Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lost In Space

Beautiful sight in the evening sky now, and for the next week: Jupiter and Venus moving closer and closer together each night, and when they are a mere 2 degrees apart, a slender crescent moon will join them to create a lovely trio. Look in the sky just after sunset the next week or so, and you’ll see the players slowly taking their places, like actors backstage at a play. The whole thing culminates December 1st.

The diagram above is from the Sky and Telescope’s website.

I was going to post video of the giant fireball in the sky over Canada last week, but it’s been posted a bunch of times already. If you want to see it go to Youtube. Or Bad Astronomy. Or beekeeper extraordinaire Gordo.

I will instead post a link to footage of that $100,000 toolbelt that got lost in space during a spacewalk last week. Apparently an amateur astronomer got video of it crossing the sky. The video is here; it’s about 4 seconds long. Incredibly, If you go to Space Weather and put in your zip code they’ll let you know when and where to see it yourself. You’ll need binoculars or a telescope, though.

I started planning for The New Novel seven or eight months ago, expecting to begin it on January 2nd. Now that that date is a few weeks away, my brain is popping with changes, major and minor. And yesterday I finally figured out the title!

I almost fell over.

I'm not going to say what it is. I'm a tad superstitious about letting details out before I have a large chunk done. I will go this far: it's a nod to one of my favorite Whitman quotes.

I wrote The First Novel with no map. Just started writing, and let it take me wherever it wanted. That's a wonderful strategy for a short story, but too much damn work for a novel. Every time you make a significant change, you've gotta go back and retrofit the novel to make it work. So this time I've got a general sense of where I'm going.

We shall see if I can stay on course, or if it develops a will of its own. Check back with me in two years.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Music of the Rings

You need to trust me and just listen to this.

It's eerie and strange and a little scary and quite literally otherworldly. This is the sound of the radio emissions coming from Saturn, recorded by Cassini, and dubbed "The Music of the Rings" by Donald Gurnett, a physicist at University of Iowa. The video accompanying the audio explains the details, so I won't bother.

I stole this from the always interesting GM=tc^3: A Babe in the Universe. She thinks it's an indication of a black hole in the center of Saturn, and goes on to say planets may be "seeded" by black holes in the early formation of solar systems. Who knows, she might be right; she's certainly smarter than I am.

Here's a closely related picture (also stolen from GM=tc^3) of the aurora around Saturn's North pole (the image was captured by Casinni as well). This is the same phenomenon as the auroras powering the Northern Lights here on Earth. Both are caused by the strong magnetic fields surrounding the two planets. And those same magnetic fields produce radio signals, which in turn produce all that crazy music. They make the worlds sing.

Click it to enlarge it. It'd quite a beautiful picture.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sea of Fecundity

I usually insert some sort of caveat when I write about star-gazing, about how the picture is from NASA and the view through my scope is not nearly as detailed. But not this time; below is an actual photograph of the moon taken through the lens of the scope.

Cool, huh?

The main drawback of my big, dumb, cheap Dobsonian is that you can't do much in the way of astro-photography with it, in that it has no motor to drive the scope and keep it aligned with the ever-moving skyscape. But with bright stuff - like the moon - you can simply stick a camera over the lens, turn off the flash, and snap away. Which is what I did. This was taken with my lowest power lens and my brand new toy: an adjustable polarizing filter, which is two pieces of polarized glass that, when one is turned, increase or decreases the amount of light to pass through. It's like sunglasses for your telescope. Very fun to play with.

I'm having trouble aligning the features of the picture with on-line moon maps (click on the map above to play at home), but I'm pretty sure the dramatic crater on the left, with all the radial line running from it, is Copernicus. The smooth circular areas in the upper right are, I think, the Sea of Serenity on the left and the Sea of Tranquility just to the right. The Sea of Tranquility is where man first landed on the moon. Just below and to the right of those two circles is my favorite lunar feature name to date: the Sea of Fecundity.

Here's another shot:

I lie this one because it looks so surreal and dreamlike. It reminds me of the special effects of a low-budget 50s sci-fi flick.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Life Imitates Jokes

Q: What time is it when you go to the dentist?
A: Tooth hurty.

Get it? 2:30? Tooth hurty? That joke's a big favorite here at the Cloud. And I had a dentist appointment this week. At 2:30!

It's kooky!

Another favorite:

Q: Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon?
A: The food is good, but there's no atmosphere.

The kids don't really understand that one, but they laugh anyway. They always laugh at Daddy's jokes. I've got about 5 more years of that, after which they will become sullen, moody teenagers and be embarrassed beyond words at anything and everything I say. Or do. Or wear.

The clock is ticking.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dead Man's Revenge

Last month the University of Arizona predicted that an asteroid would collide with Earth, or more accurately with the Earth's atmosphere, on October 7. It did. This was the first time an asteroid on a collision course with Earth has been spotted before it entered our atmosphere. Bizarrely, in our media-saturated world, there was no footage of what must have been a huge fireball as it burned up in our atmosphere, over the Sudan in Africa. What was captured on video (a frame of which is shown above) was the aftermath: the windblown trail of the asteroid after it burned up.

The interesting bit about this image is that the trail shown in the picture is glowing. That's not reflected sunlight making the trail glow, it's light emitted by the trail itself. Cool, eh? These have been spotted before - they're called "persistent trains" - but no one knows exactly what causes them. Something to do with the ionized gas left in the wake of the asteroid. They come in all sorts of pretty colors too!

The photo is from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. It's a great way to start your morning!

Remember the Dead Man's beer? Remember the mystery beer we found amid the cases, with the odd-sized bottle and no label?

We opened it and tried it last weekend. Three words: nasty, nasty, nasty. Daisy called it right. It was home-brewed beer gone very, very bad.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Tree of Hands

No idea where this poem came from, or what it means. It popped into my head nearly fully formed. But thanks, Mona, for the win and lose poetry theme for the week.

my daughter lost a jagged tooth
last night
and instead of under the pillow
it went into the garden
planted as a seed.
it grew into a tree of hands
by morning
fingers grasping at our clothes
as we brushed past
nails bitten and ragged
pearls of blood
beading at the tips.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Amid all the hoopla surrounding Halloween and the election, the resurrection of the Hubble telescope didn't get much play in the news. They rebooted one computer, fired up another that had been sitting unused in the cold of space for 18 years, and now it's back in business. Most of you probably saw this celebratory picture in the paper or on the web, but it's worth showing again. Because it's cool. And because the Hubble is the second most important telescope in the history of mankind (the first would be Galileo's, the one that first revealed the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the craters of the moon, and put the final nails in the unwieldy but comforting Earth-is-the-center-of-the-universe model).

It is a picture of Arp 147, two interacting galaxies for the price of one. It looks like one galaxy blasted straight through the center of another, but I'm guessing it's a little more complicated than that. Thanks to Bad Astronomy (and Hubble!) for the picture and the explanation.

My favorite ten words in American political history are "of the people, by the people, and for the people." I'm glad they were quoted on Election Day. And it's movingly ironic that they were first spoken on a bloody Civil War battlefield, and echoed Tuesday by our first black President.

Both McCain and Obama gave excellent speeches that night.

I'll end with a (mostly) non-partisan Election Day memory. 1972, Nixon vs. McGovern, in the midst of the Vietnam War. I'm way too young to vote, but my sister has just turned 18. We're watching TV, and I'm haranguing her to get up off the couch and vote. She relents, we go to the high school, they let us both into the voting booth, laughing all the way. It's one of those old-fashioned ones, with the big metal lever you pull to close the drapes. It goes "shlunk" when you pull it. We vote for McGovern (more accurately we vote against Nixon), and choose the other candidates based on random choise and who has the funniest names. We shlunk the drapes back open, go home, watch more TV.

Nixon won, and was later impeached. The war raged on three more years.

The memory continues to last, far beyond the events of the day.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Because Tom Cruise Knows What's Best For Me

You know, I do plan to vote today - I love Election Day - but I must admit I'm a little tired of celebrities telling me to do so. I already have role models, thank you. And so do my children. I'm not going to go out and vote because Harrison Ford told me to.


I'm going to be humming this song all day long.