Thursday, November 24, 2016

Ships Of Piraeus

HS Giorgios Averof

The Greek cruiser 'Giorgios Averof' and destroyer 'Velos' made for a terrific start to our afternoon in Piraeus! 'Averof' is a veteran of the Balkan Wars of the early 1900s, WWI and WWII, while 'Velos' is a former USN destroyer of the 'Fletcher' class. Both of these classic ships are beautifully preserved (inside and out) and presented. there is a LOT of love here.
HS Velos

Moored alongside 'Velos' lies 'Olympias', a reproduction of an ancient Greek Trireme of the type that fought the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis. (I would love to see her underway in the hands of professional oarsmen!)
An ancient Ship...and a modern Sailor!

Our final maritime specimen of the day is the steamship 'Hellas Liberty', one of only three remaining "Liberty" ships of WWII. Visiting her was a bit of a shock for me--she was in SUCH pristine condition inside and out that it was a bit difficult to believe she first kissed water over seventy years ago!
Steamship 'Hellas Liberty'
Okay, this veteran ship-spotter is pretty blown-away by all of the maritime history in evidence here in Piraeus! So much to see and do...and so very little time.

A few more photos of 'Hellas Liberty'...

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Peristeri Nights

Athens, Day Five. Another day/night, another star party! This, the latest in a series of stargazing event in and around Athens, is part of a collaboration between National Geographic and the local astronomical scene (both Pro & Am) to generate interest in NatGeo's new production "Mars".

My great fortune is in 'Grumman's visit to Athens on the very week that this massive Outreach effort is happening--and that the good folks at the National Observatory Visitor Centre in Thissio not only kept me informed about the upcoming series of star parties but allowed me to join-in and actually participate in the events!

Now THIS is what I call a great port-visit...

Only one photo for this one--I was much too busy running the Astroscan and giving the good people of Peristeri (where last night's event was held) a peek at double star Albireo and the Pleiades, or "seven sisters", to manage more than a cursory photographic effort. Other scopes at the party concentrated on close-up views of Mars and double stars; I played to the Astroscan's strengths; wide field and low-power to present a fine view of M45.

Tonight; one last engagement in the star party marathon, on a hill to the south of Piraeus. Tomorrow morning it's back to work!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Stars Over Athens

Athens, Day Four. In the afternoon I rode the ship's bus into town and enjoyed a leisurely walk 'round and about. I WAS going to visit the "Olympeon" where the Temple of Zeus is located, but arrived at its gates just in time to have them closed in my face. (Note to the Athenian Tourist Department: Love your city but if you would, make an effort to standardize the opening/closing times of your glamour spots. Please & thank you!)

As evening came around I made my way to the National Gardens, specifically the rather imposing central edifice called the Zappeion. Arrived there just in time for sunset and the beginning of a star party sponsored by National Geographic to promote their new docudrama "Mars".

Appropriately, Mars was visible in the south--I believe it is in Capricornus these days--and telescopic attention was divided initially between the Red Planet and Venus. As I had no telescope with me on this expedition I concentrated on photography, and considering the lighting situation (the NatGeo folks had set up multi-coloured searchlights in addition to the normal lighting of a major building--good thing we weren't hunting galaxies!) I think they turned out pretty well...once I'd converted them to black & white!

I think the entire star party was an enormous success...several hundred members-of-the-public showed to enjoy both the telescopic views of our planetary neighbors and "Mars" Virtual-Reality trips courtesy of NatGeo. A good time, as they say, was had by all!

Tomorrow night: another NatGeo star party across town from here; I've been invited by the administrators (and my friends from Thissio observatory) to bring the Astroscan along and join the fun. Naturally I intend to go--if weather remains clear I'd love to be a part of this!

Of course, there's a language barrier here; I'd better learn the Greek for "Coathangar", "Pleiades", and "please don't knock over my telescope" before tomorrow night!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Meeting The Antikythera Mechanism

The three major fragments--there are many smaller ones!

The Antikythera Mechanism! For much of my life this particular archaeological find from ancient Greece has been a "bucket list" item for me. If you don't know about this amazing bronze-age analog computer, I recommend you look it up--and prepare to have your mind blown!

Shipmate Jeremy Guyet and I went to the National Archaeological Museum for the specific purposes of making the acquaintance of the Mechanism; we wandered the galleries for nearly two hours, exploring the various periods of Greek, Roman and Archaic artistic expression--mostly through sculpture. 

As we explored my mind buzzed constantly with the refrain of "where is it?". I actually had begun to wonder if perhaps the Mechanism were in an entirely DIFFERENT museum, or perhaps on-loan somewhere else (an ultimate irony would be that the Mechanism would be on-display in New York or D.C.).

Finally, unable to resist, I questioned a Docent as to the Antikythera Mechanism's location--and she told me that the gallery containing it was closed.

Not. Good.

Fortunately, a tiny part of my mind actually believes that the Universe DOES revolve around me and my desires, so as we were about to leave the Museum I just HAD to ask another staff member about seeing the Mechanism; this time the Cosmos smiled upon me as a few minutes later Jeremy and I were being escorted by a curator into the Presence of the Device itself.

And there I was, just inches from the dazzling discovery, made by fishermen diving on a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera in 1901, that has kept many archaeologists (and mathematicians, astronomers, and computer scientists) scratching their heads for a century. Only in recent decades, as technologies have developed that can scan through the sea-growth encasing the gears and dials, have the complexity and elegance of its design been determined.
The three large fragments from their reverse side

Built perhaps 2,200 years ago by an unknown craftsman; a computing machine capable of calculating eclipses of the sun and moon with insane precision and accuracy, it appears to be a classroom teaching tool, perhaps one of many, and certainly not a one-off; the craftsmanship and skill demonstrate that this must be only one step in a long line of developmental evolution.
Note the lines of text in Ancient Greek...Instructions for use?

As I say, something I've dreamed of seeing with my own eyes for a very long time. I think I held my breath...I was definitely at a loss for words for some time. I stared into remains of a past un-imaginable only a few years ago; evidence of industry and sophistication never even considered for the ancient Greeks...and felt truly humbled by the experience.

A modern reconstruction of the Mechanism

And the rear dial layout, based on recent research

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Visit To The National Observatory of Athens' Thissio Visitor Centre

The tour group gathers outside the Visitor Centre
I have a confession which may not come as a surprise to those who have reason to know me well; I'm in love with big, vintage refractor telescopes.  Yes, I know that the reflector revolution of the early 20th Century displaced traditional refractors from the forefront of astronomical research; supplanting the long, graceful tubes and flint lenses that had ruled the skies since Galileo first focused on the heavens with gigantic mirrors and lattice-work tubes balanced on squat mountings in enormous domes atop high peaks.

I realize that this new age of astronomy--from Mount Wilson to Keck and even Hubble--has expanded our knowledge and understanding of the Cosmos; that the giant mirrors have provided the data which support the expanding Universe, Big Bang, and even Dark Matter theories.  And I know that this trend will continue as larger and even larger reflector telescopes take their places on mountain tops around the world.  Literally, the age of the large refractor is done.

So, perhaps my astronomical soul belongs to the 19th Century...

As I travel the world I take great pleasure in visiting observatories where ever I can, and although I am always appreciative of their facilities, the dedication of their staffs, and their efforts at education and "outreach", my eagerness to visit and (if I am fortunate) observe through their telescopes is always heightened by the discovery that the instruments in question are large, powerful refractors.  I can't help it; these big 'scopes get my astronomical juices flowing.

The dome of the Doridis Telescope
Last night I was privileged to be able to tour the National Observatory of Athens' Thissio Visitor Centre, located atop Nymphs' Hill--adjacent to the famous Acropolis--and to observe through their impressive 16-inch Doridis refractor.  I found myself quite excited at this prospect--so excited that I actually arrived at Nymph's Hill nearly an hour and a half before gates were to open!

This, however, was not a problem.  I rested on the rocky hilltop near the Doridis dome and admired the sunset and twilight; Mars and Venus were gleaming in the south and west while the spotlights illuminating the nearby Acropolis came up with a golden glow, and as Athens' lights came up below me I thought back to the skies that citizens of the ancient city must have viewed, so long ago. On this night I was hard-pressed to pick out any stars more dim than second magnitude!
The Syggros Meridian (transit) Telescope
I was quite pleased to see that our tour group consisted of nearly twenty people, of all ages.  Later I was to learn that at least two more groups were expected during the evening, raising the expected turnout to over one hundred!  According to a staff member that I spoke to later, on special events nights (such as the recent Super Moon) the tally can reach well over a thousand guests. Bravo!
A Super-Scale Model of the Antikythera Mechanism
The tour of the Visitor Centre was fascinating; we visited the special observing room where astronomers, using the Meridian Telescope, would time the passages of selected stars across the meridian in order to determine the precise time in Athens (the time would in turn be announced from the catwalk around the roof-top dome by the raising and lowering of a ball on the mast there).  We saw a precise reconstruction of the famous Antikythera Mechanism based on the latest research into this amazing find from ancient Greece.
We examined scientific instruments from the nearly two centuries' constant service in the Observatory, and the amazing lunar map generated over three years' observation and sketching by Julius Schmidt in the third quarter of the 19th Century.

And finally, to top the evening off...

The Doridis Telescope focuses on Cygnus
Back out under the stars we trooped, out of the Visitor Centre and across the rugged hilltop to the Doridis dome.  There Tsimpidas Dimitrios, our observer for the evening, talked to us whilst opening the redwood-paneled dome and taking aim at the binary star system of Albireo (b Cygni).  While he guided the first observers to the eyepiece and demonstrated how to "breath out--and hold it" while gazing through the 'scope, I enjoyed the view of the long "eye" of Doridis, reaching toward the slit in the dome and onward to Cygnus!

Standing near the housing of the telescope's mount I could hear the whirr of its motors as they tracked their distant target across the western sky, and note the subtle, almost un-noticeable motion of the tube across the strip of sky visible through the slit. I think this is my favorite part of my visits to observatories and attendance at star parties; that rare sensation of being for a moment "lost in space", a delightfully vertiginous experience.

When my turn at the eyepiece came at last I was already wholly satisfied with the night's progress; the view of two brilliant stars--one yellow and one blue--centered in the eyepiece was the icing on the cake as far as I was concerned. Just beautiful!

A while later, having signed the observatory guest book and said goodbye to Tsimpidas and the other present members of the staff, I started off down the Hill of Nymphs and began the long walk back to the pick-up point for the bus back to the ship.  My first night in Athens was a terrific success, and I'm looking forward to the rest of my visit in this remarkable city; this wonderful mix of old and new, ancient and modern.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Quick Post: Luna And The Argonaut Girls

The 11-Day-Old Moon
Friday night here in Crete was beautiful! I set up my Astroscan near the dock where 'Grumman' is moored and enjoyed the view of Luna with the nice group of ladies who manage the 'Argonaut' waterfront recreation center. I just love sharing the skies!
The Argonaut Girls: Angele, Maria, Dora and Eleni

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Sweet Spot Part II

Tripping the Light...M33 looks nice tonight!
Last night's test of 'Leroy Grumman's "sweet spot" was a terrific success! Using the storage locker at the portside Rescue Boat station as a support I was able to use magnifications as high as 45x without the viewing being impaired by the ship's omnipresent mechanical vibration.

I set-up at sunset and admired Luna, Venus and Saturn as they fell toward the mountains of Crete to our south.  As the Milky Way became visible I began observations using my venerable old Astroscan.  Testing the waters, I first moved the 'scope around the top of the locker and then onto the deck around it.  Checks through the eyepiece at each location showed the starfield in various states of "jiggle" with one spot, about fifteen feet inboard of the locker, actually causing the telescope to physically bounce on the deckplates!

Back to the locker.  It stands about chest-high to me, placing the eyepiece at just the right altitude to make for strain-free observing.  Checks around the steel box's top with a paper cup full of water gave promising results; I call this the Jurassic Park test as you might imagine!  Thankfully, no Tyrannosaurs were in evidence, and the entire locker top seemed nearly tailor-made for my purposes.

Oh, there ARE a few "cons" to be considered here.  If you examine the photo below you'll note that a considerable part of the sky is blocked by the ship's superstructure and a cargo boom. (This is less of a problem than it would be ashore, as the ship's maneuvers are likely to bring much of the sky within view in the course of an evening!) Also, the site is close enough to the railing to raise caution flags; I'm not likely to fall overboard due the railings themselves but any dropped eyepieces, dew caps or filters would certainly be at risk of a long, deep soak.

So, the site is good.  Not perfect, mind you, but definitely usable.  I'll keep an eye out for other locations around the ship where the engine and generator vibration is minimal, but in the meantime I have a good, solid observing site aboard ship; a place to do some starlight on those long, dark nights at sea.

That'll do.

The Contented Astronomer!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Sweet Spot

Exciting news!  Well, for me, anyway.  After many weeks of searching I may have finally discovered USNS Leroy Grumman's "sweet spot".  I tested it last night and it looks like a do-able solution. I am SO happy!

Let me explain. The biggest problem I face as an amateur astronomer working aboard a deep-draft vessel is the vibration of all those engines, pumps, motors, elevators and what-not that make the ship a viable organism.  The continual orchestra of mechanical action within the hull is transmitted thru the fabric of the craft so that there is always a background "hum" of vibration, wherever one stands on bridge, deck or lower compartment.You might think that the physical action of the ship (pitch, roll and yaw) in a seaway would be the greatest problem with star-gazing at sea, but I have found over many years of underway astronomy that a moderate roll or pitch can be dealt with when observing with binoculars. The vibration involved with day-to-day (or, in my especial case, night-to-night) operations is the real, ever-present problem with binocular or telescopic observation at sea, let alone any kind of astro-photography!.

'Thing is, the vibration isn't the same throughout the ship; it is transmitted thru the hull in such different ways  that one part of 'Leroy Grumman' might seem almost quiet where another area--only yards away--is filled with a jack-hammer racket of bouncing equipment and tools by the energy being distributed so unevenly through the ship.

So, once I go aboard a new ship I go looking for those areas where a telescope on low-power might actually be focused on a distant galaxy or a binary star without a constant "juddering" of the image seen thru the eyepiece; where a camera tripod might be set-up for photography of the Moon without the image obtained being smeared out of shape by the nearly imperceptible motion of the deck supporting it.It isn't the same location on every ship--even ships belonging to the same class can have very different vibrations, different distributions of motion through the steel of their structures. On each vessel I check aboard in this on-going voyage of mine I prowl the weather decks, feeling the vibration through my boots, touching lockers, motors and other fittings as I explore.  I search for that rare place, somewhere, where I can feel little or even no action in the steel beneath my fingertips.

Once I find a possible sweet spot, I make a note of it in my observing journal and plan to return to that location on a clear night.  Usually, the selected spot has a fatal flaw.  An A/C blower nearby starts and stops at irregular intervals, turning "sweet" to "sour" on further examination.  The location is in a part of the deck from which much of the sky is obscured--a definite down-check--or where it would actually be hazardous to life and limb to loiter there with a telescope.  Sometimes a second or even third visit is required to spot the possible downside to a spot on deck.

It occasionally does happen that I never do locate a sweet spot aboard the ships in which I serve.  I spent a year aboard USNS Big Horn without identifying a decent observing site, and equally elusive was that desired location aboard USNS Supply.  I enjoyed my time and work aboard these ships, but being unable to observe from a reasonably smooth site made things a little less pleasant than they might have been!

That brings us back to today, and what just might be the sweet spot aboard 'Leroy Grumman'.  The potential observing site aboard this ship is located forward, right next to our portside Rescue Boat station.  Initial tests (last night) were encouraging; the site boasts a storage box which I can use to support a small telescope (namely my old, reliable Astroscan Rich-Field Newtonian) that stands tall enough to allow me to stand comfortably whilst observing with it.  The deck around the storage box seems remarkably vibration-free and allows viewing of a fairly large area of the sky.  Unfortunately the box at the starboard Rescue Boat station doesn't share the characteristics of the port one--on THAT side of the deck the vibration problem is as bad as any other part of the ship I have tested to date!

So...tonight is the acid test.  If the weather holds fair as it is now I plan to set-up the Astroscan and photo tripod at this presumptive sweet spot at sunset and spend the evening checking out the heavens.  By midnight I should have a pretty good idea of how well this ship-board "observatory" will allow access to the skies.

Wish me luck!