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Clear Skies, Finally

Usually at this time of year in Laos, the night sky is quite clear, making for some good star gazing. Lately, though, it’s been unusually cloudy, a ruinous situation for astronomy enthusiasts. Finally, the heavens cleared last Sunday night. I pulled out my trusty 10 x 50 Olympus binoculars and braved the outdoors, covering up to avoid the hordes of mosquitos which have been visiting lately.

The viewing was quite good, though there’s always some light pollution from Nong Khai, across the Mekong in Thailand. That wrecks the viewing of, about, the lower 15 degrees of the sky to the north and east. But, I was searching about 60-70 degrees up, looking for a small star cluster designated Stock 23, a.k.a. Pazmino’s Cluster, that I read about in Sky and Telescope magazine. To my delight, I found it right away. In the binocs, it appeared as a small gathering of four stars that I could only resolve with averted vision. (How I long for a medium-sized telescope. I could buy one in Bangkok, but it would be impractical to use up here because I’d have very few clear nights in which to use it.)

Stock 23 star cluster

This is a screen capture from my planetarium program, Stellarium, showing Stock 23 (Pasmino’s Cluster). It’s the 4 stars right above the crosshairs. This is enlarged a bit from how it’s seen in 10 x 50 binoculars.

I took in a few other views before turning in. The Sword Belt in Orion was, as always, spectacular and the Double Cluster in Perseus showed up nicely. I browsed around the Milky Way, just enjoying all the stars rather than doing a search for particular objects. It was a very rewarding session, especially since I haven’t star-gazed in awhile.

I was reminded of some good times from 60 years ago! My cousins, the Balma family, and I would sit outside their house in Owosso, Michigan at dusk, waiting for the first star to appear. Whoever spotted it would get to make a wish that would (of course!) come true. I don’t remember what we wished for, but I can imagine that some of them became reality.

Every time I spend a few hours or minutes looking into space, I realize how infinite it is and how infinitesimal we are. This is not a depressing thought at all.

Double Cluster in Perseus

Another screen capture from Stellarium showing the famous Double Cluster in Perseus. It’s about the same view I get in 10 x 50 binocs, except the sky is not this clear in Laos!

The Sword of Orion

The Sword of Orion, a great naked-eye object that almost everyone is familiar with. It looks even better in binoculars and it’s spectacular with a telescope. This is another Stellarium screen capture of almost what my binoculars show (except for the sky clarity.)

Supermoon

Here are a few shots of the setting supermoon this fine Tuesday morning, as photographed from the front porch and the living room window of my house near Vientiane, Laos.

The moon was 99.7% full and moving away from earth, according to my planetarium software, Stellarium. It’s a great open-source (free) piece of software that you can find here.

The photo with the temple was taken from the porch and the other was taken about 20 feet to the left, from a window inside the house.

This is the start of my favorite time of year in Laos, the beginning of the cool season. Crisp nights, pleasant days and mostly cloudless nights, which means I can get in some good star watching with my binocs.

Supermoon on Nov. 15th.

Supermoon on Tuesday, Nov. 15, about 6:15 a.m.

Supermoon on Nov. 15

Supermoon on Tuesday, Nov. 15, about 6:15 a.m.

Bits and Pieces

Festival Time in Laos

Along with the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival (see previous post), there have been a few other celebrations recently.

Just after the boat race, from Nov.23rd through the 25th, was the That Luang Festival, which honors Laos’ national symbol. Below is a night photo of That Luang (not my photo).

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

Next was the huge Laos National Day on Dec. 2nd, kind of like the U.S.’s Fourth of July. This year marked the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. (Why is it that whenever you see an official country name that includes “People” or “Democratic Republic” it almost always seems to be a dictatorship or a Communist country? It’s neither democratic nor does it belong to the people. If the U.S. were named the “People’s Democratic Republic of the United States of America,” don’t you think it would be a completely authoritarian government? /end of opinion)

There was an enormous parade at the That Luang esplanade that involved 15,000 people from 45 different government and private sectors. The Vientiane Times reported that “National Day is a landmark date to reflect on the history of Laos and the ethnic Lao people fighting bravely against foreign colonialists and imperialists to protect their territory and bring independence and freedom to the Lao people.” (emphasis mine-who do you think they might be referring to?)

Along with all the parades and celebrations of National Day, Vientiane city or the Laos government decorated some of the main avenues with beautiful lights in the trees and along government ministry buildings. The lighting is a pale bluish-white color and it resembles Christmas tree lights. Riding my motorbike along the main avenue, Lane Xang (lahn zahng), is like riding in a winter wonderland. Well, except for the fact that there is no snow to enhance the scene, though it’s still beautiful. I hope they keep the lights up until after the New Year holiday.

Laos, a mainly Buddhist country, doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, but New Year’s Eve and Day are celebrated, with January 1st being a national holiday.

A Beautiful Automobile

I was cruising down the main road along the Mekong last week when I spotted a gorgeous blue and white automobile. I couldn’t take a photo of it (ain’t gonna try that while riding a motorbike), but as I got closer I saw that it was a Rolls Royce. Later, I looked on the internet and found that it was probably a Rolls Wraith. Here’s a photo from the ‘net that looks exactly like the automobile that I saw. (I dare not call it a “car.” That seems like the wrong description of this beauty. “Automobile” sounds classier, and I suppose I could also call it a “motor vehicle.”) As I rode alongside it (it was parked), I told myself “Don’t scratch it. Don’t hit it. Don’t even breath on it.”

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Down to Bangkok

The school term finishes in a few days, so Nai and I are travelling down to Bangkok for several days on the 22nd of this month. We’re going to take the overnight train from Nong Khai and are staying in a mid-priced hotel in the Silom section of the city, withing easy walking distance of the Sky Train and Underground system. Hope to have some fun, but have to be careful with the money. I don’t get paid again until January 29th. (An exception to spending too much is in the next section of this post, below.)

The Cosmos Beckons

With the beautiful weather we’ve been having lately, the clear night skies have reawakened my interest in astronomy, one of my main hobbies when I lived in the ‘States. However, I don’t have a good pair of binoculars to satisfy my star gazing hunger. So, while I’m in Bangkok, I’m going to see if I can’t find a pair of binocs or perhaps even a small telescope. I know of a couple respectable places in Bangkok to go shopping. I want a pair of Nikon 7x50s or a pair of Celestron 15x70s or 20x80s. They’re all relatively cheap, so any of the three would be nice. A good 4 or 5 inch ‘scope would do nicely also, but I’ll probably have to stick with the binocs, unless I can find a good price on a telescope.

Beautiful Evening Sky

If you have clear skies this evening (Feb. 26th), look towards the west after the sun sets, when the sky is just starting to darken. You’ll see a beautiful formation of Jupiter, Venus and the crescent Moon. Here’s what it looked like from Yeosu just a short while ago. Definitely click on the photo a couple of times to get the large view. Not one of my better shots, but I hope you enjoy anyway.

Moon, Venus and Jupiter

Moon, Venus and Jupiter

Temporal Distortion Video

Being a sci-fi fan, I find the io9(We Come From the Future) blog to be particularly interesting. Recently, they posted a beautiful time-lapse video entitled “Temporal Distortion,” by Randy Halverson.

According to Halverson,

It is the result of 20-30 second exposures edited together over many hours to produce the timelapse. This allows you to see the Milky Way, Aurora and other phenomena, in ways you wouldn’t normally see them.

You can click on the video below to watch it. Be sure to play it in full screen mode and turn up your sound. The music was written by Bear McCreary, who also wrote the stunning music for the Sci-Fi channel’s much-acclaimed remake of “Battlestar Galactica,” my favorite science fiction TV series. Watching this brought back fond memories of many nights spent looking through my telescopes under the amazingly dark skies of the eastern Montana prairie. Enjoy.

Temporal Distortion from Randy Halverson on Vimeo.

Lunar Eclipse

Yes, I stayed up late last Saturday to try to take a few photos of the lunar eclipse. It was spectacular here, the moon high in a mostly clear sky and sporting a deep rust-red color, which made taking photos a bit difficult. I walked down to where I usually go running, the soccer field by the gym, which has a wide-open view of the sky.

I use Canon Image Stabilizer (IS) lenses on the camera. IS lenses are supposed to reduce blur when you’re hand-holding the camera in low-light and other situations, but I’d read that you shouldn’t use the IS function when using your camera on a tripod, because the lens will look for camera shake when there isn’t any. Using it with a tripod, then, will add some blur to your photos. Well, I thought that I’d turned off the IS, but when I got back to my apartment, I noticed that it was turned on. Sure enough, all the shots were a bit on the blurry side. Lesson learned–double check all settings, especially if you’re going to be out shooting in the dark.

Anyway, here are a couple of shots. The first one is of the pre-eclipse moon, which I was able to shoot from my apartment, and the second is of the moon during totality, around 11:30 p.m. local time on Saturday. The only post-processing I did in Photoshop was to sharpen both images a bit. The color of the moon in the second one is as I shot it. Click on either image to get a larger view.

Another astronomical event is occurring tonight. The Geminid meteor shower will best be seen between 10 p.m. local time and sunrise tomorrow morning. This annual shower has been picking up steam in recent years, and, despite the presence of an almost-full moon, some of its fireballs, characteristic of the shower, could be seen. Give it a try. Me? I’m feeling a bit lazy, but I might try to watch it from my apartment, though I have a very limited view of the sky. More later.

Clear, But Not Dry

I woke up real early this morning, like, at 3:30, and looked out my window to see a beautiful, clear sky, the first time I’ve been able to see the morning stars in what seems like weeks. Some of the recent evenings have been mostly clear, but we’ve had mainly overcast morning skies for quite a while. This morning, there was a beautiful, waning crescent moon rising in the east, preceded by Capella, Aldebaran and the Pleiades.

Of course, just because it was clear doesn’t mean it wasn’t humid. Again, like it’s been every morning for the last month, the humidity was over 90% (95 today, according to the KMA website). Jogging is a real chore when there’s that much moisture in the air. It’s stamina-sapping, and by the time I’m finished, I’m drenched. Anyone who sees me jogging back to my apartment might think that I’ve been for an early morning swim. I managed to get in 67 minutes today, but my pace was oh, so sloowwwww. One positive aspect of losing all that water is that when I weigh myself after jogging, it looks like I’ve shed a couple of kilos!

Now, I’m going to watch the opening game of a 4-game set between the Yanks and the Red Sox. Yeah, I re-subscribed to MLB-TV in order to watch the teams struggle through the dog days of August and head down the stretch in September. The Red Sox have been devastated by injuries all season and are 6 1/2 games behind the Yanks. Hopefully, the New York squad can win 3 of 4 or even sweep the series; that would pretty much leave the Sox dead in the water as far as getting a spot in the playoffs.

Excuse me now while I go chug another liter of water. More later.

Success and Failure

It seems that the launch of the Korean rocket yesterday was successful, but the orbital insertion of the satellite failed. The first stage of the rocket was Russian-made and the 2nd was Korean. The Russians claim that the 2nd stage failed to do its job, causing the satellite failure. So, it’s probably a 50-50 success-failure situation for South Korea. Nice try, and I’m sure the country will attempt to put another one up in the near future.

Korean_Rocket

I mentioned in the previous post that there would be some fumigatin’ goin’ on today. Well, I put everything away, including my computer, dishes and silverware, miscellaneous foodstuff, clothing, towels, etc. I did see the crew setting up outside the dorm and I took off for a few hours, going downtown, walking around and buying some groceries. On returning to my apartment, I did a visual inspection, but didn’t see anything unusual; did a smell test, but nothing out of the ordinary; then I swiped my hand over some newly cleaned surfaces, looking for some chemical residue, but, again, negative findings. My guess is that they never actually came into my room. Now, after all that cleaning up and putting everything in order, I have to worry about returning the place to its usual chaotic disorder. I suppose if I just carry on normally things will take care of themselves.

Eclipse

Tomorrow, Wednesday, there’s a solar eclipse that will be seen in most parts of Asia, including South Korea. Here in Yeosu, we’ll experience about 90% totality, definitely not enough to look at the Sun with the naked eye. Here’s where the eclipse will be seen, courtesy of the Sky and Telescope website.

Eclipse_Path_2009

But, that could be a moot point. So far overnight we’ve gotten about an inch and a half of rain, according to the KMA website, with more falling right now. It’s supposed to last through noon, but the forecast for tomorrow is for partly cloudy skies. We’ll see (hopefully).

Yesterday, about 11:30 a.m., I went jogging for the first time in 5 weeks and did I ever feel it! Besides being a bit out of shape, I was also drenched in sweat after 30 minutes–the humidity and heat were almost too much. I don’t remember ever feeling the humidity in the Dominican Republic like I do here. I think one reason is that in the DR there was an almost constant ocean breeze. Here, despite being close to the sea, there are many mountains that serve to block the wind at times. Yesterday, there was no cooling breeze. Sure made it seem hotter than it was. More later.

Goings On

The Korean won is tanking again. It had strengthened to around 1300 to the dollar, but now it has dropped back to the 1500 level and doesn’t show any signs of stopping there. Very bad situation–again.

We’ve had rainy weather lately, but the wind and cold have been holding off. I was hoping to get a glimpse of Comet Lulin through my binoculars this morning, but, unfortunately, it’s raining right now. I was also hoping to walk to Odongdo Island today (it’s connected to the mainland by a causeway), but I may have to put that off.

My jogging has fallen off this week for one reason or another. For one, the gym where I run on the treadmill in cold weather was closed recently for a few days in order to accommodate freshman orientation. Yup, we have a new crop of kids coming in at the start of the Spring semester on March 2nd. Nicely enough, though, we’re off this week until next Monday. I might take the bus over to one of Korea’s largest cities, Gwangju, which is only a few hours away.

I’ve finally–FINALLY–posted photos of Glacier National Park in Montana that I took last July when we had a small family reunion. You can view some of the most magnificent scenery anywhere by clicking here for the Glacier album or you can just browse around the Photo Gallery until you find the Montana section. I didn’t post any photos of my family. I’m not sure how shy they are about having their pictures pasted on the internet, so I won’t put any up unless I get an OK from them. Besides, I sent them the family portion of the photos back in July.

As a teaser, here’s one of St. Mary Lake. Glacier Park is an area where it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo.

GNP15

Ahhhhhh, then there’s the upcoming baseball season, which is right around the corner. Despite all the controversy surrounding A-Rod, I think the Yanks are still looking mighty fine to make the playoffs and the World Series this year. I’m also looking forward to the newest version of one of my favorite computer games, Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP). It’s a text-based simulation (no animated graphics) of the National Pasttime where you can be the manager, general manager and/or owner of a team, and, in a limited way, the Commissioner of Baseball. It’s an amazingly in-depth game. Check it out if it interests you. The new version, 10 or X, is due out “sometime this spring.” I’ve spent many hours absorbed in this award-winning game. More later.