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"

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

At Cranbrook Observatory

Cindy, Alexis and I explore the world together
My sister Cindy, niece Alexis and I visited the Cranbrook Institute of Science a few Saturdays back. Part of the extensive Cranbrook Educational Community located in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the Institute is an old-school science museum with actual galleries and exhibits full of real, honest-to-goodness artifacts and samples with very few computer game-type displays.  I'm a big fan of this approach, which I think actually inspires visitors to study and think about the world around us rather than simply watching videos, which one can do far more easily at home.

In any case, I found the Institute fascinating, from "Black Beauty" the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton to the extensive collection of mineral samples sorted by place-of-origin. I think Cindy was especially interested in the mineralogical treasures to be examined, Alexis enjoyed the exhibit "The Story Of Us", and I gravitated toward the beautiful, intricate working Orrery in the center of the Astronomy exhibit.  But of course!

A splendid Orrery!
So much to see...but avid readers of this Blog will know where my heart truly lies.  Yes, we were there to visit the Observatory around which the current Cranbrook Institute came to grow in the 1930s. Unfortunately, we were informed, the dome is closed to the public during the day--but it would be open for visitors that very night.

The observatory dome on a January day
Thankfully, my dear family is quite used to my obsessions, and frequently go well out of their various ways to support me in my pursuits (does this make them "enablers", or simply terrific people? I vote the latter, but then I am somewhat biased)...after dinner we did indeed bundle back into the cars and make the trek back to Cranbrook! The good news is that our tickets from the afternoon visit were still valid. Of course, there is bad news as well...overcast skies and snow flurries do NOT make for good stargazing conditions.  Still, within minutes we were re-tracing our steps through the museum to the flight of steps leading up to the Observatory dome.

At this point I would like to note that my pulse-rate always peaks out in the moment where I can first see the instruments that make up the centerpiece of an astronomical observatory.  In that instant I hold my breath; an almost reverential hush seems to fall as I catch that initial glimpse...and then the clockwork gearing of the world takes up the slack and time moves onward again.

But I do love that moment of stillness, the anticipation of "astronomical" discovery!

When Cranbrook Observatory was first established ninety years ago it's primary instrument was a 6-inch diameter refractor telescope.  A telescope's telescope, if you will; what most people (including myself) think of when they hear the word.  If that wonderful instrument had still been "there" in the center of the great dome that evening, I'd not have been unhappy.  The old "long eyes" evoke an earlier era for me, a time when astronomy, and science in general, were enjoying the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, well before the era of "big" science was begun. I'm including a photo of this former occupant of the Observatory for comparison with the modern equipage (bottom of post).

Toys in the attic
Still, there IS something to be said for modern instrumentation!  The 6-Inch refractor is gone, replaced by a modern optical machine--well, three of them, actually! Atop the central pedestal at the center of the dome stood a 20-inch diameter Catadioptric CDK (Corrected Dall-Kirkham) reflector (black mass with latticework tube) flanked by the dynamic duo of two big, modern refractors; a 6-inch Takahashi (white tube) and Lunt solar telescope (white tube with red cap).  For those who might be mystified by telescopic technobable, please accept the following translation: the Cranbrook Observatory has an exceptional set of telescopes providing a wide range of observing options--in other words, a very choice bit of kit!
The Astronomer and his telescope(s)...Dr. Michael Foerster and Carl the Bear
Manning the dome that snowy night: Astronomer Michael Foerster, an expat Kiwi now living in the Frozen North.  Friendly and talkative, Michael explained the equipment in the dome and some of its history (mis-quoted above), and soon he and I were discussing the trials and tribulations of being an urban astronomer; eg. light pollution and winter weather!  So well did he and I get along that Cindy later commented that we seemed to have a "bonding" moment there.  I think that bond was there already...from the nights where Michael and I respectively fell in love with the stars!

Well, I could have sat up in the dome talking stars and optics for the rest of the evening, but I wasn't alone--I couldn't very well keep my sister and niece prisoner in the tower, could I?  After about half-an-hour, therefore, we said our goodbyes and returned to the mundane, snowy world beyond the Dome. I think I'll be going back there, though--in better weather--to exchange stargazing stories and--perhaps--to observe under clear skies next time.

Of course, there are several other observatories in the Detroit area...I'll need to visit them as well.  Guess I'd better start making plans for my next trip to Michigan!

The Observatory's former occupant, the 6-inch refractor telescope