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.

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.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

T-24 Hours To Mars!

 At the time of this post, our latest effort to look for life on Mars is just one day away from landing. Traveling now at 8,039 miles per hour and closing from 215,000 miles, the Mars Science Lander is on course and working perfectly.  When it enters the Martian atmosphere MSL’s speed will have increased to 13,000 miles per hour because of the pull of Mars’ gravity. To say it will be a challenge to get rid of all that velocity and land safely is this years’ greatest understatement. Even the engineers who designed the braking system will sit on pins and needles waiting for The Signal. Landing time: Monday Aug. 6, 1:31 A.M. EDT.

DSN Parkes 64-meter radio dish in New South Wales, Australia
NASA will use all of its listening resources including the three satellites already in place orbiting Mars, and the Australian branch (the side of Earth facing Mars at landing time) of the Deep Space Network to catch the signal indicating MSL has landed.

While the NASA engineers are biting their nails down to the quick tomorrow, here’s how you can stay on top of this most exciting event since Armstrong and Aldrin stepped on the moon in 1969.

First, check out what the entry, descent and landing challenges for MSL will be in this ‘must see’ video description of  “7 Minutes of Terror” . http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/videos/index.cfm?v=49

Then follow MSL in a real-time simulated fly-along right down to landing. Since there won’t be real-time live images being broadcast, this will be the best way to have the feeling of being there as MSL lands. http://eyes.jpl.nasa.gov/

While you’re away from your computer, your smartphone can keep you in touch through an app called ‘Mission Clock’. This one keeps up-to-the-second, real-time countdown clocks marking hundreds of activities of many different space missions. Available at the App Store.

Because of the great interest in the possibility of life on Mars over 50 years ago, the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium Director Dr. I.M. Levitt, built the world’s first ‘Mars Clock’ in cooperation with the Hamilton Watch Company in the 1950’s. Want to know what time it is on Mars right now? Use this link http://www.giss.nasa.gov/tools/mars24/download_mac.html
to download an online version that will show Mars local times at various locations on the planet.

Once MSL lands, it’ll be another seven minutes before we know for sure whether it landed safely or in pieces. You can be sure NASA will post that news as soon as it comes to earth and you’ll find it at the main NASA Mars Science Laboratory website http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/participate/.

Want to really understand how awesome rocket scientists and engineers can be? Then don’t miss this landing. This is truly a case of “Go big or go home.”