Welcome to SkyTours with Derrick! If you've ever found yourself under the night sky wondering what that thing is, well, you've come to the right place to find out. I'll provide regular postings of just what's available for you to see at this time of this year, including planets, stars, constellations and my favorite - satellites! I'll also welcome your suggestions for what to add to the blog for your information and answer your questions.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Planetarium Show's a Winner!

IPS/MIFF 2014 Best 3D Show Award Trophy

The Franklin Institute’s most recent planetarium show co-production, “To Space and Back”, received two more film festival awards this past June. The International Planetarium Society/Macao International Fulldome Festival selected TSAB as the best 3D planetarium show and the best 8K show over nearly 60 other entrants at the 2014 festival held in Macao, China. This brings the total number of awards to five since the show was released in March 2013. Co-produced by TFI and Sky-Skan, Inc., world leader in planetarium projection equipment, the show was written by Sky-Skan producer Annette Sotheran-Barnett and TFI Chief Astronomer Dr. Derrick Pitts. The other awards are:

-       First Prize – First International Fulldome Festival in Russia, 2013
-       First Prize Audience Choice – Imiloa Fulldome Film Festival, 2013
-       Honorable Mention – Jena/Zeiss Fulldome Film Festival, 2013
And this year:
-       Best 3D Show – IPS/Macao International Fulldome Festival
-       Best 8K Show – IPS/Macao International Fulldome Festival

Created to help viewers, particularly teen viewers, better understand how space exploration and satellite communications shapes their lives, TSAB uses innovative production and composition techniques to entertain viewers as they are drawn deeper into the story of their connection to space technologies every day.

While the show is produced in standard formats of 2K and 4K resolutions, show producer Sotheran-Barnett pushed the envelope on fulldome capability by building some of the most difficult and complex CGI models ever made for planetariums. Several scenes show the highest resolution fulldome projected images ever produced – 8K. To make these scenes most stunning, the show runs at 60 frames per second – twice the frame rate of the most sophisticated Hollywood films. The most advanced version presents the show in 8K resolution, at 60 frames per second, and in 3D! Because this version places such a high demand on playback computers and projectors, only the newest theaters with the most advanced playback equipment can run it – right now just two theaters in the world, Macao Science Center Planetarium and Beijing Planetarium – where the show premiered this past June.  TSAB currently plays in 30 theaters and on every continent except Antarctica.

The show runs 25 minutes and has two versions; one narrated by BBC Top Gear host James May, the other voiced by Pitts. The decision to add Pitts as a narrator came when the National Air and Space Museum’s Einstein Theater included that request for Pitts’ voice as part of their contract to run the show in Washington. The show opened at NASM in September.

Longtime Fels Planetarium show producer Pitts is very pleased with the success of what is currently the most technologically advanced and highly awarded planetarium show on the planet; “Right where a Fels Planetarium show should be,” he says. TFI and Sky-Skan plan to co-produce another fulldome blockbuster soon.

- 9/2014, by Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer, Franklin Institute Science Museum, dpitts@fi.edu, 215 448 1234.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

There's No Such Thing as A 'Blue Moon'

Despite the success of The Marcels' 1961 doo-wop hit, I have to bring you the bad news that there is no such thing as a 'blue moon' - at least not in this solar system.  Did you see ‘the’ blue moon last Tuesday? Have you ever seen a blue moon? I didn’t see ‘the’ blue moon’ on Tuesday because there wasn’t one. Have I seen a blue moon ever? No, because the moon cannot be blue. If you’re wondering what all this claptrap is about,  as it turns out, Tuesday's full moon was NOT a blue moon, neither in the 'traditional' sense or literally, even though several national news outlets described it as one.

Unfortunately, what we all describe as a 'blue moon' is a clash between folklore and science. The traditional 'blue moon' that most of us refer to is the instance when there are two full moons in one month. Happens every 2.7 years on average and here's how to think about it:

Given that there's a full moon every month, there should be 12 full moons in a year and therefore 3 full moons in each season (3 for spring, 3 for summer, 3 for fall, 3 for winter). Occasionally, due to calendrical quirks, there can be 4 fulls in one season and in some folklore, the third of the four is called a 'blue moon'. This 'definition' hasn't been current or contemporary for many, many years. In recent folklore (actually the mis-translation of someone else's definition of the phenomenon!) , a 'blue moon' is defined as the second full moon in a month and Tuesday's full moon DID NOT satisfy the required criteria for 'blueness' according to modern popular folklore.

Now, how did this false 'blue moon' get into the popular press, you may ask? Newsroom researchers, armed with access to the World Wide Web can search up all manner of obscure trivia to fill the massive amounts of on-air time the news programs have strapped themselves with. Some well-meaning but astronomically challenged researcher found this trivia point and with no one on their staff to properly vet this, they RAN with it! It's not even a scientific phenomenon. The so-called 'blue moon' is a result of our civil calendar trying to trap the eternal motions of the moon into a limited framework. The moon doesn't care about months or seasons – it just orbits the Earth. End of story. We humans add the rest.

The photo of the blue moon was FAKED – either by coloring the moon blue with some graphic image tool or an actual photo of the moon, seen as blue because of some completely unrelated atmospheric effect (like volcanic dust aerosols or forest fire smoke particles) allowed the moon to be seen as blue and THAT image was connected to the 'blue moon' story. This is an excellent 'teachable moment' about how access to information does not make one an expert or how NOT to use the Internet.

Another example of overzealous Web searching is the announcing of inconsequential meteor showers like the Delta Aquarids in July, with an hourly rate of 16 meteors per hour. On any given night, anyone almost anywhere can see 10 meteors per hour, so seeing six more per hour is not worth announcing as 'nature's celestial fireworks'. BTW 16 per hour is one every 3.75 minutes – one of the better examples of the phrase 'about as exciting as watching paint dry'. Even the best showers of the year only average a meteor every 30 seconds – and that’s average! Sometimes we can see a flurry of meteors or a bright fireball occasionally, more often it can be minutes between faint, short, unspectacular streaks. Hardly celestial fireworks.

But meteors showers are to be noted if you happen to be out on the night of peak ‘shower’ activity. Unless you’re out to view the November Leonid shower at one of its 33-year maximums, don’t make a meteor shower the focus of your observing session. Use it as an added treat to being outside at night, enjoying a casual look at the heavens. And by all means, DON’T get up at 2 a.m. to see a meteor shower. If you’re an insomniac or raiding the refrigerator because you just can’t get that last slice of cherry cheesecake out of you mind, have a look to see what’s happening.

Sound like astronomy observing blasphemy to discourage observing? Not at all, just helping casual observers, like most folks,  focus energy and interest to the real exciting sights, like Comet ISON coming later this year.  That'll be worth getting up in the middle of the night!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Has This Model Been Discontinued?

I don't have a personal story about having met Neil Armstrong. Let's just say our circles didn't overlap. Unlike many others who met him or idolized him, he wasn't my hero either. But he was certainly a person of high achievement and great integrity. He accomplished an extraordinary task, one unlike almost any other in the history of mankind, yet he never 'traded' on its significance. Most extraordinary. And for that (as well as his incredible ability to perform in the highest pressure situation ever known), I laud him.

Many would say that his passing marks the very tail-end of a remarkable era, that of the Greatest Generation. NBC News icon Tom Brokaw coined the term to describe those men and women whose personal needs took a far backseat to the formidable task of defeating Germany and Japan in the Second World War. For Armstrong, his assignment as Commander of Apollo 11 was never about the individual but always about the goal and the team that would make it possible to achieve the goal. He was a finely tuned instrument that would help make it possible for America to achieve the greatest technological challenge ever known to humankind. We didn't know very much about Armstrong when he came to the assignment and even after he played his part in accomplishing the goal of landing a man on the moon, he purposely made it almost impossible to know much about his life. It was never about him, it was about the mission to which he was assigned and its successful accomplishment.

Are there still people like this in the today's world? Undoubtedly, there are quiet 'heroes' all around us but the world has changed. Now one can be famous just for being famous. You don't have to do anything challenging, dangerous, civilization-advancing, or intellectually remarkable to be famous. Cmdr. Armstrong's deeds made him famous. The world tried to make Cmdr. Armstrong a famous personality but he wouldn't allow it. And again, for that, I laud him.

My one story about Cmdr. Armstrong is so tangential. In the earliest version (2002) of a space science exhibit here at Franklin Institute entitled Space Command, we had on display memorabilia of one of the men who worked in the 'white room' for Apollo missions. The 'white room' is the area at the top of the rocket launch tower at Kennedy Space Center where astronauts enter the spacecraft and the space craft doors are closed and locked from the outside(in the Space Shuttle era this room was called the 'close-out' room). Over the years, this 'white room' worker collected all kinds of images and signatures from the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and even Space Shuttle programs. One of his items we had on display was a personal check. It was written out to him by Neil Armstrong. Apparently Neil owed him $10.00! The account names printed on the check were Neil and his then-wife Janet and it was signed by Neil, but – get this – it was dated July 16, 1969, the day the crew of Apollo 11 blasted off atop the Saturn V, headed for what became the most historic journey ever.

Among all the other things Armstrong needed to be concerned with that day, he pays off a $10. debt? Was it really that important?  Or was it a practical joke of some sort? Not likely. Armstrong didn't seem to be that kind of guy. Maybe it was an unusual way to mark the day in a special way for a special friend? Did he think there was a chance he wouldn't return so he squared all his accounts? I never got the real story. The materials belonged to a guy who bought them from a friend, a NJ dentist, the son of the guy who worked close-out for Apollo missions. The father and son hadn't been on speaking terms, the father died, and the son just wanted to get rid of the stuff. When offered to us to purchase, we declined since we are not a collections museum. I have no idea where the stuff is today, probably sold into a private collection. But I always thought that check might tell a story of one man's great integrity.

Ad Astra Neil.