Category Archives: Space

Pixar, the Space Shuttle, and Kids’ Museum Memories

Went with the family to see Space Shuttle Endeavour and a Pixar-themed exhibit on computer animation at the California Science Center.

The 6YO loved the Pixar exhibit, which broke down all the steps to creating a computer-animated movie into separate hands-on centers where you could do things like…

  • Apply different textures and bump maps to an object.
  • Rig a character for movement.
  • Change the lighting of a scene (real or virtual).
  • Define a shape in a 3D grid and watching the computer rotate it (way too much time on this one).
  • Create your own stop-motion animation by moving an actual desk lamp.

The only way we got him out was to point out that the museum was closing, and we only had 10 minutes left to get to the touch pools he’d said he wanted to visit. As it turned out, the pools shut down about two minutes before we got there, but staff was willing to let him look at the starfish. And we did catch the last desert flash flood simulation of the day.

As for the shuttle…he wasn’t impressed. He insisted on taking the simulator ride, but the real thing? I guess it’s old news when the whole fleet’s already been shut down by the time you start hanging onto long-term memories. 🤷

Admittedly, a big aluminum hut isn’t as suitable a viewing area for Endeavour as open space in broad daylight, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd. Though that might have been the fact that it was my first time getting up close. On the other hand, this time I could see both sides. Heck, I could walk under it!

There is a new building in the works, where they’ll be displaying it with one of the external tanks in launch position. I’m sure it will lead to plenty of cartoons and movies where someone goes to the museum, breaks into the shuttle and blasts off.

I couldn’t make the building line up with my memories of visits when I was younger, back when it was the Museum of Science and Industry. The only thing I could match up at all were the wall facing the Exposition Park rose garden, and some of the buildings by the parking lot (a sunken structure now, but I remember it being flat).

Then again, what I remember are specific exhibits more than the layout: a big math/physics exhibit, a chicken incubator, and a multi-screen cartoon about energy sources and engine types called “The Water Engine.” (Each screen has a character talking up internal combustion, flywheels, mag-lev, electric, etc. I still quote the Peter Lorre-inspired fuel-cell scientist saying “And then…we burn the hydrogen!”)

It turns out there’s a good reason nothing fit my memory: They tore down the whole building in the late 1990s, preserving only that one wall!

Eclipse on the Hill

Clouds and timing squashed the “supermoon” and “blood moon” effects here, but it was still the most unusual lunar eclipse I’ve experienced.

Usually I’ll stay up late or get up early and go outside to watch the eclipse by myself. Last year I took my then-three-year-old son out to watch an eclipse around midnight.

Tonight’s eclipse got underway before local moonrise, and I wanted to see it as soon as possible. So J. (now four and a half) and I went out to an intersection in a residential neighborhood near the top of a hill with a clear view of the eastern horizon. We arrived at sunset, and two other people were looking eastward: a woman with a camera and full tripod, and a man with binoculars. The four of us all set up on a triangular traffic island on the northern side of the intersection.

Flat layers of clouds streaked the sky, and we worried that there might not be much to see at all, but it was only a few minutes before a slightly-off crescent moon rose due east of us, right in line with the street. Continue reading

Venus and Jupiter Conjunction: Three Views

Venus and Jupiter Conjunction June 30, 2015

On June 30, 2015, Venus and Jupiter lined up very closely in the night sky as seen from Earth, just 0.3 degrees apart — closer than the diameter of the full moon!

The day of the conjunction was muggy and cloudy, and I really didn’t expect to see them at all. To my surprise and relief, it cleared up and cooled off after nightfall.

You really don’t notice how much brighter Venus is than Jupiter until they’re right next to each other. Jupiter is much bigger, so it reflects a lot more sunlight, but it’s also a lot farther away.

Also, that conventional wisdom about how stars twinkle, but planets don’t? Not true. In turbulent air, planets absolutely twinkle.

Venus and Jupiter two days after the conjunction

Two nights later on July 2, I walked outside facing west. The sky near the horizon was still orange, but the two brightest planets were clearly visible against the deepening blue.

And just to show you how fast Venus moves across the sky, here’s the view 10 days before the conjunction, on June 20:

The moon, Venus and Jupiter over Mimi's Cafe

I didn’t have a tripod handy that night, so I used the top of the car, which conveniently lined up with Jupiter and the chimney.

Working Around a Solar Eclipse (Oct 2014)

I literally found out yesterday about today’s partial solar eclipse. Unlike the last one visible from Southern California in 2012, which was conveniently on a weekend, this ended up being right in the middle of the work day. Add in a lot of other stuff going on, and I didn’t have time to do anything like go out to a prime viewing spot or make a giant pinhole camera.

My original plan was to take a late lunch, see what I could see, then try to head back outside at the point of greatest eclipse. I sat on a bench in the courtyard, surrounded by trees, checking a tiny pinhole camera I’d made from a tea box at the last minute and also looking for a good spot with images projected through the tree leaves.

After about half an hour I started to wonder why I wasn’t seeing any signs of eclipse, and looked up the times again. Apparently the calculator I used didn’t account for daylight saving time. The good thing about that: I was early, not late. The bad thing: Greatest eclipse was actually going to be during/shortly after a production switchover at work that I needed to be on hand for.

So I headed back outside around 2:50 to look at the clusters of eclipsed suns projected by the leaves in the shady courtyard.

Solar eclipse projected through tree leaves.

A post shared by Kelson Vibber (@kelsonv) on

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Lunar Eclipse = Front-Yard Astronomy (Photos)

One of the nice things about a lunar eclipse is how accessible it is. You don’t need binoculars or a telescope (though it helps). You don’t need protective gear. You can see it from a city street with lights on. You don’t need to be in exactly the right spot to see it, since the viewing area is measured in multiple continents rather than a narrow track. And since it lasts longer than a solar eclipse, if the clouds roll in moments before totality (which they did), you can wait a few minutes and you might still be able to see something!

The last time a lunar eclipse was visible in our area, I woke up at ridiculous-o’clock in the morning and went out to watch, first across the street, then trying to find a clear view in the west before sunrise and moonset drowned everything out.

This time I just walked out into the front yard.

Lunar eclipse mosaic
Four stages of the eclipse. I’m not sure what the star next to the moon is. As Sam points out, the star is Spica. The phone line bisecting the second view looked interesting, so I went with that rather than an unobstructed shot. In retrospect, I should have tried to frame it to look like the Death Star trench.

My son is almost 3 1/2 now, just old enough to appreciate this sort of thing, so I spent the last few days talking it up. We went out to look at the full moon early in the evening. We read a kids’ book on stargazing that he likes. I showed him pictures of what to expect, and diagrams showing how an eclipse happens. He’s been wanting to play with a tent ever since I mentioned the phrase “camping stuff” a few days ago, so we found the tent in the garage and set it up in the front yard. He had as much fun playing in the tent as he did watching the earth’s shadow move across the moon.

Katie stayed inside most of the time and came out a few times to check on progress.

At one point, an airplane flew across the sky leaving a sharp, bright contrail just next to Mars.

Moon Mars Power Lines and Contrail

We were all out just before totality around midnight…when a cloud started forming right in front of the moon. Mars, not too far away in the sky, was perfectly clear, but the moon got blurrier, and blurrier, until the razor-sharp sliver of a few minutes before was a blob of white. It reminded me of the time we saw about that much of an eclipse in San Simeon on the way up to (coincidentally) WonderCon when it was in San Francisco.

Fortunately the cloud started breaking up again after a few minutes, and all we had to do was hold up our hands to block the streetlight across the street and we had a clear view of the fully eclipsed moon. (We could see it without blocking the light, but it was a lot clearer without the competition.)

I should probably mention that while the pictures here look red, it looked brown to the naked eye. Maybe it was because the streetlight kept our eyes from adapting to the dark. Maybe the camera is more sensitive to red light. Katie remarked that without the sunlight shining on it, it really does look like what it is: a big ball of rock.

Eclipse Lineup

After a few minutes we went back inside. Neither of us wanted to stay up until two to watch the same thing in reverse…or manage an increasingly tired and distracted three-year-old while doing so.