Archive for December, 2012

I’m blogging through Charles A. Wood’s The Lunar 100.

Above: The north central part of the Moon photographed at 5:41 AM CST November 17, 2011 (11:41 UT). 8″ reflector telescope with 17mm eyepiece, 2x Barlow, LG VX8360 cell phone camera. Click to enlarge.

Almost everyone has seen the contrast between the darker and lighter portions of the Moon’s face. In our culture we see the “Man in the Moon,” and the human imagination has seen many other pictures and patterns in the Moon – the technical term for this is Lunar pareidolia.

In the photo above it’s evident that the high, mountainous terrain on the Moon tends to be lighter in color than the lower, smoother portions. These darker, smooth plains are called maria, which isn’t the name Maria, but rather is plural for mare (pronounced “mar-eh”), the Latin word for sea. Early modern astronomers using the first telescopes mistook these flat plains for actual seas, hence the name. The lunar maria are broad plains of lava which has long since cooled down, and are darker because of their iron-rich composition.

So the lunar maria aren’t true seas, but we now know of an actual sea on a different moon, Saturn’s largest Moon Titan, home of a sea of liquid hydrocarbons called Kraken Mare, possibly about the same size as Earth’s Caspian Sea.


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The long-awaited movie has finally arrived, namely The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and though I’ve seen some mixed reviews, it appears to be a box office smash, just as I expected. I haven’t seen it yet – my odd schedule tends to get in the way, but of course I’ll be looking for my opportunity. Meanwhile, in celebration of this new visit to Middle-Earth, I thought I might share my own rare venture into fan fiction.

From what I’ve read, as well as from the preview trailer below, it appears that the new Hobbit film series uses, as a frame story, Bilbo telling his story to Frodo. This is not unexpected, and I’m sure it proves most suitable.

But my imagination has taken me in a slightly different direction, in which the narrator is Gimli the dwarf, who happens to know Bilbo’s book very well, but has been known to take off from it in his own direction.

This is a story about a story written for children, told to children, a tale of heroes, so I offer it in memory of the slain children and fallen heroes of Sandy Hook.

It is a pleasant spring day in the court of Gondor, as King Elessar, Queen Arwen, and their three young children are enjoying a visit from old friends Legolas and Gimli. As usual for these visits, the grown-ups are conversing on the bench next to the garden gate as the children sit cross-legged before them, listening to Gimli telling dwarf stories. Today there’s a bit of extra excitement in the air, as more company is soon expected, namely the Mayor of the Shire, Sam Gamgee, along with his wife Rosie and their own children.

The royal children of Gondor don’t remember meeting Hobbits before, as Eldarion and his sisters are too young to remember the last time that the Gamgees came for a visit, so after hearing one tale of dwarf adventures, they beg, “Tell us a hobbit story!” “Yes, we want to hear a hobbit story, Uncle Gimli!”

“Oh, but don’t you want to hear more of the daring exploits of the Dwarves?” “We want to hear a hobbit story!” they insisted. “Oh, all right then, I think I do know a hobbit story” he grumbled, but in fact Gimli had planned this all along, and had a special story up his sleeve; a true story involving one hobbit and a whole company of dwarves, not to mention a dragon, a wizard, and a powerful ring.

“Be sure to get it right, now!” Legolas goaded Gimli with a knowing grin. He had heard Gimli tell this same story to a group of young elves, and though Gimli had a remarkable recall of Bilbo’s book, he tended to expand and slightly exaggerate his own father Gloin’s role in the adventure, so much so that several of the elf children had thought afterwards that the leader of the dwarf company was Gloin rather than Thorin Oakenshield. “Yes, yes, of course I’ll get it right! Well then, where shall I begin?” he muttered in feigned puzzlement. He paused for his audience to hush down and lean in closer; the children noticed that the grown-ups were also hushing and listening, a little more than usual.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole … it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.” Gimli enunciated each word in the description of the hobbit hole with an enthusiastic verve that kept the children giggling, and even as he entertained the kids, he kept making eye contact with Legolas as if to say, Notice how I know Bilbo’s book word for word, eh? Legolas got the message and chuckled.

“… This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins,” Gimli continued, and as the King of Gondor sat on the bench listening to Gimli, he sighed when he heard the name “Baggins.” He held his eyes closed, recalling Bilbo, remembering Frodo. Aragorn (as many still knew him) and Arwen never intended to hide anything from their children, of course, and the day would come when they would know all about the War of the Ring. But out of sheer weight of emotion the royal parents hadn’t yet begun to tell them about Bilbo, or the Quest of Erebor, or of Gollum, or of the One Ring. Yes, Aragorn thought to himself, the time has come, on this pleasant day, for our children to hear this tale, the beginning of the story; the time has come for our children to understand the wisdom, courage, and simple goodness of the Hobbits, the small people who won this joy and peace for all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. And yes, I’m very glad, and very relieved, that Gimli is here to tell the tale.

Eldarion adored his father the king, and he was fascinated to see how this story fascinated his father. He noticed everything, and that’s how he happened to see something that made him see his father, and everything else, with new eyes. The change took place in just one moment. For he heard his father sigh deeply, and saw how he held his eyes closed at the sound of the name “Baggins,” and all at once he felt several new, unexpected, and very grown-up things. He had heard the name Baggins a year or two before, and laughed. It had then struck him as funny that “bag” might be part of someone’s name, and when he heard that there were hobbits named Sackville-Baggins, he laughed even harder. But now he realized for the first time that someone named Baggins might, in fact, be a very important person, and it got his attention all the more. Furthermore, Eldarion realized at once that the story Gimli was now telling was no ordinary story, but the beginning of possibly the most important story he had ever heard. And there was something more: looking at his father, he now understood why some of Daddy’s friends called him Strider, and why Daddy seemed to like that nickname. All at once he understood that nickname very literally, and saw him not just as father and king but as a traveler on a long, hard road, and somehow this Hobbit named Mr. Baggins was a fellow traveler on the same road. And the thought occurred to young Eldarion that listening to this tale of Mr. Baggins was somehow his own first step on that same long journey. Scattered memories that never made sense to him started to come together; words to a song came to him, a song which he had heard his father and mother sing; “The road goes ever on and on …” It was a little scary, perceiving his father as a sort of a brother rather than as Daddy, but he liked the way it felt.

This flood of new, grown-up feelings distracted Eldarion from the story for a moment. Lost in thought, he suddenly realized his father’s eyes were no longer closed; instead, he was looking straight back at his son, and Eldarion feared for a moment that he was in trouble. But in fact Strider was gazing back at his son with a deep, serene smile, eyes filled with love, saying nothing. They held eye contact for a moment, and in Eldarion’s elf-sense which he shared with his mother, he sensed deeply that his father knew about everything he’d just experienced, and that he approved; they shared this secret together, father and son. He looked toward his mother, who also was looking at him with a radiant smile, except that her expression conveyed a bit more parental directiveness. Arwen averted her eyes towards Gimli, then back again to Eldarion, as if to say, listen, my son, to this story; listen and understand. Instantly Eldarion was back on track with the story and wasn’t distracted again, especially after he heard Gimli speak another name which he knew he had heard before:

“Gandalf came by. Gandalf! …”

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I’m blogging through Charles A. Wood’s The Lunar 100.

Earthshine can be seen shortly before and after the New Moon, when the Moon is in a thin crescent phase. It results from sunlight reflecting off the Earth and illuminating the mostly-dark near side of the Moon, and then returning back to Earth. Here are two examples:
Above: 8:13 PM CDT March 24, 2012 (01:13 UT March 25, 2012), the waxing crescent Moon shortly after sunset.
Below: Via the NASA/JPL Solar System Simulator, which is a really cool utility, here’s what the Earth looked like from the Moon at the time of the photo above:
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

As viewed from the Moon, the Earth always displays the opposite phase as the Moon viewed from the Earth. Thus, you can see above that the Earth was mostly light, in the waning gibbous phase, just as the Moon was mostly dark as viewed from Earth. My home in North America is in the darkened area to the upper right, corresponding to the bright crescent illumination along the Moon’s right limb. This also shows how the brightness of the mostly-illuminated Earth contributes to Earthshine, since lots of earthlight is shining on the Moon!

The next New Moon is on December 13, 2012, so if you hope to see earthshine this month you’re most likely to see it about two or three days before and after that date. Before New Moon, look for the thin crescent Moon in the East before sunrise. After New Moon, look for the thin crescent Moon in the West after sunset.

Below: The waning crescent Moon at 6:23 AM CDT, September 13, 2012 (11:23 UT).
8″ reflector telescope, 25mm eyepiece, LG VX8360 cell phone camera. Click to enlarge.

Below, a view of the Earth as it would have appeared at the time of the photo directly above.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

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7:44 AM CST December 4, 2012 (13:44 UT). 8″ reflector telescope, 25mm eyepiece, LG VX8360 cell phone camera. Click to enlarge.

In other news, it’s likely that the whiff of organic matter detected by the Curiosity probe on Mars is a by-product of its own testing process, but feel free to check out the details for yourself:

Curiosity Gets a Whiff of Organic Matter

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I’m embarking upon a new astroblogging project of illustrating Charles A. Wood’s Lunar 100 list, which may be found at this link at skyandtelescope.com:

The Lunar 100, by Charles A. Wood

Mr. Wood says:

The Lunar 100 list is an attempt to provide Moon lovers with something akin to what deep-sky observers enjoy with the Messier catalog: a selection of telescopic sights to ignite interest and enhance understanding. Presented here is a selection of the Moon’s 100 most interesting regions, craters, basins, mountains, rilles, and domes. I challenge observers to find and observe them all and, more important, to consider what each feature tells us about lunar and Earth history.

It looks like an interesting challenge, and one that can keep me going with astroblogging even on cloudy days like today! Number One on the list is simply the Moon itself, and here’s a re-posting of one of my favorite photos, of the waning gibbous Moon, just past full, getting ready to set last February:

7:31 AM CST February 9, 2012 (13:31 UT), 60mm refractor telescope and 25mm eyepiece. Click for larger view.

There’s a story to tell with this photo: I think I popped awake at about 7:20 AM, and when I peeked out the door, I saw that a beautiful Moon scene was taking shape. But then I heard our dog Pluto (now of blessed memory) jingle his collar, and I realized that I just couldn’t sneak out to the big telescope without attending to Pluto’s needs! But the Moon was setting within minutes, so I put Pluto on his deck chain, pulled out the small refractor, and snapped a few photos on the fly before taking Pluto for his walk. This photo is the best from that morning; the golden hue at moonset comes from the Moon’s light (reflected sunlight, of course) travelling through hundreds of miles of the Earth’s atmosphere.

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