Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Friday, May 23, 2014

COSMIC STRINGS ALERT: May Showers of Meteors? We Hope So!

That's right, dear readers...we've got a new meteor shower on our hands.  And we're hoping it's going to be a good one.

If you're already a meteor shower buff, you're familiar with the classics...the Perseids in August...the Geminids in December...sometimes the Leonids in November can put on one heck of a show.  But May is not usually a great time for meteors.

Hold on to your hat...we're hoping the May Camelopardalids will change all that.

If you're not a meteor shower buff, maybe you'd like a bit of an introduction.  Allow me!

Most of us have seen, or heard of, a shooting star.  Shooting stars have nothing to do with actual stars.  A shooting star is really a piece of rock entering the Earth's atmosphere from the vacuum of space.  When it does, the air of the Earth rubs against the rock.  As you might imagine, the rock heats up...and so does the air.  The streak of light across the sky that we call a meteor or a shooting star is actually glowing, superheated air left behind as the rock whips by.  If any part of the rock makes it to the ground, we call it a meteorite.  Such rocks are amazing finds and tell us a great deal about our solar system.

A bright meteor streaks across the sky over Texas.  This particular rock exploded, causing what is called a bolide - a very bright explosive flash.  Image courtesy the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

You can see a meteor on any clear night...if you're looking in the right place at the right time.  About 10 tons of material hits the Earth's atmosphere every day...but most of those rocks are the size of grains of sand.  They are destroyed on their way in without producing a meteor.  The ones we see are bigger...usually at least the size of a pea or larger.  They can come from anywhere, moving in any direction.  We call these sporadic meteors, because they can come from anywhere, anytime.

A meteor shower on the other hand, is a regular, predictable bunch of meteors that all seem to come from the same part of the sky.  This part of the sky is called the radiant of the shower...and the name of the meteor shower comes from the name of the constellation where the radiant is located.  So the August Perseids seems to come from the constellation Perseus...the November Leonids seem to come from the constellation get the idea.  All these meteors seem to come from the same place and happen at the same time because the Earth is actually moving through a whole bunch of material left behind by the passage of a comet.
A composite image of the Geminid meteor shower showing numerous meteors coming from the same area of the sky.  These meteors did not actually all happen at the same time - this is a digital composite of many photographs taken on the same night.  Image courtesy of the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Comets have long tails produced when the heat of the Sun warms up the ice a comet is made of and turns it to gas.  Comets can be pretty dusty, dirty when the ice gets turned to gas, all the dust and rock trapped in the ice is also released and left behind along the orbit of the comet.  If the Earth passes through this cloud of crud left behind...bam, you get a meteor shower as all those bits slam into the Earth's atmosphere.
Comet McNaught.  Note the big, messy tail.  All of that may be future meteor material.  Image courtesy NASA.

The comet debris that's causing all the fuss this May is a comet named 209P/LINEAR.  It's not a bright comet, and you can't see it tonight.  It orbits the Sun once about every 5 years, so it's shed lots of material over time.  Scientists think we're about to pass through a particularly dense patch of 209P/LINEAR material...TONIGHT!

That's right...tonight!  Overnight tonight, we might just have a spectacular new meteor shower.  Or...we might have a total dud.  The only way to know is to be outside tonight watching the sky.  There's a small chance this new shower might even be a meteor storm - when so many meteors streak across the sky at once that you can see multiple meteors every second!  By comparison, a really good meteor shower produces a few tens of meteors per hour.  So this could be the event of a lifetime!

Here's what to do to check out the May Camelopardalids:
  • Go to bed early.  The best time to be outside for the meteors will be 1 - 3 AM early Saturday morning (on the East Coast of the U.S.) so you'll want to be ready to be awake in the middle of the night.
  • Find the darkest sky you can.  If nothing else, make sure your house lights are all off, and ask your neighbors to turn off any outside lights they have.  The darker your sky, the more meteors you will see.
  • Put the Big Dipper to your back.  The meteors will be coming from the constellation Camelopardalis the Giraffe, a very faint constellation in the Northern sky.  They will get brighter as they move away from the Giraffe, so putting North to your back will likely give you a better chance to see some meteors.
  • Don't bother with a telescope or binoculars.  Meteors are easiest to see with the unaided eye!
  • Dress as if it is 10-20 degrees cooler than it actually is.  You'll get cold really fast just standing still looking up.
  • If you plan to watch a long time, bring a lawn chair out with you.  Especially something that reclines, so you can look up without straining your neck or back.
Best of luck with your meteor viewing! If you see any good views, please let me know in the comments!
Here's hoping for a massive meteor storm!
Either way...
Carpe noctem!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Holy Planets, Batman!

Quick, my young ward, run outside and view the planets!

No seriously!  Get outside, soon!  There are three planets currently gracing the early evening skies, and you do not want to miss this.

I've been waiting to post this because we've had a serious stretch of rainy weather here in Virginia, and it seemed cruel to write a post telling everybody about the amazing stuff they can't go outside and look at.  But this past weekend was brilliant, and hopefully some nice weather is here for a little while.  So let's talk planets.

Jupiter has been shining bright in our evening sky for some months now.  It's a dramatic, white star-like object high on the western side of the sky in the early evening.  You can't miss it.  It's the brightest thing out there, assuming the Moon is nowhere around.  Grab a pair of binoculars or a small telescope for a real treat - a quick zoom-in will reveal the colorful cloud stripes on the planet and as many as 5 moons orbiting the giant world.

Jupiter and its four largest moons as seen through a small telescope.

Looking more south-southwesterly, you still have time to catch the orangey glow of Mars before it fades away into the distance.  Mars made a close approach to us in April, and is now getting further and further away from us with each passing day.  A good-sized telescope will reveal a mottled surface and possibly a bit of a polar cap on our tiny next door neighbor.  Mars is only half the size of the Earth, so seeing any detail on the planet is difficult.  With Mars being a bit closer now than it normally is to us, here's your best shot at seeing some Martian surface detail for a while...the next close approach will be in about two years.

Mars as seen in a larger telescope during its close approach in April 2014.

Finally, lower in the southwest you will find the golden glow of Saturn.  Here's the big payoff for your binoculars or telescope - those oh-so-spectacular rings.  If you are using binoculars, you'll need to hold them very steady - a tripod will be your best bet.  Remember, you're looking at something about a billion miles away.  But oh, that view is so worth it!

Saturn as seen through a larger telescope.

Don't have a telescope or binoculars?  Not sure exactly where to look?  No worries.  Come on out to the Virginia Living Museum on Saturday May 10 and we'll do the leg work for you.  Our telescopes will be set up (weather permitting) and all you'll have to do is bend your eye to the eyepiece and stare.  Trust me, you'll be glad you came!  For more details on our monthly star party and laser light nights, please visit our website at  And if you can't make the star party, get out there and look up anyway.  No matter which way you face, the universe has a lot to offer!  Enjoy!

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!

Monday, April 14, 2014

COSMIC STRINGS ALERT: Lunar Eclipse Overnight Tonight!

Greetings folks!

Tonight you have the chance to see the Moon slide through the Earth's shadow in what's known as a lunar eclipse.  Because the shadow of the Earth does contain some light (namely, the light from all the sunrises and sunsets occurring around the world through the atmosphere), the Moon takes on a fascinating reddish color.  Therefore, lunar eclipses are sometimes referred to as "blood Moons."  Don't worry...despite all the hype running around the internet, there's nothing scary, dangerous, or Earth-shattering about tonight's eclipse.

The Moon in eclipse.  Courtesy Fred Espenak and NASA.

To see this wonderful event, get up around 2AM.  That's when the Full Moon will begin dipping into the shadow of the Earth.  It will take almost an hour for the Moon to move all the way into the shadow.  Once the Moon is totally eclipsed, the color will become clear.  It will be interesting to see how red the Moon looks...sometimes the light scattering into the shadow makes the Moon an almost bright orange...sometimes it can turn the Moon a very deep red, almost brown color.  It will all depend on the state of the Earth's atmosphere tonight - how much dust is in it, how much pollution, and other factors.

The eclipse will continue until sunrise, so depending on whether you have work or school on Tuesday (or still need to finish your taxes!), you might want to just watch a little while, and then head on back to bed.

This eclipse is the first of a tetrad, a group of four consecutive total lunar eclipses, over the next year and a half or so.  So if you miss this one...stay tuned...maybe you can catch the next one!

Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars...

Guess what?  We're playing a game.  This image has something in common with the title...but what?


We're in the middle of Spring Break here at the Virginia Living Museum, and that means lots of shows.  It's also a time when lots of people visit the museum, so we're really keeping busy around here these days.

During times like Spring Break and Summer, I get to talk to a lot of people about the sky.  So few of us take the time to stop and look up in the evenings...and even fewer of us can do so multiple times in a month.  Many folks don't realize that the sky is always changing above them!  The Earth's rotation carries stars and other celestial objects across the sky daily.  While the stars are fixed compared to each other over the course of a human lifetime, planets move constantly through the solar system, changing their positions against the background stars.  Compared to the stars, planets are moving at the speed of light!  The galaxy rotates as well, carrying the Sun and the the entire solar system along with it in a grand motion that we humans never see.

Another strange image that's somehow connected to something in the previous paragraph.

Even for those folks familiar with their local sky can be startled by the experience of seeing the sky from a new location.  Moving across the surface of the Earth also changes what you can see at night...especially if you change hemispheres!  When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, it can be an amazing experience.  Those stars, and many others, are never visible in the Northern Hemisphere, and can be seen only when venturing far to the south.  An added bonus of visiting in South America or Australia?  A view of the two companion galaxies to our own Milky Way - the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds!

Did you figure it out yet?  If you know who these guys are, and read the paragraph above carefully, you might make the connection!

Watching the sky can be romantic too.  I remember sharing a lovely evening under the stars in Chincoteague with my husband, not too long after we were married.  It was beautifully dark on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and we were staying at a lovely bed and breakfast for the weekend.  We went out for a stroll on a delightfully warm and clear evening, and I remember smiling at my husband as the pale yellow Moon shone in his eyes.  We often get requests for proposals to take place under the stars in the planetarium, and we've even hosted a few weddings over the years!

Same thing here - if you know who they are, you might put them together with some words above.

The sky is filled with extraordinary objects.  A few times I've been asked what my favorite ones are...and that's a very tough question, because so many of them are incredible both scientifically and in terms of sheer beauty.  I guess if I had to come up with a short list, I'd say Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania.

This one is a total red herring - I just like the picture.

Wondering what on Earth this post has been about?  I've just taken you on a clandestine astronomical and musical journey.  I adore music - rarely do I not have a tune in my head or playing somewhere about me.  As I type, Duran Duran's Rio is playing in the laser show running in the planetarium.  And my life is currently awash in the music from Disney's Frozen - I have a 10 year old daughter, you see.  But this post has quoted some of my favorite astronomical lyrics from five different songs.  Did you spot any of them?  The unusual pictures might give you a clue.  Give another look-see over the text to see if you can find them, or scroll down to see them identified.  Enjoy!

Back again in a couple of weeks!  Until then...
Carpe noctem!

PS: Don't forget the star party at the museum this Saturday - Mars Madness!  Mars will be making a close approach to Earth, and should look awesome in our telescopes.  NASA will be on hand with fun activities and exhibits, and we'll have the usual slate of great shows in the planetarium.  NASA exhibits are FREE and begin at 6pm in the Education Center.  Observing is also FREE and begins at sunset (around 7:30pm).  Check our website for the slate of shows in the planetarium - $6 or any 2 for $10.  Members are always half price!


Halfway between the gutter and the stars... (title)  from Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim
Image 1: Christopher Walken in the video for Weapon of Choice
Planets are moving at the speed of light... (paragraph 2) from Speed of Sound by Coldplay
Image 2: Coldplay performing Speed of Sound from the video.
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time... (paragraph 3) from Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash
Image 3: Crosby, Stills and Nash in concert.
The pale yellow Moon shone in his eyes... (paragraph 4) from Under African Skies by Paul Simon
Image 4: Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on stage.
Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania... (paragraph 5) from Astronomy Domine by Pink Floyd
Image 5: Hubble Space Telescope image.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

This is NOT an April Fool's joke!

Really!  I promise!  This is a real post, and not a joke!

I wanted to let you all know about a really cool event coming up in a couple weeks...and I'm giving you that much time to prepare, because, might need it.

It's been a long, long time since we had a really awesome lunar eclipse event here at the museum.  I love our "Total Luna-See" parties...we have a great time, see the Moon turn an amazing color, and generally it's pretty much a party atmosphere all night long!

Sadly, we won't be doing that for the upcoming lunar eclipse.  Why?  Because the darn thing happens at 3AM!  On a Tuesday morning!

How we get lunar eclipses - the Earth must pass directly between the Sun and the Moon.  Image by Fred Espenak.  Courtesy NASA.

Yep, that's right, on April 15th - the all-glorious Tax Day here in the U.S. - at the ungodly hour of about 2AM on the East Coast - the Full Moon will quietly begin sliding into the shadow of the Earth.  Like most shadows, the Earth's shadow is not completely devoid of light - the atmosphere of the Earth scatters from red light from the sunrises and sunsets happening around the world at the time into the shadow, turning the Moon a beautiful reddish color.  How reddish really depends on the state of the atmosphere.  If the air is relatively clean and clear, the Moon will indeed appear an almost blackish-red.  If there's a lot of dust or other pollutants in the air, a coppery or even orangey-red Moon could result.

The Moon during a lunar eclipse.  The center image is the moment of total eclipse, showing the Moon an intense red color.  The two side images are from a time when the Moon was not yet totally in the darkest part of the Earth's shadow.  Images by Fred Espenak.  Courtesy NASA.

One thing's for sure, if you want to see what color the Moon turns this time'll need to be a very dedicated astronomy buff.  The eclipse will peak at around 3AM  By around 5AM, the event will be coming to an end.  So it means spending a long night outside...on a weekday.  Before work.  Or school.  Or whatever else an average Tuesday on which your tax forms are due might bring you.


Soooo...maybe this won't be the best lunar eclipse to get outside to try to see.  That's okay...we've got three more chances coming up over the next year and a half.

The April 15th eclipse is the first of a tetrad - a group of four successive total lunar eclipses.  Amazingly, all four will be at least somewhat visible in the United States!  The next one in this series will be on October 8, 2014...and for the East Coast, will occur as the Moon is setting.

Well, phooey.

Maybe we'll have better luck in 2015. 

Again, I say - this is NOT an April Fool's joke!  But if you'd like one, check this out.

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Follow the KISS Principle

I so need to do that in my everyday life.

Well, it's yet again been a month since I could sit down and write a post.  Things have just been flat out crazy here!  Between wacky weather swings (including more snow days than I could shake a stick at), tons of special events (we've seen Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, tons of the general public, teachers, and lots of school kids), and the production of two shows just finished today (come see the public show - The Art of Hubble - beginning this Saturday in the planetarium!)...well...let's just say I've run myself ragged.  In fact, I'm so ragged, I've got a major back spasm going yesterday was spent at the doctor.  Hopefully, I'll be getting back to what passes for normal for me soon.

But, in the spirit of the KISS Principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) I thought I'd just write a nice little post about what's going on up in the sky these days.

The big news right now is still Jupiter.  The king of the solar system is dominating the early evening skies, shining brightly in the constellation Gemini the Twins.  Look for a brilliant white star-like object high in the south in the early evening.  Trust me, you won't be able to miss it. 

Jupiter - King of the Solar System - and its four largest moons.  From left to right they are Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

In the southeast, you'll see the Moon, on its way to being full in a few days.  It will be the only thing in the sky brighter than Jupiter.  The two will be separated by a fair bit, but will still be close enough to be a beautiful sight together in the evening sky.  The Moon will move further and further to the left of Jupiter as the days go get outside and see them soon.

A lunar calendar, in case you wanted to know the phase of the Moon every day this month.  Available online for printing from

The stars of winter haven't given up yet...even though Spring is just around the corner (although you couldn't tell that from the temperature around here today!).   Orion still shines brightly in the south-southwest, just below and to the right of Jupiter.  You'll easily be able to see the three stars of Orion's famous belt, even in fairly bright skies.  Two stars above and two stars below the belt frame out this famous night sky hunter.

The constellation Orion as seen by a camera.  You won't see the intense colors of the stars, but you might notice slight tinges of color. Note the fuzzy pink bit below the belt - that's the famous Orion Nebula Complex.  Image from scienceblogs.

Looking ahead, Mars is going to be more and more prominent in the coming month or so.  It's approaching opposition, meaning it will be exactly opposite the Sun for us.  It's also approaching Earth - meaning that Mars will be at its brightest in the month of April.  Right now, the Red Planet rises late, and isn't well visible until after 1am.  Next month will see it rising at sunset, and hopefully clearing the cluttered horizons around here by about 10pm.  We'll be celebrating Mars next month at our monthly star party on April 12th - make plans to join us!

Now that the major show production push is out of the way, I'm hoping that things will settle down a bit and I can get back to more regular postings.  Tomorrow, by the way, is Pi day (3.14!) so enjoy some circle foods!  And today...well...there's a special shout-out I need to send to a friend.

This is your birthday message, on my blog
This is your birthday message, on my blog
Today is your birthday, so I'm writing you to say
Happy happy birthday to you, on my blog!

Happy birthday, John!  Hope it's a great one.

See you again...hopefully in two weeks!
Until then,
Carpe noctem!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

It's A Hoax!

*gasp*  You'll never guess why I missed that last blog post!  Aliens!  They abducted me and took me away to their secret lair somewhere in North America and performed experiments on me!  I can't believe I made it out alive!
This is SOOOOO NOT what happened.  Image from the vast internets.

Okay, that's not what happened.  But after being gone for a month, I figured I owed you a good one.

What really happened is far more mundane, but does lead to an interesting point.  Actually, two things kept me away from the computer for an extended period of time.  Thing number one: the various and sundry snowpocalypse (snowmageddon?) events taking place here in Virginia over the past couple of weeks.

January saw not only the so-called Polar Vortex come through our area, but another round of even deeper snow as well.  And yesterday a weird, sloppy, wintry mess cascaded over again, sending me home early before I could log in to write.  Three snow events in the space of a month in what is usually a maybe-one-good-snowfall-a-year kind of area.  What gives?

Many people claim that the existence of such wintry weather completely negates the idea of global warming.  Not fact, the weirdness and intensity of the weather we're seeing is, in fact, evidence of changes to our global climate.  See, there's the difference.  There's weather - whatever is going on now in the atmosphere - and there's climate - what the environment is like over a wide area averaged over time.  Weather and climate are not the same thing.  Just because the climate of a desert is warm and dry does not mean it never rains there.
A graph showing the departure from a standard global temperature averaged over one year (blue data) and averaged over 5 years (red line).  Such graphs are not always clear in what they are trying to tell us about our global climate.  This one, in fact, comes from a group attempting to deny the existence of climate change.  Image from New Scientist.

Global climate change is a real thing, and it existed long before humans came along.  The climate of the Earth has changed dramatically over the millennia of our planet's existence.  Glacial periods dominated by very cool global temperatures and expanses of ice covering much of the planet, followed by warm interglacial periods where, at some times, even the poles lacked major ice coverage.  Change will happen, whether we contribute to it or not.  But contribute to it we do, also whether we like it or not.  Simply by existing on the surface of the planet, life contributes to the Earth's ever-changing climate.

But we humans are getting good at changing things rapidly without being exactly sure of what we're doing.  No reputable scientist disputes the idea of human-driven change to the global climate - the evidence for it is too strong.  No, the real question is, have we set in motion something that will end up biting us in the tail?  Will the climate change so much, so fast, that we humans won't be able to adapt?  The planet will be fine - it has dealt with great changes before.  But can we?

The unsettled weather we are seeing is likely being at least somewhat driven by the average rise in global temperatures in the past many years.  Raising the temperature of something adds energy to it.  When there's more energy in the atmosphere, that energy is going move things around in different, more extreme ways - including in wintry ways. Just because the weather is cold doesn't mean global warming isn't real.  If you want more detail on why scientists know that global climate change is real, check out Phil Plait's wonderful blog, Bad Astronomy.  He's a wealth of information on the subject.

The other thing that kept me from writing was a nasty cold I picked up that migrated down into my lungs and became bronchitis.  And this even after I got my flu shot.  Why?  Because the virus that causes the flu and the virus (or possibly even bacteria, in the case of the bronchial infection) that causes colds are not the same.  We can vaccinate against the flu...but the rhinoviruses that cause colds...not so much.  And no, I'm in no danger from the flu vaccine itself.  Vaccines are quite safe, and there's no credible link between vaccines and autism.  Again, Phil Plait can point you towards tons of evidence that says yes, you should get your flu shot.

Well, now that I'm finally mostly better and the winter weather is at least somewhat abated, I need to get back to work.  I've got to go move Jimmy Hoffa from under the planetarium projector, and I really wish I could remember where I put that flag I got from the set where they filmed the moon landings...

Just kidding.

Back again in two weeks (assuming we're not buried in a snowtastrophe)...
Carpe noctem!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mr. Mojo Rising

You know, maybe I should just go ahead and say that I'll update this every other Thursday.  Wednesday just seems to have some kind of bad mojo about it that makes getting an update done impossible. was worth the delay, because boy do I have some cool stuff to tell you about.

Yesterday I attended a regional Math & Science meeting held at NASA Langely.  The first part of the morning was devoted to touring around.  Now, I've worked with folks from NASA  Langley for years, and I figured I'd seen most everything cool there at least once.

Man, was I wrong!

First, we went to see the National Transonic Facility.  This extraordinary wind tunnel is one of only two in the world that can effectively scale the "air" in the wind tunnel to match the scale of the model.  This can be critical in testing models of aircraft and even submarines where the forces created by the movement of air or water around the vehicle can translate into huge changes in performance of the craft or fuel consumption of the vehicle.  They've tested many, many type of craft in the tunnel, and it's an amazing process.  We got to walk all around the facility with Scott (our guide), and even stood directly under part of the tunnel itself.  We also got to play a little with liquid nitrogen, which is always fun.  The most amazing tidbits I carried away from our tour:

  • When it was constructed, the NTF wind tunnel used up ALL of the stainless steel available in the U.S. at the time.  ALL OF IT.  They had to buy more from Japan to finish the tunnel!
  • The thickness of the tunnel's stainless steel ranges from 6" down to only 1".  One inch of stainless steel may sound like a lot, but it's nothing when you consider the tunnel is essentially a giant pressure vessel that can be pumped up to 120 psi!  (That's almost 9 times normal air pressure!)
  • To scale the "air" in the tunnel appropriately, sometimes they use liquid nitrogen instead of air.  When that supercold material is used, the entire tunnel can contract 8-10"!  Therefore, the tunnel is fixed in only 2 places...the other stability points have to be flexible to allow for this expansion and contraction, or the tunnel would rip itself apart!

A blended wing-body aircraft model is set up for tests in the NTF's unique wind tunnel.  Even the models have to be made to exact specifications or the testing can damage them!  Image courtesy NASA.

Our second way cool stop used to be known as the Lunar Landing Research Facility.  Under that name, it was where the Apollo astronauts came to learn to land the LEM.  They used a system of pulleys to simulate 1/6th gravity and gave Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and all the rest of the Apollo team the chance get a feel for what it would be like to set the LEM down on the Moon!  Incredible!  The facility is now a National Historic Landmark, and would be incredible to visit, just because of that.  Heck, I stood on the same spot where the astronauts were learning to settle down on the Moon!

Today, the facility has been repurposed as  the Landing Impact Research Facility...and its new mission is just as awesome as its old one!  They now use the massive rig and newly-added hyrdo-impact basin (it's NOT a pool!) to perform crash tests of a variety of air- and space- craft!  We even got to see the body of a helicopter that had been used for crash testing!  You can see videos of tests performed at the LandIR Facility on NASA Langley's You Tube channel.  Talk about some guys with serious mojo!  Martin and Justin have what must be one of the coolest jobs ON THE PLANET!

The new Orion space capsule is tossed into the hydro-impact basin at the LandIR Facility.  What a fun job - dropping and breaking things for science!  Image courtesy NASA.

If all that wasn't enough, we got treated to an incredible spectacle while talking with the guys at the LandIR Facility.  Overhead, low and loud, was an F-22 fighter jet performing the most incredible aerobatic stunts I've ever seen!  Turns out these guys have to re-certify every year to be able to perform at airshows, and this guy happened to be doing his re-certification just as we were touring around.  Now that pilot definitely had some wicked mojo rising, let me tell you...his plane looked suspended in mid-air, rolling and pitching and yawing in ways that made me queasy just watching him!  It was an amazing spectacle!

The F-22 Raptor.  Wicked cool at aerobatics too.  Image courtesy Wikipedia

So...I guess what I'm trying to say is, if there's a NASA center near you - get on a tour!  You'll never know what amazing things might be right there in your backyard unless you take the time to check them out!

More mojo in two weeks...
Until then...carpe noctem!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I am very sorry, sir, I am behind my time...

It's only once a year, sir, it shall not be repeated.  I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.

Bob Cratchit from Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott.  One of my favorite versions of the classic Christmas tale. 

Happy New Year!  Like Bob Cratchit, I am behind my time (by a day) and was making rather merry yesterday.  And in the process of welcoming 2014, I discovered something amazing.

For many years I have extolled the virtues of getting away from people to enjoy the sky.  Well, more specifically, people's lights.  The city is a terrible place to do astronomy...few stars can be seen, and finding a spot with open sky can prove challenging to say the least.  So I often recommend that folks go somewhere else to see the stars.  Areas with little population (Casper Mountain in Wyoming has astounding skies!), the desert southwest of the United States (my Dad, who loved to hike the Grand Canyon, bought a tent with a special skylight in it for stargazing...he said the sky from down in the canyon was the most incredible thing he'd ever seen), out on the water far away from shore (but not on most cruise ships, which are lit up like bonfires), and other such far away destinations have been my suggestion to people looking to see more of the sky than they usually do.

Or, you could drive about an hour west of Richmond.  No, really!

We generally spend New Year's Eve in a cabin at Bear Creek Lake State Park.  It's wonderful to get away from it all (there's no cell service or internet out there either!) and just enjoy some time with family and friends.  Most years, the sky has been cloudy...especially if I go through the trouble of packing my telescope.  This year, I said the heck with it, and left it home.

On New Year's Eve night we went out to build a fire and make s'mores (always a hit with the kids).  My friend suddenly said "Hey, look at the Milky Way!"

I looked up and almost fell over.

The sky was cold and clear and the air unmoving.  It was deep black, and spangled everywhere with stars so bright they seemed to leap out of the sky at me.  Jupiter shone like a beacon...for a moment, I was disoriented...I thought it was Venus, it seemed so bright to me!  As my eyes adjusted, I could see more and more faint stars playing in the background of the sky...and indeed, the lovely swath of the Milky Way, arcing high above us.  I wasted no time bemoaning my lack of a telescope - I simply took my daughter aside and we looked for constellations.  We spotted a couple of satellites and caught a few meteors in the bargain.  It was breathtaking, delightful, dizzying, and altogether awesome.

So here's my recommendation to you for a new year's resolution - make a reservation and stay at a State or National Park near you sometime this year.  You probably won't have to even travel very far!  Many parks offer traditional camping (bring your own tent) or cabins for rent (very reasonably priced, and come with all the comforts of home like heat, AC, and indoor plumbing!).  Some even have yurts (I hear they can be tons of fun!).  You can make reservations online at Reserve America.  It's great way to get some time away, bond with family and friends, explore your local area, and rediscover the sky.  Trust me, you'll love it.

One of the cabins at Bear Creek Lake State Park in Virginia.  Yes, it's as awesome as it looks.  Image by Tracey Shaffer courtesy Reserve America.

Here's hoping that 2014 is truly a stellar year for us all.
See you in two weeks, and until then...
Carpe Noctem!