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Moonwatch

Only one more full lunation to go! We’ll greet the full moon this weekend, watch it wane to new, and then begin to watch the last phase cycle until we see it new against the Sun.
We live disconnected from the natural cycles these days, and while we wouldn’t venerate the Moon, still, it keeps celestial time for us. To note and enjoy the Moon through all her phases is to take joy in Nature the same way we note and enjoy the songbird. Not in the casual way that the bird is just part of the background noise, but as separate and unique, if we are good also identifying the species just by their song.
So too at the next full Moon we should then note the phases as we fall back to New. On which morning will it be the last time we see the Moon before the eclipse? I intend to see Venus in the morning sky on eclipse day…and then to watch for her again in the minutes before totality.
Let the Moon be more than just background noise in the sky….seek her out to note the beauty of the night sky, perhaps decorated with sunset or sunrise clouds. Watch her march across the constellations and learn their names. Observe with intention, you will be well rewarded.

Stories

Humans have been observing the sky – especially the night sky – for thousands of years. The sky was always the same, stars rising and setting in their season. The regular movements of the stars and the phases of the Moon made our first calendar. The sky was also this gigantic canvas on which the dots were connected to form patterns. Our brains love to see familiar shapes in random things, we see animals in the clouds and we saw animals in the stars.

Constellation images
Half of a flying horse and a graceful swan

Over time we drew heroes, creatures from mythology, and occasionally everyday objects in the sky, and then we used them in telling stories about these heroes and legends.  Before artificial lights, the sky was a part of everyone’s experience, and we knew the sky well.  Many of us still know one or more of the stories in the stars. The regular cycles in the heavens were comforting next to the chaos of life on Earth.

Until the Sun went out in the middle of the day.

Imagine what it would be like if we had no idea a solar eclipse was happening.  At some point we’d wonder why the light looked strange – but otherwise it is still a bright sunny day.  If you don’t know anything is going on, 86% of the Sun can be covered and you might not notice – this a bare ten minutes before totality! And since we know not to look at the Sun, we’d just glance up – no, no cloud there – and all of a sudden we are sliding into a darkness coming at us across the landscape, and when we do look back at the Sun it has become a thin crescent breaking into beads of light and then gone!  Panic, doom, screams until just minutes later the Sun reappears in bright flash of light that makes us look away, and daylight returns.

That makes for a great story!  Did some great beast just attempt to eat the Sun?  Before written language and widespread travel, though, the story might have died out before the next time a solar eclipse visited the same spot.  The average is nearly 400 years between eclipses.  Once we had written language and could compare notes, though, this seemingly random event was seen as periodic.  Now we wanted to be able to predict solar eclipses!

The story then turns to a story of science.  Of the motions in the sky, the dance of the Earth, Moon and Sun. The Greeks and others used a mathematical story called geometry to reckon the size of the Earth, the possible distance to the Moon – and the reason why this dance would occasionally bring darkness in the middle of the day.  Newton wrote the next chapter in the story, with the law of gravity as the main actor, directing the dance of the planets around the Sun.

Two hundred and thirty years later a clerk in a patent office wondered what the story of the beam of light traveling across space would be, and brought gravity back together with geometry.  When the news story broke about how scientists observing a total solar eclipse had seen the starlight bend as Einstein had predicted, he became the star of relativity, a radically new way of looking at the universe.

Einstein
Who knew a theoretical physicist could become famous?

The story of science, of how the universe works and our place in it is written with both imagination and observation. How we describe the universe has to mesh with the facts and measurements that we gather, with predictions made and verified.  Solar eclipses have fired our imagination and our desire to understand the cosmos from the earliest humans to the modern era.

We’ll each have our own story on eclipse day. Even though we know when and where and how an eclipse happens, waaay back in the brain is the certain knowledge that the Sun does NOT go out in the middle of the day!  To witness such an event is a wonder.  Everyone will have a unique reaction.  What will your eclipse story be?  I hope you will record your unique experience  as we all stand under the shadow of the Moon and watch the Sun disappear in the middle of the day!

Eclipse overload

Spending yesterday and today at the *last* AAS eclipse 2017 workshop. These have been held all along the eclipse path, so we are in Columbia, South Carolina. A relatively small group, but lots of fun information. Yesterday there were educational presentations and some discussion about traffic. Today some fun presentations from Michael Zeiler / Ernie Wright with GIS mapping and visualization fun.

Funny bit from the hotel elevator: I was wearing the shirt designed for the Hardin Planetarium at Western Kentucky, a lovely retro 50s sci fi design by Tyler Nordgren. A gentleman looked, said “batman?” then looked again and commented that he thought I had a Batman shirt on, so I explained that it was a design celebrating the upcoming total solar eclipse. After a little more back and forth, we arrived at his floor. “Have a nice evening eclipse lady!”

I liked that!

The Year of the Eclipse

Welcome to 2017! Watching interest rising with the turn of the calendar. Welcome to the year of the eclipse!

Edgar Evins State Park, sitting pretty much on the center line of the eclipse path, became the first Tennessee State Park to sell out everything, cabins and campground. More will follow, quite a few reservations were made this weekend. The only in-totality cabins left are now at Standing Stone State Park. Good fun watching the parks fill up.

Hotel reservations are up as well….center of path places are becoming rare. Funny that you can tell which hotels have heard about it, and which have not. $80 vs. $200+. Springfield, Whitehouse, Portland…gone. Goodlettsville still has rooms, even some at the $80 level. Slowly but surely, from the center outward, the rooms are filling.

Pro tip? If you want a different experience, look at Pickett State Park. It’s an official International Dark Sky Park, off the beaten path with some nice day hikes. A short drive out of the park to Clarkrange, view the eclipse from the parking lot of the Cumberland Mountain General Store and Rockabilly Diner (http://cumberlandmountaingeneralstore.net/Index)…then spend the night under the darkest skies in Tennessee with no Moon to spoil the view! It is on the Cumberland Plateau, possibly more chances for clouds….but a great place if the forecast is good.

pickett state park
The view from the CCC Memorial at Pickett.

And so it begins….

We will never know how many people visit Tennessee (or really anywhere else in totality). The eclipse is turning us all into mini hostels. Visiting new friends south of town, they talked about inviting folks to their house, even though they’ll have to drive to totality. My kids are inviting friends. I think we’ll be seriously bunking at least ten extra people, maybe more. This will be repeated over and over by a substantial number of households in Nashville The hotels will be only the beginning.

This is a slow motion tsunami, a wave of people that will join us to stand under the shadow of the Moon. A mass movement. But difficult to communicate to those who do not share the vision. A fair number still view this as a science thing, something only of interest to the amateur astronomy community. Not true! While the astronomy community has had this posted on their refrigerators for a decade or more, we’re going to be inviting everyone…and we do mean everyone! That’s why Fred Espenak has a “Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017.” If you are not from Tennessee, you might want one of these!

If you can drive to the path, you should do so. You will not forget the sight, and what a gift to give kids. Two things in science are interesting to young kids: dinosaurs and space. I don’t have live dinosaurs, but I can show off space. And this year, I can show you a total eclipse of the Sun!

Venus at eclipse

Each year we make a list of what objects are visible in the evening sky throughout the year for our star parties. Working on the list for 2017, noted when Venus drops out of the evening sky. Rarely do we note much in the predawn sky, knowing most folks like to sleep in, but sometimes it’s fun to know what rises before the Sun.

On Eclipse Day, Venus will lead the Sun – and Moon- into the sky, only to be lost in the glare of the summer sun. Somehow, I think we’ll not be sleeping much the night before anyway, so I’ll plan to greet the dawn and Venus. She will be back, visible before totality as the sky slowly darkens..a challenge to see who can spot Venus first!

Following Venus is Mars, with Mercury on the other side of the Sun and Jupiter rising in the east. The only planet missing from the eclipse sky is Saturn.

shelby park view
Shelby Bottom Park view, Stellarium

The Greek names allow for some alliteration… Aphrodite leading Ares and Artemis, who will shadow her twin brother Apollo. Hermes following behind and Zeus off in the distance.

We know all these worlds – and our star – so much differently than the Greeks. But standing and watching the same way they did, the dance is still just as beautiful.

Winter comets

No one is claiming “comet of the century,” but this winter and spring will feature a couple of bright comets.  A nice warm-up act for the eclipse!

First up is 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova.  See Seiichi Yoshida’s excellent comet website http://www.aerith.net/comet/future-n.html for rough finder charts and light curves, then make sure it is added to your favorite desktop/phone app. Probably not naked eye, but it’ll be good in binoculars. We’ll see how it ramps up next month.

Next Comet 2P/Encke makes one of it’s better apparitions. We’ll be looking for that in February and March.

But wait, there’s more: 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak may reach 5th magnitude in April. In the northern sky starting in March, it will be circumpolar, making a very tempting target for photography.

Come May, it’s C/2015 V2 ( Johnson )! This comet will peak about the first of July.

There are always comets, but so much of the time even the brightest are far below even binoculars or telescopes in the city. So we’ll have fun sharpening our observing skills before we watch the grand show in August!