Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category

Eclipse Mania: Beating the Crowds   2 comments

I’ve decided to see this eclipse in Tennessee!

Eclipse day is drawing nearer, and I’m almost finished with my series on trip-planning for the big event.  Of course I’m assuming you are in fact going to see it.  You are, aren’t you?  Note that a partial is not even close to the same experience as a total eclipse.  You simply must be under the path of totality.  If you’ve never seen one before, you’re in for a real treat!

An unfortunate corollary to the very convenient path of this eclipse is that nearly everywhere along the relatively narrow path of totality will be busy and crowded.  Rooms have been booked for in many cases years.  Campsites are at a premium, and even the good spots to watch (such as Jackson Hole) will be very crowded.  Traffic is certain to be a headache.

You may wonder if it is worthwhile at all.  Why not just look at the videos and pictures that will be all over the web afterwards?  Don’t think that way!  Pictures cannot even begin to do justice to a total solar eclipse.  Read on for tips on handling the crowds and getting a good spot.

Where are you watching the eclipse?

Tips: Planning for Eclipse Day

  • Bottom line is, while you want to see it in an inspiring place, it cannot be so crowded that it negatively impacts your experience.  Your choice of viewing spot boils down to a subjective balancing act.  Where you strike that balance depends on your personal make-up.  Do you want as much peace and quiet as you can get?  Or do you see the crowds as a great opportunity for an eclipse party?


  • There is only one real sure way to avoid crowds, and that is to get out on the open ocean to see this eclipse.  The path crosses a good part of the eastern Pacific and even more of the Atlantic.  But if you’re not doing that, read on…


  • You have probably already reserved a place to stay, but what about a spot to watch the eclipse?  Do you have a backup (or two)?  Arrive in the area with plenty of time to scout one out.  In a previous post I detailed all the qualities of a good place to watch a solar eclipse.  But look for elevated places with good views of the sky and toward the horizon to the west (and east if possible).


  • Find at least one backup spot, just in case something (like weather) happens with your top choice.  Then for each of your spots, create at least one backup plan for parking and for how to get there.  I recommend bringing a bicycle in case traffic and parking turn out to be worse than expected.


  • Your backup spots should be in different areas weather-wise.  In other words get some local knowledge on the area’s microclimates and diversify on that basis.  Generally speaking this won’t work if a large front comes in, rather it’s for limited cloudiness, such as for thunderstorms.  A friend of mine has two sets of reservations, one in Idaho and one in Charleston.  Now that is a backup plan!


  • Get your top spot scouted out and commit to it.  Definitely monitor forecasts and satellite imagery in the day or two leading up to the event, but remember that weather is quite unpredictable more than 48 hours out.  In other words, don’t get caught over-thinking it and end up faking yourself out.  See next post for more on last-minute weather considerations.
  • For any total solar eclipse you should get to your spot as early as possible.  And for this particular eclipse that advice is especially important to follow.  If you possibly can, camp right where you’ll be watching.


  • Avoid driving on eclipse day.  If you’re not sleeping within walking (or biking) distance I recommend driving in the pre-dawn hours, shooting sunrise, and getting to your viewing spot in the very early morning.

Because by definition a total solar eclipse happens at new moon, nights around the event are starry. Jackson Lake is inside the path:

Tips:  Camping without Reservations

Hotel rooms may all be booked, but what about camping?  Is it also too late if you have no campsite reserved?  It depends on where you’d like to camp.  Don’t expect to score a spot at Jenny Lake in the Tetons or at a state park on the Oregon Coast.  But if you’re flexible you may not be completely out of luck.  All it takes is some creativity and persistence.

  • If you’re self-contained, with plenty of water, food, etc., you should be able to find a spot to stay overnight in one of the national forests along the path.  This is what the USFS calls “dispersed camping”, and the best part is it’s free!  There are limits and rules, so check the websites for the districts you’re interested in.


  • In addition most national forests, have 1st-come, 1st-serve campsites.  These normally have at least fire-rings, picnic tables, an outhouse, plus (usually) water.


  • The Bureau of Land Mgt. (BLM) also has dispersed and 1st-come camping available.  BLM units in the path of totality are located in Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming.


  • If you live close enough to the area under the path where you’ll be watching, and you don’t have accommodation yet, take a weekend (soon!) and drive around the area.  If you don’t live close, arrive as many days ahead as possible, combining your search for a viewing spot with one for a campsite.


  • You’ll be checking national forest and/or BLM land for dispersed camping.  Stop by the national forest district offices for info. and recommendations.  Find out about limits on lengths of stay, fire restrictions and leave-no-trace camping advice.


  • Pick up maps either ahead of time or when you visit the district offices.  In some cases you can download and print detailed maps, but never rely on Google Maps for this kind of thing.  They have nowhere near the detail you need for scouting and planning.  Draw the path of totality and confine your search for camping inside that path.  The goal is to camp within walking distance of a great spot to watch the eclipse.


  • Now it’s time to scout!  There’s no substitute for taking the time to drive the back roads.  Explore and get the lay of the land.


  • The kind of places that should interest you depend on how you’re set up for camping.  Obviously it’s best if you don’t have a large RV.  A small camper van or a pickup that you can sleep in the back of is ideal for dispersed camping.  You can also car-camp with a tent.  The Forest Service allows you to disperse camp up to a few hundred feet off the road.  Whether you camp in a vehicle or in tents, you need space to park so you’re not blocking the road.


  • Finally, remember that there will be many people camping anywhere they can fit.  The sooner you can claim a spot the better.

Extra Tip: The Private Option

Don’t limit yourself to public lands.  People with property along the path of totality will no doubt be out to make a little money.  Check Craigslist, but it may be better in this case to go low-tech.  Call the local chambers of commerce in the area to find out if they know of specific landowners who are renting out space.

Then drive around the area talking to locals with property for camping (or who are renting out rooms).  Make sure to stress the fact you are self contained and will only be sleeping there, not spending a lot of daylight hours.  Negotiate!

That’s all for now.  I hope you can use the advice I and others are offering to help make your eclipse experience a memorable one.  But mostly, I really hope you have decided there is no way you’re missing this eclipse.  Have a wonderful weekend!

Large swaths of prairie lie under the path of this eclipse.



Eclipse Mania: 10 Best Places to Watch, Part II   7 comments

An amazing close-up of a diamond ring and prominences. Photo by Aris Messinis of a 2006 eclipse in Greece.

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21st.  The last post listed 5 of my favorite places in the west that lie in the path of totality.  Now let’s move east across America’s heartland and into the south, following the path of the shadow as it races coast to coast.  Make sure to comment below with where you plan to be on eclipse day, or where you’d like to be if the boss would just give you more time off!

Whether or not you’ve decided where to watch this eclipse, this list of events breaks it down by state.  You may find something of interest for the time period leading up to the main event.  The images here show some of the landscapes of the regions covered by the list.  My collection of solar eclipse photos is very slim because up until now I’ve focused on visual observation.

The rising sun lights up the Grand Tetons along the shore of Jenny Lake on a peaceful morning. It will not be so quiet on the morning of August 21st.

The Rest of the List

6.  Big Sky Country, Wyoming

The big sky country of Wyoming is an excellent alternative to the busy Tetons of western Wyoming.  The path crosses the Wind River Range, passing over the state’s highest summit, Gannet Peak.  A pack trip into the Winds, even a climb of Gannet, would be amazing.  If you’re able to organize a trip like this at the last minute my hat is off to you!

You could see the eclipse on the largest expanse of American Indian land along the path, the Wind River Shoshoni Reservation.  One option here is to drive Hwy. 20 along the east side of Boysen Reservoir, looking for a spot there at Boysen State Park, or north along the Bighorn River toward Thermopolis (which is barely within the path of totality).  Here is one source for events and activities on the reservation.

Despite being a relatively short 3-hour drive from Denver, because of its size the sprawling prairie along the North Platte River east of Casper, Wyoming is a good option.  Get there ahead of time and scout the big-sky country.  You’ll be exploring an area that pioneers crossed on their way west on the Oregon Trail.  Try the national forest south of Glenrock and you’re sure to find a suitable spot on public land to watch the eclipse.  There are a couple campgrounds sure to be full, but you could get there days ahead and stake out a spot on a gravel road somewhere.

Slide Lake, not far east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is in the path of totality.

7.  Kansas City or St. Louis Area

These two midwestern cities are within the path, but just barely.  The south edge of the path passes over K.C.s city center, while the north edge passes through St. Louis.  So for K.C. you need to be on the north end of town and for St. Louis the south side.  The Gateway Arch is not in the path of totality.

So you could see it in an urban or a suburban setting.  The town of St. Joseph, MO, north of K.C., sits on the banks of the Missouri River.  It is squarely on the center line, so is an excellent choice in the K.C. area.  I can imagine a very fun party atmosphere at riverside there.  The center line passes over I-70 halfway between the two cities, very near the college town of Columbia, then crosses the great Mississippi River near the small town of St. Mary.  Here’s a list of events.

Historic Bollinger Mill, Missouri is just inside the path of totality.

8.  Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky

This stretch of lovely open forest interspersed with grassy meadows and wetlands straddles the border between Kentucky and Tennessee.  Many small towns are nearby so unlike many areas of the west this spot offers better chance to snag a room at this late date.  It’s covered by a National Recreation Area, and their website lists planned events plus camping, parking and other details.   One big advantage to LBTL:  it’s the point of maximum duration (2 min. 40 sec.).

This area would be especially good for a shorter trip.  One as short as a few days would suffice to see Mammoth Cave or (for country music fans),Nashville, both destinations within striking distance.  In fact, if you’re into seeing it from a city, Nashville is just inside the path of totality.

Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky is where the maximum duration of this eclipse will occur.

9.  Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina & Tennesee

The center line actually misses Great Smoky Mtn. National Park, crossing the Appalachians just south of it.  However, the path of totality covers much of the park.  In other words, seeing the eclipse somewhere in this area would be a great excuse to see this (very) popular and beautiful park.  The challenge, as everywhere, is to find lodging.  Clouds are a risk in this area, with its late summer thunderstorm activity.   As my sister lives nearby, it is where I’ll be if camping turns out to be too chancy for the other places I’m considering.

Clingman’s Dome, at 6643 feet the 3rd highest peak east of the Mississippi, offers the highest viewpoint for the eclipse in the park.  The mountain straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border and lies just inside the path of totality.  It’s a winding road then a half-mile (paved) trail to the top.  That is far too short a hike to cut the crowds significantly, so arrive very early.  Another great option is to park somewhere along Foothills Parkway, which runs along the western side of the park.  It has several great viewpoints where you can watch the shadow bands play across the rolling Smokies.

The Foothills Parkway runs along the west side of Great Smoky Mtns. National Park. And this is not the weather anyone wants on eclipse day!

10.  Charleston, South Carolina

This is where we’ll say so long to the great American eclipse of 2017, at 2:49 p.m. local time.  Just north of Charleston the center line leaves the continent and heads out into the Atlantic Ocean at a place called Bull’s Bay.  The area north and south of here is a boater’s paradise, so being either on the water or next to it on one of the barrier islands is the thing to do.

Right on the center line is Cape Romain.  This maze of barrier island channels, marsh and beach is mostly covered by a wildlife refuge.  The only access is by boat.  If interested in this, contact the people at Bull’s Island Ferry.  Another possibility very close to the center line is Buck Hall Recreation site, which has a campground, trails and boat ramp.  It’s closed for camping but otherwise open for the eclipse.  If I don’t go west I might launch my kayak there, using my bike as a shuttle (forget about parking).

You can kayak if you have a boat or find one to rent.  Just paddle out from one of the boat ramps in the area and see the eclipse on the water.  Or land somewhere to set up a tripod.  If you’re up for a longer paddle, it’s a an hour and a half one-way to Bull’s Island, a natural environment of beaches and trails.  Get hold of a good map and talk to a local for advice on route-finding.  You don’t want to get lost.  Getting on a guided paddle trip is a possibility, even at this late date.  Check out Coastal Expeditions or Sea Kayak Carolina.

That’s it for now.  I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pumped up for this!  Have a great weekend.

The sun goes down on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Eclipse Mania: Planning an Eclipse Trip   1 comment

Not my image, click on it to go to source page.

I’m doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse of August 21st, visible in the U.S.  Check out the introductory post for details on the eclipse itself.  To date I have not gotten serious about photographing eclipses, preferring to spend the precious short minutes of totality enjoying the show instead of fussing with gear.  So I don’t have many images.  The above was captured with a tracking telescope and processed to bring out details of the corona that are difficult to get in a standard digital photo.  You can see these much of this detail and more in real time.  More than most things, it is very difficult to do any kind of justice to a total solar eclipse with photos or videos.

This eclipse will pass right over central Oregon’s Painted Hills.

I’ve been thinking lately about where to watch this eclipse.  Do I go back to my beloved Oregon or see it high in the Tetons?  Do I combine it with a visit to my sister and family in Tennessee and see it in the Smokies?  I realize most of my fellow eclipse-chasers have made plans by now, and that is no doubt smart.  In general I don’t plan ahead unless I absolutely have to.  This case is borderline but I’m used to traveling without reservations let alone a firm itinerary.  I have the luxury of being comfortable winging it and traveling simply with few comforts.  I’ll happily sleep wherever I can squeeze my van.

The path of totality makes landfall along the Oregon Coast.

An eclipse trip is unique in some ways.  Obviously you have to be in a specific place at a specific time, and this serves to anchor your trip.  I’ve seen two total solar eclipses before, one in Turkey and one in the Pacific off Japan.  Since they happened far away across oceans I was forced to plan ahead to some extent.  Rather than flying in, seeing the eclipse and flying out, I used them both as excuses to travel in parts of the world I’d never been (see addendum below).

Planning well ahead for an eclipse, while it is smart in one respect, carries some risk.  By locking in your destination you ensure you’ll be under the path of totality at the right moment.  But weather could throw you a curve.  If clouds cover the sky on eclipse day, all your best-laid plans come to naught.  You need to be ready to roll with that punch.  If you plan a longer trip, making the eclipse the centerpiece of a much larger itinerary, it will sting less if you’re clouded out on eclipse day.

So consider taking more time and choosing a place to see this (or any future) eclipse so that you’re near places you’d like to visit.  It’s good advice even for this eclipse if you’re a resident of the U.S.  I’m betting that somewhere along the long path of totality there are places you’d like to see.  Next time we’ll dive into advice on trip planning specific to some choice destinations along the path of this eclipse.

Since solar eclipses happen at new moon, you will have very dark skies on the nights surrounding it. Venus is the brightest one here, with rarely seen Mercury right on the horizon.

Addendum:  How to Make More of an Eclipse Trip

My first total solar eclipse was in Turkey in 1999.  It was guided by an astronomer and an anthropologist and culminated in an amazing experience on a central Turkey mountain-top witnessing the sun dramatically eclipsing the moon.  After the eclipse (which featured amazing shadow bands) we celebrated with many locals at an ancient walled mountain-top Hittite city.  It was the site of a major battle thousands of years ago, one which was halted by a total solar eclipse.  Both armies feared the wrath of their gods and retreated from the battlefield.

The entire trip was like this, a combination of ancient history and astronomy.  Because we had a famous author with us who had connections in the archaeological community, we got an inside tour of a 9500-year old “proto-city”, a mound site called Chatalhoyok.  The Turkey trip was the only guided tour I’ve ever done that was planned ahead of time from home (I’ve done plenty of shorter tours using local guides).  The only problem: some years ago I lost all of my slides from the trip during a move.  So all I have are the memories.

These two ladies kindly posed for me: Kyoto, Japan.

Since both my girlfriend and I were teachers and had the summer off, we used the guided trip as an excuse to travel through Europe for about two months prior to the eclipse, which was in mid-August.  The contrast between the two parts of our trip was so stark that it would have felt like two trips except that we didn’t go home in between.  Camping through the Pyrenees in a rented Audi, traveling by rail and staying in local Provencal and Umbrian inns in Umbria; followed by visits to places like Ephesus and Cappadocia in an air-conditioned tour bus, staying in beautiful 4-star hotels: the transition was a bit difficult to say the least!  But the group stopped for enough sit-down lunches and carpet-shopping (which I had no interest in of course) and quit early on enough days, to allow me to make my escapes to get out and meet the (wonderful) Turkish people.

Massive Deer Cave, Borneo grows jungles out of its grand skylights.

The sun hits a powerful orangutan’s bright fur: Sarawak, Borneo.

For the other eclipse in the western Pacific, a chance to see parts of China and Japan was too good to pass up.  I never thought I’d stay in a traditional guesthouse in Kyoto surrounded by geishas going about their day.  It also was an excuse to take a cruise, probably the only one I’ll ever do.  At the last minute I found a cheap flight from Beijing to Singapore and extended the trip for a weekend in that city plus two weeks in Borneo, which is a short hop away.  Borneo is a paradise for nature lovers and since then I have been in love with tropical forests.

I know these two examples, especially the first, are a little extreme.  I don’t expect you to go off the deep end, extending a trip to experience a 4-minute eclipse into a 3 month adventure.  I was lucky and had the time.  But you can do more than just fly in, see the eclipse and fly out.

The island of Iwo Jima, so historically important, was in the path of the eclipse of 2009.


Eclipse Mania: Are you In?   4 comments

A diamond ring appears as the sun comes out of total eclipse in 2009.

On this August 21st a shadow will pass across the United States.  At that point on its slow 4-week revolution around the earth, the moon will pass directly between the sun and earth.  Since it’s just the right size and distance from us, making it appear the same size as the sun, the moon will block the entire solar disk.  It will make the normally invisible corona (or atmosphere) of the sun visible, along with a number of other normally hidden features of the sun’s surface.

For a brief few moments day turns to night, confusing animals and causing panic among those humans not aware of what they are seeing.  Stars and planets are visible at noontime.  As the earth spins below the blocked sun, a shadow races east over a narrow sliver of land and sea, making the event a very brief one for anyone along its path but also causing strange atmospheric effects like shadow bands.  It’s a total solar eclipse, one of the strangest and most beautiful natural phenomena a person can see.

The Nature of a Solar (vs. Lunar) Eclipse

A total lunar eclipse happens when the earth lies between the sun and the moon; that is, at new moon.  It’s when the alignment of this monthly event is perfect, allowing the earth to cast a shadow over the moon.  A total solar eclipse, which happens at new moon, is when the moon lies directly between Earth and the sun and casts a shadow on earth.

It’s unlike a total lunar eclipse in two big ways.  First, a lunar eclipse, while beautiful and worthwhile, is simply not as stunning and multi-dimensional as a total solar eclipse.  Second, because of the earth’s much larger shadow, a lunar eclipse is a common thing to see while a total solar eclipse is a very a rare event to witness.

It’s not as if solar eclipses are in general rare.  Most years see two of them in fact.  But they are rare for any given point on earth.  On average the wait for any given point on earth is 375 years.  Some places have been treated to two in a row less than two years apart.  Other places have gone 35 centuries or so between successive eclipses.

During partial eclipse before and after totality, do not look directly at the sun without the right filter. But you can project its image onto any surface, and easily see sunspots. During totality you can look right at an eclipse with your naked eyes.

Why is something that happens every year experienced by us so rarely?  For one thing the path along which the eclipse is total (rather than partial) is very narrow, about 70 miles wide.  For another a solar eclipse may occur anywhere, with no regard for population or whether over land or ocean (remember water covers over 70% of the earth).

Finally, most solar eclipses are not total.  Since 2000 there have been 30 solar eclipses and only 13 of those have been total.  In 2012 I witnessed a solar eclipse in northern California.  It was a cool thing to see and photograph, but it was not total.   It was an annular eclipse (image below), where the moon is just a little too far away to block the entire disk of the sun.  If you didn’t know, the moon varies in distance as it journeys around the earth.  That is, its orbit is elliptical.

Annular eclipse, as viewed from Sacramento, CA in May, 2012.

There is no question I will make every effort to see this solar eclipse, and I strongly recommend you do as well.  After all, it’s the first total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979 (Hawaii had one in 1991).  The next one in North America is in 2024 (Mexico, U.S. and Canada).

Each total solar eclipse has a unique character, partly due to location and partly the precise nature of the alignment.  They are too special to pass up when the opportunity arises.  Once you’ve seen one you have some idea why some people make a life of chasing them.  So any solar eclipse is worth seeing.  But it is very rare that they limit themselves to a single country.  This one does.  It’s America’s eclipse.

Images do not do justice to the sight of a total solar eclipse. This is in the western Pacific in 2009, during 6 minutes 39 seconds of totality, the longest solar eclipse until 2132!

The Path

The 2017 eclipse, unlike 1979s which only hit the Pacific Northwest, will cross through America’s heartland.  Granted, the first and last people to see it will be in boats far out in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans respectively.  It begins at sunrise far north of the Hawaiian Islands and ends at sunset south of the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Despite the fact that over half of its path lies over ocean, this eclipse will not approach very close to any island.  Lucky for us, the central half of its path, including the point of maximum duration, passes over land.  It will be visible over a wide variety of landscapes, from densely urban to agricultural to coastline to ruggedly mountainous.  The path graces quite a number of the country’s national parks as well as other natural areas.

The moon’s shadow first hits land on the Oregon coast.  At about 10:15 in the morning towns from Pacific City south to Waldport will be plunged into darkness.  Little Depoe Bay is on the path’s centerline, and so is the summit of Mt. Jefferson, one of the high Cascades.  After crossing Oregon and southern Idaho, the shadow passes over the southern part of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and then speeds out into the Great Plains, crossing Nebraska and Kansas.

A number of cities are either near or in the path of totality.  Residents of Kansas City and St. Louis will see it.  The shadow continues on to Kentucky, passing over beautiful Land between the Lakes.  It then bisects Tennessee, gracing the Music City, Nashville with the show.  The shadow then glides over one more national park, Great Smoky Mtns., before heading out over the Atlantic at the port of Charleston, South Carolina.  It leaves U.S. soil just before 3 in the afternoon local time, having taken just over an hour and a half to traverse the continent.  For a very nicely done interactive map of the eclipse’s path, check out this site.

I hope I’ve gotten you excited about seeing this eclipse.  If you are already an enthusiast you’ve undoubtedly already made plans.  If not, don’t worry that it’s too late to plan a trip.  If there is a will there is a way.  If you’ve never seen one, and especially if you live in North America, there really is no excuse.  Just see it!  So now that we’ve taken care of the why, next time we will get down to the how and the where, the nuts and bolts of seeing the great American Eclipse of 2017!

The silhouetted moon near the end of an annular eclipse.  Note the diffraction effects, especially along the upper left limb of the sun.

Happy Summer Solstice!   10 comments

Sunrise over Klamath Marsh, south-central Oregon.

Sunrise over Klamath Marsh, south-central Oregon.  Click on image for purchase options.

It is that special day today, Summer Solstice!  It’s the longest day of the year and the first day of summer for the Northern Hemisphere.  For all you Southerners it’s Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and start of winter.  For today I’m posting one sunrise, from Klamath Marsh in southern Oregon, and one sunset, from the Pacific Coast just south of the Oregon-California border.

Please let me know if you’re interested in fine-art prints of the images here, or want to buy rights to the high-resolution files.  They’re not available for free download except with my permission.  Please contact me, thanks!

You may already know this but the Earth is tilted on its axis about 23.5 degrees.  This tilt gives us our seasons, and means as we go around the Sun there are four moments (not whole days) when things line up.  In March and again in September there’s a moment when the North Pole is tilted precisely along our path of travel, our orbit, at a perfect right angle to the Sun’s direction.  These are the equinoxes, when day and night are equal the world over.


In December there’s a moment when the North Pole points directly away from the Sun.  In June, usually on the 21st but sometimes on the 20th, a moment comes when the North Pole points directly toward the Sun.  This puts the Sun as far north in our skies as it can get.  In the Southern Hemisphere it’s low in the sky, leading to short days.  In the Northern Hemisphere it’s high in the sky, leading to long days.

In the far north above the Arctic Circle, where I spent a couple summers a long time ago in Alaska, the Sun never sets at this time of year.  It skims along nicely above the northern horizon throughout the wee hours.  I went on several long hikes in the Brooks Range when I was up there working.  I’m a person who needs darkness to sleep, and I was having trouble staying asleep.  So I used the time to see the midnight sun trace its path across the sky above the Arctic Plain.

Our encampment was down in a valley with a fairly high ridge to the north, so you couldn’t see the midnight sun for about 8 full hours.  It took about an hour and a half to climb the ridge, and I”m sure it would take twice that long for me now!  In good weather there was a clear view out to the Chukchi Sea to the west, the Noatak River Valley to the north.  The glowing sun glided not far above the horizon.

I recall seeing a few grizzlies on their rounds down below.  I never ran into one close, but being alone I was cautious.  I avoided obvious passes and other places a bear might use to cross from one valley to another.

So enjoy our long days all you fellow Northerners.  If you live relatively close to the equator, I’m sorry but all this talk of seasons and change is a bit lost on you.  But heck, go ahead and celebrate with the rest of us!

The rugged Pacific Coast of far northern California witnesses many a fine sunset.

The rugged Pacific Coast of far northern California witnesses many a fine sunset.  Click on image for purchase options.

Life in the Universe VI: Space, the Desert & Exoplanets   8 comments

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

The Milky Way may be home to million or billions of other living planets, but there are enormous empty spaces between us.

Space is on my mind here in the deserts of southern Utah.  It isn’t so much that when the sun goes down in the desert the stars shine brightly.  It is the very nature of the desert itself.  The way small clusters of people and houses seem to occur randomly with huge empty spaces between them reminds me of the scarcity of life in an immense void.

And during this time of year at least, the way the temperature drops so quickly at night and rises almost as quick in the morning reminds me of being on an airless planet where the nearby star’s light brings intense heat during the day and biting cold at night.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones.  On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

The landscapes of the American southwest can often be mistaken for alien ones. On this morning I watched a couple rock climbers scale this pinnacle.

This is an ongoing series on my blog, believe it or not.  Like space, there are long journeys involved in going from one post to the next in the series.  The last installment, Part V, began to explore the question of life outside the solar system by highlighting the indomitable Carl Sagan.  Part IV discussed the search for life within our own solar system.  This part will continue to explore the idea of life out in the universe as a whole – a challenging subject I admit I’ve been avoiding.

The question that I posed to begin, the one which underpins the meaning of this series, is explained in Part I.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the big sky.

The large expanses of desert are accentuated by the lack of trees, the bare rock, and the broad skies.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Milky Way rises over rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Quest for Exoplanets

Humans have found over 1000 planets outside our own solar system to date, with well over 3000 potential candidates.  In typical parochial fashion, we call these extra-solar worlds exoplanets.  The Kepler space telescope is one of the finest tools we have in the quest to find exoplanets.  It explores a constellation-sized area of the Milky Way Galaxy near Cygnus, the Swan (aka the Northern Cross).

Kepler continuously monitors the brightness of more than 145,000 stars.  It looks for a slight dimming in brightness indicative of a planet crossing between earth and the star. Think of trying to detect the dimming of a bright streetlight a mile away when a moth flies in front of it and you have the idea.

To find exoplanets, astronomers have traditionally used the slight wobble of a star that occurs when an orbiting planet tugs on it.  This gives us good information on the sizes of the planets, along with how close they orbit to their host stars.  More recently the Spitzer space telescope has detected, for the first time, actual light coming from an exoplanet.  This is key.  In order to find out anything about the surfaces of these worlds we need to examine the light bouncing off them or skimming through their atmospheres.  Spitzer and some ground-based telescopes can do the former while Kepler is uniquely suited for the latter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Turret Arch greets a rising Orion the Hunter.

Candidates for Life

Most of what we’ve found thus far have been very massive exoplanets the size of Jupiter and larger.  Many of these “hot Jupiters” orbit very close to their stars, closer even than our own Mercury.  As our techniques get more refined and as more time goes by (allowing the wobble method to work on exoplanet candidates orbiting further from their stars), we are finding more and more planets that are close to the size of Earth.

Crucially, we are now finding planets that orbit their stars at a distance which allows liquid water to exist.  This orbital distance, which in our solar system essentially extends from Venus to Mars, is the “habitable zone”, also known as the Goldilocks Zone. Combining these two factors that are relevant to the search for earth-like life (the planet’s size and distance to its parent star), we have found to date 12 earth-like exoplanets.

The size and brightness of the host star makes a big difference in how close a planet can orbit and still be cool enough for liquid water and possible life.  We have found only one earth-sized, rocky planet thus far (Gliese 581-g), and happily this planet orbits about the same distance from its star as earth does from the sun.  But there are two problems.  First, Gliese 581 is a much smaller and cooler star than the sun.  So its habitable zone, where water may exist, is presumably much closer in.  Gliese 581-g still would orbit within it, but depending on the shape of its orbit it may get too hot for liquid water.

There’s a much bigger potential problem, however.  The very existence of Gliese 581-g is disputed by some astronomers.  Its discovery is somewhat clouded and controversial.  Confirmation of Gliese 581-g may take some time.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

A survivor in Arches National Park overlooks a desolate valley at dusk.

An exoplanet called Kepler 22-b is also interesting.  The Kepler space telescope caught it passing in front of its star on just the third day of the spacecraft’s operation.  Though 22-b is some 2.5 times bigger than Earth, its parent star is very similar to the Sun (G type).  Also, 22-b orbits at an average distance very similar to Earth’s, and so its year is similar to ours.  The only problem with Kepler 22-b is that we know so little about it.  For instance, we don’t know how elliptical its orbit is.  If it is highly elongated (as most explanets’ orbits are) it might spend part of its year very very close to the star and part very far away.  Earth’s orbit is nearly circular.

The closest potentially habitable exoplanet to us is Tau Ceti-e, only 12 light years away.  That is still much too far for us to visit in anything close to a human lifetime, so we need to temper our enthusiasm.  Also, Tau Ceti-e is yet another unconfirmed exoplanet.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park.

The Milky Way Galaxy rises vertically over Canyonlands National Park as Venus sets.

Are We on the Right Track?

You might be questioning the importance of looking for exoplanets that are earth-like, orbiting sun-like stars at earth-like distances.  You might wonder why we don’t also look for life forms that aren’t anything like ours, life that perhaps does not rely on water or based on carbon.  Also you might notice that we always speak of planets.  We know from the search for life within our own solar system that the moons around planets are in some cases better candidates for life than are the planets themselves.  Finally, life in the cosmos may in some cases be decoupled from planets or moons, living instead in space, perhaps close to large energy sources (such as quasars).

You’re right to question.  Definite biases exist in the search for extraterrestrial life.  To some extent they are unavoidable.  But consider two facts: First, it is easiest to look for earth-like planets and life.  And this is not an easy enterprise to begin with.  Second, our sort of life is all that we know for certain can exist.  Again, it is hard enough to look for our type of life trillions of miles away let alone other types.  These sound like excuses for our bias, but there it is.

And so the hunt continues for exoplanets that are candidates for earth-like life.  Based on the Kepler space telescope’s findings, astronomers estimate that perhaps as many as 20% of the sun-like stars in the our galaxy have habitable planets orbiting them.  This is a stunning estimate because it suggests that there are nearly 9 billion habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.  If even a tiny percentage of these planets have developed intelligent life, then we have plenty of company in our galaxy. 

Arches National Park under the winter stars.

Arches National Park under the winter stars.






Quest for the Crescent   5 comments

A beautiful sunrise over the Columbia River Gorge, with Beacon Rock just visible through the mist.

A beautiful sunrise over the Columbia River Gorge, with Beacon Rock just visible through the mist.

I’ve been sort of fixated on photographing the crescent moon lately.  I wanted to capture it at sunrise (i.e. when it rises just before the sun on the day or two before new moon), but clouds interfered.  Instead I got a pretty nice sunrise shot (see image above).  Then I set my sights on the setting crescent after new moon.  Coincidentally, this moon when it is first sighted marks the beginning of Ramadan, the month of daily fasting & prayer for muslims worldwide.

On the day after the new moon, the crescent was exceedingly thin, only 5% illuminated.  Further complicating matters, it was due to set less than half an  hour after the sun.  These factors make it very difficult to sight.  You can make it easier by getting up in elevation with a clear view of the western horizon, and scanning with binoculars.  I almost went this route, but I wanted a different sort of picture of it.  I wanted some interesting foreground that included water.  So I set up at river-level in the Columbia Gorge near home.  While sharp-eyed muslims sighted this moon and Ramadan began, I failed.

A photo captured at dusk but with something missing - the crescent moon.

A photo captured at dusk but with something missing – the crescent moon.

I was disappointed but not beaten.  The next evening I knew the crescent would be easier to sight and probably make a more beautiful picture.  I went back to the same spot in the Gorge, Rooster Rock State Park.  The image at bottom was the result.  Hope you enjoy it.

If you’re interested in any of these images, just click on them.  They are not available for free download without my permission, sorry.  Go ahead and contact me if you have any questions.  By the way, I wrote a post on capturing the crescent moon (with a photo not a lasso!).  Check it out.  Thanks for the visit!

Success!  A peaceful crescent moon sets at dusk over a small inlet of the Columbia River, Oregon.

Success! A peaceful crescent moon sets at dusk over a small inlet of the Columbia River, Oregon.

The Solstice & Super Moon   6 comments

The summer solstice happened very close to the time of the full moon at perigee, here at Lost Lake.

The summer solstice happened very close to the time of the full moon at perigee, here at Lost Lake.

Yes I realize it is several days after the solstice, but I don’t want to wait 6 months to publish this.  It seemed to me significant that we had both the solstice and a full moon at perigee (“supermoon”) in the same week.  I’m an astronomy nerd, so the motions of the sun, moon and planets mean something to me.  It’s not just about your sign!  I think the solstices are the most important days of the year, with the equinoxes a close second.  I still like Christmas a lot, but that’s just the winter solstice a few days after.

Last week, one of the year’s two solstices took place.  For us in the northern hemisphere it marked the first day of summer, the longest day of the year.  It happened in the evening on the west coast of North America.  Like all astronomical phenomena, solstices (and equinoxes) happen at a specific time not on a date.  In the case of the solstice, it is the moment when the earth points its axis directly toward or away from the Sun.  For the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is when our planet points its northern hemisphere at the sun, at the sharpest angle it can.  Therefore for most of the world’s population this signifies the longest day and shortest night of the year.

Stonehenge was supposedly built to mark the solstices.  This is a replica of the famous megalithic ruins.  It is in Washington state.

Stonehenge was supposedly built to mark the solstices. This is a replica of the famous megalithic ruins. It is in Washington state.

For the southern hemisphere, the situation is the same but opposite.  The summer solstice for the northern hemisphere, which happens either on the 20th or 21st of June every year, is the winter solstice for the southern hemisphere.  Folks in South Africa and Australia have their shortest day and longest night while people in America and Europe have their longest day and shortest night.  The year’s other solstice occurs in 6 months, on December 20th or 21st.   The northern hemisphere is pointed away from the Sun, and thus has its shortest day and longest night.  The southern hemisphere has its longest day and shortest night.  Short nights around Christmas?  I really don’t like the thought of that.

This post is a good excuse to post an abstract, relatively rare for me.

This post is a good excuse to post an abstract, relatively rare for me.

The planet we live on is tilted on its axis of rotation.  Therefore it must tilt toward or away from the Sun as it revolves around it.  If you are good at visualizing, you know that there is a time (two times actually) when during the year the Earth neither points toward or away from the Sun.  Those times are known as the Equinoxes.  Nights and days are equal.  Think of those times as when the Earth is tilted directly toward or away from its direction of its travel around the Sun.

Okay, so why is this stuff important, or at least very cool?  The nature of time, the seasons, the passage of our lives:  to me these have always been very profound & interconnected things.  When I was younger, the seasons meant warmth, colorful leaves, cold and snow, and flowers, and that’s all.  But as I learned about things astronomical, the other pieces fell into place.  Add all the fascinating myths and stories from around the world and I realized I was not the only one who thinks these matters are important.

Surprising tulips appear randomly along Washington's Klickitat River, well away from any habitation.

Surprising tulips appear randomly along Washington’s Klickitat River, well away from any habitation.

Connections between things that happen in the world have always interested me.  You will occasionally see TV shows and books dedicated to these ties between natural events and human stories and experience.  Unfortunately these are too often academic and dry.  This I can’t understand, since these events have inspired so much that is creative in humans: poetry, art, stories.  I like the way people respond and react, both emotionally and in a visceral sense, to these cycles.  I definitely react to them, and I like this very real connection to the natural world that I share with others.  I guess that’s why I think the solstice is worth celebrating.

Rhodedendrons bloom in June in Oregon's forested Cascade Mountains.

Rhododendrons bloom in June in Oregon’s forested Cascade Mountains.

I should admit right here that I did nothing special to signify the event.  It snuck up on me.  I have in the past celebrated by climbing a mountain and camping atop it, or by joining in some extended outdoor excursion or even party.  But this time it just passed, and like with birthdays I just felt older.

Enjoy these images.  I’m sorry but they’re copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  Just click on any you are interested in to go to purchase options for the high-res. version.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks!

The so-called supermoon, actually the full moon at perigee, rises over Lost Lake, Oregon as a beaver swims by.

The so-called supermoon, the full moon at perigee, rises over Lost Lake, Oregon as a beaver swims by.

Dusk comes very late in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge at summer solstice.

Dusk comes very late in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge at summer solstice.

Life in the Universe V: The Influence of Carl Sagan   5 comments

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

I have neglected this series for far too long, I’m sorry to say.  Check out the previous posts for some background and for some of my best starscape images.  Part I discusses how science has tackled the biggest questions we ask about the Universe and how life fits into the picture.  Part II continues by touching on the idea of the universe having a consciousness, or even some sort of creator; it also discusses how quantum theory fits into things.  Part III goes into what we know thus far about life’s origins.  And Part IV highlights the incredible progress we’ve made in the exploration of our solar system, with the not always explicit goal of finding life on other planets.

The progress of this series has been generally outward, from our beloved Earth (which remains the only place we know that hosts life) and out to the solar system.  My goal (at least metaphorically) is to go out to the stars, our galaxy, then finally the larger Universe.  Then I’d like to come back to the original two-part question discussed in Part I: how did we come to be and why?  In this post however, I’m going to take a short detour and speak about a scientist who greatly influenced how we have tackled these questions.  He is Carl Sagan, an astronomer from the United States.  Now passed away, he was widely known as a popularizer of astronomy.  He influenced NASA policy along with millions of people who watched his Cosmos TV series.  He had a significant effect on me.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.


Carl Sagan Planetary Society.JPGWhile he was charismatic and very good at getting all sorts of people enthusiastic about space science, he was also a very good scientist.  Among the general public in the U.S., he was mostly known for going on the Johnny Carson Show and expounding on astronomy.  Of course everyone knew that Johnny would eventually get him to say the word “billions”.  In Sagan’s landmark TV series Cosmos and in lectures, he often referred to billions (of stars, years, miles) with a definite, purposeful emphasis on the b.  With his great voice, the b literally boomed.  Comedians of the day had a great time imitating it.

Sagan started out as a planetary scientist, studying under the great Gerard Kuiper at University of Chicago and going on to make important contributions.  For example, he put together observations from the early Venus probes to demonstrate that the reason our sister planet is an incredibly hot, dry place is that it suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect.  He was first to suggest that Jupiter’s moon Europa has an enormous subsurface ocean and that Saturn’s moon Titan is bathed in an organic-rich atmosphere and had liquid organics on its surface.  He was a key figure in several important NASA missions, including the Viking robotic mission to Mars.  He led a small team that designed humanity’s first (and 2nd & 3rd as well) message to the stars.

Carl Sagan and Frank Drake came up with the idea to send messages to the stars on the Pioneer space probes.  Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in the early 1970s to pass close to Jupiter and Saturn and then head out of the solar system into outer space.  These space-ready plaques, these cosmic messages in a bottle, had very simple messages inscribed on them.  There was a map showing where our solar system was located, along with figures of male and female human beings waving a greeting.  Five years later, the Voyager probes (which are now passing into interstellar space) carried a much more involved package.  It included a gold-plated record of pictures plus sounds from Earth (music, frogs croaking, volcanic action, human greetings in many languages, etc.).  This time capsule was designed by a team led by Sagan.

Also, in 1974, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake sent for the first time in human history a deliberate radio message out to the stars.  Aimed at the enormous globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, it was a coded radio transmission sent from the huge Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico.  It was not approved or sponsored by NASA, and drew great criticism.  Some prominent astronomers complained that it was arrogant and stupid for Sagan to advertise our presence to potentially hostile aliens.  Sagan countered that we have been broadcasting into space for generations, though the messages which continue to be broadcast (radio programs, TV sitcoms, etc.) may not be putting humanity’s best foot forward.

Wandering around Monument Valley during a full moon is a special experience.

Wandering around Monument Valley during a full moon is a special experience.


Carl Sagan believed deeply in both the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence and in the many benefits that contact with them would provide humanity.  Do not misunderstand, however.  He was not a believer in ancient aliens or even that UFOs were evidence that we are being visited in recent times.  He simply believed that life had not only gotten started in many many places throughout the galaxy, but that it had progressed far beyond our level in a significant number of star systems.  He believed that if we made contact with any aliens, it would be near certain that their technology and culture would be far more sophisticated than ours.

This makes perfect sense if you believe that the Drake Equation (which estimates the chances of extraterrestrial intelligence) strongly suggests there are very many instances of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.  Sagan combined that conclusion with the Fermi Paradox.  In 1950, Enrico Fermi famously asked of his colleagues (including Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb) “where are they?”  If there are so many potentially life-friendly star systems and literally billions of years to play with, why haven’t we seen any evidence of aliens, present or past?  Sagan took these two factors, plus the fact that we are in the infancy of space exploration ourselves, and concluded that any civilizations which do exist have somehow avoided having destroyed themselves, and are thus greatly advanced both technologically and culturally.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

He had faith that we would eventually make contact with an advanced intelligence.  He also believed that their success in handling increasingly sophisticated, potentially destructive technology meant that they would be peaceful and non-aggressive.  Further, he thought they could teach us how to avoid destroying ourselves through technology, wars or ecological collapse, and that this would be the greatest discovery in the history of humanity.  This is why in the latter part of his career he focused intensively on making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, and on convincing the general public that this was a worthwhile endeavor.

Some criticized this belief as not only quasi-religious, but as out-of-date and quasi-colonial.  They thought Sagan’s beliefs smacked of the justification for imperial powers of the west conquering primitive peoples in order to provide them with the benefits of the modern world (all the while stealing their resources and infecting them with disease).  In this cosmic case, those backward beings would be us Earthlings, and the “benevolent” conquerors would be extraterrestrials.  Many people who think about this stuff believe that contact with aliens would bring a similar fate:  exotic disease, theft of the Earth’s resources, and similar bad outcomes.  I think this criticism of Sagan is unfair.

A full moon illuminates Ship Rock in New Mexico.

A full moon illuminates Ship Rock in New Mexico.


The movie Contact is based on Sagan’s book of the same name, where SETI’s Jill Tarter (played by Jodi Foster) makes first contact with aliens.  SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the effort that Frank Drake, Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison started is now a very mature organization.  Basically an effort to detect alien transmissions, SETI was kept alive during the 1960s by the Russians.  Carl Sagan, during the Cold War, collaborated with the Russians on SETI.  Now an American organization run by Seth Shostak, with both Frank Drake and Jill Tarter still involved, SETI is carried out by an international cast of scientists.  They conduct highly sophisticated monitoring of our galactic neighborhood.  Still looking primarily for alien radio transmissions, SETI incorporates sophisticated computer-assisted arrays of telescopes and also looks for optical signals (such as messages carried on laser beams).


Carl Sagan has been criticized for his almost religious zeal and optimism surrounding the existence of life on other planets.  He was very adamant that cameras on the Viking Lander be capable of sweeping the area in case any intelligent creatures show up to check out the intruder.  He endorsed a theory by the Russian Iosof Shklovsky which proposed that Phobos and Deimos (the two small moons of Mars) were artificial satellites created by Martians to escape a deteriorating climate on the planet’s surface.  Regarding the controversial “face” on Mars, Sagan parted ways with mainstream astronomers when he supported further study of it.  But he believed it was probably natural, a fact that was confirmed during subsequent flybys.

Sagan has been likened to that controversial icon of early 20th century Mars exploration, Percival Lowell.  Lowell was the dogmatic scientist who was convinced up to his death that Mars was laced with canals.  Sagan criticized Lowell for his refusal to accept evidence against the canal theory, but it is said secretly admired him for his belief in intelligent Martians.  Lowell was a tireless promoter of the theory for an advanced Martian society and, at least in part, so was Carl Sagan.  I think it’s a stretch, however, to label Sagan as Percival Lowell’s successor.

The full moon as viewed through a translucent veil formed by geothermal steam at Firehole Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The full moon as viewed through a translucent veil formed by geothermal steam at Firehole Lake in Yellowstone National Park.


While it’s true that Carl Sagan had a strong belief in alien intelligence, possibly nearby, I regard him as a very good scientist, a straight thinker who could never ignore evidence that contradicted his beliefs.  He famously said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  Although he though the study of UFOs was a legitimate effort, he debunked the famous alien abduction of d considered the chances of alien visitation to be extremely small.  For years he taught a course at Cornell on critical thinking.  But there’s no getting around the fact that Sagan’s interest in astronomy was stoked at an early age by the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Sagan was a well-trained astronomer who had a huge diversity of scientific interest and knowledge.  I have read quite a few of his books, and they are diverse.  Cosmos, The Pale Blue Dot, Cosmic Connection, Comet and Intelligent Life in the Universe are all great astronomy reads.  But he also wrote The Dragons of Eden, which explores the evolution of human intelligence.  Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, about human evolution, is a fascinating book.  He worked for some years with famous biologists and geneticists, including Harold Urey and H.J. Muller.  He also worked with famous physicist George Gamow.  In a book called Demon-Haunted World, he defends science as a way to counter the chaos and misery of totalitarianism and war, along with ignorance.

The starry sky on a clear evening is reflected in the aptly-named Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

The starry sky on a clear evening is reflected in the aptly-named Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.


Sagan claimed that he was agnostic.  Based on some of his statements (“The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing white beard is ludicrous.”) many considered him an atheist.  But others thought he brought a religious bias into his science.  He believed that “Not only is Science compatible with pirituality, it is a profound source of spirituality.”   I believe he was somebody who welcomed that soaring elation that comes with scientific discovery, and that he regarded this as a deep spiritual experience with the nature of the universe, a sort of God.  I don’t think he was an atheist.  In fact, he once said:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

In eastern Washington state stands a replica of Stonehenge, here viewed just before complete darkness descends with the stars coming out.

In eastern Washington state stands a replica of Stonehenge, here viewed just before complete darkness descends with the stars coming out.

Sagan was in some ways a child of the 1960s.  He was strictly anti-war, a staunch environmentalist, a believer in a woman’s right to equality and access to birth control (including abortion).   He smoked marijuana, and did little to hide the fact.  He married three very talented, intelligent and strong women throughout his life.  I believe Sagan’s most important legacy is what he did to make astronomy (and science in general) understandable and exciting to the public.  Sagan really believed science was a spiritual quest, but not in the strictly religious sense in which the word spirituality is often used.  Many people think his belief in extraterrestrial intelligence had strong religious elements.  But I think that he simply wasn’t conflicted about his science, and that he really was agnostic.  I believe that many of his critics mistook his spiritual-like enthusiasm (especially evident when he talked to the public about science) for some sort of religiosity.

Carl Sagan died in 1996 from pneumonia (of all things).  It was related to a disease he had called MDS, a condition that destroys a person’s bone marrow.   He was only 62, with plenty more to contribute to science and society.  Among many scientists and science enthusiasts, and nearly all science educators, he is sorely missed.  The movie Contact, an adaptation of his novel, came out in 1998.  If we do make contact with intelligent aliens within what would have been his natural lifetime (to the late 2020s, say), it will be a true shame he did not live to see it.

An old abandoned schoolhouse out on the Oregon prairie is illuminated by a crescent moon.  The Milky Way glows pink in the coming dawn.

An old abandoned schoolhouse out on the Oregon prairie is illuminated by a crescent moon. The Milky Way glows pink in the coming dawn.

Friday Foto Talk: Photographing the Crescent Moon   6 comments

Getting good shots of the crescent moon is a bit different than shooting the moon at any other time.  In this Friday Foto Talk we’ll discuss some of the considerations during capture, as well as the way I process the images.  The crescent is certainly a worthwhile subject.  Especially when the moon is very new and a thin crescent is illuminated, it can be a very delicate and beautiful feature of the evening or early morning sky.

A thin crescent moon over the Columbia River, Oregon. Composite of two images: Background - 110 mm., 30 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400; Moon - 200 mm., 3.2 sec @ f/4, ISO 400.

A thin crescent moon over the Columbia River, Oregon. Composite of two images: Background – 110 mm., 30 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400; Moon – 200 mm., 3.2 sec @ f/4, ISO 400.

Moon Phase & When to Shoot

First off, when can it be shot?  Well, assuming your goal is to capture it when it is very thin, you will be shooting just after sunset or just before sunrise.  This makes sense if you think about why only a thin crescent is illuminated.  To get a good idea of this concept, go get an orange, tennis ball, or any round object you can hold in your hand.  Hold it up between you and a bright light bulb (without a lampshade).  Move toward the light so that when you hold the ball at arm’s length it just covers the light bulb when you close one eye.  Move your arm so it’s held out to the side, forming a right angle between yourself and the light.  Look at the ball.  It’s half-lighted.  This is a half-full, a first or last quarter moon.  Now swing your arm slowly toward the light and concentrate on the lighted part of the ball.  It should approximate a crescent shape that gets smaller and smaller until it is a small crescent before it completely covers the light (representing a new moon).

Setting crescent shot at the beginning of Ramadan: Columbia River, Oregon

Setting crescent shot at the beginning of Ramadan: Columbia River, Oregon

Now you have an idea of the position of the crescent moon relative to the earth (your eyes) and the sun (the light).  When the ball/moon is moving toward the light/sun it is a waning crescent, visible in early morning  just before sunrise.  When it is moving away from the sun it is a waxing crescent, visible in the evening just after sunset.  In either case the moon will be near the horizon, and so it represents a good opportunity to make an image with a pretty landscape beneath the moon.  You will also have the opportunity to shoot it at so-called blue hour (the time when the sun is below the horizon but the sky has enough light to give it a deep blue color).  You will also not have as much contrast between the bright moon and the dimmer sky or landscape as you do when more of the moon is illuminated.

All of this is good news.  It makes your life easier as a photographer, specifically in terms of contrast, but also easier to get a more interesting composition.  If the moon is only a day or so old, for example, you will be shooting it at dusk during the waning stages of the sunset.  In this case the moon will be close to the horizon, which is good so long as you don’t have a huge mountain or building in the way.  Also there will be little contrast between the moon and the sky (a good thing).  On the other hand, the ultra-thin crescent is often very difficult to even see at this young stage.  If it is 2-3 days old, it will be easier to see, and you’ll see it in blue hour.  But if you wait for it to get close to the horizon, it will be very deep blue hour, which means more contrast between moon and sky/landscape

The crescent moon decorates the dusk sky behind a towering cirios (boojum) in the Baja California Desert, Mexico.

The crescent moon decorates the dusk sky behind a towering cirios (boojum) in the Baja California Desert, Mexico.

When & How to Capture the Crescent

(Note:  This discussion refers to the image at top.  The other images are just thrown in as a bonus)

Last night I shot the crescent moon at just under 2 days old.  Since I wanted it close to the horizon, it was the very end of blue hour.  So there was some contrast to deal with.  As with shooting the full moon, it helps to have a fairly bright or reflective landscape in front of the moon.  Deserts are good, but water is just as nice.  I had been shooting the sunset over the Gorge at popular Crown Point, and on the way home I drove right by the Columbia River.  I found a favorite spot of mine to shoot near the river, and quickly set up.  There was not much time.

Since I do not like to use high ISO when I am shooting low-light images like this, I let my exposure go up toward 30 seconds.  This was also necessary because of the fact I had foreground elements not far away, in the form of some pilings sticking up out of the river.  This made it necessary to use an aperture that gives good depth of field (i.e. f/11).  Even if I had raised ISO and dropped my aperture to f/5.6 or so, the darkness of the scene would have given me exposures on the order of at least 5 or 6 seconds.

A beautiful summer evening in Portland, Oregon features the crescent moon.

A beautiful summer evening in Portland, Oregon features the crescent moon.

And therein lies the challenge.  If you shoot the moon at a shutter speed of more than about 3 seconds, it will begin to blur.  This of course is because of the Earth’s rotation.  My shots at 30 seconds, which were perfect for the sky and river foreground, featured a moon that was completely smeared out.  Yuck!  My solution in this case was to shoot a frame where I zoomed in as much as my lens would allow (200 mm.).  I dropped my aperture to the maximum opening (f/4) for my lens.  I used Liveview to view the moon close-up while I focused it perfectly.  Then I shot it at an exposure of 3.2 seconds at f/4 with an ISO of 400.

When I’m shooting the moon, I always look for compositions that are effective (balanced, attractive, etc.) at longer focal lengths.  Of course sometimes the best composition is a wide-angle, but the moon will be small in those cases, very small.  Longer focal lengths make the moon bigger.  It is really a trade-off.  The image I finally decided on (I shot several) had a focal length of 110 mm. and included some nicely illuminated clouds along with the silhouetted pilings.

Now I had two images: one with a sharp, beautiful blue-hour rendering of the river and sky but with a badly smeared-out moon; and a second of the (sharp) crescent moon alone.  I knew I would be combining the two images in a composite during post-processing (explained below).  By the way, this image (top of post) shows almost unnaturally bright yellowish clouds.  They are that way mostly because of the reflection of nearby Portland’s street lights.

In this evening image from Zion National Park, a fat crescent forms a minor supporting element..

In this evening image from Zion National Park, a fat crescent forms a minor supporting element..


I used Lightroom to make basic adjustments to both of these images.  I had to brighten things a bit, which is not ideal, since it increases noise.  Better would have been to capture the moon at an earlier stage.  The perfect stage for this moon, at least to shoot it at blue hour, occurred when it was just over one day old, which occurred during daylight hours.  Photographers on the other side of the world had it perfect!  I also did some sharpening and noise reduction in Lightroom.  You can also use Adobe Camera Raw, Aperture, GIMP or your camera manufacturer’s RAW processing software.

Then I took both images into Photoshop in order to composite (join) them.  In Lightroom right click and choose edit-in>Photoshop

      • Using the wider shot with the long exposure as the background layer, I copied that layer and then used the clone tool to remove the blurred moon.  I remembered its position using the ruler guides in Photoshop.
      • I then went to the shorter-exposure moon image and used the quick selection tool to select the moon.
      • I copied this (ctrl/cmd C) and went back to the background image, hitting ctrl/cmd V to paste it on.  This gives you two layers, the background and the moon.
      • Since I had zoomed in on that moon image, it looked too big.*  Hitting ctrl/cmd T to change its size and position, I dragged it’s corners to shrink back down to the original size.  Finally I dragged the moon to its correct position.
      • I adjusted this moon layer using Photoshop’s levels and hue/saturation controls (enhance menu) until it matched the background and looked similar to the way I remembered it.  I’ve found this step to be almost always necessary.  It takes some practice to get the moon to look like it belongs.  It will be easier if in Lightroom you adjust white balance identically for both of the images.
      • Lastly, I went around and checked the image for distracting sensor spots, bright lights and other distractions.  I left all of the artificial lights in the small community across the river from where I was standing, but I did remove the lights of a plane.

* Note: Some photographers will leave the moon bigger than its original size, or even use ctrl T to make it bigger.  You see these images all over the web, and I think they look FAKE! I recommend keeping the moon at the original size, or very close to it.  The human eye knows that a wide-angle scene with a big moon is not natural.  If you want a bigger moon, shoot with a longer focal length.

I hope you enjoyed this little tutorial.  Don’t worry if you are not yet comfortable with Photoshop.  I consider myself a novice with it, and the way I do these types of composites is fairly simple.  Don’t let it intimidate you.  There are undoubtedly other ways (perhaps simpler ways) to accomplish the same thing with Photoshop.  If you cannot afford Photoshop, consider Photoshop Elements, which is much much cheaper.  Elements will do all of the steps listed above, and do them just as well as the full version of Photoshop.  For the initial adjustments, you can use free programs like GIMP instead of Lightroom or Aperture.

A few last thoughts:  shooting long exposures after sundown is something I think every photographer will enjoy.  Including the moon can only add impact to your pictures.  Again, make sure it’s a sharp and natural-looking moon.  Click on the images for options to purchase larger high-res. options.  They are not available for free download, being copyrighted (these versions are much too small anyway).  Thanks for your interest, and thanks for reading!

Lost on a dirt road in central Nevada and the incredibly clear cold air makes it possible to photograph an extremely thin crescent.

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