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Three colorful planets grace the sunset horizon this weekend, January 14 and 15. Look toward the southwest, about one hour after the Sun disappears, to see Mars, Venus, and Neptune twinkling in the twilight sky. Venus is that can’t-miss, brightest, golden-colored “star” shining about three fist-widths above the SW horizon; Mars is apparent as a distinctly reddish “star” about three finger-widths to the upper-left of Venus; Neptune, better seen through binoculars, is that much dimmer, blue-green “star” almost directly beneath Venus (Saturday and Sunday.) As the new week progresses, Neptune will appear to move quickly away from Venus, towards the horizon, while Venus will inch slightly closer to Mars.

While these planets may appear similar and close together, from our point-of-view, they are actually very distant and different worlds. Venus, our closest and similarly-sized neighbor, is a brutal world, with an extremely dense carbon dioxide atmosphere, temperatures peaking above 800F, and days that last longer than years. Mars, that rusty red planet “behind” us, is the second-smallest planet in the solar system, but it sports the largest volcano and the second-highest mountain. Temperatures range from -225F to the mid 90sF. The most distant of our three highlighted planets is Neptune, but it is also the largest. This gaseous ice-giant, which measures nearly eight times the “diameter” of Earth, is so distant that one trip around the Sun takes 164 years! It gets its unusual color from traces of methane in its upper atmosphere.

The graphic, below, illustrates the evening of Saturday, Jan 14, and includes an inset to help you find your way.

threeplanets

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I Miss My Mother

Mom1966

Today, April 10 2016, marks the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Never has anything so recent seemed so distant. Maybe that’s because I really ‘lost my mother’ long before she died, and her death was merely a finality of that loss – a loss that I had long ago accepted.

My mother, Dena Kay, was a precious person — someone who loved her children with all her heart but had not the mental fortitude to properly care for them. Her realization of that fact was probably even worse than the reality itself. She suffered with mental illness nearly all of her life and she did it through years of failed experimental drugs and ineffective therapies. Watching her suffer with the side effects, some of them permanent, was tortuous for this daughter who wanted her mother to have the freedom to be and do more. I’m sure it was even harder for my mother. My heart has, and will, always ache for her. I can no longer  wish for my mother’s recovery; I can only hope that the energy that was her spirit has found its way into some everlasting beauty that is, at least, as precious as she was.

My mother’s final words to me were spoken 3 weeks before she died. She stroked my head and said, “Your hair is so soft and beautiful, Tavi. I love you.” Simply sweet, just like her. These were my final words for my mother, on the day she was ‘laid to rest’:

“Today, as I stand before you, I am 50 years old. My mother, whom we are here to honor, was just 67 when she died two days ago. She was only 16 years young, when she gave birth to me in the summer of 1964. I was in her womb when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison; when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in both the House and Senate; when NASA, in their race against Russia, was developing technology to put the first humans on the Moon and Jerry Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world; when the first human heart transplant was accomplished …  and when she and my father left the security of their individual high school lives, in the rolling hills of Tennessee, to take-on an off-base married Air Force life as parents, on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod shore. I was in my mother’s womb.

“Hey Diddle, Diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the Moon. The little dog laughed to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon.”

My mother must have read that nursery rhyme to us a thousand times. She knew by the gleam in our eyes that we were in that moment, that we were laughing with that dog and riding that cow over the Moon. And she giggled right along with us, each and every time.

Though my mother felt much sadness throughout her life, she loved to laugh – not a loud, hearty laugh typical of so many of us, but a soft, quiet giggle, like the gentle soul that she was.

My mother also loved to dance; she was very proud of her time as a go-go dancer, clad in 60s-era red fringe, on Carolina Beach’s beloved boardwalk. And she loved music – I was the only girl in grammar school who didn’t know who Snow White was, but I could sing every word of the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” and The Miracles’ “Shop Around” by the time I was 5. And I couldn’t jump a rope like the other girls, but I could “Twist” and I could “Mash” a potato or two. My mother may not have been typical, but she was always tender and she always tried to be fun.

My mother wanted desperately to be happy. She really, really tried. I grew up watching the ruthless darkness of mental illness try to steal her away, and my heart is laced with the memories of her brave struggles to be more independent and less afraid. I can never forget watching her fly away in a TWA airliner, for a job-training conference as a make-up consultant. That was a major milestone for Dena Kay – my mother – even, and especially, in those days. She longed to be a free spirit, her blonde hair blowing in the wind as she raced down a flower-laden highway, free of financial worry and mental stress. She dreamed of a loving husband and a fine house, of a closet full of the latest fashions, and afternoons in a hairdresser’s chair. That’s just who she was – full of simple, yet sadly unattainable, dreams. And she never lost hope that she’d, someday, have those simple things. But she was also a very intelligent, loving soul who taught me – by her own example, through long mother/teenaged daughter talks, and even by way of her love of literature – that we are defined by our hearts, not by the color of our skin, not by the gender we choose to be or love, not by our religion or lack-of, and certainly not by our weaknesses. She, that tiny tender quiet person, led me to the ideals by which I now try to live my own life, and it is especially she who empowered me to stand by my principles, even if it means standing alone … and I’ve done a lot of that in my 50 years.

I am most grateful to my mother for my own convictions that: we must raise our children with guidance, love, and patience – not rigidity, anger, and ultimatums; that we must never, ever use violence to settle our disputes or to relieve our own rage; and that we must all be concerned with the basic rights and freedoms of others, no matter their distance or difference. These persuasions, these gifts from mother to daughter, make Dena Kay one of the most compassionate, courageous, and conscientious persons I have ever known.

In 1964 – the year of my birth – the world was changing in big, big ways. But, for my mother – a naive teen-ager who knew not what her own world would become  – the most important event was happening in her own body. Though she was little prepared for the journey ahead, my mother embraced her new life as a young mother with love and hope. And that’s exactly the way she left this world – with unwavering love for her three daughters and an eternal hope for the days ahead.

Mom – Spring is here, the sky is blue … Bells will ring, the sun will shine … We will love you until the end of time … and you’ll never be lonely anymore … Ethan recently dreamed of you, happy and smiling with all of us gathered around in a big beautiful home … I like to think that you have finally found that rainbow after the storm.”

I love you, mom. And I miss your precious heart.

 

2014Aug28_PaulNirmal_C2013A1_C104On October 19, at about 2:30pm EDT, comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) will pass within 87,000 miles of the planet Mars (that’s about 1/3 the distance between Earth and the Moon) – and all the world will be watching, including a worldwide network of amateur astronomers known as The PACA Project!

PACA, or Pro-Am Collaborative Astronomy, is the brainchild of planetary scientist Padma Yanamandra-Fisher, who was a member of NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign team last year. In fact, several of PACA’s current members contributed to the ISON campaign, with images, sketches, visual observations, and spectroscopy. And they’ll be providing similar data this weekend, when Siding Spring slips past Mars, and even as the comet continues on to perihelion six days later and back out into the outer solar system soon after. So, not only will this group of amateurs help scientists to learn more about the comet’s planetary encounter as it occurs, they’ll offer an opportunity to research the continuing effects on the comet itself. They’ll also be among the first to offer “encounter” images to the public, as much of the professional data will not be available until the following day.

You, too, can contribute with your own observations – or you can simply follow along as the PACA network updates with its latest images and data. You’ll find the PACA Twitter account here, the PACA FB Community page here, and the PACA C/2013 A1 Flickr album here. If you’d like to try to see the comet/Mars encounter yourself, check-out these tips from Bob King at Universe Today. (BONUS: Bob’s article leads with a stunning image from PACA member, Rolando Ligustri!)

PACA’s pro-am collaboration doesn’t end with Siding Spring. The group is monitoring several other comet events, including the recent fragmentation of a more distant comet, C/2011 J2 Linear. Be sure to keep your eyes on the PACA network, as they share their latest observations and discoveries!

NASA’s Apollo 11 crew

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, our first manned spacecraft landing on the Moon. When most people think of that momentous event, they remember Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong taking those first steps down from the Eagle lander. But what about the third crew member, Michael Collins, who waited completely alone in orbit around the Moon, as Neil and Buzz scraped the lunar dust and reaped all the glory together? Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson offered a beautiful take on Collins’ role, in this 365DaysOfAstronomy podcast five years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Click the link below to listen!

http://cosmoquest.org/x/365daysofastronomy/2009/07/11/july-11th-apollo-11-through-the-eyes-of-a-young-girl/

Yes, I did it. Today, on April Fools’ Day, I purchased the naming rights of a Martian crater – but, it’s no joke!

Tethalia Crater Certificate (with personal details obscured)

 

Uwingu is a worldwide collaboration of scientists, teachers, and other specialists with a “private-sector” goal to fund Space research, education, and even exploration. Already, they have funded projects for Astronomers Without Borders, SEDS, SETI’s Allen Telescope Array, and more, but their support is not limited to formal organizations. Individual astronomers, teachers, and classrooms – in fact, anyone conducting Space-related research and education – are all eligible for Uwingu funding. And one of the most exciting aspects of this endeavor is the fact that it was “jump-started” by people like you and me – individuals and corporations who are passionate about Space. Governments be damned – we’re marching forward, towards the better tomorrow that follows from today’s exploration!

Uwingu has several fund-raising ventures for your participation, including the Mars Crater-naming project, an Exoplanet-naming project, and a Cafe Press store. They also offer free educational materials, for you, your classroom, or your outreach event. There are many ways to contribute, with participation costs ranging from $.99 to cast an exoplanet-naming vote to $5000 to name an Apollo-level Martian crater. If you prefer something you can hold in your hand, you can purchase Uwingu-branded items ranging from less than $2 for a mini magnet to $36 for a sweatshirt. I opted to name a 4-mile-wide, Pathfinder-level, Martian crater. I used a combination of letters from my and children’s names, so that no matter where life takes us, we’ll always be together. I even suggested a little flora and fauna by selecting geological coordinates to coincide with one of our own planet’s tropical paradises. I contributed to education and research, I created an exciting piece of memorabilia for my children, and I had great fun doing it. No fooling!

Reconstructed Taino Village, as it likely looked at time of Columbus invasion. Credit: Michael Zalewski

When I close my eyes, I see a beautiful falling star; When I open my eyes, I see you in front of me; Oh, baby, you made my wish come true; When I dream of you.

These are the words of a contemporary song by singer and traditional dancer, Adrian Eagle Hawk, of Oglala, South Dakota. Click here to hear the song in his native Lakota language.

Christopher Columbus did not “discover” America. In Columbus’ time, there were already millions of indigenous people on the North American continent, a handful of explorers had already visited and even set-up outposts, and Columbus never even set foot on the land. Certainly, his expeditions in the West Indies and along the Central American coast ultimately initiated a greater global sharing, both good and bad, but Christopher Columbus was not the saint, nor the discoverer, that we’ve hailed each and every October 14 since 1937. On this grossly misinformed “holiday”, I encourage everyone to learn more about North America’s original inhabitants and the truth about Columbus’ brutal exploitation of the Caribbean islands.

Skirting the Sun

I love watching comets graze the Sun, as seen through SOHO’s LASCO cameras. In just a few weeks, we’ll be able to see Comet ISON as it passes within a mere 730,000 miles of the solar surface!

Sungrazer (Kreutz) comet impacting the Sun on Thursday, October 10, 2013, as imaged by SOHO’s LASCO C2.

I know that science can find no evidence to support any connection between sungrazing comets and subsequent coronal mass ejections, and their assertions are certainly reasonable based on our current knowledge, but I am not convinced that there isn’t some viable exchange of energy that could trigger tremendous reaction.

So Long, Summer

FadingMaple 2008Oct29Just as I have done nearly every night this Summer, tonight I stood outside to bask in the evening sounds of my favorite season. But, this night is different. All around me, people are celebrating the arrival of Autumn – fiery maples ignite the covers of magazines and photo albums, wood-scented smoke drifts from backyard fire pits, and grinning scarecrows guard nearly every doorway. For most, these symbols herald cooler weather, home-baked pies, and family gatherings. For me, they pronounce the departure of Summer.

I love everything about Summer – cheery black-eyed susans waving from desolate lots; long-legged herons navigating the marsh’s edge; sticky popsicles and dewy slushies; joyful mockingbirds at sunrise, trilling cicadas at midday, and chirping crickets at sunset; and even that vapory apparition above the sweltering asphalt. When Autumn rolls around, I don’t rejoice in those first days of the end of the year; I languish in the last days of the best time of year.

So long, Summer. You will be missed. 

Venus and Saturn are gracing the sunset horizon, as a pair, this week. Venus appears as an extraordinarily bright “star” (it’s the brightest of our planets) high above the WSW. Saturn can be seen, with considerably more effort, as a much fainter, golden-hued “star” to the near-right of Venus. Watch in the days ahead, and you’ll see the two pass each other, with Saturn racing closer to the horizon, and Venus sidestepping toward the south (left-ward.) Lower-latitude observers with unobstructed views may even spot a third planet, tiny Mercury, shining just above the horizon (to the lower right of Venus and Saturn,) before full darkness sets in.

Venus and Saturn, 2013Sept18

Though Venus and Saturn appear similar and close together from our Earthbound point-of-view, they are actually quite  opposite. Venus is an excruciatingly hot, Earth-sized, terrestrial planet located some 45-million miles away. Saturn, a cold gaseous orb, is 9-times the diameter and 95-times the mass of Earth and is located more than a billion miles from our planet. As we watch these two distant worlds in their individual orbits around the Sun – with Earth in between the two – it’s fun to consider their differences, as well as their relationship to us.

Tao Feather

Is this a cool feather, or what? A Great Blue Heron left it, along with a few larger and bluer feathers, in our yard today. He and a handful of other water birds – including ibis, egrets, rails, and kingfishers – regularly visit our saltwater pond for the shrimp and fry that come in with the high tide.

Tao Feather