Thursday, August 30, 2007

Grandparents' joys

One of the joys and privileges of being grandparents is that you are allowed to spoil your grandchildren, and have fun doing it. Therefore, we took advantage of the fine weather today and invited our granddaughters Marina and Lauren to our annual, local fair, called the Pacific National Exhibition. Perhaps saying that our granddaughters intimated that an invitation would not be resisted approaches the truth even more closely.

The PNE started about a century ago as an agricultural fair, with a small amusement park (Playland) on the side. Well, Playland has become the main reason why people attend it; Marina and Lauren naturally came for the same reasons - the rides and games.

One of the cultural parts of the exhibition outside Playland was really classy - the acrobats from China were amazing. We all enjoyed that.

Of course this also became a "junk food day" - every now and then you have to forget about the restrictions you face as a senior.

As grandparents, we had a lot of fun watching the granddaughters screaming their way through the many rides they went on. It also brought back memories of our own "young" PNE days.

This was very much a fun (and exhausting) day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Surprising interest

Over the years, I've participated in many a public astronomy night, where we we would take our telescopes and set up for public viewing. Invariably, everyone attending was impressed, sometimes awestruck, often incredulous as to the things one can see through a telescope. In my mind, the people who show up at these events always have a keen interest in astronomy, and they know it. They make the effort to come. Conversely, I thought until now that people who didn't show did not have that kind of curiosity, or didn't think of it as being important, if they had heard about the event.

Since I started my blog just a little over a month ago, I think that there are not many readers of it around. Considering that, a fair percentage of comments come back to me. To my surprise, my post about the recent lunar eclipse brought some responses which make me think that many people would like to know more about what can be seen "up there", without having any specialist knowledge in that regard.

There are some easy ways to do these things yourself - without any special equipment. Naked-eye astronomy, astronomy using binoculars, basic cameras.... one can do a lot in that regard. If there is enough interest, I can occasionally do a post about this.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Moon hiding

This is the setup used for the eclipse pictures shown below. There was a constant, varying haze in the sky, necessitating some exprimenting with exposure times. The final phases were not captured, because solid clouds obscured the Moon in the end.

As mentioned before, this morning a total eclipse of the Moon occurred. I woke up just in time to witness and photograph the event. The above image shows the Moon just disappearing into the Earth's shadow.

This shows the Moon when it had moved well into the Earth's shadow:

The orange tint is the result of the sunlight refracted around the Earth. As seen from the Moon, the Earth would seem to be surrounded by a "ring of fire" of this orange colour. It's like a sunset, except as seen from far away in space, with the whole Earth blocking the Sun.

The Moon is now at midpoint of the total eclipse:

Taken with a Canon Rebel XT through a Celestron C90 telescope at f11 (= a 1000mm focal length telephoto lens - see top image) and an exposure time of 3.2 seconds, sensitivity at 800 ASA.

Added on Aug 31:
You'll notice that the Moon does not appear quite sharp in one direction here. The cause is the Earth's rotation.

There is a faint image of a star streak close to the left edge of the image. The length of this streak tells you how much the image shifted due to this motion during the 3.2 seconds. If I had used my "equatorial" mount, and attached the telescope and camera to it, there would have been no "smear"; that type of mount compensates for the rotation, and is used for those astronomical photos which require many minutes or hours of exposure time.

Leaving the Earth's shadow:
f11 at 1/20 sec

f11 at 1/160 sec

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Eclipse of the Moon

On the morning of August 28, 2007, the full Moon will move through the Earth's shadow. This event is not rare, it is the second such event this year. This one, however, takes place at a time when the Moon is above the horizon for North and South America, the Pacific Ocean, and countries around the Pacific Rim. While the eclipse can be seen from beginning to end in the Pacific Ocean and the West coast of North America, the remainder of the locations mentioned above will at least see a part of it, while some of it occurs after the Moon sets (Eastern North America, all of South America), or before the Moon rises (Eastern Asia, Western Australia).

The various phenomena that occur on the Moon are seen simultaneously in all areas mentioned; the various locations have their own local time, of course. There is a worldwide standard time called Universal Time (UT), which is used to relate all world-wide phenomena and activities. For instance, the computer systems in the financial world have to be based on this time reference, in order to maintain the relationships of financial transactions. Other uses for an agreed-upon, common time reference are found in transportation and travel scheduling, this common reference is of importance to us here, in science, too - astronomy in this case. So here is the UT sequence of events for this Lunar Eclipse:

Penumbral eclipse begins (the first imperceptible darkening of the Moon) 7:53:39 UT
Partial eclipse begins (the main Earth shadow begins to cover the Moon) 8:51:16 UT
Total eclipse begins 9:52:22 UT
Greatest eclipse 10:37:22 UT
Total eclipse ends 11:22:24 UT
Partial eclipse ends 12:23:30 UT
Penumbral eclipse ends 13:21:01 UT

(all times taken from the Observers' Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

UT is sometimes stated as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The various locations on Earth have their local time assigned based on their geographical "time zones". For North America, these time zones are 4 to 8 hours (East to West) "behind" UT. For instance, the Greatest eclipse for the West coast of North America, stated in Pacific Standard Time (PST) is 10:37:22 UT - 8 = 2:37:22 PST. An added complication is the use of daylight saving time. This adds an hour to the Standard Time in each time zone. So, for the above example, the Greatest eclipse occurs at 3:37:22 in the morning.

This event requires no telescope - the naked eye does a great job here. Any pair of binoculars will enhance the experience; in fact, for me, binoculars are the preferred means by which to view this event. Photography is relatively easy, but use a tripod and your optical zoom or zoom lenses to their maximum extent. The Moon appears surprisingly small in pictures taken with standard focal length lenses.

For an observer on the Moon, this event would look similar to this image of the planet Saturn, as seen from the Cassini probe - minus the rings.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Galaxies collide

In 2003, a special camera telescope, named the "Spitzer" telescope, was launched to record data from faraway space in those spectral ranges which cannot be explored from inside the Earth's atmosphere. This telescope is designed to "see" images in the spectral target range from near to deep infrared.

We perceive some wavelengths of infrared as heat. Infrared light can pass more readily through dust and gas clouds. Therefore it is possible to record things which cannot be seen in visual light (red to violet).

Spitzer has been spectaculary successful and has revealed many hitherto unknown phenomena in the universe. One such is the detection of a merger of four distant galaxies. Galaxy mergers are well documented. Our own galaxy will merge with the Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years (I'm not buying collision insurance for that).

The merger detected by Spitzer consists of four galaxies and is located at a distance of 5 billion light years. This means it actually occurred 5 billion years ago - light has just taken that long to reach us. By now this whole assemblage is probably one big, amorphous blob.

This is the image, which is a combination of images from several different telescopes, as described in the text caption.

Here is the text caption:

NASA's Spitzer Spies Monster Galaxy Pileup
For Release: August 6, 2007

Four galaxies are slamming into each other and kicking up billions of stars in one of the largest cosmic smash-ups ever observed.

The clashing galaxies, spotted by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, will eventually merge into a single, behemoth galaxy up to 10 times as massive as our own Milky Way. This rare sighting provides an unprecedented look at how the most massive galaxies in the universe form.

"Most of the galaxy mergers we already knew about are like compact cars crashing together," said Kenneth Rines of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. "What we have here is like four sand trucks smashing together, flinging sand everywhere."

Rines is lead author of a new paper accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Collisions, or mergers, between galaxies are common in the universe. Gravity causes some galaxies that are close together to tangle and ultimately unite over a period of millions of years. Though stars in merging galaxies are tossed around like sand, they have a lot of space between them and survive the ride. Our Milky Way galaxy will team up with the Andromeda galaxy in five billion years.

Mergers between one big galaxy and several small ones, called minor mergers, are well documented. For example, one of the most elaborate known minor mergers is taking place in the Spiderweb galaxy -- a massive galaxy that is catching dozens of small ones in its "web" of gravity.

Astronomers have also witnessed "major" mergers among pairs of galaxies that are similar in size. But no major mergers between multiple hefty galaxies -- the big rigs of the galaxy world -- have been seen until now.

The new quadruple merger was discovered serendipitously during a Spitzer survey of a distant cluster of galaxies, called CL0958+4702, located nearly five billion light-years away. The infrared telescope first spotted an unusually large fan-shaped plume of light coming out of a gathering of four blob-shaped, or elliptical, galaxies. Three of the galaxies are about the size of the Milky Way, while the fourth is three times as big.

Further analysis of the plume revealed it is made up of billions of older stars flung out and abandoned in an ongoing clash. About half of the stars in the plume will later fall back into the galaxies. "When this merger is complete, this will be one of the biggest galaxies in the universe," said Rines.

The Spitzer observations also show that the new merger lacks gas. Theorists predict that massive galaxies grow in a variety of ways, including gas-rich and gas-poor mergers. In gas-rich mergers, the galaxies are soaked with gas that ignites to form new stars. Gas-poor mergers lack gas, so no new stars are formed. Spitzer found only old stars in the quadruple encounter. "The Spitzer data show that these major mergers are gas-poor, unlike most mergers we know about," said Rines. "The data also represent the best evidence that the biggest galaxies in the universe formed fairly recently through major mergers."

Some of the stars tossed out in the monstrous merger will live in isolated areas outside the borders of any galaxies. Such abandoned stars could theoretically have planets. If so, the planets' night skies would be quite different from our own, with fewer stars and more visible galaxies.

In addition to Spitzer, Rines and his team used a telescope formerly known as the Multiple Mirror Telescope and now called MMT near Tucson, Ariz., to confirm that the four galaxies are intertwined, and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to weigh the mass of the giant cluster of galaxies in which the merger was discovered. Both Spitzer and a telescope known as WIYN at Kitt Peak, also near Tucson, Ariz., were used to study the plume. WIYN is named after the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which own and operate the telescope.

Other authors of this paper include Rose Finn of Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.; and Alexey Vikhlinin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. Spitzer's infrared array camera was built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The instrument's principal investigator is Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Take it when you can

We have guests from Europe at the moment and have taken the opportunity to show them around town a little. My sister and her husband invited us all to dinner yesterday, and a fine meal plus a beautiful view of the city was had by all.

Derek continues to gain strength and went to another appointment with his doctor yesterday. Nothing extraordinary needs to be done at this time, other than for him to gain some more weight. A good couple of days.

Monday, August 20, 2007

30 years

As you know from my previous posts, astronomy and related sciences and technologies are an interest of mine. 30 years ago, two spacecraft were sent out (Pioneer 1 and 2), which are still operating now, sending information about the very farthest reaches of our solar system and beyond. Here's a copy of the NASA news relating to this event:


PASADENA, CALIF. 91109 TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011

Contacts: Carolina Martinez/Jane Platt 818-354-9382/0880
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.,

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2007-092 Aug. 20, 2007

Pioneering NASA Spacecraft Mark Thirty Years of Flight

PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's two venerable Voyager spacecraft are celebrating three decades of flight as they head toward interstellar space. Their ongoing odysseys mark an unprecedented and historic accomplishment.

Voyager 2 launched on Aug. 20, 1977, and Voyager 1 launched on Sept. 5, 1977. They continue to return information from distances more than three times farther away than Pluto.

"The Voyager mission is a legend in the annals of space exploration. It opened our eyes to the scientific richness of the outer solar system, and it has pioneered the deepest exploration of the sun's domain ever conducted," said Alan Stern, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. "It's a testament to Voyager's designers, builders and operators that both spacecraft continue to deliver important findings more than 25 years after their primary mission to Jupiter and Saturn concluded."

During their first dozen years of flight, the Voyagers made detailed explorations of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons, and conducted the first explorations of Uranus and Neptune. The Voyagers returned never-before-seen images and scientific data, making fundamental discoveries about the outer planets and their moons. The spacecraft revealed Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere, which includes dozens of interacting hurricane-like storm systems, and erupting volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io. They also showed waves and fine structure in Saturn's icy rings from the tugs of nearby moons.

For the past 18 years, the twin Voyagers have been probing the sun's outer heliosphere and its boundary with interstellar space. Both Voyagers remain healthy and are returning scientific data 30 years after their launches.

Voyager 1 currently is the farthest human-made object, traveling at a distance from the sun of about 15.5 billion kilometers (9.7 billion miles). Voyager 2 is about 12.5 billion kilometers (7.8 billion miles) from the sun. Originally designed as a four-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn, the Voyager tours were extended because of their successful achievements and a rare planetary alignment. The two-planet mission eventually became a four-planet grand tour. After completing that extended mission, the two spacecraft began the task of exploring the outer heliosphere.

"The Voyager mission has opened up our solar system in a way not possible before the Space Age," said Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. "It revealed our neighbors in the outer solar system and showed us how much there is to learn and how diverse the bodies are that share the solar system with our own planet Earth."

In December 2004, Voyager 1 began crossing the solar system's final frontier. Called the heliosheath, this turbulent area, approximately 14 billion kilometers (8.7 billion miles) from the sun, is where the solar wind slows as it crashes into the thin gas that fills the space between stars. Voyager 2 could reach this boundary later this year, putting both Voyagers on their final leg toward interstellar space.

Each spacecraft carries five fully functioning science instruments that study the solar wind, energetic particles, magnetic fields and radio waves as they cruise through this unexplored region of deep space. The spacecraft are too far from the sun to use solar power. They run on less than 300 watts, the amount of power needed to light up a bright light bulb. Their long-lived radioisotope thermoelectric generators provide the power.

"The continued operation of these spacecraft and the flow of data to the scientists is a testament to the skills and dedication of the small operations team," said Ed Massey, Voyager project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Massey oversees a team of nearly a dozen people in the day-to-day Voyager spacecraft operations.

The Voyagers call home via NASA's Deep Space Network, a system of antennas around the world. The spacecraft are so distant that commands from Earth, traveling at light speed, take 14 hours one-way to reach Voyager 1 and 12 hours to reach Voyager 2. Each Voyager logs approximately 1 million miles per day.

Each of the Voyagers carries a golden record that is a time capsule with greetings, images and sounds from Earth. The records also have directions on how to find Earth if the spacecraft is recovered by something or someone.

NASA's latest outer planet exploration mission is New Horizons, which is now well past Jupiter and headed for a historic exploration of the Pluto system in July 2015.

For a complete listing of Voyager discoveries and mission information, visit the Internet at: and


The technology involved is mind-boggling. Here I am, sitting at a laptop, and capable not only of getting all this information over the internet, but am also able to disseminate this to anyone who cares to read my blog. Amazing!

12 years

Derek and Airdrie celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary yesterday. Hilkka and I could not be happier. We have a wonderful son and daughter-in-law, and two beautiful granddaughters; we truly wish them All the Best.

There is a cliché which has been stated so often that it has become perfunctory. In the present situation, though, with Derek fighting colon cancer, it has real meaning for us:

Many Happy Returns!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Hell frozen over

I've mentioned the Cassini probe, which has been orbiting the planet Saturn for about three years now, in a previous post. Among many other data, it has been sending a lot of information back about Titan, Saturn's giant moon (bigger than the planet Mercury), with its dense, other-wordly atmosphere.

I'm reproducing here the description found on NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's site:

Saturn's mysterious moon Titan is one of the strangest and most Earthlike places in our solar system.
Larger than Earth's moon and the planet Mercury ... it's the only moon in our solar system that has clouds and a dense atmosphere, mostly nitrogen and methane.
Titan's surface remained shrouded in secrecy below the clouds until July 2004. That's when NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn. With its RADAR and infrared imaging instruments, Cassini was able to lift the veil on Titan.
What scientists saw on Titan's surface astonished them.
Here was a world that looked a lot like home. Its surface is complex and varied, with Earthlike features like riverbeds; vast deserts, covered in dunes; and hydrocarbon lakes. These are the first open bodies of liquid found anywhere in our Solar System, besides Earth.
On Jan. 14, 2005, scientists got an even closer look. The Huygens probe, built by the European Space Agency, parachuted through Titan's atmosphere, taking detailed measurements. The probe survived for several hours on the surface of Titan and returned stunning images.
In spite of their apparent similarities, the differences between Earth and Titan are even more extreme. If you stood on the surface of Titan, the pressure would be like standing at the bottom of a swimming pool. The temperature is minus 289 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 178 degrees Celcius), far colder than Antarctica.
While rocks on Earth are made of silicates, the rocks on Titan are made of water ice.
While Earth's lakes and rivers are filled with liquid water, Titan's flow with liquid methane. In fact, if free oxygen were also present, a single spark would send the entire moon up in flames.
Most scientists agree that life as we know it would be unlikely on this bizarre world. But the study of Titan, the most Earth-like body in the solar system will help us understand our own Earth and even help guide the design of future missions, like Terrestrial Planet Finder, that are designed to search for Earth-like planets beyond our solar system.
The exploration of Titan has only just begun. Over the coming years, Cassini will fly close to the moon several dozen more times, gathering additional data and images, and unlocking more secrets of this strange new world ... an alien Earth in our own solar system.

Here are a couple of pictures of Titan's topology, returned by the Huygens probe, which was carried along with Cassini, and was released into Titan's atmosphere to descend by parachute to the surface:

Building Our New View of TitanJune 1, 2007

This composite was produced from images returned on 14 January 2005, by ESA's Huygens probe during its successful descent to land on Titan. It shows the boundary between the lighter-coloured uplifted terrain, marked with what appear to be drainage channels, and darker lower areas. These images were taken from an altitude of about 8 kilometres with a resolution of about 20 metres per pixel.
Credits: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Huygens at Titan 1January 14, 2005

This raw image was returned by the ESA Huygens DISR camera after the probe descended through the atmosphere of Titan. It shows the surface of Titan with ice blocks strewn around.

It was taken with the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer, one of two NASA instruments on the probe.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The Descent Imager/Spectral team is based at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz.
Credit: ESA/NASA/University of Arizona

You may also be interested in the following movie:

Imagine, rocks made of ice, liquid methane rivers and lakes, "colder than hades".

If there is a hell frozen over, this is it.

An update

I see that Derek's not been posting for a couple of days. I'd like to assure everyone that he's doing ok. Last night he went to the Barcamp Vancouver and has gone again today. That's good news. It means to us that he has sufficient stamina to go through several hours of meeting and talking to people. Our niece is looking after the girls, and they've gone to a garage sale near our niece's home. We appreciate days like this.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Maybe there is life here, too?

Here's an image from the Galileo orbiter which circled Jupiter at the time. Europa is an ice-covered moon of Jupiter (in order of increasing distance from Jupiter: Io, EUROPA, Ganymede, Callisto). This picture shows a small area on Europa, bringing out the details of ridges, furrows, spots, all of which is much speculated about. The general consensus appears to be that there is an ocean of liquid water underneath all this, and that the observed phenomena relate to upwelling and gravitational warming of this ice ("squeezing" by Jupiter and those other moons). If there is water, is there a chance for some kind of "life"?

Original Caption Released with Image:
Reddish spots and shallow pits pepper the enigmatic ridged surface of Europa in this view combining information from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft during two different orbits around Jupiter.
The spots and pits visible in this region of Europa's northern hemisphere are each about 10 kilometers (6 miles) across. The dark spots are called "lenticulae," the Latin term for freckles. Their similar sizes and spacing suggest that Europa's icy shell may be churning away like a lava lamp, with warmer ice moving upward from the bottom of the ice shell while colder ice near the surface sinks downward. Other evidence has shown that Europa likely has a deep melted ocean under its icy shell. Ruddy ice erupting onto the surface to form the lenticulae may hold clues to the composition of the ocean and to whether it could support life.
The image combines higher-resolution information obtained when Galileo flew near Europa on May 31, 1998, during the spacecraft's 15th orbit of Jupiter, with lower-resolution color information obtained on June 28, 1996, during Galileo's first orbit.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Galileo mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Additional information about Galileo and its discoveries is available on the Galileo mission home page at .
Image Credit:
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Colorado

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Check things

At my age, it is prudent to check blood pressure. I've been doing this for some time, with an electronic BPM (Blood Pressure Monitor), which we've had for years. The Velcro, which holds the pressure cuff to your arm, is worn, so I decided to check the latest models on Consumer Reports website. This organization is not sponsored by any other organization; it tests consumer products by buying them as you and I would. Any major purchases we intend to make are first vetted by us here. So, when I looked for test results for BPMs, I found the top model. I went to our mall and looked for it, found the shelf on which it was supposed to sit at a pharmacy there. The shelf had the label of the correct model, but the BPM sitting there was a different model, by the same manufacturer. Since the people at the pharmacy did not have the model I wanted in stock, I decided to take the model I found.

Starting with this new BPM, I found that my blood pressure readings seemed to be about 20mmHg (20 mm of mercury) higher than on my old unit. This certainly caused me some concern. At that point I didn't know whether the old BPM had given me incorrect readings all along, or whether the new one was incorrect. This discrepancy persisted, so I made an appointment with our doctor. The intent was to compare the new machine with the doctor's BPM. Well, the result was that the new BPM read about 20 mmHg higher than the doctor's, too.

So, my advice, if you are doing something similar, go to your doctor and make sure the readings on your BPM matches the ones on his/hers to within a couple of points, or so. Take your BPM along with you, so you can compare them. Both you and your doctor may be making medication decisions based on the readings you are taking at home (to avoid the "white coat" syndrome). If these decisions are based on incorrect readings, the medical consequenses might be more serious than a blood pressure problem itself.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Nice day

Because it's such a nice day today, we sat on the back porch this morning, had breakfast, and had a nice talk with Derek, Airdrie, and the girls. Derek is having a good day. He has gained some more weight, but is still fairly limited in the kind of food he can take. None-the-less, things are looking up. His blood sugars are in very good shape. He had another CT scan yesterday, but doesn't know the results yet.

We have friends who phoned from Europe this morning; they have relatives who are dealing with cancer as well - it's also three steps forward and two steps back for them in their recovery. So, yes, it's frustrating for everyone concerned, but fighting cancer is a real, biological war and the battle lines move constantly. It involves family and friends, too; I think that's what makes us human. We are thankful to all of you for your support.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Perseids

Yesterday, I looked for the "falling stars" I talked about in the previous post. I saw a couple of bright ones around 10:30pm, one of them through binoculars. That one did not seem to be part of the Perseids; it came from a different direction. However, it was quite bright, and I could see it break up into several smaller pieces just as it finished. That happens when the heat buildup inside gets high enough to explode the original meteor.

Unfortunately, a broken cloud cover drifted in around 10:45pm, so I probably missed more of the Perseids. I went into the house at that time. Though I woke up a couple of times during the night and the sky had cleared again, I didn't see any more Perseids during the few minutes I looked out the Window at those times.

Perhaps other people had more luck. According to predictions, there should have been a fair number visible this year.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Falling stars

For those of you interested in seeing a phenomenon in the sky without the need for a telescope or binoculars:

This weekend we have the annual re-appearance of the Perseid Meteor Shower. What we should see (barring cloudy skies and too much light pollution from surrounding lights) is the "burning up" in the Earth's atmosphere of tiny particles which Earth encounters every year in its orbit around the Sun. The "debris" which the Earth encounters at this time each year is shed by a comet which also orbits the Sun, named Swift-Tuttle (the discoverers). If you are located away from the big cities, and have a clear sky, you might see a "falling star" once a minute, or so. In the cities, you'll only see the brighter ones, but there is always a possibility of a really bright "fireball". The maximum "rate" is expected on Sunday night, into Monday morning.

Look towards the north-east when the sky gets dark. Here are two images of the same area generated by the "Starry Night" computer program simulating the view at about 11:15pm. The Perseus constellation is pictured just below centre in each image. The lines connecting the stars are imaginary, they don't exist in reality. Click on the pictures for a larger view:

As you would see the sky away from the city.

Shown with annotation.

The frequency of falling stars will increase after midnight, when the Earth's rotation carries you you around to a more "head-on" direction. This is the direction into which the Earth is heading on its way around the Sun.

The Perseids get their name from the constellation from which they appear to come, called the "radiant". This purely a perspective effect; the stars which comprise this constellation are infinitely farther away than this comet-debris, which originates in the solar system. As the night progresses, this radiant moves higher and higher into the sky, due to the Earth's rotation.

Good luck, and clear skies!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Out of this world

Last night, Hilkka and I attended a presentation by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Vancouver Centre . Eric Dunn, a well-known popularizer of Astronomy and long-time member, gave us a talk about the latest developments in Solar System exploration. Much of our present knowledge comes from the technical marvels called "orbiters" - vehicles sent from Earth to "circle" or pass by other planets, their "moons", or to probe comets, asteroids, etc., all part of our solar system.

Because the difficulty of reaching some of the planets, we have varying amounts of knowledge about them. Also, several of them (i.e. the "gas giants" Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) have no solid surfaces that we know of, or are too inhospitable likely ever to support a human presence (Venus, or Jupiter's moon Io, for example). Therefore, more detailed exploration efforts are currently directed to those places where human beings could survive. The most likely of these is the planet Mars.

Now, getting there is not accomplished without some better technology than is currently available. As a first step, plans are being made to land people on our Moon again. From 1969 to 1972 the USA landed people on the Moon and returned them to Earth, but, incredibly, there is no "hardware" on hand right now to do this again - for instance, no spaceworthy "Saturn" rockets (the biggest rockets ever built) exist. There are a lot of extras that need to go along, most importantly a "return vehicle". All these require prodigious amounts of energy (fuel, meaning really big rockets) to lift out of Earth's "gravity well". At the moment, this kind of spacecraft is not available.

This means, of course, that we also cannot get to, and return from Mars right now. None-the-less, to land people on Mars, you need to know as much as possible about it beforehand. To this end, there have been many "robot" explorers sent there. Some of these orbit Mars, probing it with a variety of cameras and sensors; a couple are actually on Mars' surface - the spectacularly successful "rovers", Spirit and Opportunity. You can see pictures and related information here:

The talk by Eric mentioned other worlds as well. Perhaps the most successful planetary explorer ever is the Cassini orbiter which has taken a multitude of pictures and transmitted to Earth a huge amount of information about Saturn, many of its moons (we know of about 60 at last count) and the environment out there. For instance, I showed a picture of a "backlit" Saturn on an earlier post, which Cassini sent.

There are many other images at:

Every now and then, one needs to get away from one's problems and concerns. I find my "getaway" in the fields of Astronomy and space exploration. If you're interested in some of this, link to, or, and do some "link-hopping".

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Little things mean a lot

As you've probably read on Derek's blog, things are progressing slowly, but steadily. We're pleased that he's gained some weight - it'll help with his continuing fight against his cancer.

We live next to each other in a duplex, with connecting balconies. This arrangement makes it possible visit on short notice, and with no effort. So, it is easy for Derek and/or his family to come over. Last night Derek came to visit us, to our great pleasure. Also, Marina, Dereks' older daughter, likes to come over in the evening for some "quiet time", as she calls it, and, as grandparents, we consider this to be a real compliment from her. Many times both Marina and Lauren, Dereks' younger daughter, are here for a visit, and we can take them at any time Derek or Airdrie (or both) need some time for themselves or when they need to do other things. Sometimes Marina and Lauren sleep over; it's a wonderful thing that we have Dereks' "clan" so close. This kind of thing (all the family under one roof) used to be normal; nowadays families are often spread all over the globe, and I think something goes missing when that happens. In any case, our situation is certainly of help to Derek in his current bout with his illness.

"Little" things indeed.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Out some more

Late in the afternoon yesterday Derek phoned us from our neighbourhood mall. He had had a meal by that time and he and family had spent a couple of hours there. The wheelchair came in handy, apparently.

It's good to know that he's able to get away from the house for more than a few minutes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Get away

Don't fly me to the Moon - fly on Mars instead:

This is a movie of a simulated flight over Mariner Valley on Mars, based on data collected by Mars orbiter instrumentation. Download time is over a minute for a hi-speed connection.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Not much to report

We haven't talked to Derek in a couple of days, but he's taking it easy, from what Airdrie and our granddaughters tell us. As mentioned before, it's a slow and gradual recovery for Derek.

We have guests from Europe ourselves for a couple of days, so we're showing them the Vancouver sites - the weather is beautiful.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Cloud ring

We live in a house with "northern exposure" and have a beautiful view of the "North Shore Mountains". My wife and I never get tired of the ever-changing scenery - even though we have lived here for 36 years. Many a morning and evening we sit in our living room to watch the play of light at sunrise and sunset.

The pictures shown above were taken on the evening of Aug 4, 2007. From our point of view, the sun has already set, but it is still illuminating these clouds from below. Here's another one:

This sunset picture was taken earlier this year, also from our front window.

If you're interested in some more "view" shots, Here's the link:

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Dereks' evening out

I'm sure most of you who read this blog do so because, when Derek is temporarily incapacitated in his fight with the cancer, I post information here. So it is with some degree of pleasure that I point you back to his blog (, because Derek is blogging more regularly again. It is also good to know that more substantial food, and an occasional drink (, do go down well with him, even though he has to watch the interactions between drink and medication. He can use all the calories he can get.

When adversity strikes, you really learn for whom you care and what is important.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dereks' amazing mind

You can accuse me of being biased, and, being his dad, I'll cheerfully admit it. Derek has put another post on his blog (, and, if you read it, you'll likely agree that the theme of this post is totally different from that of his other recent posts. I'm constantly amazed at the depth and breadth of Dereks' interests and knowledge. I can't even pretend to know what Derek is talking about in that post (my interests are quite different from Dereks' and that regard), but what astounds me is that he seems to be able to divorce himself mentally from his current medical problems and concerns.

Derek and I went down to the hospital to talk to the surgeon (Dr. Phang) who removed Dereks' cancerous rectum. Derek wanted to find out whether his current symptoms need some attention. Dr. Phang told us that what Derek is experiencing is quite normal. He said that the recovery will be lengthy, and painful episodes will still occur with some regularity. Derek will take some Tylenol 3 when necessary to combat those. On Tuesday, he will meet with the pain management experts at the BC Cancer Institute for further information in this regard.

My relief, and I'm sure Dereks', too, is palpable. While having to go through this is no fun, it's obvious to me that this information is contributing to Dereks' renewed interest in blogging about other subjects.

My wife and I are very proud of him.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Getting rolling

As you all know by now, Derek is not too strong right now, so walking is a chore, rather than a pleasure. We have a wheelchair in our family, which has had some use in the past. I picked it up from our downtown storage this afternoon to make it possible for Derek to be rolled to places other than the immediate surroundings of the house, where he then can go walking. The Metrotown Mall is not far away (and it's a big mall), with many interesting shops and many people, where he can have a meal or coffee. We also have a nice park in our neighbourhood. Additionally, the wheel chair is light enough to put into the car, and be taken to areas farther away. Vancouver is a beautiful city; there are many interesting spots.

I'm sure that all this will lift Derek's spirits. He already sounds much happier.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Flat line today

You'll have noticed that Derek's not been blogging lately. While he is eating more and more each day, he still feels very weak and gets tired very easily. He does try, though. This afternoon, he went for a one and a half block (slow) walk, and he just took another one in our garden and in the back of the house. Nonetheless, he doesn't feel any better than yesterday.

I think that this can be expected. Derek's body has been subject to a major medical assault. His weight loss cannot be made up in short order. The restricted diet he has to follow limits progress in some ways. Recovery rarely occurs in a linear fashion, there are ups and downs.

It's easy to talk this way, because when you feel the way Derek does right now, this is all academic talk. It's painful as a parent to see him labour to do any of the things he used to do easily - Derek feels this most of all, no doubt. For Derek, the time must seem interminable.

Of course Derek, Airdrie, Marina, and Lauren have our unquestioned support. It is depressing to think that we can't speed up his recovery - time is the only healer.