I finally did a little astrophotography again last night, experimenting with my new Meade LPI-G color Solar System imager. This is the best shot I could manage, though I took four long-ish videos (yes, it takes live vids!) that saved in a weird format I can’t figure out how to open or edit, so that’ll be later.

Talk about a series of challenges, though! I wanted to use my apo refractor, because those are optimal for bright objects like the Moon, but when I pulled it out, I remembered I’d swapped its mount for a much sturdier iOptron… and the seller still hasn’t sent me the new controller and cables to make that function (and the mount is now in use with my solar telescope). OK.

So I put that away and grabbed my handy-dandy 12″ Schmidt-Cassegrain. I’d forgotten that I’d taken it apart to install a big equatorial wedge (so it can better track the night sky), but discovered while trying to install it that the wedge expects a slightly different pattern of holes drilled (too old, perhaps?), so I’d loosely re-assembled it. So I had to reassemble it, then haul it out into the yard. It’s a big puppy, btw.

Anyhow. So now it was set up, and I plugged in the extension cord and power supply, got it aligned properly so it could track the stars, and set it to show the Moon. Handily, the mount tracks for crap, and the Moon slowly drifted across the field of view. Which was WAY too high-magnification (another reason I wanted to use the much-smaller refractor: Without an eyepiece, the focal length of a telescope and its focal-ratio determine the magnification of an object, and a 12″ f/10 SCT acts like a REALLY powerful telephoto lens.

So now I went inside to grab my f/6.3 focal reducer, almost halving the magnification, so the Moon only sort-of overfilled the field of view. Ready to go!

Next, I slid the little astro-camera into the eyepiece holder, plugged it into my laptop, and WOW! Live, streaming images from space! Except it still drifted across the field of view pretty quickly. *sigh* Well, at least Moon shots don’t need very long exposures, so you can get pretty sharp images even when the mount doesn’t properly track.

Forgot to mention it was frakkin’ COLD. What stopped me from continuing to take images or try to improve the mount’s tracking is that my fingers were getting too stiff to work properly.

Anyhow, here’s one of the shots I got. The neat software that comes with the camera has some nice processing tools that also allowed me to sharpen the image a bit:

I finally did a little astrophotography again last night, experimenting with my new Meade LPI-G color Solar System imager. This is the best shot I could manage, though I took four long-ish videos (yes, it takes live vids!) that saved in a weird...

Oh, and despite the ridiculousness of trying to take a deep-sky photo through a telescope on a problematic drive on a moonlit night, I also tried my hand at photographing the Great Orion Nebula. I think this little camera will be AWESOME once I get to use it on a properly footed telescope. Check it out!


The Moon shot, at least, is not too bad for my first time doing astrophotography in years, and the nebula shot shows great promise, especially considering I took this through a telescope that wasn’t tracking correctly while freezing to death and using new software I don’t really yet know how to use!

BTW, if the images don't become higher-resolution by clicking, I also posted this to my blog on Tumblr:

More to come!

I would never have imagined that a 100mm refractor would be such great deep-sky telescope. I've always been a fan of reflectors, because they offer so much more light for the money than refractors do. This is my first refractor! In the past 30+ years, I've owned at least eight reflectors (including a few I made myself), and still own two big ones: a 12" Schmidt-Cassegrain design that uses a corrector plate across the front opening of the tube to correct the imperfect mirror, and a 17" Newtonian reflector on a simple Dobsonian mount (the cheapest way to get the most light - the 'scope in my userpic). For the price of that 100mm (about 4" diameter lens) - if I had bought it new (I got it nearly new from eBay for a steal) - I could have bought a reflector with many times the light-gathering power. Here's what it looks like:

So why buy such a thing? For one, I already have two wonderful reflectors. But they're both pretty large to lug around (70 and 90+ pounds). I also knew (academically) that, compared to a good refractor, the quality of the image in a reflector suffers because the secondary mirror (and holder) get in the way of the incoming light, and at high powers produce issues at the edge of the field (except in very expensive, multi-optic hybrid designs). On the other hand, a cheap refractor's image only suffers when it disperses the light passing through its lens into various color components, because those different wavelengths of light usually separate, like this:

It turns out that the refractor I bought is pretty kick-ass. The optical design of my 'scope is an "apochromatic ED." Unlike an low-cost but decent "achromatic" refractor, an apo converges all the frequencies of light at the same focal point (or close enough for the human eye). Less expensive "achromatic" telescopes do not use the best glass, failing to converge blue-through-violet light very well, so that range of light appears as a fuzzy halo around the object you are viewing (and usually suffering in sharpness, as well). This is less of an issue with dim objects like globular clusters, nebulae, or galaxies, but it becomes a nuisance with brighter objects like the Moon, stars, and planets. Also, the colors dispersed are lost information, subtracted from the resolution of the object, thus reducing the image quality, thus defeating the entire point of a refractor over a reflector.

To combat these issues, an apochromatic objective uses multiple glass lenses mated together to converge the various frequencies of light, thus managing the refractive dispersion through the elements. Sometimes apos use rare materials (like fluorite or other low-dispersion glass) in the lens composition. As you might imagine, these are expensive propositions - simply adding a second or third lens doubles or triples the cost, and if the glass used costs, say, 10x as much... well, you get the idea. The very best, observatory-quality refractors use a combination of both strategies, and the price for such an instrument is astronomical (ba-da-boom, tsch!).

Mine achieves apochromatic quality by using two lenses, one of which is made of extra-low dispersion (hence the "ED") FPL-53 glass (made only in Japan) to provide super-sharp images with no false color. Mine isn't the top of the line, but it's pretty close. Sure, if it used fluorite instead of FPL-53, it might be slightly better. Or if both lenses were that kind of glass, or if it were a triplet (three lenses). But telescopes like that are MUCH more expensive, costing around $3000 - I got mine, complete with a dual-drive equatorial mount, for about $600. But why? Objects in my 'scope are free of false color (chromatic aberration), sharp, and don't lose any light to dispersion, either.

I've used this 'scope for a couple of years now, mostly because it's so convenient to drag in and out of the house, but never knew all it was capable of. It required a team effort. The real eye-opener for me was how much difference a great eyepiece makes. I've always used decent eyepieces, but these new Explore Scientific eyepieces are frakking amazing! Here's my new case for my 2" eyepieces (the new ones are those with yellow-green spots on the side):

HOLY WOW! The widest field-of-view eyepiece I've ever owned is my William Optics Swan 33mm (it's the one in the photo with the orange bottom cap). It offers 72° apparent field of view (how wide an angle the view in the eyepiece looks to you, the observer), which I thought was pretty amazing. It's still my lowest-power eyepiece (magnification comes from dividing telescope focal length by eyepiece focal length - my 100mm has a focal ratio of f/9, meaning 900mm focal length), offering up a magnification of 27x in this 'scope, with a true field of 2.7° of the sky (about 5 times as wide as the full Moon). Pretty nice, I thought! Sure, the quality of the image at the edge is imperfect, and the sharpness could be better, but it was as nice as I ever used.

Enter the 30mm Explore Scientific 82° wide-field eyepiece of joy.

I started last night's observing session with the Great Orion Nebula, directly overhead in Kansas at around 11pm. The first eyepiece I dropped into the focuser was the most massive once I've ever used, a 30mm with 82° (apparent) field of view. The huge swath of sky it provided was simply astounding - especially when it caught a meteor streaking across the belt of Orion! I didn't bring any astrophotography gear (I was just in my front yard, after all), but here's a nice drawing of about how it looks to the naked eye in a telescope of about this light-gathering power:

This puppy is about the size of my fist and weighs 2.2 pounds (!). Its field of view is so ultra-wide that I had to move my head around to get the full view, making the experience feel like I was looking out through a spaceship's porthole rather than through a telescope eyepiece. Even though the magnification is greater (30x), its true field was wider than with the 33mm! It also has a very large 6.7mm exit-pupil(how wide the cone of light coming through is), which is even larger than some eyes can dilate. It's difficult to explain just how amazingly immersive such a view is until you try it.

Other cool features of this eyepiece: It's O-ring sealing and argon-purged. This makes it completely waterproof, prevents internal fogging, keeps the interior dust- and fungus-free, and makes it easier to clean (no risk of cleaning solution getting trapped inside). It'll stay clear for a lifetime - guaranteed. Its 21mm of eye relief provides unvignetted (no darkening around the edge) views a full inch beyond the lens closest to your eye - this is not only great in general, but makes it easier for eyeglass wearers to observe without removing their glasses. Of course, doing so would mean missing out on a lot of the potential field of view. Its six-element optical design uses low dispersion and high-refractive-index lenses (same benefits as in a telescope's objective) in four groups. All the lens surfaces are fully multi-coated as well, and the lens edges are blackened to improve contrast. All of this adds up to the highest contrast, highest resolution, sharpest resolution, and flattest ultra-wide field of view I've ever seen.


Then I moved to the next-smaller Explore Scientific eyepiece, a 24mm (also 82° FOV), which provided 38x and a true field of view of 2.2°, so wide that even the hugely wide Orion Nebula only took up the center of the image. AMAZING! I spent some time with this eyepiece before moving to the next-higher-magnification unit....

Enter the Explore Scientific 14mm 100° apparent-FOV eyepiece. This puppy is just about as large as the longer-focal-length unit (almost 2 pounds), though with a narrower and longer barrel to accommodate nine optical elements of rare-earth glass. Though 100 doesn't seem that much larger than 82, those extra 18° provide nearly 50&percent; wider FOV. So the 64x magnification this one provides still offered up nearly 1.6° of true field - that's three times as wide as the full Moon! This is truly astounding to someone whose prior experience is mostly having used what I thought was a nice Plossl 24mm with 52° FOV - that's less true FOV at much lower power.

So, I asked myself, what will the highest-magnification Explore Scientific unit offer? It has 9mm of focal length, providing 100x... but because of the huge field of view, this high power was still a full degree - twice as wide as the full Moon! I had no idea that a high-power eyepiece could be so comfortable to use, or provide such a "spacewalk" sensation, or offer up such crisp, high-resolution to-the-edge views. Man, now I wish I'd ordered the mega-power 5.5mm that was also on mega-sale! It would have provided 164x while still offering a FOV slightly wider than the full Moon! *boggles mind*

At the end of the night (pretty late by now - after 1am, I'm afraid), I noticed that Jupiter was just starting to peek out from the trees, so I thought why not? Sure, I would be looking a lot of humid atmosphere, over the neighbor's house, and through branches, but it's my fave planet. My apo plus 9mm SOOPER EYEPIECE did not let me down. Four Galilean moons and stormy Jupiter all served up as nice as through a cheap eyepiece looking directly overhead. Just wow.

Oh, and surprise! All these eyepieces turn out to be parfocal, meaning you don't need to do significant re-focusing when shifting from one to the next. That's a major bonus when swapping eyepieces, especially when moving to high magnifications (which also magnify your bumping the 'scope whenever you touch it), where you can lose an object and have to start over finding it at a lower power.

And the best part? We live in an age when you can get incredible eyepieces like this during online, pre-xmas sales for just a little more than the price of a so-so eyepiece (I bought all four for about the retail price of just the 14mm.


Illustrator and author Ron Miller specializes in, among other things, incredible visualizations of other worlds. He has rendered the surface of Titan, peered into black holes for Discover magazine, and designed a Pluto stamp that is currently hurtling toward the far reaches of our solar system aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. Now, Miller brings his visualizations back to Earth for a series exploring what our skies would look like with Saturn's majestic rings. Miller strived to make the images scientifically accurate, adding nice touches like orange-pink shadows resulting from sunlight passing through the Earth's atmosphere. He also shows the rings from a variety of latitudes and landscapes, from the U.S. Capitol building to Mayan ruins in Guatemala.

We'll start with Washington, D.C. and work our way south.

Rings over Washington D.C.
Ron Miller

Rings over Washington D.C.

From Washington, D.C., the rings would only fill a portion of the sky, but appear striking nonetheless. Here, we see them at sunrise.

Rings from Guatemala
Ron Miller

Rings from Guatemala

From Guatemala, only 14 degrees above the equator, the rings would begin to stretch across the horizon. Their reflected light would make the moon much brighter.

Saturn's rings from Earth's equator
Ron Miller

Saturn's rings from Earth's equator

From Earth's equator, Saturn's rings would be viewed edge-on, appearing as a thin, bright line bisecting the sky.

Equinox at the equator
Ron Miller

Equinox at the equator

At the March and September equinoxes, the Sun would be positioned directly over the rings, casting a dramatic shadow at the equator.

Tropic of Capricorn, midnight
Ron Miller

Tropic of Capricorn, midnight

At midnight at the Tropic of Capricorn, which sits at 23 degrees south latitude, the Earth casts a shadow over the middle of the rings, while the outer portions remain lit.

Gallery assembled by Jason Davis for the Planetary Society.
Today is the 25th anniversary of Hubble Space Telescope’s launch! NASA is celebrating with a special Hubble 25th website: x. Hover over the photos below for info.

This one's the hero of our story:

Westerlund 2 in Carina: star-forming region of 3000 stars
Tadpole Galaxy
Carina Nebula panorama
Baby planets in the Orion Nebula!
Two colliding spiral galaxies called "The Antennae."
Hubble revisits one of its most famous subjects, aka "The Pillars of Creation."
All those little dark bumps are going to be baby stars one day.

Want to see all the best photos? Check out the Hubble Heritage Site for billions more: x
Did you know that lots of asteroids have moons? Check it out:

Scientists working with NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, have released the first radar images of asteroid 2004 BL86. (These are also the folks responsible for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which arrives soon!)

The resolution on the radar images is 13 feet (4 meters) per pixel. It made its closest approach yesterday (January 26, 2015, 10:19 am Central time) just 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from us, about 3.1 times the distance as far away as the Moon.

Best part? The images reveal that asteroid 2004 BL86 has its own small moon.

The asteroid is approximately 1,100 feet (325 meters) across and has a small moon approximately 230 feet (70 meters) across. In the near-Earth-object (NEO) population, about 16 percent of asteroids larger than 650 feet (200 meters) or larger have one - or even two! - small moons orbiting them.

The trajectory of the asteroid is well understood. Monday's flyby was the closest approach the asteroid will make to Earth for at least the next two centuries. It is also the closest a known asteroid this size will come to Earth until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past our planet in 2027.

Asteroid 2004 BL86 was discovered on Jan. 30, 2004, by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey in White Sands, New Mexico.

NASA places a high priority on tracking asteroids and protecting our home planet from them, the most robust and productive survey and detection program for discovering NEOs in the world. NASA partners with government agencies, university-based astronomers, space science institutes across the country, and amateur astronomers, plus international space agencies and institutions working to track and better understand these objects. (I helped with the NEO search, too, back in the mid-1990s, as part of the Hobbs Observatory mission. That was frakkin' cool, except the part where I had to use an Apple II to run the telescope.)

Snips from a couple of amateur vids:

This tiny little world has a moon of its own! Space exploration is awesome.

Speaking of, The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella progress:

Have you ever seen anything more astounding or beautiful than Saturn's hexagonal storm system in its north pole?

The eye of this storm is about 50 times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth. Winds are measured by following small clouds over a five-hour period. The winds at the inner ring are moving the fastest, at speeds of about 340 mph (550 kph) relative to the nominal rate for the planet established by NASA's Voyager spacecraft in 1980. These winds are four times the speed of the Earth's jet streams and more than four times the definition of a hurricane force wind on Earth. (Hurricane force winds blow at 74 mph, or 119 kph.)

The clouds at the very center are spinning rapidly - almost twice as fast as the planet itself, with a period just over six hours. The direction of rotation is counterclockwise, like a northern hemisphere hurricane on Earth, except there is no ocean underneath. A similar feature exists at Saturn’s southern pole, and it spins in the same direction as that of a southern hemisphere hurricane on Earth. However, the hurricanes on Earth begin in the tropics and drift around. The polar hurricanes on Saturn are locked to their poles.

The bright clouds form a tightly wrapped spiral that traces a path toward the center as one follows it in a counterclockwise direction. This spiral could be a wave or actual particle motion toward the center from a disturbance further out. Or it could be the remnants of a compact cloud that got sheared apart by the higher angular velocity closer to the center. Choosing among these possibilities is the subject of ongoing research.

NASA also has a great little video of this massive, freakishly shaped hurricane here.

Source: NASA's Cassini mission.
First off, apologies for posting here so seldom. Most of my blogs appear first on Tumblr (mckitterick.tumblr.com), because it's so much faster to post stuff there, and it so easily cross-blogs to my Facebook and my Twitter accounts. LJ and DW are just SO SLOW to use.... If you're on Tumblr and/or Twitter, please follow me there and I'll do the same, so we can stay in better contact!

Anyhow. On with the AWESOME.

Welcome to a comet


First touchdown

Comet from 40 metres

And if you want to see the first DRAMATIC AS HELL images of the comet from space, check out yesterday's post here.

Rosetta's little Philae probe lands safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko!

The top photo shows one of the lander's feet in the foreground, safely on the ground. The second and third shots show where Philae hoped to land, but bounced: I love this description:

"Soon after the lander touched down yesterday, scientists realized they had a problem. A pair of harpoons designed to tether the probe to the surface of the comet never fired. The probe weighed more than 200 pounds when it was on Earth, but on the comet, it weighs about as much as a sheet of paper. So with nothing to hold it down, it bounced. Data now shows the first bounce took more than two hours. A second bounce lasted just a few minutes. The first photo from the surface showed the lander's leg next to a rugged-looking outcropping of rock or ice. It is humanity's first view from the surface of a comet."

The last image was taken by Philae's down-looking descent ROLIS imager when it was about 40 meters above the surface. The photos reveal a surface covered by dust and debris ranging from millimeter to meter sizes. The large block in the top-right corner is 5 meters across.

We'll get full-panorama shots FROM THE SURFACE OF A COMET later today. The aim of the ROLIS (Rosetta Lander Imaging System) experiment is to study the texture and microstructure of the comet's surface. Photo source.

PS: Bonus photo... someone giffed the Rosetta and Philae landing images from xkcd:

Amazing astro-porn thanks to NASA - no Photoshop here.

Hubble captures a comet in the same frame as Mars:

Sunspot group on the Sun that's bigger than Jupiter:

The Sun in hydrogen-alpha, from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory:

For reference about that sunspot group:

Science is awesome.
This is a term I want to use a LOT. What is a SOLAR TORNADO, you ask? It begins with a SOLAR STORMFRONT:

This storm on the Sun is many times the size of Earth. It's spinning at about 12 miles per second, and rising at 90 miles per second:

And here's an animated gif of a SOLAR TORNADO, five times the size of planet Earth:

I frakkin' love science.

PS: I'm doing a reading tomorrow with two other awesome spec-fic writers at The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, KS:

Two of the mightiest gods in our sky will rise from the same starry bed tomorrow morning, so close their beaming faces will shine almost as one! Check out these Sky & Telescope shots:

Click the image to see the story at Sky & Telescope online.

Planets pair up every so often, but rarely is their dance so intimate. During Venus and Jupiter's embrace shortly before dawn tomorrow (Monday, August 18), they'll be separated by only 1/3° or less - that's thinner than your pinky at full-arm extension. It's the very best planet hookup of the year, and the closest pairing these two have had this century. Here's what they'll look like in binoculars or through a telescope using a low-power eyepiece:

Their tight dance will be brief. Each morning, Jupiter rises a little higher from his eastern bed and Venus lingers a little longer near ol' Sol. The bed they share tomorrow morning is M44, the Beehive Cluster, which will reward augmented viewing:

If you're up before dawn, don't forget to look east toward sunrise and watch two of the brightest planetary bodies embrace!

Writing update: Finished my second story in the "Jupiter Whispers" series (which will one day join to form a novel). This one's called "Orpheus' Engines," at least for now, and tallies up to almost exactly 7000 words. Turned out way more econo-political than I'd expected! Chock-full of alien and human communication issues, with lots of Jupiter imagery to set the mood.

Finally, while we're on the topic of Jupiter, how about some bonus photos! First a gorgeous animated gif of the planet rotating:

Click the image to see the Astronominsk page full of more great shots like this.

Finally, check out this amazing 3D animated gif! Put on those old blue-red 3D glasses if you have 'em to enjoy the full effect:

Click the image to see the Astronominsk page.


(Or, well, do battle. But whatta show!) As always, click the images to find the source stories.

First up, the Perseid meteor shower is already underway (see the "Perseid Activity" chart, below, to get an idea of the number of meteors per hour). The Perseid meteor shower is one of the best such displays each year. Peak nights for watching the Perseids are this coming Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after sunset (that is, the evenings of August 11, 12, and 13). More info on that here.

Next, on August 10 (when the Perseids are ramping up the action) is the next "supermoon" - the third this summer! A supermoon happens when the Moon is full at the same time it reaches perigee (closest approach to Earth). Because the Moon's orbit is not circular, Some months' perigees are closer than others - this month's is the closest of 2014, making this month's full Moon a super-duper supermoon. More info on that here.

Overall, it makes for a pair of really cool astronomical delights! io9 has a good story about the dual astro-events here.

Get outside and enjoy!
Just wow:

We live in an age when one can make animated gifs of the daily sky ON MARS.


Click the image to see the story and bigger images.

I vividly remember the first time I saw the Lagoon Nebula in my Crown 6" Newtonian reflector (on a heavy German-equatorial mount). I was about 14 years old, and I'd dragged the telescope out on a late-summer midnight. I lived a couple of miles outside of a small western-Minnesota town, and our neighborhood only had one streetlight to pollute the night. Carrying my equipment a few hundred yards beyond led to almost entirely dark skies, so the Milky Way and its core glowed like a million tiny sparks arcing across the sky, mottled with fuzzy bright spots. Toward the galaxy's core lay several dramatic nebulae, including this one, spanning huge across the eyepiece, not far from the Trifid Nebula and a whole bunch of other objects. Even using a small instrument, all you have to do is slowly sweep your telescope or binocular across this rich field to see endless star-birthing regions and star-clusters. Gorgeous.

"VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. Together these are providing a vast legacy of publicly available data for the global astronomical community."

Another shot:

Click the image to see source page.

More cool facts about this extremely rich section of the sky: "Sagittarius contains 15 Messier objects: Messier 8 (M8, NGC 6523, Lagoon Nebula), Messier 17 (M17, NGC 6618 Omega, Swan, Horseshoe or Lobster Nebula), Messier 18 (M18, NGC 6613), Messier 20 (M20, NGC 6514, Trifid Nebula), Messier 21 (M21, NGC 6531), Messier 22 (M22, NGC 6656, Sagittarius Cluster), Messier 23 (M23, NGC 6494), Messier 24 (M24, NGC 6603, Sagittarius Star Cloud), Messier 25 (M25, IC 4725), Messier 28 (M28, NGC 6626), Messier 54 (M54, NGC 6715), Messier 55 (M55, NGC 6809), Messier 69 (M69, NGC 6637), Messier 70 (M70, NGC 6681) and Messier 75 (M75, NGC 6864). The constellation also has 22 stars with confirmed planets."

Aboard the ISS, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata just captured and shared this otherworldly photo of the crescent Moon rising from Earth's atmosphere:

Click the image to see the NASA page.

This is not a false-color image: The gas and dust in each layer of the atmosphere act as prisms, filtering out certain wavelengths of light. You can't really get a view like this from Earth (well, for a lot of reasons, but that's one.) Here's another shot of a moonrise from space, taken by astronaut Ron Garan in 2011:

Click the image to see Ron Garan's Twitpics page.

Happy moonrise Friday!

Astrophysicists have announced an exciting, new view of the early Solar System.

Click the image to see the Discovery.com story on one asterod's water plume.
In the solar system's infancy, after the planets, asteroids and smaller bodies had formed, we didn't see gentle, circular(-ish) orbits as we do today for most major bodies. Since the 1980s, astronomers thought the Asteroid Belt formed where it lives today, a loose formation between Mars and Jupiter, a loose scattering of rock and dust that simply failed to form into a planet. However, astronomers have been studied a lot of asteroids since that time, some close-up using robotic missions like NEAR-Shoemaker. We have now learned that things weren't always as they are now, and that violence and randomness ruled the early Solar System.

"What we're leaning toward now is that asteroids, rather than forming in the asteroid belt, formed throughout the entire solar system... as close to the Sun as Mercury and as far away as Neptune, and then, through the planetary migration, you scatter them all over the place. What's left is what you see in the asteroid belt today," says astrophysicist Francesca DeMeo. The new theory is that the asteroids now residing in their Mars-to-Jupiter prison had once flown free throughout the Solar System, free to pummel planets, hurtle to a fiery death in the Sun, careen off into deep space on their own. Wildly orbiting planets launched these smaller bodies hither and yon. How crazy were these early planetary dances? It now appears that Mars might have visited Earth's realm - which also explains why we regularly find Mars meteorites on Earth - and mighty Jupiter's orbit once dipped as close as Mars' current locale. All this random chaos meant that little guys like comets and asteroids had no say in where they lived, and the Big Guys like Jupiter really were the gods who controlled the lives of billions of little guys populating the Solar System. The Old Gods might even be responsible for life on Earth, seeding our planet with water by hurtling comets and other icy bodies at us, plus carbon compounds from carbonaceous asteroids. I can see the headline: "Science Proves Life Came from the Gods!"

Sure, now Lord Jupiter is happy to maintain a stately, near-circular orbit, maintaining a gravitational fence around the wild ones penned in the Asteroid Belt (Lord Mars keeps the other gate shut), but in their youth they were unpredictable gods, much like their namesakes.

Click this thumbnail to see the full-size asteroid infographic.

Had to share this little bit of Astro-Awesomeness. I'll leave you with this lovely image of dwarf-planet Ceres (formerly known as "asteroid Ceres," but now a peer of Lord Pluto):

Click the image to see the Wikipedia article on Ceres.

PS: It now appears that Ceres - which makes up about 1/3 of all the asteroid-ish mass in the Solar System - is habitable; that is, is giving off a plume of water vapor. This place has a water-rich atmosphere!

These discoveries... I tell you what: We live in amazing times.

Notice I don't call it "vacation," and here's why. On the other hand, it sure was a nice break to not have to be "on" for classes all week!
  • I've been writing several mornings, every week since mid-December. Completely revised the opening scenes of The Galactic Adventures of Jack & Stella, completely re-envisioned how I'm handling POV (which means significantly rewriting every single other scene, too), wrote many more notes for future scenes, and cut thousands of words while writing thousands more... I've passed a total of 44k words, which means it's more than half-way done (based on a projected 70k)!

  • Finished updating all three syllabi and Blackboard sites (that's the web interface for KU courses) for my spring semester classes. Sent all the students links to where their syllabi live online. HOORAY! Good lord, is it just me or does it take everyone most of a day to do this for each course?

  • Worked a bunch on the hot-rod Newport, including rebuilding the broken valvetrain; finishing installing the new fuel-injection system; installing half the custom exhaust (with electric cut-outs for added raucousness on demand!); designing a crankcase-ventilation system that won't put so much smoke into the intake and getting started installing that; and finding a great deal on a new front-drive system that'll upgrade the alternator to handle fuel-injection duties, the A/C and power-steering pump to something that works, and convert it to a simpler serpentine-belt system that'll make it more reliable and more efficient - oh, and it's all polished aluminum, so it's much lighter and really pretty, too. ETA for street duty: a week or two! Assuming something else doesn't blow up....

  • Did a bit of work on the Chevelle, but I want to get the Newport mobile, washed, waxed, and covered before really diving into this project; picked up some more parts I'll need, though. ETA for street duty: Late spring.

  • Rewired a cool vintage ceramic lamp and installed it in the ceiling of my living room. MUCH nicer than the old (light-free) ceiling fan that used to clutter up the space:

  • Did a bunch of updates on the Center for the Study of Science Fiction's website, and planned much more. Oh, and we're working with a major donor right now who's intending to support not only a full-ride scholarship for the summer Workshops, but also something even bigger for a student coming to study SF during the regular semester. Details to come....

  • Started reading for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel. Loving everything so far, which is great, but could also be trouble come decision time....

  • Got back into astronomy, with a new (to me) 100mm f/9 apochromatic refractor. WOWEE, does it provide gorgeous images! This is my first apochromat, a type of refractor that uses varying types of rare-earth glass to produce lovely, sharp, and color-free images. On a really nice German equatorial mount with dual-axis drives and a handy through-the-polar-axis North Star finder:

  • Resumed a regular, hardcore workout schedule at the gym. Tried the beautiful-but-useless fancy fitness center here at KU (Ambler), because it was free to staff & faculty last week; we usually use beat-up, old, and dingy - but free - Robinson, because of its really useful and large free-weights room, and only visited crowded Ambler that once.

  • Oh, and on a related note: Not to sound braggy or anything, but over Break the awesome Clevermanka started giving me regular, multi-hour massages at least once a week, sometimes EVERY DAY. OMG, I am so lucky.

Other stuff, too, like watching the new BBC Sherlock series! (Which starts on PBS tonight.) LOVE IT SO MUCH.

What did you do over the past month, whether or not you got a break?

We got hit by an asteroid earlier this week:

"Discovered on New Year's Eve by a telescope in Arizona, a small asteroid struck Earth somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean - apparently unnoticed - about 25 hours later."

Click the image to see the Sky & Telescope article.

How do we get hit by a frakkin' ASTEROID and not even notice? Makes you feel some hope for the future: Sure, we get whallopped all the time, but we'll make it because it's really unlikely to be an asteroid huge enough to crack the crust or accurate enough to annihilate a city.

Cool! The dinosaurs are still extinct, but we aren't.


Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, entered lunar orbit on December 24, 1968 - Christmas Eve. That evening, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders made this then-live television broadcast from lunar orbit, during which they showed pictures of the Earth and Moon as seen from Apollo 8. Later, they took the first Earthrise photo:

Click the image to see the excellent Wikipedia article (with lots of great photos).

click for transcript )

Go here to learn more about the Apollo missions.

Merry Christmas!
HUGE space news:

On Saturday, December 14, 2013 - at 7:11 AM (Central - that's 1311 GMT or 9:12 PM Beijing time), China's Chang'e 3 lander and its Yutu Moon rover (aka "Jade Rabbit") touched down on our cratered companion world. We haven't seen another soft-landing on that cratered surface since 1976, with the last Russian Luna spacecraft (Luna 24):

Click the image to see the Wikipedia article on the history of lunar landings.

Jade Rabbit touched down in Sinus Iridum ("Bay of Rainbows"), the northern part of Mare Imbrium ("Sea of Showers") in the Moon's Northern Hemisphere. CHINA IS ON THE FRAKKIN' MOON, FOLKS.

Here's the Chang'e 3 lander saying goodbye to its Yutu rover:

Check out this great ITN (British news) video with footage of the whole historic mission:

Readers of this blog are probably wondering why I haven't written about this until now. Well, beyond the usual excuses (final papers are arriving fast and furious, plus other obligations), I was just plain astounded by the news: China - the last communist-dictatorship mega-nation - is the one that has returned to the Moon, and it's a part of their military (whereas NASA, though tied to the US military, is independent). This is huge in so many ways, folks: No one has explored the Moon (except by orbiting or crashing into it; the latest hard-landing was NASA's LCROSS in 2009) since the 1970s. No one has ever set foot on the Moon except for Americans, and that ended in 1972 with Apollo 17, the program that ignited passion and excitement for space like nothing before with photos like this one of John W. Young on the frakkin' Moon:

Click the image to see the excellent Wikipedia article on the Apollo program.

The US Apollo program (and the Soviets counterpart) was motivated less by passion for space exploration than a desire to prove our technological superiority to the world. When the Soviet program faltered - after soft-landing the first rover - the steam went out of US exploration, thus beginning the era of the space-truck Shuttle. Besides the early excitement and a couple of catastrophes, most people didn't even know when a Shuttle was launching. On the other hand, the Chinese have long-term goals at play. Are they as interested in exploration as they are in displaying their techno-feathers? Do they primarily aim to prove their capability to do things no one else has done for 40 years? Or are their intentions darker?

Jade Rabbit is only the latest step in China's methodical space program. They have enjoyed a series of triumphs in crewed space flight during the past decade, including launching humans into orbit and docking two ships in space. China lost its first (and only) Mars probe soon after launch in 2011 - it's important to note that this was due to a Russian booster failure, not a failure of Chinese equipment - but both of its Moon probes (the previous Chang'e 1 and 2, named for the luminescent goddess who lives on the Moon), like its manned space missions, were successful. They plan to send another rover just like this one soon, then a robotic mission to return lunar samples by 2018. Assuming these missions are successful, they plan to send taikonauts - Chinese astronauts - to walk on the Moon a few years later. After that, who knows? Moon bases? Taikonauts leaving footprints on Mars? Chinese flags flying over a multitude of Solar System objects?

Fan-art Photoshop of an Apollo photo.

It all began with a race, then Apollo's tone hit it just right, involving everyone in what NASA cleverly forged into a human - rather than American - endeavor, thus igniting a passion for space that spread across the whole world:

With images like the first Earthrise seen from lunar orbit, taken by astronaut Bill Anders through the porthole of a frakkin' spaceship:

Until that moment, humans traveling to other worlds was "science fiction." When that image made its way back to Earth, the world had forever changed. Putting humans into space made it real for us; rockets and satellites (starting with the Soviets' 1957 Sputnik) and rovers were damned impressive, and blew us away. But putting people into space transformed the endeavor into something real, something we might do or have done, if only our lives had gone a little differently. Rovers after that have improved so much, and NASA was so brilliant with its Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, that we can identify a little with them. But if the Chinese put a person on the Moon, they'll once more re-ignite the human imagination. If they set foot on Mars? I can't even imagine how powerful that would be to the human psyche... and how terrifying to some: the Red Menace on the Red Planet.

Ultimately, if you're like me, you hope that the Chinese determination spurs a more enduring human emigration beyond this tiny world's fragile surface. I'll leave you with this quote from James Gunn, perhaps the foremost Asimov scholar:

"In 1973 [Asimov] pointed out that we were living in a science fiction world, a world of spaceships, atomic energy, and computers, a world very much like the world that he and other science fiction writers had been describing a quarter-century before. It was a world typified by the first Moon landing, four years before. 'Science fiction writers and readers didn't put a man on the moon all by themselves,' he told me, 'but they created a climate of opinion in which the goal of putting a man on the Moon became acceptable.'"

Hear, hear. As much as I feel conflicted saying this, Thank you, China. Let's hope the rest of the world feels the spurs to reach up and explore beyond our little neighborhood once again.
and now a couple of big images )
RIP Comet ISON. Did you get a chance to see it? Did you take any photos you'd like to share? Here's a fantastic obituary of the comet's dramatic life:

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON)
Born 4.5 Billion BCE, Fragmented Nov 28, 2013 (age 4.5-billion yrs old)

Click the image to see Karl Battams' story. Click here to see the full-size image.

Born in a dusty and turbulent environment, comet ISON spent its early years being jostled and struck by siblings both large and small. Surviving a particularly violent first few million years, ISON retreated to the Oort Cloud, where it maintained a largely reclusive existence for nearly four billion years. But around 3-million BCE, a chance encounter with a passing star coerced ISON into undertaking a pioneering career as a sungrazer. On September 21, 2012, ISON made itself known to us, and allowed us to catalog the most extraordinary part of its spectacular vocational calling.

Never one to follow convention, ISON lived a dynamic and unpredictable life, alternating between periods of quiet reflection and violent outburst. However, its toughened exterior belied a complex and delicate inner working that only now we are just beginning to understand. In late 2013, Comet ISON demonstrated not only its true beauty but a surprising turn of speed as it reached its career defining moment in the inner solar system. Tragically, on November 28, 2013, ISON's tenacious ambition outweighed its ability, and our shining green candle in the solar wind began to burn out.

Survived by approximately several trillion siblings, Comet ISON leaves behind an unprecedented legacy for astronomers, and the eternal gratitude of an enthralled global audience. In ISON's memory, donations are encouraged to your local astronomy club, observatory or charity that supports STEM and science outreach programs for children.



mckitterick: Yes, this is one of my actual scooter helmets. RESPECT THE EMPIRE. (Default)


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