All posts for the month October, 2005

Total eclipse of the Sun

Total eclipse of the Sun

Sky events fascinate me. Every night (and every day!) I can go outside, and unless it’s totally cloudy, I can find something interesting to see. Eclipses are an example of something that I find quite fascinating. The mechanics are simple enough – one object moves between another object and the Sun. In the case of a total solar eclipse, the Moon moves between Earth and the Sun, and casts a shadow on our planet. If I’m in the shadow, this is what I see.

That may sound pretty simple, almost mechanical. And it is. But the part about standing on the planet and watching as the shadow sweeps toward you, and then being engulfed in that shadow for a few minutes (at most), brings on a feeling of awe at the majesty of the whole thing. It’s pretty darned cool!

And it’s no small wonder that we (humans) name things in our every day lives after sky phenomena that amaze us. Think about quasars for example. They’re bright, distant points of light that turn out to be distant galaxies with active (very active) nuclei. Astronomers think they have black holes at their centers which are powering huge releases of energy that cause them to be very bright at x-ray and sometimes optical wavelengths of light. But, in the 1960s, when the term “quasar” was coined from the longer description of “quasi-stellar objects,” it was a cool-sounding word that sounded “spacey” and “modern” and so a TV was named after this distant, bright, mysterious class of objects.

Or, think about cars. The first space-related car name I can remember is the Ford Galaxy. And, of course, the Subaru, which is the Japanese name for the Pleiades, that great little grouping of stars in the constellation Taurus. Or, the Ford Taurus!

Getting back to eclipses, there’s a sporty little car named the Eclipse. I suppose the name was space-related, as well as motivated by the carmaker’s desire to get across the idea that this car eclipses all others, leaves every other car in the dust. Or maybe they just liked the name.

I bought one ten years ago, not simply because of the name. But it was black, like a total solar eclipse. It was a great car in every way, and I was sorry to see it go when I finally drove it onto a dealer’s lot last week and traded it in for a new one, in the penumbral shade of titanium pearl. I guess it seems to fit my space-oriented interests!

Look around you and see how many space-themed objects exist in modern life. Kinda tells you something about our interest in the sky, even if we (as a human race) don’t always think about it in those terms.

Orions Belt, by

Orion's Belt, by -- fantastic images!

I am always amazed at the artistry that astronomers bring to their imaging. While browsing the Astronomy Picture of the Day archives I ran across this image of the three belt stars in Orion (one of my favorite constellations). IMHO, Davide De Martin has created a masterpiece!

Of course, I’m a huge fan of nebulae. Just as I like Mars for its stark beauty and promise of future exploration, I find starbirth nebulae to be … ah… pregnant with stellar promise. Fecund with the bounty of future stars to come!

Why is this? I don’t know, exactly. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that starbirth was one of those last frontier subjects that we could only speculate about for so long, until we had the means to peer deep inside the nurseries and see what was happening with young stellar objects and such. For decades nebulae were “mysterious” and “impenetrable.” No longer, not with the advent of infrared-sensitive instruments that could can cut through the veil hiding the secret birth places of stars.

Not that the Belt Stars are hidden. But the region they front for is a cauldron of stellar creation, and the more we look into this area, the more we find. It’s fascinating and awe-inspiring.

So, if you’re in the mood to see some hot starbirth action, go out and find the Belt Stars of Orion and then check out the greyish-green fog of light just beneath them… the Orion Nebula. It’s a hotbed of young stars newly emerged from their birth cocoons. Beautiful, but hardly mysterious anymore.

What’s a cat got to do with space? If you’re a cat lover, you know that cats have everything to do with everything! We’ve had a number of cats make their home with us over the years. The first was Calicat, who was dumped on our doorstep during a particularly bad blizzard in Denver. She lived for 16 years, produced one litter of kittens, and generally presided over all the doings at our house with great aplomb.

The Real Larry

When we moved to Massachusetts, we brought her son Larry with us (Calicat had died just before that), and he was with us for almost 18 years. Larry is something of a fixture in planetarium circles, being the star of a show I wrote to teach kids about the Moon, called Larry Cat in Space.

We have other cats, as well. Like Larry, and Calicat before him, they’ve all become our “space cats,” living with our crazy hours, our productions (which often include creating the universe, detonating supernova explosions in our soundtracks, and all the other things that go along with talking about cool stuff in space). Most of the time they just sleep through it all.

Laz is my current companion as I write this. He is spending some time this morning staring out the window at the rain (coming down in buckets) and no doubt wondering what happened to the birds that used to hang around outside the window. We got Laz a couple of years ago when he was just a kitten. He’s a bit bigger now, but still likes to be around as I write. In fact, I like to think of him as my “cat’s-eye” companion. Here’s a little Photoshop(tm) thing I did with one of his pictures (I’m always taking pictures of him), giving him the appropriate “starry-eyed” look (for a cat).

Laz a bit bigger

Laz a bit bigger

Laz and the Ring Nebula

Laz and the Ring Nebula