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Steve is available for freelance or contract writing projects.
Please use this Contact Link and include your email in the message.
Some of you readers are aware that I have been working as a Telescope Operator at the George Observatory at Brazos Bend State Park. There are three domed instruments that are open to the public for viewing on Saturday nights – weather permitting. I get to operate the smallest to these — a 14 inch Schmidt Cassegrain instrument. For non-Astronomy Nerds, the 14 inch number refers to the diameter of the mirror that is inside the big, black tube.
BTW: Brazos Bend State Park, where the George Observatory is located, was closed for flooding until early July. It re-opened just briefly but is now closed for long-overdue renovation. So, this activity of mine is “on hold”. I volunteered over at the Museum of Natural History – more about that later
We might have forty or more visitors on an average night, but even so there are occasional intervals when I can make some photographs. There was one night when the atmospheric conditions made the “seeing” miserable, but I still managed to catch some images of Saturn. Most detail of the planet and rings was lost, but a couple of satellites were captured in one long time-exposure where the planet and rings were overexposed. You might need to zoom to see the moons.
More recently, on a night with better seeing, the Orion Nebula was captured in a series of different exposure times. I include two below.
There are methods, these days, to stack (combine) multiple images and get far more impressive results. I am looking in to that.
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 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.
I 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.
Road Ranger Truck Stop, Rochelle, Illinois July 29, 2017
I apologize that I have been extremely busy with the “task-at-hand” of interstate logistics operations and have not written in a while. In what few spare moments I have had, there have also been thoughts and effort put into preparation for my first break in two months, planned for August 19 through the 25th. I regret that I will not be in Houston at that time to visit with those of my readers who abide there. Instead, yet more traveling lies in wait. Fortunately, the First Mate will be joining me. It took a lot of convincing to get her to agree to a long road trip, with few comforts. So, for those of you who see here often – just make like it’s a Big Deal that you would love to have the opportunity to attend, OK? 😉
Captain Walkabout’s First Mate
I have been fascinated by Astronomy from an early age. In the early Sixties, the library at Louisa May Alcott Elementary School was my first source of literature about stars and planets. In 1980 I graduated from the University of Texas with a Bachelor’s Degree in Astronomy. In between, I read most everything I could find on the subject.
While Stars had their own fascination, I desired nothing more than to study the Solar System Planets. I had wanted to be Carl Sagan – but they already had one. By the time there was an opening in the position, that energetic upstart (and admittedly, talented) Neil DeGrass Tyson beat me to the job.
As I have discussed elsewhere, my career was to be in Geophysics. I remind you that it is still the study of Planets. We just happen to be standing on the planet I studied for all those years. I was fortunate to attend the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference for many years on behalf PGS of my seismic exploration company employer. I will admit, it took some considerable lobbying on my part to get them to sponsor me. Even then, I took vacation time and paid my own room and board.
This narrative reminds me that I wrote an article for the PGS newsletter about comets. I will post that here, soon.
One of the first things a student learns about is eclipses, when the shadow of the moon falls upon the Earth and covers the Sun completely. This happens roughly every 18 months – somewhere on Earth.
“So, what’s the big deal?”, You may ask.
The opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse is a rare only because the shadow falls on a very small fraction of the Earth’s surface and you have to be there to see it happen. Most people live their entire lives without witnessing such an event. I know, because I am one. There was a total eclipse across the Norther parts of the US in 1979 that I missed because I had injured my back at work and I did not have any vacation time to spare. Seeing TV coverage (while muscle-relaxed in a recliner) on TV just ain’t the same. All the people in the live broadcast were gasping and shouting in delight. What inspired those reactions simply did not make it through the screen. Apparently, you have to be there – in person.
There is an opportunity in the US to view such an eclipse August 21, 2017. As the Earth rotates under the moons shadow it make a “path of totality. The link below is to a short video of this celestial situation:
The path can be shown on a map. You will see such a graphic below.
Path of Totality for the August 21 Solar Eclipse.
Inside the shaded path, the Sun winds up completely covered. The black dot over by Nashville is where the totality happens at local noon. The center of the path – marked with a blue line – is where the time of totality is at a maximum of about two and a half minutes. Away from the blue line but still in the shaded zone, the totality is briefer. For viewers anywhere outside this path, there is only a partial eclipse – a bit of full sunlight will still be about.
I can’t tell you much about totality, because I have never seen it. But I have been near partial eclipses. The dim light is perceptible but not like an overcast day, in fact the shadows are sharper and more distinct. There is an eerie quality to the light that I cannot quite describe – not just in the sky, but reflected by everything around you. Any viewing of the Sun itself must be through protective glasses. Regular sunglasses are inadequate. Special “eclipse glasses” are available for purchase and advertised everywhere. Here is the key to their use:
Never look directly at the sun without the Eclipse Glasses on. Look away from the Sun, put the glasses on then look at the partial eclipse. This condition is described as FILTERS ON.
For totality, I have only what I have read. There should be an effect of bands of dark and light caused by interference fringes as the Sun becomes a sliver at the edge of the Moon. Just at the beginning of totality, there is an effect called “Baily’s Beads” around the edges of the moon where remnants of the now dwindled light from the Sun is shining down through valleys on the edge of the moon. This will become a “Diamond Ring” with a single bright spot. It is after this event that the eclipse can be viewed with the naked eye. Not BEFORE and not AFTER totality. The same applies to cameras!
They tell me that at totality, planets will become visible in what had been the daytime sky. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter should be there to see, if you know where to look. The Sun’s atmosphere, the “Corona” is obvious and extensive. The local wildlife (as well as the local people) will have strange reactions to the sudden darkness. The darkness is local. Will I see a reddened horizon by the light from beyond totality? I simply don’t know.
Descriptions and pictures here:
So – BEFORE totality:
Partial eclipse views
TOTALITY – FILTERS OFF
Views and photos of Sun’s Corona behind the full moon
Planets in the daytime sky
Animal / Human Reactions. Temperature. Wind.
First sign of Diamond Ring returning
I said it is not like an overcast day. That is, of course unless it IS an overcast day. The weather is the main problem associated with eclipse viewing. Weather is what makes this a moving target. Statistically, the fewest cloudy days are to be found in Nebraska and Wyoming portion of the path and that is where we should aim. I had it in mind to start straight North from Dallas to Kansas City. But, now I think it might be better to head for that stretch of Interstate 27 in Wyoming that I have had my eye on.
The route to Wyoming and Totality – to be followed by Your Captain and the First Mate
It might be a crowd scene. People will be coming from all over the world to see this, but there is also a relatively large area where it will be visible and I would think that the crowds would be in the more urban areas. I don’t really know what to expect in that regard.
I will write about it, of course.
Ex Scientia, Veritas
Recent: Review The Farthest – Voyager