My First Attempts at Astrophotography

So, I won a nice astronomical camera in a raffle at the recent AAS conference, and since there was a lunar eclipse last night, I wanted to try it out with my telescope to get pictures.

This didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

I had several problems getting my telescope set up properly. A broken tripod I could work around. A bad connection to the controls? I could still get it pointed. But here’s the thing, up here in Ann Arbor, it was the coldest night of the year. By midnight, it was hovering around zero Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). I was bundled up enough myself, but it was so cold that frost was forming on my computer screen in 20 minutes.

And the cold proved to be my downfall. It turns out, I can’t autofocus the camera unless I can point it at a star to resolve it as a point. But I couldn’t point it at a star and get it to stay put without turning on the electronic tracking. And it was so cold that the electronic tracking was malfunctioning. That meant I had to focus blind by taking a photo and adjusting the focus knob on the telescope itself.

This is the first photo I took. It’s about the best focus I could get doing it blind, and the resolution was smaller than I’d hoped. (And obviously, the field of view is smaller than the Moon.) This is a raw image, which means I haven’t done any processing to clean it up like you usually see in astronomical photos. I couldn’t stay out very long because of the cold, so I didn’t have time explore all of the camera’s options. I think there’s a higher-resolution mode available, but I’m not sure how to use it.

The bright white crater in the above image is Tycho, which is at the south end of the Moon’s face, and the dark area at the upper left is the largest of the Moon’s “seas,” Oceanus Procellarum (The Ocean of Storms).

Here is an area slightly north of the first photo showing Oceanus Procellarum with a lighter auto-adjusted brightness. (I told you they were raw images.) I took these two photos at the very beginning of the eclipse. If you look carefully, you will see a darkened region at the top of the Moon’s disk, which is where it’s starting to enter Earth’s outer shadow.

I took this image about an hour into the eclipse, when the Moon was halfway into Earth’s inner shadow, the umbra–the part that looks red when the Moon is fully covered. The orientation of the camera is different here, so the features you can see on the light part of the Moon are in the northeast: the Sea of Tranquility (where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed) and the Sea of Serenity.

Here’s a picture of the southern part of the eclipse boundary. On the light part of the Moon, you can just make out the Sea of Fertility and the Sea of Nectar.

Back to the northern part again, maybe a little bit better focus.

I wanted to get photos of totality, when the Moon is fully covered and turns blood red. However, here I ran into another problem. I live in an area with a lot of exterior lights, and with the Moon being so much dimmer then, the glare from the lights reflected inside the telescope was too much to see it clearly. Even looking with my eyes, the glare was so bad that when I first spotted the Moon, I thought it had gone behind a cloud, so it was pretty much hopeless.

So, my process needs some work. I’m going to see if I can come up with something better and in a better location when the weather warms up.

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Sunday’s Total Lunar Eclipse

A photo of the lunar eclipse of July 27, 2018. Credit: Giuseppe Donatiello.

On the night of Sunday-Monday, January 20-21, there will be a total lunar eclipse. (Official NASA info.) This eclipse will be especially significant because it will be the first total lunar eclipse visible from most or all of North America since 2014, and there won’t be another one so easily visible from this continent until 2025. (Sadly, due to inclement weather, I haven’t been able to see one myself since 2010.)

The Moon will start to go dark at 9:36 PM Eastern Time on Sunday night, and it will be fully within the deep red umbra of Earth’s shadow from 11:41 to 12:43 Eastern Time. West Coast viewers will have an easier time of it, but for East Coast viewers, it will definitely be worth staying up for it.

For my international readers, you will be able to see the full eclipse from everywhere in North and South America except for the Aleutian Islands. Most people in Europe and West Africa will also be able to see it if you get up in the hours before sunrise on Monday.

You may have heard of this eclipse described in the media as the “Super Blood Wolf Moon,” or some variant thereof. However, this is just an overhyped and rather silly way of describing the Moon’s position in its orbit and in the calendar.

And it is NOT a portent of doom! Honestly, how does this nonsense keep coming up in this day and age?!

Now, these names do each mean something. The “Wolf Moon” is the name of the full moon in January, based on the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is allegedly based on old Native American calendars (without much evidence). These calendars give each full moon of the year its own name, of which the best known is probably the “Harvest Moon” in September.

The “supermoon” is a rather silly name that started circulating in 2011 for a full moon when the Moon is at perigee (closest to Earth in its orbit) and appears slightly larger in the sky (or closer than a certain distance, which allows two or three “supermoons” in a row). This is an annual event, but it cycles around the calendar every nine years. Some people think this has astrological significance, and it came to mainstream attention after it was blamed for causing the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (it didn’t). Actual astronomers, on the other hand, think astrology is bunk and wish this term would just go away.

The “Blood Moon” is a poetic name for a total lunar eclipse because the Moon does not go completely dark, like a solar eclipse, but instead appears blood red, lit by sunlight bent through Earth’s atmosphere—essentially, the light of all the sunsets around the world. This terminology goes back to the Bible, where multiple prophecies say, “The Sun will turn to darkness [a solar eclipse], and the Moon will turn to blood [a lunar eclipse].” However, both kinds of eclipses are fairly common, happening once a year or so on a global scale, so as End Times prophecies go, this one is no more dire than, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars…and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.”

As screwed up as our world is right now, this eclipse doesn’t foretell doom any more than any other eclipse of the past few millennia. So (unless you’re facing the other impending doom of this weekend’s winter storm), you should bundle up and go out to take a look at this beautiful astronomical sight.

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Highlights from the AAS Conference

For the past week, over three thousand astronomers from all over the world (including yours truly) met in Seattle, Washington for the American Astronomical Society Winter Meeting, the largest astronomy conference in the world. Much science was announced and discussed, and I took notes to give you some highlights.

This year’s meeting was a little bit disrupted because of the U.S. government shutdown, which prevented most NASA employees from attending—10%-15% of the total attendees. Nonetheless, the AAS did an admirable job of keeping most of the events running and finding replacement speakers when they were needed.

By tradition, the first talk of the conference is always about some important new development in astronomy from the past six months, and this year, it was ‘Oumuamua, the interstellar (probably-)comet that was seen zipping through the Solar System last October. Greg Laughlin from Yale and Ka’iu Kimura from the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hawai’i spoke together to describe not only the scientific findings about this object, but also how its discoverers made efforts to involve the native Hawai’ian culture of the lands on which the observatory that discovered it sits. After the discovery, ‘Imiloa scrambled to produce a name in keeping with Hawai’ian naming traditions and decided on ‘Oumuamua, which has roughly the sense of “first distant messenger.”

Other notable properties of ‘Oumuamua are that it is reddish (which is common in comet-like objects), rotates in 7.2 hours (also common), is splinter-shaped (very unusual), and has no visible dust around it (which we aren’t sure is unusual, but is definitely not what we expected). Most interestingly, the detection of ‘Oumuamua suggests that such interstellar comets are very common. Each star could very well eject many trillions of comets when it forms, adding up to about the mass of the Earth. It also means that distant giant planets like Neptune should also be common to actually do the scattering. If true, Neptune would be one of the few ways in which our own Solar System is actually normal.

Other highlights from the conference include:

Gravitational waves from colliding black holes are helping us narrow down not only the number of black holes in the universe, but also their properties and the properties of other stars as well. We now have a pretty good estimate of the number of black hole mergers: between 26 and 109 per cubic gigaparsec (35 cubic gigalightyears) per year. Also, the mass range of black holes is narrower than we expected, which provides more evidence for something called a pulsational pair-instability supernova, by which very massive stars can explode without leaving anything behind.

The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) is teaching us a whole lot of stuff, including finding the most distant confirmed galaxy ever found at a redshift of 9.1. (The Hubble Space Telescope might have found farther ones, but it can’t measure them very accuratly.) It is also doing a lot of work to tease out the mysteries of planet formation.

Finding habitable planets is incredibly difficult, and it also works differently around red dwarf stars. For example, on Earth, we have ice-albedo feedback: more ice reflects light from our yellow sun and cools the planet. But on a planet orbiting a red dwarf, ice absorbs infrared light from the red sun, warming the planet. This could mean that planets orbiting red dwarfs are more protected from freezing over as Earth did a couple times.

And…we still haven’t found dark matter. And physicists are getting kind of worried (or excited depending on which theories you believe). A lot of people think we should have seen it by now, and if we don’t in the next few years, it’ll be a sign that dark matter is even weirder than we thought.

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On Covering Science News

Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, was discovered this week to resemble a snowman (upside down in this image). This is the best-quality photo currently available.

I feel like I’ve been pretty lax about talking about science news stories here. This blog is called Science Meets Fiction, but lately, when I have time to post at all, it only seems to be about fiction. Part of this, I think, is because the big science news stories get covered by a hundred other major newspapers and blogs, and I don’t feel like I have anything new to say about them. I’m trying to find a niche in that field, but it’s difficult.

This past week, I was going to write a post on New Horizons’s flyby of Ultima Thule, but it didn’t really happen for several reasons. First, I’ve been traveling; I was visiting family for the holidays, and I’m now in Seattle for the American Astronomical Society Conference, and I haven’t had time to put together a thoughtful analysis. Second, there wasn’t all that much information released about Ultima Thule, given the difficulty of sending signals back to Earth from that far out, Earth going behind the Sun, and the limited resources available to receive them. (Maybe I should write a post on the state of the Deep Space Network next.) And third, what news there was has been pretty well covered by the media. I could talk about the results, but I feel like I don’t have a lot to add.

I like to think I’ve developed a good voice here for media reviews, and I’ve been pushing a little more into the analysis side with my recent posts on Fantastic Beasts and Mortal Engines. I don’t think I’ve yet developed that voice for news stories, and I been having trouble coming up with my own unique take on them amid the noise. I tried to do that a little with the SpaceX story a couple months ago, but I still feel adrift on that front.

I’m hoping I can do better in 2019. One thing I could do would be to take a science news story and explain what the media missed—what cool thing was left out, or why that new study is overhyped. Of course, that takes more in-depth reading if it’s not in my field. I’m not sure what direction to take it, and I welcome suggestions.

For right now, I’ll be writing at least one post on the AAS. Probably not every day. I tried that once, and it was a bit much, but we’ll see. This is the year’s biggest astronomy meeting, so there’s sure to be plenty of exciting results.

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Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

In the endless string off remakes and sequels that plagues Hollywood, Mary Poppins was not one I expected to see on the list. The 1964 classic has stood the test of time for more than half a century; it told a complete story with little prospect for continuation, and it wasn’t animated (mostly) to remake it in live action.

Nonetheless, Disney’s latest sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, set 25 years after the original, could have been an exciting new story of the adventures of Mary Poppins and the Banks children. After all, the material is already there. There were eight Mary Poppins books, and Mary Poppins Returns is loosely based on the second and third books. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins Returns is not that story. It’s entertaining for an afternoon, but that’s about it.

My rating: on the merits of the writing: 3 out of 5.

As a musical, and as a worthy sequel to the original: 1.5 out of 5.

I had several problems with this movie. I wouldn’t say it was bad per se, but it really didn’t retain the magic of the original, which is why I gave it that split rating. Maybe I’m being uncharitable, but this film had big shoes to fill, and Disney was definitely capable of pulling it off, but it just didn’t work well, and it felt more like a knockoff or a substandard remake than a true sequel.

The plot was…I won’t say derivative, but certainly formulaic. It followed all the same beats as the original, never really branching out except for the addition of an actual villain, which I feel sort of misses the point of the original. There were antagonists in Mary Poppins, but no true villains, and I think that’s important to character of the story. That’s just one of the facets they failed to capture in Mary Poppins Returns.

There were little things, too. The writing felt a tiny bit more moralistic in places where the original Mary Poppins got its message across in a more carefree way. The bit where Mary sings on stage felt out of character. I just can’t see Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins hamming it up like that. And even the dance number in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” didn’t hit all the right notes that “Chim Chim Cher-ee” did as it sprawled across the London rooftops. In fact, that might be a good way to describe the writing across the board: it hit too many “wrong notes” to really be Mary Poppins.

But the biggest problem with Mary Poppins Returns by far was that the music simply wasn’t very good. The songs were not catchy, pretty much at all—not the kind of thing you remember walking out of the theatre. (Incidentally, I noticed the same problem in Moana, but this was worse.) Compare that with Frozen or just about any Disney movie from the 90’s, and you can see how badly they dropped the ball (even if Frozen is overplayed). Compare “Can You Imagine That?” with “A Spoonful of Sugar.” “A Cover is Not the Book” with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Turning Turtle” with “I Love to Laugh.” “Nowhere to Go But Up” with “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” (I told you they hit every single beat the same.) Pretty much none of the songs in Mary Poppins Returns are as good as their counterparts in the original, and for a musical, that’s a very poor showing. That’s why even though it’s fun enough to watch, I can’t recommend Mary Poppins Returns as a sequel to one of the great classic films of the twentieth century.

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New Horizons and Ultima Thule: Where to Watch

Update: it turns out that the coverage of the Ultima Thule flyby is “forward funded”, so it will proceed on NASA TV as normal.

New Horizons, the spacecraft that famously imaged Pluto three years ago, will be making history again on New Year’s Day by making the most distant flyby in history. The spacecraft will be flying close by the Kuiper belt object (486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule (pronounced “THOO-lee”).

This distant, comet-like object is much smaller than Pluto, only about 30 km (19 miles) across. It’s also not very round. Observations of Ultima Thule as it passed in front of a star on July 17, 2017 revealed that it has a dumbbell shape or is perhaps a very close binary.

This promises to be a fascinating scientific event, but there’s just one problem: the U.S. government is currently in a partial shutdown, which looks likely to extend into the next Congress, which starts on January 3. Don’t panic. NASA is still running the mission and will get the data, but if the shutdown continues, the usual go-tos to watch the encounter like NASA TV will be offline. (It’s running as of this posting, but they won’t be doing live events.) NASA’s website will also not be updated, at least not in a timely fashion.

But there is good news. NASA is also partnering with Johns Hopkins University, and JHU will be running coverage of New Horizons through the shutdown. You can find all of the information at the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory website, and their YouTube channel.

The first press conference will be tomorrow, December 28 at 1:00 PM EST, during which they will preview the flyby and science operations. There will be more on December 31, and the main event, acquiring the data, on New Year’s Day with science results announce the two days afterward. I highly recommend you check it out.

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Could Mortal Engines’ Municipal Darwinism Work?

In Mortal Engines, based on the book series by Philip Reeve, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ravaged by nuclear war, the surviving settlements have become “traction cities,” putting themselves on wheels to roam what was once Eurasia (an area known in the books as “the Great Hunting Ground”) and sustain themselves by literally eating each other. This strange lifestyle is known as “Municipal Darwinism”.

Could this ridiculous premise actually work? Let’s set aside the engineering problem of putting something that’s half the size of Manhattan on wheels, let alone getting it moving. (If you want to know more, see Because Science’s YouTube video on the subject.) Could London, the film’s “villain” city, maintain this lifestyle for hundreds of years? The answer, weirdly, is maybe yes, and the clues come from real predators and prey on Earth. There is an environment on Earth that eerily resembles the world of Mortal Engines, and “life, uh, finds a way” there.

Continue reading

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