Category Archives: Astronomy

My Solar Eclipse Experience

They are right when they say there is nothing quite like a total solar eclipse. I had seen an annular eclipse in my senior year of high school as it cross over Vermont. Wandering out there with our physics teacher, looking through glasses, it was pretty cool, but it was nothing like the Sun going out.

Eclipse day for us was in Springfield, TN, as my friend's Nick and Heather were living there, and it was deep in the path of totality. We made plans to visit in May, booked our hotel then, and framed a trip around this so that we'd do four 8 hour driving days on our great eclipse road trip. Down through Cleveland to visit family, and up through Virginia on the way back to break up the drive.

On the way to Tennessee on Friday, my friend Jack was still sorting out his plans. He and his son were going to be sleeping in their car wherever they went. The weather where he was originally headed was looking dicey, and I said "well this is where we'll be, I make no promises, but I can offer you use of our hotel shower." Friday evening they decided they would join us. They arrived Sunday about 9am. In addition to bringing their wonderful selves, they had brought a solar filtered scope, a hydrogen alpha scope, and a camera rig to shoot the eclipse, and a shade tent.

We scouted a location at Nick and Heather's apartment, a flat grassy section near the apartment complex dog park. First contact was just shy of noon for us. We started setting up all the equipment at 10, were in a good state by 11.

Our setup area for the eclipse
All set up, shade tent, telescopes

First contact. The moment when you stare through those eclipse glasses and say: "wait, is that side just a little flat now? Maybe I'm imagining it. No, I really think it is. Yeah, that must be real." As the eclipse grows, your brain does this funny thing and enhances the boundary. The silhouette of the Sun seems to glow brighter than the Sun itself.

Eclipse glasses on!

After about 20 minutes, and our pacman shape ever growing, I realized we're never going to break for food (the original plan), we should bring it back down here. So I headed back upstairs with Nick, prepared a bit of our picnic food that we'd gotten the night before, and headed back provisions in hand.

A shade tent is a glorious thing when watching an eclipse on a 95 degree sunny day with few clouds. We would spend time inside the tent, drinking water, having a snack, then popping out to see how things were progressing.

Shade tent, and making new friends

With our little camp setup, folks from the complex started stopping by. Including a number of kids. Jack's a pro at the sidewalk astronomy outreach, we introduced people to the scopes, what they were looking at, and kept them pointed and in focus. One of the kids came back out with popsicles for everyone as a thank you for letting everyone see through those scopes.

Popsicle break

It was never going to get cold in Tennessee, but once we got past 75% coverage, the beating hot 95 turned into "a reasonable warm day to be outside". Maybe we dialed back to 80. The sky lost it's deep blue, and was just a muted version of itself. Everything was muted in an erie way that you can't quite describe.

As we closed in on second contact, a cloud creeped in over the Sun. It kept going away, coming back, going away, coming back, with lots of, "is that it?", "no". Then just before totality the cloud cleared, it went black, one of the neighbors yelled, "we're in!". Everyone took off their glasses. And we stared at a hole in the sky with the giant wispy corona spewing out from it.

Our eclipse, courtesy Jack Chastain

Pictures don't ever really capture what the eye sees. Most of them show a small ring around the Sun. But this was a sun flower. The corona extended at least the radius of the Sun again. It wasn't uniform, it was sweepy with a few petals poking out. It was amazing. Everyone was exclaiming in different ways, processing this true wonder of nature in a way personal to them.

Venus, Jupiter, and even dim Mercury came out to meet us. I was so focused on all of those I didn't really take the time to look for other stars. But given Mercury was dialing in at magnitude 3, there should have been plenty.

During totality

We got about two and a half minutes. It's not enough time. Not enough time to soak in this totally bizarre experience. It was about a minute longer than our daughter (not quite 3) was happy with. Both the dark, and the black hole in the sky definitely got her scared. She was not the only one, we heard another boy crying in one of the apartments behind us.

One of the neighbors gave us a countdown for the event ending. As hit the end of the countdown, I looked down at the 2 trees in front of us. No shadow, no shadow, no shadow, then with what appeared to be a swoosh... 2 shadows. Like they were dropped back into place in a cartoon.

A child crying... my child. "I want to see Venus! I want to see Venus!". Venus is a night sky friend, we've been finding it in the sky for nearly a year. Everyone was talking about how you could see it during the eclipse and now Arwen was upset that they didn't also get that chance. But at magnitude 4, Venus was easy to see even back to 90% coverage. We spent some time pointing and looking, and calming down. She's at the age where I don't know if she'll remember all of this later when she's grown up, but maybe there will be flashes of it.

The sun returns, with crescents through the bushes

And as the Sun returned, everyone dispersed. I spent the next hour helping Jack pack up and put things in his car. We all ended up back in the nice AC before the even was properly over, taking a last look at a 15% eclipse before going inside for more food and to crack a few beers.

Jack and son stayed a few hours to let the worst of the traffic clear, then headed off back to Virginia. The google map from that day is amazing. We fortunately had all the food we needed in the apartment for dinner, so dined in, made our goodbyes at about 7, headed to our hotel, and even started watching the PBS eclipse documentary that aired that night. Though after a few pictures of totality were on the screen Arwen proclaimed "that is too much for me, please turn it off."

My plan for avoiding the traffic was leaving the day after. However, there were really more people out for this event that did the same. Our 9 hour driving day, turned into 12 hours of driving thanks to constant stop and go traffic on the I-81 corridor in Virginia. We did get to our Tuesday night lodging that day, at 11:59pm. So we also get to have a traffic story for our eclipse adventure.

There really is nothing like a total eclipse. I'm now excited for 2024 (less excited about New England April weather). And, we'll see if we consider destination adventures to see another one along the way. I was exciting to share this with my daughter and wife, and friends both old and new. What a great end to the summer.

Eclipsee

Pluto is Red

Pluto is a completely different colour from the one we thought it was, according to new images that also show the huge heart that seems to be carved into its side.

Source: Pluto is red: New Horizons images throw out previous understanding of dwarf planet - News - Gadgets and Tech - The Independent

It's going to take me a long time to mentally adjust my model. Pluto is blue in my head, probably from some bit of pop fiction some time in the past.

It's going to be 18 months of trickling back all the data about Pluto, so even though the flyby is in just under 3 days, we're going to be getting new information about our favorite dwarf planet all through the next year.

The miracle of a billion cameras

Meteor Fall

It sounds like a remarkable story, almost unbelievable: Anders Helstrup went skydiving nearly two years ago in Hedmark, Norway and while he didn’t realize it at the time, when he reviewed the footage taken by two cameras fixed to his helmet during the dive, he saw a rock plummet past him. He took it to experts and they realized he had captured a meteorite falling during its “dark flight” — when it has been slowed by atmospheric braking, and has cooled and is no longer luminous.

via Norwegian Skydiver Almost Gets Hit by Falling Meteor — and Captures it on Film.

Part of what's amazing about so many people recording things all the time on camera is we get to see things that we know must be, but no one has directly observed before. Like rocks falling from the sky.

I think XKCD sums it up best:

XKCD Settled

This is what we can do...

This is what we can do when we work together, on science, on the future.

http://io9.com/5932042/what-is-the-first-thing-curiosity-will-do-when-it-lands

We can land a rover, by sky hook, on a planet so far away that it takes 14 minutes for light and radio signals to get back to earth.

This is what we can do when we work together, on science, on the future.

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/vwmang/7723995586/

We can bring people together, for a shared moment of humanity.

This is what we can do when we work together, on science, on the future.

We can inspire a generation.

Maybe we should do more of that.

 

The City Dark - on PBS

Coming to your local PBS station this week:

Is darkness becoming extinct? When filmmaker Ian Cheney moves from rural Maine to New York City and discovers streets awash in light and skies devoid of stars, he embarks on a journey to America’s brightest and darkest corners, asking astronomers, cancer researchers and ecologists what is lost in the glare of city lights. Blending a humorous, searching narrative with poetic footage of the night sky, The City Dark provides a fascinating introduction to the science of the dark and an exploration of our relationship to the stars. Winner, Best Score/Music Award, 2011 SXSW Film Festival. Produced in association with American Documentary | POV.

We showed this at one of our Mid Hudson Astronomical Association events this year, and it's a great film. Hopefully it will make you rethink the lights we leave on outside, that do nothing more than pollute our night skies.

Recharged by the night sky

As I was packing up my telescope at midnight last night, calling it a night from our Star Party, I decided to take a short walk. And I did so looking up.

The milky way was rising, and as civilization was shutting down, it was getting darker and clearer. There was so much detail, so much horizon, so much beauty. And the universe just stopped, and stared back at me.

The kind of calm and quiet doesn't happen that often. And after a long and hectic week, it was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries.

 

Transit of Venus

Yesterday I saw something with my own eyes that's only been seen by humans 7 times in human history, and won't happen again for 105 years: Venus moving across the face of the sun. That view, I'll remember for the rest of my life.

The Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association and SUNY New Paltz pulled off a big event yesterday, with 250 - 300 guests showing up to see the Transit. While we had some clear skies at 5pm, by 5:30 there were clouds. As people streamed out from Dr Amy Forestdell's talk at 5:45 we pointed people back inside to catch the NASA stream of fist contact.

Of course, 2 minutes before first contact, the NASA stream hung. We jumped instead to the Google Plus Hangout that Fraiser Cain and Pamela Gay were hosting, which included views from 4 amateur astronomers from around the US. I watched first and second contact virtually as the clouds had us pinned in.

But I roamed out afterwards and saw we were getting thinning sections. I ran back to my scope and waited patiently as the clouds shifted. About 20 minutes later we got a quick hint of shadows, and I nearly got my scope aligned. From the crowd our club VP yelled out "I got it!", and then the clouds were back in. But they were thinning, and I was ready. A few minutes later shadows started showing up again, I dialed in my scope quickly, stuck my eye in to see if it was there. And...

Bam!

It just hit me like a load of bricks. There was the orange disc of the sun, which I'd seen so many times in my solar scope, and it had this giant hole in it. A big black hole, so much bigger than anything I've ever seen on it. So much more distinct. So very cool.

I quickly started to have people come through the line. There was one high school kid who'd been hanging out for a long time talking with me, so I made sure that he got to jump the line and get a view. We had about 15 - 20 minutes of these thinner clouds, and I think I managed to get about 30 people through on my line in that time. The new tracking mount helped, as I didn't need to keep adjusting things. Then the clouds came back in, and we waited for another shot, which never came.

But for those brief minutes we saw it, with our own eyes. And it was amazing.

Nook Simple Touch as an Astronomy Tablet

This weekend I bought and rooted a Nook Simple Touch. The reason? I've been looking for an eink platform that one could make astronomy applications and data available for. Eink is ideal for a hobby where stray light destroys your ability to see anything.

Where is Io on Nook Simple Touch
Where is Io on Nook Simple Touch

Having written an astronomy application (albeit one that needs a lot more polish) I pushed it over. There are a few rendering issues with the buttons (which completely confuses me), and the fact that there aren't any real location services means rise / set times are completely off, bother are fixable in software. Computational speed seemed on par with my HTC Evo, which means this is something I can work with.

Sadly, both B&N and Amazon have equivalently limited imaginations when it comes to making Apps for their e-ink platforms (my Amazon knowledge comes from email exchanges with the Kindle team), and don't see the other possibilties for e-ink.

Fortunately, B&N seem to be lacking on having a crack security team, so the Nook ST can be wedged open to an open platform pretty easily. I'll be making Where is Io optimized to run on it, and look at what it would take to get Google Sky Maps over there (now that it is open sourced). And, I'll hold out a small amount of hope, that B&N one day figures out it might be useful to provide this additional value to their customers. Based on email exchanges with Amazon, I've completely written them off.

Key Takeaway: don't let your own limited imagination, and need for control prevent your creations from meeting their full potential.

Update: now that the Android Market finally activated, I pulled down a number of apps to see how they all worked. The Mobile Observatory UI is actually really useful on this size and type of UI, and I think is worth the price of the Nook Simple Touch even if you only decide to run it.

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