Eratosthenes Drawing Drama plus an Experiment opportunity for schools all over the planet
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On that cold evening back in 2007 Eratosthenes looked powerful in its position emerging into the suns warm rays. Rupes Recta was also inviting and Plato almost called me again. Even drenched in sunlight Plato’s steel grey floor carried those unmistakable flame shaped shadows. Eratosthenes is a truly dramatic crater, a sweeping mountain chain whips away from it in a visual series, of broken, deep shadows. Montes Appeninus is cut and chopped first by Mons Wolf, and then by Mons Ampere. Next in line, Christian Huygens name is lent to Mons Huygens named in honour of the discoverer of Saturn’s largest moon Titan . This high mountain (164,000ft) is a billion miles away from those primal methane or ethane seas discovered by the Cassini Huygens mission on one of its routine flybys. Mons Bradley and Mons Hadley cradle the Apollo 15 lunar landing area from 1971. A mission that put wheels on the moon for the first time. This wonderfully … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2014 Isaac Newton thought that planetary orbits in our solar system were kept stable by God’s direct intervention; they were proof to him that God existed. A hundred years later, the great French mathematician and skeptic Pierre-Simon Laplace described his new orbital theory to Napoleon and supposedly quipped of God’s role, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” In fact, it is bad theology to reduce God to merely a gap-filling hypothesis. Only recently, however, have we learned that, actually, planetary motions may sometimes not be so stable after all. One of the pioneers of studying chaos theory in celestial dynamics is Jack Wisdom, an MIT professor (and MacArthur “genius”) who is visiting the Vatican Observatory this month. He’s working now on modeling the complex interaction between the Moon’s orbit and spin with the spin and orbit of the Earth. It’s all tied to the larger issue of the origin of … Continue reading

It was Jupiter by the Moon this Morning
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My wife called me this morning – her students were asking “what planet was by the Moon this morning?” There was frost on the ground (and cars), the air was very crisp, and apparently there was a lot of earthshine on the Moon. Jupiter was 1.4° south of the Moon in this morning’s sky. Even though the Moon was just a thin waning crescent, the students said it was very bright. Good on my wife’s students for witnessing this conjunction! … Continue reading

Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in October 2009 “Where’s the kaboom?” asked my friend, imitating the whiny voice of the cartoon character Marvin the Martian. “There was supposed to be a Moon-shattering kaboom!” We were watching live television coverage of NASA’s LCROSS lunar orbiter impacting into a dark crater on the Moon. The idea was that water ice might be hidden in the shadows of craters like this one, set in a region of the Moon’s south pole where sunshine never reaches. Water vapor from all the comets that have hit the Moon over the last four billion years might be trapped and frozen there. By slamming a rocket into those shadows, a giant plume of rock and ice would be lifted out of the shadows and into the view of the nearby spacecraft, and telescopes on Earth. Or so proclaimed the hyperactive NASA press office. In fact, at the impact, only a faint infrared blip was visible in the spacecraft images. … Continue reading

Reiner, R Gamma, Lohrmann, Hevelius,Cavalerius – A lunar sketch
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Reiner , Reiner Gamma March 31st 2007 21:30UT – 22:54UT 200mm/8mmTVP eyepiece / 2 X Barlow / Mag 300X Focal Length 1,200mm 300gsm Daler Rowney paper, Soft Pastels, Conte Crayons, Scraper tool. Seeing 2 Lunation 12.84 days/ Illumination 97.2% Image Rotated 180 degrees Every time I seek to do a sketch of the lunar surface, there has to be a visual trigger to set me off. On this particular night I was offered one of the clearest steadiest views I have had for a long time. Reiner Gamma, that little bright kite shape on the lunar surface  inspired me to draw. For my sketches I use pastel thickly, sometimes several applications one on top of the other. This is deliberate as I can then use certain instruments to almost carve out shapes and liner features. The seeing was good so I was able to use a 2 X Barlow to increase the magnification and my chances for observing detail. Using … Continue reading

Astronomical Sketching – Education in action
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“Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing.”  – William S Burroughs I like this quote from Burroughs, it is a fit in many ways for the not widely practiced activity of astronomical sketching. Not that the objects concerned do not exist, but rather they are perhaps unknown to or go unnoticed by many people . Lots  of people in the world go about their lives without noticing detail. Only by being still and observing do we gather appreciation for the planet that surrounds us and our place in the universe. Drawing something like the moon is a progressive journey of learning by observing and recording features as best one can. Creativity may play a part in the choice of materials used to produce a drawing or … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in January, 2010. During the Apollo 17 walk on the Moon, the astronauts collected a rock for the specific purpose of providing samples to pass out to nations around the world. About 200 Apollo 17 samples were distributed in this way. But Robert Pearlman, who runs the space-news website collectspace.com, wrote in 2010 that NASA can now account for only 61 of them. (The one sent to the Vatican resides in our display case at the Vatican Observatory.) I’m not surprised; keeping track of samples is harder than it looks. The humor of the “Night at the Museum” movies comes from the conceit that the specimens in a museum’s display cases are alive, that they get up and move around during the night. Every collector knows that feeling. It’s surprisingly hard to keep our collections in order. One of the little breakthroughs in my own research was finding that a simple measurement of a … Continue reading

Project Apollo Image Archive
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The Project Apollo Archive is an online repository with thousands of digital images from the historic NASA manned lunar missions. The images reside on a Flickr photostream, and the Project Apollo Archive Page on Facebook frequently posts highlights from the archive. The archive posted 8,434 images in September, and 5,477 images in October of 2015. The first post on the Project Apollo Archive Facebook Page was on September 26, 2015. One week later, on October 3rd, the Facebook page admins posted the following message: Please note that this FB page is for appreciation of space history, and as such, and so as not to detract from a positive experience for all, any recurring abuse in the form of postings and comments disputing the reality of the space program and its history will lead to a permanent ban. Thank you for your cooperation. User: Harrisonicus on Flickr created the following stop-motion animation featuring hundreds of images from the new gallery: Speaking … Continue reading

Lunar Eclipse Puts on a Good Show
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I helped out with a lunar eclipse star party at the Warren Astronomical Society​’s Stargate Observatory​. A student from my wife’s class was there with his mother, as were several other people of all ages. Member’s telescopes were set up all around the observatory grounds, and the temperature was perfect. The “Michigan Nebula™” dominated the skies as I arrived, and it remained cloudy through first contact and part of the umbra. But suddenly, the skies cleared, and the seeing was crisp – we got an astounding view of totality. You could see stars right by the Moon’s surface; one even appeared to graze the Moon’s limb. The clouds rolled back in shortly after totality, and by that time many had left, it being a work and school night. I set up my laptop on a picnic table outside the observatory; two WAS members gave presentations, and I showed these two Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter videos: I’d brought my “Outreach Kit™” with meteorites, … Continue reading

Rare Perigee Lunar Eclipse September 27th
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There will be a total lunar eclipse the evening of September 27, 2015. 8:11 PM EDT: Earth’s penumbra begins to dim the Moon. 9:07 PM: Earth’s umbra noticeably dims and reddens the Moon 10:11 PM: Start of totality. 11:23 PM: End of totality. 1:22 AM: End of eclipse. The Moon will be at perigee during the eclipse – the point in the Moon’s orbit when it is closest to the Earth; the Moon will appear slightly larger and brighter at this time. The Moon’s perigee is about 50,000 km (31,000 miles) closer to the Earth than its apogee – the point in the Moon’s orbit when it is farthest from the Earth. Here’s hoping for clear skies! More: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasa-scientist-sheds-light-on-rare-sept-27-supermoon-eclipse P.S.: Notice how I didn’t mention “Supermoon” … Update: I created this rendering of the lunar eclipse using the software package Celestia: … Continue reading

Moon First, Then Mars
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I’m a little confused by the recent urgings by some rather prominent individuals to go to the planet Mars. Any human efforts to explore or colonize the planet Mars, would do well to learn from lessons and experience gained by first achieving a viable base, and then colony on the Moon. Where human survival is concerned, there are a lot of similarities to the Moon and Mars: Space Suits: Astronauts will need to wear a suit when outside at all times; these suits will need to be durable, and repairable. Dust: Astronauts will need to thoroughly clean off all dust before reentering habitats. Low-Gravity: Both bodies have a lower gravity; humans have zero experience doing construction in a low-gravity, dusty environment. Radiation: Both bodies receive direct solar radiation, and cosmic rays at their surfaces; any habitats will need to be well shielded. The photos at the top and bottom of this article show a lunar and Mars habitat covered with … Continue reading

The Straight Wall
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Every 4th Saturday of the Month, the Warren Astronomical Society hosts a free Star Party and Astronomy Outreach event at their Stargate Observatory; this image was taken by holding my Android Smartphone up to the eyepiece. I also got to use a nice new binoviewer with the telescope – WOW! What a difference that makes! Last night we had several Boy Scouts show up just as the Sun was setting. The first quarter Moon was out, Venus was almost unbearably bright in the western sky, and Jupiter was high in the sky. While a fellow Society member was opening the observatory, I engaged the freezing scouts; the first thing I asked was “How much astronomy did you get in school?” I got the expected answers: “a little” or “nothing.” <sigh!> I then asked how many had looked through a telescope before, and much to my surprise and pleasure, several of them already had. I proceeded to tell the Scouts about … Continue reading