Friday, April 24, 2020


"Last Light"

The above image was taken on August 21st, 2017, from Jefferson City, Missouri, using a smartphone camera pressed against the eyepiece of my (properly filtered) 60mm Stellarvue refractor with a 9mm Televue Nagler eyepiece, just moments before totality. As stunning as this image is, it was NOTHING compared to the awe and wonder of totality. I had never seen anything like it, and the truly unbelievable sight of that jet black disk, looking like nothing so much as a hole in the universe, surrounded by the solar corona like a halo, was burned into my mind forever.

In the days and weeks following the eclipse, the internet was inundated by truly countless people expressing how they experienced an overwhelming sense of Oneness with the Universe, how they could feel the Earth, the Moon, planets, and the Sun spinning and moving through space in a Great Dance. More than one likened it to actually, physically hearing the Music of the Spheres.

And perhaps they were. For myself, my own feelings were mainly that I had not anticipated the beauty of the event. I had (mostly) anticipated the awe and wonder, but that it would be a Work of Art took me by surprise.

The "Belt of Venus"
Photo taken by my brother, Andrew Prokop, at sunset from the shore of Lake Superior.
The dark band just above the horizon is the Earth's shadow, just coming into view.

We think of eclipses (especially total solar eclipses) as super rare events, lasting at most a few brief minutes, and that one had to travel great distances to see. But have you ever realized that we (each and every one of us) experience a total solar eclipse every day? For just what is an eclipse? It is one celestial body passing in front of the Sun. A solar eclipse is the Moon passing in front of the Sun as seen from the Earth. A lunar eclipse is the Earth passing in front of the Sun from the vantage point of the Moon. But what is night? Is it not the Earth getting between us and the Sun? The fact that we are standing on the Earth's surface does not change that fact.

The Apollo astronauts marveled at finding "space" to be not cold and dark, as we are apt to think of it, but rather basking in an eternal noon. Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot, perhaps expressed this feeling the best (in his memoirs, Carrying the Fire):
"As the radio commercial describes sunset: "When the sun just goes away from the sky..." Baloney. The sun doesn't rise or fall: it doesn't move, it just sits there, and we rotate in front of it. Dawn means we are rotating around into sight of it, while dusk means that we have turned another 180 degrees and are being carried into the shadow zone. The sun never "goes away from the sky." It's still there sharing the same sky with us; it's simply that there's a chunk of opaque earth between us and the sun which prevents our seeing it. Everyone knows that, but I really see it now. No longer do I drive down a highway and wish the blinding sun would set; instead I wish we could speed up our rotation a bit and swing around into the shadows more quickly."

A similar sentiment was expressed as far back as 1938, in C.S. Lewis' science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet. The novel's hero, Dr. Ransom, has been kidnapped by the evil scientist Dr. Weston, and carried off against his will in a spacecraft to an unknown celestial destination. Shortly after waking up aboard the ship, Ransom wonders aloud about how bright it is outside the window:
"I had always thought space was dark and cold," [Ransom] remarked vaguely.
"Forgotten the sun?" said Weston contemptuously. 
Ransom went on eating for some time. The he began, "If it's like this in the early morning," and stopped, warned by the expression on Weston's face. Awe fell on him: there were no mornings here, no evenings, and no night - nothing but the changeless noon which had filled for centuries beyond history so many millions of cubic miles.
And so we have the opportunity, without having to fly to the Moon, to viscerally experience our motion through space every single day. For me, the Earth's motion is most evident in the last minutes just prior to sunset, sitting on my back patio in shadow, while the tops of the trees in my neighbor's yard are still in bright sunshine. I realize that I am poised on the knife's edge of daylight. From space, from an observer on the Moon, I would be smack on the terminator, moving at approximately 700 mph into the Earth's night side.

I believe it is important to not just intellectually understand our place in the universe, but to feel it in our bones. I don't often manage to do this. I know I've succeeded when at a star party, the stars no longer seem to be above me, but rather in front of me. Try it sometime. Word of warning however - it can make you dizzy.

Saturday, April 18, 2020


Earthrise from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

For the second time in two years, I was hospitalized with a life threatening leg infection. I'm home now, but an enforced idleness of several days gives one time (and motivation) for Deep Thought. Upon discharge, I was told to expect to be back within a year or so unless I take active steps to prevent such a thing. It seems my body's immune system is irreparably compromised from my 20 plus year long losing struggle against diabetes. My sole defense against bacterial infection is my skin, and I am vulnerable to the smallest crack in that very thin layer of protection. The culprit this time around was an insignificant cut on one of my toes, so minor that I (incorrectly) assumed a simple band-aid would suffice.

(Be patient, this will get around to astronomy before I'm done.)

So now I walk around with an acute awareness of how fragile my safety is. It is quite literally "skin deep"! I must carry with me a tube of prescription strength antibiotic cream to apply ASAP to any cut, scrape, or puncture anywhere on my body, or else it's back to the hospital.

So I gave a lot of thought to just how fragile my health is, and how easily the apple cart could be upset, so to speak. Such thoughts were doubly a propos in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. For the health of our planet is equally vulnerable.

Earthrise from Japanese Kayuga space probe

We're learning from the armada of orbiters, landers, and rovers on and about Mars that that planet was "once upon a time" warm, wet, and quite possibly green, with an atmosphere approaching Terrestrial density blanketing its surface. Mars's northern hemisphere was almost entirely covered with an ocean containing enough water to fill our Atlantic. Rivers ran freely. We see even today their channels, flood plains, dendritic networks, and ancient deltas. Yes... "once upon a time", but long, long gone.

What happened? The atmosphere is what happened. It seems that the lack of a sufficiently powerful magnetic field laid the Martian surface naked to the full fury of billions of years of solar radiation, which little by little stripped the defenseless planet of its protective layer of air, causing most of its water to break down into its component atoms, which then flew merrily off into interplanetary space. (Hmm.. I just had a thought. I wonder how much of that water ended up here on Earth? Does my bottle of Fiji Water contain a bit o' the Red Planet?)

Did a rich and flourishing Martian ecosystem perish billions of years ago because it was stripped of that all too vulnerable protective screen? Just how knife-edged is the narrow path along which life progresses?

And what about us?

The original "Earthrise" photo, taken from Apollo 8

We are dumping carbon dioxide into our atmosphere at a rate that natural corrective processes are incapable of keeping up with. Equilibrium has not only been shattered, it has been stomped on, kicked into a corner, and beaten senseless. That, along with the other filth we pour into the air, threatens the very continued existence of Humanity, unless we come to our senses TODAY.

Take a good look at the Earthrise photos I've attached to this posting. Every time I see such an image, I can't help but marvel, not only at the heartbreaking beauty of our home world, but at its fragility. It's like a soap bubble suspended in space, perilously easy to pop.

Perhaps this coronavirus pandemic is a blessing in disguise. (A very good disguise, I must say.) In addition to our air becoming (temporarily, I fear) much cleaner, and our species' carbon footprint much reduced, it has exposed how fragile and unsustainable our economy is, and how radical income inequality is eating away at the foundations of our society. Even in "good" times, the poor and marginalized suffer disproportionately from hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and climate change in general, but in times of severe continental (indeed global) stress such as now, the result is inconvenience for the wealthy and catastrophe for the not so well off. Also, those who thought themselves safely ensconced in the Middle Class are finding they were only a paycheck or two away from financial ruin.

Fragility, fragility, fragility. Not just for our planet, but also for each and every one of us. (Forgive my digressions. I warned you, I had a lot of time on my hands.)

We have before us two alternatives, We can either use this calamity as a chance to reexamine the fundamentals of our economic and societal structures and rebuild so as to eliminate our ecologically destructive industrial habits, income inequality, and the lack of adequate healthcare and social safety net, or... we can emerge with a thoughtless resumption of our planet-destroying economy, and millions of families reduced to poverty and/or crushing lifelong debt from which they will have no hope of ever getting out from under.

Now, while the economy is basically shut down and the entire country is essentially under house arrest is the time to make the perilous knife's edge that we stand on abundantly clear to all. But this opportunity is fleeting. Once the economy starts up again, people will (understandably) be grateful for whatever crumbs are tossed in their direction.

The Earth and Moon, hanging in the Void

Friday, January 10, 2020


Over the holidays, I flew out to Arizona to celebrate my mother's 93rd birthday (Happy Birthday, Mom!). While there, my brother and I took a day off for ourselves and drove "up north" to the pine country. Along the way, we stopped off at Montezuma's Well, one of only two natural lakes in the entire state of Arizona. All the others are man-made.

At first glance, it's not that much of a lake. Less than 400 feet in diameter, it's very close to a perfect circle. It lies at the bottom of a steep depression, completely surrounded by cliffs close to 100 feet high. The water is very dark - almost black, and much of the surface is choked with pond weed.

Talk to the park ranger and you'll find that the lake is fed from underground volcanic vents, and contains lethal levels of arsenic and other poisons. There is also no oxygen in the water, so fish cannot survive more than a few minutes in it. Fascinatingly, the lake has no known bottom. It simply gets denser and increasingly saturated with sand and mud until further exploration is impossible. (The deepest probes have made it to 124 feet before being stopped by the suspended sand, without finding any bottom. Some geologists estimate the lake may be 2000 feet deep!) I imagine that it's similar to what one would find on the gas giants in the outer solar system, which have no solid surface, but just keep getting denser and denser as you go down until you're stopped dead..

But that's just the first course. Now for the main event. Montezuma's Well boasts a unique ecosystem of species which exist nowhere else on the entire planet. There's a completely independent food chain of life beginning with diatoms (a species of algae), the Montezuma Well springsnail, a water scorpion, the Hyalella montezuma amphipod, and (at the top of the chain) the Motobdella montezuma leech, along with the lake's utterly unique pond weed with 80 foot long stems that grows nowhere else in the world. All of these species would perish if removed from Montezuma's Well - they're perfectly adapted to its poisonous environment. And likewise, no life from outside the well can live in its waters for longer than a few minutes. The life within Montezuma's Well is essentially independent of all other life on Earth!

This amazing site got me to thinking about possible life on other planets. Perhaps we're too accustomed to the ubiquity of life covering nearly every inch of our own world. But is it possible that we'll find the equivalent of a Montezuma's Well on Mars, or even the Moon? A micro-environment only a few hundred yards across sustaining a vigorous ecosphere of utterly bizarre lifeforms? 99.9999% of Mars could well be deader than a doornail, while one small crater might be absolutely bursting with life. After all, as far as the denizens of Montezuma's Well are concerned, the rest of Planet Earth might as well be dead.

Ice-filled Korolev Crater on Mars

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Check in the Box

The 2016 Transit of Mercury

Yesterday was the last Transit of Mercury until 2032, and the first one observed by me.

Although the event started shortly after sunrise, Maryland time, I didn't arrive at Alpha Ridge Park until about 8:30. But it only took 5 minutes to set up, and another minute to find that unbelievably tiny spot, already almost one quarter of the Sun's angular diameter from the edge. What a difference from the Transit of Venus seven years ago. Venus' disk was large enough that you needed no magnification to see it against the Sun. A pair of properly shielded "eclipse" glasses would suffice. Not so yesterday! I tried spotting it through another member's 8X56 binoculars and couldn't see a thing, even though I knew exactly where Mercury ought to be.

But with my Stellarvue 60mm refractor, I had no trouble seeing Mercury, despite its miniscule size. Using my 9mm Nagler eyepiece, it remained a dimensionless point of un-light, but switching to my 5mm Nagler, it was a definite disk. It almost looked 3 dimensional.

In addition to the Baader solar filter safety attached to the business end of my scope, I inserted a Televue Mars filter between the diagonal and the eyepiece, which gave the Sun's disk a pleasing yellow/orange hue, a definite improvement over the otherwise unfiltered pure white.

Image by James Willinghan
Notice how small Mercury appears against the Sun (slightly above the center of disk)
(To see at full resolution, click on the image.)

Now you might say that sitting for 5 hours tracking a nearly dimensionless black dot as it crawls across the face of a featureless Sun (I was hoping for a few sunspots, damn it!) would be about as exciting as watching paint dry... and in a way, you would be right. But only in a way, for as with most things in amateur astronomy, it all depends on how you look at it.

First of all, there is the obvious but strangely overlooked fact that all this is going on in broad daylight. That, and the fact that the Sun was fairly low in the sky (it being late autumn), had a curious effect of rotating one's vertical axis of perception. The Sun and Mercury were not "up there" but rather "over there". I was acutely conscious of being in the plane of the ecliptic, along with all the other planets. And that perception somehow made what was going on more comprehensible to my Earthbound brain. Mercury was not merely crossing in front of the Sun, it was crossing "left to right" - not above me, but in front of me. I was part of the action! This is an awareness hard to arrive at when admiring a view of the Hercules Globular or the Rosette Nebula, or even Jupiter or Saturn. (It's easier with the Moon, but that's another story. See here: Explorers and here: Explorers 2.) I could clearly visualize the geometry of all the moving parts, and where I fit into it.

Secondly.. well, has it ever occurred to you how often we refer to this rather eclectic group of planets, moons, asteroids, as the Solar System, but fail to take in the meaning of that term? The planets are not just, as was thought in Percival Lowell's time, "other worlds" - they are OUR world. All the planets and everything else that makes up the Solar "System" are intricately and inextricably connected to each other. The Earth does not exist in isolation. In fact, our planet would be uninhabitable were it not for, not only Jupiter, but also Saturn being where they are. And some theories say we would have no oceans without there being a Kuiper belt. Etc, etc. Watching Mercury pass between the Earth and the Sun reminds me of this interconnectivity.

(And it reminds me of my own interconnectivity with the rest of humanity. See here: Foxholes)

And thirdly, it makes me acutely aware of the role of chance in our lives. As I look out the window at this moment, only 24 hours after the event, I see a 100% overcast sky with high winds and mixed snow and rain. Yet yesterday, despite depressing forecasts, was mostly clear with low winds and shirtsleeve temperatures. Had today been yesterday, we wouldn't have seen a thing.

So it's one more "check in the box", along with the 1985 return of Halley's Comet, the 2012 Transit of Venus, the 2017 total solar eclipse, and the 2018 opposition of Mars. The next will be the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius on December 21, 2020. If I've done my math right, the two planets will be separated by an angular distance of only one fifth of the full moon!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


Way, wa-a-a-a-y back when I was in college, a very strange book hit the bestseller lists and stayed there for seemingly forever - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Like pretty much everyone else on planet Earth at the Time, I read it. But now, 45 years later, I can really only recall one passage from the work. Fairly close to the start of the book, the author goes into some detail describing the differences between driving through a beautiful landscape in a car, and riding through it on a motorcycle. In a car, Pirsig tells us, we are curiously divorced from the outside world. Perhaps it has something to do with the windshield, or from the fact that the interior of an automobile is very much like a room. The world passing by seems "out there", while the driver remains ensconced in his mobile cabin. Meanwhile, the motorcyclist is fully enmeshed in his surroundings. There is no "out there"; he is amongst them.

I had the same experience the one and only time I had a seat up in the super elegant skyboxes at a baseball game. There were plush, living room type seats inside, and we were separated from the stadium by a window which made up one whole wall. (This was at the then brand new Washington Nationals stadium.) Well, when the national anthem started up, no one in the skybox payed the slightest attention to it. Not a soul stood up or doffed his cap, and no conversation ceased or even slowed down. Yet there was no hint of discourtesy. After all, when you watch a game at home on TV, do you stand for the anthem? Of course not. And here we were at the stadium, yet that glass wall somehow made it seem like we weren't.

So what does any of this have to do with amateur astronomy? Attend, grasshopper, and gain wisdom.

I can't count the times where I've been showing Saturn in my telescope to someone who's never had the experience before, and their reaction is "Wow. Is that real? It looks just like the pictures!" This resistance to believing the evidence of one's own eyes has always puzzled me. So when the same thing happened a few days ago for the millionth time right in my driveway, sharing with a neighbor my view of the ringed planet, I got to wondering. Does anyone upon seeing, say, the Eiffel Tower for the first time, doubt that it's real because it looks just like the pictures he's seen of it?

And I must confess to falling into the same feelings when somewhat lazily going from warhorse to old warhorse on a less than inspiring night out. My reaction to swinging over to M13 in Hercules is not that different from seeing an image of it on my computer screen. What's going on?

I'm convinced it's the eyepiece. Its presence means there's something between me and the object I am observing. My equipment has distanced me from it by more than the actual lightyears of interstellar space separating us. I have to consciously overcome this barrier to feel its reality, to get the sense that M13 and I occupy the same universe. But it's an effort worth making. I know I've succeeded when the sky no longer feels like it's above me, but rather in front of me.

There's a sort of ritual I perform on most evenings that I've been out. After I'm done for the evening, I'll tear down and stow everything away... and just look up, drinking in all the constellations and the Milky Way itself if it's in view. This can easily go on for half an hour or more, after I'm supposedly done for the night. We often fail to realize that many of the constellations we see by naked eye are as or even more beautiful than the open clusters and globulars that we peer at through our eyepieces. Yes, the Double Cluster is stunning, but so are the Pleiades and the Hyades. Yes, Kemble's Cascade is a wondrous sight, but it doesn't hold a candle to Orion in all his wintry majesty. Yes, splitting a difficult double with my highest power (and therefore narrowest field) is pure joy, but kicking back, slapping in a widefield (such as my 30mm Pentax), and looking at nothing in particular is, I believe, as close to Nirvana we can come in this sorry world.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

It's not easy being green

Yesterday out at Carrs Mill, I decided to make it a Green Star night. Yes, I am well aware that there are no such things as green stars - let's get that one out of the way right up front. But there are many stars that appear to be green when viewed through the eyepiece. The most famous is Almach, a.k.a. Gamma Andromedae, a spectacularly beautiful multiple star system not far from M31. At 2nd magnitude, it is an easy naked eye object, but it takes a telescope to see that it is not a solitary star. My 102mm refractor splits it into its A and B components, A being brilliant yellow, and B looking like nothing so much as a tiny Granny Smith apple nestled up against its brighter companion. Turns out that B is not a single star at all, but three, none of them being even remotely green. (see illustration below)

No possible amateur telescope can split B into its components. The easiest and surest way to determine its true makeup is with spectroscopy. Perhaps it's all those colors being mixed up that give us the impression of a single green star?

Now that we got the low hanging (green apple) fruit out of the way, we can turn to other greens that were not so easy to observe.

Struve 2725 in Delphinus is an absolute joy to behold. First of all, it, along with neighboring Gamma Dalphini, make up a delightful cousin to Lyra's Double Double. If you stop right there it's already a "must see" item on any stargazer's list. But amp up the power and zero in on Struve 2725, and drink in the subtle colors involved - a primrose primary with a dimmer, yes, green companion star.

Moving over to Cassiopeia, we check out Sigma Cassiopeiae, a star I never would have suspected of being double had I not been informed of this fact. I found it to be a difficult split, but my effort was rewarded by seeing a 5th magnitude primary of pure white, accompanied by a 7th magnitude bluish green secondary.

I had intended to wrap up the night by observing a 4th green star, over in Pegasus - Struve 2841. But alas, a cloud had moved over to obscure that part of the sky, and it showed no signs of going anywhere. So I saved that one for another time!

I was using my 102mm Stellarvue refractor with 9, 5, and 3.5mm Nagler eyepieces.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Demon's Eyes

"What you look hard at seems to look hard at you."
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

The other night at Carrs Mill, Richard Orr asked me whether I had ever looked at the "Demon Eyes". I had to admit that I had never heard of them. The Demon Star (Algol), yes. But Demon Eyes? Nope. 

Well, we had just been talking about the Water Jar over in Aquarius, which is to me to only recognizable asterism in that entire constellation. The rest of it is just a giant 4th magnitude mess - the worst place in the sky to locate anything by star hopping.

The Water Jar consists of 4 relatively bright stars, 3 of which (Eta, Pi, and Gamma Aquarii) form a tight little triangle with a fourth (Zeta Aquarii) right in the center. All 4 stars are approximately 4th magnitude, making the asterism naked eye visible, but not particularly prominent. (Some people, myself included, consider Alpha Aquarii, a 3rd magnitude star somewhat to the east of the other four, to be part of the asterism. But that's not important here.)

To the naked eye or through binoculars, Zeta Aquarii appears to be a run of the mill solitary star of a nondescript white color. Even when I turned my 90mm refractor over to it the other night (using a 13mm Nagler eyepiece), there was nothing worth mentioning about it. But when I swapped eyepieces for a 3.5mm Nagler... Wow! There was a stunning, easily splittable double star, the two components of apparently equal brightness. They looked eerily like a pair of (rather sinister) eyes staring back at me. Just who was observing whom?

The A and B components are a true double star, with an orbital period of approximately 540 years, and the system itself is about 92 light years away. Impossible to see telescopically, the A component is itself a double star, composed of an F-type main sequence star with a companion about one 3th its mass. They orbit each other every 26 years, so they must be extremely close to each other. As for the system's main components (A and B), their separation is thought to be about 140 AU.

It's that last figure which intrigues me the most, since Neptune's orbital diameter is 60 AU. So if you can imagine one half of the distance between A and B Zeta Aquarii, that's pretty much what our own solar system would look like at a distance of 92 light years.

As an experiment, I observed the pair with my 5mm Nagler eyepiece. I could still split the double, but it wasn't as "clean" as with the 3.5mm. So if you're thinking of taking a look yourself (highly recommended),  use all the power you have. It's worth it!