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...