When we were camping at the Grand Canyon last month, we witnessed a most unusual sight in the night sky. We saw a Starlink satellite train. Starlink is a satellite network that Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation is launching even now. When completed in a few years, it will be composed of thousands of satellites that will blanket the earth’s skies worldwide, bring the internet to every corner of the world. Eventually, each satellite has its own individual orbit, but immediately after launch, because of SpaceX’s unorthodox card-dealing technique for deploying the 60 Starlink broadband satellites that are boosted into space at the same time, they temporarily form a Starlink train.

The Grand Canyon is a dark sky park, the sky was perfectly clear and the timing of the event that we witnessed couldn’t have been better. It was dark, but it wasn’t that long after sundown, allowing the already set sun to illuminate the satellites that were 500 miles above us. I didn’t have the wherewithal to photograph the sight, but plenty of other people have. I chose this example from Twitter, because the scene includes a full moon, so you have an idea of how bright these satellites really are. For us, it was a moonless night and I swear, at the Grand Canyon they seemed even brighter then they appear in this video, brighter than any star in the sky.

As the train passed overhead the campground erupted with cries in the dark of, “Look at that!”, “What the hell?”, “What is it?” Fortunately, I did have the wherewithal to answer these cries in the dark and announced, ” They’re Elon Musk’s Starlink new satellite network.” I’m sure I headed off a UFO panic. Anne was angered by the sight. It is a dark sky park and these satellites are light pollution, but subsequent research has indicated that these train formations are only temporary. The individual satellites will still be bright, but no brighter than the jets flying in and out of the neighboring Albuquerque airport. 

Ano Nuevo SP

Elephant Seal Skeleton

We left San Francisco in the morning and drove CA 1 south to Monterey. Along the way, we stopped at Pigeon Point Lighthouse and then Ano Nuevo State Park. We saw lots of birds at both places, but at Ano Nuevo we were prevented from seeing the elephant seals. They said it was because of Covid, but I think that they were just trying to protect the seals. The pictured elephant seal skeleton from the day before will have to serve as stand-in for the live seals that this time we didn’t see.

Bull Elephant Seal at Ano Nuevo State Park

Heavenly Pursuits

Anne with Her Fireman’s Safety Net Rescuing the Baby

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I crashed my drone. We were in Tower Grove Park. I had flown it once before earlier on our walk and when we neared the Compton Heights Bandstand, I decided to fly it once more. Everything was going fine, until I backed into a tree, a drone eating tree at that. The drone had lodged itself in a tree’s branch, some twenty feet up. It was already late and getting dark, when I ventured over to the park’s maintenance yard looking for help. Not finding anyone there, I “borrowed” a long board that I thought might be long enough to reach the drone. It wasn’t even close. Returning the board, I found a handful of rocks, with which I tried unsuccessfully to strike the drone, in the hope of dislodging it. I want a pitcher, not a glass of water. I was actually lucky that I couldn’t hit it, because after repeated attempts, the stones that I had found started to shatter on the concrete below. The drone would have been smashed to bits. We left it, forlornly blinking its red caution light in the night.

Returning home, we slowly hatched a rescue plan. One that would not risk incurring medical bills far in excess of the drone’s $300 replacement cost. Yeah, I looked that up and also found that there were no more available for Christmas. After several iterations we came up with a plan that revolved around Ole Yeller, what we called our go to camping tent for way too many years. It came with super long poles that had to be long enough. We would use one pole to poke the drone and then use the other poles to set the tent up as best we could to act as a safety net for the falling drone. The pole wasn’t quite long enough to reach the drone, but we had also brought along a step ladder and in conjunction with that, with Anne at the ready to catch it, I poked the drone just once and it fell like a rock into the soft embrace of an upside-down Ole Yeller. One prop blade had been damaged, but other than that everything was good. After replacing the damaged blade, I successfully test flew it and we’re good to go again.

The below picture is from last night. Jupiter and Saturn were close enough to fit into one frame. You can see three of the four Galileo moons of Jupiter. Missing is Io, which might have ducked around behind the planet or is just lost in its glare. Saturn too is overexposed, but you can see that it has an oval outline that is due to its rings. Through the spotter scope, with the eye, I could clearly see Saturn’s rings and the spaces in-between them and the planet. I was unable to see the bands of clouds on Jupiter. Tonight, it is cloudy, but the forecast for the next few nights afterwards looks pretty good.

Great Conjunction 12-17-2020

Starting to look like Saturnalia

McDonnell Planetarium Decked Out for the Holidays

It is starting to look a lot like Christmas, at least around here and snow is on its way. It is in the forecast for tomorrow. So maybe, but probably not. Yesterday, I brought up the purple tubs full of ornaments, also-known-as the purple worn of D&D fame. I cleared the mantel of the everyday knick-knacks and decorated it with the X-mas stuff. Today, we’ll fetch the tree and then straight away put it up in the living room. Normally, we let our live tree acclimate to the warmer inside temperature, by first staging it through the basement, but it is supposed to hit fifty this afternoon. I figure that by then the tree lot’s mercury will be pretty close to what the basement regularly resides at. After the tree is up and has been decorated, then it will really start looking like Christmas around here.

Observant readers might have noticed that I used both the parochial and secular connotations for the holiday that falls every year on the 25th of December. I’m not declaring war on Christmas or anything like that. Even an ardent Christian should have realized by now that there are now more than a little bit of secular undertones to this once entirely religious holiday. Maybe entirely is even too strong an assertion, because it is thought that early Christians chose this time of year to celebrate Christmas, because another Roman holiday, Saturnalia, was available then to mask the Christian’s religious activities. A little bit of drunken bacchanal would go a long way to disguise their devotions. I mean, who wants to get thrown to the lions on Christmas Eve?

I don’t think that it was mere chance that the early Christians chose this time of year for their story of rebirth. Winter solstice is the nadir of the year, with the shortest day and the longest night. It is not by accident that the New Year is celebrated a week later. Scholars wanted to wait that week in order to be sure that the days had in fact begun to get longer again. Does anyone celebrates Saturnalia anymore? While the whole world, if only in its commercial form, celebrates Christmas. This year though Saturnalia is staging a comeback. On December 21st, winter solstice day, the planets Jupiter and Saturn will be in a conjunction. Last summer there was another conjunction of these two planets and we witnessed it while at the cabin. This time they will be close enough to each other that both planets’ mini solar systems should be viewable in one frame. Last time, in those darker northern skies we could see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. I pray that it is not cloudy here on the 21st.