Tuesday, October 11, 2016


It is Earth Science Week and at Palomar College today we celebrated with a demonstration (well, three of them actually) of a simulated volcanic eruption. I shot video of the three explosions. The first one in real time and the next two (which were bigger booms) in slow motion. Have a look:
Yes, the third one (complete with ping pong balls) broke the trash barrel.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Flying Around the Moon

I'm teaching a course this fall on the geology of our solar system. It's my first time teaching it so I've been spending a lot of time looking at imagery of the planets and their moons. We live in an amazing age where there are spacecraft that are currently investigating Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, a comet (until later this week, that is), an asteroid, and our Moon. In addition to all the missions that are happening now, there's a tremendous legacy of imagery from older spacecraft, including fabulous images from the Apollo missions to the Moon.

I've just begun to scratch the surface of the thousands of images in the Apollo Image Atlas. This afternoon I was looking at just two orbits of images captured in 1972 by Apollo 17's Mapping (aka Metric) Camera. The camera was located in the Command Service Module's instrument bay and returned images like this one that looked at the Moon's horizon:
This shot was captured during Apollo 17's 36th orbit about the Moon. Thankfully, the website contains maps that show which way the various images are orientated. That's the nearside crater Manilius near the center above and Mare Vaporum (the Sea of Vapors) is the smooth, dark area to its right. Names aside, it is a starkly beautiful view of the Moon.

The mapping cameras also took images pointed directly downward. Here's a shot from orbit 38:
This shot contains a curvy rille at left, a prominent crater at right and mountains throughout that are on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. It is an area that's not too far from where the first photo I posted was taken.

I decided to take the images that I downloaded and turn them into two short movies, which I have posted below.

Watching them is not that same as flying to the Moon, but it is an amazing view.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Star Trek: The Paradise Syndrome

Star Trek turned 50 years old just a few days ago, so (only a few days late) here's another look at an episode from the original series.
The Paradise Syndrome is a pretty decent episode, especially for season 3.

It begins with Kirk, Spock and McCoy on a very Earth-like planet. Kirk is surprised at the plant life, saying "It's unbelievable. Growth exactly like that of Earth on a planet half a galaxy away." He asks Spock about the odds of this and Spock replies that they are "Astronomical." Was that a pun? Probably not.  Spock continues, "The relative size, age and composition of this planet makes it highly improbable that it would evolve similarly to Earth in any way."
Okay, that is surprising, but even more surprising is that the planet is populated by Native Americans (though they called them American Indians, as it was the 60s you know). Spock impressively can even tell that they are a mix of the Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware Tribes. Strangely, the landing party seems to have been more surprised by the Earth-like plants than seeing the Native Americans.

There's also a curious obelisk that doesn't fit with the native's level of technology, but they'll have to check it out later as the Enterprise needs to go and stop an asteroid from crashing into this planet and causing an extinction-level event. It's a big one too--almost as large as Earth's moon.
Just before they beam up, Kirk falls into the obelisk and gets zapped into unconsciousness. Spock and McCoy didn't see what happened to him. McCoy wants to stay behind to hunt for Kirk, but Spock reminds them that they need to get moving if they are going to stop that asteroid.
Spock uses rocks to explain to McCoy how asteroids move in space. McCoy looks confused.

For some reason no one suggests leaving a landing party behind to hunt for Kirk while the rest take care of business. Instead, they beam up and head off to divert the big rock that is headed this way.
Spock really pushes the Enterprise to the limit, but the deflector beam doesn't move the asteroid enough. The result is that they limp ahead of the asteroid until they can muster another attempt with their phasers.
Meanwhile, Kirk awakens and emerges from the obelisk. He's lost all his memories but, because he was seen coming from the obelisk, is assumed to be a god. Kirk's godhood seems legit when successfully brings back a boy to life with something like CPR. They make him medicine man and, by tribal tradition, he gets to marry Miramanee, the hottie who first found him. This sits well with everyone, except Salish, who is the now former tribal medicine man.
The Enterprise fires phasers as the asteroid, as Spock wants to split it in half. Would that really help? Probably not. I'm guessing there's a big convex lens somewhere between the starship and the rock. Otherwise, how can those converging beams come together? Anyway, it doesn't work and the Enterprise ends up in even worse shape. As Scotty says, "That Vulcan won't be satisfied till these panels are a puddle of lead!"
Soon Salish's stunt double (left) challenges Kirk's stunt double (who looks nothing like Kirk) in a knife fight. The best line here comes from Salish: "Behold a god who bleeds."

In spite of this, Kirk, or should I say Kirok as he was known, is happy. He and Miramanee marry and she becomes pregnant. Yet everyone expects him to fulfill his destiny of saving them all. As the tribal elder asks, "Wise Ones who planted us here will send a god to save us, one who can rouse the temple spirit and make the sky grow quiet. Can you do this?" Um. Kirok really has no idea about this at all. At least we know now why there are Native Americans on this planet. The Wise Ones apparently lifted them from Earth some time ago.
When push comes to shove and it is clear that now is the time for action, Kirk can't do anything more than run to the temple/obelisk and shout "I am Kirok!" The people are unimpressed and immediately begin throwing rocks at him. Miramanee rushes to him and is pelted as well.

Thankfully, the Enterprise arrives just in time and Spock has figured out what the writing on the obelisk means.
Kirk gets his memories back, thanks to a timely mind meld. They rigger the asteroid deflection mechanism in the temple, but they are too late to save Miramanee and her unborn child.

All-in-all it is a fine episode. In spite of it being a Kirk-centered episode, there's good tension between Spock & McCoy and Scotty gets to rant from the engine room. Its all good.

It was an early episode in season 3, so it got its own musical score by Gerald Fried, which is very nice.

By the way, The Paradise Syndrome has a very good followup by Star Trek Continues. Their episode The White Iris is a very moving story that is worthy of your time.

Next up for me is an episode that many consider to be one of the finest in season three--The Enterprise Incident.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Visit to the Space Shuttle Endeavour

The Space Shuttle has had a big influence on my life. Back in 1981 I got up early to watch the launch of Columbia (STS-1) on the dorm TV in college. That first launch attempt was scrubbed, but two days later there I was again, along with a few others, to watch it as rode skyward and began a new era of space exploration. A few days later I was able to catch its landing just after I got out of class. The room was filled and everyone was cheering and excited to see the Shuttle return safely to Earth. For the next mission (STS-2) Columbia's historic return to space, a friend in the dorm managed to get a pass for us to view the landing from Edwards Air Force Base. We made the road trip from Flagstaff, Arizona and caught its thrilling descent in person. It was a moving experience.

A few years later, the January, 1986 loss of the Challenger and all hands aboard on STS-51L had a profound impact on my life. I'll tell that story here another day, but the Shuttle that replaced Challenger was Endeavour. I never saw Endeavour in person until four years ago when it was retired and flying westward toward its new home in California. Thanks to astronaut Mark Kelly, the 747 carrying it made a low flyover of the University of Arizona campus in Tucson.
I managed to get a few memorable shots of the flyover (including the one above) as the Shuttle made its last flight. From there, the Shuttle made an amazing 12-mile journey across Los Angeles to its new home at the California Science Center. It's been nearly four years since that happened, but the time-lapse movie of its move is magical to watch--even if you've seen it before.

I live in California now and I finally had the chance to go and see Endeavour in person this weekend and she is a beauty from up close.
Here's the view upon entering her hangar. We arrived right when the Science Center opened and made a beeline for the Shuttle and as a result, even though it was a Saturday morning, there weren't many people there at the time. By the way, if you visit on a holiday or weekend you need to make reservations.
The shot above is from the other side. I managed to forget my DSLR camera, but my iPhone in panorama mode worked wonderfully well in capturing the 122-foot long Shuttle Orbiter.
Endeavour's nose.
And tail.
A view of some of the heat-protective tiles on the Shuttle's underside.

All good museums give you the opportunity to buy stuff before you leave and the California Science Center has its fair share of cool Shuttle stuff right there in the hanger with it. I didn't buy one of these, but they have a stuffed Shuttle complete with stuffed Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and a stuffed External Tank (ET). It is all neatly held together with Velcro (a space program spinoff). Somebody in the gift shop got the brilliant idea to take some of them and turn them into a display. Here's how it looks:
That's the full launch stack at bottom. The SRBs are separating in the middle and the Shuttle has cast off the ET at top. Very nice. By the way, if you want to watch all 135 Shuttle launches at once, check out this amazing video which also can also be seen at the Science Center.
A Space Shuttle Main Engine
There are lots of other cool displays around the Shuttle and upstairs in the main building, with plenty of mission-flown artifacts. The Center also has a Mercury capsule ("flown" by Ham, the chimp), the Gemini 11 spacecraft, the Apollo-Soyuz Command Module, Ken Mattingly's Apollo 16 spacesuit, a nice collection of meteorites and scale models robotic explorers & telescopes that have flown in space too.
All-in-all, the center is a great place to visit for space enthusiasts.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Venus Jupiter Conjunction

Here's the view I had this evening of the close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter low in the western sky.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Monday, July 4, 2016

Star Trek: Elaan of Troyius

It is time for for me to look at another episode of classic Star Trek, today I bring you my thoughts on:
Trek borrows from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in this season three episode. It has a few bumps, but otherwise is a good episode where we see a green-skinned alien that's not an exotic dancing girl, sabotage, green chicken, Kirk teaching manners and courtesy, dilithium crystals, and a space battle with (finally) a cool looking Klingon Battle Cruiser. 

There's to be an arranged marriage that will bring peace to two neighboring planets and the Enterprise is to escort the Dohlman Elaan to the planet Troyius.
Members of Elaan's royal guard look pained by the terrible costumes they are forced to wear. I can't say as I blame them.
As they slowly make their way to Troyius, the green-skinned Ambassador [Rob] Petri is to instruct the spoiled and uncouth Elaan in "Troyian customs and manners." As you can see (above, left) Elaan didn't take too kindly to Ambassador [Rob] Petri's instructions.
The task of instructing Elaan falls to Kirk, who must also keep a careful watch on the Klingon Battle Cruiser that is following them.

The Enterprise has had space battles with Klingons before and, interestingly enough, they were mostly not shown. For instance, in the excellent season one episode Errand of Mercy, which introduced the Klingons, we never see their ship even though there's an impending space battle with them. In season two's Friday's Child we finally see a Klingon ship of sorts.
Yes, the ship on the left is the pretty terrible Klingon ship shown in Friday's Child. The appearance of the new Klingon ship in Elaan of Troyius is wonderful in comparison. Awesome, in fact. I've read that the new ship came about because a company that sold toy models paid for the creation of that production model of Klingon ship in exchange for the rights to sell the models. Anyway, back to the story...
Mmmmmm. Green chicken, peaches and watermelon: It's what's for dinner.
Kirk's instruction of Elaan doesn't go especially well either, but at least he doesn't get stabbed. Kirk threatens to spank her, calling her a spoiled brat. At one point she locks herself in next room and won't come out, saying, "If I have to stay here for ten light years, I will not be soiled by any contact with you." Ten light years?! Yes, Elaan indeed has a lot to learn. A light year is a unit of distance, not time, your Glory. Alas, some of my astronomy students can't seem to remember that either.
When he's dealing with Elaan, Kirk doesn't hold back. "Nobody's told you that you're an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman's body, an arrogant monster!" Unfortunately, he also doesn't hold back when talking about her to Spock: "Mister Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That's the only planet in this galaxy that can make that claim." Sigh. Star Trek wasn't always forward thinking, especially in its treatment of women and it shows here.
Alas, their conflict ultimately brings tears to Elaan's eyes and nobody thought to tell Kirk Ambassador [Rob] Petri's warning, "A man whose flesh is once touched by the tears of a woman of Elas has his heart enslaved forever." This isn't the biggest problem though. The Klingons are threatening and Scotty has discovered sabotage.
The anti-matter pods have been rigged to blow up the moment they go into warp drive and the entire dilithium crystal converter assembly is fused. That's bad. They're not going anywhere anytime soon, even with Scotty around to try to save the day.
Just as the Klingons are closing in, Spock detects an unusual energy reading on the bridge and it is coming from Elaan! She's wearing a necklace of "common stones" which are none other than dilithium crystals. That explains why the Klingons are interested in this system. Thankfully, Spock and Scotty are able to make use of the cyrstals and the battle commences!
Kirk and the Enterprise damage the Klingon ship and Kirk surprises Elaan by letting it go without destroying it. Mercy, its what they do in the Federation.
Yet the mission must be completed. The Enterprise proceeds to Troyius to deliver Elaan for her arranged marriage. But what of Kirk? He's in love with Elaan, right? In the end McCoy discovers a cure for the tears, but Spock informs him that the cure isn't needed, telling him "The antidote to a woman of Elas, Doctor, is a starship. The Enterprise infected the Captain long before the Dohlman did." That doesn't help Kirk in Requiem for Methuselah, does it? Oh well, it works here and that it good enough.

Elaan of Troyius has just enough of everything to be one of the better episodes for season three. One element that is just wonderful here was its musical score. Composer Fred Steiner delivered 31 minutes of mostly great action music that really, especially in combination with the new model of the Klingon Battle Cruiser, propels the episode forward. The level of excitement and drama here wouldn't be what it was without Steiner's great score. I'm very happy that to have this music in my collection, thanks to La-La Land Records complete release of all the music from classic Trek.

Elaan of Troyius gets a strong thumbs up from me.

Next up, The Paradise Syndrome.