnest Possible Crescent Moon?
Good friend Larry H. joined me at the Crab Shack to greet the kind'a Young Moon--only 1 day and 4.5 hours "old"--as it set about an hour after the Sun. Beautiful, mostly-clear evening (some clouds 'round the horizon), and quite warm for mid-November. This is the beginning of Lunation 196, and I'm looking forward (when weather allows) to recording the advancing phases of Luna as we head once more toward Full.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Beyond Belief?

I had another one of THOSE conversations earlier. You know the kind; what begins as an honest, enjoyable discussion of personally held beliefs suddenly escalates into a one-sided shouting match (for the record, I was on the receiving end of the abuse, a situation I do not enjoy). The subject of the diatribe: My Atheism. No, not Atheism in general or in principle but My Own particular case, which I soon discovered was seen as a personal affront to the sensibilities of the Person On The Other Side of the discussion-turned drama session.
What was the big deal? Well, it seems that this person was of the opinion that Atheists deny the existence of a deity, and that my statement of my personal non-belief was an attack on this individual's OWN belief in whichever of the many versions of deity he/she places on a pedestal.
This person was quick on the attack: didn't I know that SCIENCE had proved the existence of a Grand Designer? Wasn't I aware of the vast quantity of historical evidence for a planetary flash-flood that wiped out all but a handful of people? Hadn't I heard the Good News?
Well, yes. I have heard all of the above. I've seen YouTube videos galore that decry "Darwinism" and extol the Design built into our DNA and the very ground we walk upon (including the dinosaur bones buried to "test" faith). And I have read the books as well; Old and New, Psalms and Suras and Revelatory texts all around. I've been in hundreds of THESE conversations as well; sometimes the exchange of views and ideas is frank and informative, often educational. Sometimes, not so much.
I remain unconvinced. I just can't believe in creators and angels and devils, any more than I can force myself to believe in unicorns and dragons or the power of diluted water to carry the essence of healing tinctures or that the positions of the planets along the ecliptic at the time of my birth dictate my future and personality.

It just doesn't make sense to me. Fanciful and arbitary, like many of the Commandments and edicts and Bulls that seek to relay the supposed intent of a god or gods; it all seems of a piece with mythologies and tales of Zeus or Ra or Tiamat.

Yes, I am an Atheist. And so are you. Unless you believe whole-heartedly in ALL gods and demons then you must be Atheistic regarding Poseidon and Apollo, Hera or Ares--or perhaps even Santa Claus!

Atheism, you see, is not a belief per se; instead it is a lack of belief. It's a personal thing, just as your own beliefs are personal to you; it means that I don't believe in God or Gods in general. It most certainly does NOT mean that God or Gods do not exist.

I'm not here to challenge your world-view or to "convert" you, and most other Atheists aren't, either. Most of us respect your right to believe what you wish. But by the same coin, I and many of my fellow non-believers would appreciate it if you would respect OUR rights as well.

If you want to have friendly exchange of views, then I welcome you. If you simply MUST try to save a soul* today, talk to someone else, please.

*I don't believe in those, either...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Lunation 195: The 22-Day-Old Moon

The Moon at 22 Days of "Age"
Seen through a fine layer of high-altitude cirrus cloud the 22-Day-Old Moon (a day past Last Quarter) is rather dim compared with only a few mornings ago. This thick crescent reflects toward us only a small fraction of the sunlight striking it's surface. In practical terms this means that I need a longer exposure to capture an image; historically this period of a Lunation is when Luna is most often ignored by casual night-time observers.

At this point the portion of Luna's face that we see is covered almost entirely by dark Maria ("Seas"), making it even less reflective--and, apparently, more drab than the First Quarter Moon, still nearly two weeks away. But there ARE impressive sights to be found here with binoculars or a small telescope.
Once again I include a basic lunar map; what craters and "seas" can YOU identify as you moonwalk with your eyes?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lunation 195: The 21-Day-Old Moon

A cool morning after the rains; the grass and fallen leaves are still damp and as dawn approaches I can make out Luna through the racing clouds. It will be mid-morning before the skies clear sufficiently to try imaging the Last Quarter (21-day-old) Moon, and I'll not be viewing the ongoing dance of Venus, Mars and Jupiter today due the solid overcast to the east.

The forecast for tonight, however, is looking very nice!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Lunation 195: The 18-Day-Old Moon

A beautiful, clear morning! Venus, Jupiter and Mars continue their dance in the east before dawn (if you haven't checked it out recently--or at all--then I strongly recommend you take your first cuppa out to the garden tomorrow!) and the waning Gibbous Moon lies between the brow of Orion and the feet of Gemini. Outstanding!

Luna at 18-days-old is clearly more dim than at the glorious 14-day point, but also more resolved; details that were lost in the glare of the Full Moon are emerging as the changing angle of sunlight on the Lunar surface creates deep shadows to accentuate craters and mountains. This trend will continue, becoming most obvious around Last Quarter phase (3rd Nov.), then decreasing as our Moon approaches New.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Lunation 195: The 17-Day-Old Moon

I awoke this morning to an overcast sky; Luna was a slightly brighter spot in the clouds. Going about my morning routine (first and second cup of tea, booting-up laptop to check mail and FB--NPR on the radio) I suddenly noticed that the sky was clearing! Rushed out with camera and tripod, set up on the back porch, and barely had time to catch our Moon before she vanished behind the neighbor's trees!

Today Luna is 17 days "old"; that is, 17 days into Lunation 195. Keep watching in the morning hours as she shrinks from her current Gibbous phase, through Last Quarter and waning Crescent to New--and the beginning of Lunation 196! If you aren't an early riser, then keep your eye on this space--weather permitting , I'll be out there in the dark...just shooting the Moon.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lunation 195: The 16-Day-Old Moon

Lucy woke me early this morning with a touch on the shoulder and a whispered invitation to come outside and enjoy the Moonlight. How could I refuse?! (I love it--and her--when she does that...)

This is the 16-Day-Old Moon, a waning Gibbous disk just two days after the glory of the Full phase. We missed that aspect of Luna's cycle due to a spell of wet weather but now skies are clearing to reveal a Lunar face past it's prime, steadily decreasing in brilliance and illuminated surface as it declines toward New phase.

But stay tuned as this show is far from over!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lunation 195: The 14-Day-Old Moon

Total Lunar Eclipse 15-16 June 2011
Once again, faced with heavy overcast and light showers curtailing my photographic efforts, I turn to my photo album for a suitable image.  This time, to represent last night's (invisible) 14-day-old satellite I present the Full Moon from June 15, 2011--and as a bonus feature a Total Lunar Eclipse as viewed from the Indian Ocean!

I managed to gather many of USNS Arctic's crew on the flight deck that breezy, choppy evening off the coast of Somalia; I'd been distributing information about the upcoming event for several days via email and posters in the crew lounges and other common areas (this is what I do).  I was gratified by the turn-out, and by the spectacular show that Luna put on that night!

I was using a pocket digital camera (a Sony I believe) at that time, and many of the photos I took that evening (over 350 shots!) were under-exposed or out-of-focus, but I'm happy to post this montage of the best images of that night when Luna slipped into Earth's shadow for a short time, putting on a show for the fortunate Mariners aboard a ship that just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Lunation 195: The 13-Day-Old Moon

Okay, full disclosure here!  The photo above was not taken last night as planned--it is a shot I took back in May from the deck of USNS John Lenthall in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.  The weather last night was
terrible for photography--overcast with some light rain--and so I am displaying this image as a filler.

But what a filler!  Keep in mind that I took this with a hand-held camera using manual aperture and exposure settings, from the deck of a ship that was underway in the Med.  I'm quite proud of this one--it's pretty sharp even though it was taken aboard a lightly pitching and rolling ship--and it was this result that has spurred me toward more ambitious photographic projects like "Lunation 195" and others I have in the works.

So no, this isn't technically part of my Lunation series, but it fits into the sequence of images well, and it was my inspiration for further astro-photographic endeavors, and as such I include it today.  The weather forecast continues to look gloomy for tonight, so Day 14 in the Lunation series might well be another "filler" from the imagery files.

We shall see...

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lunation 195: The 12-Day-Old Moon

Today's Moon is seen through a hazy high cloud layer, the precursor to a predicted front due to arrive later in the night.  The cloud-cover does little to filter the reflected sunlight from our satellite; the sky is milky-white from horizon to horizon and the stars have gone into hiding--those few that weren't already suppressed by Luna's glare. 

I've had to stop-down my lens and adjust the exposure to record the brilliant face of our companion world; as we are now two days from the Full Moon you can be certain that further adjustments will be required over the next few nights!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Lunation 195: The 11-Day-Old Moon

My photographic project continues as I "shoot the Moon" every night at approximately the same time (Midnight, Universal Time), posting my best results the next morning. Today we are three days into our month (or "Moonth", if you prefer) of Lunacy, and Luna is 11 days "old", or 11 days past it's New phase.

So, what is a "Lunation"?  A Lunation, or Synodic Month, is the amount of time it takes for the Moon to travel in it's path from one New Moon to the next.  Due to the inclination of our satellite's orbit relative to Earth, that orbit's elliptical shape, and the effect on the Sun's gravity upon the Moon's motions, this is not a fixed value; it can vary from 29.26 to 29.80 days, with an average time of 29.53 days.

Because the Synodic Month varies in duration as compared with our Gregorian calendar, the dates of phases (Full, Quarter, New) also vary from calendrical month to month.  One result of this is that we aren't able to simply look up at the Full Moon and determine the date, as in "Well, there's the First Quarter Moon, so it must be the 14th".

Along with the latest result of my photographic effort I am including a fairly basic lunar map; go outside tonight and see how many features you can identify on the Moon's surface with your unaided eyes, and then with a pair of binoculars.  If it is cloudy this evening (as I expect it will be, here in coastal Virginia), then compare the map with my photos to date; how many Maria ("seas") and craters can you find?