Tuesday, April 26, 2016


All eyes on Venus, 2010
"The true value of a telescope is how many people can view the heavens through it"  (John Dobson)
I've been privileged over many years to have the opportunity not only to  explore and contemplate the wonders of the skies but to be able to share them with many others who might not even have thought to look up and notice the gibbous Moon as it rises above the rooftops; who would not have known that a particularly beautiful conjunction of Jupiter and Venus was reaching it's crescendo; who might have missed news reports about a partial solar eclipse occurring that day.

Through participation in public Star Parties, volunteer work in Virginia Living Museum's Abbitt  Observatory, and my own individual "sidewalk astronomy" efforts, I've learned that an interest in the Universe around us runs deep in nearly everyone.  Even people who might not have given a thought to the greater Cosmos, when confronted with a view of Saturn through the eyepiece of a telescope, seem to suddenly come alive with questions about the planets and stars, black holes and galaxies!
Observing the Transit of Mercury, 2006

And the kids!  Curious youngsters explode with excitement at the sight of Jupiter's four visible satellites, and even reticent teens open up somewhat when faced with solar prominences and sunspots, with the Moon's walled plains and crater chains.  Stargazing opens other, fresher eyes; terrestrial concerns and complications are left behind for a few moments while minds young, old and in-between reach for the stars.

In the Abbitt Observatory, 2004

Call me an astronomical evangelist, a proselytizer or perhaps just a pusher.  All I know is this; in my four-and-a-half decades of amateur astronomy I have discovered that the only thing that approaches the pleasure I take from observing the skies is the act of sharing them with others.  Maybe a lunar eclipse viewed through a dust-storm in Bahrain or a conjunction shared with newly-minted Cadets on the bridge of a tanker; bringing the dusty glow of a comet down to the residents of a "station" in Western Australia or a fine crescent Moon to twilight park visitors here in Newport News...this is what I love to do. 

If, as Dr. Dobson says, the value of a telescope can be measured in the number of souls who've gazed through it, then my several telescopes are far more valuable than even I care to estimate; my journals stand as ledgers measuring the riches of time and effort expended in bringing stars, planets, lunar and solar events, and meteor showers to members of the public.  If this be my contribution to the world, my legacy in stars shared and children fascinated, then I consider this energy and time to have been well-spent.

And, hopefully, only just begun.

Sharing Jupiter, 2015

Monday, April 25, 2016

Quick Post: Chasing Mercury

I hope all of you are going to make an effort to take a look at the Transit of Mercury, coming up on May 9th. The innermost planet will pass between the Sun and Earth, appearing to slowly cruise across the solar disk over the course of about seven hours. The dot that is Mercury will be quite small so a telescope will be required.
WARNING! Do NOT look at the Sun under any circumstances without a professionally-made solar filter properly attached to the telescope. Permanent eye damage will result! Smoked glass and welding lenses are NOT enough. WARNING!
If you don't have a telescope (and proper filter) I strongly recommend you look up your local astronomy society, planetarium or observatory on the Internet. Make contact and see what events are scheduled for this exciting and impressive opportunity to see Mercury in broad daylight!
For those in the Hampton Roads area, we will be observing the transit from the grounds of the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) in Newport News. Come and join us!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tom Epps' Fun With Flags!

That's me in the orange shirt!  Photo by Mike Springer.
On my last voyage aboard USNS Leroy Grumman I had an unusual assignment; I had to become an expert in "visual signaling".  In other words, unlike previous ships where I would communicate with other ships and shore stations via radio circuits and secure Chat, my orders were to take a page from the history books and talk to other units the same way Admiral Nelson did--using signal flags!
NOT having been a Signalman in my previous (active duty Navy) career, I had a lot to learn about my new duties.  Thankfully, I was given plenty of time to learn them; I had nearly an entire WEEK to hit the "pubs" and pick up the ins-and-outs of naval flags and their uses!  Good thing I work well under pressure...
The concept is pretty simple, actually.  Each distinctive flag and pennant in the Signals "alphabet" represents a letter, number, or specific message type to be conveyed to the ships within visual range
of Grumman.  The message is encoded using special "signal books" like the one shown below...
Sorry!  Most of this stuff is classified and since I don't feel like going to prison this week you'll just have to imagine the kind of book I'm referring to.  Lots of pages, plenty of fine print and unintelligible instructional text, and page after page after page of "encode" and "decode" guff.  Yep, you've got it!

Once the message to be sent is "prepped" the team on Grumman's signal bridge--perched atop the wheelhouse--swing into action.  The proper flags and pennants are selected from the "Flag Bags" and bent-on to the halyards to spell-out the signal.  You begin with an outboard halyard on whichever side and work your way inboard, always careful to keep the "hoist" in proper order so the receiving
unit will know you are altering course to starboard and NOT ordering #14 with eggrolls!

The signal completed and checked, you run it up smartly!  The final result is colorful AND informative,; the receiving ship(s) will respond by hoisting the same signal in reply.  This is useful in two ways; firstly it allows you to check that they did indeed receive the proper message, and secondly they are repeating the message to other ships that might not be able to see the signal hoists.
The photo above was taken on my first day as Grumman's "Flag Boss", about a month ago.  At that time I was pretty nervous that I'd get it wrong somehow, and I'll admit that I made a few mistakes along the way.  Now that I feel confident that I can communicate smoothly and accurately with other ships using the flags and pennants, it's time to add to my repertoire as a signalman...
How's your Morse Code?


Monday, April 11, 2016

Quick Post: Just Another Day

A long day! We got underway as the sun rose this morning, spent two hours cruising down the St. Johns River and then four running all-out to make our planned rendezvous well out to sea with a cruiser and a couple of destroyers. By the time we'd finished pumping fuel to all customers it was nearly sunset. NOW I'm on duty on the bridge--I'll get off-watch at midnight and grab a few hours' sleep before we kick off another busy one tomorrow. And THAT, my friends, is how we in the naval logistics biz get it done!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Photo of the Day: Cruiser!

USS Philippine Sea surges through the chop as she makes her approach alongside USNS Leroy Grumman for Replenishment at Sea (RAS).  In a few minutes she'll be passing shot-lines and messengers, and then the fuel and cargo rigs will deploy across two hundred feet of surging water to provide CG-58 with the fuel, provisions and stores she needs to keep her in the battle.  I've deployed with "Phil Sea" many times now and the old cruiser never fails to make a good impression.  Quite photogenic, too!