Explore: December 2011

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9 posts from December 2011


Oh, Crescent Moon

12-23-11 Crescent Moon Chumack

Even though owning a telescope will suddenly open up unseen worlds in the night sky, from clusters to galaxies to nebulae, the best sight will always be the moon. This is especially true for beginners because the moon is easy to find and the detail never disappoints.

For anyone who received a telescope over Christmas, the moon will be up in the early evenings for the rest of the year, hanging around a bit longer each night and growing fuller as it comes out of its most recent new phase, which was on Christmas Eve.

One of the very noticeable features on the moon when it is about 3 days old, which it will be on the 27th, is the large dark circle in the upper right area. This is Mare Crisium, or the Sea of Crises, one of the old lava-filled basins distinguishable by its dark hue. Each following night as more of the moon is lit, you will see more craters and mare appear. The large one below Mare Crisium is Mare Fedcunditatis, or the Sea of Fertility, and to the upper left of it separated by a thin white ridge, visible around December 30 this month, is Mare Tranquillitatis, or the Sea of Tranquility. This mare is famous for being the landing site of Apollo 11, the location of where humans first stepped on the moon.

A couple notable bright spots to point out on the moon over the coming week are three white craters. Near the bottom right edge of Mare Fecunditatis is a white circular crater known as Langrenus. Through a telescope you can see the central peaks on the crater's floor. To Langrenus and Mare Fecunditatis's lower left are two bright white craters close together. These two craters are Stevinus (upper left crater) and Furnerius (lower right crater). Both craters have a prominent ray system of material that was ejected during the impacts that created them long ago. See if you can trace the chain of craters that leads from Stevinus and Furnerius back up to Langrenus.

-- 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.


Uncovered: Photo of John Muir

Muir, John A sugar pine and John Muir (1)
A sugar pine and John Muir.  Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History.

There are few new things under the sun, but here's a fun one: a photograph uncovered in early December by the archives of the Pasadena Museum of History. It shows John Muir holding a sugar pine cone nearly as long as his beard. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.) On the back of the photo, Muir wrote:

The grandest tree in the world
the Sugar Pine
and the grandest mountaineer in the world
John Muir

It's thought that Muir was jesting with his friend T.P. Lukins, a conservationist and Pasadena community leader in the late 1800s. Many of their letters, held by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California,   reflect the same sense of humor.

Muir, John Signature
Reverse side of John Muir photograph, showing inscription and his signature.  Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History

When you're used to six-inch pine cones, the 24-inch cones of a sugar pine are astounding, and it seems fitting that Muir should be photographed holding one. The cone I drew, below, measured about 16 inches.  It took me many tries to capture the shape of the seeds without drawing each one. Next to the drawing is a three-inch cone from a blue spruce.

Muir, Sue's drawing

-- 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.


Astronomy: It's Just a Phase

12-16-11 apollo08_earthrise
A half-lit Earth as seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts on the moon. Credit: NASA

The moon is not the only solar system object to display phases. Planets can also show a phase, depending on the positions of the planet, the sun, and the Earthly viewer. Even the Earth has phases, as was witnessed by astronauts on the moon.

Venus is one of the easiest planets to observe phases in because it's close to Earth and can be viewed with just a pair of binoculars. Venus and Earth are both spinning along in their orbits, but Venus's forward motion is a bit faster. At the moment Venus is emerging from around the corner of the sun and coming into better view for us on Earth. You can look for the bright point of light in the southwest after sunset to find it. With the sun is positioned between us and Venus, the Goddess of Love exhibits a larger, gibbous phase, as it is now. As Venus catches up with us (being on an inner orbit) and pulls closer to us, its phase will shrink. But even though its phase is shrinking, its overall size, or angular diameter, will grow larger as it gets closer, and the planet will appear brighter.

Continue reading "Astronomy: It's Just a Phase" »


Year in Yosemite: Water and Power

Upper Yosemite Fall & Merced River_04-29-08_Kenny Karst
Upper Yosemite Falls and Merced River.

Two days ago, I was walking down the road near our home in Yosemite National Park when a couple stopped me and asked for directions to the waterfall. Pointing down the road I said, "It's just down there but it's not running right now." With only an hour left before sundown, I sent these first-time Yosemite visitors on their way to see the Valley from Tunnel View. But I couldn't stop pondering my answer to them. I'd spoken of one of nature's greatest wonders as if it was a bathroom faucet. This being the driest fall we've had since we moved here my description was apt -- the waterfall is running but with all the power of a dripping tap.  

Come in spring or early summer and Chilnualna Falls is one of Yosemite's best-kept secrets. An 8.2-mile round-trip hike, it takes five hours of steady climbing with a literally breath-taking 2,400-foot gain in elevation along the way. Hardy souls -- wimps like me go in just one-half mile for the first spectacular view of the falls -- are greeted by wedding-cake tiers of water cascading over, under and across great, giant boulders of granite. But not now. Now spring's once explosive waters barely creep across the rocks. Looking at Chilnualna Falls in December, it's hard to imagine that water ranks as of the most important elements in the formation of Yosemite's grandeur.

Nevada & Vernal falls
Nevada and Vernal falls.

Over 200 million years ago, Yosemite and the whole Sierra Nevada started out as an inland sea. Over time -- lots of time -- sediments on the ocean floor compressed into sedimentary rock. Then, as so often happens in what is now California, a tectonic plate slipped and, as it did, it melted into sizzling hot magma. As the magma cooled underground, it became granite. Erosion stripped away the volcanic rock that sat atop the granite and then -- here it comes -- about 10 million years ago the Merced River and its tributaries took over. First, the river and streams carved out a deep V-shaped canyon. Then water carved it again, this time as frozen glaciers that left a U-shaped valley in their wake. Almost incidental to the process, but front and center in Yosemite's beauty, the glaciers formed shallower valleys from which many of North America’s largest and most spectacular waterfalls now flow.

But nature wasn't done (and, of course, never will be). Fifteen thousand years ago, as things warmed up to temperatures we'd recognize today, rock debris dammed in a shallow lake that lay on the floor of the U-shaped valley. Today The Ahwanhee, Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge sit on the sediment of that former lake. When the snows come, waterfalls set off that valley in perfect splendor.  

Chilnualna Falls.

But when the snows are late, locals like me tell park visitors not to bother with mere trickles that, in my very human hubris, I deem hardly worth viewing. I scare myself at moments like this and take an odd kind of comfort in the words of a Wintu Indian woman spoken more than 80 years ago:

The white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indians kill meat we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers we don't ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don't chop down the trees. We use only dead wood. But the white people plow up the ground, pull up the trees, kill everything. The tree says, 'Don't. I am sore. Don't hurt me.' But they chop it down and cut it up. The spirit of the land hates them. They blast out trees and stir it up to its depths. They saw up the trees. That hurts them. The Indians never hurt anything, but the white people destroy all. They blast rocks and scatter them on the earth. The rock says, 'Don't. You are hurting me.' The water, it can't be hurt. The white people go to the river and turn it into dry land. The water says, 'I don't care. I am water. You can use me all you wish. I am always the same. I can't be used up. Use me. I am water. You can't hurt me.' The white people use the water in sacred springs in their houses. The water says, 'That is all right. You can use me but you can't overcome me.' All that is water says, 'wherever you put me I'll be in my home. I am awfully smart. Lead me out of my springs, lead me from my rivers, but I come from the ocean and I shall go back into the ocean. You can dig a ditch and put me in it, but I go only so far and I am out of sight. I am awfully smart. When I am out of sight I am on my way home.

At this time of year, Chilnualna Falls may look insignificant to me, but what's really there is all the magnificent, planet-altering power of water headed home. 

Photo credits: Yosemite Falls and Nevada/Vernal Falls are by Kenny Karst. Chilnualna Falls is by Jon Jay.

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.


An Early Morning Eclipse

12-9-11 Total Lunar Eclipse Piotr Ciuchta
The moon emerging from a total lunar eclipse. Credit: Piotr Ciuchta

A total lunar eclipse occurs when a full moon lines up with Earth and the sun such that the moon enters into Earth's shadow. Who gets to view the eclipse is determined by what part of Earth is facing the moon at the right time. On the morning of Saturday, December 10, 2011, a lunar eclipse occurs that is situated perfectly for Asia but a bit sketchy for those of us in North America. The partial phase of the lunar eclipse begins at 12:45 UT, with the total phase beginning at 14:06 UT. Complete totality lasts for just under an hour, ending at 14:57 UT. Then the partial phase repeats as the moon slips back out of Earth’s shadow, with the event concluding at 16:17 UT.

Convert Universal Time to your local time to know when you should be looking. For those on the West Coast, that means you will have the best chance to see it. The total eclipse begins at 6:06 a.m. PST, 7:06 a.m. MST, 8:06 a.m. CST, and 9:06 a.m. EST. The problem with these times is that when the total lunar eclipse begins for those on the East Coast, the moon will already have set. So, for example, in Denver the moon sets at 7:12 a.m., allowing for observers to see all the partial phase but just a peek of the total phase.

Continue reading "An Early Morning Eclipse" »


Nature Art: Powers of Ten


It's a small world after all, but the photo micrograph -- an image taken through the lens of a microscope -- shows  a spiky, angled, and colorful world even smaller than the one Walt Disney imagined. The image above, a liverwort magnified 20 times, was made by Dr. Robin Young of the University of British Columbia. Dr. Young used confocal microscopy, a technique that uses optical filters to help researchers make images of thick specimens.

Entry_19850_sands-qingdaoYanping Wang, of the Bejing Planetarium in Bejing, China, took the image (at left) of sand, magnified 4 times.

The photographer used the reflected-light technique, in which the microscope makes the image by capturing reflected light bounced off an opaque object, such as sand.

These two scientists are winners in this year's Nikon photomicrography contest.  See a slideshow of the winning entries here.

I imagine many of you also check out the astronomy blog here at Explore. From the huge world to the tiny world, there's only one book that captures them both:  "Powers of Ten,"  by Philip Morrison and the office of Charles and Ray Eames.

Page one begins in a galaxy far, far away (10 billion light years) and travels toward earth, each page showing images at one-tenth the scale of the previous page. By page 25 you are inside a cell, within a hand of a man picnicking on the western shore of Lake Michigan. By page 40, the end of the book, you're checking out quantum particles. 

Do you remember those old-fashioned flipbooks? The images from "Powers of Ten" came out as a flipbook, too, and it's still fun to create your own stop-action film by leafing through the pages.     

It makes a great gift, but I'm guessing it is only a matter of time before there is an app for this...

-- 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.

Jordan Manley's Images Really Move

At 27, adventure photographer Jordan Manley is already a veteran in his field. His eye for vitality and mood has earned him the covers of magazines like Bike, Powder, SBC Skier, and Skiing. His images, though, rise above the numbing trove of “ski porn.”

So why is he exploring ski video, a niche that’s struggled to break from its worn-out groove of big hucks and dizzying spins?

“With video, there’s a narrative opportunity that’s not there with photography," he says. “I can be more involved in the storytelling."

Jordan Manley photographyIndeed, Manley the videographer is more interested in mountain chronicles than big air. Recently, a piece of his, called “Friends of Shames” told the story of a B.C. ski community trying to save their mountain from the bad economy. It’s part of the second season of his web series A Skier’s Journey, which has featured travelogues of Kashmir and France in past episodes. Manley finds poignant stories to accompany his stunning cinematography. His voiceovers are slight, reflective, thoughtful, albeit not necessarily gripping.

Manley’s own story isn’t mythic. In 1996, he and his family moved from a pink-skied suburb in Ontario to Vancouver. He got interested in mountain biking, and his passion for skiing was amplified. “The environment is such a big part of skiing,” he says. “There’s no match for the experience of being above treeline in the Coast Mountains.”

One day, he picked up his dad’s Pentax Spotmatic (though he's since shifted to Nikon D3s) and started clicking photos of cyclists and the wet, mossy forest.

Old folksTo learn the technical aspects of shooting, he read books by Freeman Patterson. Soon he was gazing at photographs by Patterson, Sterling Lorence, and Vincent Laforet, thinking, “How do I do that?” Then he developed an eye. Photography became a supplement to action sports, a new way of interacting with nature. “I’ve always had a passion for moving through a landscape on foot or on skis. I want to capture how an athlete interprets his surroundings,” he says.

Manley often spotlights the point of contact — a skier’s exploding line fringed by austere powder, say — where an athlete ruffles his pristine environment. It's compelling, he believes, how the snow erupts, then settles back into form.

Manley’s most arresting works pull us right in. We feel a single texture, like wet snow hitting our faces or mist settling on our skin, and from there, the settings swallow us. Our gaze becomes touch: We feel socked-in by their weather, engulfed by their locales, burned by their sun, scraped by their old, dark wood. They aren’t really images; they’re worlds to wander through.

The Baffin Island episode of A Skier’s Journey premieres Monday, Dec. 12, followed by the Argentina episode on Jan. 2. Watch these and past installments at Jordan Manley's Vimeo site. To see more of his photography, click through the jump, below.

Continue reading "Jordan Manley's Images Really Move" »


Year in Yosemite: Indian Summer

Yosemite 1

I took a walk today. I had to. In one of the most surprising turns of events since we moved to Yosemite National Park almost three years ago, winter seems to have gotten confused and forgotten to show up. Suddenly temperatures are springtime warm, the skies are a deep azure blue and there are enough flies zipping through the air to make me think they got it wrong too. And so I walk, wanting to drink it all in while I can, feeling both amazed and thankful.

Yosemite 2Last year at this time the park was already knee-deep in snow. Coming back from Thanksgiving vacation we were greeted by the Highway Patrol and required to “chain up” before driving the last two miles from Highway 41 to Yosemite. When my husband got out of the car to put ours on, it was so cold and dark that after half an hour of trying, he jumped in the car and announced we were heading back down to Oakhurst, half an hour away. I was secretly hoping that meant a motel stop for the night, but no, he just wanted the brightness of a gas station and a warmer place to work. On the way back up the hill, the chains broke. Ever resourceful, my husband tied them together and we made it home, but not before a Yosemite friend had gone up and down that hill in the snow, the ice and the dark trying to find us and help. That’s both the blessing and curse of Yosemite. Weather so wicked it can easily defeat you. Friends so kind they always have your back.

This morning, anticipating the inevitable, I spent an hour getting out winter jackets, hats, gloves and boots from the bins where they’d spent the summer. Rumor has it that snow is on the way. My husband (who hates winter with the same ferocity with which our daughter loves it) headed south. It might not sound romantic to the casual listener, but before he left he watched to make sure I knew how to get the generator working, wrote notes about winterizing the house and made sure the right chains were with the right car. Then he jumped in our strictly-for-summer hybrid and, like a smart goose, headed south. (Once winter comes, we’re an all Subaru family). His parting words were a caution to pull the cars into the garage before predicted wind gusts of 75 miles an hour hit tomorrow.

It’s in moments like these that I fixate on the Southern Miwok who lived in Yosemite long before Europeans ever found America’s shores. No Diane Sawyer and her Made in America campaign for them. Everything about their lives was authentically American and locally made, from their snowshoes fashioned from wooden hoops wrapped with grape vines to their deer skin clothes and rabbit fur capes.

But it’s what they didn’t wear that interests me. Many a mountain man and European traveler spoke in awe of the locals’ ability to wear practically nothing even as temperatures plummeted. So in tune were they with the natural world that their core body temperature stayed constant without the help of hats, gloves, parkas, and snow pants and boots. If things got really bad—and this being Yosemite of course it did—like my husband they headed south. By their reasoning, when the acorns were gathered and the animals they relied on for dinner headed for lower ground, it only made sense to do the same. I’d say most of America agrees with them. In time the entire country will probably be living in the Sunbelt. But then, who’d be there to see the trees wearing the latest in red and gold or smell the pines baking in the sun? Today I was here to take in one of fall’s last great pleasures. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Yosemite 3

-- Jamie Simons/photos by Jon Jay

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

Astronomy: December Observing Highlights

12-2-11 Winter Night Dane VanderLee
A bright planet on a cold winter night. Credit: Dane VanderLee

December hosts more hours of darkness than any other month. This is because the solstice occurs just after midmonth. On December 21 for those in the Central Time Zone and to the west and just after midnight on December 22 for those in the Eastern Time Zone, the solstice occurs. This is the moment that Earth’s northern axis tilts as far away from the sun as it gets.

All these extra hours of darkness, not to mention the coming cold of winter, makes people want to curl up inside by a fire and read a good book. But if you can brave the cold dark nights, you can see some beautiful astronomical delights.

The two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus, are taking up residence in the evening sky. They are not hard to miss. Look for an unmistakably bright point of light in the west after sunset; that will be Venus. The bright beacon climbing high in the east-southeast is Jupiter.

The winter constellations, most notably the grand Orion, are also appearing in the east during mid-evening. The full moon of December is called the Cold Moon, which occurs on December 10 this year. A total lunar eclipse will also occur on that date, which will require early morning viewing for those of us in North America. See more about the eclipse in next week’s blog.

Two annual meteor showers occur in December, with the Geminids on December 13 being one of the best of the year with 80 meteors an hour possible. A waning moon will interfere with the show, however. The Ursids is the second shower, occurring on December 22, but it only provides about 9 meteors an hour at maximum.

Annual meteor showers are created by Earth passing through the debris trail of comets. But the Geminids is unusual in that the space object that left behind the debris trail was an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon. Recent research has bolstered the evidence that Phaethon is related to asteroid belt inhabitants such as Pallas, one of the largest known asteroids. Phaethon’s composition is significantly similar, but Phaethon is a rebellious child, sometimes acting comet-like.

For more on this month's observing, see The Night Sky Guide for December 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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