Policing the Skies

Many years ago I tried to view the Trifid Nebula with a 5″ diameter telescope. A dark sky was needed. My back yard in town was not dark enough. I scouted the neighborhood and found a dark place behind the local elementary school. An electrical outlet was also available to run the drive mechanism on the scope. As a precaution, I called the local police station and let them know my plan to be behind the school that night. They said ok to that.

Trifid Nebula M20 | Wikipedia | Hunter Wilson

Darkness approached. I drove to the school and set up and aligned my telescope. My eyes were dark-adapted after 20 minutes. I saw someone across the school yard walking their dog in the very dim light. I didn’t think they saw me.

The views of M20 were excellent. I could just make out the dark dust lanes visible in the reddish part of the image above. The image above is a time exposure revealing many details. It is not mine.

I was intent on pointing the scope to another nearby object when I heard footsteps behind me. I turned to see who it was. A bright flashlight was pointed directly into my face. My dark-adaptation was over. The person with the bright light in my face asked who I was and what I was doing. It was a policeman. That dog-walker had called to report a suspicious person behind the school.

I explained who I was. He put down his light from my face. I told him I had called that afternoon to let them know I was going to be here. He said I should have called just before I came over. The day shift doesn’t usually talk to the night shift about stuff like this.

I was reminded of this story when I read the Focal Point story on the last page of the August 2019 Sky & Telescope magazine. It was titled Encounters With Police by Dennis Kelly. He is an amateur astronomer and holds two criminal justice degrees. He encouraged amateurs to be careful and very transparent about what you are doing in the dark with weird looking apparatus. Bad things could happen and much of it by accident.

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Metop-A Flare & Fireflies

I photographed a satellite flare the evening of 10 June 2019. As the exposure was being recorded, a low flying airplane moved through the frame with lights blinking . It was fun to see. I had another opportunity to photograph a flare on 7 July. This time something else flew through the frame with lights blinking.

First, what I expected to see in shown in this chart from CalSky. The site emails me with alerts about coming events such as ISS passes or satellite flares. The field of view is toward the north and pointing almost straight up. The North Star, Polaris, is not visible but just off the chart at the bottom. The Big Dipper is at the left with the two pointer stars of the dipper pointing to Polaris. Satellite Metop-A was to pass through this field at a specific time. A reflective panel on the weather satellite was to direct a beam of sunlight down to my location for a few seconds. The grey circles show the pattern of bright-to-dark of the beam. It was to last a few seconds.

As the time of the pass neared, I set my iPad so it was pointed north and tilted up above Polaris. I opened the NightCap app and set it for a long exposure. I watched the sky during the 212 sec exposure and never saw the satellite flare. It must have been more dim than predicted. I went inside to see if anything was visible on the image.

The Big Dipper was easily visible. Short star trails were obvious during the 2.5 minute exposure. The flare was barely visible so I enhanced it with software (top center). Also visible were a few trails and spots of light that didn’t fit the pattern of the stars. Those were fireflies. Two of them were fairly close to the iPad and left bright long streaks (small squares). One was far away and blinked several times as it made a looping pattern (lower right). Click the image for a bigger view.

Metop-C Flare & Airplane

If you have followed my blog long enough, you might recall that I like to photograph Iridium flares. Link to examples. The constellation of 66 communications satellites provides a worldwide phone system. I get email notices when a flare, sunlight reflecting off an antenna, is visible at my location.

Recently, I have received notices about flares from three weather satellites of the European Union (EUMETSAT). They are known as Metop A, B, and C. Their polar orbits and altitude allow weather to be monitored continuously. Antennae sometimes reflect bright sunlight down to Earth causing a flare. I was notified of one at 9:54pm local time on 9 Jun 2019.

Using the NightCap app on my iPad, I set it on the sidewalk, angled it toward the correct part of the sky and let it capture a time exposure for a couple of minutes. A small plane flew over at low altitude just after I started the exposure. Right after that, the Metop-C satellite passed over leaving a faint flare trail. Both were going north, lower left. Notice the handle of the Big Dipper drawn in the top left. The two pointer stars of the dipper are not visible. I like when serendipity happens.

Gathering of Intelligence | Solvay 1927

I taught physics to high school students for my career. Names of important people in the history of physics, chemistry, and other sciences were always included in our textbooks and discussions. These people laid the foundation for what we believe today about how the world works.

In 1927, many of those individuals gathered for the Solvay Conference in Brussels. The colorized photograph below may have captured the most intelligence in one place and time the world has seen. Of the 29 attendees, 17 had won, or would go on to win, the Nobel Prize. Notable in the front row is the only woman at the conference, Marie Curie. She had won two Nobel Prizes in physics and in chemistry.

The primary mission of the conference was to discuss the impact of a new theory embraced by the man at the far right in the second row. The scientist Neils Bohr strongly supported the theory of quantum mechanics. He and Werner Heisenberg argued for what is called the Copenhagen Interpretation. In it, physical systems have a set of probabilities of outcomes if they are going to be measured. The act of measurement causes that set of possible probabilities to reduce to one outcome. Albert Einstein, center front row, did not like the idea of probabilities in nature. He said “God does not play dice”. Bohr replied “Einstein, stop telling God what to do”. Quantum mechanics is widely accepted today and is applied in many aspects of our lives.

The scientific contributions by each of the pictured individuals are described at this link. Scroll part way down that page to find them.

 

Ships Passing in the Night

It was 6:30 pm on 24 Jan 2018. The International Space Station was due to pass directly over our part of Iowa from WSW to NE. It was 3˚F outside with more than a foot of snow on the ground. Instead of going outside, I set the iPad in the bedroom window, closed the door, and recorded the pass for 6 minutes. While I watched the spaceship cruise above the trees at 5 mi/sec, an airship also cruised over at about 0.2 mi/sec. The stars silently observed from their perches. I stayed warm.

NightCap Camera | iPad2 | ISO=1536 | 356 sec | Click to embiggen

Morning Sun

I explained to my son how my shadow was cast almost straight down at noon when we were 12˚south of the equator in Peru. That had never happened to me before. Living 42˚north of the equator, we always cast shadows. They are short in the summer when the Sun is high in the sky and long in the winter when the Sun is low. But, never straight down like this.

My son posed a question about sunrises at the equator. “Does the Sun rise straight up due east each day of the year.” I said it doesn’t rise due east every day. But, it does rise nearly straight up. He acted skeptical. It was time to use desktop planetarium software to simulate the view.

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Fireballs Across the Sky

My great-grandparents were married in 1870. They farmed in west-central Illinois a mile from his brother. The brothers moved to Illinois from Ohio. Earlier, they moved to Ohio from Virginia during the Civil War. The rectangle in this 1941 aerial photo shows the location of the farmstead where my great-grandparents lived after they were married.

1941

Here are my great-grandparents and their five children in about 1890. My grandfather is the one in the center back row.

Here is my great-grandfather’s brother and his wife. They eventually had seven children. Notice a date of Oct 74 at the bottom. That is when a relative photographed the original photo from nearly 100 years before.

 

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