Archive for the ‘stars’ Tag

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.



Single-image Sunday: Night Again   6 comments

The Milky Way rises over Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

The Milky Way rises over Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

If you’ve been following this blog for quite awhile you know I used to post some night-time starscapes.  Not as many as some photogs., but some.  Over the past couple years I can count on one hand the night shots I’ve done.  Shooting  the Milky Way in particular has not interested me in the slightest.

I still love watching the stars, and very much miss my telescope (which I had to sell).  But to stay up into the wee hours shooting requires real motivation and interest, and it just has not been there for me in recent times.  I mostly blame it on the fact that too many other people shoot the stars.  The Milky Way especially has been done to death, appearing over every conceivable foreground subject.  It’s called astrophotography now, which is in my opinion a misnomer.

Real astrophotography; that is, deep field images of cosmological objects like nebulae, clusters and the like, is a completely different sort of photography than the wide-angle shots you see so much of these days, the ones that include the landscape below.  I dabbled in real astrophotography some years back.  But after quickly realizing that getting quality images requires very expensive equipment, I decided to stick with simple observation through my telescope.

I’m not criticizing wide-field night photography at all.  I usually call the resulting images starscapes (or nightscapes).  They’re perfectly valid and often very beautiful when done right.  It’s just not astrophotography.  While the subjects for the two overlap, astrophotography is a separate genre that uses radically different focal lengths along with different equipment and techniques.

This image represents the first time in a long while that I’ve put forth the effort to capture a starscape.   For the methods I used, see the addendum below.  The skies of Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada are very dark and clear.  It was my first time to this park, and the warm temperatures combined with clear weather made it an opportunity too good to pass up.

I hiked up into the high alpine area of the park, to an amazing grove of ancient bristlecone pines which sit at the base of 13,159-foot Wheeler Peak.  These are the oldest living trees on Earth.   They can grow to more than 5000 years of age!  My idea was to capture one or several bristlecone pines as foreground, but I ended up liking the simpler compositions of mountain and stars better.  I rolled out a sleeping bag and slept out there in the bristlecones for a couple nights in a row.  I hadn’t slept under the stars for a long time, so that part was at least as much fun as the photography.


To make the image above I used my tracking mount to follow the stars.  This is a compact unit that mounts onto the tripod and allows your camera to follow the apparent motion of the stars, lengthening exposure time while keeping things sharp.  First off I exposed for the sky: three shots in a vertical panorama, shutter time a bit over a minute each (set on bulb).

I needed to do the panorama because I was using my 50 mm. Zeiss lens.  It’s sharp and allows an aperture as wide as f/1.4, but it really isn’t wide enough for the Milky Way.  I then turned tracking off and took a separate exposure of the partly moonlit landscape for about the same time.

In Photoshop I combined the two in a composite image that represents pretty much what I observed.  Some starscape composites represent combined dusk (or even daytime) foreground subjects plus a night sky captured hours later.  I’ve done those too but I prefer my images to represent a single moment in time.  In order to give the image a little more “punch”, after the sky and land were combined I raised raise contrast and clarity.  It’s because the moon, though a crescent, was washing out the sky to a degree.

My goal in photography is almost always to capture the reality of being there.  But pictures are two-dimensional and usually rather small.  That’s why I often edit for more punch or impact (not always, many times I go for a softer feel).  It’s to give some idea of what it is like to sit out there in the silence among the gnarled bristlecones, perched on a big boulder of quartzite peering up at the dome of an enormous night sky, with the sheer glacier-carved wall of Wheeler Peak above me and the Milky Way standing on end behind it.

Have a great week ahead and happy shooting!

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.






Single-image Sunday: Camping on the Playa   7 comments

No trees for miles around, but it was still a very fine place to camp for the night on the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon.  After a drive of about five or six miles across the impossibly flat & smooth playa (dry lake bed), I had my pick of spots.  The only other campers within miles were the wind riders, who were back on the other side of the playa.

Of course, how do you pick a spot when everything looks the same?  Actually, I did choose a spot near some water from recent rain pooling among the desert shrubs at the edge of the playa.  In the morning, I saw birds, who were drawn to the water.  I half-expected a visit from coyotes as well.  I heard them that night, but they never showed up.  The stars were intense that night.  In keeping with the theme of last Friday’s Foto Talk, this is a wide angle shot (19 mm.) that I hope shows the insignificance of my presence there.

Hope you all are enjoying your weekends.  Happy shooting!


Camped under the stars on the large playa that makes up most of Oregon's Alvord Desert.

Camped under the stars on the large playa that makes up most of Oregon’s Alvord Desert.

Peter French’s Round Barn   17 comments


This is a somewhat famous barn in southeastern Oregon, in an area we like to call the state’s “outback”.  It dates from the late 1800s, when Peter French, a cattleman from California, drove a herd from California into the open spaces of the Oregon Territory.  His ranch eventually covered some 800 square miles!  He became one of Oregon’s so-called cattle kings.

He built a round barn so that his buckaroos (what cowboys are called in this country) could train horses while sheltered from the harsh high desert winters.  The barn has been partly restored, but most of it is original.  The beams are quite stout and the barn extremely well built, which is probably why it has stood up to the fierce winds and snow that hits this region every winter.

It was long ago that I first visited this barn, and it was in much poorer shape then (though the structure was very sound).  In recent years, money for its restoration has been made available, and a small visitor center/book store was built nearby.  I photographed it at night and then again the next morning, with the light pouring in.

On that quiet morning, with only the sound of the wind, I thought about the life here in the 19th century.  The life of Peter French, his leadership, his drive to make it in this lonely outpost.  The lives of the buckaroos, working hard every day, making just enough to get by, and occasionally being able to spend some of it in saloons.  Were there ghosts roaming the hills still?

I hope you enjoy the pictures, and also that your week is going well.  Happy shooting!

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French's round barn.

Part of the interior of cattle king Peter French’s round barn.  You can see all the boards that have been replaced with recent restoration efforts.

The clouds move in but don't block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

The clouds move in but don’t block out the stars over the French Round Barn.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece   27 comments

Instead of Single-Image Sunday this week I’ve decided to be a joiner for once.  I’m not generally a joiner, but I like the theme Masterpiece.  Also, I felt the need to view other people’s photography.  It’s like eating meat.  I don’t do it a lot, but occasionally I feel the need.  So I’m participating this week on the Postaday’s Weekly Photo Challenge.  Hope you enjoy the image.  Just click on it if you’re interested in purchase options.  It’s copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.  If you have any questions, just contact me.  Thanks for looking!

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

This image, which I think I posted as part of a Grand Canyon theme some months ago, is one of my favorites.  It speaks to me of the unity between the earth and the cosmos.  I think of everything we can see in day and night, the earth and space, the whole shebang, as one enormous masterpiece.  This is the winter night sky, so it’s not like so many shots you see (including mine), where the Milky Way arcs across the sky.  Instead we’re looking outward toward inter-galactic space.  For me it makes the image even better.  You can also notice some left-over smoke from fires, drifting in low layers over the Canyon.

I almost didn’t capture it.  My foot was injured and I didn’t want to make the 1/2 mile hike in the darkness down to this viewpoint.  But the moon rose, nearly full, so I went ahead and limped down there.  When I arrived I didn’t see this composition.  I hopped the fence and carefully worked my way to the edge. Looking down into the black void was freaking me out, so I concentrated on the stars and the distant canyon.  I used a very wide angle, 15 mm.

The image is a combination of two images taken one after the other.  The first one was for the land, with a static camera, and the second was for the stars, tracking their apparent movement across the sky so they wouldn’t blur.  I have a tracking mount for my tripod.  I combined the two images in Photoshop to come up with an image very similar to what I saw that night.  This isn’t easy, matching your memory of the view with your final image.  It’s especially difficult with long-exposure night shots.  Hope you enjoy it.

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.

Shooting the Stars at Zion National Park   5 comments

The dry desert air of southern Utah has some of the best stargazing in North America.  And if you get up into higher elevations, or in winter, it’s even better.  Why do the stars on colder winter nights often seem to have that extra pop?  I know in the northern hemisphere winter shows a significantly dimmer Milky Way than during summer.  So the stars, at least in the direction of the Milky Way, are certainly more numerous and brighter in summertime.  So I’m not too sure why the colder it is, the brighter the stars appear.  Perhaps it’s just perception.

On this night during my recent trip through the American desert Southwest, I wasn’t too sleepy.  So I went outside with my binoculars and took a look at the Orion Nebula.  That glance was enough to cause me to get my camera equipment set up for a timed exposure.  Besides, this was one of the reasons I came here to Kolob Canyons, a separate and not well-traveled section of Zion N.P.  Take a look at my previous post for daytime fun and photos here.

Kolob Canyons is the highest part of Zion, much higher than the main Zion Canyon.  I  was up at around 6000 feet (1830 meters) when I took this picture, but the sandstone mountains you see are well over 8000 feet (2440 meters).   This is a winter night sky, so you can see in the lower right the constellation of Orion the Hunter.  His belt is the three stars in a row, oriented almost vertically, and the Orion Nebula shows up brightly to the right of his belt.

Above Orion in top center you can see bright Jupiter.  Just to the right of Jupiter is the star cluster called The Hyades, which is part of Taurus the Bull’s face.  Above Jupiter and the Hyades you can see The Pleides, that famous star cluster also known as The Seven Sisters.  I recommend looking up the Greek myth surrounding all of these constellations.  It’s a great story.

The diagonal area of bright and dense stars is the winter Milky Way.  In winter, the northern hemisphere is pointed away from the center of our galaxy.  Since we are out in the “suburbs” of the galaxy, this view is much more dim than in summer, when we’re looking towards the galactic core.  Nevertheless, a long exposure can bring out the winter Milky Way and make it look slightly brighter than it looks to the naked eye.

Kolob Canyons, a part of Zion National Park in Utah, is well away from any city lights.   Here it shows off a glorious star-studded sky on a clear winter's evening.

Kolob Canyons, a part of Zion National Park in Utah, is well away from any city lights. Here it shows off a glorious star-studded sky on a clear winter’s evening.


I took an exposure for the mountains and foreground, where my camera was dead still and tripod-bound.  A half-moon (which is actually very bright) was illuminating parts of the landscape quite well, so I went with a low ISO (100) and an exposure time of a bit over 3 minutes.  This resulted in an appropriate exposure for the foreground landscape.  I say appropriate instead of correct exposure because if you expose as if this was a daytime photo, the foreground will come out looking much too bright for a starscape photo.  I think it looks a little strange next to the darker sky.

The exposure time was plenty long enough to give the stars time to form short trails.  But since I don’t really like this effect (I’d rather see the stars as they appear while stargazing), I exposed a second frame of the same scene with my tracking mount turned on.  A tracking mount will turn your camera slowly to keep up with the Earth’s rotation, so the camera follows the stars.  But if your exposure time is much longer than 30 seconds, the camera movement blurs the foreground landscape.  The solution?  Take the two images into Photoshop and merge them together so you have both the stars and the landscape sharp.

This was a long-winded way to say that this image is the result of two exposures of the same exact scene, merged together into one.  There is on my blog a more detailed explanation of how I do starscapes, in this post.  Stargazing and photographing the stars is a favorite of mine.  Look for similar posts in future.

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.


Stars and Photography (follow-up)   4 comments

The Milky Way soars over the North Cascades, with the city lights of Seattle (left) and Vancouver, B.C. behind the mountains.

A short post on photographing the night sky.  I’ve discussed this before, so won’t repeat myself.  If you want some general advice on this check my post and some of the many other web resources.  For some inspiration try Wally Pacholka’s site or that for TWAN.

The above photo demonstrates a few interesting things about the subject.  I’m showing it because it illustrates not only a few good things, but at least one thing to possibly avoid.  I’m still learning a lot about this stuff so I don’t mind admitting when I mess up.  I still like the image though, primarily because it shows the following:

SCALE:  It is so hard to show scale in photographs like this.  A very common technique is to include a strong foreground element, like a strangely shaped tree, an interesting building, etc.  But this is not strictly showing scale.  The background in these images is still just assumed to be large – not exactly precise.   It is, nonetheless, a great way to “depthify” the picture.  Like that word?

In the above image I was able to show the city lights of both Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, which are 150 miles apart.  At first I thought the lights were messing with my desire to show a deep starfield, but then I realized that the lights actually helped with depth.  It happens so often when doing photography, that you are frustrated with an element you think is interfering with your composition.  The key is to take a deep breath and consider what that element is actually capable of doing for your composition.

LOCATION:  For the above image I knew I wanted to be as high up as possible.  The air was somewhat hazy because of fires, and during the day I noticed as I crossed Rainy Pass that the smoke was mostly hanging in the valleys.  So I decided to spend the night at the top of Slate Peak, which at nearly 7500 feet is about as high as you can drive in Washington.  The height helped me to shoot over the haze, and made the stars that much brighter.  On the downside the top of a mountain does not usually offer a strong foreground element.  There was a lookout tower, but I didn’t think it was interesting enough.

SIMPLE COMPOSITION: This is of course a goal for all landscape photography, but for starscapes it might be even more critical.  I mostly like to make the sky – Milky Way, comets, aurorae, etc. – the star of the show (pun intended).  And when I use a strong foreground element I want it to share the spotlight.  I want to wow people with the universe, which we don’t look at or think about very often.

And so I went with the simple composition of Milky Way arcing over the North Cascades.  I would have liked to have a better profile of the mountains, which are jagged and thus interesting in silhouette, but my viewpoint was much too high for that.  It was a tradeoff between wanting to be above most of the haze and having the mountains in silhouette.  I could have driven back down a ways after the sunset, but believe it or not I was nervous about trying to turn around at night from my precarious parking spot.  It was a long way down.

Also, a simple composition allows for a super quick and easy composite when you’re combining two shots (in this case one for the foreground and one tracking the stars so that they are sharp).

SHARPNESS:  One weakness of the shot is that the stars, while fairly sharp, are not perfectly round points.  I was using my tracking mount (a Vixen Polarie) to track the apparent movement of the stars.  This allows you to go much longer than the 20 or so seconds that you’re limited to when shooting from a regular tripod mount.  Of course you can always raise ISO, and if you have camera like the Nikon D4 or Canon 1DX, you (a) have more $ than I do, and (b) have more flexibility and might not even need to track in many cases.

The polar alignment you do for the Polarie is pretty basic.  You simply point it at the North Star, making sure it’s visible through a little hole.  Vixen sells a much more precise polar alignment scope for it, but for now I can’t justify the extra expense.  For one thing, when you use a very wide angle lens, as I usually do, the slight drift does not cause noticeable blurring of the stars.  But the longer your exposure, the better chance to get blurred or trailed stars.

I’ve already mentioned a second weakness of the shot.  It has no good foreground element, unless you count the mountains as foreground.  I happen to think the city lights add enough interest, but it certainly can be argued that this is a stronger image with a good foreground element, perhaps illuminated by “light painting” (shining a light on the subject).

EXPOSURE & PROCESSING:  I was using my Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 on a Canon 5D Mk. II, at 16mm focal length.  I took two shots (actually three including the dark frame).  One was with the tracking mount switched off, and the other had the mount tracking the stars.  I shot both at the same exposure, but I don’t always do this, especially when there is a moon or other complicating factor.  That exposure: 133 sec. at f/2.8 (largest aperture for that lens) & ISO 200.  I shot the same with the lens cap on for the dark frame.

I processed pretty simply.  First I imported into Lightroom and worked on the image with sharp stars.  I moved the highlights and the contrast sliders pretty high, moved the blacks lower, upped the shadows and clarity a bit, and added quite a bit of  noise reduction and sharpness (with a healthy amt. of masking for sharpening).  Then I used synch. to apply the same settings to the image with a sharp foreground.  Then I opened this and zoomed in to the mountains to adjust both sharpening and noise until I had the best compromise.

Then I took both into Photoshop, made the sharp mountain shot my background, selected the stars from the other one, and copied this over.  I added a mask overlay and used a brush to clean up the horizon.  In this simple case  it only required a few long strokes along the mountain tops to reveal the underlying image’s sharp peaks.

I zoomed in and looked around the image for the tiny red or green dots that indicate hot pixels, a common effect of long exposures in darkness.  I didn’t see many, so I decided not to bother with dark frame subtraction.  If I was to print this image at a large size, I would have done it.  But for most things those hot pixels won’t show up.  That said, it’s very worthwhile to always take a shot with the lens cap on, and at the same exposure as your real shot(s).  It has to be at the same exposure as your main shot(s), and at or near the same time for the Photoshop technique of dark frame subtraction to work.  Do it right after your main shot(s).

Okay, hope you found this useful.  I always appreciate comments and questions.  I normally don’t do photography tutorials on my blog (too boring after awhile), and prefer to educate more on the subjects and locations I shoot in.  But I will do this from time to time.

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