Ruminating While Digesting Turkey

November 28, 2003 at 17:09 pm | Leave a Comment

No, this entry isn’t about a round of Diplomacy where Spain conquers the Ottoman Empire, although taking the day after a big holiday meal with family to play games is not a bad thing. It’s more about the things you see as you’re sitting out on the front patio of your folks’ place after that holiday dinner, staring at the sky. I did that yesterday, as the nieces and nephews scattered themselves around the house playing chess and word games and generally being nieces and nephews, and some of the adults were talking and laughing in the kitchen and family room, and some of the rest of us were outside chatting.

So, from the front patio I could see the planet Mars, and then after awhile — as it got darker — the stars started popping out one by one. As we sat and talked, the sky got darker and the planes taking off and landing at the airport were forming their own constellation patterns against the backdrop. And I was thinking that as much as I love doing planetarium work and how unique the theaters are, it just doesn’t compare to the ambiance of being under the real sky. They’re two different ways of getting a feel for the star patterns, and what’s up, but one is not the other. And that’s not so bad, really. There’s a time when you want to be under the real stars and there’s a time when you want to be under the dome. Sort of like playing a game of baseball in real life or playing fantasy baseball online.

The size of the sky and the smell of woodsmoke drifting from someone’s fireplace nearby, and the sounds of the kids playing, and the glittering, showy entrance of the stars in ones and twos provided a fine backdrop for a pleasant holiday scene I won’t soon forget.

The image below kind of evokes that feeling — it’s not my image, but one I found when I was surfing around looking for images of the desert a few weeks back. Scott had the luck to be under a clear desert sky one night and took advantage of it to capture the beauty of the stars. Linked to from: Scott Tucker’s Dark-Sky Images Page.

Remember the Planetarium?

November 25, 2003 at 16:48 pm | Leave a Comment

A few months ago I was flying somewhere and reading a book on astronomy when the guy in the seat next to me took an interest in the subject. Eventually, as it always does when someone strikes up a conversation about stargazing, the topic of learning the stars as a kid came up. “I haven’t actually done anything with astronomy since I went to the planetarium on a high school field trip,” was his statement. Since I do a lot of stuff with planetarium facilities, I drew him out about his experiences and gained another data point about the importance of these ubiquitous facilities in our educational and recreational lives.

Planetaria ARE ubiquitous, but they are in some ways part of an endangered species. They pop up in waves and close down, maybe not quite so quickly. In the past few years the idea of the planetarium has been evolving. For most of us of a certain age, they were the funny round rooms with the “ant” in the middle — that we visited in museums and some well-equipped school districts. The Ant refers to the big opto-mechanical star projectors that still sits in the center of the room in many facilities and splashes stars out across the dome. Then folks started adding slide projectors and video systems, and now today’s star theaters are benefitting from the advent of the Internet, the Web, and all sorts of other technologies. And while some are opening up, others are closing. The planetarium facility — and its technologies are changing and improving while other dome technologies are fading away.

So, do you go to your local planetarium? What’s happening down at the star theater? Are these places relevant to today’s education and recreation? Those are the questions that run through my mind as I create shows and ponder the future of the medium. It’s a unique medium, one that many of us have spent years mastering. It’s certainly not like anything else in the entertainment/educational outreach world! From the simplest (yet most wowie) special effect of a night sky (stars alone) to the 3D technicolor space voyages some producers are turning out, a night at the planetarium is still one worth your time and effort!

Stormy Weather

November 23, 2003 at 21:16 pm | Leave a Comment

As Americans and their families head into Thanksgiving week, the Sun is getting in on the act by showing off several huge sunspot groups that are candidates for solar flares over the next few days. In addition to the SOHO and websites for updates on geomagnetic activity and aurora forecasts, you can also surf over to Space Weather Now.

These sites are your best sources for “up to the minute” space weather information. Here’s what has to say on Sunday, November 23, 2003:

SOLAR OUTLOOK: Big sunspot 488 has a complex “beta-delta-gamma” magnetic field that harbors energy for X-class solar flares. Any explosions from the active region this week would be Earth-directed, which raises the possibility of more solar storms and auroras in the days ahead.

And, over at Space Weather Now you can check out the size of the auroral ovals. Here’s an example of a North Pole auroral oval on Sunday, November 23.

And Speaking of the Sun…

November 22, 2003 at 19:35 pm | Leave a Comment
Courtesy of the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory — this image is updated frequently so you can follow the progress of these active regions across the solar disk. (SOHO)

Courtesy of the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory — this image is updated frequently so you can follow the progress of these active regions across the solar disk. (SOHO)

It’s acting up again. In late October it was quite busy with flares and coronal mass ejections that subsequently impacted the Earth’s magnetosphere — and subsquently lit up our skies with auroral displays, disrupted communications and other services, and generally made solar and atmospheric physicists very happy with lots of new data to study. You thought it was over, right? Well, not quite. As it turns out, with the Sun, what goes around comes around. And, the sunspot regions that were responsible for the last space weather storm, that rotated around to the other side of the Sun, are on their way back. In fact, this image from SOHO’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) shows the three regions (in bright white) that are going to make life interesting for everybody for the next week or so.

Does this mean we’ll be seeing more aurorae, tracking more flares, battening down the electronic hatches to save our satellites from heavy spaceweather? Maybe. There was another flare last week that lit the skies with aurorae, and chances are it’ll happen again. So, keep your eyes peeled, visit the SOHO site, and for regular updates on what the Sun is doing.

November 20, 2003 at 20:06 pm | Leave a Comment
Total Solar Eclipse of July 11, 1991, by Dennis diCicco, Steve Albers, and Gary Emerson

Total Solar Eclipse of July 11, 1991, by Dennis diCicco, Steve Albers, and Gary Emerson

On November 23, 2003, total eclipse of the Sun will be visible from a narrow track across Antarctica, while a partial eclipse will be visible over the tip of South America and parts of Australia and New Zealand. It will occur between 5:24 and 6:14 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The folks at Sky & Telescope have a group scheduled to fly over Antarctica at an altitude of 38,000 feet. Those aboard will experience 2 minutes 26 seconds of totality — 29 seconds more than is possible from the ground. Other expeditions include a group from the University of Arizona, doing a similar flyover to catch the eclipse from planes laden with scientific equipment. And, of course, there are sea and land-based trips for folks to get their “umbral” fix that way, as well.

So what’s the draw of an eclipse? I’ve traveled to five total solar eclipse paths since 1979 and have seen 3 full totalities. The others were clouded out. There is no way to completely describe the awesome sight of the Sun gradually disappearing behind the Moon. But it is awesome. And it makes you want jump and shout and turn all about… so, I can completely understand the need of umbraphiles to get more umbra.

I won’t be along with them this time but I will try to follow along on my computer on Sunday night as the excitement begins. Want to join me? If you aren’t on one of the many expeditions bound to the southern hemisphere to see this event, check out these links: They’ll be posting images on their site sometime after the plane lands.
“LIVE! ECLIPSE 2003″ from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
Antarctica 2003 – Soleil noir sur Continent blanc la Fondation Polaire Internationale (et en francais). You have to register to use the site, but it’s free.

Also, the Discovery Channel will be airing the eclipse live on Sunday night during a program called Discovery Special Presentation: Solar Eclipse Live from Antarctica. Check your local schedule for showtime listings.

Happy eclipse watching!

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