Sunday, March 31, 2013

Star Trek: The Menagerie

Star Trek's The Menagerie serves as an excellent example of the pure genius of Gene Roddenberry. The show was expensive to produce and he was sitting on the unusable pilot for the series. So he drafted a compelling story that gave him a valid excuse to show most of what was in the pilot (The Cage) - melding the new material with the old into a Hugo-award winning two part episode. Well done, sir!

In the episode the Enterprise is diverted to Starbase 11 (as seen in Court Martial).
The Starbase looks pretty different this time around, maybe because it is daytime now? I don't know. What I do know is that there is something very familiar in this matte painting that I had never noticed before - Kitt Peak National Observatory's McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. Can you spot it?

That's the McMath in a photo I took last year, and here it is on the left of this cropped portion of the matte painting used in this episode. The angle is different (sorry about that), but the artwork is clearly based on the real-world telescope. The telescope was dedicated just about four years before this episode was filmed. It is wonderful to see real-life objects inspiring visions of the future.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down and are greeted by Miss Piper who tells them that no message was sent by the Starbase asking them to divert there.
Kirk doesn't seem to mind hearing that there was some sort of mix up as to whether they should be there or not, he's too busy enjoying the view.

Inside, Commodore Mendez explains that the message they apparently received from Captain Pike, couldn't possibly have been sent by him. As they leave to go see Pike, they pass a bit of set dressing that is quite awesome.
Hanging on the wall is a drawing of Jupiter made November 1, 1880 by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. It is simply stunning. Have a closer look:
Unlike what is hanging on the wall, this one is inverted as it would be seen in an astronomical telescope. Trouvelot made this drawing and many others that depict astronomical objects. Check out this gallery of some of them here. They are remarkable. Shown in his rendition of Jupiter is the famous Great Red Spot (GRS). The dark circle on the GRS is the shadow of one of Jupiter's moons. There's another shadow to the left. The two white circles further left are the moons that are casting the shadows on Jupiter's cloud tops. The line of dark circles below are atmospheric features and not shadows. Beautiful, isn't it?

Back to Trek.

Captain Pike was horribly injured through exposure to Delta Rays while trying to save some cadets.
Captain PIke: He's more machine than man. Twisted and evil.
He is described as being totally unable to move. "His wheel chair is constructed to respond to his brain waves... he can turn it, move it forwards, or backwards slightly....With the flashing light, he can say yes or no. His mind is as active as yours and mine, but it's trapped inside a useless vegetating body. He's kept alive mechanically, a battery-driven heart."

As McCoy says later: "We've learned to tie into every human organ in the body except one. The brain. The brain is what life is all about. Now, that man can think any thought that we can, and love, hope, dream as much as we can, but he can't reach out, and no one can reach in."

I can't help but thinking that in real life we are on the verge of major microprocessor-enabled breakthroughs that will transform the lives of people conditions similar to Pike's. There is news on this front all the time and one needs to look no farther than Stephen Hawking to see how computers have enabled him to communicate.

It seems that the 23rd Century isn't all that advanced in this area, so Spock decided to do something for his former captain.
Spock steps into command areas, sends new orders to the Enterprise's computers, kidnaps Pike and effectively steals the starship putting it on a course for Talos IV - the one forbidden world in all the galaxy.

Check out Starfleet Command's Top Secret report on the planet:
"Talos IV is in third quadrant of vernal galaxy." Yeah, it's pretty much gobbledegook. I guess no one envisioned a future where people would grab stills of the show to read this stuff.

Kirk and Commodore Mendez pursue in a shuttlecraft. When Spock determines that they can't catch the Enterprise and can't return to the Starbase that he places himself under arrest. But the ship is still under the control of the computers and Spock has locked out access.
A general court martial is held with Mendez, Kirk, and Pike serving as the command rank officers as Spock is tried for mutiny. 
This provides the excuse for the events of The Cage to play out as we learn what happened to Captain Pike when he brought the Enterprise to Talos IV 13 years earlier. By the way, I am not going through those events here again. If you want to read what I wrote about The Cage, follow the link.
As we later learn the entire trial was a diversion. Commodore Mendez was never even on board. The mental powers of the Talosians created the illusion to keep Kirk from regaining control of the ship.
The reason for it all? Pike's condition and Spock's devotion to his former captain. The Talosians mental powers can give him the illusion of a full life unfettered by his condition.

Pike takes the offer and Spock is off the hook.

Starfleet messages in at the end to say:  "Received images from Talos Four. In view of historic importance of Captain Pike in space exploration, General Order Seven prohibiting contact Talos Four is suspended this occasion. No action contemplated against Spock."

That's a little too neat considering Spock attacked two people at the Starbase and took the Enterprise without orders. Still, it is an episode of Trek (well, two) that are worthy of your time.

Next up, Shore Leave.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Spreading the Word About Light Pollution

A while back I posted about the new video about light pollution, Losing the Dark.  The short movie is available as a free download for planetariums, in flat screen formats and is on YouTube.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has launched an Indiegogo campaign to help get it translated into many languages. Light pollution is a worldwide problem and bringing the show into many languages will help to spread the word about the issue and how to solve it.

Yes, I work for IDA and if you go look at the Indiegogo campaign you'll see me talking about the campaign and why it deserves your support.

Of course, if you haven't seen it yet, you can watch it now:
There's another Indiegogo campaign that I am currently supporting. I'll blog about that next.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Star Trek: Court Martial

I haven't gotten in any comet watching lately, so the blog is back to Star Trek. Tonight's episode:

First off, let me say that the matte painting used in this episode for Starbase 11 is just awesome:
Adding to the feel of being on an alien world, they provided windows with views like this one behind Commodore Stone:
The Enterprise just was in an ion storm and Ben Finney, the ship's records officer is dead. While the ship is getting repairs Kirk files his report on the incident. Unfortunately, the ship's log indicate that, contrary to Kirk's testimony, the Kirk jettisoned the pod with Finney in it when the ship was only on Yellow Alert and not Red Alert.
In Kirk's defense, the buttons are like right next to each other. Anyone could hit the wrong button once in a while.
Did Kirk commit perjury? Was he negligent in Finney's death? A general court martial will be held to decide. Meanwhile, McCoy uses the fact that he knows Kirk to try to pick up chicks.
The chick in question turns out to be Lt. Shaw, a woman from Kirk's past, who, as we learn later, also happens to be the lawyer from the Judge Advocate's office assigned to Kirk's prosecution.

Kirk's defense attorney is none other than Samuel T. Cogley, played by the wonderful Elishia Cook, Jr.
"What's the matter? Don't you like books?"
Cogley moved all those books into Kirk's place. He gets some great lines and his first exchange with Kirk goes like this:
Cogley: What's the matter? Don't you like books? 
Kirk: Oh, I like them fine, but a computer takes less space. 
Cogley: A computer, huh? I got one of these in my office. Contains all the precedents. The synthesis of all the great legal decisions written throughout time. I never use it. 
Kirk: Why not?
Cogley: I've got my own system. Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn't so important, I'd show you something. My library. Thousands of books. 
Kirk: And what would be the point? 
Cogley: This is where the law is. Not in that homogenised, pasteurised, synthesiser. Do you want to know the law, the ancient concepts in their own language, Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha 3? Books. 
Kirk: You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who's escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law. 
Cogley: Right on both counts. Need a lawyer?
 Kirk is sticking to his guns about the order of events, but the hearing doesn't go well at all, especially when the ship's logs seem to confirm that he is lying.

When Spock confirms that there is nothing mechanically wrong with the ship's computer, Kirk says that maybe he will be able to beat his next captain at chess. That gets Spock to thinking that playing chess is another way to test the computer.
After beating the computer several times, Spock heads down to present the evidence that "Someone, either accidentally or deliberately, adjusted the programming and therefore the memory banks of that computer." This certainly is not the way people think about computers today, is it?

In any case Cogley demands to face Kirk's accuser - the computer, so they take the hearing to the ship.

Everyone is sent to the surface, except for a minimal number of crew members & the officers of the court. Kirk explains, once again, that nobody on Star Trek knows what an orbit is or how they work:
"Our impulse engines have been shut down. We'll maintain orbit by momentum." Presumably, objects like the Moon, have really awesome engines that never run out of fuel. 
I'm a doctor, not Sinatra.
On board, they perform an interesting experiment: listening for everyone's heartbeats. After all the heartbeats have been accounted for, there is still one left - that of Ben Finney who isn't dead. He faked his death to frame Kirk.
Finney sabotages the ship, Kirk's stuntman beats Finney's & then Kirk fixes the ship and all is well.

All-in-all, Court Martial is a solid, enjoyable episode. Not a top 10, but still worth your time.

Next up, The Menagerie.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Night's Balls of Rock, Ice and Gas

The Moon is hanging next to Jupiter this evening and putting on a nice show. Check it out:
Yeah, the Moon is overexposed here, but check out what is hanging on either side of Jupiter - Ganymede and Callisto. Not bad for a 200mm lens.

To round things out, here is your nightly pic of Comet PanSTARRS:
In spite of the growing moonlight, the comet is still an easy binocular object that is hanging on the edge of naked-eye visibility.

Star Trek: The Galileo Seven

The Enterprise is en route to Makus III to deliver medical supplies when it encounters Murasaki 312, a quasar-like formation. On board is Galactic High Commissioner Ferris, who doesn't like it that Kirk has "standing orders to investigate all quasars and quasar-like phenomena wherever they may be encountered." The medical supplies aren't due to be delivered for five days and the trip takes just three. Over the protests of Commissioner Ferris, Kirk dispatches Spock and a crew of six into shuttlecraft Galileo to investigate the effect. I mean, sure, here is a plague running rampant, but why should they deliver the medical supplies early?

When this episode was filmed in 1966, nobody knew what the hell quasars were. Quasars had only just been discovered a few years earlier. Why this object was surprisingly on their path when, you know, it has a name and all is a bit of a mystery.

What was known about quasars in the mid-1960s was that they are intensely bright, so much so that they look like ordinary stars (ones that give off radio waves), yet they are located on the far reaches of the observable universe. What made them so bright was unknown. They were certainly a mystery when the episode was written and it made sense to give the Enterprise standing orders to investigate them.  
Murasaki 312
I have a recollection from an old astronomy book, possibly from the Time-Life series with an illustration of what a quasar might look like. It was somewhat like what was shown on Trek, but with what looked like lighting cutting across it. Does this ring a bell with any readers of the blog? If so, leave me a comment or reach me on Twitter.

Decades later, astronomers have figured out was quasars are - the cores of baby galaxies. Embedded within them are supermassive black holes that are feeding on gas. Much of this gas spirals around the black hole forming a flat disk of gas called an accretion disk. This disk of gas is intensely bright. Some of the in falling gas misses the disk and becomes accelerated outward at tremendous speeds by intense magnetic fields.

Quasars were common in the early universe, which is why we usually see them at the far reaches of the universe. It takes time for that light to get to us, and because of that we see them in their infancy, as they were long ago. There are smaller versions of quasars, that form around stellar black holes. Unlike the supermassive black holes, which weigh in at millions of times the mass of the Sun, stellar mass black holes are only a few times more massive than the Sun. These stellar mass black holes can do the same kinds of things that quasars do, but on a smaller scale. That's why they are called microquasars.

The new knowledge of quasars was all taken into account when The Galileo 7 was remastered a few years ago. They updated the look of Murasaki 312 to make it a plausible microquasar:
I am not a big fan of the remastered versions of Trek, but this particular change makes a lot of sense.
On the way in Spock checks the forecast on the Clear Sky Chart.
Back to the episode. The shuttlecraft is pulled off course and directly into the heart of the Murasaki effect (but thankfully not into a black hole!) where they end up on a planet (Taurus II) inhabited by huge ape-like humanoids with a chip on their shoulders.
The Galileo is low on fuel and overweight, by the equivalent weight of three grown men. If they hope to leave Taurus II, they are going to have to lighten the load. McCoy is quick to point out that this is Spock's first command, prophetically citing that it will "take more than logic to get us out of this."
The natives are restless. Latimer takes one for the team.
Gaetano gets a close (and fatal look) at the natives, who are amazingly not life-like.

With two crewmen gone and Scotty on board to work his magic, the shuttlecraft just might make it.
Maybe the natives just want to play? Strangely no attempt at communication was made with the tool-using natives. Ever.

The real drama here is how everyone reacts to Spock's unemotional command, Spock's inability to realize that the natives might not have a logical reaction to his show of force and of course Kirk's inability to affect a rescue. The latter shows just how far Kirk is willing to push his command to rescue Spock and those on board the Galileo, even in the face of not delivering supplies to a planet ravaged by a plague.
Scotty's quick thinking (using the energy in phasers as fuel - brilliant!) get's them off of the ground only to once again prove that no writer on this series has any idea what the word "orbit" really means, and that a vehicle does not have to constantly burn fuel to remain in one.

In the end, Spock performs an emotional act of desperation, igniting all the remaining fuel as a flare.  
If you like Spock vs. McCoy episodes then this is your thing. While this isn't in my top 10 Trek list, if I stumbled across it on the TV I'd watch it. There's a lot here to like.

There's no new music in this episode, so I'll skip that. Watch the episode online here.

Next up, Court Martial. Until then, I've got some comet photos to go through.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday Comet

Comet PanSTARRS continues its passage through our early evening skies.  It remains on the edge of naked-eye visibility, but an easy target even with small binoculars.

Here are two shots from this evening:
Canon T3i, f/5.6, 200mm, 4 seconds
Here is another 4 second exposure, but cropped from the full frame.
As long as the comet remains visible and we have clear skies, I'll post pics.

The Hidden Costs of Light Pollution

I didn't get to see comet PanSTARRS last night. Hopefully tonight I will get to see it again and shoot some more photos. In the meantime, here is a short but impressive video on light pollution.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Comet PanSTARRS Continues to Shine

Another evening of watching comet PanSTARRS. Both comet shots are crop from the full frame.
Canon 3Ti f/5.6, ISO 1600, 200mm, 3.2 seconds
 This time photos were taken from my front driveway. Alas, that did not provide any foreground objects to provide contrast or framing with the comet, but still it isn't too bad. Those are saguaro cacti and palo verde trees on the hill.

As it got darker and the comet got lower, I decided to push to longer exposures.
Canon 3Ti f/5.6, ISO 1600, 200mm, 6 seconds
Once the comet was down, I had to grab a shot of the Moon:
Canon 3Ti f/5.6, ISO 1600, 200mm, 1 second

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cactus Moon. Desert Comet.

It was another fine evening of comet and Moon watching from the desert near Tucson, Arizona. As the evening began the Moon appeared before the comet did. Here it is paired with a saguaro cactus:
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 0.5 second
 Last night the Moon was quite near the comet. By tonight the Moon had moved away, yet it was still just close enough to catch it in the same shot as Comet PanSTARRS:
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 55mm, 2 seconds
Can you see the comet in the shot above? It is between the saguaro and the tree to the right of it. Here is a zoomed photo taken a short while later:
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 2 seconds
After the comet dropped too low, I took another shot of the crescent Moon with beautiful earthshine. I've cropped the full frame here:
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 0.5 seconds
If you haven't yet been out to catch the comet, make a plan to do so soon. Remember, it is low in the western sky. Look a 1/2 hour after sunset. While it is visible to the unaided eye, using binoculars will make it much easier to find.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Comet and Moon Over Arizona

This evening was our third night to catch comet PanSTARRS. It was wonderfully paired next to a waxing crescent moon. I managed to catch them with some desert scenery which made for some wonderful shots.
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 1 second
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 1 second
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 2 seconds
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 3.2 seconds
Goodnight, Moon:
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 4 seconds
Canon 3Ti, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 200mm, 4 seconds