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Monday, March 28, 2011

We Experience the Desert Freeze with Ron and Talma

I met Ron and Talma at Chez Eugene for our star gazing tour. It turns out they are veteran travelers with many exotic destinations under their belt. I found out that Ron is a big fan of Sir Ernest Shackelton, the British explorer who tried to be first to the South Pole in 1914. Instead his ship, the wooden sailing vessel "Endurance", became ice bound in the Weddell Sea, kicking off one of the greatest adventures of all time.
Shackelton's adventure is retold in a number of books, perhaps best in his own "South". This is the kind of hair-raising story where on every page I would read something that caused me to leap up and shout, "That's impossible." (No exaggeration.) If you haven't read about Shackelton's adventures you owe it to yourself to get his book. Shackelton failed at all of his goals, but was perhaps the greatest expedition leader of his time. Not a single man was lost on his star-crossed voyage. Among his accomplishments in rescuing his men were sailing the fearsome Drake Passage alone in a dinghy (not possible); navigating precisely enough to end up on South Georgia Island (not possible); and crossing South Georgia Island from the west to the east side without climbing gear (not possible), a feat that would not be attempted again (with climbing gear) until 1950.

But I digress. Ron and Talma have been to South Georgia Island twice. Shackelton is buried there, after dying tragically at early age from a heart attack. South Georgia Island, which used to be a British whaling station and the "gateway" to the Antarctic, is one of the most remote, rugged and beautiful places on earth. They've also sledged across northern Greenland, sleeping outdoors in -40* C weather.

They (We all) were cold when we went out to my observing plateau, Talma spending most of the time in the car. She was a good sport to come along. Needless to say, it wasn't for being thin skinned that they were cold. Lack of warm clothing will do it every time. The desert, especially in winter, is very cold at night, and we had a stiff wind blowing last night. I would say the wind chill may have been in the 20s, one of the coldest nights of the winter in Mitzpe Ramon. So, if you want to go star gazing in the winter with us, bring plenty of warm clothing.

Nevertheless, we had a excellent, mostly clear and dark night for our star tour. Shackelton probably had it darker and clearer, but we got home in 10 minutes, without having to sail the Drake Passage.

Talma and Ron

And remember to keep on lookin' up!

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Tony and Marina's Star Tour

It was a cold and stormy day, followed by a cold and stormy night. I was sure no one would want a star tour and had settled in for the evening. Then a call came from Arnaud at Chez Eugene: A couple from Canada wanted to go star gazing. Well, it's cloudy I said and very cold. Make sure you tell them "very cold". I was sure this would dampen their enthusiasm, but then the call came at 10:15. Could we go out for just an hour - please? I can never disappoint anyone, so it was on with the warm clothing, the watch cap, the wind-proof jacket, gather the equipment and head for Chez Eugene.

Tony and Marina are a great pair from Toronto. Marina is an analyst for a stock trading group at one of Canada's big banks, and Tony runs a telecom company in Eastern Europe. It's good to be Ma CSC! By the time we had arrived at the observing plateau the wind had died down and the sky had mostly cleared, so it was just cold, not cold and windy. The storm had cleared the sky, the moon wouldn't be up for another 90 minutes, so we had a great view of the spring stars and Saturn. I love it when the moon rises behind my back while I'm talking. It's like someone had switched on a huge spotlight on the plateau. I always jump straight to the telescope then so we can watch the moon rise over the machtesh.

By this time I was really into it and ready to stay the night, but the cold got to Tony and Marina, so we decided to call it a night. They love meteor showers, great to watch from Mitzpe Ramon, so I hope they and their friends will be back for some meteor shower star parties this summer.

Tony and Marina in front of Chez Eugene

And remember to Keep on lookin' up!

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Did You See Jupiter and Mercury This Week?

We did. We went up to our observing location just below the Wise Observatory. When we arrived around 6:30PM the sky was still too bright to see even Jupiter. As I turned to setting up my tripod and camera to take a photo, I looked up and all of a sudden could see both Jupiter and Mercury! What a beautiful sight to see them in a clear sky at sunset just above the dome of the Weiss Observatory as they were preparing for their night's research. Wish you could have been there with Donny, Yair and me.

Jupiter is seen to the upper right of the dome of the Weiss Observatory with Mercury below and to the right near the trees. (Click for full size image.)

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Amazing Composite Video Footage of Saturn Fly-By

This is an amazing video created from composite images captured by the Cassini spacecraft during its mission to Saturn in 2007-2010. There is no animation or computer generated imaging - these are all individual images from the space craft mission stitched together to create a seamless fly-by movie.

5.6k Saturn Cassini Photographic Animation from stephen v2 on Vimeo.

Saturn is becoming very well placed in the evening sky in the constellation Virgo this Spring. We had a magnificent view of it last night around 10:30PM during a cold viewing session with guests on our high plateau above Mitzpe Ramon. The A and B rings were prominent with the Cassini division ocassionally visible in the somewhat turbulent air.

Keep on lookin' up!

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Daylight Savings Time - Set your clocks ahead 1 hour + 1.8 microseconds

alarm clock, bought from IKEAImage via WikipediaDaylight savings time began today, Sunday, in the US. Set your clocks ahead 1 hour. Daylight savings time doesn't begin in Israel until April 1, so for the remainder of March the East Coast of the US will be just 6 hours ahead of Israel, instead of 7. Here is a list of the commencement of daylight savings times around the world. Quite a complicated little matter, isn't it?

Actually, for those with a penchant for precision time keeping you will have to set your clocks ahead 1 hour + 1.8 microseconds (millionths of a second). This is to account for a slight speedup in the rotational speed of the earth due to the recent earthquake in Japan, which rearranged the mass of the earth near the equator to make it spin faster. This is like the effect of an ice skater spinning faster as she draws her arms closer to her body during a spin. The Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum says she must spin faster to conserve her angular momentum as her diameter contracts.

For those really really into precision time keeping, you will need to pay attention to the height of the alarm clock in your bed room. According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, his theory of gravity, clocks lower or higher than an observer in a gravitational field run slower or faster, respectively, than the observer's watch. In the case of a lower clock, this is called the gravitational red shift. For example, if you have an alarm clock on the floor beside your bed (about 3 feet below where you are sleeping with your wrist watch), it will loose 3.1 picoseconds (1 trillionth, or a millionth of a millionth) per 8 hour night compared to your wrist watch. This could make you late for a very important meeting, if you have to get there exactly on time. You have been warned, so don't be late!

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Toto, We're Not in Kansas Anymore"

Map of USA with Kansas highlightedImage via WikipediaPeople from Kansas do not find this line funny. I had the opportunity to discover this myself when I went star gazing with two groups from the Kansas Jewish Federation last week. The first group was the leadership group of the Jewish Federation and the second was the Federation group itself. I had been scheduled to do a star tour for the second group but was called by Ken Sonnenschein of the leadership group when he got to Mitzpe Ramon looking for a green laser pointer. Ken is an amateur astronomer in his own right and was scheduled to do his own star tour with his group in Mitzpe Ramon. I rounded up a green laser pointer for Ken and helped him find a site suitable for doing star gazing with a large number of people. I had been struggling with this myself, since I was to do my own tour with the second Federation group later that week. I usually go out with smaller groups of 2-12, but this was to be a group of around 40. I finally decided to give the natural amphitheater behind Har Gamal a try. It looks out on a precipitous drop of 750 feet into the crater, protected only by a green guard rail. Of course, at night you can't tell this, which is probably just as well. It's not as dark as my regular observing site, but it works well for large groups who can sit on the curved amphitheater rocks and look down on a roman-style amphitheater stage. I've always wanted to produce Shakepspeare here in the summer, but star shows at night are just as good, especially when I get to take center stage and do my own.

Ken had prepared a very nice star show complete with his own d'var torah on "ein mazal l'Yisrael" (the saying that "Jewish destiny is not controlled by the stars") and pointing out that at critical points in Jewish history the Jews are shown the stars, yet their destiny transcends the controlling force of the stars, or nature and necessity. ("Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given," R. Akiva, Pirke Avot).

Aged, childless Avram is taken outside by G-d at the Brit Bein Ha'Besorim and shown the stars which represent his numerous unborn descendants; his name changed to Avraham he escapes his natural destiny of dying childless and has Yitzchak. Joseph dreams of sun, moon and stars bowing down to him and thwarts his jealous brothers attempts to keep it from coming true; the Jews are miraculously rescued from unescapable Egypt "va'yehi b'chatzi ha'lylah" - "and it was in the middle of the night". Moses is shown the moon in Egypt and told by G-d, "This month shall be for you the first of the months of the year..." and the Jewish calendar is born, depending on human observation and testimony, not celestial mechanics. And so on...

I was on-hand to point out a few extra celestial wonders to Ken and the group, but he did well on his own. The following Saturday night I took out the second Kansas group. We managed to get everyone out to the amphitheater, including one gentleman who walked with a cane due to a hip replacement problem. No one fell into the Machtesh! It was cold that night, the wind blew hard, and my ears ached from it a few days after. Most of the group escaped before I could get a photo of them in situ, but I caught up with them later at the CafeNeto where we took this picture.

A few members of the Kansas Jewish Federation leadership group. Ken Sonnenschein to my left.

By the time you read this, they will be back in Kansas, Toto.

Keep on lookin' up!

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Moon and Jupiter over Mitzpe Ramon

The time of the new moon is always excellent for catching beautiful alignments of planets and the moon. Rosh Chodesh Adar II was no different this year, with the crescent moon over Mitzpe Ramon's signature water tower and Jupiter to the lower left.

Click for larger image.

While photographing we encountered two sprites from outer space.

ET phone home.

"Keep on lookin' up."

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See Elusive Mercury in the Night Sky

Mercury is a very elusive planet. Being the first from the sun, it is never far from that globe's scorching rays and appears only briefly in the morning or evening sky. This March Mercury is very well positioned  for viewing in the early evening sky, so you don't even have to get up early to see it. Adding to the ease in identifying it is the fact that it will only be 2 degrees from very bright Jupiter on March 14 and 15, when the two are closest together.

Beginning on March 13 and continuing through March 16 you should be able to see Mercury and Jupiter together with the naked eye, starting around 40 minutes after sunset and continuing until Mercury sets about an hour later. You will need a very clear western horizon, since both planets will be quite low in the sky. Jupiter will be around magnitude -2 and Mercury around magnitude -1, both very bright.

Here is what the scene should look like looking west around 6:00PM local time on March 14:

Jupiter and Mercury in the western sky around 6:00PM local time on March 14. (Click for full size.)

This image shows the two planets' relative positions in the evening sky from March 13-16:

On March 14 and 15 the two planets will be only around 2 degrees apart, the angle of sky subtended by your thumb held at arm's length. Don't miss this opportunity to see what even Copernicus himself never saw, the planet Mercury. 

And as Brainiac says...

"Keep on lookin' up!"

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Say Hello to Brainiac

While observing last night we captured a UFO in the form of a flying, chocolate Kinder Egg. Tucked away inside as  passenger was a tiny alien creature whom we have adopted and made our own mascot. He says his name is Brainiac, and he is from the planet B-612. Here he is:

Brainiac, from the planet B-612

Brainiac arrived on earth with his own little calculator with which he can quickly give very smart answers. When asked what the equation for energy/mass equivalence was he quickly came up with the following result:


Brainiac is looking forward to joining us on our star tours and has already learned to say, "Keep on Looking up!"

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is There Something Jewish About Astronomy?

German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.Image via Wikipedia“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research,” he wrote. He then described the incredible devotion and solitary labor that it takes to see a work of scientific research through to its truthful end and concluded: “A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.” - Albert Einstein

"But is there something Jewish about astronomy? It’s hard not to draw connections between a vocation that probes the heavens for clues to our origins and a tradition that so fervently demands a quest for knowledge. Jews have been claiming science in general as a characteristically Jewish discipline at least as far back as the 12th-century biblical commentary of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. Astronomy, in particular, was a fundamental skill for early Jews setting up calendars and knowing which holidays should come when. The Jewish imagination of a universe with a point of origin and an end helped to structure the modern Western idea of linear time."

See the rest here: (Tablet Magazine)

Note my own ruminations on Jews and cosmology in "The Standard Model of Cosmology - Simplified".

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Skunked by Venus

Did you try to see Venus next to the waning crescent moon on Monday morning? I was out between 8:00 and 9:00 AM. I immediately found the moon, but could only see it with binoculars. No sign of Venus. Skunked. Since I could only see the moon in binocs I was sure Venus would not be a naked eye object. Back out again around noon to try and spot it. The sky was better now, not as much haze, but this time I was even skunked by the moon. I couldn't find it no matter where I looked, even scanning the sky with my small, wide-field binoculars. Double skunked. Oh, well, these things happen to everyone. Still, one must keep on looking up!

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