Sunday, June 28, 2015

Planetary Pavane Part 5: Across the Sky

I hope you've had the opportunity to enjoy the sight of Venus and Jupiter in the evening sky as they've appeared to close the distance between them in recent weeks.  Over the past month the two worlds have dominated the western sky in the hours after dark as the combined motions of Jove, Aphrodite and of course our own planet have brought the two brightest planetary bodies in the Solar System nearly to their closest apparent approach, an event that will happen on the evening of 30 June.

Tonight, though Venus and Jupiter are quite obviously closer together in our western skies than they were when we began watching them a few weeks ago, I want to direct your attention to yet another event--this one involving our own Moon and another of the Gas Giant planets.

Go out this evening and take a few minutes to admire the changing aspect of Venus and Jupiter; take note of their differing brightnesses and the steadily-decreasing apparent distance between them.  And then, look to the south-eastern sky.

There!  Just to the lower-right of the swelling gibbous-phase Moon--a bright spark of golden light.  This is Saturn, the "lord of the rings" and certainly the most beautiful of the Sun's retinue of planets.  Sixth planet from the Sun, over ninety-five times as massive as our Earth and accompanied in her orbit 'round the Sun by the sixty-two natural satellites (moons) so far discovered.

With a small telescope the rings would be clearly visible, plus one or perhaps two of the second-largest planet's moons, just as magnification reveals atmospheric details and four of Jupiter's satellites.  Tonight, however, I am enjoying the dance of the planets as my ancestors did in the days of Aristarchus and Hypatia, Ptolemy and Brahe.  I watch the Wanderers ('Planetes' in the Greek) and wonder at them, charting their movements against the "fixed" background stars and trying to divine their natures from my observations.  Observing the closing gap between Jupiter and Venus, or the slow but perceptible crawl of Luna past the relatively stationary point of light that is Saturn in the evening sky, I feel a kinship with the Ancients, and with the sky itself.

Come watch with me as the worlds move about us.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Frogs @ the VLM

Today Lucy and I visited the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) to see their currently-running exhibit "Frogs: A Chorus of Color" (open until 7 September), and it was quite an eye-opener!  Aside from hundreds of impressive and beautiful hopping creatures in nicely-appointed terrariums (terraria?) and displays detailing their varied life-styles and life-cycles (Did you know that American Bullfrog tadpoles take years to fully mature into adult Lithobates catesbeianusI certainly didn't!), there is a serious side to the exhibit; it turns out that approximately thirty percent of all amphibians worldwide are in serious danger of extinction within your lifetime.  Along with the depletion and pollution of their environments, these creatures are endangered by their collection (for use as pets) and from a deadly fungal infection that is sweeping the globe.

So, if you live in or around Hampton Roads, and if you or your kids are curious about the natural world around us, come by the VLM ( ) and see the frogs, fish, otters, birds and even wolves that live there.

Oh, did I mention that they have a planetarium and observatory?

P.S.  A quick disclaimer: Lucy and I are both heavily-engaged with the VLM; I am a long-time volunteer with the Planetarium crowd and she is actually employed by the Museum.  However, neither of us will profit by this unabashed "plug"--except, perhaps, through the satisfaction of "spreading the word" about a fine community resource!

Planetary Pavane, Part 4; If At First...

I hope you all had the chance to get out and admire the gathering of Luna, Jove and Aphrodite in the western sky yesterday evening.  I was clouded-out here in Newport News; the best I could manage was a ghostly crescent moon seen through the trees at about 2130 local time.  So I missed the show--last night's, anyway--which actually happens fairly often as astronomy is probably the interest/hobby/passion/avocation most likely to be affected by the weather!

There is, of course, tonight.

This evening the show will continue, with Jupiter continuing to close in on Venus and the Moon moving eastward past Regulus.  Remember, this conjunction (actually a series of them) is taking place over a period of weeks; each night will bring a different display to our eyes.

So keep watching; the best is yet to come!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Planetary Pavane, Part 3; Matter of Perspective

Tonight I would like to direct your attention once again to the celestial show currently in progress in the western sky after sunset.  Again, we are observing the motions of Venus and Jupiter as they march toward conjunction at month's end; if you've been periodically checking you'll know the apparent distance between them is steadily decreasing from night to night.  This evening a new partner joins the dance, if only temporarily.

Once again, go outside about an hour after sunset and find a spot with a good view of the western sky.  You'll see brilliant Venus and somewhat dimmer Jupiter--now only six degrees apart from the point-of-view of terrestrial observers--and five degrees to the south-west of Jupiter lies the four-day-old crescent Moon, forming a lovely triangle in the gathering darkness.

While you admire the view, take a moment to consider its "depth of field".  In the foreground of the tableau lies our own Moon, practically next-door at nearly four hundred thousand kilometers' range, in the middle distance blazes the beacon of Venus at over eighty-nine million km, with Jupiter the most distant at almost nine hundred million km.

Put another way, the King of the Planets is ten times as far away from Earth as Venus, and over twenty-two hundred times as distant as our own Moon.

As Douglas Adams wrote, space is big.  Really big. Right now you are gazing at a yardstick of worlds marking off a distance of nearly a billion kilometers from where you stand!

(Oh, just to cement your feelings of cosmic insignificance, that spark of bluish light to the upper left of Jupiter is Regulus, brightest star of the constellation Leo; its distance has been determined to be seventy-nine light-years...roughly seven hundred and sixty trillion kilometers!)

Please, enjoy the show tonight--as usual I welcome your observations and feedback.

Courtesy NASA

Friday, June 12, 2015

Under Command

Every ship is different.  Even vessels of a familiar class or type may reveal surprising dissimilarities when viewed up-close by the discerning observer.  I’ve had this fact confirmed again and again during my career afloat; each new tanker, ammo carrier or refrigerated cargo ship is a new experience for me—often a learning experience as I find myself adapting to equipment and techniques I’d never had to master before.
But the physical differences between ships are the lesser challenge of reporting to a new command.  Of far greater importance to me as a seaman approaches a new assignment is the matrix of people and personalities he or she will find aboard, and the place the individual will find within that mix.  In essence, transferring from one seaborne command to another is like beginning a new job—but Mariners go through this experience many, many times during a career.
As will I--in just a few days.  I’ve received new orders, suddenly shifting me from tanker John Lenthall to the refrigerated cargo vessel Medgar Evers.  I’ll be flying out of Athens this weekend en route my new ship to relieve a fellow Operations Chief aboard that ship. 
I’m experiencing mixed feelings about this transfer; for the past few months Lenthall has been my home, and the ninety souls within her my family.  I’ve formed bonds of friendship with some of these people, and hardly know the names of others; still they are Shipmates, figuratively and literally in the same boat.  I’ve come to admire Captain Lytle, and enjoyed working and relaxing with the ship’s officers and chiefs; I’d planned to stay with the ship for considerably longer.  But now I must leave them all for an uncertain future.
And there is anticipation, excitement as well.  I find myself wondering about a new Captain, a new crew and how I will fit within that company.  Even as I bid a fond farewell to the good ship Lenthall and the fine men and women who sail her, I can’t help looking away; a new ship, new crew, new horizons await.
I must heed their call.
Today’s Photo: USNS Robert E. Peary (on the right), commences resupply of the Amphibious carrier USS Makin Island by helicopter-borne Vertical Replenishment (VERTREP).

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The View From The Bridge

I've just come down from the bridge, where I and the members of the eve-watch have been admiring the view of Venus and Jupiter.  It's a partly-cloudy night, and the thirty-five knot wind is kicking some spray from the crests of the waves; this wind also drives the clouds toward us out of the west, giving the illusion of much greater speed across the water. 

The overall effect is impressive; our two brightest planets blaze in the gaps between clouds, then are snuffed-out as the edges of the occulting cumulostratus formations drive across them.  Venus and Jupiter, the major players, seem to fly across the sky, accompanied by 1st-Magnitude Regulus in line with them to the southeast and the equally bright "twins" of Castor and Pollux to the northwest. 

Just beautiful!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Planetary Pavane, Part 2 "Watch the Skies..."

Tonight I’d like to ask you to step outside.  Wait until an hour or so after sunset, then find a location with a good, clear western exposure.  Turn in that direction, toward the point where the sun disappeared behind the trees or neighboring houses.

Then, just look up.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that something brilliant and beautiful is there in the twilight sky; you’ll know it when you see it.  The eye cannot help but be drawn to the white flare that is the planet Venus; it’s the showiest object in this evening’s spring sky.  Often mistaken by observers as aircraft landing lights, or even unidentified flying objects, Venus is only out-shown by only two other objects; the sun and moon, and it’s easy to understand why the ancients associated this world with the Goddess of Love.  Just as Mars and Mercury are referred to with the male pronoun, so Venus is always spoken of in the feminine, reflecting her beauty and mystery.

Tonight she isn’t alone in the heavens.  Only a dozen degrees to her upper left lies giant Jupiter, a bright object in his own right but in this case vastly overshadowed by Venus’ brilliance.  If Jupiter were not in such apparent close proximity to Venus it would the dominant “star” in this part of the sky, but in this case the largest planet in the solar system plays a lesser role in the drama to be performed in coming weeks…

You see, Venus and Jupiter are on a collision course.  Not really, of course; Venus is an “inferior” planet (its orbit lies inside that of Earth’s path around the sun) and Jupiter a “superior” one (for the opposite reason), their paths are certainly not destined to meet.  However, due the combined motions of these two worlds—and of Earth--this month dazzling Venus and giant Jupiter will appear to be hurtling toward each other in the evening sky, growing closer each night until at last in the final days of June they’ll pass within a fraction of a degree of each other in the sky, a blazing double “star” in the twilight.

This will be a Conjunction; “the apparent meeting or passing of two or more celestial bodies in the same degree of the zodiac” according to my dictionary, and if you have read my previous posting you’ll know that this is one of my very favorite celestial events; the opportunity to actually experience the motions of worlds as they slowly but perceptively draw together over days, finally rushing together and seeming to touch before moving on.  This is the event I hope you’ll join me for, over the next three and a half weeks.

No special equipment is required to enjoy this astronomical event in its fullest.  All you need are a few minutes each clear evening for the rest of this month (and perhaps the first week or so of July if you so desire) and a fairly open western horizon—plus the desire to experience the heavens as our ancestors did over the many millennia that passed before the electric light, television and internet joined forces to steal the beauty of the night sky from us. 

So take an evening constitutional, or sit out in lawn chairs with a cool drink.  Enjoy the view with friends and family. Who knows?--A few weeks of star-gazing might change your evening plans in the longer term as well.  You might even find the sight of worlds in motion to be quite addictive.

I know I do.

P.S.  Let me know what you see—and feel—as you enjoy this event.  I welcome any comments and observing reports either via email or on my Blog:    

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Planetary Pavane, Part I

I think that the most profound, emotionally powerful moments of my 45-year love affair with the sky have been those when the world seemed to move beneath my feet.  And not just this world we call Earth, but others as well.  Moons, planets and asteroids have all invoked at times a feeling of awe verging on what I can only call spiritual ecstasy.

These sensations come when I am observing those astronomical phenomena known as eclipses, occultations, transits and close conjunctions; those brief events where I can actually see the relative motions of our planet and those bodies as they pursue their orbits.

When the image of a star or planet seems to draw ever closer to the dark limb of the moon, or the shadow of one of Jupiter’s satellites appears to be chasing its source across Jove’s cloud-tops.  When sunspots disappear one-by-one behind the ink-black bulk of the moon; when all of these events and more take place I find myself actually viewing with mine own eyes the combined motions of worlds!

My imagination soars at these times.  I am transported into a wholly Newtonian universe where the heavens move to clockwork precision in accordance with Sir Isaac’s Laws; where planets and moons, planetoids and comets, sun and stars dance with the Orrery’s precision.  A mechanical model made vast by my racing thoughts.

I feel the rumbling of huge, perfect gearing, hear the huff of steam, smell the whiff of lubricating oil.

And then the moment is gone, and I feel a brief sorrow at its passing.  My universe returns to what I usually perceive it to be; vastly un-knowable and apparently contradictory at the macro- and quantum-levels.  It is wonderful and fascinating and I have seen but little of what I wish to of its majesty, but also a little more cold and a shade less comforting.

You might be able to understand now why I chase eclipses, travel to observe occultations and eagerly await conjunctions of the moon and planets.  Precious are those seconds of totality when we recollect the ancient terror of darkness in the full of day, precious the instant when a bright star or planet vanishes behind our natural satellite and then, minutes later, bursts from concealment as the moon moves onward in its orbit; precious the sight of planets, separated by hundreds of millions of kilometers of space, seeming to pass within a finger’s breadth of each other in the twilit sky.

I wish more than anything to sense the movements of worlds.

My astronomical heart seems to dwell in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when a major goal of this particular branch of Natural Philosophy was to quantify the characteristics of the planets; their distances, sizes and movements.  Popular during this era was a form of dance known as the pavane; a slow, stately court processional in which couples would come together and then turn away to face others.

I’d like to invite you, during the next few weeks, to observe a dance of a different sort with me.  We’ll watch, night by night, as worlds similar to and vastly unlike our own move steadily together in our evening sky.  As the pavane comes to its climax, I’ll try to share both the scientific and personal perspectives as I perceive them.

My goal in this exercise?  I want you to feel the worlds move beneath your feet.

Shall we dance?