Evening in Dallastown

Just after dusk I carried a laundry basket up the stairs in the parking lot, on thecway back to my apartment from the laundry facility.

There, hovering over my building was Jupiter, shining brightly in thr sky just after sunset when few stars had emerged from the glow.

To the east, furious and incandescent, was Mars.

I thought of a Carbon Leaf somg, “Blue Ridge Laughing,” with its line, “The red star is Mercury or Venus. Tell the truth, I don’t really know.” No, it’s Mars, a realm of imagination where cool intelligences and fietce warrior tribes and floating cities all vie for the dying world’s ancient sands.

A light breeze rustled through the trees, and in the distance one could hear cars on the highway.

It was a night to sit in the coolling air and ponder life’s mysteries.

Go outside. Look at the stars, planets, and rising moon. Know where you are in the universe. Feel how vast it is. Dream.

Link Round-Up: December 16

Some links for today. We’ll start with Star Wars and go from there.

And for fun, I’ll mention that I’m intrigued to notice that this week there are people reading my blog in China, the Ukraine, Latvia, Brazil, and Malaysia.

Link Round-Up: December 15

Our second link round-up!

These are things I read today that interested me, with some commentary on what I read and what I thought.

I spent some time digging into the plugin’s code last night. I’ve identified the problem — or, rather, where the problem is happening — but my attempt at fixing the code didn’t work. The fix I coded looks right, but for some reason it doesn’t do what it should.

I need to ponder this some more.

Making Spacescapes

For no particular reason, I wanted to make a spacescape.

I have graphics editing software (specifically, the GIMP), and I was sure there was a tutorial online somewhere. Google was my friend, and within two minutes I had an article that fit my needs — How to Create Space Scenes Quickly and Easily in Gimp.

I followed the instructions, which were not quickI found a red rock texture to use for the planet, I created a nebula, and in about forty minutes I had my first spacescape.


I didn’t like it a whole lot.

It was a cloudy day in Pennsylvania, so I went outside and shot pictures of the clouds. Those, I thought, would make good fodder for planets. Why have a rocky planet when I could have a watery or cloudy planet?

Then I decided to flip the red planet from the first spacescape and make it into a moon.


I still wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t feel like the Gaussian blur on the planetary shadow was really working.

I won’t share the third. I won’t.

For the fourth, I went back to the red rock texture, flipped it around, cropped it, and made something that looked pretty good. And, by this time, I was doing them in about five minutes.


Still, the shadow on the planet didn’t feel properly blurred.

The fifth didn’t work out. I mean, it’s really good… but I didn’t realize I couldn’t move the image layer with the planet’s sun because now there are lines in the image that mark where the edges of that image layer were.

The sixth was an attempt to recreate the fifth.


It turned out pretty well! The planet was made from the clouds above Yoe this morning.

The seventh, I tried some different things. And I’m really happy with it.


When I made the planet, I made the shadow in a different way, and I lensed the image twice, once on the original texture to make a sphere, once after placing the shadow to blend it onto the sphere.

The texture, strange as this may sound, comes from a picture I took of Harrisburg’s Metro Bank Park when I was in Harrisburg for federal jury duty at the beginning of April.

Here’s a closer look at the planet.


That banded ice-like structure? That’s actually the Susquehanna River. The dark splotches along the edge are the reflections of trees on the City Island shoreline. Just beyond them, in my original photo, were the trees and the baseball stadium.

That’s how the magician’s trick was made. :)

Now I want to check out this article on creating planets and try something different.

And now I have spacescapes I can use as desktop wallpapers, if I want to.

On Space and Boyish Wonder

You’d be forgiven for mistaking today for spring even though, by the calendar and by Copernicus, spring is still a month away.

Nonetheless, today was gorgeous, and there was nothing prettier than seeing the crescent moon, itself a bare sliver, in the western sky at twilight with Venus and Jupiter shining brightly higher in the sky.

There’s a Carbon Leaf song I absolutely adore on nights like this, when the sky seems to stretch on forever and you can feel the depths of space and time.

The song is “Blue Ridge Laughing” from Ether-Electrified Porch Music, and the line that speaks to me goes: “Space brings back boyish wonder.”

Tonight’s definitely a night for boyish wonder. :)

On 25 Years Since Voyager 2’s Uranus Encounter

Friday evening, I received a press release from NASA. The reason? The twenty-fifty anniversary of Voyager 2’s closest encounter to Uranus.

Voyager Celebrates 25 Years Since Uranus Visit
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
January 21, 2011

As NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft made the only close approach to date of our mysterious seventh planet Uranus 25 years ago, Project Scientist Ed Stone and the Voyager team gathered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to pore over the data coming in.

Images of the small, icy Uranus moon Miranda were particularly surprising. Since small moons tend to cool and freeze over rapidly after their formation, scientists had expected a boring, ancient surface, pockmarked by crater-upon-weathered-crater. Instead they saw grooved terrain with linear valleys and ridges cutting through the older terrain and sometimes coming together in chevron shapes. They also saw dramatic fault scarps, or cliffs. All of this indicated that periods of tectonic and thermal activity had rocked Miranda’s surface in the past.

The scientists were also shocked by data showing that Uranus’ magnetic north and south poles were not closely aligned with the north-south axis of the planet’s rotation. Instead, the planet’s magnetic field poles were closer to the Uranian equator. This suggested that the material flows in the planet’s interior that are generating the magnetic field are closer to the surface of Uranus than the flows inside Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are to their respective surfaces.

“Voyager 2’s visit to Uranus expanded our knowledge of the unexpected diversity of bodies that share the solar system with Earth,” said Stone, who is based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Even though similar in many ways, the worlds we encounter can still surprise us.”

Voyager 2 was launched on Aug. 20, 1977, 16 days before its twin, Voyager 1. After completing its prime mission of flying by Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 was sent on the right flight path to visit Uranus, which is about 3 billion kilometers (2 billion miles) away from the sun. Voyager 2 made its closest approach – within 81,500 kilometers (50,600 miles) of the Uranian cloud tops – on Jan. 24, 1986.

Before Voyager 2’s visit, scientists had to learn about Uranus by using Earth-based and airborne telescopes. By observing dips in starlight as a star passed behind Uranus, scientists knew Uranus had nine narrow rings. But it wasn’t until the Voyager 2 flyby that scientists were able to capture for the first time images of the rings and the tiny shepherding moons that sculpted them. Unlike Saturn’s icy rings, they found Uranus’ rings to be dark gray, reflecting only a few percent of the incident sunlight.

Scientists had also determined an average temperature for Uranus (59 Kelvin, or minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit) before this encounter, but the distribution of that temperature came as a surprise. Voyager showed there was heat transport from pole to pole in Uranus’ atmosphere that maintained the same temperature at both poles, even though the sun was shining directly for decades on one pole and not the other.

By the end of the Uranus encounter and science analysis, data from Voyager 2 enabled the discovery of 11 new moons and two new rings, and generated dozens of science papers about the quirky seventh planet.

Voyager 2 moved on to explore Neptune, the last planetary target, in August 1989. It is now hurtling toward interstellar space, which is the space between stars. It is about 14 billion kilometers (9 billion miles) away from the sun. Voyager 1, which explored only Jupiter and Saturn before heading on a faster track toward interstellar space, is about 17 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) away from the sun.

“The Uranus encounter was one of a kind,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, based at JPL. “Voyager 2 was healthy and durable enough to make it to Uranus and then to Neptune. Currently both Voyager spacecraft are on the cusp of leaving the sun’s sphere of influence and once again blazing a trail of scientific discovery.”

The Voyagers were built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which continues to operate both spacecraft. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/voyager. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Tomorrow’s anniversay is the happy quarter-century anniversary for NASA this week; this Friday also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

The Voyager 2 probe is on Twitter; send the little guy a congratulatory Tweet today! :)

On a Winter Night’s Thoughts

Monday night when I left the office, about ten minutes to six, I stepped out of the office building’s glass doors into the early night and there, ahead of me in deep space, was Orion, his mighty belt running from just slightly above the horizon to perhaps a fifth of the way to zenith.

The night air was clear and, despite the lights illumunating the parking lot from above, the stars were visible and crisp in the January sky.

On clear nights like this, especially out in the country when you can truly see into infinity, it’s not uncommon to wonder what’s out there. Nor is it difficult to wonder if there might be someone or something, near one of those distant points of light, looking back across the cosmos in our direction.

What would an alien intelligence, quite unlike ours, see, looking back this way? Would they notice the cities lighted at night, shining like little beacons from a darkened planet? Would they notice the melting icecaps? Would the pollution of the atmosphere bother them? Would they notice the crippling poverty of much of the globe’s population? Would they notice the number of men and women under uniform, their fingers on weapons that can kill and maim and, in far too many cases, annihilate entire cities?

Or would they notice us at all? Would they be more interested in the great creatures that inhabit the oceans, or the animals that roam freely about the interior of the continents? Would a butterfly, flittering about a summer’s field, capture their fancy? Would they notice the way a cloud turns pinkish in the early morning dawn? Would they revel in our blue sky, perhaps quite unlike their own?

It’s tempting to wonder about, anytime you see the stars on a crisp winter’s night. ;)

On Childhood Memories and the Christmas Sensawunder

As I left the office Monday evening, the moon, a waxing crescent, held in the sky to the south southwest. There was a planet nearby in the sky, I presumed it was Jupiter, just from its brightness, but I didn’t honestly know.

In general, the sky was remarkably clear. Monday had been a brutally windy day, with gale force wind warnings through ten o’clock that night. As I walked to the train stop, a bitter wind swept across the parking lot, buffeting me and catching my wool coat’s hood and knocking it away.

For some reason, and I’m not entirely certain of why, that moment reminded me intensely of high school, of reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series over Christmas break 1987. Something about that moment made me think of Michael Whelan’s covers, of Golan Trevize’s search across the galaxy for the Second Foundation and Earth itself.

Was Christmas 1987 brutally windy and bitterly cold? I have no idea. Was it that the Baltimore sky Monday night was just very deep and very dark, much like night skies in West Virginia were twenty-odd years ago (and presumably still are)?

I don’t have many cherished childhood Christmas memories, sadly. I vaguely remember Christmas shopping at Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport when I was in high school. Earlier than that, I remember building LEGO sets over the years — I remember a house made of red bricks whose instructions were unclear, I remember the Space Cruiser (and I still have the instructions somewhere), and the Knight’s Castle from a few years later (and yes, I have the instruction booklet for this one, too).

It seems that 1984 is the Christmas I remember best. That would have been the Christmas of the Knight’s Castle. That also would have been the year of a field trip at Christmas to Washington, DC, to see A Christmas Carol performed at Ford’s Theater. Or, perhaps, that field trip was in 1983. :) I remember DC being icy and snowy in December, I remember that we had dinner at the Old Post Office Building before heading out of the city and heading home. I remember buying Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 in paperback (though I’d already read it). (And that book instilled my love of typography, by the way; mid-80s Del Rey science fiction books used Peignot as a chapter heading font.) I don’t know if it were the same Christmas or not, but I remember that my mother received a record for Christmas — Placido Domingo’s Perhaps Love. (A Google search tells me that album came out in 1983, so that may have been been the year before.)

The next year’s Christmas was done at my grandparents; I’m certain of this only because of Paul McCartney’s “Spies Like Us,” which I remember hearing on the radio while spending Christmas with my grandparents. (I also remember the song as being more interesting than it actually turns out to be. I always wondered why “Spies Like Us” was left uncollected, since it’s McCartney’s last top-ten song, but it’s such a slight and uninspired piece of work that I’m not surprised it’s been left of the dustbin of his vast catalogue.)

I can vaguely remember doing churchly things at Christmas, like singing in the church choir or making ornaments for the tree. (I remember an ornament because I’m certain it was naff.) But they’re not distinct Christmases; they all sort of blended together.

I do remember having homework over the Christmas holidays — and then doing absolutely none of it. That sounds like 1984, definitely.

I also remember watching a documentary on Jesus’ birth on PBS that talked about the astrological significance of triple conjunctions and the like. No, scratch that. I don’t think it was on PBS at all. No, my father liked to take me, my brother, and my sister to the local planetarium, and I suspect that it was in one of their programs that I first learned of the triple conjuction of 6 BCE between Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. I’ve always said that it was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos that set me on the path to atheism, but I could also point to those old planetarium shows.

I find, as much as I love Christmas music and the spirit of the season, that Christmases all blend together. I spent fifteen Christmases working retail, one was much the same as another, and I seemed to spend more time making sure others’ Christmases were fantastic rather than making my own.

The more I write this, though, and the more I think about it, I would say, really and truly, that the thing that I will remember best about Christmases from my childhood are those planetarium trips. My father and I watched Cosmos together when I was six, my mother gave me Sagan’s book for Christmas when I was seven. There’s a fantastic Carbon Leaf lyric that goes, “Space brings back boyish wonder,” and I know what that means exactly; I’ve said before that, on a very dark night, I could so easily fall into the stars. I think that feeling, and it’s a feeling that I realize that moment Monday night as I left the office touched, is the sensawunder that comes from realizing how vast and overwhelming the universe is and how amazing it is to be here, in this time.

Christmas touches that, too. Christmas is the time, every year, when everyone gets to indulge in the sensawunder.

That’s not such a terrible thing. :)

On Moments of Cosmic Awareness

I don't know that I want to live forever.

Forever is a really long time. Maybe the Big Rip happens 22 billion years from now or the universe avoids the Big Rip and suffers the Big Crunch many billions of years later or the universe suffers heat death sometime around the year 1 Googol.

In any event, we're talking really long timescales.

The Andromeda GalaxyThat said, I wouldn't mind at all if I could live to see the year five billion.

I would love to see, as the centuries, millennia, and megannums pass, the Andromeda Galaxy grow ever larger as our galaxy, the Milky Way, and far-off Andromeda are drawn ever and ever closer. Sometime in the future, some estimates suggest between three and five billion years from now, the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies will collide. As collisions go, this will be a largely painless collision; galaxies are largely empty space, and the two barred spiral galaxies will basically turn into an elliptical galaxy once the two galaxies coalesce into one. Some arms, perhaps our own Orion Arm could be ejected from the Milky Way and become its own detached thing, much like the Magellanic Clouds appear to be shattered remnants of devastated galaxies.

This cosmic collision, when it happens, will be near the end of our sun's life cycle. Wherever the atoms that comprise us and everything around us today end up in that time of celestial upheaval, our solar system won't have much time, on a cosmic scale, to acclimate itself to the new status quo.

I'd love to see it, though. To watch two galaxies approach, wrestle, collide. To see things on a scale of time and space that the human mind can barely comprehend.

No, I wouldn't want to live forever. Forever is a long, long time. But to see the collision? Yeah, I'd like to live long enough to see that. :)

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