Tag Archives: Stargazing

Venus and Mercury Above the Trees (UPDATED 2x)

Venus and Mercury

I walked out of the office building this evening and just stopped. There, framed by the treetops along the street and the awning and wall of the next building over, was clearly Venus, which I hadn’t seen in months (since the last time it was visible in the evening), and below it a pinprick that, unless I’m mistaken, was Mercury (which I’ve only ever seen on a handful of occasions). It’s certainly in the right place, and I waited to see if either light would move (there’s an airport literally across the street) before deciding that they were both planets.

A few minutes earlier, Mercury would have been too faint. A few minutes later, it would have been below the trees. Not long after that, Venus would have been too low to see as well.

Update! The next two nights were too cloudy to see anything, but Friday evening I was able to spot them again! You can really see how much Mercury has moved relative to Venus in just three days.

Venus and Mercury 2

Update 2! And here’s the view the following Tuesday, one week after the first shot. I had to move to the left a few feet since they were behind the building now, which is why the light pole is visible this time. In retrospect, I wish I’d snapped it in all three shots, because that way I’d be able to make sure I was presenting them all at the same zoom level. I’ve been eyeballing it, and I think it’s close enough to get the idea across.

Venus and Mercury 3

Supermoon Rising Through Clouds

Supermoon July

Last night’s “supermoon” rising through light clouds. Spotted, oddly enough, while walking past a Supercuts.

It wasn’t quite as cool as a week ago, when I was driving home late at night and watched the first-quarter moon setting like a giant orange slice near the horizon. But I didn’t have my camera, and wasn’t sure about stopping somewhere unfamiliar at midnight to take photos.

As it happened, last night I did have my camera in the car. I took a few shots bracketing the clouds and the moon face. I combined them with Luminance HDR, mostly to see if I could. It’s not fantastic, but it’s better than my phone would have managed (though it actually takes better photos in broad daylight than my camera does).

Times like this make me wish I had a DSLR camera, but I have to be honest: Chances are I wouldn’t have had it with me.

Speaking of HDR, my brain decided that it needed to be pronounced as a word instead of initials. Three guesses as to what vowels it decided to add!

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.

Gray Moon Rising

A few nights ago I watched the moon rise. This isn’t actually very common, just because hills and buildings mean that I rarely get a clear view of the horizon, but I had been working late and drove past LAX, which gave me a long flat stretch off to the east.

The weird thing is: it was gray.

I’m used to the moon looking white when it’s up high in the sky, yellow when it’s low, sometimes orange when it’s near the horizon, especially when there’s smoke or smog. A few months ago while the Colby Fire raged in the mountains to the northeast, I reached the top of a hill and had a fantastic view of a deep red moon through the smoke.

But gray? That was a surprise. It looked just like photos of the moon that are taken at the right exposure level to show you details instead of washing everything out. Squished a bit, of course, because it was so low.

As I kept driving, I passed more buildings and lost sight of it. A few minutes later, I caught another glimpse after it had climbed a little higher, and it looked slightly yellowish, just like I’d expect it to at that height.

I don’t know if it was something about how my eyes had adjusted, or if there was something in the haze above Los Angeles or even just nearby that counteracted the normal effect of scattering.

It did, however, remind me that the next full moon will feature a lunar eclipse, visible from our neck of the woods…the first since my son is old enough to (maybe) appreciate it. That should be fun.

Musings on LA, Light Pollution, and Water Management

The city of Los Angeles recently finished replacing all of its streetlights with high-efficiency LED lights. They use less power, last longer, and require less maintenance than even the sodium vapor lights — an all-around win. They also cast a slightly bluish light, eliminating the amber look of sodium. But my first thought was that with all that work, they could have taken the opportunity to combat light pollution. The night sky doesn’t seem any darker than it did when we moved up to this area.

Then I took a good look at these LED street lights near work. The new fixtures actually do aim all the light downward, shielding upward leakage. They’re plenty bright from the ground, but from a few stories up, I couldn’t tell which lights were on without looking below them to see whether there was a pool of light on the ground.

So if the streetlights really are leaking less light into the sky, why is it still so hard to see stars to the north? Seriously, I can see Orion clearly most nights, but the Big Dipper is practically impossible to pick out.

  • It was a city project, not a county one. There are plenty of other cities in the area that either haven’t been converting their lights, or have only converted a few.
  • They didn’t actually convert all the streetlights in town, just the standard, boring ones (141,089 of them). Phase 2 is converting decorative street lights.
  • There are lots of other lamps that leak light upward: Parking lots, building lights, private roads. LAX is to the north, and there’s a reason for the phrase “lit up light a landing strip.” There’s also a park nearby with a baseball field; those lights drown out quite a bit when they’re on.
  • The ongoing drought has caused smog levels to climb, making the skies hazier.

Light RainSpeaking of the drought, I found myself wondering: How much water would we save if the city did a similar project to replace all the grass along street medians, parking lot boundaries, etc. with drought tolerant native plants? A home lawn at least has a potential use as a gathering place, or a play area. But a little strip of lawn six feet across? What’s the point?

And what do they do with medians out in the high desert, anyway? I remember driving out to Joshua Tree once and noticing in one of the towns along the way that all the houses were built on a standard suburban lot plan with space for a lawn, but that they used it for rock gardens, or native plants, or just left it empty. But I can’t remember what they put along the sides and middles of city streets.

And that gets me to the other article: It was a summary of a study on the vulnerability to climate change in various parts of the region. Most of LA will handle a rise in sea level fine, except for the beaches, Marina del Rey, and San Pedro…but depending on how the climate changes, most of LA would be vulnerable to severe flooding.

In any given decade in California, you can expect at least one drought and at least one winter of heavy rains and flooding. And sometimes those floods can be spectacular. A flash flood in 1825 changed the course of the Los Angeles River (it used to flow into what’s now Marina del Rey). And then there’s the Great Flood of 1862, which covered huge swathes of California and Oregon with water, including all the lowlands of what are now Los Angeles and and Orange County.

So in addition to planning for drought, the region also plans for the occasional flood — unfortunately, by trying to channel all that water out of the way as quickly as possible, because, as the study pointed out, more than 80% of the ground in the area is covered with impermeable surfaces — you know, asphalt, concrete, buildings, etc.

They do have spreading ponds to replenish groundwater from at least part of the storm drain system, but a lot of that water just goes straight into the ocean, and in heavy rains, the ponds get overwhelmed anyway.

It just seems like there ought to be a better way to capture the rain we do get.