Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Career by Fire

It was exactly 40 years ago tonight that my career was defined.

I had just begun my sophomore year at Otterbein College, a small liberal arts school in the quiet town of Westerville, Ohio, where I was studying physics and astronomy, but one of my favorite activities was to get into the Weitkamp Observatory any chance I could.  Its dome occupied the rooftop of the McFadden Science Building and housed what seemed to me at the time a massive telescope: a 16-inch diameter Newtonian reflector that was so immense one had to climb a ladder just to reach its eyepiece.

I spent many nights in the Observatory, checking out the wonders of the cosmos.  My goal at the time was to become a research astronomer and having access to such a large telescope during my early college years was one of the greatest pleasures I could have had. 

One of the nights that I remember vividly was that of February 9/10, 1971.  There was to be a total lunar eclipse late that night and, despite temperatures dropping to -1 degrees F with an average wind speed of 15 mph, I had set up a 16mm motion picture camera to ride piggy-back on the telescope and shoot a time-lapse film of the entire event.

By midnight, however, the floor had frozen solid, and manually pushing it around so that the telescope could peer out became quite an effective exercise in Newton's Third Law of Motion.

Before the eclipse began I walked a few blocks to the Campus Center where I filled my thermos with hot coffee, and returned to the blistering cold of the observatory. By the time the eclipse had begun and I was ready to drink the hot liquid it, too, had frozen nearly solid!  And the eclipse... well, what a great show!  But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't glad to get warm again the next morning!

But the experience that will live forever in my memory was that exactly 40 years ago, November 16, 1971.  I was running a public evening at the Observatory for a small group of visitors; I had just aimed the telescope toward h and chi Persei (a.k.a., the Double Cluster in Perseus) and described to my guests what they were viewing, when someone smelled smoke.  Now smoke from fireplaces from around the community was not an uncommon thing to smell, but this was different.  It smelled like electronics and plastic that was burning.

Since the telescope mounting and electronics were pretty old I thought it might be overheating so I shut it down, but the smell continued even stronger. After checking around I realized that the smoke was coming not from the observatory but from the building's fourth floor just beneath us.  I closed the dome slit, unplugged all the electronics I could find in the dome, grabbed a few eyepieces and whatever loose odds and ends I could find, and ushered everyone past the fire and down the five flights of stairs to the outside.

I then ran back up the stairs to check the situation; students in the biology/chem labs were fighting the fire in their ceiling (that was also the floor of the observatory) but the smoke was becoming incredibly thick and it was clear they were losing the battle.  Within minutes we all bailed down the stairs and out onto the street, where the fire department had set up and a crowd had amassed.

I recall crossing the street, turning around to look back at the rooftop when, seconds later, a giant flash of multicolored flames lit up the sky where the Observatory once stood.  Apparently the fire had hit the chemicals that must have been stored in the laboratories, and I'm sure all of us who were up there that night had the same grateful feelings that we got out when we did.

It was horrible watching the events unfold that night, and not knowing what, if anything, would be left of the Observatory.  And I kind of wondered if h and chi might not be up there looking down and hoping that we were all OK.

A couple of days later, my physics professor Dr. Barnhart and I returned to the roof to check out the damage.  I've never experienced anything like it before and certainly never wish to again.  Blackened water still trickled down the stairs like a waterfall and, at the top, the Observatory was gone.  All that remained was an open sky, wet ashes and fragments of the equipment I once joyfully operated.  When I saw how the aluminum dome had melted and dripped across the 16-inch mirror, I knew immediately how lucky we all were to survive that night;  for aluminum to melt, its temperature must reach 1,220 degrees F!

Anyone who has ever lost a home or workplace to fire knows the feeling of seeing its remains, and anyone who hasn't... well, I don't ever wish that for you.  It's an incredibly empty and helpless feeling that cannot be described in words.  But, for the next half hour or so we looked around and were shocked that the Weitkamp Planetarium--a small educational planetarium dome and a Spitz A-1 projector that shared the rooftop with the Observatory--suffered only smoke and water damage.

Now while I no longer had an observatory in which to prepare for my career as a research astronomer, there remained a planetarium and, with much of my own money and time, I spent the next few months cleaning it up and, in the autumn of that year began writing, producing and presenting my own public planetarium shows.  And it was this experience that led to my selection out of a field of 50 as the 1974-75 intern at the world-famous Strasenburgh Planetarium, and to a fantastic 30+ year career at some of the most highly-respected planetaria in the U.S... at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, the University of Arizona, and  San Diego's Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater.

Many years later, I met up with Dr. Barnhart and his wife and, as we enjoyed a nice dinner in San Diego's Little Italy, I expressed surprise that he would remember me after all these years. In his own inimitable style he grumbled  "Not remember you?!?!  Cripes, you burned down my observatory!" 

Of course, it was not I who burned the observatory; according to the Columbus Dispatch, the cause was determined to be faulty wiring. But it was this devastating event on that fateful and terrifying Tuesday night four decades ago that led me away from research and into communicating the wonders of the cosmos to the public. And, quite frankly, I can't imagine a better and more rewarding career.

And so, tonight, I think I'll take my telescope out to gaze at my old friends h and chi Persei... just to say hi.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Harvest moon... in October?

Here’s some trivia for you… in which month can you see the “harvest” moon?

If you said September, you’re right.

Sometimes.  But not always.

The harvest moon is defined as the full moon that occurs nearest to the autumnal equinox, which happens around September 21, 22 or 23 of each year.  But that doesn’t mean the harvest moon must occur in September.  In fact, the full moon nearest to the equinox can occur in early October, and it would be this full moon we know as the harvest moon.

The last time we had this set of circumstances was in 2009, when the equinox occurred on September 22. The full moon that year happened on September 4 (18 days before), but it was the full moon of October 4, only 12 days after the equinox, that was nearest to the equinox and, therefore, that year’s harvest moon.

This won’t happen again until 2017.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Make friends with the stars...

Each time I wrap up a visit to my hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania—as I’m doing this week—I always find it humbling to realize just how much I’ve received from this place, and the family, friends and even strangers who call it home.

I always loved those warm summer nights during my childhood, and one could usually find me lying on the cool freshly-mown grass, gazing into a star-filled sky. 

It was a simpler, more innocent time—a time when neighbors sat on their porches in the evenings, fireflies lit up the landscape, there was no homework for at least several months, and ice cream or watermelon was all we needed to stay cool. Life seemed just about as good as it could possibly get. 

It was on nights like these that I recall watching my favorite star Antares, its ruddy glow shimmering through the summertime haze that always seemed to hang over the Coursen’s house to the south. 

Antares marks the heart of the celestial arachnid we know as Scorpius, the scorpion, one of the most recognizable constellations in all the heavens; I always enjoyed seeing the several stars outlining its claws at the top, and its long curving stellar tail and stinger, all accompanied by the ghostly band of the Milky Way.

Though life has changed much since those halcyon days of the late 1950s and early '60s, Antares remains a wonderful friend.  Even today I enjoy watching Antares and Scorpius as they rise in the southeastern sky not long after dark.  It’s amazing how just a quick glance at them floods my mind and my heart with such warm memories of that wonderful time in my life, even from in my current home in the Anza-Borrego Desert many miles—and many years—from my Pennsylvania roots.

What a marvelous time of year to leave one’s mundane worries behind, get out under a dark rural sky, and make lifelong friends with the stars.

Monday, July 11, 2011

July 11... the 20th Anniversary of ”Big One!”

I’m sure that in everyone’s life there’s a date that sticks out as the most memorable.  For me, that date is July 11. 

It was on July 11, 1979 that Skylab, the first orbiting U.S. space station, came plunging through the atmosphere to its demise.  As you can imagine, that caused a bit of concern for people on the ground!

On July 11, 1992, I got a German Shepherd, and in the 13 years we were together she became my very best friend.  No judgment, no anger, no prejudice… only unconditional love.  We humans could learn a lot from our dogs. 

And on July 11, 1983, my father died of lung cancer and emphysema.  That was a rough summer for everyone involved.  But it was he who, during my childhood, supported my love of astronomy, even though he had no idea what it was really all about.  And it was he who, nearly 20 years earlier, took me to see my first total solar eclipse. 


I was 12 that summer (OK, I’ll wait for you to get your calculator…) and my parents had taken me on a long drive up the East Coast from our home in Pennsylvania, through Maine and on into northeastern Canada.  We did this during a few summers, but I remember that trip specifically because there was to be an eclipse of the sun.  

When the sky show began, my Dad pulled out some color film from his Super-8 movie camera and doubled it up so we could watch as the moon’s silhouette drifted across the blinding face of the sun.  This, I know today, is NOT a safe way to do this!  Nonetheless, we saw the eclipse and, somehow, managed to keep our vision.  

What sticks in my mind most vividly is that, near the eclipse maximum, the sun had nearly vanished.  It had become just a thin sliver—probably 98 or 99% of its full disk was blacked out—the sky darkened considerably and I was quite impressed.  Years later I looked back at a map of this eclipse and realized if we had driven just a few more miles we would not have seen a partial solar eclipse, but a total solar eclipse.   

Why should that matter?  What possible difference could there be between a 98% total and a 100% total eclipse?  Same questions I asked most of my life. In fact, during the 1970s and 80s a number of total solar eclipses passed over North America and I didn’t make the effort to get to them.  I couldn’t really afford to do this, so I rationalized it this way: “Why spend all that time and money to go someplace to watch the sky get dark in the daytime, when I can just wait a few hours and it’ll become dark here.” 

Well, it was exactly 20 years ago today that I found out just how dumb that was!

It was on July 11, 1991 that I experienced my first total solar eclipse—the “big one”—the longest total solar eclipse of our lifetime.  I use the word “experience” rather than “see” because it’s so much more than just visual! 

Many people from the U.S. went to Baja California or Hawaii for this sky show. I was lecturing on the Carnival cruise ship Jubilee off the coast of Mazatl├ín and, despite some weather issues and a near-mutiny by a few “difficult” passengers, we managed to get to the right place at the right time.  

This is important because, while one can see a partial solar eclipse from much of the day-lit world, only those along the eclipse “center line” can experience a total eclipse.  That’s because the moon’s shadow speeding across the Earth’s surface at more than 1,000 miles per hour traces out a path only a few dozen miles wide, so any error could be a disaster. 

But here we were, in the right place at the right time, and it wasn’t long before shouts of "first contact!" rang out as the moon's curved silhouette first darkened the western limb of the sun.  Camera shutters clicked and all eyes turned skyward.  The drama was on!

As the moon drifted gracefully in front of our star, excited chatter came from everywhere.  Some simply lay back on deck chairs enjoying the sights;  others were diligently operating complex batteries of optical tools, hoping to record every second of the action. 
Over the next hour or so, the eclipse progressed.  Nothing great; I’d seen this partial eclipse stuff before.  But sunlight was dimming significantly, and soon only a delicate crescent sun remained.  Shadows on the deck had become noticeably sharper, and the temperature began to drop, providing some much-welcomed cooler air.

Now, with only seconds to go, I got my first taste of “totality.”  

In the west, the moon’s dark shadow descended ominously and rapidly from the heavens, engulfing the Pacific in a still and eerie darkness. 

The dark shadow of the moon approaches the Yangtze River during the 2009 eclipse.

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m as logical and rational a being as any you’ll find on this planet… yet, as I looked in the direction of this descending darkness I was overcome with the most profound sensation. I could feel my heart pounding, and remember thinking to myself: “My God, something has gone horribly wrong.  It’s not supposed to be this way...”

It was terrifying.  Of course I knew exactly what was happening and why, but this wasn’t intellectual; this was completely primal.  Somewhere deep within my DNA must be data encoded that the sun—our giver of life, light and power—is not supposed to vanish in the daytime.  I can’t even begin to imagine the terror felt by unsuspecting primitive peoples when such a celestial event removed the sun from their daytime sky.

Totality over the Paul Gauguin (2005)
Soon, the last beam of sunlight disappeared behind the moon's edge―the "diamond ring."   And then, totality!
The place where the mighty sun once shone was a void, around which the sun's gossamer corona streamed outward across the sapphire sky.  Some cheered its arrival;  some wept at its splendor.  I was somewhere in between. 

But all gazed in awe at the most glorious spectacle nature has to offer.  What a magnificent and exhilarating moment―one that some had waited an entire lifetime to experience.  Myself included.

In the twilight sky, the planets Mercury, Venus and Jupiter glistened like jewels near the pearly-white corona, and along the horizon glowed the wonderfully warm colors of a 360-degree sunset.  If ever an alien landscape existed on Earth, this was it.  Its beauty held even the most jaded sky watchers captive, and we all became swept up by the haunting celestial theater.
Six minutes and 53 seconds passed like an instant... and then it was over. Sunlight burst back into view.  As we toasted what was surely the greatest sky show I had ever experienced, a school of dolphins leaped in and out of the water alongside the ship as if to celebrate with us this remarkable celestial event.

2008 totality over
Lake Novosibirsk, Siberia
And I had learned once and for all why people will do almost anything to travel across the world to spend but a few fleeting minutes in the shadow of the moon.  

Since that total solar eclipse in 1991, I have experienced a dozen more on six continents and several seas, and have spent more than 30 exhilarating minutes engulfed by the moon’s shadow. No two were ever exactly alike, but each changed the way I view the cosmos and our place in it.

I sincerely hope that such a remarkable experience is firmly planted in your "bucket list," but please don't do as I did.  Don’t put it off.  Join me in November 2012 for our next total solar eclipse adventure in the magical Land Down Under—Australia and New Zealand.  I promise it’ll be an experience you will never forget!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Remembering the Space Shuttle...

As the Space Shuttle Atlantis begins its final mission, the best word I can use to describe my memories of the U.S. Space Shuttle program is "bittersweet."

Over the past three decades, this remarkable flying machine has accomplished more than most of us can remember. It carried into space the first American woman and first African-American. It helped build the incredible space laboratory known as the International Space Station, launched, serviced and upgraded the Hubble Telescope which, over the past 21 years has revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. And so very much more.

My first journey to Cape Canaveral for a launch was on April 28, 1989; I was there to watch Atlantis (STS-30) carry skyward the Magellan spacecraft which was to journey to Venus. Unfortunately, the launch was scrubbed with only 31 seconds left on the countdown clock, so I missed the opportunity.

Five years later--on July 8, 1994--I did watch as Columbia (STS-65) carried into space the International Microgravity Laboratory.  What an incredible show!

It was quite common to see the Shuttle pass over our homes during evening or early-morning hours. During the last bright pass of STS-69 over Southern California in September 1995, I photographed Endeavour as it flew in front of the constellation Canis Major before dawn.  On board was San Diego astronaut Jim Newman and, when the mission was completed, I presented to him my photo.  I didn't think it was all that great, but he asked for four more prints to give to each of his crew mates.  Why?  Because the constellation Canis Major, the great dog, was featured on their mission patch and the crew knew  themselves as the "Dog Crew."  And I'm now the proud owner of one of the patches that flew with him on that very mission.

And a couple of times I watched the Shuttle's fiery re-entry into the atmosphere. I remember once watching from my home in San Diego as its cherry-red light streaked over the southern horizon; when it was gone, I went inside and watched as it landed in Florida... only 20 minutes later.  Amazing!! 

Flying in space has always been a dream of mine, and in late 1985, I was one of 1,033 applicants for NASA's new "Journalist in Space" program. But that dream ended only weeks later with the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. Most of us remember where we were and what we were doing on that dark January day... I was teaching an astronomy class in Southern Arizona when I heard the news. I can't even begin to describe the sickness I felt; if you were not around at that time, no words can capture the feelings we all had; if you were, no words are necessary.

On board mission 51L that day was not only Christa McAuliffe, the first "Teacher in Space", but also veteran mission-specialist Dr. Ronald McNair. Ron and I came to know each other when he shot the very first wide-screen motion picture from space for a consortium of planetariums I worked with, and I interviewed him for an article I wrote ("America Rides the Shuttle") which appeared in magazines such as "The Planetarian," "U.S. Black Engineer, " and "U.S.Hispanic Engineer."

Ironically, I photographed the Space Shuttle Challenger on its last successful flight... on August 11, 1985. On that day, it took off from Edwards Air Force Bace on its return flight to Florida, riding on the back of a specially equipped 747. It stopped for re-fueling at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, and my family and I went out to welcome it and to see it off to the Cape.

Little did we know at the time, as we watched her vanish into the blue desert sky, that this would be her final flight.

It has, indeed, been a remarkable journey. It'll be sad to say goodbye to this magnificent flying machine, but I look forward to a glorious new era of manned space exploration--wherever it takes us. I can only hope that America will continue the dream.

Godspeed Atlantis!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Today's the solstice... so why are the sunrise/sunset times "out of sync?"

Today, the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere experiences the summer solstice—the longest day of the year.
  (South of the equator, of course, it’s the winter solstice).  Officially, this moment occurs today at 1:16 p.m. EDT (10:16 a.m. PDT).  

Being the longest day of the year—the day when the sun is in the sky the longest—you’d think this would also be the day when the sun rises at its earliest and sets at its latest, no?  But, amazingly, it’s not.

Even a quick glance at any sunrise and sunset table will show this “flaw” around both the summer and winter solstices.  So what’s going on here?

It's a great question, and one I receive at this time every year. One of the best explanations of this phenomenon is offered by the Royal Greenwich Observatory in their Short Special Information Leaflet No. 5 titled ‘The Apparently Odd Behaviour of Sunrise/set times near the Winter Solstice.’

“The winter solstice is the time when the Sun reaches its southmost distance from the celestial equator and hence, in northern latitudes is the day when the Sun is lowest in the sky at noon. This is, naturally, the shortest day of the year in northern latitudes. To many people it seems odd, therefore, that the time of sunrise continues to get later in the day after the solstice.

“The reason for this is that the Sun does not cross the meridian (when it is highest in the sky) at precisely noon each day. The difference between clock-defined noon and the time when the Sun is on the meridian is called the Equation of Time and represents the correction which must be applied to the time given by a sundial to make it agree with clock time.

“There are two reasons why the Sun is not on the meridian at noon each day. The first is that the path of the Earth around the Sun is an ellipse, and not a circle. The second is that the Earth's equatorial plane and its orbital plane are inclined to one another. The two effects add together to yield the Equation of Time which can amount to some 16 minutes difference between solar and mean time.

“The period when the Equation of Time changing fastest in the whole year is very close to the Winter Solstice. It changes by 10 minutes from December 16 to January 5. This means that the time at which the Sun crosses the meridian changes by 10 minutes in this interval and also that the times of sunrise and sunset will change by the same amount.

“Near the Solstice the Sun's height in the sky changes very slowly and the length of the day also changes slowly. The rapid change due to the Equation of Time dominates the very slow change in day length and leads to the observed sunrise times.”

If you could measure the sun's position at the same time every day throughout the year--say at 12 noon--you'd discover that it would trace out a figure-8.  It would be highest, of course, in the summertime and lowest in the winter, but would not appear due south every day at noon.  This figure 8 is that strange figure we've all seen on a map or globe at one time or another.  It's known as the analemma, and at this link you can see graphically how the “equation of time” affects the sun’s position in our sky throughout the year.
And be sure not to miss some truly spectacular—and quite difficult to take—photos of the analemma by my friend and TWAN colleague Anthony Ayiomamitis.

--Dennis Mammana
21 June 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The First Total Solar Eclipse of the 21st Century: Ten Years Later

It felt as if my heart was about to pound its way through my rib cage.   My palms were sweaty, and chills danced up my spine at the realization of what was happening before me.  Time was growing short.   Verrrrry short.  

Ask any experienced eclipse chaser, and they'll tell you it's always like this.  "Anxiety," "nervousness," "apprehension"―all are words that describe the emotions one feels as the moon's inky shadow engulfs our sky from the west, and the alien darkness of "totality" descends in mid-day.

But this was not totality.  In fact, we weren't even outdoors.  We were in the airport at Livingstone, Zambia, watching helplessly as our chartered aircraft―scheduled to take us 200-plus miles to the eclipse centerline―sat on the tarmac.   Its GPU was broken and the plane couldn't take off without it. 

Now I'm not a pilot, and I don't know a GPU from a BLT.  But I do know that the moon cares nothing about our mundane problems.  It continues on its orbit and, at that very moment, its shadow was careening eastward across the Atlantic―approaching by 25 miles every gut-wrenching minute we sat in Livingstone.  The shadow would arrive in less than four hours and, if we were going to meet it, we had to leave.


But things weren't looking good.  Pilots and technicians were talking and studying the underbelly of the plane―not an encouraging sign.  We were, after all, in the middle of Africa.  How many spare 737 GPUs could there possibly be, and how efficiently could anyone find and install a replacement? 

Some in our group of 86 remained outwardly upbeat as thoughts of traveling halfway around the world only to miss the first total solar eclipse of the Third Millennium began to sink in.  Others began to rationalize out loud:  "Well, we could still see the partial phases from here..."

All we could do was wait and watch... and wait some more.  Hope was fading with every tick of the clock.  And then, just as unexpectedly as the delay announcement earlier that morning, the doors from the tarmac swung open.  "OK, everyone onboard!  We're ready to go!"


What a flood of emotions now!  As we gathered our gear and raced toward the plane, many among us were performing mental arithmetic.   "If we leave in 10 minutes... if the flight takes 45 minutes and the bus ride to the site takes only 30 minutes..."

That they fixed our plane was stunning.  That our bus squealed to a stop at our pre-selected observing site with barely five minutes until "first-contact" was nothing short of a miracle.  

My arms overflowing with photo gear, I leaped from the bus and sprinted frantically across a tick-infested field―being chased by our guide spraying me with a can of insecticide―in search of an appropriate foreground.  Only four minutes remained until my first carefully planned shot was scheduled.  Miss it, and I'd have to wait 18 months for another chance.

I quickly found a spot just to the east of a small tree, cleared some of the tall, dry grass, set up the tripods and aligned the cameras, checked and tested the automatic programming, and―muttering something off-color about Murphy―pressed the start button.  Right on time!

Finally, I could take a breath.  Sure, I had a few more gray hairs on my head but, in a crystal clear sky, the show had begun.  And, this is why we were here! 


Within the hour, the moon's umbral shadow arrived―just as expected―and it engulfed the Zambian landscape in a still and eerie darkness.  Soon, the last burst of sunlight disappeared behind the moon's edge―the "diamond ring."

And then... totality! 

The place where the mighty sun once shone was a void, around which our star's gossamer corona streamed outward across the sapphire sky.  Some cheered its appearance;  others wept at its splendor.  And some gazed in silent awe at the most glorious spectacle nature has to offer. 

Three minutes and 35 seconds passed―yet it seemed like only seconds―until the sun's familiar rays burst into view again.  "No!  It can't be over yet!  It just began!"   But the moon's shadow continued its eastward journey―across southeastern Africa, across the Mozambique Channel, and on to Madagascar where other sky watchers anxiously awaited its arrival.

Three years of calculating, planning and rehearsing were now complete.  For a few magical moments we had become one with the Cosmos―in perfect syzygy with the three most important bodies in the heavens.  We had been touched by the power of the universe in ways difficult to describe, and we had felt emotions impossible to communicate.

Boy did we ever!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 5

Our final full day in Alaska ended yesterday with a trip to Mt. Aurora Lodge about 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks for a spectacular home-cooked dinner.  Brenda and Steve Birdsall and their family have owned the lodge for years and, as always, put on quite a spread. Normally our dinners consist of Alaskan salmon with all the fixins', but last night we were treated to great salad, prime rib, roasted potatoes and green beans with almonds.  For desert, some raspberry ice cream made me want to slip away for a nap.  But, alas, it was becoming dark and we had to head over to the ski lodge where we would set up for aurora viewing.

The lights, of course, originate when electrically charged particles from the sun bombard our atmosphere and make it glow, so I spent time during dinner monitoring conditions in the atmosphere as well as between the Earth and sun.  I was quite excited because we were expecting a "cloud" of material to impact sometime during the night--an almost sure sign of active auroral conditions.

The Skiland lodge--also owned by the Birdsalls--sits on a ridge above the Poker Flat Research Range and, during much of the year entertains skiers from all over. And at night it hosts aurora watchers in its upper building--which has tables and chairs, a snack bar and a wide-screen TV screen showing a live aurora webcam--all in subdued lighting to protect our night vision.  The lower building is much the same; instead of the snack bar and live webcam, its northern side is all glass, so aurora viewers can watch the show without even getting cold.  This isn't for me, however, since I usually wander all over the grounds looking for photographs. And besides, there's really no such thing as cold... just poor clothing choices.

Unfortunately the heavens last night displayed more clouds than auroral light.  The cirrus clouds began rolling in late in the afternoon and, while Skiland and points to the northeast of Fairbanks often escape these clouds, it wasn't to be last night.  They got thicker and thinner as time went on obscuring and revealing stars all around the sky.  And so we sat inside, talked and watched the webcam trying to imagine every speck of light there was the beginnings of the lights.

It wasn't until around 1 a.m. that an arc appeared in the northeast, a sign that something was about to begin.  And it did. Within a few minutes it had undergone its "breakup" phase and began to move around. But it wasn't nearly as spectacular as what we had the previous night, and remained rather subtle.  Sure I'd love to see more active conditions, but sometimes subtle lights are equally impressive, such as this wispy display above the ski lift. The quiet cold air combined with the heavens dancing softly is a sight that invokes feelings that words cannot convey.

It was our last night under the Alaskan stars; always sad to say goodbye to the lights for another year.  But on Thursday we have a few things yet to do; this afternoon we'll visit Pioneer Park and after our farewell dinner at the Pump House, we'll conclude our Alaskan Aurora Adventure by viewing another form of colored lights... the 2011 World Ice Art Championships... before heading to the airport.

Always sad to bid adieu to Fairbanks.  Over the past decade it's become sort of a winter home-away-from-home to me. The weather's cold, but the people are warm.  And the terrestrial scenery and celestial lights are beyond description. While I exert great effort trying to capture them with a camera, there is no photo that can possibly do them justice.  So I'll be back next winter... and every winter after.

You can count on THAT!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 4

Another great day in Alaska!  Morning was at leisure--good thing, since most of our group was pretty tired from all our previous travel. But all were excited about our trip to Chena Hot Springs about 62 miles east of Fairbanks. 

We left on our 1.5 hour drive on ice covered roads hoping to see some wildlife out there, but no luck on this day.  Weather was beautiful, though: sunny and in the upper 20s.  I know it seems strange to speak of temperatures like this as beautiful, but the Alaska interior is a desert and is relatively dry.  And, just as people say desert heat is comfortable because it's a "dry heat," this is a "dry cold."  20 degrees here feels (at least to me) much more comfortable than 20 degrees on the U.S. East Coast.

While some of our guests spent the day doing things like dog sled rides or soaking in the hot springs, I hiked around the area to check it out. I hadn't been there for a few years and wanted to refresh my memory of the area.  I hiked up a hill to a small wooden building--the Aurorium--a warming hut with a glass wall to the north for comfortable viewing of the aurora.  It was so peaceful and quiet up there overlooking the snow-covered hills that I fell asleep and napped for half an hour!

After this relaxing time I walked over to the restaurant where I bellied up to the bar for a nice glass of Alaska White on draft.  The corner stool I sat on felt rather strange; the floor had a strange depression in it and I felt like I was going to tip over--even before having the beer.  I suspect this must have been the spot that Norm Peterson sat on all those years on "Cheers!"  I did find a more comfortable spot, and ordered up some lunch and talked with friends.  One of the servers was from San Diego and, of course, that got us talking as well.  A really nice time, but after lunch a couple of us headed over to the coffee shop to continue talking.  I tried to check the weather online; the internet connection was so slow that I never really succeeded.  I was concerned that cirrus clouds were moving in from the southwest but, as is often the case in this area, they dissipated and, when dinnertime came along, the sky was clear as it was earlier in the day.

There are a number of places at Chena to view the aurora; one is, of course the Aurorium. Another is the airfield behind much of the lodging there.  A third--and my choice for the first time since visiting there first years ago--was a hillside about 1,400 feet above the main resort.  To do this we needed to take the "Snow Cat"--an odd looking tractor device that could navigate the snowy landscape up to the top.  It was a bone jarring ride of about 22 minutes; I think all the fillings in my teeth rattled loose!  But once at the top we found a warming yurt and some magnificent scenery--AND a wonderfully clear and starry sky.

Walking around was a bit tough, though, unless one stayed on the already-formed paths.  Virgin snow is still a few feet deep and I found myself several times up to my knees in the white stuff!  But I didn't walk around much because, shortly after arriving the lights began as an arc.  When they do this early in the evening this typically means a good evening of aurora viewing--and that's exactly what we had.

I did get a chance to try out my new camera; I held off until I could shoot the aurora as the "first light" to be captured by it.  And my "first light" was the very beginnings of an arc; I just couldn't wait any longer. I had to get shooting!  The camera joins my Canon 20D as my primary night sky cameras; they will dovetail beautifully together and allow me to do many shots I've not been able to do before.

After experimenting with various settings on the moving lights I met up with one of our group and talking and shooting together.  I set my relatively light carbon fiber tripod down but one of the legs was on soft (virgin) snow and sunk into it, tipping over.  My brand new expensive camera did a header right into the Alaskan landscape!  Thankfully two things saved it; the snow is relatively dry, I had the lens cap on, and I've had this happen before so I knew how to deal with it.  I first took out the battery, then spent the next half hour outside brushing the entire camera and lens down with a camel-hair brush.  No harm, no foul, and the camera is now ready for another night of lights.

Tonight (Wednesday, March 23) we head out to Mt. Aurora--one of my favorite places--for a terrific dinner followed by some "stellar" viewing.  But now it's almost lunchtime, so it's off and running once again.  Wouldn't want to miss a meal!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 3

Another long, busy day.  Began with breakfast and followed by my lecture on viewing and photographing the aurora. My friend and colleague from TWAN (The World at Night) LeRoy Zimmerman from Fairbanks joined us for the program and helped me explain some of the intricacies of aurora shooting. After the lecture we headed out to lunch followed by the Fairbanks Visitor Center and the University of Alaska Museum. 

This evening we headed out for a few hours to see what aurora might be visible. Conditions didn't look good, and sure enough, we saw nothing. We did see some faint green on our digital images--not the sort of auroral light people came thousands of miles to see--but it was something nonetheless.  At least folks got a chance to try out their cameras and tripods in the cold and dark, and that alone is a learning experience.  Not the sort of thing one wants to learn about while auroras are dancing overhead.  I kept tabs on the Fairbanks aurora webcam as well as a number of auroral indicators while we were out there; nothing appeared promising at all, so after a few hours we packed it in.  Early (and long) day tomorrow so it seemed like the prudent thing to do.

Of course when we returned to the hotel I checked out the website and saw a number of aurora photos shot from Canada TONIGHT!!  The activity must have shut off completely before it became dark in Fairbanks, because we got none of it. And then, as if to add insult to injury, after being in my room for half an hour or so I realized that the very faint auroral light was beginning to develop into an arc--nothing that would be visible, but something that might have shown up in our photos.  Well, there's always tomorrow.

We'll be at Chena Hot Springs tomorrow (Tuesday) night and should have about four hours of viewing there.  If anything appears we'll now be ready. If it doesn't, people will be able to follow me around to try their hand at some night sky shooting with some very nice foreground features.  Hopefully we'll have some nice images to post!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 2

Our first full day in Alaska, we woke up to beautifully clear skies and relatively warm temperatures (~20F). Amazing how cold seems different in Alaska than anywhere else.  20 degrees F in my home state of PA would be brutal, but here it's cold, but not that bad.  Perhaps its the dryness... perhaps its just knowing how much worse it could get!

We began our day with a bus tour of Anchorage--the downtown area, the Cook Inlet and Earthquake Park--an area set aside to remember the massive 1964 quake that wiped out major portions of Anchorage and lost 100 feet of shoreline as it dropped into the sea.  Stunning to see the remains of that devastation.  Then it was north on the George Parks Highway for our 350 mile drive to Fairbanks through some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery on the planet.

About an hour out of Anchorage we stopped for lunch at the Mat-Su Family Restaurant in Wasilla, where we had some truly delicious homemade lasagne.  Haven't had that in ages! Then it was back on the bus.  One of our most amazing stops was a viewpoint to see and photograph Mt. McKinley, aka Denali, North America's tallest mountain at a height of 20,320 feet.  And what a day to see it.  Perfectly clear skies!  This is a bit of a rarity since much of the time the mountain top is shrouded in clouds.  The past three years I've been treated with clear views of Denali, but my previous eight trips it was behind clouds. 

Alaskans are thrilled at the weather now--17 straight days of beautifully clear weather. Let's hope it extends into the next week for us.  It should, since March is historically the clearest month of the year (in Fairbanks anyway).

It was a long drive, with a number of stops for restrooms and photo ops--not necessarily in the same place. But we finally pulled into the Alpine Lodge in Fairbanks at around 9:30 p.m.  Nice to be "home" again.  After many years of returning to Fairbanks I tend to think about it as my winter "home away from home"... wonderful place, warm people, and beautiful skies.  Felt good seeing familiar surroundings again.

At around 10 p.m. a few of us headed off to Denny's for a late bite to hold us until morning.  I always enjoy eating at this particular Denny's; it's claim to fame is that it's the "Northernmost Denny's in the World"!  Our tour leader Luis and our bus driver Paul worked out details for our next day in Fairbanks, and we're all excited about getting this underway.

Today (Monday) we begin in half an hour or so with a breakfast buffet put out for our group, then at 10 a.m. (ADT) I present a lecture ("Capture the Lights!) about viewing and photographing the lights.  Then we'll head out for lunch and a tour of historic Fairbanks, a visit to the downtown Visitor Center museum, followed by the University of Alaska Museum and the UAF in general.  Then we'll make a run to Fred Meyer--a huge superstore--to pick up whatever we'll need for the week--or whatever we've forgotten to bring along. 

After a break we'll head out to dinner and then aurora hunting.  Lights haven't been particularly dramatic the past week or so--one group that visited last week was totally skunked and returned home empty-handed.  But we hope things will be different for us.  Of course, the forecast shows that activity levels may pick up the day after we leave.  Oh, that Mother Nature sure has a sense of humor!

Off to breakfast now and to set up the lecture... and another fun day in Alaska's Golden Heart City!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Alaska Aurora Adventure: Day 1

Long day!  Left the desert last night and drove to San Diego where I spent the night… never much sleep the night before a trip.  Too much excitement it seems!   After a few hours of dozing I got to the airport in plenty of time to sit down and relax. I’ve always been one to arrive at airports very early; drives people crazy.  My reasoning is this: I’ve got to wait anyway, so I might as well wait at the airport where all the stress of driving, traffic, parking, etc. is behind me.  And this morning it gave me a chance to write an article for my Scholastic, Inc. web column that’s due on Monday.  Now that’s out of the way too.

On the flight to Anchorage I read nearly every word of a 444-page manual for a new camera; I might not be able to ace a test on it, but I’m ready to set it up for shooting.  All I need now are some colored lights in the sky.  

Once in Anchorage we gathered everyone and hopped our bus to the hotel.  Our driver, Paul Smith, has escorted my groups for the past several years both in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and is one terrific bus driver.  Then, after a ten minute drive to the hotel, we broke for dinner and headed back to rest up for the night.  Everyone’s quite excited about tomorrow’s agenda. 

Wake up call will come at 06:30 and, after breakfast, we’ll leave at 09:00 for our long drive north to Fairbanks--through some of the most spectacular winter scenery in Denali National Park.  Weather here has been great, so we’re expecting a rare, clear look at Denali itself (Mt. McKinley).  Everyone loves to see that—the tallest mountain in North America.  And, of course, everyone is excited about seeing the aurora.

Two weeks ago the sky above Fairbanks was lit every night; now the auroral forecast for this week is pretty dismal.  But I’ve been up here enough over the past decade to know that forecasts can be wrong.  Sometimes dramatically wrong.  I remember February 2003 in Iceland; all the auroral indicators were bleak, yet we saw one of the two best displays I’ve ever seen.  Since that time I take the forecasts with a grain of salt.

So now it’s time for rest, for tomorrow we head off into one of the most beautiful and majestic terrains on all of planet Earth!
Uneventful flight from San Diego to Seattle; now our group is massing for our flight to Anchorage... and getting quite excited about our week. Weather forecast looks promising, but the aurora forecast not so much. Until we leave, of course. But I've been there enough to know that forecasts mean little. The aurora will do what the aurora will do!

Ready to head to the gate. I'll update our adventures each night... hopefully with a photo or two.

Alaska Aurora trip has Begun!

Flight leaves San Diego in less than an hour. We'll spend the night in Anchorage and make the drive to Fairbanks tomorrow afternoon. Looking forward to another great and productive adventure. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 11, 2011

An Aurora Borealis Adventure!

Follow me on a truly cosmic adventure across Alaska, as I lead my group in search of  the magnificent aurora borealisthe northern lights.  Journey begins March 19, 2011.  Don't miss it!