Tag: planetary


Steve Campbell           November 2015  – Updated: July 7, 2020


Sunspots have been studied for over 400 years by such notable scientists as Galileo. Many earlier observers had noticed that the sun was occasionally marked with darker spots. But, Galileo spread the word about sunspots and many of his contemporaries subsequently took up regular observations of same.

Observation of Sunspots

Right here is where I will repeat a warning that you may have heard a hundred times before: Do not look directly at the Sun and especially DO NOT look at the Sun in a telescope. The only exception to that last part is where a Qualified Astronomer is using a proper solar filter or is projecting an image from a telescope onto a screen.

That Galileo made use of a telescope around this time was strictly coincidental. Observations of the Sun were done during sunrise and again at sunset when it is possible to notice large sunspots with minimum damage to the eye. The sunlight passes obliquely through the atmosphere and is very much attenuated.

An image of the sun can be projected by a “camera obscura” which is essentially a darkened room with a tiny opening – literally, a “pin hole”- through which the sunlight enters. For reasons we won’t go into here, a pin hole acts like a lens and focuses light. By careful placement of a screen of cloth or paper, a focused image appears, large and bright enough to sketch.   The astronomer Johannes Kepler was known to have used this system to view the sun. In an interesting side note, Kepler thought he was seeing the planet Mercury passing between the Earth and the Sun, instead of a spot on the sun itself. Had he checked on the following day, he would have seen the same spot and because he knew that a Mercury transit would not last a day, he would have seen his error.

The method of projecting an image from a telescope onto a screen was developed by a protégé of Galileo named Benedetto Castelli.

“It was Castelli who developed the method of projecting the Sun’s image through the telescope, a technique that made it possible to study the Sun in detail even when it was high in the sky”. (1)

The following quote explains a bit about the “Sunspot Number” which was established as the metric of sunspot activity.

“Continuous daily observations were started at the Zurich Observatory in 1849 and earlier observations have been used to extend the records back to 1610. The sunspot number is calculated by first counting the number of sunspot groups and then the number of individual sunspots.” (2)

I would be remiss if I did not include actual images of sunspots with this discussion. Figure A shows a recent image of the sun taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). This is a NASA space probe that orbits between the Sun and the Earth constantly monitoring the Earth-facing side of the Sun.

Figure A: SOHO image for November 22, 2015 22:30 UT

By the method described (Count the groups and multiply by ten then add the number of individual spots), I would estimate the sunspot number to be between 35 and 45. Don’t quote me. I know there are limits to how small individual spots can be and still be counted, but I don’t know what those rules are.

Figure B shows an image of the Sun during the Cycle 23 Maximum.

Figure B: Cycle 23 Maximum 

I am not sure of the origin of this image, it may not be from the SOHO probe, but in any case, it illustrates the difference between high and low sunspot counts. Again, I don’t do this for a living, but I would guess the count here to be well over 100.

Update April 8, 2020:

The solar minimum continues unabated.  This count is obviously zero and is typical lately.  Some spots from the next solar cycle have shown up, but they don’t last long.  In this image, the count is zero.


Update 07/07/2020:  Spotless Days plot:

The following graph confirms the continuing solar minimum, but requires some explanation.  For the complete version, go to the SILSO Spotless Days Page   

For the mercifully short version read my explanation,  below the graph.


The solar cycle, in all its years of observed activity, has had (arguably) two types of cycles.  Those with large peaks and short minimums between – and those with small peaks and long minimums between.  The graph above segregates the two types as averages (the solid red and blue lines) and plots the number af spotless days accumulated in the current cycle (solid green line).  The dotted pale blue and magenta lines are the “standard deviation” plots for the low-peak minimua (cyan) and high-peak minima (magenta).  “Standard deviation” is what science nerds say instead of “what is reasonable to expect”.  As you see, the current Solar Minimum has made it obvious that this is  a major  departure, not just from the big-peaks variety, but also it is the outlier from the big minimum/low maximum cycles.  In short, like nothing in living memory.

Summary:  Confirmed: Expect colder temperatures for the next decade or three.

Update 04/04/2020

The following is from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center

Below:  The latest is still from Dec 2019.   Your humble narrator predicts that the double peak will again show up. – no doubt with greater separation as indicated by the last 3 cycles. (see figure D)


Updated July 7, 2020

The following prediction by  Irina Kitiashvili at the NASA Ames Research Center  predicts even less activity for Solar Cycle 25 – the least in 200 years.  It turns out to be a bit before the NOAA prediction, but not by much.


So, the “experts” disagree.  But, there is undoubtedly something unprecedented going on.

Figure below shows the accumulated sunspot numbers over the last 400 years of solar observations.


It is ironic that Galileo took an interest in sunspots and popularized such observations just in time for the Maunder Minimum when sunspots gradually became rare phenomena. The Maunder Minimum is associated with the Little Ice Age, when weather was cooler than today. The numbers of that time are yearly averages due to the sparsity of observations. From about 1750 onward monthly averages are plotted – results of sustained, systematic observation. The Maunder Minimum is still a valid conclusion, but the data cannot be said to be “high resolution”. The later Dalton Minimum is much better defined and typically associated historically with “Dickensian Winters”. In recent years, those types of winters are returning to England.

Magnetism and the Climate Connection

It is the changing magnetic field of the Sun that drives the existence or absence of sunspots. The Solar magnetic field changes on a long time scale and with different periods of oscillation. The most obvious of these is an eleven-year cycle that dominates in Figures C &D. The magnetic properties actually reverse in polarity in each new cycle, which makes it a twenty-two-year cycle in reality. Periods of high sunspot activity are associated with high magnetic field strength and a dearth of sunspots is an indication of low magnetic intensity.

A plot of terrestrial magnetic field strength in Figure E demonstrates the cyclical nature of the terrestrial magnetic field as influenced by the sunspot cycle. (3)

Figure E: Terrestrial Magnetic Index

As indicated by the note in the seventies, periods of lower terrestrial magnetic field strength are associated with colder weather. This effect has been explained by the work of Henrik Svensmark (6) who demonstrated that magnetism effectively blocks cosmic rays. But, when the field strength is low, the increase of cosmic rays makes cloud formation increase and global temperatures drop. Now that the Ap index has dropped to unprecedented lows and the global temperatures have failed to increase as predicted by many, this association would seem to be confirmed.

The fact that ”official” temperatures have not actually dropped may have something to do with the manipulation of those datasets by certain individuals who have reduced the number of weather stations averaged from over 6000 to about 400 and shifted the average latitude of those stations from that of Oklahoma City to that of Hawaii (5). Please note that before they began eliminating stations (circa 1975), the average was indeed, dropping! See figure F.

Figure F: Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN) temperatures and station count.  Note that the average latitude of the stations has gone from 30° to 20°.  The station count, meanwhile has dropped to a fraction of the previous number.  This is like comparing a large number of (temperate climate) apples to a small number of (tropical) oranges. In other words, it is data fraud.


  • An examination of sunspot trends clearly indicates a new Solar Minimum (of Dalton or Maunder proportions) is in the works. A cooler environment is to be expected in the coming decades.
  • When climate considerations come into a subject, a thorough search always seems to reveal data manipulation has occurred. All with the same result – a cooler past and a warmer present.
  • A major audit of Climate Science seems in order.

1) https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/news/solar-cycle-25-preliminary-forecast

2)  https://spaceweatherarchive.com/2018/09/27/the-chill-of-solar-minimum/

3) https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/news/solar-cycle-25-forecast-update

The Orion Nebula

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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

Fourteen inch Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope — George Observatory, West Dome

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.

Overexposed Saturn with two satellites

More recently,  on a night with better seeing, the Orion Nebula was captured in a series of different exposure times.  I include two below.

Orion Nebula — 10 second exposure
Orion Nebula — 20 second exposure

There are methods, these days, to stack (combine) multiple images and get far more impressive results.  I am looking in to that.

Stay Tuned.


The Farthest: Voyager in Space

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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 Eclipse Expedition


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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.

Solar Eclipses

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.

Totality_wholeUSPath 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

Bailey’s Beads

Diamond Ring


Views and photos of Sun’s Corona behind the full moon

Planets in the daytime sky

Interference fringes

Red horizon?

Animal / Human Reactions.  Temperature. Wind.

First sign of Diamond Ring returning


Reverse sequence

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.

EclipseDallas-to-CasperWYShade.pngThe 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




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