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Friday, November 26, 2010

Interesting Atmospheric Phenomena Continue in the Desert

We continue to have interesting skies in the day time around Mitzpe Ramon. On Thankgiving day we had beautiful mares' tail cirrus in the sky for most of the day.

Mares' tail cirrus above the Visitor Center in Mitzpe Ramon. (Click for full size image.)

Detail of mares' tail cirrus clouds

Earlier in the week we had mackerel skies at dusk. Both of these cloud formations, mares' tail clouds and mackerel skies, are indicative of unstable weather and storms ahead, hence the folk saying: "Mackerel scales and mares' tails make lofty ships carry low sails", in anticipation of the great clippers of yore having to lower their sails in a storm.

Mackerel skies above Mitzpe Ramon. (Vega is the bright star at top center.)

But all of Israel continues in a drought, with no storms following in the wake of these clouds.
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Thursday, November 25, 2010

"A World So Full of Wonder and Grace..."

On this Thanksgiving Day, Astronomy Israel gives thanks for its friends in America and America its friend.

I was reading about this home planetarium, when I came across one of the most poignant reviews I have ever read that reminded me just how wonderful our universe is, and how simply glad and thankful it made me to be alive in it today:
i got this for a family member near death , with cancer. weak from his illness and having to stay in bed all the time. i thought that the celing was not to be the last thing he would see before leaving this world, a world so full of wonder and grace.
he loved it ,and used it until.......
"Two things cause wonder the more often we contemplate them: the starry sky above us and the moral law within us." -- Immanuel Kant

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
--W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

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We Welcome Rebecca and Yair

We welcomed Rebecca and Yair from Tel Aviv to our "observatory in the hills" above Mitzpe Ramon. We had a beautifully clear night with temperatures in the high 50s (F). We began early, around 6:00 PM, to get some dark sky observing in before the 17 day old moon rose at 8:00.

After a quick tour of the night sky with green laser pointer we set our sights on the beautiful Double Cluster in Perseus, followed by M31 in Andromeda. We anticipated where the moon would rise and got a spectacular view of it in the telescope as it rose above the hills in the east, seeing it as a great yellow egg outlining the hills in the foreground. We saw the gem-like double star Alberio and then moved on to Jupiter, the King of Planets. Switching to the moon I decided to try out the bino-viewer and we were treated to a great space-walk view of the lunar surface in 3D. At that point I couldn't resist training the scope with bino-viewer on Jupiter. It looked like a painted ping-pong ball hanging in space. It truly is much easier to see planetary detail with two eyes rather than one.

We shared hot drinks and marveled at how bright the moon is when it rises into a truly dark sky. That's why the Indians never attacked the fort during a full moon! Since our observing location is near the edge of the Machtesh, we wandered over to the unprotected rim where we got a good view of the giant crater by moonlight.

Rebecca at the helm of the 4-inch William Optics refractor.

Rebecca immediately took to operating the focus and slow motion controls of the telescope. I think she will soon need her own!

Thank you, Yair and Rebecca, for allowing us to take you on a tour of the night sky from Mitzpe Ramon.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Desert Skies and Parhelic Phenomena

The desert sky was particularly favorable to forming ice crystals today. I could tell this in Be'er-Sheva where the con trails of the F16s flying training missions were more prominent than I've seen before.

F16 con trails above Be'er-Sheva (Click for full size images.)

On the way home later, toward sunset, cirrus ice clouds had formed high in the sky, and as the sun sank into the desert hills sun dogs sprang up on either side. These ice clouds may have even been formed from the con trails I saw earlier in the day, as prevailing winds pushed them southwest.

Sun dogs form on either side of the sun. There are many interesting parhelic (next to the sun) phenomena that ice crystals can cause. Read more about them here.

As sunset progressed a magnificent sun pillar was added to the sun dogs, completing the sunset scene with the most parhelic phenomena I have seen in a single sunset.

A sun pillar, complete with sun dogs, pierces the Negev sky like an ingot of molten steel.

Panoramic view of sunset with sun pillar and sun dogs.

As the sun continued setting the parhelic phenomena dissolved into a sunset of liquid gold, like a Hawaiian volcano had been loosed in the desert.

The sun sets behind the radar domes of the Israeli Air Force near Mitzpe Ramon.


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Monday, November 22, 2010

Save the Date - August 21, 2017

On August 21, 2017, North America will experience a total eclipse of the sun whose central line will begin in the northwest, pass through the heartland and end near Florida. If you wanted to design a path of totality that would allow the greatest number of Americans to view a total solar eclipse, you could hardly have done better! Below is a map of the path of the eclipse. It looks like most of North America will be within a relatively short drive of the path of totality. Save the date. It should be an extraordinary event!

The dark blue line marks the path of totality for the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017

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The Alpaca Farm Observatory

One of the places I like to observe from in Mitzpe Ramon is the parking lot of the Alpaca Farm, the only such farm in the entire Middle East. There are several hundred alpacas and llamas, together with a large variety of other animals including horses, wild asses, camels, and dogs. But what makes it interesting for astronomy is the large parking lot just outside the gates.

Entrance to the Alpaca Farm

The Alpaca Farm lies in a hidden valley which blocks alot of the light from Mitzpe Ramon and also some of the wind from the desert. The parking lot is empty after dark and is large and expansive. The main problem lies in the fact that the Alpaca Farm is also a Bed and Breakfast, so they keep some of their outdoor lights on after dark. You can still easily see the Milky Way from here, and your back is usually to the lights, but still they spoil some of the desert dark sky ambience.

Panoramic view of the surrounding desert and valley from the Alpaca Farm parking lot.

What's that you say? You're afraid of dogs? Did I mention the guard dogs that patrol the area after dark? Actually, I've never seen them before midnight or so, but I can't promise they won't be around before then. The farm has a mixed pack of Turkish Mountain Dogs, Australian Shepherds, and other very large creatures that are there mostly to protect the live stock from predators like foxes and hyenas. (Yes, I once encountered a family of hyenas not far from where I was observing.) But they are very curious about humans, and it is somewhat intimidating to have a dozen or so very large dogs come up to you in the middle of the night, sniffing your crotch. After they get to know you some wander off but others lay down nearby, some under my telescope tripod. They make quite a ruckus when they rise in alarm at some unseen threat and race away over the deert, knocking their great tails against my tripods and generally disturbing an otherwise quiet observing session. Although harmless, the dogs have kind of convinced me to take most of my observing elsewhere. I think that's the general idea.

An Australian Shepherd asks for attention during our observing session.

The Alpaca Farm and its parking lot, marked by the yellow pin, as viewed on Google Earth.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Week - Italy and Sicily from the ISS

This just in -- Italy and Sicily as viewed from the International Space Station (ISS). An intriguing sight that also shows the effect of light pollution, while allowing us to see the entire outline of Italy and Sicily at night.

Italy and Sicily at night from the Cupola observation deck of the International Space Station
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Monday, November 15, 2010

The Gypsum Mine Observatory

We are always on the lookout for good places to observe in the desert. The floor of Machtesh Ramon is off limits at night, so it was with great excitement that we discovered the old gypsum mine in the crater, the entire basin of which is open to over night camping.

Machtesh Ramon is rich in mineral deposits, and there used to be open pit mining and even factories to process the minerals on the floor of the crater. Thankfully, these have all been closed down. But the gypsum mine has left a huge hole in the desert floor from the days of its open pit operations. The mine backs onto a large ridge which forms the main wall, surrounded by lesser walls and a slope on the other sides. Once you enter the large pit, you are shielded from the noise and light of road traffic on nearby Route 40, and most of the light from Mitzpe Ramon to the north is blocked by the deep, vertical mine wall and cliff face to the rear.

The old gypsum mine, looking west towards Mitzpe Ramon. (Click for full size image.)

There are fire rings scattered around the base of the wall, so it is possible to cook a nice hot dinner while out observing, if so desired. The sky is very dark and area serene from this pocket in the floor of the crater. Only the northern sky up to about 30 degrees is blocked by the mine face.

Standing in the northeast corner of the mine, looking southwest.

In this northeast corner of the mine we are standing on a bed of white gypsum crystals, which collect when the bottom of the mine fills with water during the winter. Only a small portion of the floor near the mine wall appears to collect water, but it still conjured up images of Godzilla rising out of the blackness of the watery night to eat astronomers unawares. (Sometimes my imagination is too active for my own good.)

The mine wall looking south.

The mine wall looking north. See if you can find the hajib covered Bedouin woman sitting on the mine floor near the wall, about 7/10ths of the way down.

When I was here there was a Bedouin man, probably the husband of the above-mentioned woman, saying his afternoon prayers, and a large number of back packs that had been dumped near the shallow southern wall, probably of day hikers who were out in the Machtesh.

A Bedouin worker says his evening prayers by the southern wall of the gypsum mine, while backpacks await their owners' return from a day hike.

The mine is only about 8 miles from Mitzpe Ramon, and is just a short distance off road from its entrance on Route 40. It's always exciting to find new places to observe in the desert, and I look forward to seeing you here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Comet Headed for the Sun; Now in Real Time; Captured on the SOHO C3 Camera

As I write this NASA's SOHO satellite, camera C3, is capturing a fast moving comet incoming to the sun. Here is the video I just captured from the SOHO web site. You can see the comet's approach toward the end at about the 5:30 position.

You can see real time updates at this link on the SOHO site: 


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