ASTROLOGY & ASTRONOMY part 1 of 3 : Historical Disconnect and the Tropical Zodiac

Quick, what's your sign?  BZZZZT! You're wrong.

That is if you are thinking that your Astrological sign is in anyway related to where the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars actually were in the heavens on the date and time of your birth.

Like a lot of people I have always been vaguely interested in Astrology, my special sign and what it says about my personality, who I should date, what career paths I should follow, etc. And I have clear memories of a period during child/young adulthood when I would read the newspaper at breakfast for the daily dose of comics and horoscopes.  That is who I was at twelve years old. I liked Calvin & Hobbes and I was a Libra.

Through my foray into amateur astronomy and astrophotography in recent years I have become increasingly acquainted with the night sky and the choreography of it's players in their respective seasons.  I have also, as per my general personality and intellectual persuasions, made it my business to engage in the larger discussions of the history and philosophy of science, skepticism, "proto" vs. pseudo science, and science communication/outreach in general.  Lately, a few books, podcasts, and articles that I have consumed on these and other subjects have generated a sort of dwell point around which many of my thoughts have been swirling, namely the Copernican and Scientific revolutions and the emergence of Astronomy from the general intellectual milieu of 17th and 18th centuries.Coming from the arts and humanities side of the aisle as I do, and harboring fascinations with extant religious and philosophical traditions, the historical schism between Astronomy and Astrology and the trappings of present day criticism and debate of the subject on both sides has become a messy delight for my mind.  i couldn't imagine a more perfect subject this blog and from here on out I will be attempting to rescue some of the more subtle and disparate discussion points often too quickly burnt up by heated and often intentionally divisive debate.

Now you might not care.  You might be a staunch materialist and have made up your mind about such "nonsense" and "rubbish" or you may conversely be a true believer and know in your heart of hearts the intricate details of your special relationship to the Cosmos and precisely where you fit inside the whole mess. Most of us I assume fall at different points along the spectrum and sneer derisively at those on the other side of the halfway mark.  But, in the interest of intellectual integrity and thoroughness I think it prudent to take a good long look at all the ins and outs of this issue to better understand for ourselves why it is that we believe what we believe.  What draws us almost instinctively to see magic and fatedness, a "plottedness" even in the patterns of the night sky? What good, if any, does a belief or even the slightest interest in Astrology accomplish in our daily lives?  Why is it important to develop tools and methods that force us to face uncomfortable truths about the the ways we think?  What sorts of insights follow from such exercises?  And in the aftermath, what then is there to do?

In the Beginning...

Western Astrology (which is what I will be focusing on in this post) traces it's roots back to the 2nd or 3rd millennium BCE in and around Mesopotamia.  It emerged as part of a whole class of intellectual and pseudo intellectual efforts of early civilizations trying to understand and align technology and practice with patterns in the natural world in order to establish control over a seemingly chaotic reality. These efforts include weather prediction, medical prognostication, calendar making, using burial mounds to demarcate the heliacal risings and settings of the Sun, Moon, and certain bright wandering stars (later to be recognized as planets), "reading" animal guts, and so on and so forth.

Many factors began to converge to set up these human groups to formulate a system like Astrology.  Right from the onset, there was a strong correlation between predicting the movements in the heavens and predicting events in the human realm. Human psychology, especially in the absence of skeptical tools and culture, is primed to recognize patterns and to project internal mental states to the external material world.  Where Theory of Mind and pattern recognition encourages children to begin to anticipate phenomena in the world and see from other people's perspectives, it is also a vector (without making any value judgments) for things like animism, alchemy, quantum consciousness, positive thinking, prayer, the power of intention, and all manner of cognitive biases.  And so, what was for tens of thousands of years more or less a night at the movies for preliterate cultures, began to emerge as an internally consistent body of practical storytelling about the night sky that projected human narratives upon the celestial realm.

It was recognized that the Sun, Moon, and wandering stars (planets) traveled across the sky along a proscribed path, the ecliptic.  In the Northern latitudes like Babylon or modern day Iraq where this was all being studied and codified, the ecliptic follows East to West across the Southern portion of the sky.  Astronomers have since then come to understand that this is because all of the planets in our solar system orbit the Sun on a flat-ish plane and the Earth sits on that plane tilted on it's axis at an angle of 23.4º.

From our perspective on Earth we look out at the night sky and see patterns in the fixed stars - most of you probably know Orion's belt, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades or "Seven Sisters".  Over time as people told stories about those patterns they morphed into asterisms (the recognizable shapes and figures) that make up the main features in each constellation (the bounded/segmented areas).  There are now some 88 agreed upon constellations, but the handful that most of us know the names of come to us through Astrology and these are the twelve that serve as the backdrop to the Sun's path through the sky, the sidereal zodiac, or the ecliptic mentioned above.  These are the twelve signs of the Zodiac (Cancer, Sagittarius, Virgo, Taurus, etc.)

Shifting Signs

So that is all pretty straight forward and easy to grok, right?  This whole time we have been talking about observational patterns reflecting changes in the actual sky and the stories behind them, but this is where it all starts to slide.  Enter the Tropical Zodiac.  Remember that 23.4º axial tilt of the Earth in relation to the plane of the Solar System?  Well in addition to this tilt the Earth also sports a slight wobble (like a spinning top) which revolves once every 26,000 years (approximately).  So during this time period true north and thus the North Star (now, Polaris) would trace a circle in the sky against the fixed stars that rotate around it nightly which create circular star trails revealed by long exposure photography.

This is called the Precession of the Equinox and the ancient Astrologers had no knowledge of it until it's discovery by the Hellenistic Greek astronomer Hipparchus.

2335d-precession

The Tropical Zodiac is based on the position of the Vernal Equinox and thus drifts from the Sidereal Zodiac, the actual movements of the fixed stars, by way of the Precessions of the Equinox at a rate of about 1.4 arc degrees per century.  BLAH BLAH BLAH what does it all mean?  This means that most of Western Astrology is based on the night sky as it appeared over 2000 years ago, frozen, static, unchanging and unhinged to the dynamic complex reality that we actually exist in as discovered and elucidated by the modern practice of Astronomy.

Furthermore, the Babylonians dissected the night sky into 30º segments that stand for the representational segments of the constellations.  So what?  Well so what is that the constellations are all not the same size and therefore do not occupy the same amount of space in the 30º segments.  The horoscope provides about 30 days for each sign that start on about the 20th of each month and end on the 20th of the next.  So you would assume that the Sun would spend about 30 days "in" each sign or constellation, right?  Not even close.  In reality, the Sun spends 45 days in Virgo, 38 days in Pisces, and only 7 days in Scorpius.

And what is the result?  According to Astronomy magazine there is about a 7 to 1 chance that on the day of your birth the Sun was not actually in the constellation that Astrology dictates and some initial testing seems to bear this out.  This is actually a pretty fun exercise: I have a planetarium app (Go Skywatch) for my smartphone that can roll the sky back to the year 1 CE or forward to the year 4000 CE and you get an accurate 360º interactive map of the day or night sky with the positions of all the planets, the Moon, and Sun along the ecliptic.  I spent the better part of a day on Facebook taking requests for friends to see what was up on their birthdays and what sign they would be according to Astronomy, or the Sidereal Zodiac.  Most were off by a sign in either direction and I learned that on my birthday, October 11, 1980 the Sun was in fact in Virgo, not Libra.  It was a fun day on Facebook. In addition, I also had my official natal chart plotted out on a free website and checked the position of the Moon and all the planets and most of those were out of sync as well.  Every once in a while I will check another app called Time Passages which is an Astrology app that follows the Tropical Zodiac to show the user what is happening in the sky according to Astrology so that they can plan out their personal and professional lives.  Guess what? Nothing "is" where it actually "is".

So what exactly was the relationship that Astrology is purporting to describe?  What is the mechanism for it's influence in our lives or the destiny of nations? What is it useful for?  How does this make any sense at all?  Why is it so fascinating to so many people?  How has it survived and is it willing to change to reflect reality?  What are the shortcomings of modern debate on the topic?  What does Astrology do right?

[To be continued next time when we look at Astrology's relationship to medicine and meteorology, statecraft and political destiny, free will and Christianity, Renaissance magic, Alchemy, and the scientific method.]

Photographic Gold In Lost Dutchman State Park

For

The Young Professional - Congress Edition

Volume 2 Issue 2 – September 2014

A Publication of the Young Professional Network of the National Recreation and Park Association

High up on my list of things to do upon moving back to my hometown in Arizona was to get outdoors, out on the trails in the mountains and attempt to recover a dimly sensed loss of adventure, space, and desolation. In LA, I had unwittingly become a city boy trapped on an island of concrete and steel, crowded in by the throngs of young professionals and sprawling populations of homeless and huddled poor that reside within the piled up boxes and mounds of blanket shanty towns that sprout from the streets at dusk.

I had to get out into the open spaces. I had to break in a new pair of second-hand boots. I had to capture through my camera lens that essence of the land and the wide-open dark skies at night that remind a person of the price of city life – a life removed from the sublime wilderness from which we have arisen only in the last few moments in the history of planet Earth.

That deep geologic time rises sharply out of the desert floor in the form of the Superstition Mountains located east of Phoenix and is one of the most recognizable natural features on the horizon. The towering monolithic slabs were formed 29 million years ago from cooled volcanic ash and magma that spewed from the Earth’s crust and now rise some 3,000 feet above the desert floor¹. A fact communicated silently in the soul of the onlooker as the bald face of the jutting rock melts in deep reds and purples at sunset.

Since 1972, Lost Dutchman State Park has provided the gateway to this gently managed wilderness nestled between the foothill neighborhoods of the city of Apache Junction and Tonto National Forest. The park’s namesake was actually one German-born Jacob Waltz who partnered with a descendent of the Peralta family that originally developed a few prosperous gold mines there in the 1840s and who were subsequently ambushed and killed by Apache Indians ² – according to legend of course. The location of the mines and caches of gold were lost to history and to this day adventurous folk still trek the range among ancient cliff dwelling and petroglyphs in search of his fortune.

Over the next few months of visiting the park I built up my photography portfolio, sought out solitude, and on clear nights waited for darkness to practice my burgeoning obsession with amateur astronomy and astrophotography. In the Spring, recently in town from her globe trotting adventures, a friend and professional photographer chatted with me over some beers about shoots we might plan in the future and when I casually showed her an image I took of the full Moon rising over the Superstitions all soaked in purple dusklight, she got inspired. “I have a few more shots for my photo book that I need to get,” she said. “I’ll postpone driving back to LA for another day…let’s go be art nerds out in the desert!”

Paused Along the Treasure Loop Trail The next night with our combined camera gear, my telescope, and a couple of her friends we caravanned out to the park before sunset to hike about on the Treasure Loop Trail and image some of that late afternoon luster. As the dark crept in and the distant lights of Phoenix lit up the valley below, the desert nightlife began to sound out and we in turn hooted and hollered down the trail making our way to the parking lot where I rambled on about astronomy and set up my telescope.

Though the skies were free from excessive light pollution, scattered clouds eventually rolled in and blocked most of the stars and Deep Space Objects, but not before I was able to share a close up sight of Saturn and its rings traversing speedily across the field of view of the eyepiece. The girls squealed in delight while trying to snap iPhone photos and must have sounded like a pack of coyotes to any distant park ranger making their rounds. At least that is how I have begun to reassure myself on subsequent trips.

At night, camped outside the park after hours taking multiple long exposure photographs for those iconic star trails images, as the dark night’s silence is pierced by the cries of roving packs of carnivores I just try to imagine pretty girls over-excited about astronomy. Owls hoot, I sip my coffee and try to remain relaxed while my camera shutter clicks away in the darkness.

I suppose folks must be looking in the wrong places because I seem to find a little gold in those hills each time I visit.

Praying Hands

Resources:

1 http://www.ajpl.org/aj/superstition/ 2 http://azstateparks.com/Parks/loDU/index.html

POWER MOVES: Mars NASA Social // $50,000 Nat Geo Contest

Well, it seems that I am making some progress in my attempt to sneak in under the tent as a science writer/photographer/outreacher/visual culture of Astronomy-whathaveyou-somethingerother.  And so accordingly, I would like to take some space to inform and reflect upon some new projects recently completed and currently in the works. I recently connected with an assistant professor of Recreation and Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University who edits a bi-annual national newsletter for the State Park system of the United States.   He reached out on Reddit for writers looking to get some exposure and promote their local state park and so I shot him a link of this blog and my Instagram page (accessible on the sidebar ---->) and pitched him an idea that was well received.  I wrote up a quick narrative about hiking in and around the Superstition Mountains Wilderness and the Lost Dutchman State Park, photographic experiments with the Moon illusion touched on in my last post, star trails, and showing some friends Saturn for the first time through my 8" Dobsonian telescope.  They are currently finishing editing and I should be able to share that story + photos fairly soon.

Paused Along the Treasure Loop Trail

••••

Next weekend I will be flying to Denver, CO to attend the NASA Social event MAVEN Arrives at Mars where 25 social media space enthusiasts will be given press credentials and taken on a tour of the 1) the University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics and 2) Lockheed Martin's Autonomous Systems facility in Littleton, CO.  The MAVEN spacecraft launched some 10 months ago and on Sunday will perform an orbital insertion maneuver around the red planet in order to carry out its designed mission to study just how and why Mars lost its atmosphere and how that affected the Martian climate, which may have at some point in the past been able to sustain life.  Expect lots of Twitter, FB, and Instagram posts, some cool stories, sweet photos, and a few slick hyperlapse (motion stabilized time-lapse) videos.

••••

And now for the Big Whoop.

A couple months ago, almost in passing, my father mentioned to me that National Geographic was hosting a contest for a $50,000 grant to fund a "dream expedition".  I thought it sounded cool enough to research, but really didn't have an idea of what I could do with it.  Then one night I was out shooting startrails over the Superstition Mountains for the article on state parks detailed above.  I was with a friend who often joins me on late night shoots and I was describing a new method of depicting Milky Way timelapse videos that I happened upon by accident.  We continued brainstorming how I might accomplish the task, which would require significant amounts of travel around the whole globe when the topic of conversation shifted and I ended up relaying the details of this NatGeo contest and lamenting on my lack of inspiration.

He said, "Do that!"

"Do what?" I inquired.  "Do what you were just talking about, and use the contest to fund it."  Oh dang, I thought, that's not a bad idea.  A seed had been planted.  I started to roll the idea over in my mind for a week or so until it morphed and spread out to include all the different visits, projects, meetings, images, videos, trips, places, and people that I have been wanting to work with since getting involved with all this amateur astronomy and astrophotography stuff.  Community star parties, National Parks Dark Sky team and their artists-in-residence program, podcasters, publishers, outreach coordinators, the G+ Virtual Star Party crew, Bill Nye, 3D videographers, and not to mention all of my artistic friends. I started to see how this could turn into a whole big road trip with amazing collaborations ending possibly in an epic documentary or TV miniseries leaving a wake of art projects, community events, lesson plans for student groups, memories, and unintended consequences along the way.

I put my project proposal together over the span of two weeks with the enormous support and help of family and friends.  The resulting video cost me heaps of stress, anguish, and existential dread.  Check it out!

Are We Losing the Night?

photo-2

I still have to wait until the 16th of September to find out whether or not I am a finalist, but I am already sharing it around as if I were.  I'm reaching out to the International Dark Sky Association, The Universe Today, CosmoQuest, maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joe Rogan, Astronomers W/O Borders, and all my artist friends.  If I am selected then the next two weeks will be an all out social media blitz to solicit as many public votes as possible. I will be sending out reminders, because I know how busy your lives are.  Everybody can vote ONCE A DAY for one week - most public votes wins.  Feel free to share it around in your own networks using the social media icon buttons on my project page and there is a little comment box at the bottom as well for any questions you may have about the details of my project.

I'm pretty nervous about it all.  I don't mind possibly looking foolish for not winning - what with all the self promotion that this contest requires, but this project encompasses all that drives me creatively and ideally, it would just naturally transfer over into the perfect career. Wish, hope, pray, throw the IChing, call upon the planets, direct your intentional energies, and send all your woo woo vibes out to the Universe in my favor please!

 

Dem Space Feels: Emotional Connection, Visual Culture, and Saving Our World

CHALLENGE: See how far you can scroll in this model of the solar system If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel.  Go ahead, I'll wait. Now that your wrist hurts as much as your brain, familiarize yourself with the relative size of the planets with the largest known stars in the universe GIF.

Teeheehee sorry for the cheap shot, I didn't create it.  Now then, on with the show...


"Space is soooo big!  It just makes me feel so small and insignificant."

I have never fully understood this sentiment.  Conversely, does the subatomic realm or the goings on of the bacterium in your gut make you feel large and in charge by comparison?  I think not.  So what is it?What is this squirmy sensation that gazing at the night sky engenders?  I suppose that I can empathize because in a very rudimentary way I have dimly grasped the vast scales with which we measure the cosmos and it really is astronomically big (that is why that noun was made into an adverb), and I have on many occasions for my own sake and the sake of others around me tried to feel into the feeling of being quite small and quite insignificant.  I have cut ties with beliefs to experiment with drifting untethered in the existential voids which science is so cheerful to drop out from beneath us and I have wandered anonymous under the towering institutional structures of our big, light/noise/air  polluted cities and felt the aloneness of the teeny tiny speck of fleshy self pitted against the sheer steel walls of meaningless postmodern bottom line-ism reality.

And it is real.  This sense of insignificance is emotionally available, perhaps to your edification or perhaps to your depression, but it IS real.  You really can convince yourself that you are alone in a random and meaningless universe.  But it is also somewhat of a trick because if there is one thing that humans do, its create meaning.  We create meaning and then convince ourselves that it doesn't actually matter.  We are involved in a game of hide and seek on a cosmic scale.

Humans evolved in grasslands and savannahs competing for survival amongst large carnivorous animals with powerful jaws and sharp claws and so as a strategy we developed ways to physically and emotionally identify with the bags of skin with which we moved through this treacherous world.  Its called the ego and it served to keep us alive and out of danger long enough to pass along our genes and raise our offspring to sexual maturity.  That's the name of the game.  But this capacity to assess threat plays a devious trick on us in the modern world where many if not most of those big, scary realities cease to impact our daily lives - reality itself becomes very big and very scary.

Not that it isn't.  Science has helped us to understand for the first time our true size if not our true significance in the universe and there are still a smattering of quite serious and impending threats to our continued survival, not the least of which is our own sense of cultural importance and technological momentum.  Through that same technology we have become the first generations to bear witness to the enormity of space which surrounds us, the gaping eons of time stretched behind us, and to face the terrifying prospect that though the cosmos can be rationally apprehended through numbers (which is weird), it is ultimately unintuitive and for the most part seems to be extremely hostile to life.  But then we are also the first to have smack us in the face images like this:

hs-2014-18_n2174rotateC

This:

saturnplane_cassini_960

And this:

NGC5101NGC5078IC879MPh600

Not to mention the Hubble Deep Field and Extreme Deep Field  gravitational lensing and all that.  Astronomy is lucky in that way that as big and somewhat terrifying as the sky and its denizens are, they are just as awe-inspiringly wonderful to behold.   But we live in this world everyday and all day struggle to survive and all night we rest to prepare ourselves for the coming day.  Many things seem to conspire to make the world seem ordinary and hum drum and most of us do not own a thousand or million dollar telescope anyway so who can be bothered? That is why it is so crucial for space science communicators to grab the public by their collective shoulders and shake the hell out of them and shove these images in their faces (especially the social planners and politicians) and scream "Wake UP!" Because its a part of nature and a part of you and is going on all round you.  You who are in an insanely unique and privileged part of the cosmos to be conscious and breathing on a living planet with the information technology to have it all served up for your consumption.  Just a couple tappytaps on your pocket computer and away you go!  And again astronomy is special because while we throw away most things after we consume them - we are perpetually fed by the visual culture of space and as we emotionally connect to it, it suffers no depletion, no ablation, no scarcity and no banality.  So soak it up for it cannot be drained.

And so as we wake up to space so to are we changed by it.  As Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson points out in his Space As Culture keynote lecture for the 28th National Space Symposium, before the famous images of Earth were captured by Apollo astronauts, the planet was almost never pictured as having clouds even though ~75% of it is covered at any given time.  In those photos we see no borders, no races, no cultural divides so apparently important on the surface - Humans awoke to the Earth as a solitary whole and not just as a metaphor.  These images were directly caught up in the emerging conservation, ecology, environmental movements and were famously featured on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog (a sort of hippy manual for off-the-grid and alternative lifestyles).  Cars, furniture, and various cultural bric-a-brac of the 50's and 60's took on the sleek, sharp styles of rocketry and we called it the Space Age and the intervening years harbor many more examples of this cross cultural pollination.

Flash forward 50 meandering years as we get rolling here in the 21st Century and come to terms with budget cuts to space science and exploration in the midst of financial prestidigitation and the coming realization that America is not a Democracy but an Oligarchy, climate change denial in the face of increasing climate change and increasingly dire predictions.  We must as culture and as a species take pause to look back at that small thing that the hippies, and feminists, and the conservationists seemed to be on about when a generation saw the planet Earth from space for the first time.  We should take advantage of the technology we have now and get connected in the social media to NASA, the ISS, Astronomy Picture of the Day, check out your local observatory or star party, play some Kerbal Space Program, become a citizen scientist and classify galaxies with Zooniverse, watch Cosmos on National Geographic (or FOX)  and gaze out into the abyss of space so that it can gaze back into you.  Look out to the stars if only to look back at our own planet because if there is one small thing that is as beautiful and significant as the stars are massive and overwhelming, it's a romantic human standing on Earth contemplating it all.

Let night have new meaning. yugen

And wash it all down with a short documentary about picturing our local cosmographic neighborhood.

Documentary Culture: The Wheat And The Chaff

Who doesn't love a good documentary? In the last 10 or 15 years the documentary film has slowly become a dominant cultural force for education and persuasion - often eclipsing more tried and true efforts of magazine and newspaper writing, cable and local news and even, one could argue, the public education system.  Documentaries have always been popular, hell they even helped Kuwait drag the US into the first Iraq War, but these days its reaching a whole new level.

In the last decade we have seen whole social movements and giant swaths of public opinion produced and directed by documentary filmmakers.  Political, economic, and religious histories have been exposed, altered, and even completely invalidated in the public mind by sheer rhetorical technique accompanied by dramatic moving images and sweeping soundtracks.  We have been bowled over by the Michael Moores and harangued by the Alex Joneses, inspired by the Zeitgeists and enraged by the Loose Changes - but what have we learned?  Do you know all about Natural Gas and the practice of Hydraulic Fracturing because you watched Gasland? Or maybe it wasn't until you saw the sequel that you really became an expert.  The Illuminati conspiracy is super sexy and employs Madonna, Katy Perry and Jay Z, but could it just be a hangover from centuries of Catholic propaganda?  And for that matter what really happened on 9/11?  A good documentary is an open can of worms.

The reality is that most of us do not know how to think.  Not really.  We were not taught to look for the signs of good and bad sources of information.  We do not know how to receive and process said information so that we can form an educated opinion and make of ourselves informed citizens, essential for the functioning of our free societies.  Most of us readily accept the reality that is presented to us by our parents, teachers, friends and mainstream media.  Its how civilization is possible in the first place and how social animals collect themselves and grow.  We read it in the paper or see it on TV and say "I knew it!" or conversely, "That guy is an asshole!" depending on our guts and our emotions that we believe are our own. We think that a headline that ends with a question mark means that the article is intriguing and controversial (it isn't).  We do not know our logical fallacies or logical razors (just BECAUSE it is simple does not make it true) and many of us too often rely solely on the force of our convictions to carry us through an intellectual argument.  If you haven't heard this by now let me be the one to inform you - the Universe does not care about your convictions, no matter how cheerful.

Even if some of us have taken some initial baby steps to climb out of the allegorical cave and look around at multiplistic, complex, fractured, messy, unintuitive reality we are often still swept back in by the widely cast net of the undertow just waiting to scoop us up in a warm embrace of confirmation bias that caters to whatever varying level of hope, fear, cynicism, trust, disillusionment, despair or disenfranchisement that we have brought along to meet it.  Rarely do any of us escape the prevailing currents and keep diving to reach REAL depth.  REAL understanding.  And I am not saying that I have.

The fact is every society, every social movement, every marketing, religious, research, or political group, and every sub-culture underground collectivist autonomous food sharing quilting bee has always been 95% sure that they know basically what is going on and what is wrong with the world and that they will have that last bit nailed down within the next 5 years.  Rubbish! (to quote the Bard..)

And I should know - I have studied logic, public speaking and persuasive argument, the Media Monopoly, the Rhetoric of Visual Culture, the Society of the Spectacle and the Century of the Self.  I have learned to disabuse myself of my own propensity to believe along the narrative lines that I invest in and cherish and I no longer fall for all the same tricks and traps that you do...only fall for about half of them.

ancient aliens

And so after hours and hours of TV learning just what Ancient Astronaut theorists believe, jumping over all the sharks swimming in the Wormholes with Morgan  Freeman, escaping doom and gloom and death by asteroid, comet, dying sun, black hole, solar flare, cosmic ray, poison gas atmosphere, and alien contact in The Universe I finally began to search that last bastion of objectivity and rigor that is the Internet for some space documentaries. Heaven help me..

Boy, was it tough slogging.  I had to maneuver through all the giant glass structures on the dark side of the Moon, trek around the face on Mars, only to narrowly survive the alignment of Planet X with the center of the galactic whoop dee doo!  There were UFO sightings, mind controlling chemtrails, the descent of the Lizard People, secret NASA transmissions - who could keep up?    Thankfully I was at same time a card carrying member of the Church of the SubGenius and stuck to a steady diet of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to keep my BS detector functioning and my reservoir of incredulous quips ready at optimal levels (thanks a million Bob, Joel, Mike, Crow, and Servo, you may never know all the good you have done).  And yet still, for all my posturing,  I really am just as gullible as the worst of us.  And so at the end of the day I just keep on searching for that perfect documentary with that perfect blend of provocation and reassurance.  Perfect intuition and perfect understanding.  Until then I just try to stay away from the ones that sound like they are narrated by that guy who voices every single action/suspense movie trailer in that deep, throaty voice...you know the one:

"In a world..."

"One man..."

"One last job..."

"He would risk, everything..."

All that is a long-winded way to say that I have compiled somewhat of a list of higher-brow-than-thou documentaries, lectures, debates, and conferences based loosely around space science, the history of Astronomy, telescopes, famous scientists, missions, and theories, etc. in order to combat the seemingly endless tide of lazy, delusional, conspiratorial, tiresome, and down right insulting apocalypse-porn style documentaries that overstimulate and Balkanize the already paranoid American palette for space related news and info-tainment.  Accordingly, you will notice many of the titles are provided by the BBC, most of them have nothing to do with conspiracy and they all subscribe to the official story so suck it.  Some you may have seen, many you may have not.  Some may enlighten or bore you.  Some may offend.   Most have really pretty pictures.  Cheers!

<Hubble: 15 Years of Discovery, The Super TelescopesGalileo's Battle, Virtual Star PartyThe Story of Maths, 400 Years of the Telescope, Stargazing: A Guide To The HeavensInto Deepest Space: Alma, NASA Triumphs and Tragedies, Seeing Stars, Seeing In The Dark, The City Dark, Cosmic Vistas, Discovering Deep Space, 7 Ages of Starlight, When We Left Earth, Final Frontier - Guide To the Universe, The Storytelling of Science, Moon ShotAstrophysics: Space, Time, and the Universe, Beautiful Equations, Hubble Vision - The Sharpest Shot, Hubble Space Telescope, House Science and National Labs Caucus, Star Party, Carl Sagan's COSMOS, Beyond Belief, Fractals-The Colors of Infinity, Issac Asimov Memorial Debates, NDT: Space As CultureStephen Colbert and Neil Degrasse Tyson, Newton's Dark Secrets, Feynman-No Ordinary Genius, In The Shadow Of The Moon, Stargazer, Benoit Mandelbrot-Hunting The Hidden Dimension, Einstein's Big Idea, Mysterious Titan, Space Race: Race For Satellites, How To Build A Satellite, Mission Juno, Mystery Of The Milky Way, To The Moon, ISS First 10 Years Next 10 Years, Failure Is Not An Option, Failure Is Not An Option 2, NDT: The History And Future Of NASA And Space Travel, Poetry Of Science, The Dark Side Of TimeNew Horizons: Passport To Pluto And BeyondNDT: Star Talk w/ Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan,The Overview Effect, Chris Hadfield Space Oddity, and the piéce de la résistance Why The Moon Landings Could NOT Have Been Faked!>

flag and shadow images

apollo-12

Many videos have multiple parts so follow the rabbit hole down.  Please let me know if any of the links are wrong or broken.  I'll probably keep updating this list as I see fit so let me know if there are any others I should include and check back periodically.  Enjoy!

PS > please don't read youtube comments :(

Observing Observations and The East Valley Astronomy Club Monthly Public Star Party 1/10/14

It's not that amateur astronomy is boring - no, please don't get me wrong dear reader it's one of the more fascinating areas of human intellectual endeavor.  You see... We have here a confluence of many, seemingly diametrically opposing forces: Astronomy is one of the earliest systems of human classificatory knowledge which has given impetus to a mathematics and cosmology whose scale and complexity defy all common sense and intuition about reality and yet describes it intricately, merged with borderline sci-fi technological and engineering capabilities which span the light spectrum and peer back into time towards the first few billion years and the creation of the known universe, offering a panoply of aesthetic beauty which unceasingly serves to inspire and astound generation after succeeding generation towards understanding, adventure, reverence, and ecstasy, distilled down into THE guiding metaphor for progress and the future whose implementation may well determine the fate of all life in the cosmos as we know it - all watched over by the seemingly only minded species capable of abstract languages and symbols, that builds technologically advanced civilizations on top of histories and evolutions on top of the surface of the perhaps only hospitable planet which serves as an incubator for Bios and an islanded paradise for Life in an insanely hostile and chaotic cosmos.

Pardon my French<ahem>, but that shit's pretty epic.

And yet for all the passion and exuberant joy that can be a regular fixture of the hobby, amatuer astronomy can get a tad bit ... repetitive.  When you're bound in by economic constraints, light pollution, clouds, cold...life - it can become an afterthought to drag out the scope.  When you know the Great Red Spot or a Moon is transiting Jupiter and you doubt your aperture or seeing can resolve it.  Or when our Moon rotates a little in its Libration and exposes a few rarely seen craters.  Or when Venus appears like a wee little crescent sinking down in the friscalating dusklight.  Sometimes it seems troublesome or trivial.  And so we round it out: you get your books, your catalogs, and magazines, documentaries, astronomy blogs, your podcasts and smartphone apps, and updates and email blasts, the Virtual Star Party hangouts on the internet,  gear maintenance, gear envy, aperture envy, covetousness, idolatry, ssssiiinnn.

And then there's the thing that separates us from the barbarians.  Community.  The others.  We gather together in the dark, in the cold, in the middle of nowhere and sometimes right out on the sidewalk to share our slow obsession in hopes of fascinating and educating the young, reconnecting with the old, comparing gear and observations with each other, and subtlely manipulating the financially well-to-do to be patriots and drive technological innovations up and these dang price points down.

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So we do star parties and this was my first.   EVAC is an Arizona nonprofit corporation of about 200 astronomy enthusiasts who put on monthly public / local / deep sky star parties, track observing programs, host lecture series, keep an impressive schedule of elementary and junior high school astronomy outreach events and even offer a "Becoming An Outdoor Woman" activity group.  I searched them out on the web, looked at their calendar of events, and made a plan to attend their next public star party.

EVAC's public night  teams up with folks out at Gilbert's Riparian Reserve and Observatory near the Gilbert Library on Guadalupe and Greenfield.  The fact that they house a fully domed observatory on site was a total surprise to me as I've just nearly moved back to AZ and am still a n00b in all this anyway.

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That sucker houses, amongst loads of cables and instrument panels, a 16" Meade LX200R Advanced Ritchey-Chrétien optical tube assembly atop a Paramount ME German Equatorial mount, which translates to "one badass telescope" for you laypersons.  There were a bunch of little kids cutting me in line during this part.         

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Observing notes from that night:  Out on the sidewalk we spied The Owl Cluster, a Triple-star system below the star Alnitak in Orion, the Double-Double star system, Jupiter, the Moon, M45 Pleiades, and inside on the big 16" Meade - M42 The Orion nebula and in particular was able to observe a fifth star in the usual four group of "The Trapezium" at the heart of the nebula which do the majority of lighting up the famous structure.  What makes this observation note special is that in amatuer telescopes one usually only sees four of the main stars in this complex which is actually comprised of multiple-multiple star systems and I was only able to be resolved by my naked eye through the larger aperture and rather advanced-grade optical system there under the dome in Gilbert of all places.

The rest of the night was spent taking these and other photos, talking to the telescope owners on the sidewalk about their gear, my gear, what I should and shouldn't buy, the rules, goals, and general operations of the club and its members, getting out of the way of the amped up children clamouring for time at the eyepiece, showing off my star trails images, shop talk, astronomy news and upcoming events, learned about laser collimation and made some plans to bring in my scope for a tune up, rants and ramblings, etc.  It was great - everybody really knew their stuff and I didn't say anything too stupid.

So I've reached out and found some of the others and they were all super rad and if any of you 'Zoners care to join me in February the public event is gonna land on the 14th, Valentine's Day so why not bring a date?  Or maybe you'll find one there...just take a look at these mack daddies:

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In brief closing, maybe amatuer astronomers experience not so much boredom as slowness.  And maybe subtlety.  And maybe were not so used to that anymore.  Hubble Hyper Satiation Syndrome maybe.  Maybe we should spend more time standing around on the sidewalk  in the dark with with our neighbors and look DIRECTLY at what our most rigorous and zany scientists tells us is really out there - waiting to be discovered and rediscovered night after bone chilling night for. your. self.  After all, you don't believe everything they tell you do you?  And you consider it your job to understand the Universe don't you?

Quadrantids Meteor Shower - Images and Field Report

meteor trails cut short (previously posted on reddit.com/r/astrophotography)

Canon XSi EF18-55mm - 30" @ f/3.5, ISO 1600, 18mm focal length, wide angle - no editing, processed with StarStax.  Two Quadrantid meteors, interfering planes edited out, about 150 stacked images

January 3, 2014 1am - 7am / grey zone northeast of Payson, AZ

~ 25-30 degrees F / seeing +10 mi, no wind / slight Light Pollution from Payson to the southwest

Driving out of Mesa at around midnight with two friends, I had 3 prospective sites mapped out around the Christopher Creek and Kohl's Ranch area which were all gated up. I did some exploring up the Zane Grey Hwy and finally found a suitable spot with good 360 degree horizon views. The faint band of the winter Milky Way wrapped around behind us and the light cloud coverage completely dissipated by the time we spread out a tarp, sleeping bags and heavy blankets, passed around hot coffee, and snuggled up for the long haul.

It was too cold to count meteors on my phone app (for science), but the peak seemed to set off around 4AM with many faint streakers all over and a few long bright burners in the NE topping out at maybe 50/70 per hour all together.

I also brought along my 8" Dob to take full advantage of the dark skies, practice my star hopping skills, and round out the entertainment for the two friends that accompanied me. We observed M42/43 and the whole Orion nebula complex in stunning detail. Then moved along to the adjoining Flame and extremely faint inferred Horsehead nebula (finally bagged it!), on to some clusters in Cassiopeia/Perseus and Canis Major, multiple elliptical galaxies in Virgo and the triplet in Leo, got a really good look at M51 the Whirlpool galaxy in Ursa Major, Saturn in the wee hours and the gem of the night that we came back to a few times - Callisto's shadow transit on the face of Jupiter at near opposition! A lucky treat that I should have had the foresight to plan into the session with the latest Jovian moon activity breakdown in Sky & Telescope's December issue.

Pretty epic night overall - frost covered everything by sunrise and we all endured the cold nobly, but foot warmers were definitely missing.  Cold weather clothing and tips/tricks post coming soon.

Get out there!

Let Me Tell You About My Gear...

* Cue Wes Anderson montage scene with Mark Mothersbaugh theme music GEAR!!  I dunno maybe it's a guy thing - maybe it's just a thing.  But gear makes the hobby.

As a boy it started with baseball.  The glove was a magical extension of your body and you exercised it.  You put a ball in the web and wrapped rubber bands around break it in, you oiled it, you wore it around the house pounding your fist into it.  Your bat was your first multi-tool and you had a bucket full of spiders and baseballs of varying condition and lethality in the backyard shed.  Cleats - check.  Cap - check.  Cup - check.  Game time.

You moved on, got into music and you bought a guitar.  You had to have the cool sunburst paint job, the right strap, the right practice amp, the whammy bar, and at least one really great distortion pedal.   You experimented learning just what the perfect pick was for your personal style taking years discovering the path, the path to the perfect setup.

I went overboard when it came to skateboarding.   I had reappropriated my fishing tackle box with all its little compartments now employed in the storage of used or extra bushings, nuts, bolts, risers, washers, bearings, slightly used bearings, bearings I should throw away, casings of busted bearings stuck in old wheels, tiny wheels from the early 1990s, old trucks, my older brother's cracked trucks that I kept like a trophy, king pins, curb wax, Husker Du's, Husker Don'ts, spacers, stickers and stuffed way back underneath the bed - old cracked, snapped and "focused" (purposefully snapped in four equal pieces) skateboard decks.  And of course the stacks of VHS skate videos, dog-eared CCS catalogs, and poured over and ripped up Transworld magazines - all the various ephemera, accoutrement, and  kit and kaboodle.

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And I'm not gonna even talk about $$$Sssnowboarding.

But that was all child's play, training for the real deal.  The real gear.  You see, although astrophotography has a long history of amateur involvement (first recorded astrophoto was of the moon and taken via daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre himself!) , it was mostly accomplished through dry photographic plate processes utilizing large observatory telescopes.  But throughout the 1970s-1990s with the advent of CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras, webcams, digital cameras and in combination with innovations in telescope and go-to/tracking mount technology we saw the rise of a new standing army of astrophotographers getting better and better at cheaply (relatively speaking) pulling down the heavens and stuffing them into your mindblown faces (more on the history and processes of astrophotography in a later post).

I have to give credit here to the iPhone.  That wondrous conflict-mineral laden computer/camera/phone/totem/pacifier/plaything that fits right into your pocket was instrumental in getting me hooked on the hobby.  A friend and I were out at the shore for the spring 2012 supermoon, trying as well to spy Saturn through patchy cloud cover over Long Beach and a sudden, reactionary force swooped down upon me, I thought "I'll snap a photo with my phone!" (said no one ever before this century) and within a few moments I had taken my first astrophoto:

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With the flash still on like a total n00b.

All that is to say that I still really haven't broken out of the beginner stage and my gear list represents the culminated efforts of lots of research, a few Christmases, a few birthdays, and some extra hours at the office slowly allowing me to gain experience with multiple introductory methods and techniques.  I'm sure I'll make a few updated posts as I drop a few thousand doll-hairs and level up, but back to the present and my gear:

The Scope:

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This is my light bucket and "she" doesn't have a name because I didn't name "her" because I don't do that crap. It's an Orion XT8 8" Dobsonian (RIP its creator, John Dobson, popularizer of 'sidewalk astronomy' who past away today 1/15/2014) Reflector (it uses a primary and secondary mirror to reflect light as opposed to a Newtonian which employs glass lenses) telescope.  This is one of the simplest telescopes you can buy and is the standard type for beginners, provided that you can haul around ~30-40 lbs. without injury.  It tilts up and down and swivels 360 degrees on it's base allowing the user full access to the heavens above with only a red dot sight (ACOG sight for you FPS gamers) mounted near the eyepiece for navigation.  This means that the scope is not computerized and you must learn your way around by 'star-hopping' through the constellations using 1) assorted astronomical facts and charts stuffed into your memory 2) star wheels 3) smartphone apps 4) big thick reference guides like Burnham's Celestial Handbook and the smaller National Audubon Society Field Guide To The Night Sky (more on books later) and one of my favorite methods 5) aimless scanning.

The Eyepieces, accessories, etc:

I use the provided 1.25" (diameter) 25mm Sirius Plossl eyepiece along with a 2x Barlow lens (effectively doubling magnification) and  I also made use of a friend's 16 and 9mm eyepieces before the move to AZ.  I plan to make the jump to wide-angle 2" eyepieces, Barlows, and filters for the increased field of view or FOV as soon as economically possible.  Solar observing and imaging is made possible by my full-aperture 8" Orion Safety Film solar filter and is an indispensable member in the arsenal, enabling  off-hours observation and imaging of sunspots and sometimes even faint filaments or other solar surface details.  I borrow binoculars for the time being, but I really want to get these snazzy image-stabilizing binos that will set me back a cool $300.  Also, absolutely necessary is a few random red, rear bike lights and especially my Energizer brand red/white headlamp (the red lights are imperative to maintaining dark adapted vision) which is always kept close.

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The Imagers:

I already mentioned the iPhone.  Its a 4th generation and has nothing special about other than it being a combination phone/camera/computer that fits in my pocket and is made from minerals mined by 3rd world children.  I did make a nifty DIY mount using an old plastic smartphone case, parts from a clamp for a bike light, and a bunch of black electrician's tape.  It worked pretty well until I realized that 1) it got me no closer to doing decent long exposure iPhone photography because my long exposure app doesn't really cut the mustard (more on apps later) and 2) I could basically maintain enough steadiness with just mah two hands to accomplish what I could with a camera phone (nothing against Orion's smartphone mount, they look pretty handy).  But it was a fun exercise in making my own gear (MYOG).

iPhone mount

My DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera is a Canon Rebel EOS XSi (not yet modified for the IR filter).  Its one of the "quieter" cameras that Canon makes and is thus perfectly suited for the purposes of astrophotography as working with such faint or distant light sources ramps up the amount of "noise" of any given image.  I have two lenses that I am using right now, 1) a standard Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens, but it is outfitted with a UV filter and combination Super Wide Angle/Macro Lens made by Neewer that all screws onto the front (all items towards the medium-low cost end of the spectrum) and 2) a Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III Telephoto Zoom Lens (which is also towards the medium-low or "intro" end of the spectrum, but seems pretty durable for the price for most anything an amateur is going to get into).

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A quick aside: In Optics, the f/, or F stop or Focal Ratio is the ratio of the lens's focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil (the image as 'seen' through the front of the lens system).  It is a dimensionless (without physicality) number that is a quantitative measure of lens speed.  As the f/ stop number increases, the aperture gets smaller and light gathering power decreases (from wikipedia) and a similar effect governs telescope optics:

320px-Aperture_diagram

 

 

I'll probably invest in some "faster" lenses as I progress, but I'm pretty psyched on my current configuration. Other than all that I have my camera bag, lens cloths, backup batteries, charger, memory cards, usb cables, a remote shutter release for all my long exposures, and a DIY film canister mounted PS3 webcam (Infrared Filter modified) for use in lunar and planetary videos which are then separated into frames and stacked to bring out detail - a technique that I haven't yet ventured into due to software deficiencies.  Also, a big ups to my moms for handing down her video camera tripod made by SUNPAK - its totally smooth and sturdy (currently trying to modify its quick release mount to be pinned to my backpack shoulder strap for use in wilderness hiking/photography) and really facilitates quick setups, operations, and mobility.

So that's about it for my gear setup and hopefully I will have to do many many many updates as you all begin to learn about prime focus adapters, focal reducers, EQ mounts, Alt/Az mounts, tracking, CCDs, Oxygen III and H-Alpha filters, SCTs vs. APO Doublet or Triplet refractors, autoguiders, all-sky cams, various software programs, dark/light/bias frames, green laser pointers and red laser collimators.  And that's not even going into how bad I want to build my own large aperture Dobsonian telescope and 360 deg. swivel binocular chair:

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Cheers and thanks for reading!  Clear skies John..

 

 

 

A Study In Arizonian Light Pollution

A couple tasks upon moving back to AZ: 1) star trails over Red Mountain (harder than I expected due to dang stupid airplanes)

2) hand color light pollution zones on a fold out AZ state road/topographical map

3) scout out the nearest grey zone site

#2 is in the bag.  I was gonna make it a project to work on with my niece, but I quickly realized just how much of a perfectionist I was gonna be about it so I let her off the hook.  I picked up a $3 map at the gas station on New Year's Eve and started work on it the next day.  Using my Dark Sky Finder iPhone app created by Skidmore apps which uses data from the Jshine.net Dark Sky Finder (which cribs from the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center and the Royal Astronomical Society) I scribbled in the borders between the zones from white->red->orange->yellow->green->blue-> grey (grey zones account for most the map and were left uncolored or neutral)->black as they relate to the Bortle Light Pollution Scale.

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And viola...in Prismacolor.

It took the better part of two days and bled into the middle of a first date, but hey - being a nerd is cute now, right?  Anyway, next step is scouting out some grey zone sites and hopefully making it out by this summer to the black out zones above the Grand Canyon or east of Sunrise Ski Park on the New Mexico border, both on First Nations tribal lands.  Go figure.  Its a 5.5 hour drive either way, but I'd like to get a lot of shots of the center of the Milky Way under the best possible conditions - its a labor of love.

Oh, and #4) getajobbuyacarmoveoutofmyparentshouse

Fun Fact:  ~80% of light pollution is caused by retailers, specifically the parking lots of the big box stores like Wal Mart, Target, etc.  Dang capitalist pigs!

Soaked In Electric Light

So there I was, a budding amateur astronomer/astrophotographer trapped on an city island in blighted electronic night, "living" and working in downtown LA and Long Beach, CA.  A bike commuter to boot with no car and at the whim of the adventurous inclinations of friends who might oblige my sorry butt with a few outings per season to soak up the dark skies, not to mention wilderness for its own sake.  Hey, get me - I'm an anachronism! I had actually kind of forgot about wilderness for a minute there.  Growing up in East Mesa, Arizona the wilderness was always just down the road a spell.  Aside from skateboarding, outdoor recreation usually just wound up happening whether it was hiking, camping, mountain biking, trail running (you can't fall off a mountain), tubing down the dirty Salt River or wakeboarding and cliff jumping at the lake, up to SnoBowl or Sunrise for as much snowboarding as possible, and if you were smart/lucky you spent some of your formative years reading our patron saint of Southwestern wilderness and freedom for the human soul, Edward Abbey.  But after living in LA for a few years I had failed to notice that the outdoors had somehow been scripted out of my experience, I guess made up for by living near and frequenting the beach?

I got out to Joshua Tree National Park for a short weekend with an old friend with the specific intent of getting to at least a blue/green zone on the light pollution maps.  I made the mile hike in with a small Meade ETX-60 +tripod strapped to all my backpacking gear and long story short, clouds and cold because it was freakin' January.  But the next morning after a hearty breakfast we hiked up a mountain and slowly over the afternoon trek back down I could begin to feel the city gradually get flushed out of me as I looked and looked at wild nature all around me.  I felt drowsy and drunk and my eyeballs seemed to bug out  as I hiked.  I began to formulate hypotheses about the visual rhetoric of nature and its restorative effects on eyes too long trapped in the city looking everywhere at right angles and the stopped up movements of traffic.  Hypotheses about the visual rhetoric of forgotten faint lights emanating from distant dim stars and emission nebulas and light from our own star brightly bouncing off neighboring planets and what that may do to out physical eyeballs and the brains attached to them.  Hypotheses, not theories.

Then I got another friend to haul me out to the Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Site (GMARS) located north of J. Tree which is an amazing facility run by the Riverside Astronomical Society.

GMARS

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They really do it up right at GMARS.  2 houses with beds, bathrooms, and kitchens, 24 powered concrete pads in a U-formation (plus one pad in the middle reserved for a huge Dobsonian telescope) to set up and plug in to, 15 observatory huts with retractable roofs etc., and plenty of room for parking and tent camping and every walkway is lined with red lights every few yards.  Like noobs we arrived 2 hours after dusk which meant two things: we missed the potluck/barbeque and we would have to search for this place with no headlights for fear of annoying the already dark adapted astronomers and astrophotographers.  Cut to me leading the vehicle down the road to the west of the facility with my redlight head lamp for the last 1/4 mile.

A bit after setup one of the club members showed us around and introduced us to a few of the folks doing some imaging in the huts and in general made us feel real welcome.  I loaded up a few times in the kitchen on coffee and snacks and proceeded to really open up my new (solstice miracle) 8" Dob under dark skies for the first time.  Here's my observing notes from that cold dark night:

February 9, 2013.  GMARS facility outside Landers, CA (blue zone).  8pm-3am /~30 deg. F / winds SW @ 6 mph /new moon.

Bagged M31 Andromeda galaxy, M42 Orion nebula, Jupiter + moons, C14 Double Cluster in Perseus, C13 Owl cluster and M52 open cluster in Cassiopeia, M35 - M38 open clusters, M101 Southern Pinwheel  and M51 Whirlpool galaxies,  The Leo Triplet, M104 Sombrero Galaxy (!), M13 globular cluster, a bunch of the random galaxies in Canes Venatici/Coma Berenices/Virgo, and Saturn before freezing the night away and trying to sleep in the van.

Back2Life Back2Reality Back2LightPollution

From the limited view of my front porch I continued to learn how to star hop using my dob+red dot sight and multiple star wheels, smartphone apps, reference books, and magazine articles and excitedly planned my next excursion: a grey zone camping trip near Desert Center, CA in the Chuckwalla and adjacent Orocapai Mountains Wilderness on BLM lands near the Salton Sea.  We were coming up on summer and decided to make the 3.5 hour trip so we could see the Milky Way.  Totally worth it.  We slept outside in bags and a bivy sack in a cool 55 degrees F and dozed off while watching the center of our home galaxy blaze up thick in the southeast and roll westward over the Chocolate Mountain Air Force gunnery range.  But before sleep I added M20 Triffid, M8 Lagoon, M17 Swan/Omega, M16 Eagle nebulas, M80 globular cluster, M81 Bode's and M82 Cigar galaxies to the list plus other previously viewed faves with my trusty Dob.  The next morning we checked out sunspots with my solar filter and then spent the day hiking, 4 wheelin', exploring caves and old mining depots. complete with stone houses and cyanide solution tubs and setting up camp near a ~40 ft high abandoned railway trestle that we slowly crossed before sundown.

"The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness."  John Muir.  I think a desert may have to suffice Johnny, sorry.

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I spent the next few months pushing my iPhone's imaging capabilities, finding double stars, learning the different mares, craters, and anomalies on the moon, getting to know my new Canon DSLR and generally wondering what to do about my situation and how to change my life.  How to script wilderness and dark skies back into my life and get into rhythm with the real action of the world.

I guess Back2Arizona to figure it all out?

2013 XMAS card

Sad Coincidences

adam's telescope So I was challenged to start a blog, but blogs are lame so I just went through the motions and tried to forget I had ever so foolishly tried to put something new into the world.  But then something strange happened: A death.

Death can knock things loose, like too much coffee.  Death can overrun obstructions and start a stopped up passage flowing as ALL inevitably does.  I had recently had enough of death or so I presumed and was busily rearranging my emotional furniture to accommodate all the new empty spaces (trying out new rituals, remaking old traditions, reinforcing family bonds, etc.) and then this other death comes along into the life of a close friend and knocks his life loose, to which I was just a bystander.  Of course, each death is remarkable in and of itself within the context of close family and friends, but this one knocked loose an object that would tumble it's way along a circuitous route into the path of my life, changing me hopefully forever.

It was a telescope!

Now let me assure you dear reader, growing up in the East Valley of Arizona I was no stranger to the night sky.  I knew Orion always came around near my birthday in the fall, I still sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to myself skating around the neighborhood at night and as a teenager of the 1990's I regularly perused Hubble images in books in the local library.  But really I was a dilettante.  A dabbler at best.  I remember many a TV/movie scene of teenage boys' rooms with the small white telescope on a cheap tripod pointed at a suspiciously low angle towards the neighbor's teenage daughter's window and so never fully realized just how accessible amateur astronomy was to the lay person and what was available for observation other than the occasional pervy peepshow.  I somehow missed Hale-Bopp, had never been to an observatory, and by 16 had convinced myself of a math/physics phobia.  I wasn't a science person.

But science doesn't really care too much about the stories we tell ourselves, our delusions.  Science doesn't tell you to be a certain thing or believe a certain thing - science invites YOU to perform an experiment.  And so by a sad coincidence my grieving friend and I set up his dearly departed father's small Meade ETX-60 reflector telescope on the balcony of our shared apartment in foggy Long Beach, CA and pointed it straight at the moon.  We saw craters large and small with deep curved shadows and central peaks, we saw dark lava bed seas and jutting mountain ranges.  Somehow without any fancy iPhone apps, laser pointers or star charts we also happened upon another fateful sight that night:  Saturn, the lord of the rings, long famed for seducing noobs into the all-consuming hobby.

I spent some time comprehending just how 1) I was lucky enough to be able to view these bodies of the solar system directly from my front porch and 2) how I had never seen any of this stuff before!  I was grateful and pissed at the same time.  A similar aftertaste to my time at university.

At that moment I knew I had finally found something to share.  Something to blog about.  Something to change my life.  So here's to that old bitch, Death - for knocking things loose and giving me a whole new perspective through the fog and light pollution from my quiet little balcony in Long Beach.

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And what's that old saying?

"Coincidences are what you have left over when you've applied a bad theory."