Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Losing the Dark

I am happy that Losing the Dark, a short video on light pollution is now available. It recounts the numerous problems of light pollution and the simple solutions to the problem.

The show is available for free download for both flat screen and fulldome planetarium shows. If you have a planetarium or science center in your area, be sure to ask them if they will be showing it.

Losing the Dark is available on YouTube and I have it embedded below.

I have had the pleasure of playing a small part in helping this show along through my work at the International Dark-Sky Association, but the actual production was done by the good people over at Loch Ness Productions.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

UFO over Tucson!

Well, not quite. It is just a blimp. Or is it?
Although, it may be that blimps are U.F.O.s. Whenever I see one I am reminded by an old Weekend Update segment on an episode of Saturday Night Live from the 70s. Father Guido Sarducci was giving the weather report, when he got around to talking about U.F.O.s:
Skies clear in Bologna tonight. A good night for spotting U.F.O.’s — “oofoes” we call them in Italy. 

I once saw a UFO near Bologna. I was driving from Assisi on this road here, and it was late at night, and from nowhere there were these two giant white lights and it just zoomed right past me real fast and it just seemed to disappear. It was about ten feet long I would say — real sleek looking — looked a lot like a Corvette. And as soon as it was gone I said to myself, did I see that or not? And you see, that’s what they do to you. They shoot you with something, some kind of ray gun — and it makes you doubt that you saw them. If you think you’ve never seen one, you probably see them all the time. 

And after what happened to me, I started carrying my camera with me at all times, just to prove to myself that I’m not hallucinating. Was just a few months ago that I spotted one again. I was in Los Angeles at the home of a friend of mine, Rainbow is her name. Fortunately, I had my camera with me. You can’t tell much from the photo, but it was kind of silvery looking. And it was in the air a long time, just kind of hovering there. And Rainbow says “Listen: all the dogs are barking.” And it was true — all the dogs were barking. 

And then it just kind of very slowly drifted away. I had this blow-up made of the UFO. I know what you’re thinking: you think it’s just the Goodyear blimp. That’s what everybody says. But I did some research and called the Goodyear Blimp people and they told me their nearest blimp was miles away from where I spotted this UFO. And that’s when it dawned on me. Don’t you think that if these aliens are smart enough to get here, they’re smart enough to disguise their spaceships as Goodyear Blimps?

Come on — they weren’t born yesterday. They’ve been spying on us like this for years and years. And my research proves that about one out of every five sightings of Goodyear Blimps is actually a flying saucer in disguise. So, don’t take any chances. If you ever see what you think is the Goodyear Blimp, call the police, call the mayor of your town, call the president, even call your senators – you can never tell.
This U.F.O. blimp was flying by our place yesterday and while Goodyear may not be the most common blimp around these days, many people do report unidentified objects in the sky. In virtually all cases these objects are just waiting more evidence and an explanation.

I know the night sky pretty well and in all my years I have seen just a handful of things that were, for a short while, "unexplained flying objects".

One evening back in the early 90s I was driving westward after sunset, coming home from teaching an astronomy class. I noticed a bright object in the western sky. It was "planet" bright, easily as bright as Jupiter--yet there were no planets in that position. In time I noticed that it was gradually changing position. Thankfully it did not take me too long to get to a telescope. I was amazed to see what it was - a beautiful tear-drop shaped weather balloon with a gleaming instrument package hanging below. I was standing in darkness, yet it was high enough in altitude to be in sunlight. It was an amazing thing to behold.

I few years later I was working at Lake Afton Public Observatory in Wichita, Kansas.  I was in the observing room showing Saturn to a small number of people. I was explaining about its rings and the moons that were visible. A boy was looking through the eyepiece and said that he could see one of them moving. I replied that, yes, they are all moving but they are so far away that you can't actually see them move. He insisted that one of them was moving.

So I took a look and, sure enough, one of them was moving slowly across the field of view. I had no idea what it was, but grabbed the telescope's hand paddle controller and moved the telescope a bit so that the U.F.O. would drift across the field of view.

I gave others a chance to look and for a while I had no idea what this was, that is until I realized that to keep the mystery object in the field of view I had to move the telescope so as to counter its clock drive. The clock drive slowly moves the telescope to counteract Earth's rotation. If I turned off the clock drive the U.F.O. should stay stationary and the stars should slowly drift pass.

That's exactly what I did and what we saw. I had correctly identified the "U.F.O." as a geostationary satellite. We just happened to be looking at the right moment when it was in the same field of view as Saturn - an amazing, but wonderful, coincidence.

There are amazing things to see in the skies, they are sometimes natural phenomena and sometimes created by humans. There is no evidence that aliens are disguising their spaceships as blimps or that they are visiting Earth at all. The recent small asteroid that broke up over Russia demonstrates that when something amazing happens in the sky, there's lots of credible evidence to back up. As Carl Sagan once said: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

I provided some proof above of my recent blimp passage, but you'll have to take my word about the U.F.O.s I described.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Star Trek: Dagger of the Mind

It's the Christmas Episode of Star Trek

There's no Santa, decorations or baby Jesus, but with a character named Dr. Noel and not one, but two references to the shipboard Science Lab Christmas party, this is as close as any episode comes to being a Christmas episode.

The Enterprise makes a stop at a penal colony on Tantalus V to beam down some medical supplies ("infra-sensory" drugs) and beams up some cargo that has a hidden stowaway, an escaped "extremely violent" inmate from the rehabilitation colony on the planet.

The crew learns that they have a stowaway and goes to "Security Alert, condition three" which leads to a common problem aboard the Enterprise. No one in security knows how to guard or protect anything. Ever.

This guard, who will soon be easily overpowered, is supposedly guarding the bridge. In this pose he should be able to keep someone from leaving the bridge via the turbo lift, but, with his back to the door, how is he supposed to keep a crazy, dangerous escapee from gaining entrance to the bridge?

Still, because Kirk and Spock are awesome the crazed madman is overpowered & taken to sick bay. The ship heads back to Tantalus V where Kirk and Dr. Helen Noel beam down to meet Dr. Adams, the director of the rehabilitation colony.
Kirk and Dr. Noel had a past meeting at the Science Lab Christmas party.
We soon learn that the madman is none other than Dr. Simon van Gelder. He wasn't at the colony for rehab, he worked there. 

This episode featured the first time a Vulcan Mind Meld was shown. Nimoy and Morgan Woodward (playing van Gelder) did an excellent job as van Gelder goes from raving madman to peaceful informant.

By the way, Woodward will return to Trek later in the series to play Captain Ron Tracey in The Omega Glory. He's certainly given much more to work with here.

Kirk and Dr. Noel visit with Dr. Adams who proposes this over-the-top toast:
"To all mankind. May we never find space so vast, planets so cold, hearts and minds so empty that, that we cannot fill them with love and warmth."
It's over-the-top for the audience, especially as we zero in on his former patient-turned-therapist Lethe as he says "minds so empty." Moments before she blankly said: "I love my work."

The tour of the facility includes a visit to the treatment room, where van Gelder had his accident.
Dr. Adams says that the experimental neural neutralizer doesn't work. After their tour Kirk wants his own demonstration of the beam and it seems that it really does work.

Naturally, they are caught. Adams gives Kirk a demonstration implanting the idea in his mind that he is madly in love with Helen Noel. 
Adams makes Kirk give up his phaser & communicator.  I'm not thinking that Dr. Adams has thought this all the way through. What could go wrong when he starts messing with the mind of a starship captain? Is there any way not for him to eventually get caught?

After his session Kirk and Noel are back in his room.
Kirk confesses his love and, when it looks like he is going to make a pass at her we seen that he is instead going for the largest, lowest placed system of air ducts in the Federation. His idea, send Helen through the air duct to find the colony's power grid. Turn it off so that the defensive shield will be lowered and Spock can beam down to save the day.

It produces this great exchange:
Kirk: "Air conditioning. It has to connect with other ducts and tunnels. You can get through this. It might lead to the power supply. Short-circuited, it would cut off the security force field. Have you had any training in hyper-power circuits?"
Dr. Noel: "No."
Kirk: "Megavoltage. Touch the wrong line, and you're dead."
No problem at all. Helen gets through the vents and finds the megavoltage, hyper-power circuit. She gets a very real demonstration of what happens if you touch the wrong line as a member of the Tantalus Colony does so and lights up the place.
Helen has to be more careful then most when shutting down hyper-power circuits.
The power goes off while Kirk is in the treatment room again. He beats up Adams and leaves.

Helen and Kirk both meet up in the room and Kirk kisses her when Spock rushes into the room assuming that they needed to be rescued.
The power has been turned back on and Kirk realizes that Dr. Adams is still in the treatment room under the neutral neutralizer. They rush in, but he is dead.

Aboard ship, McCoy says that it's hard to believe that a man could die of loneliness.

Kirk's answer: "Not when you've sat in that room."

It gives a sense of what Kirk went through, but the whole issue of imprinting his love for Helen is dropped like a hot potato. It isn't mentioned at all after Spock catches them in a kiss. In spite of that, it is still an enjoyable episode. You can watch it online here

Merry Christmas!

No music was composed for this episode, it is all tracked form other episodes.

Next up, Miri. God help us.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Snow in Tucson

By now most people have heard that Tucson, Arizona had snow yesterday. I think that everywhere at least had flakes coming down.  It certainly didn't stick everywhere though.

We did not have accumulating snow at our place, which is about 2,100 feet in elevation, but only a few hundred feet higher the snow was several inches deep.

Here's how nearby Sombrero Peak looked this morning.

Compare that view to yesterday's shot from the University of Arizona webcam pointed at the much higher (and much farther from the camera) Santa Catalina Mountains:

You don't often see snow going pretty much all the way down to the base of the mountains, but yesterday it did.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Rain" on the Sun

Great Googly Moogly, this video of the Sun from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is off the charts awesome. When you are done watching it, watch it again.
From the SDO website:

Eruptive events on the sun can be wildly different. Some come just with a solar flare, some with an additional ejection of solar material called a coronal mass ejection (CME), and some with complex moving structures in association with changes in magnetic field lines that loop up into the sun's atmosphere, the corona.

On July 19, 2012, an eruption occurred on the sun that produced all three. A moderately powerful solar flare exploded on the sun's lower right limb, sending out light and radiation. Next came a CME, which shot off to the right out into space. And then, the sun treated viewers to one of its dazzling magnetic displays – a phenomenon known as coronal rain.

Over the course of the next day, hot plasma in the corona cooled and condensed along strong magnetic fields in the region. Magnetic fields, themselves, are invisible, but the charged plasma is forced to move along the lines, showing up brightly in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 304 Angstroms, which highlights material at a temperature of about 50,000 Kelvin. This plasma acts as a tracer, helping scientists watch the dance of magnetic fields on the sun, outlining the fields as it slowly falls back to the solar surface.

The footage in this video was collected by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument. SDO collected one frame every 12 seconds, and the movie plays at 30 frames per second, so each second in this video corresponds to six minutes of real time. The video covers 12:30 a.m. EDT to 10:00 p.m. EDT on July 19, 2012.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Star Trek: What Are Little Girls Made Of?

It's the One With Two Kirks: #2!

The Enterprise is visiting planet Exo-III to find Nurse Christine Chapel's long lost fiancee, Dr. Roger Korby.
The frozen world of Exo-III.
Exo-III, kind of a cool name for a planet, especially since these days all planets beyond our solar system are referred to as exoplanets.

Spock describes Korby as the "Pasteur of archaeological medicine." I guess that's a much better choice than, say, the "Darwin of quantum physics" or perhaps even the "Lippershey of warp technology." Regardless, he is apparently known across the galaxy. 
Korby hasn't been heard from in five years and two expeditions have failed to find any sign of him. In spite of this, Christine seems pretty optimistic about finding him alive. Uhura does just that as a message from Korby comes through.

Korby requests that Kirk beam down alone, until he hears that Christine is aboard. When no one is on hand to great them, Kirk requests that two security guards be beamed down as well. With that, a Star Trek legacy begins.
Matthews (left) and Rayburn (right): Trek's first Red Shirts to be killed on the show. 

Yes, it wasn't until production episode 10 that Red Shirts start dropping like flies. Matthews goes first. He was even played by an actor with the name of Deadrick. Is that appropriate, or what?
Dr. Brown, Kirk, and Christine watch as Red Shirt Matthews falls Into Darkness
It is a long way to the bottom of a bottomless pit. Perhaps that's why Matthews was wearing red--to make him easier to spot on the way down. 
Matthews and Rayburn were dispatched by Lurch Ruk.

Before we meet Korby, the beautiful Andrea enters the room.
Christine suspects that Roger Korby has had is own five year mission with Andrea, but it's okay as she's an android, right?. Korby later explains that "She simply obeys orders. She has no meaning for me. There's no emotional bond." You would think that by the 23rd century, even a guy living underground on frozen planet should know that "she means nothing to me" is not a line that's going to make things better.

There is a serious lack of chemistry between Christine and Roger. It isn't helped by Andrea and Roger's big secret (not the hanky panky one).

When Kirk realizes it is past time to check in with Spock, Brown over reacts a bit and it leads to trouble, but Kirk is faster on the draw (that's why he's the captain). 
In a shocking revelation we learn that Dr. Brown is not who we thought he was - he's an android!
Kirk and Christine are horrified. Korby promises to explain and chooses an interesting way to do so, by creating an Android Kirk!

Apparently it is an easy process. Load a guy and a bunch of man-shaped goo on a turntable and spin it around until the goo looks just like the guy. Easy, right?

As Kirk is spun round, he concentrates on the phrase: "Mind your own business, Mister Spock. I'm sick of your half-breed interference."
Not one, but two Kirks!
Just like a Folger's Coffee commercial, Korby plans to secretly replace the real Kirk with Android Kirk to see if anybody notices. Well they do. Kirk's "half-breed" phrase comes in handy later as Android Kirk says it to Spock, tipping him off that something is wrong.

Meanwhile Korby explains what it is all about: "I could've transferred you, your very consciousness into that android. Your soul, if you wish. All of you. In android form, a human being can have practical immortality. Can you understand what I'm offering mankind?" Kirk then compares Korby to Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, Hitler, Ferris, and Maltuvis.

Ferris?! The guy with the wheel? Say it isn't so, Jimmy Boy. No one is that evil.

I hope you like the idea of androids giving you immortality, as it will come again in Trek as we work our way through the series.

In the end, everyone is an android, even . . . .
Yes, Roger.
But it is okay as, even though androids are clearly evil, Android Kirk, Ruk, Andrea and Roger all meet the same end that Dr. Brown did: death by phaser. 

The fabulous Fred Steiner wrote only about eight minutes of music for this episode, but it is great stuff. Even the casual Trek fan will recognize that it gets used a lot throughout the series in other episodes. Check out a preview of one track from the awesome complete release of the TOS music from La-La Land Records.

For me, the episode doesn't really work very well. There's a lot of running around, kissing with Andrea and chases with Ruk, but it takes too long and doesn't really go anywhere worth going to. Watch it and decide for yourself.

So what are little girls made of? I am guessing it is not sugar and spice and everything nice. It is more like gears and wires and old pairs of pliers.
Kirk is happy to see Ruk.
Next up is a classic: Dagger of the Mind.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Day the Lights Went Out

Check out this great video, The Day the Lights Went Out, from Global

Be sure to visit their web page too for more on how you can help recover your night sky.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum has an impressive Raptor Flight "show" that I highly recommend. I admittedly to not know much at all about birds, but I wanted to post some of my pics from my visit this morning.

The birds fly untethered out in the open desert and literally whoosh within inches of the spectators.
They started things off with a Chihuahuan Raven. My Raven pics aren't the best, so keep looking past them.

 Next came the Great Horned Owl.

I even managed to catch it in flight.
The Prarie Falcon:

The Ferruginous Hawk:

The Ferruginous Hawk in flight:

Finally, we have the Harris's Hawk. This one took flight, gained altitude and circled high above until the member of the museum staff gave the signal for it to dive in. It was an impressive dive. I managed to catch it swooping downward, like a guided missile.

Up close and personal with the Harris's Hawk:

This amazing display happens twice daily. For most of us seeing these beautiful birds in action is a wonderful and rare thing.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Star Trek: Balance of Terror

Its a cat and mouse game across the stars as the Enterprise becomes the first ship to meet the Romulans in a century. But first, it is time for a wedding.

Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson are getting married aboard the Enterprise as it is patrolling the Earth outposts that guard the Romulan Neutral Zone. Kids, marriage can be a wonderful thing, but this isn't the best way to get one started.

Outposts Two and Three have gone silent and the wedding is stopped as we learn that Outpost Four is under attack.
A dandy map of the Outposts along the Romulan Neutral Zone.
The Enterprise establishes communications with Commander Hansen on Outpost Four. He is not having a good day. 
"We're a mile deep on an asteroid. Almost solid iron. And even through our deflectors, it did this."
A ship appears, fires another shot and disappears again.
Outpost Four is destroyed.
Who did it? The Romulans, of course. Lt. Stiles had relatives in the last conflict with the Romulans and knows that their ships are painted with a Bird of Prey.

A message is intercepted and we get our first look at Romulans. 
Who do they remind you of?

Kirk makes it clear to Stiles that there is no place for bigotry here. Too bad Stiles doesn't get it.

Should the Enterprise retaliate and risk galactic war? Spock thinks that they should because Romulans are related to Vulcans:
Spock: And if Romulans are an offshoot of my Vulcan blood, and I think this likely, then attack becomes even more imperative. 
McCoy: War is never imperative, Mister Spock. 
Spock: It is for them, Doctor. Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. And if Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show.
And even though the Romulans have a cloaking device, the chase is on!

Astronomy Interlude #1
Comet Icarus Four: "Behold a marvel in the darkness."
In the depths of deep space comets are frozen solid with no atmosphere (called a coma) or tail. When the Enterprise and the Romulans encounter this comet, it shouldn't look as cool as it does with a nice tail, but I guess that would ruin the plot point.

Still, when real comets enter our inner solar system the Sun heats the ices and they can put on a nice show in the sky. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere haven't had much to see in the way of comets since the late 90s. Below is a photo I took of Comet Hale-Bopp in March 1997 at Lake Afton Pubilc Observatory in Wichita, Kansas. (By the way, Lake Afton Public Observatory is a cool place. If you are ever in the area be sure to check it out. Check out more pics of Comet Hale-Bopp from LAPO here.)
Hale-Bopp was indeed an awesome comet. Note that it had 2 tails. This is pretty normal. The photo above shows a bluish straight tail above a brighter, curved tail. The blue tail is composed of ionized gases, while the white one is primarily dust. Hale-Bopp's dust tail was bright enough that it was easily seen in light polluted areas. Ion tails are pretty much washed out by light pollution.

For more on comets check out How Comets Work. There are pictures there from the 1910 passage of Comet Halley that remind me of the comet that was used in this episode of Star Trek.

A final point about comets. 2013 may bring three comets to our skies: Comet Lemmon and Comet PANSTARRS in March. Comet ISON may be the brightest of the three, by far, and possibly greatly outshine even Comet Hale-Bopp. I'll be posting comet updates here on the blog in the future.

Back to Trek, mostly.
When Kirk asks about the comet, Spock does not need to consult their "Table of Comets" to know that this one is ordinary, an "ionized mass, a trail of frozen vapor particles." A printed volume of comets is pretty old school, even for vintage Trek, wouldn't you agree?

Astronomy Interlude #2

At one point Kirk expresses doubts about what he is doing and McCoy tells him this:
Jim. In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don't destroy the one named Kirk.
Our perception of the universe has changed quite a bit since the writers penned McCoy's little speech. How does it hold up today? Back in the 60s the number of confirmed "exoplanets" - planets beyond our own solar system was zero. Today the number is in the thousands, and growing rapidly. Thankfully, the number of known planets has grown to the point where actual statistics can be done. While we cannot travel at warp speed across the galaxy, we can estimate the total number of Earth-type planets in the Milky Way. Numbers released earlier this week estimate that there might be 4.5 billion planets like our Earth in our galaxy. McCoy certainly got that way wrong, didn't he?

How did he do on galaxies? McCoy said that there was "three million million galaxies". That's 3,000,000,000,000 or 3 trillion galaxies. This post from Discover, suggests that the actual number should be about 176 billion galaxies in the universe, but also that the Hubble data may actually under estimate the number and that with future instruments, like the James Webb Space Telescope the estimated number of galaxies in the universe may jump to a trillion. If so, then McCoy's estimate is only off by a factor of three, which in astronomy is often pretty good. I should also point out that the estimate of galaxies above is for the observable universe. The entirety of the universe is bigger than we can see, so the count really is likely several times larger than 176 billion, even without speculating what we might learn with the James Webb Space Telescope.

Back to Trek.

The ships maneuver and battle. At one point they each lay still and, strangely enough, everyone must keep quiet to avoid detection by each other. Details like this are horribly wrong (sound doesn't travel through space you know), but help to give this episode a feel as if the starships were two submarines in battle.

Rant: Why is it that ships in space, when damaged, are tilted? Are they taking on water? Is there some galactic frame of reference with a preferred direction for "up" that they must follow?

Anyway, shots are exchanged. Both ships are damaged and in the big conclusion there is a phaser coolant leak aboard the Enterprise that incapacitates Stiles and Tomlinson who are manning Phaser Control. Spock has to rush into the room to fire off the shots that cripple the Romulan ship. He rescues Stiles (in spite of his feelings toward Spock) but Tomlinson will never be getting married as Spock was unable to save him. I am not sure why his bride to be wasn't in the room too, as earlier in the episode they both worked there. Shouldn't she be dead too? Maybe the Romeo and Juliet ending would have worked better (I know, there was no suicide here.)

All-in-all it this is a solid episode of Trek. Guest star Mark Lenard does a great job as the Romulan Commander. He is given some great lines:

"Danger and I are old companions." and, speaking to Kirk at the end, "I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend." 

And at least one line that doesn't make any sense at all: "Centurion, I find myself wishing for destruction before we can return." Wait. What?

That aside, it is a fine episode. Composer Fred Steiner wrote only about five and a half minutes of music for this episode (the rest is tracked from other episodes), but it is good stuff and includes a menacing theme for the Romulans: hear it here from La-La Land Records.

Also, Five Year Mission did another cool song for this episode, it is worth checking out and you can watch the full episode here from Star

Next up is What Are Little Girls Made Of?