Friday, May 27, 2016

Pluto At Its Best

Last summer the New Horizons mission made its historic flyby of Pluto. Data from the spacecraft have been slowly beamed back to Earth and its still not all here yet. But what is here is an amazing array of images and other information that have revealed this world to be nothing short of spectacular.

Today NASA unveiled their highest resolution imagery of Pluto showing an amazing and diverse range of landscapes.

Have a look at their video which cuts across our solar system's most famous dwarf planet:

Here's a just a piece of the cut across Pluto, its what they labeled at the Pitted, hummocky Nitrogen ice plains:

It's like nothing seen on any other surface in the solar system. (Note: I rotated the image.) The video goes too fast for my tastes, so it is worth the time to look at the full cut across Pluto. You can see the full image here. It's amazing.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Star Trek: Spectre of the Gun

On TV the third season of the original series of Star Trek series kicked off with the infamous "Spock's Brain" episode, but the first one produced was:

Spectre of the Gun is a very unusual episode of Star Trek

The episode begins with the Enterprise on a mission to "establish contact with the Melkotians at all costs" and even though they are telepathically warned away, Kirk presses onward toward their destination. 
We get a nice special effects sequence as the Enterprise encounters and then flies past a rotating buoy on their way to the planet.
There the landing party (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty & Chekov) encounters a Melkotian, who doesn't take kindly to their presence: "Aliens. Our warning was plain. You have disregarded it. You shall be punished...You are disease. The disease must be destroyed. Your plea has been heard, and sentence has been pronounced. It is done."
Their sentence proves to be a strange one indeed as they are catapulted to something that looks like the American old west, but not in any that actually looks real. Even McCoy remarks that "It's just bits and pieces. It's incomplete." Yeah. Great sets!

Yet, in spite of the appearance of things our heroes are convinced that what they are experiencing is absolutely real. McCoy describes it as a "harsh reality" and then "This is not a dream."

The landing party soon learns that they are in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 the date of the famous shooting at the OK Corral. They have been cast in the role of the Clantons who were killed at the shooting Yes, it is a strange sentence indeed. 
They attempt to flee, but Tombstone, Arizona has a force field keeping them in.
Chekov is gunned down by Morgan Erp, which comes as a surprise as he was in the role of Billy Claiborne--a person who survived the infamous shoot out.
Seeing no way out and not wanting to partake in the impending shootout, Spock and McCoy make a tranquilizing gas grenade out of a can of baking powder. Really.

They test it on Scotty, but nothing happens.

The fact that nothing happened is the crux of the episode, as it convinces Spock, who knows that their concoction should have worked, that what they are experiencing is unreal.
When McCoy counters that the bullet that killed Chekov was real, Spock tells him that "His mind killed him." And then we get a series of almost random philosophical statements from Spock:
"Physical reality is consistent with universal laws.
"Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality. All of this is unreal. 

"We judge reality by the response of our senses.
"Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules. 

"We judged the bullets to be solid, the guns to be real, therefore they can kill. I know the bullets are unreal, therefore they cannot harm me."
 The solution? Remove all doubt about the reality of the bullets. To do so Spock mind-melds with Scotty, McCoy & Kirk.

"The bullets are unreal. Without body. They are illusions only. Shadows without substance. They will not pass through your body, for they do not exist....They are shadows. Illusions. Nothing but ghosts of reality. They are lies. Falsehoods. Spectres without body. They are to be ignored."

When he's finished they all stand their ground as the Erps fire away.
And the bullets pass straight through them!
Seizing the moment, Kirk then does one of his patented Run & Jump Kicks into Wyatt Erp and pulls Wyatt's gun on him, which is kind of odd as, you know, the bullets are unreal. He considers shooting Erp, but then decides to show mercy and then everyone, including Chekov, suddenly reappears on the Enterprise bridge.
The Melkotians were impressed, by Kirk's actions telling him to "Approach our planet and be welcome," but Spock knows that Kirk wanted to kill Erp. Kirk confesses that Spock was right, but he and humanity have been able to overcome their instinct to kill.

It's a good Star Trek ending. It is a shame though that it takes the episode such a long, long time to get going though. There's too much in Tombstone as they talk to the Erps, the bartender, the Sheriff and the Marshall (they have both?), try to get away, Chekov ("Billy") has a girl, etc for my tastes. The episode finally picks up when they've finished making their tranquilizing gas grenade, but everything before that drags on way too long.

Composer Jerry Fielding wrote the musical score to the episode. It's not my favorite. He tried to go sort of western, but I'm not a big fan of the results.

Next up is the action packed Elaan of Troyius.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Cloudy Transit

Astronomers around the world today witnessed a relatively rare alignment of the planet Mercury and the Sun. Mercury passed directly in front of the Sun's disc in an event known as a transit.

Southern California normally has clear skies, but in the San Diego area May and June can be particularly cloudy as low clouds frequently blow in from the ocean. Locally it is known as "May Gray" and "June Gloom."

Today's transit of Mercury was mostly a victim of the May Gray from my vantage point at Palomar College (that's where I teach astronomy).

The event began before the Sun rose in California, making the first part invisible. The clouds blocked most of the rest of the view, but they did part a bit early in the morning.

The college's NS Building has a rooftop solar telescope and the photo below comes from it:
Photo by Tony Kopec
This image was taken with a hydrogen alpha filter that reveals some of the details just above the Sun's photosphere. Mercury is the small black dot.

Compare the view of Mercury above, with the pic below that I took during the June 2012 transit of Venus:
Different telescopes were used (the Venus transit photo was of a white light projection using my personal telescope), but it is easy to see that Venus (the big black circle) looks a whole lot bigger than Mercury does. This is because Venus is a whole lot bigger than Mercury is and also because Venus is significantly closer to Earth than Mercury is. The other spots on the Sun are sunspots.

If you missed today's transit, here's how it looked from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory:
The next Mercury transit event will be on November 11, 2019.