Sunday, May 14, 2017

f/stop: Moon over Aqaba

The Moon crests the peaks east of Aqaba, Jordan

The Gulf and city of Aqaba by Moonlight

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Eilat Report, Day (Night) Two

Desert Moon
Another terrific night with Eitan and John; unfortunately my last opportunity to star-gaze with them during this port visit.  Ah, well--perhaps I can bribe the schedulers back at Fifth Fleet into sending us back here soon!
I'll work on that...

The nearly-full Moon seemed to wash out the details of the desert in a flash-flood of light as we arrived and set up for the evening's guests.  Tonight the attendees were all Hebrew speakers and so I was prepared to sit out the sky-tour "action" around Eitan and his telescope; I had my camera and small tripod along with my trusty 7x50 binoculars for scanning the heavens.

It was a small party that found us in the wilderness; a father, mother and three children, all eager for an evening of star-gazing.  At first I thought there were only two kids; I was standing by their car focusing on Luna when I heard a soft snore from inside.  Strange sounds, what you hear in the desert at night!
Preparing to shoot the Moon
All too soon the evening came to a close. While our guests disappeared down the highway toward Eilat, Eitan and John stowed the Dob in the back of Eitan's car and I packed my photographic rig away.  A stop on the way back to town for cool drinks and then I had to say goodbye to my new friends.  How long before we meet again?  Hopefully soon, but only time will tell!
Eitan and John and the mobile observatory

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Eilat Report: Day (Night) One

Eitan picked me up after dark and we met up with John and new friend Scott at a small falafel stand in the city. Eitan ordered for us (I know very little about the local food, after all) and we chowed-down on the tastiest eats I've had in a long, long time. Gustatory bliss, it was!

Talking and getting to know each other (beyond the Fb avatars we had previously known each other by) I found myself immediately accepted into this circle of friends here at the extreme southern end of Israel. Stargazing seems to have that effect on people from all backgrounds, as I have discovered in so many countries in the course of my travels.

Meal finished, we split up. Scott and John went off to collect the night's star party guests while Eitan and I headed out to one of his observing sites in the Negev Desert in his car. Not a long drive and soon we were setting-up Eitan's 12-inch Dobsonian in a rocky oval depression in the landscape perhaps half-an-hour from town.

I say that WE were setting-up the Dob; actually I kibitzed and stared at the Moon and Jupiter while Eitan made preparations for the evening--the good astronomical guest never pushes his assistance on the host but stands by ready to help if needed!

By the time John and Scott arrived with the evening's guests all was in readiness, and Eitan swung cheerfully into his well-practiced and -prepared spiel on the sky, stars, planets and constellations--in both English and Hebrew. Listening, it was pretty clear that the man knows his stuff.

There were eight of us out in the Negev last night, viewing Jupiter, Saturn and Luna, plus a sampling of double and binary stars; listening to Eitan "selling" the universe in two languages. A young couple from Washington, D.C., a father and his young son, John, Scott and myself--all captivated by the beauty of our surroundings and the sky show overhead. Eitan's skilled, practiced presentation in the cool, dry air amidst the rugged landscape made this a star party to remember for me, and, I hope, an inspiring experience for the novice star-gazers who joined us for an evening under the stars.

Tonight...back to the desert!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Returning to Israel

Israel! It's been a very long time...the last time I walked this land was 1988, and that was in Haifa, at the other end of the country. This morning we have moored in Eilat, a beautiful town set in the rugged hills surrounding the Gulf of Aqaba. I have big plans for this port visit; I want to get together (and hopefully engage in some stargazing) with a couple of astronomical friends who live in the area. 

I strongly suspect that THIS will be the high point of the cruise...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Into Darkness

A gloriously-clear morning here in the Gulf of Aden. The Milky Way with it's knotty star-clouds and open clusters contrasting with the darkness of sinuous dust lanes that both obscure and define our view of our home galaxy, To the south, Sagittarius and Scorpius stand high revealing the mysteries of the "other" circumpolar skies to be seen beneath them. Jupiter rules the western horizon while in the east rises Pegasus and his captive rider; beneath the clearly-visible disk of the voluptuous Andromeda Galaxy a round spot of haze can be seen; Triangulum's own great galaxy poses for the naked eye.

There are treasures to be harvested here in the vistas to be seen from my sea-going observatory, so far from shore and the bright lights of cities and industry. Here, I can stand on deck, feel the vibration of engines far below, hear the whisper of water rushing along our vessel's sides, and, without strain, reach out with my fingertips to brush the heavens above.

I think I'm going to enjoy this cruise.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Ten Dolla' Telescope

G'Day everyone, and say "hello" to my latest little telescope restoration project! I picked this Bushnell 60mm optical tube assembly up on Ebay for a mere $10 and have spent a sizeable portion of my off-time over the past three weeks cleaning it inside and out, removing and disposing of the useless "yoke" mounting that came attached to it, and filing-in the holes in the tube with pop-rivets. THEN I dug up an old mini-eq mounting and placed the tube assembly on it, replaced the .965" eyepieces with some decent quality 1.25" EPs that the human eye can actually see through, and scrounged in my parts-bin for an Orion V-Block filter (kills fringes dead!)...and voila! Meet "Mariner", the first table-top equatorially-mounted f13 refractor telescope that I for one have ever seen!
My Ebay purchase...such a deal.
 A star--diminutive but impressively portable AND steady--is born.

Last night--cloudy but not impossibly so--was "first light" for this little mutant beast, and as guinea pig I selected one of our young officers, Daniel Murphy, to put Mariner through its paces. After a few minutes' instruction on care and feeding Daniel was in control--checking out the Moon, Jupiter and Arcturus. His verdict; not too shabby! I tend to agree.
Mr. Murphy watches the Moon rise.
 On a serious note, small telescopes like this vintage (mid-'70s) Bushnell are usually maligned by experienced observers, but with a little modification they can become quite capable star-gazing tools. I started out with a 'scope much like this one, and was fortunate to have knowledgeable observers at hand to teach me how to get the most out of my new instrument. Good eyepieces, a solid, versatile mounting, and a decent finder can turn that "department store" telescope into a a pretty impressive observing machine!
Mariner on the Bridge...Appropriate, no?
 As for little Mariner, I'm sure I can find him a good home... eventually. I want to play a little, first!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Quick Post: Watch A Star Disappear Tonight!

Tonight (Saturday) observers in the lower United States will witness an occultation of the bright star Aldebaran by the first-quarter Moon. A word of explanation; the Moon will appear to pass between Earth and the star--in effect a "stellar" eclipse. This is an impressive--and surprisingly tense--event to watch with binoculars or telescope; through the eyepiece we will watch as Aldebaran seems to crawl toward the dark limb of the Moon, hang on the brink for what can seem like long minutes--and then blink out suddenly as if a switch had been flipped! About forty minutes later the star will reappear on the bright limb as our Moon continues along its orbit.

Fun and easy to watch, occultations of bright stars are definitely worth staying up for--so watch a distant star vanish tonight, and report your observations and impressions below. Enjoy!

For more information on tonight's occultation...

Friday, March 3, 2017

BBAA's "Cornwatch" Star Party, 24 Feb 2017

Enjoying the skies...Photo by Melvin Spruill, Jr.
It was a good session; the skies were quite clear and steady. Melvin Spruill Jr. was doing his fantastic photographic thing and provides this image of the sky and site. I'm the fella on the left with the hoodie and Newtonian scope!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"All These Worlds..."

I'm fascinated that the argument over the definition of the archaic word "planet" simply refuses to die. On the one side of this ongoing non-controversy we have those who respect the current IAU definition and argue that we have eight planets in the Solar System plus an odd number of dwarf-planets (including Pluto, Ceres, Eris, etc.). On the other side of acrimony we have those who pine of the good 'ole days of "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" and can't abide the IAU decision.

But wait. Now we have a THIRD side, demanding that EVERY object that orbits the Sun is a planet--which will give us an impressive catalogue indeed!

Personally, I think that we need to dispense with this entire debate. We are making the mistake here of trying to squeeze the incredibly numerous and varied bodies that orbit the Sun into very small taxonomical boxes by forcing them all into some new, all-encompassing, impossible definition of a single word.


The term itself is unfit for our purposes. Meaning "wanderer" It's based on an ancient word applied in its era to the five naked-eye bodies that wandered in the skies of Babylon and Athens. Sometimes also applied to our Moon and passing comets, it simply isn't enough for today's Solar System.

Try on a different word: "Worlds".

When I speak to students who visit the Abbitt Observatory I use this word rather than "planets" because it better represents the bodies of the Solar System as we know them today; not as unknown and un-knowable points of light that inexplicably brightened and dimmed as they traced mysterious paths across the ancient heavens but as what they are to us in this modern era; actual places that can be visited and explored, studied and understood in all their sizes and varieties.

Earth is a world; there can be no debate on this. So is Mars. And the Moon, Vesta and Ganymede; all worlds. Tiny Pluto, giant Jupiter, icy Comet Halley and all the myriad objects in the Kuiper Belt...the word applies to them all broadly, without need of division or amplification.

Within the massive catalogue of worlds there are giants and pygmies, from super-Jovian exoplanets down through the scales to the smallest aggregations of rubble to be found in the Main Belt. Of course there is need of classification within the broad context of Worlds, but no requirement for time-and-energy wasting argument regard the very meaning of the term!

"Planets" are passe; open your mind to other Worlds.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Photo: Telescope Family Portrait

I'm thinking of opening a telescope shop...
After some serious effort--setting-up ONE telescope for a night's observing can be a project (but not as much of one as taking it back down after an all-nighter at the eyepiece!)--I am happy to present a "family portrait" of my primary observing equippage!

From left to right (back row): a Sky-Watcher 6-inch Newtonian reflector, my very first (recently restored) telescope, a Bushnell Banner 60mm refractor, an Orion 10-inch Newtonian on a Dobsonian mounting, and a Sky-Watcher 4.7-inch APO refractor. Front row: a Meade ETX-90RA and Edmund Astroscan (This is my SECOND 'scope--I've had this little gem since 1977!).

Please note the total absence of computers from this assembly of fine optics--I prefer to explore the Universe in Mode-3*, thank you very much!

(*Mode-3: Naval Aviator lingo for flying [and fighting] their aircraft without computer assistance.)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Guest Post: Headed For The 'Poe' House

The Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond VA

So on January 16, 2017 Tom and I finally achieved our long planned, and several times aborted mission to visit the Edgar Allan Poe museum in Richmond, VA.  We were suitably rewarded for our efforts.  The museum is a tiny gem tucked within Richmond's sprawl, and is the only house from 1712 left standing after the Civil War and the fire that burned Virginia's capitol to the ground.  It is a house that Edgar Allan Poe would have passed by in his day.  He never lived in the house, but it certainly evokes the time period, especially on a chilly, February day.
In the Enchanted Garden
Edgar Allan Poe is one of those rare figures in history whose life is more fascinating than what he left behind.  While he invented the science fiction genre, and gave birth to detective fiction, his life was one huge spiral of destitution, misery and misfortune.  He may have been on a life long search for stability, which never came.

Orphaned at two, taken in but never formally adopted by the Allans, young Edgar's life reads like a continuous series of unfortunate events.  Though a brilliant student, he never had any money for books, and quarreled constantly with his adoptive father.  Edgar finally quit the University of Virginia and enrolled in West Point.  In two years, he rose from private to Master Sergeant, but then, because of financial difficulties, made the decision to get expelled!  His early efforts at earning a living as a writer were undermined by a publisher who never distributed the fifty copies of Poe's first book, Tamerlane.  From there, his life is one continuous roller coaster of brief happiness and abject misery.
Armed with what we know today about various mental illnesses, Tom and I could not help but speculate on just what was going on in Edgar's head through his brief life.  Genius certainly, but genius tainted with depression, possibly bi-polar, possibly effects of lead poisoning, considering that lead was in glass, and water.  In the end, the mystery of Poe's mental state and his death in Baltimore will remain conjecture.  The last few days that he spent in Baltimore make for a mystery worthy of the genius that he was. 

The visit to the Poe museum is certainly worth a trip.  Not only for Poe fans, but for anyone interested in history.  The museum has changing displays, and of course, hosts Edgar Allan Poe himself in October!  There is  friendly rivalry between the Poe museum in Richmond and that in Baltimore, where Poe lived and spent his final days.  
If you do visit the Poe house in Richmond, do be mindful of Pluto and Edgar, the two four legged keepers of the house.  They will come and investigate. 
One of the Museum's feline managers requires attention
For those interested, there is a film that depicts Edgar Allan Poe's final days in Baltimore.  'The Raven' came out in 2012, and stars John Cusak as Poe.  It is very well done, but only really makes sense if one knows Poe's history and stories.  Certainly some liberties were taken, but overall, the film is as good an explanation of the poet's final days as any other assumptions or theories relating to his demise.

Lucilla M. Epps
Newport News, Va

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quick Post: Tired, But Worth It!

Welcome to Mansfield Plantation
I had a very successful--and enjoyable--day, driving around eastern South Carolina locating possible observing locations for the August Total Eclipse and making contacts in the local governments of two well-placed towns. I also had the opportunity to check out the bed & breakfast that my family and friends will be using as a "base camp"; what a lovely place to gather for a reunion AND to observe such a remarkable celestial event together!
One of the Mansfield B&B Outbuildings
A Smokey Plantation Scene

Monday, February 13, 2017

Quick Post: Southern Comfort

And here I am in a nice motel room in Moncks Corner, SC. I'm here to scout out observing sites for THE solar eclipse (21 August) and to meet with some reps from the town; they want to set aside a large recreation area for visiting and local amateur astronomers and the local public and have asked me for suggestions. Hey--I guess that makes me a Consultant!

Anyway, after tomorrow's get together with the Town Fathers (Mothers?) I plan to cruise around and visit a few more potential observing sites before heading home on Wednesday. All part of planning for the Epps/Dunn/Tharp/Bratun/Hastings/Burroughs get-together down here in August, so stand by for further updates!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Quick Post: Sun-Day At Virginia Living Museum

A good session Under The Dome at the VLM. Lots of guests out enjoying sunspots thru the telescope, lots of conversation about my favorite subject (astrology? Nah...), and lots of questions!

I really love this gig!

(Photo: a young family meets the Meade 16-inch!)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Quick Post: The Morning Shift

A quiet morning in the Abbitt Observatory. Too cloudy to be showing visitors any sunspots, so instead I have the little 100mm refractor set on a distant cell tower where dozens of birds are roosting. In springtime a pair of osprey make their nest on the tower--kids are especially thrilled to see the new hatchlings being fed!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Quick Post: First Light--35 Years Later

Ready for tonight's Moon!
I've spent a lot of time over the past two weeks restoring my old 60mm Bushnell refractor; I bought this 'scope in the Spring of 1982, lost track of it in 1986 and had the great holiday surprise of having it returned to me at New Years 2012, and then for five years it languished in the attic. Now, after some serious cleaning, painting and remounting (on an EQ-1 mount--I'm looking for a good EQ-2 for it), and modifying it for larger 1.25" eyepieces, it's cooling-down in the back garden while waiting for full dark.

I'll let you know how Luna and Venus look through it...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

All The Rockets Rusting: The Air Power Park in Hampton, Virginia

A-7E Corsair II
Yesterday Lucy and I visited the Air Power Park in Hampton for the first time in nearly thirty years, and what started out to be a bittersweet sort of reunion ended up becoming something very different for me.  The old place hasn't changed very much since 1987--nor, for that matter, since my very first exploration of the Park as a little boy in the late 1960s--and what changes have occurred over the years have been primarily negative, especially as regards the outdoor exhibits.
Jupiter C IRBM (Lucy for scale)
A little background: the Air Power Park commemorates Hampton's role in the development of air and space technology at Langley Research Center, both under NACA and NASA from the 1950s onward. It lies on 15 acres of land just off Mercury Boulevard, and consists of a single-building museum (containing mostly professional and amateur models of aircraft and space vehicles) and nearly two dozen aircraft, military missiles and test launch vehicles arranged outside, representing the "glory days" of the 1950s and '60s.  While representing aerospace history in the area, the Park is not formally associated with NASA or the Air Force; being operated by Hampton Parks and Recreation.
Jupiter C Thrust Bell and Engine
I've driven by the park many times over the years since our last visit, often noting how small it seems from the roadway, how--like the history it represents--it has faded and become part of the background "noise" of a busy thoroughfare.  The fact that I can be the profound space-geek that I am and only manage to actually visit the place twice in three decades seems revealing, in that this dusty, rusty display is easy, in this era of YouTube and Wikipedia, to simply pass on by.
USAF F-105D Thunderchief
But there are jewels to be found here, in this dusty attic of aerospace!  A pair of forgotten Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, a Jupiter C and Corporal from the 1950s, loom over the park as a stumpy Little Joe test launch vehicle from the Mercury Program stands seemingly prepared to hurl its tiny payload aloft. A number of vintage fighter-bombers and military training aircraft await their next missions, while Surface-To-Air missiles wait on their launchers, standing by to defend America's cities from Communist assault.
Little Joe with Mercury test capsule
Listen!  Imagine for a moment the scream of fifty jet engines, the roar from a dozen rocket nozzles...ghosts from the past seem to tremble as the power builds and builds...and then the engines, the bell housings, fall silent.  The flaps are still, cockpits long sealed, hardpoints and nosecones clear of ordnance or scientific payload.  For a few seconds your imagination joined mine as ghosts from the past came to furious life, but now all is still, the only sounds the rumble and whine of constant traffic on the roadway nearby.
USAF RF-4C Recon Phantom II
Saddest of the day's observations were of the deteriorating condition of several of the outdoor exhibits.  All could use a good cleaning and fresh coat of enamel, but some have borne the years with dignity and stamina, others have been less fortunate.  The key seems to lie in their presentations; aircraft and rockets that are displayed on concrete "aprons" or on pedestals are standing the years in far better condition than those in direct contact with the Virginia soil; in these unfortunately-placed machines--most especially the wonderful Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules SAMs--rust and corrosion have wreaked terrible, perhaps even fatal, wounds.
Nike Ajax SAM and Launcher
Once they defended our Nation against real and imaginary enemy they decompose from their bases up.  Both of these missiles were long ago placed, with their launcher assemblies, on the moist ground, and today those launchers are almost completely rusted-away while the missiles themselves are in rapid decay.

I'll not bother asking why long-retired curators saw fit to expose these once-fearsome weapons to the elements in so callous a fashion.  I will, however, stand and ask that measures be taken--and soon--for their restoration and preservation.  These are rare, nigh-priceless relics of the Cold War; if at all possible they must be saved from the literal dustbin of history!

And the Park itself?  Is it relevant in our modern world to preserve these pieces of aerospace history? Should we endeavor to preserve the past or simply stand back and watch as that past rusts and corrodes away?  I think history IS relevant, and rather than witnessing the slow death of these exhibits we should work to preserve these airframes.  Not only that, we should ADD to their numbers; it has been too long since a new aircraft, missile or booster rocket has been added to this collection.

I think it's past time for an upgrade.
Nike Hercules SAM and Launcher

I have come to the Air Power Park today for purposes of nostalgic recollection; to remember for a time that long ago day when a small boy stood in the rain and gazed in wonder at shining aircraft and impossibly-tall rockets.  Leaving by the rusted gate, my purpose is changed; I intend to speak for the silent ghosts that stand guard; I'll try to save the rusting rockets and work to bring new vehicles to join them on these acres.  Perhaps I'll fail in this pursuit--it certainly won't be easy--but I'll give it my best effort.

In this area, rich in aviation history and military--both active duty and retired--I ought to be able to find others interested in re-invigorating the Air Power Park.  I think it's time to get busy.

U.S. Army Corporal IRBM

The Author and a Mercury Capsule "Test Unit"