Explore: November 2011

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11 posts from November 2011


Astronomy: Buying That First Telescope

11-25-11_Christmas_Tree_Nebula_ESOOne question I get asked frequently, especially in the weeks before Christmas, is what is a good starter telescope to buy? Many people who ask this question have already glimpsed telescopes for sale at the big box stores and are looking for a price tag of $200 and under. The telescopes that you find in these stores that promise amazing sights (see unrealistic photos on the box they come in) are not worth your time or money. The small sizes won't give you views better than most binoculars, the mounts are rickety and often the scope is not assembled well and little support is provided.

Because there generally aren’t stores around that offer a wide range and selection of good quality telescopes, your best bet is Internet shopping. Three well-known companies that sell an assortment of equipment worth checking out are Meade, Orion, and Celestron, although there are certainly many other brands that will also provide you with a quality telescope.

There are a lot of factors to consider when buying a telescope, such as whether you want a refractor or reflector, what size to buy, how stable is the mount, can it be easily transported to my viewing site, and so forth. Not to mention how much money you have to spend. The answers to these questions will differ depending on the person, which is why it makes it hard to give general recommendations.

One additional factor that has become very popular over the past decade is the GOTO telescope. This type of telescope allows you to align with a couple of bright stars and then you use the keypad to punch in what you want to see and the telescope motors its way to your desired object. GOTO telescopes have positive and negative attributes. A few negatives are that they are definitely pricier (and it’s getting harder to find scopes without the GOTO feature) and they don't really help you to learn the sky. A benefit of a GOTO scope is that if you’re efficient at aligning, you can maximize your time at the scope by having it do the star hopping for you.

Some telescopes are sold without mounts, as "tabletop" versions, which helps to cut down on the price for those just starting out, but be sure you have a sturdy place to view from. A shaky table or tripod will ruin anything that could have been gained with your inexpensive scope.

Dobsonian telescopes are one of my favorite types of scopes for those starting out, because you can get a decent-sized scope (4.5-inch, 6-inch, or 8-inch) for under $500. The simple design makes it the best value and easy to use for beginners. Although if you’re an apartment dweller who has to load up your telescope and drive to a dark-sky site every time you want to observe, a 4.5-inch reflector may be more practical.

One caveat about buying a telescope for Christmas: depending on where you live, that telescope may not see much use until it’s warm out. While a telescope always sounds like a fabulous Christmas present, the truth is, for those of us in the northern climes, it’s just not that pleasant to stand outside on a below-freezing night and fiddle with eyepieces and try to find your target in the scope. First timers can get a bit disillusioned as they shiver and try to get a hang of their new gift. Fortunately this year, the week after Christmas features a crescent moon visible just after sunset, allowing new telescope users to go out early in the evening and train their scopes on the easiest target in the heavens. 

Despite awesome claims on some telescope boxes, you won't see the Christmas Tree Cluster and Cone Nebula in this picture through any amateur scope. Photo credit: ESO.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Exploring the Aftermath of the Japan Disaster

Tsunami Debris Expedition 2012

The tragic devestation of the Japan earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in March, but the aftermath is still developing. While the toll on lives was catastrophic, the toll on the ocean has been largely unknown. 

That might change through a partnership between 5 Gyres Institute, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and Pangaea Exploration, which are sending scientists aboard a vessel that will sail to the area -- and the public is invited to join them. The goal of Algalita and 5 Gyres, which usually study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is to get a sense of how the wreckage from the disaster is interacting with the existing plastic pollution that has been swirling around the North Pacific Gyre for decades. Scientists onboard will also investigate whether the debris is being colonized by marine life and if it's assisting the transportation of invasive species.  

The trip is open to anyone who is 18 or older, regardless of sailing experiece. The 7,000-mile research expedition is scheduled from May 1 through July 1 of next year. Participants will be expected to get their hands dirty and "earn their sea legs" by hauling in lines and hoisting sails. They will also help out with the research side-by-side with scientists.

The trip will start from Kwajalein Atoll northward, followed by a second leg from Japan to Hawaii through the gyre, where plastic pollution spans for as far as the eye can see. For information on signing up for this unique trip, click here.

In an interview with the Sierra Club this past February, 5 Gyres co-founder Dr. Marcus Eriksen described the Pacific Ocean's enormous pastic garbage patch as a thick soup that blankets the top portion of the ocean's surface. This floating chemical layer is the result of decades of plastic pollution from the coasts of adjacent continents. Dead fish and birds in the area have been found with little plastic bits in their innards. "Once you see it, it's hard to deny it ever again. You see this endless soup of really tiny plastic particles you sail through," he said. Eriksen and his colleagues now take civilians on these expeditions to raise awareness. 

"After first hearing of the devastating state of the North Pacific Gyre, I immediately had a desire to witness it for myself and tell the world about it," said Tim Silverwood of New South Wales. "Participating in leading scientific research with people from all over the world, all motivated to bring this issue to the mainstream, was incredible."

Image courtesy Zan Dubin Scott.

-- Brian Foley


Year in Yosemite: A Grand Vision


I once interviewed an artist who had been raised in Yosemite Valley from the time he was a toddler until he left for college in Manhattan. Asked how he made the transition from living in a national park to living in America's largest city, he replied, "It was easy. They remind me of each other." At the time, I chalked his comment up to an artist's sensibility. But then several more people told me that their two favorite places on Earth were Yosemite and Manhattan. Coincidence? Or something more?

Obviously both places are defined by massive walls that tower overhead (and let's face it, the Valley floor in summer feels like Manhattan at rush hour), but, that said, I couldn't help but wonder why so many people seemed to feel a connection between two places that, to me at least, seemed so different. Then I read Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. There, on page 323, in a chapter called “The Garden,” I had my aha moment. Both places were heavily shaped and influenced by the vision of one man -- and that man was Frederick Law Olmstead.

In 1857, at the age of 35, Olmstead won his first commission as a landscape architect. The place was 840 acres of scrub and marshland in what was then the far reaches of Manhattan -- now known as Central Park. At the time, his only experience moving earth was as a farmer. He hadn't a clue how to draft a blueprint. But he'd witnessed the British movement away from the structured, geometric gardens of France and Italy to a more pastoral design. He wanted the same for America, only better. In Europe, parks and countryside retreats were strictly the domain of the aristocracy, the rich and the well connected. A patriotic American, Olmstead believed the government had a moral obligation to provide green space -- huge, great, massive tracts of it -- for all the people to enjoy.

Continue reading "Year in Yosemite: A Grand Vision" »

Swimming with the Fishes: Pisces

The constellation Pisces rises in the east this weekend after sunset. The planet Jupiter will be to the constellation’s lower left. Credit: Till Credner

Most people who have heard of Pisces think of it as a sign of the Zodiac for those who have birthdays in late winter. But Pisces is actually a constellation known as The Fish that is easy to spot in the eastern sky on fall nights once you know where to look.

Pisces is made even easier than usual due to bright Jupiter just to the left of the constellation. The stars forming a large V to Jupiter’s right and above are part of Pisces, and when you run into the Great Square of Pegasus above it, you’ve gone too far. The most noticeable part of Pisces is called the Circlet. The Circlet is a generally round shaped collection of stars at the southern end of the constellation’s V shape.

Pisces is indeed a constellation of the Zodiac, which means that it lies along the plane of the solar system where planets and the moon and sun may pass. Thus, Jupiter is just across the border in Aries these days. Jupiter will pass into Pisces at the beginning of next month. The moon also spent four days traveling the length of Pisces earlier in November and will do so again December 2-5, and on December 6 it will lie just beside Jupiter as Jupiter moves into Pisces and the moon passes it going the other direction, into Aries.

Pisces is the 14th largest of all the constellations. It contains one Messier object, M74, a dim magnitude-10 spiral galaxy. M74 is one-and-a-half degrees east-northeast of Eta Piscium, but requires a large scope, dark site, and lots of patience to see.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


A Massive Starling Murmuration Becomes "A Real Highlight of Existence"

Starling murmurationThe two women were just wrapping up a day of canoeing the River Shannon when it happened: A massive swarm of birds swooped in and danced majestically above them, performing an aerial spectacle so close to the paddlers' heads that they instinctively ducked.

"It was definitely a bit scary, a bit terrifying. The fact that it was so beautiful overrode all of that," said Liberty Smith, one of the two women who caught the astonishing event on video. "It was a real highlight of existence. We were in awe."

The 28-year-old filmmakers, Smith and Sophie Windsor Clive, are from London but were in Ireland last January when they decided to row to a small island. They were nearing the end of a 2.5-hour trip when the starlings appeared in a mesmerizing cloud of intricate dancing and weaving. The birds, silent except for their wings, came so close that the two felt a bit afraid — and then astonished. "We actually didn’t know it was going to be something so remarkable until we were in the middle of it," Smith said. 

The video went viral a few weeks ago, after Smith and Clive entered it in the World Wildlife Fund's Vimeo contest

It's lucky these birds were even filmed at all: The pair had brought two cameras out of habit, but the "good" one's batteries had run out. They caught four minutes on their non-HD device before it started to get dark, though the birds were still soaring when the taping ended. 

Paul Cabe, a biology professor at Washington and Lee University, wrote his thesis about starlings. According to him, what Smith and Clive captured is exceptionally rare: "I've seen similar things," he said, "but never as dramatic or with as large a number."

The word "murmuration" refers to a large group of starlings, but does not actually describe their incredible swirling waves in the sky. This phenomonon occurs almost daily in smaller starling flocks, Cabe said. Experts believe the behavior to have developed as a way to escape aerial predation: One study showed that the starlings' acrobatics greatly reduced Peregrine falcons' hunting success.

Incidentally, North America's starlings are the same species Clive and Smith spotted in Ireland. This is thanks to Shakespeare. In 1890, the European starling was introduced to the U.S. in a quixotic attempt to bring over all the birds Shakespeare mentioned in his works, Cabe said.

Inspired by their once-in-a-lifetime experience, Clive and Smith hope to try for it again next year. 

--Avni Nijhawan / image: Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith


Climbing the World's Lowest Point to its Highest

Cycling to Mount EverestIt was by chance that Pauline Sanderson came to bike across eight countries and climb the tallest mountain in the world.

The lawyer-turned-explorer happened to receive a flier in the mail: "It had this very tiny bicyclist against the huge backdrop of a Pakistani mountain," she said of the advertisement EverestMax had sent her. It was love at first sight.

After putting her job on hold for six months, renting out the house, and getting a bank loan, Pauline, 40 years old at the time, was determined to be on that trip.

It was hardly her first trip abroad. Her husband, Phil, had started an outdoor-training school for Westerners in Nepal, where they'd lived for four years. And the adventure-hungry duo had been to other parts of Asia and Africa too.

Pauline left Phil for four months to complete the first part of the journey — a separation that she said was difficult — but the two were reunited at Mount Everest, and became the first British married couple to reach the summit.

On the rest of the journey, Pauline, four other bikers, and two supporting team members (who drove the van and provides sustenance) set off from Heathrow to Jordan to begin a six-month journey from the world's lowest point to its highest: the Dead Sea (elevation -1,388 feet) to Everest's summit (29,029 feet). Before scaling the mountain, the crew biked almost 5,000 miles across Jordan, Iran, Pakistan, and Tibet.

Pauline vividly details her journey in a new book, The World's Longest Climb; 50% of all profits from its sales go to the charities SOS Children’s Villages and Practical Action.

Pauline didn't tell her mother about the mountain. It was, after all, the only mountain Mom had expressly forbidden her to climb. She told her she'd be climbing a Mount "Evelier," a fib her team loyally maintained through the journey.

Objectively, she said, the scariest part of the journey should have been crossing the Iran-Pakistan border — 300 miles of bandit territory. "They ended up giving us an armed guard all the way across Pakistan," she said. Fortunately, there were no surprises. 

Everest was an entirely different beast, and that was when she experienced the scariest moment of her trip: For about a minute, her oxygen tank stopped working. At first she thought she hadn't taken enough air with her, but then she realized the pipe had twisted. Phil came to the rescue. "It probably took a minute between me getting his attention and him being with me," she said. "It felt like such a long minute."

Other scary moments: passing the dead. Even though she'd been warned about the corpses, Pauline still felt shock when she caught her rope on a dead man's foot as she scaled Everest. "This guy is 100% dead, and I'm walking right past him because he’s doing the same thing I was," she recalled, adding that five people had died just days before their climb.

"We actually went up in ignorance. When we came down we were told ignorance is bliss," she said. 

--Avni Nijhawan / photo: DRichard Walters


Nature Art: Patterns

Flower heads

Patterns can be geometric—like a modernist Piet Mondrian painting—or organic. Organic patterns take their repeated shapes from nature, like the dots of frost on the flower heads, above. One of the earliest frosts ever hit Maryland last week, and these sedum just barely survived. I thought the frost would melt before I returned with my camera. Ferns copy

Many Japanese patterns are nature-based. The Pattern Sourcebook: Japanese Style 2: 250 patterns for Projects and Designs contains 250 full-color images of historic Japanese fabric patterns, many of them based on the tiny repeated dot pattern you see in the sedum, above. The dots themselved were stenciled onto dyed fabric. Some are so evocative!  This one, at right, of fiddlehead ferns, dates from the mid-1860s.

The book includes a CD of 250 copyright-free images.  Most designs repeat evenly, like wallpaper, which will allow you to copy and paste them as tiles in Photoshop. You can also change the original colors and combine patterns as you wish, perhaps creating your own business cards or website. A second example appears below. It's called  "dandelion clocks."

Dandylion copyTry changing the background color (or the dots) and see how the mood of the piece shifts!

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.






Year in Yosemite: Winter? It's All Downhill From Here

The Merced in fog

There are people in this world whose entire day can be dictated by a morning ritual that starts with stepping on a scale. Numbers up? Bad, sad mood. Numbers down? The world is a wonderful place. Same for those who start each day by looking at the stock market. Numbers up? Good day. Numbers down? Not so fine. Me? Ever since we moved to Yosemite National Park, my ritual goes like this—get up, make a cup of coffee, turn on the computer and read Yosemite’s Daily Report. Put out by the park service for Yosemite employees, it always starts the same way—with the weather report. And like the scale and stock market watchers, my mood is dictated by what I read, but in the opposite way. Numbers up? I’m elated. Numbers down? My mood is bad and sad.

This being November, each day I look, the numbers are headed in the wrong direction. We live in California after all, home to palm trees, sunshine, year ‘round tans (natural and otherwise) and surfers. I don’t remember the Beach Boys crooning anything about ice, snow, hail and sleet. Yet starting about now, that’s just what Yosemite’s tiny population of year ‘rounders and its visitors can expect.


The first year we lived here, in the blush of new-found love, the winter didn’t bother me, even a ten-day power outage brought on by wet snow and blowing winds seemed romantic in a Little House on the Prairie way. (Okay, it was romantic for about the first four days, then it was just a pain). By the second year, the snow, ice and freezing temperatures were something I put up with, fairly successfully. By that time, we’d acquired a generator; two used all-wheel drive Subarus, heated mattress pads for our beds (for those lucky days when the electricity in our home actually worked), and the good sense to leave the park for warmer climes when we had another weeklong power outage.

Continue reading "Year in Yosemite: Winter? It's All Downhill From Here" »

Astronomy: Star Light, Star Bright

11-11-11 Moon Venus Spica Jupiter A. Pasten A. Gomez and NOAOAURANSF
This photo is a good illustration of how much brighter planets can shine compared to stars. From top to bottom: the moon, Venus, Spica, and Jupiter. Credit: A. Pasten, A. Gomez, and NOAO/AURA/NSF

“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”

This childhood saying is one I got a lot of use out of over the years. When I was a kid and it started to get dark outside, I would walk out on my driveway and look out over the strawberry patch across the street from my house and watch the pink of sunset drain away in the west. Often, I would see a bright point of light there, and it was only after several minutes that other stars would begin to appear from the darkening blue of the night sky. I would whisper the nursery rhyme and then silently make my wish. Thinking back now, I can’t think of a single thing I ever wished for. And I’m certain those wishes seemed of vital importance to me at the time.

Ironically, the first “star” you see in the night sky is often not a star at all but a planet. When planets such as Venus and Jupiter are up in the night sky, they shine more brightly than any stars. As a kid as I looked west into the sunset and caught a glimpse of a brilliant point of light, chances are that it was the planet Venus. Venus has been absent from the evening sky for months, but it is returning again and will make itself better known over the coming weeks.

For those looking east after sunset, the brightest and therefore first point of light that emerges into twilight in this section of sky is Jupiter. Jupiter climbs higher each hour of the night and shines brightly at magnitude -2.9. Venus is the brightest of all pointlike objects in the night sky at magnitude -3.9. The brightest actual star in the sky is Sirius at magnitude -1.1, which currently does not rise until almost midnight — definitely not the first star you’ll see at this time of year.

If Venus and Jupiter were not in the sky, a handful of other stars of similar brightness would all be vying for the title of brightest. Beginning the night overhead but eventually setting in the west-northwest is the Summer Triangle, whose brightest star, Vega, shines at magnitude 0.0. Another star at about magnitude 0.0 sets in the west-northwest before Vega: Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. The twinkling star in the northeast is Capella at magnitude 0.1. As Orion rises, two other bright stars come into view, reddish Betelgeuse at magnitude 0.5 and bluish Rigel at magnitude 0.2.

Because I can’t remember them, I’m not sure if any of those wishes I made as a kid came true. But I have always loved writing and astronomy, and now that is what I do for work every day. I also ended up marrying my childhood sweetheart. So maybe my wishes did come true. Perhaps I should go out and wish upon the brightest star tonight ....  

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Astronomy: November Highlights

11-4-11 RicelakeMilkyway
At the end of November, Venus will be above the teapot in the constellation Sagittarius, seen here to the lower left of the Milky Way. Credit: John Chumack

The brilliant planet Venus will become noticeable in the evening sky again during November. Lying low in the pinkish glow after sunset, Venus shines at magnitude -3.9 with Mercury just below it during the first two weeks of November. By the end of the month, Mercury sinks toward the sun but Venus journeys into Sagittarius near the top of the teapot, and on November 26 a crescent moon stands beside the Goddess of Love.

Jupiter still shines brightly in the east and is more noticeable now because it’s rising when the sky gets dark, offering more people an earlier glimpse. The other two naked-eye planets, Mars and Saturn, are currently in the morning sky, along with Jupiter, which is acting like a true carousing Roman god right now as it is up all night long.

Two meteor showers occur in November, although neither of them have overly impressive displays. This weekend is the South Taurid meteors, which peak at about 8 meteors an hour, and overnight from November 17-18 is the Leonid meteor shower, which is a bit stronger at 10 meteors an hour during peak.

For more on November skies, including a partial solar eclipse at the bottom of the world, see The Night Sky Guide for November 2011.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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