Young moon, ancient visions

I am a bit of a romantic at heart.  Well, no, perhaps more than a bit.  The sky….takes me out of myself, lifts me up.

Out of the grocery store, pure habit:  look up.  Surprise….the two day old Moon looking lovely.  But wait, that’s not just the Moon.  What a boring name.  Breathe out another name.

Artemis, huntress of the night, her slender bow gilded silver by sunlight.  Delicate curve in an azure sunset that fades to apricot at the horizon.  Wait just a few minutes, and the rest of the orb is demurely lit by Gaia’s reflection.  Through the trees she glides to be lost in the wood.

young moon

Artemis on the hunt

What a difference a name makes.  An ordinary night becomes a wonder as I stand watching, a priestess in her temple.

Turn to face Zeus, bright and high with the twins.

An interloper, a moving point of light between the stars…..curves, then suddenly brightens to challenge and surpass the very father of the gods.  Then fades, dimly headed over the horizon.  The present intrudes on the timeless past, reminding me that space is now a place for mere mortals to travel.  Ours, the realm of the immortals.

Iridium flare

Iridium Flare February 1, 2014


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It’s not surprising that John Lennon’s Imagine has become a New Year’s anthem.  The future is always part of our imagination, always in front of us.  And most of us would like to imagine that the future will be better than the present.

I was really struck by the contrasts for future imaginings offered by two images that made Yahoo’s images of the day not long ago.  First was one of the astronauts repairing the ISS….our home in space.  You don’t get any more future than living and working in space.

fixing the ISS

Mike Hopkins repairing the Station on December 24, 2013

But on the same day, there was another image in the slideshow that was radically different: a Palestinian using a slingshot to throw rocks at Israelis.  Ignoring the irony of that, what a span of time and technology.  A jarring contrast, rock throwing to space travel.  We have scientists trying to watch for rocks falling from space at the same time we are still throwing rocks at each other.

Why are we still throwing rocks? What does that accomplish?

Imagine the entire human race finally leaving the stone age.

Might be a while yet.

But it’s a new year – so we can look at the stars….and imagine.







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Another one bites the dust

In fact, turns to dust….

Ah, comets.  Used to be they just showed up in the sky, everyone was amazed, and then they faded.  But now, now we have telescopes, and we snoop around they sky and find them months and months before they will actually appear in the sky.  So we have all this time to wait, to anticipate, and to over hype…..

“Comet of the Century!”  “Brighter than the Full Moon!”

In fact, I own The Definitive Guide to the Great Comet of 2013, courtesy of Astronomy magazine.  Hopefully it will accrue some collectors value, it’s still in the plastic.

One C/2012 S1 (ISON).  A small ball of rock and ice, inbound for millennia from the outer reaches of the Sun’s influence, the “Oort Cloud.” Calculating the orbit indicated that this would be its only trip past the Sun, then back out to the infinite reaches of deep space.  Not only that, it would buzz by the Sun at a distance less than one solar diameter above the surface.  Sungrazer.  Cool.

So based on the original brightness at discovery, and some assumptions about average comet behavior, a light curve was generated for the brightness along the way.  Whoa!  We’d see this puppy lighting up the sky! Negative magnitudes! Finally, a great comet for the Northern Hemisphere, after the Aussies made us jealous with Comet McNaught.  A whole observing campaign with multiple telescopes in space, lots of PR.  We watched through the spring, then held our breath while we spun around the Sun, putting ISON in the day sky for most of the summer.  Finally, we could see it, much closer now…..

And it was no darn brighter in late August than in May.  What?  Obviously the comet was not following the program.  So the curve was revised down.  But it would still get really bright right around perihelion.

Waiting, waiting….early November before it was bright enough to easily find with a telescope.  Racing the sunrise to see it before perihelion.  Still not bright, really….only one morning could I see it with binoculars, and then only the nucleus / coma, not the tail.  Then it vanished into the sunlight a few days prior to perihelion.  Came into the view of sun-watching satellites.  What fun!

Then, perihelion day….would ISON survive?  Came in nice and bright, then just before closest approach….dims down and smears out.  Oh no!  SDO couldn’t find it at all, but when it came through the SOHO coronograph disk, a remnant that sort of looked like a comet.  Except it really just looked like a glowing pile of debris.  Over the last two days it has thinned and dimmed…..a ghost of a comet in the solar wind.  From dust are we made, to dust we return.

Maybe the next comet will actually be the “comet of the century.”

Farewell to ISON


Ghost of ISON visible in upper right of image.

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Cold as ice

I guess it is fitting that for the last local possibility of seeing Comet ISON before perihelion it will be, well, darn cold.  Should it be clear at sunrise, I’ll be walking over ice on the grass to look at a ball of ice flying headlong toward the Sun.  It’s below freezing now, at 8:30pm, it will be cold come sunrise.  Camera won’t like that, I’ll have to keep it in the coat until (well, if) I need it.  Expected low will be 22.  Brrrrrrr…..break out the expedition weight gear!  Seriously, we’ll only be outside for 15 minutes or so.  Sunrise is 6:33am, ISON will be five degrees high at 5:55am.  So either we can see Mercury at that point, or we are back in bed real fast.

Been a good run for the NOT comet of the century.  Lots of great images from all around the world.  After this, we just have a few days of fun weather (not to mention sitting on my senior to finish a 15 page paper), and then we can put a turkey in the oven and see how well baked Comet ISON gets rounding the Sun.  Go little comet, go!

Just now, 174,000mph…and climbing.

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Wheel in the Sky

After getting clouded out, a few more nights pass until *finally* a clear night.  In fact, I had a run of nights….Thursday night out in the yard, Friday and Saturday night star parties, and then Sunday.  Thursday night I almost didn’t do, because it was supposed to be clear Friday and Saturday nights.  Theoretically I could have come home from star parties and set up in the yard for the rest of the night.  Still, we’ve had so few good nights this year, so I went out.

I was not disappointed.  A good night!  And finally, ISON in the view.  Comet Lovejoy was easier, found it and got some frames.  Then I had to wait, ISON was skimming upward right at the edge of the trees….arrrgh!  But finally it got out, I found it and got a few frames.  At least I could say I *had* seen it!!!!


Comet Lovejoy stacked with stars trailing

Very faint tail, but easy to see even on the camera back preview.

And just before dawn:


Faint, but it is there! Comet ISON in person!

Then a few hours’ sleep, and it’s off to Fairvue and Bowie Park.  For all that it was wonderfully clear all day long as soon as we get set up in the park, clouds roll in.  Sheesh!  Luckily, we had the Moon.  And when you have the Moon, and high clouds, you just might get a bit of ring around the Moon.  We thought perhaps we had a Moondog as well….


We didn’t see this with out eyes….but the camera catches a ring around the Moon, a fuzzed out contrail, and the setting summer triangle.

I got home at a reasonable time, thought about waking up early…..naaah, gotta sleep sometime.  Saturday morning came with clouds anyway.  Then just about 3pm, the clouds go away, so we think we are good to go for the star party.

Except that more clouds rolled in.  Well, we were there, so….we still had the Moon!  And over the course of the evening more and more people came, and the viewing improved to where I had the Pleiades, which folks always enjoy.  My relatively small scope has a nice wide field of view that shows off that cluster quite well.

Of course it was clear when I got home.

Sunday morning slept in.  That way, we set up on Sunday night.  Now, to have a prayer of catching ISON, I had to locate the spot exactly.  Enough leaves have come off the trees that I now can peek through tree branches and find Polaris.  Alnitak as it happened was in nearly exactly ISON’s morning spot at 10pm, so I went out and found the sweet spot were I could see both.  Set up the telescope and went to bed.  Back up at 3:30 am, fired it up, aligned, got the camera on, took way to long to focus, and then *finally* was able to exactly find ISON!    Practice does help.  Got a few frames in while the sky is getting brighter and brighter…


C/2012 S1 ISON….pretty in the morning sky

Tired after the long nights….but felt good to have been outdoors so much.  Sunrise was very pretty as well.

Of course, after this run we had some intermittent cloudy weather…and right as we go into a stormy weekend we find out that the comet had brightened by at lest 2 orders of magnitude just after the above image!  Dang!  So now we wait with baited breath to see what happens next!




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Solitary woman

To indulge in the art of astrophotography, I have to create time….the normal tasks that want doing fill up the day, and in any case to look at the stars one is out…at night.  All I need to figure out now is how to sleep during the day while still doing work…..

So you get an hour extra sleep, the night is clear and not 100% humidity….still, it was nigh on midnight until we hoisted the telescope to the mount.  Roy was going to stay out, but his computer couldn’t find the mount, and in any case he has to work.  So he folded up.  I took my time, guessed at which star in the trees might be Polaris, aligned the telescope, put the camera on, focused, and started a night’s worth of work.  Actually, it will of course only be a few hours…’s one am, and sunrise will come around 6.

I am, of course, chasing Comet ISON.  It will rise into my sky by 3 or so, so I am hoping to catch a few frames.  Practice is good, though, so I am starting the night’s run with an easy bright object….our friend the Orion Nebula.  Sky is annoyingly red, but so far ok.

In some ways, I enjoy the quiet hours of the night.  The winter sky is rising, all the bright stars of that season.  Jupiter is king of this night, blazing away in Gemini.  The night is still, the crickets and frogs are sleeping in the cold, only an occasional owl hoots from a distant perch.  Cat walked about for a bit, then curled up in a bed he has under the staircase in the garage, which is a good bit warmer than outside (40 at last check).  I can just relax and enjoy the crisp air.

Ah….but then about 2am high thin wisps begin to move across the sky.  Nooooooo…..    So I go to my first comet object of the night, Comet Lovejoy (c/2013 R1), and start a run of frames.  I head back in the house to look at the satellite view.  Where did the darn clouds come from?

When I go back out, a temporary hole….then back to clouds.  No hope for late rising ISON at all.  Rats!

But still, a night spent out under the skies of Earth…is never truly wasted.


The gossamer stellar nursery we see as the Orion Nebula, always a stunningly beautiful sight.


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Turn, turn, turn

My kids tease me that everything reminds me of a song…perhaps they have a point.

The turn of another season on planet Earth.  Even with some Indian summer heat, it still somehow feels like fall now.  Leaves are starting to come down, everything has slowed its growth, and the wind off the north has a sharper edge now.  And instead of swallowtails, the butterflies feeding at the well-named butterfly bush are now Monarchs.


Monarch feeding up for the long flight to Mexico

The number of spider webs has dropped off as well, although there are still some nice works of art about.  The bolas spider out front has made not one but two egg sacs…I guess the fishing was good this year.  Although the chiggers seem to be gone (hooray!) and the tics not so many, there are still too many mosquitoes.  The tops of the yew bushes as well as the grass is home to “funnel web weavers,” flat webs with a funnel built in.  Usually the spiders run and hide when I come around with the camera, but this one was distracted by the lacewing it was chewing on


Spider in funnel eating dinner.

The webs are visible because of the heavy dew/rainfall that we’ve had.  It’s been wet. So there are a lot of mushrooms.  You know it has been very wet when even the mushrooms have mold!


Even the mold has mold

We also found a walking stick doing a high wire act, moving along the dog’s run wire.  Not sure he appreciated the attention!

walking stick

High wire walker

And look at the color of the sky!  We have been blessed with some really pretty days here in the early fall.  Makes up for the complete doofusness in the general world around!



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Up and down

Leaving the world of self-created problems for a bit…….

Not quite free-falling…..although I had a dream not long ago where I was in free fall….not as in falling, as in in space.  No gravity.  Dang that felt good.  I was having fun moving in three dimensions.  Woke up happy.  But back on spaceship Earth….

Late summer in a year of rain.  Lots of natural distractions.  Most visible, of course, are the mushrooms…..nearly floral bouquets springing up in the grass.  This one I mistook at a distance for a branch of dead leaves fallen out of a tree.  About a foot in diameter….


An ephemeral bouquet of mushrooms….

 And of course, it being late summer, there are the spiders.  The webs are neat, although I often get a facefull walking down the path through the woods.  Some of the larger ones get overly ambitious, we’ve had webs that spanned the driveway.  One has taken up residence on the porch, and is doing a great job of building very classic “Charlotte” webs.  We expect to see “Terrific” written there one day.


A little worse for a night’s wear, spider is about 1 to 1 1/2 inches .

Then there is the obsessive web, looks almost like a 45 record, about that size…


An orderly life

The most interesting spider, though, didn’t look like a spider at all when we first saw it, but rather some kind of fungus growing on a leaf.  But at night, we found this :

spider in tulip tree sm_crop

Still not pretty, but definitely a spider…how many eyes are looking at us?

Because my son Nathan was observing this tree and its denizens for a project, we wanted to id this lady….now, spider id is not easy.  There are a LOT of species of spiders, and 99% of the websites cover only the top 5.  Luckily, this spider left us a huge clue in the form of the “web”:


Looked like a trot line…..gone fishing?

Turns out these are called Bolas spiders for the line with a sticky glob at the end that they toss out to catch moths.  Even more interesting, these are known for producing a moth pheromone….attracting the moths.  This particular spider is Mastophora bisaccata, we were fortunate enough to find a website with an exact match image.  Fishing was good:


Reel it in

This spider sat under the same leaf for about three weeks…..finally building an egg case for the next generation, so maybe we will see more of these next year!


Mama spider’s egg case about as big as she is!

Something to watch through the winter into spring.

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It’s really hard when it’s “Spring Break” to think about it any other way…..

Leaving Nashville for Pennsylvania, the weather was cloudy and damp, but at least it was not raining, and really not that cold, either.   But, we’re heading north, so we tossed the winter coats into the van, and off we go.

Actually got so bright that I needed sunglasses (which probably no one else would need).  Up on the plateau, found some fog at Rock Orchard:


Looked really cool, hanging low enough to obscure the tops of the tall stacks at the Harriman coal fired power plant.  The stacks are tall so that the exhaust will, at least in theory, carry over the Smokey Mountains and not contribute much to acid rain there.


Cruised through Knoxville and stopped for lunch in almost sunshine in Dandridge.  Picked up I81 into Virginia, and then we came over a hill just outside of Wytheville and poof!  There was a line on the ground where the snow started, and it was instantly winter.


The Virginia pines look real pretty in snow.


Continuing north, the snow got deeper.  The Shenandoah Valley looks real pretty with snow, We might have been making a Christmas trip instead of a spring trip.  Dinner in Harrisonburg, might have been three inches or so there, but the snow had blown through earlier, so the roads were fine.  Unlike *some* places, the plows and salt had gone through, and although the roadway was still we, it was clear.  Weather is expected to get worse when the impulse that was in the Midwest earlier today blows throw, so we’ll push on the Harrisburg in front of that mess.  Hopefully things improve, we’d like to visit  Penn State later in the week, and that’s a cut through the mountains.

Meanwhile, enjoying the snow while keeping an eye on the roadway.



And here is an amazing thing as far as road clearing goes….as we pushed north to where it was not yet snowing…the plows were stationed at exits, ready to go when it would start snowing!  What a conception!


It started snowing as we arrived at about 1 am….snowed all day…..and the roads are all clear!!!!  Wet snow, too warm to really stick.



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All around the world

One of the things I find very cool about visual astronomy is the way celestial events can link us together.  I know, its trite, but we do all see the same sky.  And while other aspects of astronomy are also way cool, whether we are using a telescope of our own or seeing through the eyes of the Hubble or a rover on Mars, things we can see with just our eyes are there for everyone.

And what a sky we see.  Our place in the galaxy alone gives us a lovely view.  Under a dark night sky, we look out the transparent window of our atmosphere into the universe beyond.  Our ancestors have been watching for thousands of years, but modern technology has enabled us to be aware of celestial events all over the globe.  The Transit of Venus was an event like that….as the Earth turned, millions looked to the dance of Venus and the Sun.

Now come the comets, and it was fun that the other night, as we knew the Moon and Comet PanSTARRS would be side by side in the evening sky, that once again many of us went out as our part of the planet spun away from the Sun to enjoy the view.  An individual act becomes at the same time a group act, all of us together called out by the celestial play.

I just thinks that’s cool….these events bring us together, in a very positive way.   Sometimes they tie us together through history as well.  I and many others went out to see Halley’s comet in 1986.  Seen by Edmund Halley, seen by Johannes Kepler….I wonder how cool it was to Halley, to figure out he’d seen the same comet as Kepler.  And how cool that I was able to observe two things that he strongly encouraged future astronomers to watch…both the Transit of Venus and the return of the comet now named for him.  I hope my children and grandchildren will also watch,  linking the past to the future,  celebrating our ability to understand the universe we are a part of.

The view never gets old, and it never disappoints.  We’ll be watching, hoping, for a big flaming comet this fall.  All around the world.

Jupiter and Moon

Jupiter in conjunction with a crescent Moon in the late winter sky. Accidental hole in the clouds….


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