Thursday, December 26, 2013

Not a real planet

I've been tracking some sunspots this week, figuring that this is my best opportunity to capture a week or more of the sun's rotation in images. Last night, Christmas evening, I abandoned my scope to join family festivities, and when I returned the sun had moved behind stratified clouds. Normally, that means the end of a photo session, but in this case, I thought my cloud-draped sun images would make nice gas giant planets to use in my solar system presentation on Jan. 6. Though I'm depicting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, my depictions will be of these worlds 4 billion years ago, so it's reasonable to portray them as gas giants, but different from how they appear today. Saturn, for example, would not necessarily have rings. Some color and texture differences would also be in order as the outer planets would be much closer to the sun and therefore receiving more energy to invigorate their climate systems.

So here is my sun through clouds, modified to look like an ice giant planet with two transiting moons. The shadows are the sunspots I've been tracking.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Public Astronomy Events for January 2014

The next general meeting of the Temecula Valley Astronomers is Monday, January 6. The new location of our meetings is now at the Temecula Public Library at 30600 Pauba Road. Our meetings are now starting at 7:00 pm.

I will present my show on the Nice model of the solar system, entitled 4.6 Billion and Counting.

We will also have a presentation by TVA Vice President, Tim Deardoff, on what's up in the sky for January. Tim has been doing an excellent job of maintaining the Facebook page of the Temecula Valley Astronomers. You need not be a member to "like" us on Facebook; however, becoming a member does support our outreach.

I would also like to extend a thanks to the Rancho Water District for providing a low-cost meeting room for the past 20 or more years since the founding of the Temecula Valley Astronomers. I recently counted 43 unique schools or youth organizations that we've provided star parties for in the past 5 years (which is how far back my maps to events go). Considering my collection of maps as a fraction of the total locations we've attended, and that many of our locations are repeat events, the Rancho Water District's low cost meeting room has helped subsidize the experiences we've provided for schools and youth groups for 20 years.

The following night, 7 January 2014, we're having a public star party at the Murrieta Public Library. A map is provided below. The event is free and open to the general public. Typically, it draws a lot of families with young children, so the indoor show at 6:00 pm is oriented to a young and general audience. Observing will follow the 1/2 hour show till about 8:00pm.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Combating a two-decade campaign against climate science

The magazine Europhysics News has published an article by Skeptical Science founder John Cook on the anti-science campaign against climate science. I created an illustration the cover page, which I've shown here:

The article is open access:
Combating a two-decade campaign attacking the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change


Monday, December 16, 2013

A shooting star off the shoulder of Orion and double meteors

I watched the Geminid meteor shower from Borrego Springs the morning of Dec 14th 2013. The moon had set by 4:00 am, which allowed for a dark hour or two before sunrise. I saw a few fireballs and captured six or seven faint meteors with my camera. I'm sharing the brightest of these faint meteors below:

Geminid passing through Orion's shield. 
Exposure: 800 ISO, 26 seconds, F2, 28mm lens

Most of my 35 photos between 4 and 5 am were 1 minute long, the exception being that when I saw a meteor in or near my field, I'd stop my exposure so the background doesn't get any brighter. My photos represent about a 1/2 hour of cumulative exposure. Catching six or seven out of 35 minutes suggests a rate near 10 per hour. If my camera's field of view were 1/10th of the sky -- I'm confident its field is smaller -- that would suggest that the predicted rate of 100 per hour under a moonless sky was accurate. Caution should be taken with this estimate as it's based on my small sample group.

Why do I keep saying "six or seven"? Because one photo has three streaks but two are so closely in line that they may be one meteor:

Three faint streaks can be seen in this photo of Coma Berenices.

Tracing the streaks reveals that two are on the same radiant.

I've photographed two meteors apparently on one radiant during the Leonids in 2001, but this was on slide film and the two meteors were far apart on the film. So, I expected some distortion: that is, the lens would introduce some distortion and the film's slide mounting (lack of flatness when scanned) would introduce more.
Two or one meteor passing near the Pleiades in Taurus.

Tracing reveals parallel paths that could be on the same radiant. 
Curvature of the slide film can be seen at the bottom center of the frame.

I never believed that I had captured a meteor appearing, then dimming, then reappearing, but I think I have now.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Global Warming Heat Widget at Skeptical Science

My friends at Skeptical Science have produced a web gadget, global warming counter, that can be embedded on blogs and websites, as I have done here for the right panel. The counter is a reminder that global warming is about the total heat in the climate system that is accruing mainly in the oceans, probably due to the dominance of la Nina conditions over the past decade. It is also possible that surface temperature stations fail to sample the poles adequately, which is where warming is expected to be more abrupt. Many skeptics have have pointed out the slow rise in surface temperatures (or lack of rise, depending on which data set is their favorite) over the past 15 years and proclaimed that global warming has stopped. The kindest response to the "warming has stopped" claim is that it is simply wrong and repeated without examination. Less kind, some people repeating the claim are ignoring the larger reservoir of ocean heat and the net lost of sea and surface ice during this time, the extended solar minimum, and volcanic aerosols. Therefore, they are being disingenuous.

A fair criticism is that many climate models predicted a greater temperature rise. This is scientifically interesting but not surprising, and this question is being examined in the peer-reviewed science.

In producing the ocean heat widget, Skeptical Science acknowledges that bombs aren't really going off in the ocean; therefore, it's an analogy, not a scientific description. But the analogy is an measure using a unit that is both large enough to describe the quantity of energy at work and within the comprehension of most people who will hear the un-examined claim that global warming has stopped.

By the way, I drew the globe, and I do recognize the the Earth is not truly hollow and filling like a bowl. I hope the metaphor reminds people that the bomb analogy has the qualities of an analogy: not the real description but a useful metric among a population that does not have a ready appreciation for Joules, or other units of energy.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Sun spotting

The weekend of Nov. 2/3 offered some sunspots, a phenomenon that should be at a peak in it's 11-year cycle. This peak, however, is looking like a modest solar maximum. Here are sunspots photographed through a white light filter:

Viewed through a hydrogen-alpha scope, a Coronado PST, I saw an unusual brightening. The bright area was intense enough be visible in this photo, taken by holding a camera to the eyepiece (the afocal method).

I lack a means of getting effective photos through the hydrogen-alpha scope, but on rare occassions, a feature has been bright enough to photograph using the afocal method. You can see the bright spot just left of center.

This was the brightest spot I've seen on the sun, but more interesting, ten minutes after this photo, the bright spot was replaced by a sunspot with only brightness around the edges.

Two weeks later (the weekend of Nov. 16/14) I saw the largest sunspot I've ever observed, through my sunspotter telescope:

You might say, using my iPhone to photograph an image projected onto paper is taking the afocal concept to the extreme.

The following day, a Monday, was the first opportunity I had to get a better picture using a 3-inch scope:

Ideally, I would have used my larger scope on this, but it being work day, I had to go with what was portable and easy to set up in a parkeing lot. Here's a close ups of the interesting regions, which is the best I can do with the smaller scope:


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Photo error makes a nice squiggle

When taking pictures of the night sky, I have a couple rules on what not to do. One, I try not to photograph planes. When I see one nearing my field of view, I usually end the photo and wait for it pass. However, Saturday morning, a bright object resembled the International Space Station, so I decided to photograph it. The second rule: never kick the tripod. This photo is an exception to both rules:


Monday, November 4, 2013

Interactive Climate Science Timeline

I collaborated with a few of the Skeptical Science team to create an interactive timeline of climate science:

Interactive Climate Science Timeline

The timeline is based on a Skeptical Science article on the history of climate science and on illustrations I created. The interactive timeline scrolls left and right through time and has pop-up explanations for various scientific achievements. It's a great place to learn what was known to science as far back as 200 years ago. It can also be embedded in other websites. My contribution is the illustrations that are used as icons and as supplements to the popup articles, such as these from the topics about Milankovitch, Douglas, and Keeling:





Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Would I notice a rock slide if it were right in front of me?

I once emailed a link to one of my climate illustrations and told the recipient, "make sure you read the caveats tab." She replied, "everyone should have a caveats tab."

And so I continue to look for opportunities to test what I know, as well as what I remember.

Two years ago I started exploring a hiking route that involves some rock climbing and a lot of scrambling. Think if it a course of constant deep knee bends and limbo manuvers. After about a half year of exploring this route I noticed a rock slide:

This hike is in a canyon with a lot of loose rock and rapidly eroding slopes. Therefore, I stay away from these hazards. But still, I always look at where I walk and observe my surroundings, and I should have been looking out for something so obvious a hillside of newly exposed rock and dirt. Or would I notice such a thing?

Did I witness a significant erosion event in the short time I'd been exploring this canyon? Or did I fail to notice something that occurs on a longer scale? -- and therefore, need to examine my observation skills for overconfidence.

This rockslide also knocked over a cotton wood tree. Here is a photo of it sideways on the ground with a new shoot growing upright.

The photo above shows dead limbs (angled downward) and a new limb (angled at 2:00 ) which is actually vertical, though this isn't obvious in the photo. In fact, the tree had about a half dozens of these newly started vertically growing limbs. The presence of new vertically growing limbs when the rest of the tree is horizontal offered a proxy measurement of the date at which this tree was suddenly knocked over.

I selected one of the thickest limbs (the one in the photo above) and cut off a sample of the limb near the base. Below, I've counted and labeled the growth rings. I count three more than the time I've been visiting this rock slide.

So, I add this to my metaphorical caveats tab. I can miss the obvious. Do others?


Friday, October 18, 2013

Comet Hunt for October

Comet ISON is in the morning sky, but I haven't seen it. I took some photos of the region this week. In the photo below, ISON is supposed to be a coupled degrees distant from Mars and Regulus (the two bright stars in the picture):

I scrutinized the picture, but can find no sign of a comet, suggesting that viewing the comet needs a telescope, which can improve the contrast between it and the glow of my light polluted sky. Perhaps a longer exposure under a darker sky would reveal the comet. My photos were taken on the morning of Oct 16. By now, the full moon interferes, so the next prime opportunity to search will be in about 9 days.

Meanwhile, the morning sky enabled my first photo of the southern star Canopus, which is the second brightest star in the sky. Here is Canis Major, with canopus on the horizon (just right of the tree).

This  is the same area, but a little longer exposure. The stars and star clusters in Canis Major are easier to see, but Canopus is not as bright because it hadn't yet cleared the tree:

Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, and the brightest in Canis Major. Canopus is the second brightest star in the night sky. It is rare for northern hemisphere observers to see both. 


Friday, October 11, 2013

What's Up, Orange County Astronomers, 11 Oct 2013

I'm doing the October What's Up presentation for the Orange County Astronomers (, which is tonight at 7:30. Here are a few highlights that I'll be sharing
The Delphinius Nova fades, as shown in this comparison of photos from Aug 15 with Oct. 5. The first overlays the nova taken on 18 Aug with the same star field photographed a year ago.


The second photo shows that the nova has faded to a dim star.

I got a fresh image Andromeda rising in the east last weekend. Here I've diagramed how to find M31 and M33. M31 is visible from a moderately light polluted sky. M33 needs pure darkness, but can be seen with binoculars.

The full moon stomps on the next two significant meteor showers, so I'm sharing a consolation prize, a time when the moon helped the photo.
The above includes the full moon, anticrepuscular rays, and the Earth's shadow. The rays (shadows on the left, are from the sun and converge on the anti-solar point just below the moon. The blue horizon is the earth's shadow. Both of these are corroborated by the presence of a full moon, which you see as full only when the moon directly opposite the sun.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Message in a Bottle

Tiny actions we take affect other other creatures. I'm sure the person who discarded this bottle at a scenic location knew that when the glass breaks it would pose a safety hazard. This person probably knew that he or she was creating pointless litter in a scenic location that is enjoyed by many visitors. And the person probably knew, that eventually, someone would pick up the bottle. But I suspect the person did not know that before the bottle would be collected, it would trap and kill a couple dozen beetles.

I photographed the bottle because I found the number of dead beetles in it remarkable. I then shook out the contents before stowing it in my car, but as emptied it, I was surprised by how many dead beetles of all sizes continued to fall out. I regret that I didn't count them first, but I estimate two dozen beetles died in this bottle.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Circum-Horizon Arc at Joshua Tree

On labor day, 2013, I used my magic for finding locations that I nearly have to myself. My secret this time was to choose desert-baked rocks at Joshua Tree National Park during high temperatures coupled with unusually high humidity. Though the humidity was challenging my personal breaking point, it came with the blessing of great and rare cloud formations. Most notable was a circum-horizon arc that caught me without a camera, so I had to use my cell phone:

Circum-horizon arc in the sky showing green to orange rainbow colors.
In the photo above, I imagine the cloud in the lower right as an obscene gesture taunting me for not having my best camera.

A half hour later, maybe longer, I had my camera and had finished climbing another outcrop of rocks. When I looked back to admire my progress, the arc had returned, now sporting a lot of blue and green color:

Over the next 10 minutes, the arc changed to emphasize the orange part of the rainbow spectrum:

This photo is an attempt to provide a reference point for the location of circum-horizon arcs. The sun is just off the top of the photo, and around it is the more common ice halo that was also visible this day. The circum-horizon arc can be seen in the lower right.

I understand that circum-horizon arcs can be seen only when the sun is high overhead, making this effect a summer phenomenon. That is, I assume at my lattitude (about 32 degress N.) the sun never gets high enough in winter (though the atmospheric conditions are more likely to produce the necessary ice crystals to create this refracted light effect). High summer humidity and thunderstorms, however, puts a lot of moisture high enough where it can freeze and give us these arcs. This is the second circum-horizon arc I've seen. The last one was in early Aug. a couple years ago.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

4.6 Billion and Counting (presentation is online)

I just put my presentation on the Nice model of the solar system, 4.6 and Counting, on my website at

My presentation is primarily for my use in that I'm not trying to write out all the explanation I provide when I present it. Also, there are four interactive animations that lack instructions. Curious observers will have to make their own discoveries. However, I've provided a lot of illustrations with descriptions, so one may find it instructive. As always, I invite suggestions and corrections.

Notes on interactive illustrations:
"Exoplanets": I use an animation of the solar system to compare our solar system with two exoplanet systems. The exoplanet systems are examples of systems that would not have been created without significant planetary migration. Clicking a planet will scale the size to the clicked planet's orbit. For example, click Mercury at the bottom of the page, find the horizontal speed slider to slow down the movement, then click one of the planet check boxes near Mercury to see the orbits of a Kepler system.

"Resonance": I use this to illustrate how a 1:2 resonance can disturb the orbit of a planet. Click the "inner" check box and then watch what happens to the inner planet. I never finished this animation for the outer planet. My intention is to show how an eccentric orbit of a KBO object can be stabilized by a resonance with a planet like Neptune.

"Res2": Here I show that resonance can occur when one or two planets migrate. You can change the positions of the two planets to create a 1:2 or 2:3 resonance.

"Planet Toss": Press any key to move through this animation that shows the interaction between large planets and small planetesimals.

And all the other chapters have text at the bottom describing the pictures.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sun Pillar (almost)

On the way to the Lake Skinner star party, I saw a sun-pillar-like phenomenon. It's best described as a diffuse sun pillar:

You can see a shadow off of the mountain in the center. This shadow demonstrates that the sun is below the horizon and not behind the bright patch of cloud in the center. With the sun below the horizon, the bright patch is illuminated by light refracted, or bent, by ice crystals in the clouds. If the clouds were thinner, I suspect the pillar would have been more compact, appearing as a column, similar to this sun pillar I photographed a couple years ago:

The above sun pillar was photographed in January, the colder weather enhancing the ice crystal formation needed to create a well defined column. My hypothesis is that the same phenomena in summer tends toward more diffuse pillars, as shown by this sun pillar, which I also photographed during hot weather a few years ago:

In addition to a sun pillar,  I also saw a fireball meteor during last night's star party at Lake Skinner. In the south, a bright meteor, many times brighter than Venus glowed and crawled south and then broke up into at least three visible parts. I was not the only one who saw it.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Public Star Part at Lake Skinner, Saturday, August 24, 2013. 8:00pm

Lake Skinner is hosting a star party on Saturday, August 24. The event is free and open to the public. Lake Skinner charges and entrance fee, but will waive it for people attending for the star party only. I'd recommend arriving between 7:30 and 8:00. At 8:15, there will be a brief show followed by star gazing, from 8:30- 9:30. The star party will be held at the amphitheatre, marked on the map below.

If the weather looks hazardous on Friday, check the Lake Skinner website (or Facebook page) to verify if the event is still being held: See

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Nova and the Dolphin

Amateur astronomers are glowing over the appearance of a nova that is visible to the naked eye. Though the nova is in the eastern sky in the evening, I waited till it was in the west to photograph it. The moon was just past first quarter and bright enough to interfere with photography, so I waited till 3:00 on Thurs morning (8/15/2013) when the moon had set. Below is an annotated photo of the region I took last year with my 8/15 nova photo superimposed. An arrow depicts the nova.

(Tap or double-click to enlarge)

I was going to create an animated version to fade between last year's and this year's photos but had trouble aligning the stars in the two photos. Though both photos were taken with a 28mm lens, last year's image put the region of interest at the edge of the field of view, where the lens's distortion is greatest. My nova photo was centered on the Delphinius, so the stars wouldn't align. However, I found the misalignment revealing. The nova is the only star in this composite that doesn't have the illustion of a motion blur.

All stars that are in both images appear in motion or blurred, but the nova lacks a blurry companion because it appears in only one image. Below is the same composite image with an arrow depicting the nova.

The nova should be viewable at next Saturday's free public star party at Lake Skinner. Details to follow.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

4.6 Billion and Counting

I'm working on a presentation for the Julian Starfest (2013) called 4.6 Billion and Counting.  My presentation is about the Nice model (named after Nice, France) that describes how changing orbits of the outer planets in the first 700 million years of the solar system's existence can account for the nature of these planets' current orbits, the Kuiper-Edgeworth belt, the asteroid belt, Jupiter's Trojan asteroids, and the timing of the late heavy bombardment. I'll be including additional research that has come out since the Nice model trio of papers in 2005, such as projections for the long-term stability of the solar system and significant planetary impacts that affect us today,

Orbital resonance. I'm working on a simulation of this, where the planets and orbits move. A work-in-progress can be seen on my website: orbit resonance

These are the pieces for a pending animation showing the modelled results of the collision of planetesimals. What may happen to atmospheres and oceans on such planetesimals may be revealed by computer modeling of impacts, by modelling of planetary orbits, and by observations of gas content in the atmospheres of Venus, Earth and Mars.

A illustration of the early formation stage after the sun as coalesced and started clearing out the inner solar system of volatile elements while large planets beyond the snow line accrete  quickly.

As with all my presentations, this is a discovery process. I reserve the right to make errors, but will correct all that are called to my attention or that I discover long after the presentation.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Rock Weathering Post on Skeptical Science

John Mason of Skeptical Science has written an excellent overview of long term rock weathering and how it maintains atmospheric CO2 levels. I contributed a sketch on the post in which I tried to stuff every relevent component of the long term carbon cycle into a width of 560 pixels. I also created larger versions that are available in the Skeptical Science Climate Graphics section.


Climate Comments

In about 50 minutes, one can read a poorly researched opinion letter asserting that climate change is fiction (e.g., PE letter Climate Change a Fiction), do a google search to find NASA's earth temperature data, download the data into Excel, review the formula for a linear trend, calculate the trends for 10-, 30-, and 100-year time periods, jot down the slope of each, noting that all are positive, and then write a rebuttal, which I did. I'm not the only one who felt a letter in the paper is a minimum provocation for a rebuttal (e.g., PE letter Sacrifice to help stall climate change). And I'm probably not the only one who invests more time researching the topic than the orginal writer of an opinion. In the past, I've regretted capturing a permanent link to such conversations, for the papers sometimes clean their wedsites of old comments and old letters. So, this post is mainly for me to stash a recent ill-informed letter where I and anyone interested may find it.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Upstaged by NASA in Jennifer Francis's Arctic Amplification (Extreme Weather)

Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University has a 1/2 hour talk on YouTube on arctic amplification in which she explains how climate change is affecting our weather. The presentation can be viewed here:
Extreme Weather, by Jennifer Francis

At about 17-18 minutes into the presentation, she uses some animations I created for a post on the jetstream by John Mason, of Skeptical Science. The complete post is here:

Both Dr. Francis's presentation and John Mason's article are excellent sources for understanding weather and how long term climate change will affect weather. Specifically, climate change is warming the arctic which changes the behavior of the jetstream which determines our weather.

The must-see item in the presentation, however, is the video she includes from NASA that shows the jetstream in action. This video improves on my schematic, but it was an eerie, pleasant feeling for me to see it after creating animations that depict the same effects.

Unfortunately, the color choice I made for one of the schematics didn't show up well in the video (the animation is projected onto a screen and then captured by a video camera). The original animations can be seen with the Skeptical Science jetstream article (above) and are posted on my website here:

Dr. Francis's video includes the following for more information on climate:


Friday, June 14, 2013

I had an opportunity to contribute an illustration to Dana Nuccitelli's blog at The Guardian: Climate Concensus - The 97%. Below is a variation of the illustration used, but without the typo.

The illustration in a larger form (also without the known typo) is available from the Climate Graphics section of the Skeptical Science website. I expect to be doing variations of this illustration, as the notion of a consensus is still provocative among those unwilling to face the implications form climate studies. The existence of a consensus, what it is based on, and how that message has been derailed will have to stated and restated if humanity is to unite in time to avert unprecedented rates of global change.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Meteors and Mistakes

I believe it has been ten years since I first started making public presentations on behalf of my astronomy club. My first presentation was at a Lake Skinner star party. The event coordinator, their park interpretor, asked for presentation, so I cobbled together 40 slides that I had taken and made a show. After the show, a family approached me and said their son would like to think me. I looked down, and their 3-4 year old son hugged my leg. Presentations would become one of the worth while activities I'll do.

I recall another great act of gratitude when a child approached me after a show and gave me a quarter. First he said, "here's a nickel" and put it in my hand. Not looking at it, I said, "yes it is". Then he said, "no, I mean, it's a quarter". I looked more carefully and corrected myself. "Yes. A quarter." Then the boy said, "It's for you. Thanks for the show." I accepted graciously. One doesn't turn down a gift or reject a gesture of thanks. At the time, this was the most I'd ever been paid for show, and my friends assured me that I was probably worth every penny.

My one regret in shows is that I don't have an opportunity to correct my errors. I try to present my own photos so that I can show people honestly what I saw, though sometimes I'm mistaken as to what it was. Such was the case with a photo I took on slide film around ten years ago. I was tracking the asteroid Ceres, and on one of the nights, something passed through my field of view (click or double click to enlarge the image):

At the time, I thought that whatever caused the striek (a plane or satelite), I was impressed that it happened to intersect three stars, and I made this comment in a few presentations. Later, I realized my error: the plane or satellite also created the bright white star-like images on the film. Notice how evenly spaced and of similar brightness they are, and that two appear to have a dimmer companion at the same position.

With this lesson in mind, I dismissed a photo taken last month as a result of the same effect.

Faint erratic meteor, or blinking object?

Highlight of area containing meteor or blinking object

Here's a close up. Notice that the striek passes through several stars -- I was very suspicious.

Fortunately, I took more than one image. By switching the view between these last two images, I could see that the stars crossed by the meteor appear in the picture below taken a few minutes later:

It is a meteor!