April 6, 2020

Coming Clean: Tales of Astronomical Wins and Woes

Beware of the “Pacman Moon…”

It’s true: I once slept through an eclipse.

Well, OK. I didn’t sleep all the way though. Hard to believe, there was a phase of my life where I didn’t eagerly await every occultation and conjunction. Like many skywatchers who return to amateur astronomy later in life, an early interest in high school waned during enlistment in the military.

That particular morning on February 9th, 1990 saw me working the graveyard shift on the flight-line at Kadena Air Base. Often, if the work was done and the aircraft were prepped for the next day’s missions, our shift supervisor looked the other way if we wanted to crawl in the back of the truck and catch some shuteye. Hey, it’s how a graveyard shift worker survives. The two rules were that we would promise to 1. bring a radio so we could be contacted and 2. were out of sight, lest the Base Commander or his friends decided to stop by unannounced.

“Cool, the Moon is Full” I noticed as I lay back on the truck bench and nodded off.. but I couldn’t say the same an hour later, as I awoke to a curious Pacman shaped Moon, lower in the sky. I realized then, that an eclipse was underway.

Even today, I occasionally still miss out on what we’re aiming for astronomically. Satellites fail to show. Meteor showers are a wash. Comets are faint and elusive. We’ve yet to successfully nab an asteroid occultation. We only caught a very brief view of the 2012 transit of Venus through thick clouds, along with arguably the worst image of the event. Usually, clouds—the nemesis of every astronomer—is often the culprit, though light pollution and the capricious whim of the Universe can occasionally play a roll.

We’re not even afraid to admit that we missed totality during the ‘big one’ last summer, as fast moving clouds stole the climax of the Great American Eclipse of August 21st, 2017. We have our final shot of the slim, dwindling crescent Sun time-stamped at less than 30 seconds from totality to prove it.

Such is the game we play, and you might be surprised to know that we don’t resort to hubris, shaking our fists at a spiteful cosmos. We knew that going to the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in the Smoky Mountains was a toss-up in terms of weather, though we graciously accepted the press invite and had a good time. Maybe the “Smoky” part of the name should’ve been our first clue…

Instead, we remember the tale of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil, who braved the perils of 18th sea travel, the whims of weather, disease and war only to miss the transit of Venus… twice, once in 1761 and again in 1769. Talk about bad luck of astronomical proportions. Even today, eclipse chasers will make the arduous journey in pursuit of a few extra seconds of totality only to get rained on… when they would’ve had clear skies, if they had simply stayed put.

We also remember how lucky we’ve been over the years. We’ve seen aurorae from Alaska and Maine that would knock your socks off. We caught the Great 1998 Leonid meteor storm from the deserts of Kuwait, an event far rarer than a even a total solar eclipse. And we were fortunate enough to journey south of the equator on three continents (the southern hemisphere has all the good stuff!) and catch to great comets as they went circumpolar as seen from Alaska in the late 1990s: Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake.

Sure, it’s tough not to feel like we’re missing out sometimes… but rather than curse the cosmos, we like to fight the good fight, and get out under the stars on every clear night… just in case fate throws us a cosmic bone.

Downsizing Astronomy: A Rough and Ready Astronomy Rig

Our current travel gear: ready for an upgrade?

The circle is nearly complete. Late last year, we took on a book project presented to us by Fraser Cain over at Universe Today. Numerous edits, rewrites and deadlines later, the book out from Page Street Publishing this October is nearly now on autopilot.

I do want to write one day about lessons learned during the first-time book writing process. But what I want to present this week is our stick and carrot reward project we’re about to initiate.

For years, our go to telescope has been a Celestron 8-inch, Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector. It’s a great scope, to be sure; it’s versatile enough for planetary or deep sky observing, plus I can still sling it into the hatchback of our Fiat 500 for mobility.

The trouble is, I have to leave it home when we fly abroad, and simply carry our DSLR and our Canon image-stabilized binoculars. I’ve always wanted a simple rig that’s down-sized to meet international flight carry-on restrictions, and I’m now ready to pull the trigger.

An article in Sky and Telescope last year also hatched a seed in my mind. In it, a pair of astronomers roughed it traveling through South America, and carried two small telescopes with them to use for public star parties. This got me thinking to all of our wayward journeys through places like Morocco, Nepal, and Cambodia… wouldn’t it be great to offer views of the Universe to people who have never looked through a telescope?

Thus a plan was born. I’m looking to donate the bulky 8-inch SCT scope to a good home (say, a deserving local school or astronomy club, where it will actually get used) and downsize to the largest Maksutov-Cassegrain scope I can get away with (hopefully) an Orion 127mm (5-inch). For solar observing, I’m hoping to do the team from the article one better, and trade in the Coronado PST solar scope for a white-light glass filter plus an offset hydrogen alpha filter for the aperture. One telescope to rule them all, in one kit.

I’m also hoping that the rig is light enough to fit on my collapsible Dolica travel tripod, and it won’t necessitate buying yet another beefier tripod. I may also add in a Skywatcher/IOptron tracking mount, though I always like to maintain the option of being able to simply hand slew the telescope towards targets, and not worry about dead batteries or slow drive motors (I can find the Moon myself, thank you very much).

A fully airline portable travel astronomy rig is a noble goal, and a worthy reward to ourselves for finishing our first book. We also have another criterion for the project: to keep the entire budget down under $1,000… book advances for most first-time authors aren’t as massive a s most people think!

Anyhow, that’s part one. We hope to bring you part two, in which we compare the results of the downsizing project about a month from now, in time for our fiftieth birthday… wow. Has it really been 50 orbits around ole Sol?


Reader Feedback, New Changes and More

Observing ‘scopes are happy scopes…

(photo by the author).

You responded, and we listened.

Well, maybe complained is more the term. But after a short bit of consideration, we did indeed implement a few changes that we felt were warranted. Anyhow, if you’ve read this far, you’re not a spam-spewing robot, and maybe while you don’t necessarily agree with everything on this site, at least you’re paying attention… [Read more...]

Astro Video of the Week: White Dwarf, Brown Dwarf

+19th magnitude white dwarf WD 1202-024. (SDSS)

Wanna see a wacky planetary system? A recent discovery by MIT, Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Bishop’s University researchers was announced at the 200th AAS meeting in Austin, Texas and made the news rounds last week, but I don’t think folks really got a good grasp on just how strange a binary system WD 1202-024 really is. [Read more...]

KIC Dreams: Thoughts on Tabby’s Star

Time to contemplate the cosmos…

All right. I know that, by now, much good ink (real and cyber) has been spilled over KIC 8462852. I also know that I’m probably not the very last science writer to turn our attention towards this strange star, drudged up in the Kepler Space Telescope data. And things have only gotten stranger, as search back through glass-plate archives has revealed that KIC 8462852 has gotten continuously fainter over the past century. [Read more...]

Free Fiction Friday: Solar Winds-The Syzygy Gambit Part 2

Out soon… (Image credit: NASA)

Here it tis… a continued sneak peek at the upcoming Solar Winds tale, due for publication in the next week. Don’t forget, start back on last week’s chapter 1, and read the first two Solar Winds stories and other original tales of sci-fi by yours truly.


Solar Winds: The Syzygy Gambit

Part 2


David Dickinson


Andrea topped a small rise, puffing a bit under the Martian gravity. She stopped to survey the twilight landscape around her and make some sense of her bearings. “I’ve been cooped up on a space tub too long,” she said to herself, as she panted and rubbed her burning calves. What would Terran gravity feel like now? Her suit and supplies would allow her to survive about a week unsupported in the Martian desert. “Thank Jove for super-compressed O2,” she said, laughing. She knew she would have to make good time tonight, and then pitch camp by dawn. Hopefully, she would only have to overnight in the Martian desert. Unless the Terran Legion has found our friends first, and created a new Martian crater, she grimaced. She knew that the closest Martian settlement was over 500 klicks away in the wrong direction.

Blinking, she thought she caught the glimmer of metal in the twilight. Wreckage? The snaking sands were uncovering things all of the time. Anyway, it was on her path, and it seemed like as good a fixed point to walk towards as any. Cinching up her pack hard against her shoulders, Andrea trotted off down the slope.

The Commandant pulled the thought-node from his skull and glared out the view plaz towards the lunar disk that always hung stationary from this Lagrange point station between Terra and Luna. He had decided early on in this posting at Terran Legion Headquarters that he hated the eternal waxing and waning of the lunar cycles. He preferred the dark depths of space. Next cycle’s lunar eclipse would provide a welcome respite, with a brief, cold slide into the shadows.

The door to his office slid open and a young Lieutenant drifted through. An augee, he thought. Most Terrans had been either mechanically or genetically altered, or both. Few were whole anymore, except maybe some religious fanatics on the lunar far side. And we’ll take care of them soon enough, the Commandant thought.

“Dispatch from Martian Central, sir; it’s on a priority alpha grid,”she reported smartly. This girl’s augmentation, like his own, didn’t show. Still, he sensed her Legion ID on the neural grid, and he noted that those amber cat eyes weren’t the product of blind natural selection.

“Connect me to the down link,” he barked, plugging the thought-node back in. I’ll ferret her out on sex grid later, he thought. Instantly, images from Martian orbit flooded his cyber-nodes. He saw the sleek, one-person spacecraft dive for the Martian surface. The Cartel! He ran a neural cross-check. It was identical to the one that had escaped from Titan and another pair that had wreaked so much havoc on Ganymede. He currently had half of the Legion battle fleet scouring the outer solar system searching for these scum. They wouldn’t dare step foot into the inner system! The craft bared a striking resemblance to the set Holderson claimed were stolen some months back. Holderson was still out of communication on Amalthea. What, by Jove, does he do there?

A consciousness bore through the grid towards him. It was the Lieutenant. “We still have our agent on the inside,” she said. “Shall I contact her?”

“Standby,” the commandant called out. He didn’t feel like discussing their sleeper agent’s status once again, especially with a subordinate. “I want the whole band of bastards this time.”

He looked out at the slimming disk of the Moon. This was going to be fun.

Phobos had risen in the east, not that the tiny moon provided Andrea with much illumination in the Martian night. Andrea thought she could just make out its distorted potato of a phase as it drifted across the sky. She mostly relied on her infra-ocular to navigate through the darkness. The wreckage was in front of her. One exposed panel revealed a yellow hammer and sickle against a red background. An old lander, no doubt, sent by one of the old nation states. She dimly remembered The History of Early Earth Space Exploration from school. China? Russia? It looked as if the lander had come in too shallow and busted up on a large boulder. She wistfully remembered hiking out as a girl and discovering the crash site of the old Beagle 2 lander. The solar system seemed strewn with human wreckage. Hopefully, she thought, Cartel craft won’t be added to the pile. Still, Martian archaeologists would be fascinated by her find. Too bad I can’t tell them, she thought as she unpacked her shelter. But the damaged craft would make an excellent wind break for the night.

Andrea awoke with a start. The sandstorm had picked up to a slow hum against her visor plate. She scanned out beyond the strewn wreckage of the lander. Her visibility, even with the infra-ocular, was down to mere yards. It was easy to get disoriented out here in the drab Martian desert. Her heart beat faster as she remembered being lost as a young girl in a sandstorm on the great Isidis Planitia plains. Zack had kept her from going mad that night. Now she was totally alone, her soft life lay bare before the onslaught of Mars.

Mustn’t panic… she knew she was done for if she lost it out here now. A flick of her visor, a push of her decompression safety latch, and it could all be over. She shuddered to think of an early lost Terran colony where many were found later to have done just that. Bodies were unearthed decades afterward, perfectly desiccated by the near vacuum that passed as the tenuous Martian atmosphere.

But a certain breed of stubbornness refused to let her go out that way. This environment might have been alien to the first Earth-born settlers, but she had practically grown up living in spacesuits and airlocks. She knew that if she had to, she could dig in deep and huddle beside this wreckage until her air gave out days later.

Still…she thought she sensed motion in the storm. Andrea slowly worked her way out beyond her makeshift camp. There seemed to be a definite purposefulness in the grayish-brown swirl. Legion? It wasn’t entirely impossible that they tracked her here from Amalthea, although she was pretty certain that they had nailed that probe in orbit. It was much more likely that the Martian Underground had double-crossed them. Andrea unclipped her maser pistol. Had Karl and the others been captured? It was certainly possible. V.I.C.A.R. was the only Cartel member she had had contact with, and he may have been reprogrammed. Don’t panic…

An alarm went off in her helmet headset. Andrea instinctively hit the dirt. Someone’s scanning me! Andrea peered over the rock outcropping and saw the lumbering form of a long-range sand creeper moving past the wreckage. Andrea hoped the metallic body of the lander would mask her signature. She didn’t doubt that she would find a Legion emblem on the crawler’s hull.

To be continued…

Be sure to follow the Solar Winds saga and other original tales of science fiction by Dave Dickinson.

Astronomy Video of the Week: An Amazing Piece of Metal

The tarnished mirror used in Herschel’s 40-foot reflector on display at the London Science Museum.

Image credit: geni/Wikimedia Commons

Your backyard Dobsonian has a mirror that far outperforms the best telescopes of yore.

This week, we thought we’d break the “all-Pluto all the time” mantra for July to bring you a classic from our archives. [Read more...]

Now Reading temp post

Review: The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder

A sci-fi classic!

Alt-history Steampunk has never been hotter. We recently finished up the fifth book in a brilliant science fiction series courtesy of Pyr Books.  We’re talking about The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder, out earlier this month. This is the fifth and (final?) book in the outstanding Burton and Swinburne series. We’ve chronicled our addiction to this series in the past, starting with The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack up through The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon and The Secret of El Yezdi[Read more...]

Week 9: Of Nukes and Travel Nuances

Cue spaceship… it’s Devil’s Tower!

Terror is laying awake in a tent the middle of the night in a South Dakota summer thunderstorm, listening to the tree limbs crack in the distance and waiting for the “half-dollar – do they still make half dollars? – sized hail” that the weather radio promises to arrive. [Read more...]

Week 6: Into the Wilds of Wisconsin

Grand Yerkes!

Ahhh, cooler weather at last… and while the sixth week of our North American adventure has yet to see us encounter a run on clear skies, we have gotten  back out camping once again for the first time in six years. This week has seen us explore the great state of Wisconsin, from its southern Illinois hinterland across to its farmland heart. [Read more...]

Review: Crowded Orbits by James Clay Moltz

On sale now.

Space is becoming a crowded place. In the past 50+ years, the environs of space around our fair planet have evolved, and the political and even legal landscape has struggled to keep up with it.

This week’s review entitled Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space by James Clay Moltz out from Columbia University Press is a fascinating look at where we’ve come from in commercial and military space, and where we may be headed. Fans of this “space” (bad pun intended) will recall our review of Mr. Moltz’s book Asia’s Space Race recently. [Read more...]

Upon a Sea of Stars by A. Bertram Chandler

A scifi classic!

Don’t mess with John Grimes, and don’t ever dare to call him a pirate. He prefers the term privateer, thank you very much. This week, we take a look at the very latest collection of tales of the Galactic Outer Rim by A. Bertram Chandler, collected in one volume for the first time.

We’re quickly getting addicted to this swashbuckling golden age of sci-fi saga, that’s for sure. Written back in the 1960’s and 70’s, the Grimes saga harkens back to an age where, in the words of the late great Douglas Adams; “…little furry green creatures from Alpha Centauri were real little furry green creatures from Alpha Centauri.” [Read more...]

Astro-Vid Of the Week: An Online Messier Marathon

On your marks, get set, Messier Marathon!

‘Tis the season when it’s possible to hunt down all the 110 of the deep sky objects in Messier’s famous deep sky catalog in one night. We recently wrote about the potential for carrying out this feat of astronomical observation for 2014. [Read more...]

November 2013: The Month in Science Fiction

The pre-holiday movie season has begun. As we approach the cusp of the holiday season, several fine science fiction offerings are already in theatres. We were duly impressed with Thor 2, and glad to finally see Orson Scott Card’s science fiction classic Ender’s Game at last get its big screen due. Heck, we even enjoyed the movie Gravity, despite its minor (and one major) science faux pas… spoiler alert: you can’t journey to the International Space Station from the Hubble Space Telescope! Now, all eyes are turning towards the big screen adaptation of Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games. [Read more...]

Review: Assignment in Eternity by Robert Heinlein

On sale now!

Why read old scifi? We’ve often heard this question kicked around in the darkened corners of science fiction conventions and on ye’ ole cyber webs. Hey, it’s true that we now live in an age where such red-letter sci-fi dates as 2001 and 1984 have come and gone… and even The Terminator’s Skynet was to have been long since operational by now. [Read more...]

October 2013-Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: The 2013 NecronomiCon!

The armillary sphere logo for Necronomicon 2013! (Credit: Stone Hill.org)

October for us means cooler climes, Halloween, pumpkin beer, and the “busy ‘Con season,” by way of the Tampa Bay NecronomiCon. Now in its 32nd year, this was our 3rd “Necro” event as fans from all over Florida and beyond gathered to celebrate all things sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Thankfully, the feared government shutdown-induced zombie apocalypse never came to pass, making it that much easier to spot the cosplay zombies, or at least tell them from any would-be real ones. [Read more...]

September 2013-Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: Touching Mars

A fragment of the Zagami meteorite!

It’s a long journey, from the shores of the Florida Space Coast to the surface of Mars. This past week, we made the journey from Astroguyz HQ in Florida to the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASC) to attend the New Media Workshop in Boulder, Colorado for the upcoming launch of MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission. [Read more...]