Sunday, August 20, 2017

Beating the Drum

(I posted this yesterday on 'Laramie's LAN...working hard to spread the Gospel of star/sun-gazing!)
The Sun Rises in Eclipse: Nov 2013 (Photo by Lucilla Epps)
Hello Shipmates!
By now I’m certain that all of you have heard of the Total Solar Eclipse, happening back in the
‘States on Monday.  If your families back home are within the band of Totality (which runs
across the country from Oregon to S. Carolina) then they are in for a treat; a total eclipse
of the Sun is one of natures’ most amazing spectacles.  Even the partial eclipse, viewed from
rest of the USA, is an impressive sight and worth taking the trouble to view.

That said, please pass this warning to your loved ones: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE
SUN AT ANY TIME.  PERMANENT EYE DAMAGE CAN RESULT FROM EVEN A FEW
SECONDS EXPOSURE. SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT.

So, how can they enjoy the eclipse if they cannot LOOK at it? 

My strongest recommendation is for the folks back home to avail themselves of the public
observing sessions being run by museums, planetaria, observatories and astronomy clubs in
all major cities and towns. These organizations will be using telescopes and other viewing
tools equipped with professionally-made filters to allow SAFE close-up views of the Sun’s disk,
sunspots and prominences (solar weather) and of course the Moon as it blocks-out the Sun.
A quick search on Google, say “eclipse (name of city)” should bring up several options.

Again…DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN AT ANY TIME.  PERMANENT EYE DAMAGE
CAN RESULT FROM EVEN A FEW SECONDS EXPOSURE. SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT.

There are also several ways to safely view the Sun without driving or dealing with crowds. 
Making a pinhole projector viewer is a simple and fun crafts project for the kids and when the
eclipse happens they will be able to view the progress of the Moon’s disk as it blocks out the
Sun. You can project the image of the Sun/Moon duo with a colander or cheese-grater!  Check out
these links for more “grate” ideas.




So, what will WE see, here on our floating observatory?  LARAMIE will be in the eastern Atlantic
and right on the edge of eclipse coverage; the event itself won’t begin until just a few minutes
before sunset on Monday.  We won’t observe Totality (unless you count the Total Eclipse of the
Sun by the EARTH!) but, weather permitting, we SHOULD be able to see a Partial Eclipse begin-
Ing as sunset approaches.  Here’s how…

Redundantly…DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN AT ANY TIME.  PERMANENT EYE DAMAGE
CAN RESULT FROM EVEN A FEW SECONDS EXPOSURE. SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT.

I’ll be in my usual observing location on the bridge, with solar filter-equipped binoculars and several
pairs of eclipse shades, starting an hour before sunset.  Given the intended speed of our transit it will
probably be too windy to watch from on-deck; if so we have permission to utilize the port-side
of the bridge itself as an observing site. If you decide to come up, be careful to avoid distracting the
watchstanders.  I’d recommend you bring a camera with some zoom capability; as the Sun approaches
the horizon haze and mist can act as an excellent filter for some literal last-minute photography!

Oh, and last but not least: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN AT ANY TIME.  PERMANENT
EYE DAMAGE CAN RESULT FROM EVEN A FEW SECONDS EXPOSURE. SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT.
Just sayin’.

I hope that this information will help your families enjoy the eclipse, and that you’ll take the opportunity
to glimpse this historic event for yourself!

Questions or concerns? I’m always happy to talk about my favorite subject!

V/R,
Thomas L. Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Laramie (T-AO 203)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Pale Blue Dot


“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Ann Druyan suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot of the preceding chapter. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?”


Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space


Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Perseids @ Sea

Last night I had the exhilarating experience of viewing the peak of the Perseids meteor shower in the company of a dozen Shipmates (oddly, the majority of them seemed to be engineers) from the signal bridge, perched high on the Tanker's upper works.  The view was spectacular, with the Milky Way stretching horizon-to-horizon, the Summer Triangle ensnared in our ship's signal halyards, and golden Saturn gleaming in contrast to ruddy Antares in the south.

As might be imagined, I was in my element; explaining how meteor streams occur, are refreshed by their parent comets, and intersect with the orbit of our own Earth; pointing out constellations and asterisms; walking my companions through the "scales" of the night sky, starting with Saturn at mere interplanetary distances, moving out through light-years to Vega and Antares and distant Deneb--then taking that leap into intergalactic realms with the lovely naked-eye galaxy of Andromeda.

The evening's conversation ranged, you might say, far-afield, but every minute or so we were drawn back to the "shallow" sky by another bright meteor flashing overhead from east to west.  While not the best Perseid show I've ever experienced, the celestial fireworks were quite satisfactory to all present, and the shower was still going strong when the rising Moon began to brighten the skies.

As midnight came nigh I found myself alone on the signal bridge; a thin skein of cirrus had formed and conspired with Luna to end the evening's show.  As I gathered binoculars, star atlas and red flashlight my thoughts went back over the evening's adventures in time and space, aeons and megaparsecs.  Once again I'd had proven to me that exploring the heavens in the company of enthusiastic Shipmates is what I truly enjoy about being an astronomer;  whether on a sidewalk with "members of the public" or atop the towering superstructure of a mighty sea-going vessel with crew-mates, the true joy of observing the skies lies in the sharing.

But then, I already knew that.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

f/Stop: My August Eclipse

Last night I watched a very nice partial lunar eclipse from 'Laramie's bridge wing. A half-dozen Shipmates joined me to watch Earth's shadow obscure about a quarter of our satellite's disk. Here in the Red Sea it was easy to see the penumbra creep across Luna's surface; all the dust in the atmosphere here acts as a natural filter, enhancing the changes in brightness and tone.
Red Sea Eclipse...
I'm going to miss the August 21 Solar Eclipse that so many folks Stateside are preparing for; I suppose that the experience of observing the Moon's darkening limb could be considered a consolation prize.

I guess I can accept that.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

On Turning From Darkness...

Three days after having my hopes and dreams crushed I'm still trying to deal with the fact that I won't be able to get home for the August 21 Total Solar Eclipse.  On that date, when millions of my fellow amateur astronomers are experiencing Totality within that narrow line of darkness stretching from the Pacific Northwest to coastal South Carolina, I'll be aboard the Tanker in mid-ocean, thousands of miles away.

I had it all planned.  Gathering friends and family at a lovely B&B near Georgetown, S.C., arriving early to avoid the traffic jams that are sure to ensue as last-minute travelers rush toward that twilight zone.  I made the reservations over two years back, began planning nearly a decade ago for this combination reunion and star party.  I've waited forty years for those few minutes of Totality...and it would all have been worth it to have been there, with Lucy, Cynthia, Tara and Alexis, Carla and Larry, Zora, Peter and maybe even Lilian and Alex, watching the moon slowly block out our view of the photosphere.

Well worth it.

Now, my heart aches in my chest, my gut roils as I read again the email from headquarters;  my leave request has been denied.  The reason given is that there are several Operations Chiefs in the Pool back in Norfolk waiting for assignment; if I want to fly home I'll need to accept relief by one of them.  Essentially, I'll need to sacrifice my position here to make this happen.

But I won't do that--I can't.  If I accept relief I'll enjoy the eclipse but after reporting off-leave I'll be at the mercy of the Pool itself. And there I will sit, waiting for a ship...long months of purgatory as I abide until some other Ops Chief decides to go home (and don't forget that I would be waiting at the end of the line with who-knows-how-many before me?).  The last time I left a ship for personal reasons I spent over a year there on reduced pay while Lucy and I watched our savings suffer slow hemorrhage and struggled to make ends meet.

I can't put my family through that again.  I can't justify such a selfish and irresponsible act.

So I stay aboard the Tanker as she cruises distant waters while Luna's shadow blankets the South Carolina coast.  I'll watch the once-in-a-lifetime event that I've dreamed of for most of my life on CNN or perhaps Fox.  I'll wish all my astronomical friends "clear skies" and honestly hope for success in their observations. I'll encourage shipmates to make sure their family members back home prepare to safely observe the coming of shadows.

Oh, and I'll die a little inside.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Observing the Shining Moon

We recently had a distinguished guest here in the Arabian Sea.  The Japanese destroyer Teruzuki, one of the thriving international community of warships that patrol these waters, came alongside for fuel and an exchange of friendly greetings. As is always the case when we have customers from other nations' navies on the approach for replenishment, curiosity ran high about the new neighbors come to call!
Teruzuki's helicopter photographs the proceedings
Teruzuki means "Shining Moon", a name which I can certainly appreciate. She is quite the impressive warship, with what this sailor judges to be a well-balanced mix of offensive and defensive weapons systems and sensors.  Even more importantly, she appears to have a capable, professional crew who leaped into the task of refueling their vessel without misplaced step or wasted movement.
Taking fuel
As I've mentioned on occasion, I've always been fascinated with the ships and Sailors of other navies. It's become clear to me over the years that, though we do the same things in the performance of our duties aboard ship and for our respective nations, we all do them differently.
Detached...
It's been said that variety is the spice of life; I find this very true in the fraternity of Sailors, the worldwide order of Naval ships and people.  After all these years at sea I find myself still drawn to the rail when an unfamiliar mast breaks the line of the horizon--Teruzuki is only the latest of a long, long line of ships with which I have fallen in love over the decades!
...and proceeding on duties assigned.

One of the beautiful photos taken by Teruzuki's helicopter





Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Southern Stars: Overture

The Sky Tonight (Image: Stellarium)

As I step from wheelhouse to starboard bridge wing the heat and humidity strike me like a mallet; it actually takes an effort of will not to close the door and remain inside.  But I am there to view the stars, not shelter against the equatorial climate of the east African coast.  I shut the door behind me and after a quick glance at the darkening sky to ensure that it remains cloudless begin preparations for the night's star-gazing.

Together my equipment and I will require time to adjust to the conditions to be found off the Somali coastline in May. The 7x50 binoculars are tightly capped and will remain so until their lenses and prisms have the opportunity to warm from air-conditioned coolness to near ambient temperature--to remove their caps any earlier would be to invite their being instantly fogged to uselessness in this humidity. In similar fashion my eyes require time to adapt to the darkness; for the half-hour or so that these acclimatizations take I will be updating my observing plan and journal in the amber illumination of the chart-house.

The Tanker entered this area a few days ago in the course of her assigned duties, and is scheduled to depart soon; tonight might well be my only opportunity to study these skies before we head north and the treasures revealed sink once more to the misty southern horizon.  Clear, calm nights are a rare commodity on the open sea--this night is a rare opportunity not to be cast aside lightly, and I don't plan to do so.

The bridge watch-standers are accustomed to seeing me in the evenings and sometimes the early hours as well; nobody questions my quiet presence in the chart-house as I plan my observing campaign and make notes on laminated star charts with a dry-erase marker under the red lights. The Watch Officer stops by to inquire as to my targets for the night, and one of the Lookouts takes time to report a bright meteor seen late last night. I appreciate the conversation with my Shipmates, and the curiosity they express about the dark skies that we work and play under; they know they are welcome to join me on-deck as their duties allow--I'm always happy to share my Universe!

At last I'm ready to begin. The optics have had plenty of time to warm and my eyes are nearly as well dark-adapted as they can be before heading outside.  Once again the heat and humidity attack as soon as I leave the cool bridge, but this time I have a mission; I step out from under the bridge wing awning and turn my eyes toward the heavens.

Beautiful!  I simply stand and stare, absorbing the vista before me.  In the still air the stars are sharp, fine points from zenith nearly to horizon; even Sirius in the west gleams with uncharacteristically steady blue-white light.  Nearly overhead, mighty Jupiter dominates the constellation of Virgo, while to the east the claws and heart of Scorpius rise. The Milky Way is a down-turned curve of curdled light, masked in places by dusty paths of shadow, stretching from southeastern to southwestern horizons.

It's within that bowl of stars that I plan to begin tonight's explorations...

A word on binocular star-gazing from the deck of a powered ship at sea; it's a real challenge because, by definition, EVERYTHING is moving.  Even in the most gentle seas the hull shifts slightly beneath your boot-soles; there is always some "rock & roll" (technical terms: pitch, roll and yaw) to be dealt with by the observer trying to keep his optics trained on that distant patch of fuzz in the constellation Hercules.

Other factors come into play as well.  The deck and every surface of the ship are vibrating continuously--the diesel motors and generators far below decks ensure that the entire mass of the vessel is in a constant state of oscillation. It can be quite windy up on deck as well; this flow of air is caused by both the actual,"true" wind and by the ship's motion relative to the direction and speed of nature's breath--not surprisingly this is called "relative wind".

The combination of these elements--the ship's motion, vibration, and winds across the deck--can make locating that double star or contemplating that nebula something of a chore.  Usually, after two hours or so of supporting the binoculars while keeping myself as steady as possible on the shifting deck I find myself sore and tired, more than ready for a break or even my welcoming bed.  But the results--especially on a night like this--can make the effort and resulting exhaustion well worth while.

Back to the bridge wing...the Bushnell 7x50 binoculars have had plenty of time to warm-up, and my eyes are nearly fully dark-adapted. Off come the caps and on go my "infinity" glasses--a special prescription I arranged with my optometrist-- and it's time to explore.
Tonight's Playground (Stellarium)

As I rarely get the opportunity to observe this far south I am planning to concentrate on the Three 'C's tonight; that is, Carina, Crux and Centaurus. These constellations are invisible from my home in Virginia but tonight, in the western Indian Ocean four degrees south of the Equator, they light up the sky off our starboard side, inviting inspection and discovery. 

Since Carina has already passed the meridian and is slowly falling toward the south-western horizon, it's to be this Sailor-Astronomer's first port of call tonight.

To be continued.


The Constellation of Argo Navis


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Crossing The Line


Swearing Fealty to Neptunus Rex!
Today we crossed the equator for the first time on this cruise...and as always there were a few Shipmates aboard for whom this was their first experience of "crossing the line". In face, only hours after crossing the equator it was announced that His Majesty, Neptunus Rex, had arrived aboard our ship...
Pollywogs advance!

What followed, of course, was silly, wet fun as the "Pollywogs", or first-timers in Neptunes Realm, were appropriately dressed  and made clean (after first being made quite filthy) before being presented before Neptune Himself to be judged and found either ready or not for their duties and responsibilities as Trusty Shellbacks.

Just fun, but with a purpose.  Ever since humans set sail on fragile ships across the world's oceans this ceremony has served as an initiation, not just into the "mysteries of the deep", but into the brotherhood of Mariners.  The visit of Neptunus Rex serves to bind a ship's company together, making them not just a group of individuals, but a Crew. And just as in the most ancient of days, the cohesion of a ship's crew can make all the difference when the chips are down.
The Royal Baby
 I was initiated into King Neptunes' Court 'way back in 1990, while USS Peterson patrolled off the coast of Liberia during their civil war.  Today I can remember the pride I felt as I stood in the Presence, and I think the young Sailors and Mariners who were initiated today will also remember this experience for many years. It's tradition, after all, that binds us together out here; we came from all walks of life and arrive via different routes, but it is here, far from homeport and facing the sea in her many moods, where the power of a simple ceremony becomes plain.

To the Initiated, anyway.





Some People can make ANYTHING look good!
Kissing the Belly of the Baby
His Majesty's Receiving Line

Mariano Robles...A.K.A. Davy Jones

The King Surveys His Domain!
A Salty Shower

Row, Row, Row Yer Boat, Swabbies!

Volunteers All!



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...
http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/aldebaran-occultation-march-4-2017/

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.

"Planet"


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 bombers...now 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"