Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Tag

Eclipse Mania: Weather Worries   9 comments

A spectacular composite eclipse image from 1999, by Fred Espenak.

Can you believe the eclipse is only a few weeks away?  I can’t wait!  I’m concluding my series on planning for this eclipse by tackling perhaps the most difficult thing to plan for: weather.  But it really isn’t just about weather.  It actually has more to do with psychology.  I’m doing what is unusual for me, including images from other photogs.  Click on the image to go to the source web pages.

Weather: What, me Worry?

As you talk to other eclipse enthusiasts, the subject of clouds and weather is sure to come up.  It is probably the most over-thought aspect of chasing solar eclipses.  But I can’t really blame people for worrying.  Who wants to travel and spend a lot of money getting to a spot to watch an eclipse, only to be clouded out at totality.  Weather on eclipse day is something that all of us must prepare to accept.   But even though there is no changing the weather, a bit of thought and planning beforehand might help save the day.

Monitoring weather forecasts in the days leading up to the eclipse will help you plan, but only if you have solid backup plans.  This previous post discussed backup plans in some detail.  Satellite imagery in the 24 hours leading up to totality might lead you to choose one viewing spot over another.  If a large front is moving in, you will be faced with a dilemma.  You could wake in the wee hours of the 21st and drive to escape it.  But I only recommend such drastic action if there is little doubt that the sky will be covered by clouds and only if you know you can escape the front in plenty of time.

Most of all, don’t obsess about weather before the eclipse.  I am a landscape photographer but I don’t scan weather apps. prior to a shoot, preferring to scan the sky.  I never complain about weather because photography for me is about making the most of what you’re given.  Of course eclipses are different.  Clouds can completely negate the experience.  But you still can’t change the weather.

Let’s say the forecast is for mostly cloudy skies on eclipse day.  Before you go running off trying to out-run weather, realize you’ll be spending the hours leading up to the eclipse in a less-than-ideal manner.  Will you make it somewhere in time?  Or will you be forced to pull off the road just before totality?  Will you end up driving into cloudy conditions while the place you left opens up just in time?  The best plan may be to have faith and patience in equal measure.

Will the clouds clear out in time or will they block the view? Partial phase about a half hour before the 2016 Indonesian eclipse.

Yes, the clouds cleared! Indonesia eclipse of March, 2016.

A Lesson in Patience

The 1999 total eclipse in Turkey taught me a lot about clouds and over-thinking.  We were in a perfect spot on a mountain-top in the north-central part of the country.  That eclipse happened to also be in August, and that area is similar both geographically and climatically to parts of the inter-mountain west where the upcoming eclipse will happen.  In late summer Anatolia is typically dry and hot, with afternoons that commonly see isolated clouds and thundershowers.

Clouds started appearing just before the start of the partial phase and, predictably, our group’s anxiety rose.  There ensued an argument over whether to abandon the mountain and go out onto a wide plain that lay before us to the west.  The reasoning was simple: no orographic lifting on the plain and so less chance of clouds.  Air masses get pushed up a mountainside, cooling and condensing to form clouds.

After much hand-wringing debate it was decided to split the group, with one contingent heading out onto the plain and one remaining on the mountain.  I decided to stay up on the mountain.  That was partly because my girlfriend and I were comfortable picnicking and sipping some Efes pilsen I had smuggled in.  But it was also because the most experienced eclipse-chaser in the group (an author who was about to see his 14th eclipse!) had decided to stay put.

Those lucky enough to be on the Oregon Coast will be first to see the eclipse. Enjoy!

Clouds increased as the partial phase wore on.  I was having too much fun to care, playing with kids from a nearby village and joking around with the soldiers (they let me drive an armored vehicle!).  The government had insisted on our group being protected in the remote area.  As totality approached the air suddenly cooled.   Minutes before it happened most of the clouds dissipated.  I saw for the first time how during a solar eclipse the atmosphere can change in interesting ways.  It’s more noticeable when you’re elevated, such as on a mountain.  It was a spectacular eclipse!

The moral of the story is this: don’t stress a few clouds on eclipse day.  It can only negatively influence your experience.  Yes, a storm front will do a great job of hiding the eclipse.  But as far as partly cloudy skies go, keep the faith and stay positive.  The cooling of the atmosphere just before totality could stabilize the air enough to decrease the big puffies just in time.  By the way, the group that went out onto the plain also got a clear view of the Turkey eclipse.  But it was still satisfying to be one of those who had chosen to chill out on the mountain.

Thanks for reading.  Good luck and have a wonderful eclipse experience!

The sun sets over Pacific near the island of Iwo Jima after being eclipsed at noon: July, 2009.

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: 10 Best Places to Watch, Part I   3 comments

Rural central Oregon along the John Day River will see a total eclipse of the sun.

This post, which is a continuation of my mini-series on the upcoming total solar eclipse, is a departure from my normally gimmick-free approach.  It’s a top-ten list of all things, places to travel for the Great American Eclipse.  I chose these places for their attractiveness as destinations in their own right as much as for their suitability as places from which to see this eclipse.  That’s partly why the images are of the places not eclipses.  Also I have not yet gotten that serious about photographing solar eclipses, preferring to give them my full visual attention.

In thinking about where to be on August 21st, I’ve come to a conclusion.  There are just too many great places to choose from.  These are my favorites, but I’d love to hear where you all are going (or with more time would like to go).  Add to the list in the comments below.  Places are listed as general destinations, west to east.  I’m not ranking them 1st to 10th best.  In the descriptions for each you’ll find suggestions for specific places to be on eclipse day.

You can see from the list that I’m biased toward areas of natural beauty, fully aware that these will attract a lot of crowds.  I’ve spent time in all of these areas and know some of them very well.  When it comes to specific spots to watch from, I’m partial to elevated positions.  And with this eclipse we’re in luck.  Because the path is generally oriented east-west, and North America’s mountain ranges run mostly north-south, it passes over many of America’s high places.  If you’re watching from a city the roof of a building is worth going for.

This house near Oregon’s Painted Hills will have a glorious view to the west as a total solar eclipse comes its way.

As mentioned in the last post, if possible choose a spot with a good view toward the west, the direction from which the shadow comes rushing at you.  That way you can anticipate totality better, have a better chance of seeing effects like shadow bands, and generally have a more complete experience.

This eclipse will feature a fairly high sun position, hitting land in mid-morning and leaving the east coast in mid-afternoon.  That will present some challenges composing wider-angle landscape photographs.  On the other hand, less atmosphere along the viewing path means better resolution for zoomed-in, frame-filling detail shots of the eclipse.  If you’re shooting this eclipse, good luck!

High up in a part of the Tetons only accessible by hiking, and on the center line!

The List

1.  Oregon Coast

The center line of the path of totality hits the coast at a spectacular little state park called Fogarty Creek.  This state park will of course be far more crowded this August 21st than the many times I’ve stopped and roamed along it’s rocky shore.  But that is where it all starts, on land at least, at 10:15 in the morning local time.

Just to the south of the center line is Government Point, a headland with an expansive view out over the ocean to the west.  Boiler Bay directly north of the point is a very interesting place to explore at low tide.  Little Depoe Bay is a scenic little town not far to the south.

But a long stretch of coast will be under the moon’s shadow that morning.  The path of totality stretches from the towns of Pacific City in the north to Waldport in the south, and there are many little coves, parks and harbors from which to choose.  Two of the coast’s largest towns – Newport and Lincoln City – are in the path of totality.  Newport, with its bridge and scenic old harbor, is the more interesting of the two.

A bright morning on the Oregon Coast Trail, which on August 21st will turn dark for a brief time.

2.  Cascade Mountains, Oregon

The center line of the eclipse path crosses the high Cascades just north of Mount Jefferson, and the nearest highway is U.S. 20 over Santiam Pass, also in the path of totality.  There is a Forest Service road (4220) coming in from the north that takes you to Ollalie and Breitenbush Lakes, plus a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail.

Taking the trail from the Breitenbush Lake Trailhead will take you south toward the center line.  But don’t expect to find parking anywhere nearby.  I’m not sure what the Forest Service’s plan is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they close the area to traffic completely, forcing you to bike in.

If you can access the area, hike from the trailhead about 4 miles to spectacular Park Ridge, with views of Mt. Jefferson and plenty of wildflowers (and other hikers) for company.  Jefferson Park, a paradise of lakes and meadows, is a couple miles further on, but campsites there won’t be available.

One other option, if you can talk your way into taking over someone else’s reservation, is Breitenbush Hot Springs, accessible by turning off Hwy. 20 at Detroit.  It’s a hippy dippy backwoods retreat along a beautiful stream in the forest, and is almost smack dab on the center line.  The hot spring is channeled into several beautiful pools overlooking the river.  It should be a wonderful party at Breitenbush, with plenty of new age spiritual flavour.

The center line for this eclipse passes directly over the right (northern) shoulder of Mount Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades.

3.  Painted Hills, Oregon

This would be an incredible place to see the eclipse.  But like state parks near the center line on the Coast it will be mobbed by people.  Also, the meager lodging is booked in this area, so you’d need to drive in from a distance or convince a rancher to take some money to park and camp on their land.  But if you can find a place to stay, this expansive area offers many options other than the Painted Hills for great watch spots.  One could visit the Painted Hills during a visit, just not on eclipse day.

There is a hike called Blue Basin just north of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Headquarters.  The 3-mile loop hike takes you up high with a view to the west over the fossil-rich badlands.  Perfect for this eclipse!  Also there’s an overlook off Hwy. 26 just west of tiny Dayville.  It looks west on Picture Gorge and the John Day River.  Parking is slim but you might be able to park down along the road and walk up.  This is not a well known spot.

Grassy prairie along Bridge Creek near Mitchell, Oregon, a tiny town that will see plenty of visitors come August.

4.  Stanley & the Sawtooths, Idaho

Another popular place but with amazing natural beauty and many options other than Stanley and Redfish Lakes, which will no doubt be as busy as they’ve ever been.  You could hike out to Sawtooth Lake and choose to see the eclipse from there or from the ridgeline east of the lake.  It’s 4.5 miles one-way to Sawtooth Lake with 1800 feet of elevation gain.  If you can do this, you will experience a truly spectacular setting for the solar eclipse.

For those with a lot of energy, there is another spectacular option just to the east of Stanley.  Climbing Borah Peak, highest mountain in Idaho and just north of the center line, would be beyond rewarding.  Your challenge for Stanley is to find a place to camp or stay.  But this eclipse with the Sawtooth Mountains as backdrop would be an absolutely incredible sight.

The Grand Tetons from near Driggs, Idaho: yet another mountainous area covered by this solar eclipse.

5.  Grand Tetons, Wyoming

You couldn’t ask for a better place for an eclipse trip, that is if you can handle the mob scene around eclipse day itself.  If you can find lodging or camping near enough and an out-of-the-way spot for eclipse day; and if you can plan for a lengthier stay, you can explore two of America’s grandest national parks (Grand Tetons and Yellowstone).  It would arguably be the premier trip for this eclipse.

The western side of the Tetons will be less crowded than the Jackson Hole area.  The charming town of Driggs, Idaho lies at the base of the mountains.  There are trails into the high country from near Driggs, routes that will take you to high viewpoints with expansive views to the west.  The Table Mountain trail, while difficult at 12 miles round-trip, would take you to one of the most spectacular places to see the eclipse.  If you’re a climber, you might be able to score a spot on a guided climb of the Grand Teton for the event, that is if someone cancels.

Tune in next time for the rest of the list.  Have a wonderful weekend!

The Oregon Coast!

Eclipse Mania: How to Decide Where to Watch   Leave a comment

An amazing image of the 2016 Indonesian eclipse. Photographer: Alson Wong. The detail, that prominence!

I’ve been doing a series on the upcoming total solar eclipse.  I realize it is late in the game, with only about 8 weeks until eclipse day.  But if you haven’t made plans yet don’t worry.  You still have time and this series is for you!  And even if you’ve already made plans, you will find stuff here that will be useful once you hit the ground.  Plus, this entire series of posts will help you plan for future eclipses.  If this will be your first solar eclipse believe me, there will be others.  It’s an addiction!  Now let’s look at a few criteria I’ve found useful for deciding where to watch a total solar eclipse.

A. Ease of Access to Center Line.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is over in minutes and your travel plans may include a full vacation (say, two weeks), the actual eclipse needs to be your primary consideration.  You probably already know, but it is absolutely essential to be in the path of totality.  Close is not good enough.  All you’ll see is a partial not total eclipse if you are outside of the path of totality.  And a partial eclipse is just not all that special.

It’s also important to be well within the path of totality, not near the edge.  Get as close as you can to the center line.  Otherwise you’ll see an off-center and slightly shortened eclipse.  Within a quarter mile or so of the center line is very good, but try to get right on it if you can.

The area along the path of totality that you plan to visit has to have several places to stand and look up (I know, duh!), with no serious obstructions such as dense forest.  Work with the very accurate and well-done interactive maps online.  I recommend this one.

Lastly, don’t pin all your hopes on one location.  You’ll want a plan B and plan C, in other words a few alternative locations from which to watch in case something goes wrong with your first choice.  The places need to be easy to access, on public property or on previously arranged private land.  Arrive early!

The little-appreciated Ochoco Mtns. in central Oregon are in the path of totality.

B.  Dry Climate.

This is a tricky one.  Although you don’t want to be clouded out on eclipse day, it is easy to assume too much precision and accuracy when looking at climatic data.  In other words, don’t over-think this.  Accept the inevitable: an element of chance.  When eclipse planning you can think of climate in two ways: large scale and small scale, or path climate and micro-climate.  See below for a detailed look at both of these applied to the upcoming eclipse.

A solar eclipse path is very long but narrow, so climate can very dramatically along the path but not much across the path.  You need to examine the climate along the path of totality and use that as one, not the only, factor influencing your decision of where to watch.  Obviously the climatic information you research needs to be for the time of year that the eclipse is happening.

2016 eclipse, Indonesia. Photographer: Muhammad Rayhan.  Nice diamond ring, plus note the hint of shadow bands in the clouds.

C.  Inspiring 

Last but not least I recommend seeing any total solar eclipse in a location that inspires you.  It’s not just for the eclipse experience itself, but for the time you will spend before and after the eclipse.  You have to decide where along the path is a place that stokes your imagination, all the while taking the other factors into account.  And don’t forget that this eclipse will probably be the most hyped in history.

For me it means choosing a beautiful but not necessarily sexy natural place.  What I mean by this is that it does not have to be in an iconic location like in front of the Tetons, Painted Hills, or any other of my favorite landscape photography subjects.  The eclipse itself will almost make any spot worthwhile.  Notice I said ‘almost’.  Anyplace with a view of the sky is not a view I share.

The bottom line for me is that, while I don’t expect (nor do I wish) nobody else to be around, I do want to avoid all the hassles that go along with a mob scene.  That would take away too much from the experience.  But I do want to be in a nice natural environment, preferably with open views toward the western horizon, the direction from which the shadow comes.

It’s truly amazing how many beautiful places lie along the path of this eclipse: Grand Teton National Park, WY.

  Climate Variations for this Eclipse

Path Climate

For this eclipse, which is happening in late summer, there are a few general path-climate considerations to be aware of.  The part of the western U.S. traversed by the path is generally very dry, sunny and hot in August.  There is frequent thunderstorm activity in the Rockies and even in eastern Oregon.  But those normally happen in mid- to late afternoon, and the eclipse is early in the day.  So that probably is not a big factor.

In the central U.S. the climate is again generally dry during late summer.  But the same issue – thunderstorms – is a slightly bigger concern because of the higher humidity.  That trend continues to become a bigger factor as the path travels east and slightly south, entering more humid climes later in the day.  The southeastern U.S. is humid and hot in August.  The eclipse there is in mid-afternoon, so the chances for clouds are greater than in the west.

But the west may not be the best for one reason: fire.  Granted it is unlikely that a fire would be so big (or so close) as to greatly affect your experience.  But August is fire-season in the west, and the risk of dense smoke, or even being forced to evacuate, cannot be ignored.

Interesting shot by photographer Alson Wong of the 2008 Chinese eclipse, over-exposing the corona but showing the moon’s surface being illuminated by earth shine.  A good tradeoff!


Micro-climate will factor into your decision of where to watch once you’ve decided on a general area to go.  One common example: the rain-shadow effect, where mountains tend to keep clouds and rain on the upwind side; that is, in the direction that prevailing weather tends to come from.

But keep in mind that micro-climate is also specific to the time of year.  For example areas east of the Cascades, along with the east sides of ranges in the Rockies, are in rain shadows in winter but in summer receive moisture (in the form of thundershowers) coming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

For micro-climate much more than path climate, local knowledge is invaluable.  If you know people who live in the area you are going, quiz them on local variations in cloudiness on a typical August day.  Get on chat groups and try to filter out all the self-described expertise that plagues the internet.  Focus on those who seem to be actual outdoors people and who have lived in the area for a long time.  Not easy I know.  It’s why I’m relying on my own experiences and talking with locals on previous trips.

The August eclipse will be seen by farmers across the heartland of the U.S.

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.

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.






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.

Life in the Universe IV   2 comments

Wherever life is, you will most likely find water or some other liquid.

Wherever life is, you will most likely find water or some other liquid.

This is a continuation of a series of posts.  Each is designed to be understandable without reading the others; they do build off each other, however, so check them out starting with Part I.  In the last post on this topic, I hope I got across how little we know of life’s beginnings.  This planet we live on hosts the only life we know of thus far…in the whole universe!  Does that mean we are most likely alone?  Not really.  This and the next post will look at the possibilities for life elsewhere.

Water is a good thing, but energy is also necessary for life; here in the form of geothermal heat in Yellowstone National Park.

Water is a good thing for life, but energy is also necessary; here in the form of geothermal heat in Yellowstone National Park.

It must be said that our ignorance of what the universe offers in terms of life beyond our solar system is profound.  Actually, I should not be so negative, because over the past decade or so we have found out much more about our universe’s capability to host life than we knew before.  This new knowledge has come in the form of the discovery of planets orbiting other star systems, along with the discovery of microscopic life in places we never thought could host life.

There is something I should mention before going further.  Scientists who study this sort of thing, called astrobiologists, do not expect to find any living thing out there that is visible without the aid of a microscope.  That’s because the conditions that are favorable for microscopic life (bacteria, etc.) are much broader in scope than those favorable for multi-cellular (big) life.  In addition, more complex life requires a much longer period of time before it can take hold, as opposed to the shorter time required for simple one-celled life to evolve.  But one thing is for certain: once we find microscopic life anywhere outside Earth, the stage is set for discovering much more complex forms.

Symmetry in nature comes in all shapes and sizes.

Symmetry in nature comes in all shapes and sizes.

Where We’ve Been

Humans have been probing the planets we share this sun with for a number of years now.  The first exploration outside of Earth orbit happened in 1962, when Mariner 2 flew close to the thick, acid-laced cloud-tops of Venus.  Then came the Apollo era, when the United States sent astronauts to the Moon and Russia managed to land a few craft on hostile Venus.  We also probed Mercury with a later Mariner mission.

The twin Voyager probes, launched in the late 1970s, were our first foray to the outer planets.  Voyager 1 showed us incredibly detailed close-up views of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and Neptune as well (still the only time we’ve visited those distant planets).  I recall seeing those first images of Jupiter’s clouds and Saturn’s rings in detail.  I was in High School, and the details were was truly blown away.  And I wasn’t the only one.

I normally only use my own images in this blog, but this painting is so realistic I couldn't resist.  Click image to go to source page.

I normally only use my own images in this blog, but this painting is so realistic I couldn’t resist. Click image to go to source page.

The Voyager probes are now the furthest from home that anything made by humans has ever traveled, and they win this honor by a mile!  Both are well over 100 times as far from the Earth as we are from the Sun.  They are also traveling by far faster than anything humans have ever built.  Soon Voyager 1 will arrive at the Heliopause, which is the spherical boundary around our Sun where the solar wind ceases to be the major influence, and instead galactic forces take hold.  In other words, our little travelers are about to leave our star’s neighborhood and forge a path out to the great beyond, the Milky Way Galaxy.

The U.S. has been the de facto explorer of the Moon and Mars, along with the outer planets, while the Russians picked the most hostile rocky planet on which to land a probe – Venus.  The European Space Agency has also been active more recently, designing the probe that landed on Saturn’s moon Titan.  While Mars garners the most attention, with its rovers and orbiting observatory, two U.S. probes are busy elsewhere.  Messenger is finishing up its mission at Mercury and Cassini continues to orbit Saturn and its zoo of moons.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

Life on Mars?

In the 1970s we landed for the first time on Mars.  The lander was called Viking.  Along with incredible photography, the non-mobile lander dug up a small sample of soil and analyzed it for life.  Although it looked initially like the results might turn out positive, the soil was found to be completely hostile to life.  Since then, a series of Martian orbiters and rovers have found abundant evidence of water on Mars.  The only problem?  This water appears to have last flowed billions of years ago.  (Intriguingly, there is some evidence of periodic eruptions of liquid water from below ground, even recently.)  We have yet to find fossil evidence of past life on Mars, and the planet’s current condition appears to be as hostile to life as we ever thought.

An eclipse of the sun is one of the more humbling natural spectacles.

An eclipse of the sun is one of the more humbling natural spectacles.

Life Beyond Mars: It’s the Moons

Since both Venus and Mercury are much too hot to hold liquid water, even in the distant past, the next good place (beyond Mars) to look for life are the many moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has been known for years to have a liquid ocean beneath a thick ice cap.  The moon is heated by enormous tidal forces created by the nearby gas giant, so this probably means that hot vents discharge into the sea.  On Earth, undersea hot springs host entire ecoysystems, so it stands to reason that Europa could  hide similarly-powered concentrations of life clustered around hot vents beneath its ice cap.  Also, Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that also has a subsurface ocean, represents an excellent habitat for life.

Mount Rainier and the night sky above Eunice Lake.

Mount Rainier and the night sky above Eunice Lake.

Although other moons around Jupiter and Saturn are thought to contain liquid or partly liquid interiors, arguably the most intriguing place to search for life is Titan.  Titan, orbiting Saturn, is the Solar System’s second largest moon.  It’s larger than Mercury and not much smaller than Mars.  There is a lot of methane on Titan, much of it liquid because of the frigid temperatures.  In fact, methane on Titan might serve the same role as water does on Earth.  We have observed features like river valleys and lakes on Titan, but instead of being filled with water they are filled with liquid methane.

The relative sizes of Earth, Mars and selected moons in the solar system.

The relative sizes of Earth, Mars and selected moons in the solar system.  Click on image to go to website where the author of this image, Abel Mendez, is sourced.

Why is this interesting for life?  Because prior to the emergence of oxygen, Earth was a planet rich in methane as well.  Early life on Earth relied on methane not oxygen, and in fact, these organisms are still around.  There is an enormous community of micro-organisms (methanogens) living just beneath the sea floor today.  In fact the methane they produce has been stored in ice formations that could, because of global warming, erupt and release into the atmosphere, greatly accelerating global warming.  Many scientists think Titan could be revealed to operate much as Earth did billions of years ago, with microscopic life very similar to those early Earth days.

The fact is, although we have made great strides in understanding how likely it is to find life within this solar system of ours, we are just now scratching the surface.  Life on Mars has by no means been ruled out, and the moons of the outer solar system are just now being examined.  It will take a very sophisticated effort to look for life in Europa’s subterranean ocean, or across the huge and distant moon Titan, or on Enceladus.  But even the discovery of a community of extremophiles (micro-organisms adapted to extreme environments) on one of these relatively nearby bodies would be a watershed moment.  It would tell us that we are not alone in our neighborhood, and that life has likely gotten started in countless locations across the universe.

Next up: the incredibly diverse zoo of planets orbiting other stars.

Evening falls on the Columbia River, where two explorers passed on their way to discovery.  It's now quiet, and the frontier has moved on.

Evening falls on the Columbia River, where two explorers passed on their way to discovery. It’s now quiet, and the frontier has moved on.

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