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?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lunation 195: The 9-Day-Old Moon

I have long been fascinated by our Moon; beginning I think when as an eight-year-old I marveled at NASA's feat of placing a spacecraft and crew of two on the regolith of the Sea of Tranquility. I remember standing on the porch of our white brick house in Newport News, gazing up at the thick crescent hanging low in the southern sky and absorbing the idea that my view included Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin preparing to leave the LEM Eagle for that first excursion onto the lunar surface and Michael Collins, orbiting in CSM Columbia.

Suddenly, for me and for the entire world, the Moon was a place, a world of it's own.  But that was not the only metamorphosis taking place. The successful mission of Apollo Eleven changed us, made us not only citizens of a particular country or even of the Earth; we became a true space-faring civilization with the speaking of the words "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".

The paradigm of humanity had shifted.

Last night I began a new project; my intention is to photograph an entire cycle of our Moon's phases--through Full and round again to early waxing Gibbous phase as it stands now--as completely as I can, making allowances for inclement weather.  The photo above is the first of the series, taken with my Canon SX50 digital camera using manual settings, and mounted on a basic photo tripod.  With this modest photographic set-up I hope to present the full lunar "month", or Lunation, and take you on a guided tour of my favorite parts of our natural satellite.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thinking About "The Martian", Part II: The Film

WARNING! This post contains spoilers regarding the science-fiction film "The Martian", starring Matt Damon.  If you haven't seen the movie yet, beware! 

Lucy and I went to see the movie last week, and in my spare time I've been mulling over a Blog entry on the subject of films based upon beloved books. Short answer: both of us were very disappointed in the 2-D version we saw, primarily on the points of location, changes from the book and tension (or lack thereof) in the storyline.

So here are the pros and cons...

On the plus side, we both thought Damon nailed the role of Mark Watney.  Very enjoyable performance, capturing the character's sense of humor and resourcefulness very nicely. His tantrum in the rover was perfect!
On the minus side (yes, we are there already!) there were some major problems with the production...

1) Locations: the movie was made in the amazing Wadi Rum preserve of Jordan, which appears to be the hands-down favorite for Martian film-making; "Mission to Mars" (2000), "Red Planet" (2000) and "The Last Days on Mars" (2013) were all filmed there. In fact, if you watch "Red Planet" and "Last Days..." you can see the exact same craggy, red-rock mountains in the background as in "The Martian".

The problem is that the other films were not overly specific as to WHERE on Mars their stories were taking place, whilst "The Martian" is. Ares 3's HAB is located in Acidalia Planitia, a huge plain in the Martian northern hemisphere. There are no mountain ranges, red or otherwise, in Acidalia Planitia; it is literally horizon-to-horizon low hills and VERY dry ancient stream beds with a sprinkling of impact craters. Wadi Rum just doesn't work as a setting, especially as the film labels the site as Acidalia Planitia.

2) Changes from the book. I should know better than to expect a film's writers and director to follow the plot-line of the book, I really should!  Still, one can dream...

a. I thought it funny that 'Venkat Kapoor' became 'Vincent Kapoor'. What, Bollywood was busy that week?

b. The traverse from Acidalia Planitia to Schiaparelli crater is reduced from a dangerous 50-day+ trek through challenging Martian terrain (during which Watney, in the book, has to deal with an enormous dust-storm and having his rover tumble end-over-end down a slope of the crater) into an empty, dull, long drive. The biggest threat to safety and life looks to be the potential of our hero's running out of 1970s TV to watch.

In fact, after the airlock explosion incident (which the film minimizes in danger, leaving Watney with a partially intact faceplate to duct-tape) there is simply no existential threat to be found in the remainder of the film leading up to the actual rescue (more on that below). No threat, no tension. Nap time.

Hermes' making a pit-stop
c. Yes, it was cool to hear Bowie singing "Starman" during the Hermes resupply rendezvous. But isn't that supposed to be one of the most tense parts of the book AND the film? Hermes is ripping past Earth at horrific speed, and if they don't do this resupply right then EVERYBODY will die; the crew and Watney as well. The scene is played like a routine pit-stop, and one of the last opportunities for dramatic tension slides by as we all rock on.

d. The single biggest change in the story (aside from increasing the interior size of the HAB and decreasing that of the rover) lies in the second half; the rescue scene. The entire climax of the film was altered so that Commander Lewis could lose all credibility as a professional military officer and astronaut by show-boating
the rescue, ditching her own plan and almost literally pushing the astronaut designated the rescue man out of the way to assuage her guilt for leaving Watney behind. Right...

If you haven't read my blog post on Weir's book I'd recommend you go there and read my criticisms about the similarities between the book "The Martian" and the film "Red Planet"; at this point I'll just add that the altered final act of the movie "The Martian" makes it even MORE a clone of the 2000 Val Kilmer/Carrie Anne Moss picture. In fact, the climactic rescue scenes are virtually identical now!

e. Compounding that silliness was the ridiculous "puncture the glove" action by Damon's character; I guess that those space suits have very large reserves of breathing air in addition to internal gyroscopes to stabilize Watney's flight. In any case, I think he's gonna lose that hand.

And, finally, the scene that made me turn to Lucy and whisper "WTF?"... the shaving scene. Watney has finished remodeling the MAV for the flight to intercept Hermes, written a note for future visitors to the site and buttoned-up the rover. Time to go--but first let's knock that face-fungus off. We next see him standing in front of a mirror, carefully cleaning up his phiz.

For mining-rights on Phobos and a free, all-expense-paid trip to Ganymede (paid for by someone else, I suppose...), WHERE was he shaving?!? He'd already ruined the MAV's atmospheric integrity (assuming it had ever had any) by ripping it apart, the rover's interior space was about the size of a large phone booth (and he'd already closed it up, remember?), and the nearest HAB was 3200 km away back in Acidalia Planitia.

So where was he?

Okay, vitriol expended! Obviously the many flaws in the film kept me from enjoying it very much. Lucy agrees; she gives "The Martian" a 4 out of 10. I actually gave it a 3. 


Saturday, October 17, 2015


Lucy and I enjoyed the Jupiter/Mars conjunction this morning from a park near our home. I took a few photos of which this is the best. I'm just starting-out with this astro-photography thing but having a lot of fun learning the basics!

Venus is the bright one to the upper right and Mars the dimmer one to the left of Jupiter.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Four Planets...Together

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's pre-dawn conjunction of Jupiter and Mars, and I encourage you to get out there while it's still dark to take a gander at this event.  No need for telescopes or other fancy equipment; the naked eye will do fine--though if you have a pair of binoculars then certainly, bring them along! Venus will be the most brilliant "star", followed in brightness by Jupiter, Mercury, and Mars (does the Red Planet look red to you?).

One detail that the above diagram leaves out is that the first-magnitude star Regulus (a leonis) will lie almost in-line with the four planets pictured above; it'll be the bright star above Venus.  Mercury will probably be the most challenging of the four (those binocs will come in handy as you search for the inner-most planet in our Solar System); scan the rising twilight on a line through Jupiter and Venus toward the horizon.

I hope you'll make this early-morning effort, and that the weather will be favorable. Be sure to send me an "observing report" of what you see and think of the spectacle!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Quick Post: Saints and Dragons

Lucy and I went to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk yesterday to view an exhibit called "Saints and Dragons". Its subject is Icons and other religious art, and many of the pieces on display were of Russian origin. I'm a big admirer of religious art and architecture--a bit of a contradiction given my Atheist viewpoint, I know. Reason and rationality might (read "probably") have made for a better world than faith and dogma, but we'd be lacking in the products of that faith that surround us. Can you imagine a Notre Dame in a Paris built on Reason and practicality?

The exhibit was stunning; religious icons from all over the world (with an emphasis on Russia and the Balkans), along with the story of how these works of art are created and how they have been used for good and ill over the centuries.  I found the reportage to be rather subjective in nature--with events such as Josef Stalin stopping the Wehrmacht advance on Moscow by placing an icon in an airplane and flying it over the battlefield being classified as obvious "miracles" without taking into account details of the actual history of the defense of Russia's capitol--but the stories of the many saints (and the various literal and metaphorical dragons they are said to have faced) were entertaining and well-told. 
After walking through the exhibit we ate lunch at the Museum's cafe, which is actually a very nice little restaurant, and then explored the Impressionist galleries and a fun exhibit of outre imagery by Chinese  photographer and performance artist Tseng Kwong Chi.  This, of course, was only scratching the surface; like any serious museum of art it would take many afternoon visits to tour all the galleries and experience the wonderful range of human creativity.

So what are you waiting for?  If you aren't actually living in the Hampton Roads area, locate the nearest great art museum and get moving!

Tom and Lucy--Through the Looking Glass!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Quick Post: The Reunion

After five weeks of clouds (alternately accompanied by heavy rain, fog, a nor'easter and, lastly, a hurricane) the skies have cleared; as I left the house I looked up to see the tangled skein of the Pleiades high in the south and Orion hiding in the upper branches of one of our oaks. Toward the east the waning Moon joined Venus to make a beautiful pairing in the first glow of twilight, Luna's crescent framing an oval of Earthshine. The air clear and crisp with Autumn's breath made me shiver momentarily, and the rustle of leaves at my feet seemed to whisper that the stars had missed me just as I'd missed them. The moment passed and I headed for my car and the early morning drive to the base, but I will remember, I think, that glimpse of the heavens and the pleasure of that exchange of greetings between old friends reunited.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Guns, USA

I use firearms in both my personal and professional lives. At work I frequently carry a 9mm pistol or a 12-gauge riot gun. While on leave at home I visit the local range (at which I am a member) and empty a few boxes of 9mm and .380 into paper targets

I enjoy shooting--it's a method of honing my skills for work and blowing off steam at the range. Not to brag, but I'm pretty good. What's more, I'm safe.  I know how to handle and control a pistol, shotgun or rifle. I respect the weapon in my hands.

Please note: I do NOT own a firearm, and will not allow one into my home. As a 25-year veteran I have seen what bullets do to the human body and to the psyche of the victim, and do not plan to contribute to the flow of stolen weapons on the street should per chance a firearm owned by me be stolen; I refuse to take responsibility for the injuries or deaths it might cause.

I know the gun/anti-gun argument is raging again after the recent tragedy in Oregon, and that both sides are revving up the same old arguments over the "right to bear arms".  Well, here is my position, take it or leave it.

The right to bear arms "as part of a regulated militia" is an antiquated, quaint notion that assumes a threat from within our society or without, and that every able-bodied male in the community would be "on-call" when the need arose to defend said community from attack.  In a rural environment one would have hunting arms as a matter of course, but in villages and towns as well there was a reliance on the ability to call out the armed populace.

This is a fiction today.  The community will not call individual citizens to the defense of the commonweal; this is why we have police forces and armies. There will be no more "midnight rides", folks.  The zombies aren't coming and The Purge has been cancelled. What there will be are continued deaths, either accidental or intentional, because of the existence of firearms in the hands of irresponsible or incompetent owners.

People buy firearms for "home defense" or "personal protection".  In the vast majority of cases this is fiction, an excuse.  People buy guns in the main because they are empowering; they make one feel in-control, better able to deal with the world around them.  I know this feeling; I've felt its effect even after decades of handling rifles, shotguns and pistols.  It feels good to heft a long arm or draw a finely crafted pistol from its holster.

Too good.  The sensation of life-and-death power is seductive, even addictive.  And destructive.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thinking About "The Martian"

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Actually, I'd planned to write a few words about "The Martian" after I'd seen the film; my wife Lucy and I are planning to visit our favorite cinema tonight for that reason.  So my comments here are actually about Andy Weir's book rather than the film.  I'll let you know what I think of the cinematic adventures of Mark Watney later after viewing Mr. Scott's film.

I'll be up-front here; I LOVE this book.  LOVE it.  I've been reading science fiction since I was eight-ish, and rarely have I run across such an enjoyable, "hard" space adventure as this.  Since Lucy first insisted that I read "The Martian" (she'd already read it twice by then) I've been a fan of Mr. Weir's taut interplanetary survival story.  From the "F-Bomb" opening line to the final paragraphs it is a fun, smart telling of that age-old tale of "Man Against the Elements".  "The Old Man And The Sea" with a lot less water and no sharks but plenty of danger.
Some have compared "The Martian" to the 2000 film "Cast Away" starring Tom Hanks.  I find this comparison invalid, as Hank's character in that film is as a naked babe dropped into his particular island; he comes into the story with no survival training or skills, and apparently without having read or viewed a single story about survivors having to secure shelter, food, water, etc. He was definitely NOT a Boy Scout.  Watney, on the other hand, is a fully-trained astronaut with knowledge of chemistry, electronics, and--wait for it!--Botany.

Also, Hank's castaway is a victim; Watney trained and labored for years to visit Mars.  Not a victim.

A better comparison for Mr. Weir's book is the late Tom Clancy's novel "The Hunt for Red October".  This 1984 book impressively introduced millions of readers to the intricacies and capabilities of submarines, sonar systems, and the subsea environment, accomplishing the feat not by "dumbing down" the subject matter but through rather brilliant dialogue between characters and some surprisingly apt metaphor. "The Martian" does this as well, as Watney explains to his audience (by dictating a personal log into the computer) what he is doing in his quest to survive and thrive on Mars.

Okay, so I love this book.  Love is good.  Love means never having to say you're sorry. Love also means being honest.  And, being honest, I can say that Mr. Weir's novel leaves me rather flat in a few, rather vital, areas.  (And I am sorry about having to say that!)

Firstly, portions of the plot seem eerily similar to nearly identical scenario/solution points in the film "Red Planet" (2000) starring Val Kilmer and Carrie Anne Moss.  In fact, Watney's resolution of his lack-of- communication-with-Earth trouble is nearly identical to the 'Mars One' team's solution in the 2000 picture, and while reading the final chapters of "The Martian" I could almost hear Moss and Kilmer's voices in place of Weir's Lewis and Watney.
Those final chapters are "way" close to being identical with the closing fifteen minutes of "Red Planet"; without firing off too many spoilers it seems that Kilmer's character Gallagher has to perform nearly the same "surgery" on his escape craft as Watney--the biggest difference being that Gallagher is fending off attacks by a killer robot while he modifies his "lifeboat".

I also got the impression from the final chapters of "The Martian" that Mr. Weir had an appointment that he needed to get to. Things seem a little rushed, there, as the tale draws to a close.  This may have been a device intended to convey the rising tension of the impending escape/rescue, but it seemed to me that there was plenty of drama already evident and that the author was in a bit of a hurry to wrap things up.

So, a few bumps on the road, but overall a fine, fun ride across the rocky plains and dry riverbeds of Mars.

If you haven't read this book, I urge you to pick up a copy of "The Martian" and meet Mark Watney for the
first time.

I envy you that experience.

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