Author: stevecampbell1955

Around Robin Hoods Barn in an Electric Car – Part One


SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

“Around Robin Hoods barn” is a euphemism for an unnecessarily long and complicated journey.

This reporter is not an authority on electric vehicles but he did own and drive one for a couple of years.  Neither can he qualify as an expert on electric power generation but Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has some of those.

This tale has metastasized into a lengthy discourse and will – of necessity – be serialized.

Baker, Ford, Edison and Electric Vehicles:

Electric vehicles are nothing new.  There were electric “carriages” as early as the turn of the nineteenth Century.  They were, as a rule – one-off, custom made vehicles and extremely expensive.  The Baker Motor Vehicle Company did go into a production line situation and made a virtue of the expense of its product. Thomas Edison apparently bought one. Anyone familiar with Jay Leno’s pastime will not be surprised that he owns a Baker.

Figure 0: A Baker Electric, similar to Jay Leno’s

Jay also has an Owen Magnetic which was even more interesting and the creation of George Westinghouse..

But, any industrial-scale production would have to wait until some Titan of Industry took up the task, like say…Henry Ford.

Henry Ford (the original) built and tested several prototypes in the early years of the Twentieth Century.  There is a fascinating article by Daniel Strohl (2010) that detailed the efforts of Ford in that direction.  This piece is spellbinding for anyone afflicted with Nerd-Geek-Trivia Syndrome (NGTS) like yours truly.

Figure 1: Ford’s first prototype electric car circa 1913.  Batteries under the seat and motor in the rear. The steering mechanism is quite interesting.  It seems to be a transverse tiller (at the driver’s left hand) connected by a flexible cable (!) to the front axle.  A bank of batteries under the front seat.

Figure 2:  A second Ford prototype on a model T chassis. The driver in this and the previous photo is electrical engineer Fred Allison. Note the more conventional steering, additional batteries and “Rich Corinthian Leather” of the upholstery.



I lifted three quotes from this.  The first is an understatement of a problem.

Henry Ford:  January 11, 1914, New York Times:

The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.

Ford recognized the primary problem, alright.  In fact, he underestimated the problem because it killed the electric car in Ford’s lifetime and is still the big bugaboo haunting EV’s today.

Rather, as Bryan wrote, the downfall of the Edison-Ford electric car came about because :

“Ford demanded the use of Edison’s nickel-iron batteries in the car, and would have no other battery powering this car. Edison’s batteries, however, were found to have very high internal resistance and were thus incapable of powering an electric car under many circumstances. Heavier lead-acid batteries (which would have made the car too ponderous) were substituted behind Henry Ford’s back, and when he found out, he went ballistic. The program quickly fell to the wayside with other projects demanding Henry Ford’s time. According to The Ford Century, Ford invested $1.5 million in the electric car project and nearly bought 100,000 batteries from Edison before the project fell apart.”

The second quote is one of those over-the-top optimistic things that even very smart people sometimes say.

Thomas Edison, May 1914:

“All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.”

I drove a truck to New York City just last year.  Brooklyn it was.  There were plenty of trucks around – illegally double and triple parked.  Not one of them was electric.

Such optimism can be forgiven in long retrospect.  That sort of thing cannot be helped in uncharted territory of emerging technologies.

According to Click and Clack – the Tappet Bros.

Compared to Car Talk, all other forms of Saturday morning entertainment shrink to insignificance.  Tom (RIP) and Ray Magliozzi clowned around while giving car advice on the air.  They had some uproariously funny bits and advice not just on cars but in all matters of Human Endeavor. People tended not to take them seriously.  But it is important to remember that these two were quite experienced and educated people.

The comment I remember from their show (but cannot track down for a reference) echoed that of Ford, some eighty-odd years before and it went something like this:  “The problem with electric cars is – and always has been- the batteries.”

{color:blue;}The Jet Electrica

Direct experience is the best method for learning and I can authoritatively state that the battery problem had not been resolved as of the early years of the Twenty First Century.

Around the turn of the aforementioned Century, I was fascinated by the idea of electric vehicles,  until I eventually bought one.  It was a 1981 Jet Electrica.  These things were built on Detroit products called “gliders” which are complete vehicles, including transmission and drive train, but lacking any engine.  The idea is that the EV company would provide the electric motor.

Figure 3: 1981 Jet Electrica.  This would have been a Mercury Lynx, which was a flashier version of a Ford Escort.

I don’t seem to have any photos of my own of the vehicle that took me to work and back for two years.  This one was grabbed off the internet and turns out to be from the used car ad that I saw when I bought this vehicle for $1000.  I am quite sure that this is the one because after 5 or 10 years, the state of Texas says you need a new license plate (not just “year stickers”) on your car and the one you see on the front in this picture (YZY 11T) is now nailed up on a joist in my garage (this is a tradition in Texas).

That motor is the easy part.  It is tiny compared to the Internal Combustion Engine required to move the “real” (i.e., non-glider) model of this vehicle around.  It was connected directly to the clutch and the driver would start with his foot OFF the clutch, accelerating rapidly to 5 mph and up-shifting from there.  The “acceleration” went flat at about ten mph and I was constantly harassed, passed and hated by cars behind me.  In fourth gear, it was possible to careen down a boulevard at 45 mph.  Once (once!) I took an on-ramp to Interstate 10 and managed to get the poor thing up to 70 mph.  At that time, Scotty called up from Engineering and said, “Cap’n! Ah cahnt gi’ ye waarp five mooch langer!  It’ll tear th’ Enterprise apahrt!  I took the next exit ramp and never again did the Jet see Interstate pavement.  Braking was done in the conventional way, but lacking any benefit from downshifting.  The car stops in 4th with the clutch still engaged and the shift to first is made while motionless.

As Ford learned all  those decades before your humble narrator, it is the batteries that were the big problem. The batteries in the Jet Electrica were similar to the configuration of Ford’s second prototype and used those same type of lead-acid batteries.  There were six six-volt golf cart batteries under the hood.  A fat cable connected them to ten more such units under the hatchback, beneath and iron (SIC) cover what would be the spare tire well and gasoline tank in a normal Lynx. These are directly connected with the passenger compartment, you understand!  That’s a bad idea for several reasons.   There was a 17th battery – this one a 12 volt – that powered the lights and radio.  It was tucked under the left rear fender.

The ten batteries in the back were connected in series by standard battery cables with top-post connectors on each end.  There are a grand total of 16 six volt batteries that supplied a 96 volts to the motor.  The batteries were “deep-draw” that is they hold a lot of charge and will dump large amounts of current quickly – between 100 and 200 amps.  There was more than enough voltage and current to do electric arc welding with just a lead and ground connected to the first positive  and last negative terminal of  the battery pack.  The cable ends tended to loosen as the car’s body flexed when it went over bumps and around turns. The loose connection makes for more resistance and heat is generated.  Least you think it might be minor – that welding example needs temperatures of about 1200 degrees F. Eventually, the battery terminal melts off its base and falls through the plastic case.  Lead acid batteries generate hydrogen gas and it is ignited by the red-hot electrode and subsequently explodes.  This is loud enough to be unnerving and of course breaks the series circuit.  Like cheap Christmas lights, when one goes out, they all go out and you’re walking. Unless you happen to be carrying a long spare cable.  Then you simply connect the battery before the deader to the battery after same and you drive on with a now 90 volt system.  You drive straight home, because another one may blow.

You take the warrantied battery back to Sam’s Club and trade it in for a new one.  Shrug when asked what happened and no need to mention that this is not from a piddley little 36 volt golf cart but a 96 volt “compact car” that weighs 3300 pounds with all these packets of lead aboard.

The solution to that particular problem was to tighten all the battery connections each time I wanted to drive somewhere.  And while we are at it we can open the 48 battery caps and fill them up with distilled water.  Some cells seemed to be “thirstier” than others.  And, best to wear a shop apron or change to work clothes for this labor, since the acid fumes eat your clothing in short order.  The batteries also outgas what I suspect is some compound of sulfuric vapor.  The smell alone was enough to remind me that the batteries contain sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and water (H2O) and chemical reactions going on all the time.  A little knowledge is a scary blessing. In the oil industry, there are “sour wells” that contain Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) and the stuff will kill you pretty quickly at very low concentrations.  I have no doubt that at least a small fraction of the fumes from the battery pack were this deadly compound. There was an exhaust fan in the rear battery compartment that I never managed to make operate.  So, instead I arranged to prop open the hatchback and leave the front windows at least partially down at all times while driving.

The ventilation requirements became a problem in the winter.  The car had a heater that made  the irony factor go right off the scale.  Since heating off the battery bank would potential cut the 40 mile range in half on a cold day, the manufacturers of this electromechanical oddity had put in a gasoline burning heater. These are nothing new.  My father owned a (conventional gasoline powered) car with such a device in about 1950.  So I am told by my Uncle (Mother’s younger Brother) who was able to borrow that vehicle for drive-in movie dates.  The gasoline heater was far more efficient than running the engine for heat and made such social functions affordable.

The heater in the Electric had a two-gallon tank, which was cleverly installed behind the filler for the conventional Lynx tank.  The previous owner had not used it and – thinking of all the hydrogen fumes floating around – neither did I.  On really cold mornings I ran an extension cord to the Jet and left a hair dryer running for a half hour or so to warm the cab and defrost the windshield.

This Jet company had the audacity to put a battery powered air conditioner under the back seat.  As purchased its disembodied motor/compressor unit was on the floorboard and that is as close as it got to ever again attempting to cool the car.  Air conditioning in Houston is not for lightweights.  In the 80’s (if I remember correctly) Houston had a new fleet of Grumman busses with their standard air-conditioners.  They quickly surrendered to the Texas Summer and were re-enforced with huge roof-mounted units.  The previous owner of the Lynx / Electrica lived in Dallas, which is worse.  Dallas was enduring a heat wave in the 1990’s and some bus rider with a thermometer complained that the temperature in the bus was 95° F.

The bus driver told him, “Mister, these air conditioners are good for twenty degrees of cooling.  It is 119° outside so you are getting four more degrees of cooling than you have any right to expect   Please go back and sit down”

I have little doubt that A/C would have eaten up the majority of the poor car’s 40-mile range on hot days.

There is a little known aspect of lead-acid batteries that I re-discovered by accident.  I mentioned that the lid over the battery compartment was iron.  It was a least an eighth inch thick and when I first looked under it there was a big sheet of thick acid-eaten cardboard on top of the batteries, which I removed.

Months later, I was replacing the 12 volt battery and swung the new one up and plopped it down on the iron lid. Something said, BOOM!”.

It turns out that if you push down hard on the middle of the iron lid  (perhaps by plopping a 60 pound battery on it), you can manage to bend it down enough to put a direct short across the terminals of one of the six-volt batteries.  This tries to release all the charge once – with explosive results.  The purpose of the thick sheet of cardboard was now obvious.   Fortunately, the lid mostly protected the hapless amateur electrical engineer from the ensuing shrapnel.

The Sam’s Club battery guys knew me by this time and asked no question when I turned in the warranted remains for a new one.  The iron lid thereafter had a hole in it and a new sheet of cardboard was atop the batteries.

I tell you all these horror stories not to condemn the electric car but to convey the state of technology at the time.  Not necessarily that of the mid 2000’s when I drove the thing, but at least in the early 1980’s when the Jet was new.

I will have to  pick up the story later.

Hasta Luego,


Uranus: The Seventh Planet

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations


(OK, Reader! Wipe that smile off your face and pay attention!)

This poor planet suffers that name that sounds like two words your Proctologist might put together when discussing your condition.  It is laughed at so often that it inspired an article by a man name DeCotis.  I cannot locate the original article but I emailed him the following message.  I hasten to point out that this text – once sent – has been augmented, improved, embellished and even illustrated over the years and especially just prior to the posting of this article.

Mr. DeCotis,

Heartiest congrats to Space Online, Billy Cox and yourself on a wonderful bit of writing about the planet Uranus. I myself have long considered the name of first trans-Saturnian planet to be a problem. This became a matter of importance when, in 1977, it was discovered that, like other Gas Giants, “Neptune-Minus-One” had rings. This was before Voyager 2 got to #7 and was accomplished by watching that planet pass in front of a star. This is called an occultation. Unexpectedly, the star dimmed several times before and after the planet covered it. Only rings could explain it since expecting that many satellites to be lined up in that fashion was improbable in the extreme. 

Knowing me to be an Astronomy student, people would ask me, “Are there really rings around Uranus?”. I understood that as a very personal and offending question and I was tempted to demonstrate the (negative) answer visually, but I refrained.

 Actually, I explained to them about the occultation, just as in the first paragraph – being a thoroughgoing Astronomy nerd.

Figure 1:  The actual light curve
from the 1977 occultation that
detected Uranus’ rings.


There was a Science Fiction B-movie about Uranus which was euphemistically entitled “Journey  to the Seventh Planet” back in the sixties*. Even as a teenager (or especially as a teenager, I suppose) it didn’t take long to figure out what they were avoiding. There was a brief movement (no disgusting pun intended) to transfer the emphasis to the first syllable but you can see (well, hear) immediately that this is a non-starter (“Urine-us”). The name would still be in the bathroom humor department and would only prompt a new round of adolescent jokes.

    It was about then that I decided that “Joe” was a nice enough name. But in order to differentiate whether we were talking about Lewis, Dimaggio, Cool, College, Blow, Six Pack or the Planet, we’d need to specify “Joe the Planet” for every reference. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Joe the Planet, Neptune and Pluto. I’ll grant you it’s a bit awkward at first but it should put an end to the pubescent snickering in astronomy lectures and planetarium shows.


 *I looked it up on YouTube recently – it still stinks.

In college, I was assured by actual Astronomy Professors that this planet’s name is “your ah noose” (accent on “ah” and “noose” rhymes with moose).  The other pronunciations you may have heard are either erroneous or may be attributed to the aforementioned “bathroom humor”.

Now that we have the nomenclature issue dealt with, let’s have a look at the planet itself.


Quoting a NASA planet resource website{1]:

“The first planet found with the aid of a telescope, Uranus was discovered in 1781 by astronomer William Herschel, although he originally thought it was either a comet or a star. It was two years later that the object was universally accepted as a new planet, in part because of observations by astronomer Johann Elert Bode.

William Herschel tried unsuccessfully to name his discovery Georgium Sidus after King George III. Instead the planet was named for Uranus, the Greek god of the sky, as suggested by Johann Bode.”

So, it’s “Bode’s ill” – so to speak.  Don’t blame poor Herschel for the double entendre.  Nor his sister Caroline who joined the musician turned astronomer and accomplished many discoveries of her own:

“Caroline assisted Herschel until his death.  She discovered eight comets. She also discovered several deep-sky objects and was the first woman to be given a paid scientific position…”

Early Observation

There was not much to see.  Even in the most powerful “backyard” telescopes – as late as the 1980’s Uranus was a small dim pale blueish green dot.  A “professional” telescope of that era would be required to resolve the largest satellite, Titania as a featureless point of light.  Even in those elaborate instruments, Uranus maintained its elusive nature.

“Even through large telescopes the planet often appears fuzzy and indistinct. Brightness variations are sometimes reported, the likely result of changes in the planet’s atmosphere.”  [2]


Figure 2:  Uranus through a large “backyard” telescope.

Below is that table of planetary statistics that readers may have seen before.

PlanetaryStatisticsTable 1: Statistics for the Planets


The seventh planet is 19 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun.


Figure 3: Simple “Visual aid” to depict the distance of Uranus (big green dot) from the Sun (Yellow asterisk) as compared to that of the Earth (little blue dot).  Only the distances are to scale – not the sizes of the Sun and planets.

In size, it is 31, 763 miles in diameter (four and a half times that of Earth).  Like all the Giant Planets, it rotates quickly (once every 17 hours and 12 minutes) and it is much less dense than the “Rocky Planets” like Earth.

The atmosphere is hydrogen and helium with some methane.  Deeper down, there is a “mantle” of water, ammonia and methane ices above a rocky core.  You see in figure 3A that they have not labeled the thicknesses of these layers.  That is a sure sign that they don’t really have a clue what those numbers should be!.

Internal-structure-of-UranusFigure 3A: Internal Structure of Uranus

A notable unique feature of Uranus is the orientation of its spin axis relative to the plane of its orbit (see “obliquity in orbit” in the table).  In the Uranian summer and winter the axis of rotation of the planet points almost directly at the Sun – resulting in one hemisphere in constant sunlight and the other in darkness.  This is thought to have been caused by Uranus’ collision with a large planetoid late in its formation.  The diagram below explains the situation.


Figure 4:  Seasons of Uranus


Uranus was visited by a space probe only once.  It was the third stop on what was called at the time “The Grand Tour”.  As it happened, there was an alignment of the outer planets in the 70’s and 80’s such that it would be possible to use gravity assisted orbital adjustments (“the slingshot effect”) to make it possible for a space probe to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one long and carefully managed trajectory.  The Voyager 2 Spacecraft did exactly that and arrived in the area of Uranus in 1986.

The Voyager 2 Spacecraft        

The Voyager probes each had a main antenna that was capable of constant communications with the Earth.  This necessitated what is called a “scan platform” that held the instruments that need precise pointing and moved independently of the antenna.  The constant contact was needed because data storage was actually on a ½ inch, 8 track magnetic tape with a total capacity of about ½ Megabyte and a top baud rate of 56 kilobits per second (2).  That’s what I said – “Stone Knives and Bear Skins!” – so, real-time transmission was required for image data.”  Voyager was – despite my demeaning reference – quite advanced at the time and its imagery and other data are still quite impressive. They made the most of the technology at hand.

The image below depicts the identical Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 Spacecraft. (4) The dish antenna is 3.7 meters in diameter (12 feet, 2 inches) across.  The arm extending to the right contains the main experiments and the imaging “scan platform”.  The left arm holds the three radioisotope thermoelectric generators that power the probe that provided the electric power out in the dark reaches where solar panels would be quite ineffective.  The gold disk on the “body” is the famous Record with messages and images of Earth for anyone “out there”.    Carl Sagan, whose enthusiasm for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) was well-known had thought to perhaps include a plaque with a message engraved upon it as had been done with the Pioneer space probes.  This Record (an actual grooved phonograph Long Playing (LP) disc – only metal, not vinyl) was the idea of Frank Drake.  SETI Nerds will recognize Drake as the inventor of the “Drake Equation” which is a formula to calculate how many extraterrestrial civilizations there might be.  That’s Frank in the inset, with his equation.  I put him there to give scale to the picture.


Figure 5: The Voyager Spacecraft        NASA/NASA website


Figure 6: A Voyager view of Uranus in 1986. 

Even the dedicated planetary scientists had to admit they were disappointed with the rather very bland appearance of the planet.  In trying to describe the feelings of the Voyager team about the mediocrity of it all, Planetary Scientist Heidi Hammel had this to say,  “…poor Uranus…poor Uranus!”.[6]

There had been observations from Earth of clouds in this atmosphere, so what’s the deal?  You will see in the diagram in figure 4 that the solstice – that point in the orbit where one hemisphere is constantly roasting in sunlight – was in 1986.  Just when Voyager happened along.  Later observations were made with (much improved) telescopes in the years surrounding the Equinox of 2007 (see Figure 4) – when most of Uranus has 8 ½ hours sun and 8 ½  hours darkness – “barbeque” mode, as they say.  Those images showed Uranus in its more “flamboyant” mood. Figure 7.


Figure 7:  Uranus near Equinox.  Note the rings (R) – now markedly evident when they are seen edge-on.

It is probably worth noting that the Voyager camera and those of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are almost certainly quite different in their ranges of wavelengths and sensitivities, so they are not directly comparable.  Nonetheless, we may expect more blandness from “poor Uranus” around the Summer Solstice in 2028.

I should mention that there is a lot more science involved than just the images recorded by Voyager and results from those found new and interesting features, as well. For example, the magnetic field detected is not centered on the planet core and its poles are near the rotational equator.  This was totally unexpected.

The Satellite that “Saved the Show”

One of the major aspects of interest in the Giant planets was the characteristics and history of their satellites.  With Jupiter and Saturn, the space probes entered and left the planetary systems obliquely across the orbits of the moons and could, with luck, come close to several of them for detailed examination.  In the case of Uranus, the moons’ orbits are like circles on the sky and are approached as if in target practice.  The “Grand Tour” scenario of hopping from one outer planet too the next required very specific trajectories past the planets along the way.  That, and the angle of the sun left only one chance of a close approach to a satellite and even that would see only the perpetually lit hemisphere of the smallest of the major moons – Miranda (Figure 7) It could not have been predicted that this would be by far the most interesting of all the moons and the feature we could all point to when asked by non-Nerds why all this expense and effort was spent to go look at a blue-green billiard ball – with no number on it.


Figure 8:  Miranda

Miranda is the smallest (about 300 miles across) of the major satellites and the closest to the planet (roughly 81,000 miles).  It circles Uranus in 1.4 days and always shows the same face to the planet.  This is looking down at the South pole.  In the season when Voyager arrived, this was pretty much all that would have been illuminated.

And, it looks like it has been broken apart and then shoved back together!  Not surprisingly, that is one idea of how it came to look so.

“Scientists disagree about what processes are responsible for Miranda’s features. One possibility is that the moon may have been smashed apart in some colossal collision, and the pieces then haphazardly reassembled. Another, perhaps more likely, scenario is that the coronae are sites of large rocky or metallic meteorite strikes which partially melted the icy subsurface and resulted in episodic periods of slushy water rising to Miranda’s surface and refreezing.”[8]

Uranus has four larger satellites.  The biggest is Titania which is still less than half the diameter of the Earth’s moon.  As mentioned earlier they were not well surveyed in the fly-by, but a map of Titania’s surface appears in figure 9.


Figure 9:  A Map of Titania’s surface.  Again, only about half the surface was illuminated and this is the least boring part of that.

The larger satellite also has some interesting surface features.  I am reminded of my own varicose veins.


  1. The seventh planet turns out to be rather dull and featureless, but only for the Southern Summer. The Spring Equinox brought considerable atmospheric activity after Voyager but now detectable from the improved cameras of the Hubble Space Telescope and other modern observatories.
  2. The satellites of all the Giant Planets all turned out to be far more complex than was first imagined by Earthbound observers. Uranus is no exception.
  3. Uranus still has that unfortunate name (despite my “Joe” recommendation) but we can overlook that because we are all adults, here. Right?…Right?

Hasta Luego,


[1] NASA Photos:!

[2] William Herschel:

[3] Uranus Telescope view:

[4} Voyager details:

[5] Table of Planetary Statistics:

[6] The Farthest: Voyager in Space – Netflix

[7]  Uranus Planetary Factsheet:

[8] Miranda in Depth – NASA:



The Farthest: Voyager in Space

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

Netflicks:  The Farthest: Voyager in Space


I don’t want to say that young people today are spoiled by modern conveniences – mostly because it makes me sound like a stereotypical curmudgeon.  But, it is absolutely true and it was true for me as well in those long-ago days when I could be described as “young”.  You, too.   And our parents, and theirs and so on, ad infinitum.  There is only one way to make young people appreciate the technological heritage they have.   The progress from a less complex technology to their time has to be described to them by us involuntary immigrants from the past.

Perhaps only an early-adopter “Space Nerd” from the middle Twentieth Century could explain the early days of the exploration of the Solar System.  That would be Your Humble Narrator and I am stepping up on this occasion to review a Netflick Video about that very subject.  I followed the Voyager missions from their launch in 1977 to the flyby of Neptune in 1989 – and beyond.

Before Voyager

Before there was Voyager, the outer planets were only vaguely known.  In 1977 there had been some probes sent to the outer planets – most notably the Mariner and Pioneer probes, which were not insignificant.  But, this documentary is an appreciation of Voyager – the “Game Changer” in Solar System exploration – and its very momentous accomplishments.  It was the most ambitious and significant exploration of the Solar System of that time and the facts and images gathered are a fundamental part of planetary science to this day.

Because Jupiter is the largest and nearest – at “only” five times the Earth’s distance (One Astronomical Unit (AU)) from the Sun – it was the best known.  Even at that, all that was known was some bands of clouds and a “Great Red Spot”.    We knew that Jupiter had four large moons.  Your average Astronomy Nerd – like Your Humble Narrator – could drag the telescope out of the Garage and show you the Bands and the Spot and the four moons.  He would tell you their names – “Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto” – and show you four dots of light surrounding a small dimly striped Jupiter where the Great Red Spot might be barely visible.

The more enthusiastic Nerd will have an even bigger telescope and will almost certainly show you Saturn.  He will twist your arm (literally, if necessary) to show you Saturn!  That is because Saturn is the stunning little toy in the eyepiece that everybody loves to see.  They might look at a picture made by a great observatory and appreciate it, but when they see it in a telescope with their own eye*, it is always a stunning epiphany.  Saturn’s largest moon Titan and a few of the smaller ones are visible in a large amateur ‘scope   About twenty years ago, I showed my mother Saturn and Titan, Rhea and Tethys.  It is a great lumbering 12 inch Dobsonian that has no clock drive to track the planet.  I had to constantly re-adjust the aim and then tell Mom, “Okay – look quick!” and duck out of her way.  She could glimpse Saturn for a scant few seconds until the Earth’s rotation took it out of view.  Then I would step back in to find it again, describe what to look for and where and jump back out of the way.  She was fairly impressed when I told her that very few people on Earth – one in many millions, perhaps – have personally looked through a telescope and seen these.

*With very few exceptions, telescopes are “monocular”.

The next two targets of Voyager Uranus and Neptune were – even with the best telescopes of the day – were still not much more than small indistinct discs of light.

GoingwalkaboutMorseI told you all that so I could tell you to see “The Farthest: Voyager in Space” on Netflix.

The Story of Voyager

The story begins with the engineers who built the thing.  Things, actually – there were two of them.  What they modestly describe is really a miracle of concentrated effort and talent, innovation and adaptation.  Those engineers and planetary scientists that participated in the effort are interviewed, but not in any simple question-and-answer format.  Rather, their responses are woven into the narrative to make a smoothly-flowing saga.

The tale continues. Once the craft were assembled and packaged on their rockets, they were summarily thrown off their native planet – never to return –  in dramatic, suspense-filled launches.

The spacecraft encountered, recorded and sent back to Earth discoveries that, on the one hand confirmed long-held ideas of the nature of the Solar System.  On the other hand, they relayed stunning new revelations that nobody – in their wildest dreams – had imagined could exist.


Each planetary encounter at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -and the decisions and the problems – is chronicled and described by the people involved.  There is archival video from the encounter operations where you will recognize younger versions of the interviewees.  After Neptune, the continuing mission of the probes is described.  And all through the narrative, the sounds and pictures of the famous “golden record” (a Human message to the Universe) are heard and displayed.

Doubt me if you must, but this story is a compelling drama, complete with comedy, tragedy, euphoric glory and devastating failure. A well-written, well-produced timeless chronicle of a stunning achievement for all mankind.

This video has become my new “Saturn” moment.  I dragged (figuratively, figuratively!) my Wife to see it with me and she was fascinated by what she had never known.  I am working on appointments to watch it again with First and Second Sons.

Hasta Luego,


The Walkabout in Pictures  – Part II

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

Below you will see the skyline of Chicago – a once mighty city – often referred to as the “Second City” because its population that was second only to New York.  

ChcagoSkylineCU“Second City” – soon to be Fourth.

Los Angeles passed up Chicago as “Second City” a while back,  Houston will pass it up as Third in the next census or soon after.  The “Windy City” (so named for its politicians, not its weather) is being abandoned as was Detroit.  Higher taxes, raging crime and corrupt politicians chased out businesses and taxpayers who could afford to leave.  The pols then raised taxes again to compensate and the spiral continues.  Illinois residents are furious with Chicago for breaking the State’s budget.  There was talk of abolishing the State of  Illinois and parcelling it out to the surrounding states.  I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but if I was – for example – an Indiana Resident, I’d tell my representatives, “No way you are going to pawn off Illinois debt on me!”

Driving in this city with an 18 wheeler is ain’t no picnic neither.  Anyone who says different is a masochist who loves to be abused.  The same goes for Los Angeles and New York.  Houston and Dallas are merely frustrating and confusing because the Jill, the Navigation Computer has no clue about recent construction and thinks you are on the surface streets when you are actually on the expanded freeway.  She keeps urging you  to turn left and take the on ramp – until out of desperation you move to the older left-hand lanes.  Then she will shut up and recognize the Interstate again. 

CropdusterCould be Texas or Kansas or Tennessee, for that matter.  Crop dusters are seen all over the farmland of America.  I suspect the pilots love their jobs since they can fly aerobatics all the time.  Your average airline pilots must envy them.

 My Uncle (father’s older brother) was a pilot for the duration of World War Two and Korea.  He started the first aerial crop dusting operation in Texas after that.  It had to be a great pleasure for him to maneuver like what you see here since he had flown great lumbering B-17’s in Europe and B-29’s in the Pacific theater.   There is a very good story about my Uncle flying Dad around in a piper cub.  Stay tuned.

GeologicaalMountainsMountains are a majestic presence that reduce the grim drudgery of driving to irrelevance.  They rise up out of the plains and grow slowly in the distance until, suddenly the near-infinite horizon has shortened into a winding, ascent through a labyrinth of rocky facades.

GeologyMassifShadowThe Earth rises around to blot out the sky.  Geology surrounds and penetrates the mood.  But while beauty dominates the view, the meandering highway demands respect – and vigilant attention.  The tranquil excursion across the plains is left far behind and a new paradigm – ever-changing in direction and elevation – absorbs the traveler’s reality.

 Geology_BlackCLudsSnowOut of thin air, an equally majestic skyscape. 

Cold fronts in Kansas are visible from many miles away, bisecting the sky.  North Texas produces some menacing dark, churning clouds that bring hail and threaten with funnel clouds.  I have some photos of that, but they evade detection.

weird-clouds-in-nebraska This image I titled “Weird Clouds in Nebraska”.

I know my readers are tired of hearing this:  As often happens, the photos do not do justice to the eye-witnessed scene.

Geology_FrozenReservoirA frozen reservoir.  But for that thin blue streak, ice and sky would be indistinguishable.  This is from a “scenic pull-out” and lucky for me, the “no trucks” sign did not appear.

Geology_MountainsSpiresUtah.  The “cap rocks” are harder than the underlying rock layers, which are gradually washed away in the rare showers or blown off by persistent winds to create these copious pillars.

Geology_Outcrop_TreesA ridge – from the road it looks like limestone –  harbors the only trees within the horizon. The phenomenon, when mostly vertical it is called a “dyke” and when horizontal, a “sill”.   I suspect it is also an aquifer that carries water to the surface – hence the trees.


A detour in Arizona sent me through this corridor, near Prescott.  This straight-away was one of a very few.  There is an overwhelming abundance of scenic beauty to be seen in the Western half of America.

Geology_SaltFlatsSalt flats on the edges of the Great Salt Lake (in the distance).  In my few passes of this area, I don’t remember seeing GSL without clouds.  Whether Climate or Coincidence, I can’t say.

Geology_ThatHotelInWyomingOn emerging from a tunnel in Western Wyoming.  See how the architect has matched the colors to the landscape.  This is an especially compelling tableau in the glow of the full Moon. The light reflects vividly off the snow as to make a brighter than expected nocturnal landscape.

VOlcanoNecksWinterVolcano necks that resist weathering and wind up with sides so steep they won’t hold the snow.   The famous Devil’s Tower (featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is found in Wyoming.  Alas, it is off the major truck routes.

 Hasta Luego,



SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

This is the first in a series of reviews of videos from that far-off land called “The Past”.  Many are so ancient that video recording was something only television technicians could accomplish with machines that were either fixed on studio shelves or took two people to carry into a room.  These products are mostly the result of “film crews” that were later edited and transferred to video to be broadcast over conventional TV.  Eventually some of same became VCR or Betamax tapes and later, DVD’s.  Now they are found as streaming video on the internet.

Other reviews will be about more recent stuff.  I won’t review much that costs money to watch – mostly because I don’t have much money, just now.


In 1978 James Burke, a Professor of History, (AKA a “Futurist”) embarked on a TV Documentary series called “Connections”  Before that (if you are as ancient as Your Humble Narrator and were watching British Television) you will remember him as the go-to commentator for the Apollo missions to the Moon.

This is the link to Season One – Episode One:

Burke exhibits a small electro-mechanical device and tells you that is caused a major social upheaval in 1965.    Thus. begins an examination of our lives as dependent on the inventions and innovations that we all take for granted.  Back in time we are compelled – to examine the History of Technology.

I’ve seen interviews with Burke who explains that he likes to circle around and tie the narrative back to the beginning.  He did such a good job of this that I was a devoted fan back when these documentaries first appeared.  He would also leave a “hook” for the next episode, so  watch for that.

The link above takes you to a free viewing of the first episode.  You’re on your own from there*. 😉

Quote: “If you understand something today, that means it is already obsolete.”

P.S.  Watch for “Signs of the time”:  Smoking on an airliner.

*Here is a clue to the full series and the subsequent sequels:


The sequels disappoint and the disappointment increases with time:

 “Connections 2 was a set of half-hour programs somewhat along the lines of Connections, but with a shotgun approach. The half-hour format reminded me of a girl in high school who suddenly discovered that she had just typed several pages singly spaced, when they should have been doubly spaced. To remedy the situation, she grabbed her eraser and proceeded to erase every other line. Connections 2 was thus interesting only if you took the time and had the knowledge to fill in the holes.”

“After the Warming”

Unfortunately, Burke was lured over to the “Dark Side” (Global Warming) and produced an Apocalyptic prediction in 1990 called “After the Warming.  The fact that Burke is not a Scientist becomes blatantly obvious as he poses as the 2050 version of himself looking back on the post 1990 disaster.  If you have the patience to watch him miss the mark completely, you will be amused to note the tremendous horrible events from 1990 until today (2017) that DID NOT HAPPEN.  This s the sort of Hell-Fire climate predictions that have for too long been swept under the rug in the last few decades – because they do not fit with factual reality.

Hasta Luego,


Santa Claus and Superman


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Think about it.


Two legendary figures. Both are instantly recognizable by their silly costumes. Both are infinitely helpful, benevolent and altruistic. Both can do amazing things that no human being could accomplish and are admired almost universally, especially among children. I’ve never seen them together, have you? What makes you think they aren’t the same guy? Who does he think he’s fooling with that phony looking beard?

Look at the similarities. Both prefer bright primary colors. Claus with his warm red suit and Superman with his stunning blue ensemble avec flashy red cape (and outside-jockey shorts) topped off by yellow highlights. Both show up unexpectedly then leave before you can thank them.

Wait just a minute! What about this Lone Ranger guy!

…Nah, he’s into earth tones and hangs out with Jay Silverheals.  Both Claus and Superman do their big work alone.

 Superman flies with no apparent help. Claus flies with the aid of reindeer, or is that just a ruse? They both exhibit an affinity for cold climates. Actually, both are commonly known to inhabit the Arctic reaches. Santa in his Workshop and Superman in the Fortress of Solitude. This you think is a coincidence?

Larry Niven pointed out that Superman had a pretty awful childhood – his folks dead, planet destroyed. He might be superhuman but just how much can any sentient life form put up with before he goes crackers? This guy’s schizophrenia is perhaps manifold. Santa might be an intermediate identity, half way between meek mild-mannered reporter and Super-hero.

Come to think of it he is already three people before you count Santa Claus.  His birth name is Kal-El (son of Jor-El of Krypton – a prosecuting attorney who looks like Marlin Brando – before the great “ballooning”).

Perhaps, orphaned and homeless himself as an infant, El/Kent/Superman engages in a forlorn form of bargaining-stage grief by dedicating one day a year to fulfilling the dreams of children…all of them. We know he wouldn’t have any trouble whipping out a few billion toys, but that might seriously cut into the time he spends catching bad guys or saving the structure of Space-Time itself.  But there is this trick he has of squeezing a lump of coal into a big, facet-cut diamond – so to provide funds to buy all the toys he might need,

I stumbled across another – and perhaps ultimate – explanation of this “Claus” persona.  There are these guys who are called “Mummers” you see.  Quoting

“Mummers tradition dates back to 400 BC and the Roman Festival of Saturnalias where Latin laborers marched in masks throughout the day of satire and gift exchange.”

The tradition has survived the intervening 24 centuries to thrive until today. 

MummerExampleThis is an example of a modern-day Mummer.  I picked an “average” costume from  The Prize Winners are way “over-the-top” by comparison.  Something we cannot say about Santa – nor about Superman…Well, “over the top” actually may be appropriate there.

Perhaps the unwilling visitor from Krypton has adopted this ancient custom.  I believe this may be the explanation of El/Kent/Superman’s additional pseudonym (i.e., Claus). 


  • Our beloved legends are far more complicated individuals than we imagine.
  • They may be far fewer individuals that we believe,
  • This proves two long held popular “truisms”:
  1. “Go big or go home.” If you want to be different, then leave a vast gulf of space between yourself and the surrounding “different” individuals.
  2. “Crazy like a fox”. Success and insanity are by no means strangers.  The fact that Schizophrenia may be thrown in on top of it is not particularly surprising.

    So, what else is going on up there at the top of the world?

Praecepta Absurde,


Out of the Shoe Box

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     Goingwalkabout began as a chronicle of an unexpected journey through a stage of life.  It continues, in this new phase as a journey through Space (see Sneaking Up on Pluto, Part 1 & Part2) and in in this particular series, a voyage through Time.  I bring you greetings from a far-off place called “The Past”.  Since I have seen more of it than most of you, I’ll bet you will be surprised, amused and/or interested…unless you are one of those smarty-pants teenagers (I had two) who already know everything.

–.  —  ..  -.  –.  .–  .-  .-..  -.-  .-   -… —  ..-  –

Over the decades that now collectively inhibit gainful employment for Your Humble Narrator, he has embarked on many motivating sojourns.  Until recently, most all of them have been solitary travels and hence he has not many photos that include himself.  These travels occurred before the advent of the “selfie”, you see.

As we are now passing through a period when current travel is inhibited, I have gone to that repository so well known by every amateur photographer with age of about three score of years.

To explain to our progeny:

Once upon a time, photographs were accomplished by quaint little boxes referred to by the name that Merriam Webster says is from Late Latin and actually means a “room” in a building.  Rooms back then were not much bigger than boxes and well…   Back to the point:  Cameras recorded pictures on a plastic strip that was covered by an emulsion that changed chemically when exposed to light.  The “film” in the “camera” was hidden in darkness until the “shutter”…

OK, Look!  People wound up with little pieces of thick stiff paper with the pictures printed on them.  And that was it.  So, they stored the papers in a shoebox.  I have several such shoeboxes and a scanner.  So – look out, world – you are soon to be “exposed” like a piece of film to all my little pieces of paper.

For this first outing, I took the first four pictures that looked like they might scan well – pretty much at random.  This is only a test.  Had a real emergency occurred…


Figure 1:  That skyline is downtown Los Angeles in 1985.  Unless I am mistaken, this picture was taken from Griffith Park Observatory. 

The haze you see is not weather, but air pollution.  That stuff was called SMOG and was notoriously almost always hanging around Los Angeles, in those days.  Spoiled-rotten, neophyte, ignorami “environmentalists” of the recent era would have you believe that the air has never been dirtier than it is today.  They were not around when dirty air was King.  I was.  This was the normal condition of LA for this era and decades before.

The comedy show “My Favorite Martian” had an episode where Leonardo Da Vinci was catapulted forward in time to 1970’s LA.  One of his first comments was, “How is it you have a brown sky?”.  I seem to remember he was played by the very talented character actor Keenan Wynn, but I could be wrong.  In fact, I begin to doubt it – but check out that link anyway.

By the way, Los Angeles is the most abbreviated place on Earth.  Its real name is, “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora, la Reyna de los Angeles de la Porciuncula*” and they call it “L.A.”

*Or maybe something longer…


Figure 2: 1985  So early in the series, we have an exception to the rule that Steve does not appear in the photos.

I was indeed, traveling alone as was my constant habit.  I prevailed on a fellow tourist to take my picture here at the top of a ski lift in Arizona, Just North of Flagstaff.   I believe this is now called “Snowbowl”.  I came here on the Southwest Chief – that’s a train – from Los Angeles which you saw in the previous picture.    You see my attire is not suited to skiing weather.  My, how observant are my intelligent readers!  Yes, I was there in the summer and they operated the ski lift for folks who wanted to go up and look around.  There is a long story involved with getting to this point that will have to wait patiently until I scan the other pictures.


Figure 3:  The Sydney (Australia) Tower 1990.

This requires a regression of some extent.  Long ago in a place we now know as a “poor” neighborhood of Houston, a young boy had an elementary school teacher who was a last-minute substitute, that stayed on for  most of the year (if not all – it  was over half a century ago!)   This lady (whose name – I am sorry to say – I have forgotten) inspired young Steven (for that was my name then when Father “Steve” still walked the Earth) with tales of her homeland – Australia.  She taught us to sing “Waltzing Matilda” and fascinated us with stories of – for example – the place where a person travelling across Australia had to de-train while the cars were lifted up and set on new “bogies” that allowed them to continue on the different rail “gauge” that existed to the West.  She told us or the “Tropical Cyclones” (just like our own Hurricanes – only rotating the other way.*) that broke the wind gauges at 250 miles per hour.  And -yes – Australia was pre-metric in those days.

So, when Your Humble Narrator was working in South America and could not re-enter the US for tax reasons, he went (alone, again) to fulfill a childhood aspiration to visit Australia – in 1990.

*I can explain that later – when I have scanned the other pictures of “OZ”.

PicoBolivar1990Figure 4:  This is a view from the Highest and Longest Cable Car in the World.

The photo is near the top of the four “assents” of the cable car system that takes the tourist from Merida, Venezuela to the top of “Pico Bolivar” 5007 meters above sea level.  That was the figure on the “standard” tourist map back in 1990.  You may find it quoted as 4,978 meters in the online literature.  That puts it at 16, 332 to 16,427 feet – in either case over THREE miles.  To quote Mr.  Spock: “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”  However, it is an excellent talking point for responding to Denverites when they try to appear superior by saying they live a pitiful little mile above sea-level.  😉

Actually, the cable car goes to ”Pico Espejo” (Mirror Peak) which is not quite so high.  But you can climb to Pico Bolivar from there and you bet I did.

I was NOT travelling alone, this time. There is another quite complicated story associated with this place – involving newlyweds and a failure of technology that left people stranded upon this mountain.  This too must wait until more shoebox photos are scanned.

I will say that the pictures scanned far better than my expectation.  The exercise was successful.  We are go for launch.

Hasta Luego,


Neptune, the Farthest Giant

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Steve Campbell      March 2016


Neptune was the first planet to be discovered by mathematical means.  After the discovery of Uranus and subsequent observations of the Seventh Planet, it was observed that its orbit was not meeting expectations of Kepler’s Laws.  It was determined that there must be another planet -farther away – that was influencing the orbit.  That planet was later discovered and quickly thereafter found to have a large satellite. (1)

Neptune is the farthest Giant Planet from the Sun and not surprisingly the last to be visited by a spacecraft.  In the old days, when your author was young, they called Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune “Gas Giants”.  Now they reserve that title only for Jupiter and Saturn and call Uranus and Neptune “Ice Giants”.  As you may know the now call Pluto and Eris “Dwarf” Planets (I can’t agree with that).  As of today, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are still “Terrestrial Planets”.  But soon, it seems to me, each planetary body will have its own unique category.

Quoting from my two-part series “Sneaking Up on Pluto”:

“One thing that might puzzle the average student might be why we had images of all the Outer planets by the 1970s and 80s and nothing but a dot or smudge for Pluto.  That all relates to what was called at the time “The Grand Tour”.  As it happened, there was an alignment of the outer planets in the 70’s and 80’s such that it would be possible to use gravity assisted orbital adjustments (“the slingshot effect”) to make it possible for a space probe to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one long and carefully managed trajectory.”

Any path that could have slung Voyager 2 from Neptune to Pluto would have crashed the probe into Neptune itself.  Knowing that, the mission planers arranged to take a good close look at Neptune’s large moon, Triton (not to be confused with Saturn’s big moon, Titan).  It was thought at the time that Triton might be a lot like Pluto because Triton is in a highly inclined and retrograde orbit around Neptune. That indicates that Triton may well be a “captured” moon that was similar to Pluto.   Triton is actually a bit larger than Pluto (1680 km vs. 1464 miles in diameter).  Now that we have seen Pluto, it turns out that the two are quite similar.

The Voyager II Spacecraft        

Again from Sneaking Up on Pluto (Please see link below):

“The Voyager probes (one of which actually made the complete “Grand Tour”) each had a main antenna that was capable of constant communications with the Earth.  This necessitated what is called a “scan platform” that held the instruments that need precise pointing, that moved independently of the antenna.  That configuration had proven troublesome on one of the Voyager probes at Saturn and data were lost.  That is because data storage was actually on a ½ inch, 8 track magnetic tape with a total capacity of about ½ Megabyte and a top baud rate of 56 kilobits per second (2).  That’s what I said – “Stone Knives and Bear Skins!” – so, real-time transmission was required for image data.”  Voyager was – despite my demeaning reference – quite advanced at the time and some of its imagery is still quite impressive.


The image below depicts the identical Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 Spacecraft. (4) The dish antenna is 3.7 meters in diameter (12 feet, 2 inches) across.  The arm extending to the right contains the main experiments and the imaging “scan platform”.  The left arm holds the three radioisotope thermoelectric generators that power the probe.  The gold disk on the “body” is the famous record* with messages and images of Earth for anyone “out there”.  I made the mistake of calling it a CD earlier.  It is a conventional  phonograph record with grooves of recorded sound and digital pictures.  It is different only in that it is not vinyl but metal and it is recorded at half speed.  A stylus (the “needle”) is packed with it.

This was a project assigned to Carl Sagan.  Carl has been inserted into the picture at the proper size to give it a sense of scale.  This photo is from his brief and little-known “Fonzarelli” period.  Raise your thumbs, Carl!


Figure A: The Voyager Spacecraft        NASA/NASA website



About time we got around to the planet, I hear you thinking.  I have a table of planetary statistics (3) that serves as a good introduction for any planet.  You may expect to see this table in future posts.  Please see Figure B, below.


Figure B: Table of Planetary Statistics        NASA

You will notice that Neptune has 17 times the mass of the Earth and about 3.9 times the diameter.  That only works out that way because the mean density of Neptune is 30% that of Earth.  If it were as dense as the Earth, Neptune (of the same diameter) would have 60 times the Earth’s mass.   All four Giant Planets are low-density like that, but Neptune is the densest of them.  Likewise, all Giant Planets are fast spinning and Neptune is slower than most, rotating in 16 hours.  The Navy has adopted a 16 hour rotation of duties and sleep aboard out nuclear subs, so submariners would be right at home on Neptune.  Just a small tangent, I’ll get back on track, now.


Figure C: Neptune as seen by Voyager 2         NASA/JPL

The clouds were somewhat of a surprise after the Voyager’s views of Uranus – which was almost featureless.  The big dark spot (named rather predictably, the “Great Dark Spot”) was another surprise as were the winds (1500 mph) stirring these features around.  These are the fastest winds in the all the Planets (5) and unexpected out in the cold dark zones of the outer Solar System.

Neptune takes 164 years to orbit the Sun.  It’s a long wait for Summer, eh?  Neptune, like all Giant Planets (plus Mercury and Earth) does have a magnetic field and in fact, it is much stronger than the Earth’s.  That would seem to indicate that it has an iron inner core.  But it cannot be very large, or the overall density would be larger.  It is in fact estimated that the core part of Neptune at its center is about Earth-sized.  Most of what is above is water, ammonia and methane (CH4) ice (estimates vary for thickness).  That is considered to be its “mantle”.

The atmosphere above that is hydrogen, helium and methane.  The white clouds you see vary in composition depending on pressure.  The higher clouds where pressures are about Earth-like (1 bar) are probably methane vapor.  Lower down and at higher pressures are clouds of ammonia, hydrogen sulfate and even water vapor, like the clouds on Earth.

How thick each of these layers might be is still open to interpretation and you can find many differing diagrams, most with no dimensions mentioned.  So, having looked at those, I will guess that the core is 4000 miles in Radius (about the same radius as Earth), the icy mantle extends another 10,000 miles above that and the gaseous atmosphere another 1400.

Later photos of Neptune by the Hubble Space Telescope have shown considerable changes in Neptune’s atmosphere, since Voyager.



Triton is the largest moon of Neptune and by no coincidence, the first discovered (17 days after the discovery of Neptune, itself).  It is unique in several respects.  It is the only “large” satellite to orbit in a “retrograde” sense.  By large, I mean to say that it is near to the size of our own Moon.  By retrograde, I mean that it orbits in a direction opposite to the rotation of its planet.  That and the high inclination of Triton’s orbit seem to indicate that it was captured.  For reasons we won’t go into, it is easier for a moon to be captured in a retrograde orbit than otherwise.  Jupiter and Saturn have lots of former asteroids as moons, but they tend to be small and far away.  Triton is so close that it is being slowly pulled closer to Neptune and in several billion years will be shattered into a ring like Saturn’s.  You might expect a captured moon to be in an eccentric orbit that varies in distance from its planet, but Triton’s orbit is so close to exactly circular that the difference is not worth mentioning.  It stays at about 220,483 miles from Neptune which, coincidentally is about the same distance from the Earth to our own moon.  It orbits Neptune in 5.8 days and rotates in the same time.  That is to say, it keeps the same side toward Neptune, just as our Moon does to Earth.  Now, some of my readers are sharp enough to notice that our moon takes 28 days to orbit.  Why so different if the distances are near the same?  The difference, of course is that Neptune is 17 times as massive as the Earth, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.  This will be on the test! 😉   Figure D, below is a Voyager 2 image of Triton


Figure D: Triton         NASA/JPL


All other large satellites orbit the same way and are therefore by definition, prograde.  Triton also looks quite distinctively different from most other planetary satellites, which tend to be rather uniform and crater covered (admittedly with many exceptions).  It has an atmosphere that, while very thin, has detectable clouds.  It shares the much modified and differentiated characteristics that we now know of on Pluto.  That tends to confirm the “capture” hypothesis.

You may ask, “Just how does a passing object become “captured”? “.    There are several ways.  One would be for Triton to have collided with a smaller moon, as it passed near Neptune.  That might slow it just enough to wind up in an orbit.  As it would have collided with a prograde moon, that would be especially effective since that would almost double the velocity difference between the two and quadruple the energy delivered to the passing Triton.  That should have left a mighty crater on Triton.  While nonesuch was seen by Voyager, such a crater could have since been covered by the glacier-like deposits of Nitrogen ice (the part that looks like cantaloupe peel) that are visible in Figure D.  Likewise, that crater might have been in the darkened part of Triton, that was not visible when the Voyager went zooming by at the greatest velocity ever given to a man-made object (at the time)

A second possibility would be “gas drag” as Triton passed through the upper atmosphere.  That would seem unlikely, unless Neptune had a more extensive atmosphere at the time.  Since it may have been captured billions of years ago, that is entirely possible, but still just speculation.

Another possibility was detailed in a paper by Craig Agnor (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Douglas Hamilton (university of Maryland) in 2006. (6)  First, I should explain that Pluto and all the other Smaller Planets out past Neptune have been designated as Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).  If Triton had been one of a co-orbiting binary pair of KBOs, it is possible that a pass near Neptune would have captured it, while at the same time, ejecting its companion to a more distant orbit of the Sun.  It all has to do with relative motion of the three bodies. This hypothesis has the virtue of not relying on chance collisions or hypothesized “greater atmospheres”.  This idea was made more believable by the discovery that many KBOs are indeed, binary.  Not the least of these is Pluto, who’s biggest satellite (Charon) is about one half its own size.  It has been estimated that 15% of KBOs may be binary in nature.  That a KBO could have come near to Neptune is not unlikely since Pluto itself comes nearer the Sun than Neptune as it was during the late years, last Century.  Having said that, I must also remark that Pluto is now in a resonance with Neptune that keeps the two safely apart.  I mean to say, that when Pluto comes nearer to the Sun, it is still very far from Neptune and always will be.

But, all in all, I think these guys are very near the mark with their hypothesis.



Neptune is another fascinating member of the Solar System and I learned a lot by researching to write this article.  I hope you find it interesting as well.  You may wonder why I do this.  Well, those of you who know me know that I suddenly have time on my hands.  It is a blessing…and a curse. ;-).  Also, I have always had a fascination with the Solar System that goes back to my days in Elementary School.

You and I are truly fortunate to live in a time when these mysterious dots of light in the sky that were the Planets are now becoming known as Great Worlds, many that dwarf the Earth in size and complexity and others that are revealing the secrets of Nature that have been heretofore unknowable.

Read More:

fig8-pluto-discoverySneaking Up on Pluto (Part 1)

7-1-15_Pluto_Charon_color_hemispheres_annotated_JHUAPL_NASA_SWRI Sneaking Up on Pluto (Part 2)


  1. Discovery:
  1. Voyager Data Rate:
  1. Table of Planetary Statistics:
  1. Voyager details:
  1. Winds:
  1. Triton Capture:






Venezuela’s Final Chapter

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Political commentary is not my intuitive arena.  However, my time spent in Venezuela – though long ago – was a transforming experience in my life.   This fact compels me to express my view of the situation in what was once a free nation.  It was far from perfect, as are all such nations.  But it was a paradise by comparison to what is left of it – and more so to what it may become if nothing is done.

I will categorize this under “Energy” since that subject is a vital element in the fate of Venezuela.  I don’t have a “Politics” category and I’m not sure I want one.  The piece was published in American Thinker.  Follow the link below.

Venezuela’s Final Chapter


Sneaking Up on Pluto (Part 1)

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From 1930, when it was discovered by High School Graduate Clyde Tombaugh until recently, Pluto remained a dot of light in a telescope. The way to find a planet is to see it move amongst the “fixed stars”. The further from the Sun the planet is, the slower it moves. In Figure A you will see the original “Discovery Images” of Pluto.


Figure A: The “Discovery” photos of Pluto.

Lest it seem too easy, Tombaugh spent 10 months photographing the majority of the sky and poring through pairs of images like those above. Computer generated “blink comparisons” are now common and you have probably seen examples. In 1930 two photos (glass plates with silver-based photo-emulsions) were put into a contraption with two optical paths that were alternated to the eyepiece by means of a moving mirror. He was probably looking at the original negatives, not prints. Not only was this system far from perfect, but there were also asteroids that exhibit the same behavior as the targeted planet. Those had to be tracked down and eliminated by arguments based on their apparent velocity or brightness or perhaps by looking them up in the records, if they were known. There was a similar moving pair of dots in these very images – they are cropped out here. Those moved a bit slower, which would indicate an even greater distance from the Sun, but were brighter, which would indicate a smaller distance. The apparent slowness could be caused by an asteroid in a place along its elliptical orbit where it was moving mostly toward or away from Earth. Since nobody called it a planet then, I assume it was eliminated for one of those reasons. There are some dots that appear in one photo and not in the other, you should be able to see at least 5 examples of that in Figure A. That may be due to a difference in atmospheric conditions between successive photos. That is confirmed by the fact that the stars in the January 23 photo are a bit bigger (which means brighter in star images on photographic plates).   Another thing might account for single appearances would be a meteor falling through the atmosphere in a direction nearly straight at the telescope. So, you see that Tombaugh’s task was far from simple. One annoyance he did not have to deal with was the vast number of spacecraft now in orbit around the Earth.

Pluto was named by a contest, which was won by an 11year-old girl named Venetia Burney, from Oxford, England. She purportedly received a Five Pound Note for her prize. That does not sound like much, but it would be the inflation-adjusted equivalent of about 250 dollars at today’s exchange rates. She had kept to the tradition of choosing names from Greek mythology. I will just quote (5) an abbreviated explanation of those to put this in context:

  • Mercury (Hermes) is the god of commerce, travel and thievery in Roman mythology…
  • Venus (Aphrodite) is the Roman goddess of love and beauty…
  • Earth…is the only planet whose English name does not derive from Greek/Roman mythology.
  • Mars (Ares) is the Roman god of War.
  • Jupiter was the King of the Gods in Roman mythology…
  • Saturn (Cronus) is the Roman god of agriculture…
  • Uranus is the ancient Roman deity of the Heavens…
  • Neptune (Poseidon), was the Roman god of the Sea…
  • Pluto (Hades) is the Roman god of the underworld…

Let me just note here for you conventional people – I refer to Pluto as a planet. I know they decided to make a new classification of “dwarf planet”. So, if you object to me calling Pluto a “planet” please remember that Earth is a “rocky planet” and Jupiter is a “gas giant planet”. But they are all planets, are they not?

Back to Venetia: As I remembered, she chose Pluto because the first two letters would honor Percival Lowell, which was the name of a notable Astronomer and of the Observatory where Tombaugh made the discovery. Some say that it was because Pluto is a dark and far-away place like the underworld, and that might be another reason. However, I found that there was an interview with the lady herself in 2006 (2) in which she says:

“Yes, I don’t quite know why I suggested it. I think it was on March the 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I after a short pause, said, “Why not call it Pluto?” I did know, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children’s books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn’t been used. And there it was.”

Perhaps the other reasons were why the judges chose her as the winner. The interview seems to be on solid ground, but watch out on the internet. I found one source that said Clyde himself named the planet and I have known that not to be so, since I was young (back in the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth). In another case, when I searched “who named Pluto”, the first hit was “The boy who named Pluto”. Let’s be charitable and assume that was about the Disney cartoon dog. By the way, did you ever notice that Pluto was a dog and Goofy was a dog, but Goofy stood on two feet, wore clothes and talked, in vivid contrast to poor Pluto? Some Disney dogs are more equal than others, it seems.

Back to the planet, now.

A Better View – Just Barely

In Science Fiction, Pluto was usually described as a nearly featureless ball of rock covered by layers of frozen gasses. After being examined by the Hubble Space Telescope the public image of Pluto was enhanced to a resolution of several dots. Some assumptions were made about what happens between the pixels and the processed image in Figure B is the result. This would seem to indicate that the SciFi characterization is erroneous. We will see.

I should mention that in 1978, a moon of Pluto was discovered, called Charon:

“…a Greek mythological figure:[12] Charon (/ˈkɛərɒn/ or /ˈkɛərən/Greek Χάρων) is the ferryman of the dead…” (4)

It is a remarkable satellite, being the largest – relative to its planet – in the Solar System.



Figure B: The interpreted version of the Hubble Space Telescope image of Pluto.

Sneaking Up – Quickly

The New Horizons probe was launched on January 19, 2006. It is a relatively small spacecraft by modern standards and it was launched on one of the most powerful rockets available today. Even so, its speed toward Pluto was not nearly enough to get it there in ”merely” ten years. So, it was launched on a carefully chosen trajectory that would take it past Jupiter. There, it was accelerated by Jupiter’s gravity and redirected on a path toward Pluto. This is not a free ride, though. Jupiter gave a boost to New Horizons, but lost the same amount of energy (and didn’t miss it at all) from its revolution about the Sun. This sort of thing happens with many asteroids and comets that pass near Jupiter. Some are slung outward and gain speed, others are slowed and fall into orbits that take them closer to the Sun (a few, to collide with the inner planets) – and Jupiter gains a little. A few are captured into orbits around Jupiter itself. One comet (Shoemaker-Levy) famously was torn into multiple pieces by the tidal forces involved in a “close-encounter”. Those fragments were captured into an elongated orbit. The orbit – at the low end – happened to intersect the planet. That is another fascinating story, but I digress. Those of you who know me are not surprised.

New Horizons went speeding on toward Pluto. It was now the fastest known object in the Solar System – natural or manmade. Although it will not be in the Solar System much longer and will join four other spacecraft that are on their way to the stars. In January of 2015, the resolution of the photos from New Horizons became better than the Hubble images. Yet, still they were not much to see. In fact, Figure C, below was taken in early April and is the first color rendering of Pluto and its big moon Charon.


Figure C:   Pluto and Charon April 9, 2015           Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Are you disappointed? I was, too. I had the January “better than Hubble” date on my calendar for about six years and this was the best they had in April. But I understood that they did not do all that complicated image processing that they applied to the Hubble picture. Why not?   Because, in the New Horizons case, they had only to wait a few months to see far better resolution, so why bother? With Hubble, it was all they could hope for years and they had to have something to write papers about, in the meantime. I have been to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, several times. Those guys have to publish or die. It is not like Geophysics where you can accomplish actual profits by your efforts. Planetary Scientists are sadly dependent on Academic and Government funding. I found their attitudes to be shockingly predatory toward one another as compared to the polite, collegial attitudes of Geophysicists to which I was accustomed. But, I digress again. If you think I get sidetracked easily, imagine being me trying to get through college.

The Pluto imaging situation did improve as time went by and I can share with you another image, this time from early July of ‘15. The images cover most of what can be imaged by New Horizons. Charon and Pluto always show the same face to each other in their orbits around a common center. They are “tidally locked” which is an erudite way of saying the same thing. Also, the plane of their common orbit is not in the same plane as their orbit around the sun. That means that there are dark areas on both bodies that will not be seen by New Horizons. There was a time when we could have seen all of both, but that was in about 1985. I know that because I saw a lecture by a NASA Scientist about the subject by Dr. Paul Schenk (3). The good Doctor is a very good presenter – near as good as your humble Narrator. I had invited my family to travel the hour down to the Clear Lake area with me to see this public lecture and my niece gave me a provisional acceptance. I advised her that the dress code would be “business casual” (based on my Geophysics experience). This illusion was shattered when Dr. Schenk showed up in jeans and a polo shirt.

Figure D shows what will be seen, in greater detail.


Figure D: Pluto and Charon – July 1, 2015       Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

These images reveal that the earlier much-processed image from the Hubble Telescope is valid in its depiction of Pluto as varied in color and brightness. I see that this will need to be a series of at least two parts. But I assure you, Astute Readers, that there is much more and better to come.


Pluto stopped being a dot or a smudge and became a planet, with five (count ‘em, five) satellites – one that is near half Pluto’s size. It has craters, as you would expect out of most planets, but it also has vast smooth plains and mountains unassociated with any craters. The dot is now a fascinating variegated world. All this will be discussed in Part Two of this series.

More:   7-1-15_Pluto_Charon_color_hemispheres_annotated_JHUAPL_NASA_SWRI  Sneaking Up on Pluto (Part 2) 

Post Menu  


  1. Clyde Tombaugh:
  2. Venetia Burney Interview:
  3. New Horizons Mission:  Cosmic Explorations – A Speaker Series, Lunar and Planetary Institute, September 3, 2015  NASA’s exploration of Ceres and Pluto: An Update, Dr. Paul Schenk
  4. Charon:
  5. Planetary Names: