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Every year we close out the year with obituaries.  I feel like the main-stream media does a pretty good job of memorializing the entertainers and showbiz folks who have passed away, so, although I loved Tom Petty, John Hillerman, Roger Moore, and John Hurt (and too many others), I will leave it to someone else to eulogize them.  Additionally, I have had less time to blog this year than I would like, so please don’t be upset if I miss a great and important scientist, algebraist, or artist.  That is what the comments are for!  I also tried to include some eminent scholars and artists from East Asia (since it feels like our counterweight cultures are divided by a gulf of misunderstanding and we overlook the cultural work being done there).  I was saddened to see how many astronauts from the golden first age of space exploration passed away.  Humankind becomes ever more insular and parochial: we squander our resources on useless giveaways to monopolistic companies and crooked oligarchs (who blow their money on status objects or remove it from circulation).  These days we barely even explore the heavens (much less travel there).  I wonder if there will ever be another generation of heroes to walk the moon or orbit the Earth once these figures from fade away.  At any rate, here is a brief list of 2017 obituaries to make us think about the brevity of life and the true nature of accomplishment:

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Zhou Youguang (January 13, 1906 – January 14, 2017) was a scholar who invented Pinyin, a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese (a language which does not fit easily into the Roman alphabet).  So excellent was his work that  Pinyin was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958.  Pinyin has now largely supplanted the Wade-Giles system and is the method by which Chinese is known to Western scholars or input on Roman keyboards.  Zhou Youguang lived through the dramatically changing China of the Qing Dynasty, The Republic of China, The Second World War Invasion by Japan, and The People’s Republic.  He was “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution and was critical of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017) was the masterful director of terrifying zombie movies which were thinly veiled allegories for the problems of contemporary society.

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Kim Jong-nam (May 10 1971 – 13 February 2017): this unremarkable man was the eldest son of the genocidal sociopath Kim Jong-il,the late dictator of North Korea.  Kim Jong-nam was murdered in Singapore at the command of his brother (by means of poison, in a plot worthy of dark fantasy literature).  While Kim Jong-nam’s death is of no consequence in itself, it speaks to the criminal nature of the North Korean regime and foreshadows countless deaths to come at the mercurial will of their fat cruel tyrant.  There are two stories of why Kim Jong-nam was disinherited: in one story he was cut out of the family business for trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland (but insiders whisper he was exiled and ultimately murdered for favoring reform).

David Rockefeller (June 12, 1915 – March 20, 2017) was the last surviving grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (a 19th century tycoon who built the Standard Oil Trust and thus became by far the richest individual of America’s gilded age).  There was a point in the 1970s when David’s brother Nelson was Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, and yet David was reputed to be more powerful and connected.

Sir Nicholas Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015) was a swordsman, banker and stockbroker who rescued of 669 Jewish children, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by means of paperwork wizardry, networking, and money-raising.

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017) was a playwright and actor who applied the Beckett’s absurd style to themes of family, violence, and substance abuse and thus carved out a uniquely American theater style.

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Hugh Heffner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) was a controversial publisher whose magazine “Playboy” was famous for cultural articles, progressive editorials, and reproductive advice which challenged America’s puritanical mores.  The magazine was however more famous for lubricious pictures of naked women and espousing a hedonistic (sexist?) lifestyle.  This legacy, and the distasteful…extravagance…of Hugh Heffner’s private life made him a polarizing figure, but he must be mentioned (and honored) because of the debt which generation after generation of pre-internet era adolescent boys owe him.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr. (October 5, 1929 – November 6, 2017) was an American naval officer, chemist, and astronaut.  He is only one of 24 people to have flown to the moon (although he didn’t get to walk on it).  Later he helped design the space shuttle and served as Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

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Bruce McCandless II, (June 8, 1937 – December 21, 2017) was a U.S. Navy officer, pilot, and NASA astronaut who made the first untethered free flight in space.

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Wang Panyuan (c. 1908 – December 22nd, 2017) was a famous Chinese/Taiwanese painter who brought together classical Chinese painting with expressionism.

 

 

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Mascots are fascinating. They have many of the biographic features of actual people (or at least of celebrities) glommed together with some of the endearing qualities of animals or natural entities…and yet they are completely ersatz. Teams of marketers, advertising executives, and other suchlike sharkish folk invent mascots as tools to manipulate us for their own ends. The results of this unholy nexus can often result in a bizarre plunge into the uncanny. As an example, let’s look at the deeply disconcerting career of “Mac Tonight” the crooning moon from the late eighties who (which?) attempted to sell McDonald’s to baby boomers as a good option for a dinner restaurant.
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Mac Tonight was made to cash in on 50s music nostalgia among Baby Boomers. He had a human body with a stylized moon head (with an elongated chin and overhanging forehead). A glasses-wearing musician, Mac sat at a piano on a cloud and played a bowdlerized version of “Mack the Knife” in which the original murder-themed lyrics were replaced with lyrics about, um, going to dinner at a fast food restaurant previously targeted mainly at children. Mac’s appearance was meant to distance him from Ronald, Grimace, Hamburgler, et al. and yet he also shared an obvious leitmotif with them. Because of a branding crossover, Mac somehow got tied to Nascar. Yet in 1989, Mac’s career was nipped in the bud by a lawsuit from the estate of Bobby Darin, the original composer of “Mack the Knife.” Although Bobby Darin himself originally took the concept and the music from a Brecht play about a footpad that raped and murdered people, Darin somehow toned down the dark gestic drama into smooth uptempo jazz. His heirs convincingly made this argument to a court and McDonald’s didn’t want to pay royalties.
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This should have been the end of Mac Tonight: he was obviously crafted wrongly from the very beginning (just look at his nightmarish features which evoke some sort of doofy demon from a Fred Savage movie) and yet Mac crawled back from corporate America’s dustbin. In 2007, a white supremacist named “farkle” used an online meme site to relaunch Mac as “Moon Man” a racist figurehead who rapped and danced and gave hate-speeches crafted with that creepy robotic text-to-speech software. In today’s increasingly debased political culture, Moon Man now has a steady gig endorsing the Ku Klux Klan, the president, police brutality, and violence against the LGBT community. He would probably easily win a house seat in Montana if he decided to run (or if he were, you know, real, in any way whatsoever).
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I am a space enthusiast and my middle name is “Mack”. Plus I like McDonald’s and came of age in the 80s, however Mac Tonight has always been distasteful to me (even before his off-brand second career as a goddamned white supremacist icon). Somehow the cartoonish fixed grin does not capture the beauty of the moon or the glamor of the post-war era in my heart. Yet equally obviously, Mac Tonight has something…some element that appeals to all sorts of people. After Mac’s launch “a 1987 survey by Ad Watch found that the number of consumers who recalled McDonald’s advertising before any other doubled from the previous month, and was higher than any company since the New Coke launch in 1985.” Was it Darin’s song? Was it love of astronomy or burgers? Were there elements of his sinister later career already present? I have no idea. Can anybody explain this or is the sheer randomness of this story the true source of Mac’s nocturnal power?
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One of the smaller moons in the Saturn system is Daphnis, a little 8 km (5 mile) irregular satellite which orbits the gas giant within the outer rings of the planet (although I guess really the famous rings themselves are composed of innumerable “moonlets”).  Daphnis, which has the irregular shape of a potato, orbits Saturn in a 42-kilometer (26 mile) wide belt in the rings—the Keeler Gap.  The moon is responsible for clearing this narrow track, and it is felt that by studying this interaction we may learn about accretion and the enigmatic happenings of the early solar system (when more things looked like Saturn). Here is a picture from NASA’s Cassini probe which was released yesterday which shows little Daphnis producing waves in the Keeler belt.  What a remarkable image!   I need to post more Cassini pictures here. They fill the heart with wonder and give us a chance to get off-planet for a little breather.

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Since the moon does not orbit the Earth in a perfect circle, the perigee (the closest point that the moon comes in relation to the planet) changes from year to year.  Tonight (November 14, 2016) marks the largest “supermoon” seen in six decades.  The moon will not appear so large in the sky again until November 25, 2034.

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According to ancient Algonquin lore, the full moons of autumn had various sacred names (well, at least according to the Farmer’s Almanac).  The full August moon was the “Sturgeon Moon” because the great fish came together to mate at that time.  Likewise, the September full moon occurred when the maize ripened and was thus called “the Corn Moon”.  After the harvest, when the weather was perfect for hunting, the October full moon was “the Hunter’s Moon”.  The full moon of November was known as the Beaver Moon, since it was an ideal time to trap beaver, which were out and about putting their affairs in order before winter (indeed the industrious rodents were nearly exterminated by trappers—but that is another story).

Tonight’s full moon is thus the Beaver Super Moon.  You should go out and appreciate it!   For who knows what the future will hold?  There may be clouds on the night of November 25, 2034 or maybe you will be on a floating Venus colony with me. Maybe cruel Empress Ivanna will have you chained up and working underground, mining the last seams of coal to feed the Earth’s final sputtering machines.  Maybe you will just be busy sending pointless administrative files to people.

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Enjoy the Beaver Super Moon! Then later this week, in honor of the season, we will get back to talking about turkeys!

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn. The robot probe (a joint effort of NASA, ESA, and the Italian space agency) received the most press when it launched a flying saucer lander onto Saturn’s planet-like moon Titan, but it is still out there doing amazing work. Last week, while I was busy writing about Halloween themes, the probe made its closest pass yet to Saturn’s ice moon, Enceladus. Enceladus is only 500 kilometers in diameter and it is coated in ice, but it is of great interest to scientists because ice plumes venting from the moon’s south pole seem to indicate a large polar subsurface ocean of liquid water. Warmed above freezing by tidal flux, this ocean beneath the ice probably has a thickness of around 10 km.

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

On October 30th, Cassini flew by the icy moon at the dangerously close distance of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). The probe was directly above the south pole of Enceladus and it collected a little flake of ice to analyze (which strikes me as incredibly amazing and beautiful). It will take some time for the ship’s devices to assay the drop of water from an alien ocean, but Cassini also snapped some photos which we already have. These are taken from point blank range above the south pole. The ocean is down there beneath the scratches and scars. What is the nature of this icy ocean? How long has it been there? Could it possibly harbor life?

2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year's Mid-Autumn festival

2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year’s Mid-Autumn festival

Today is a special day! Not only is it the Autumn Festival (Mooncake Day), a lunar harvest (and moon-viewing) festival celebrated by the Chinese and Vietnamese.  It is also the last “supermoon” full lunar eclipse for the next 18 years.  A “supermoon” happens when the moon is at the closest point in its orbit around Earth. From Earth’s surface (where most of my readers live) the moon thus appears 14% larger and 33% brighter than other full moons. When such a supermoon is eclipsed by the shadow of Earth, the event is known as a “blood moon” by imaginative neopagans and by fundamentalist Christians who hope the world will end soon (and by bloggers desperate for hits).  The blood moon designation comes not just because of cultists’ violent fantasy, but because the moon takes on a red tinge during the event.

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist's interpretation)

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist’s interpretation)

Bloodmoon eclipses are rare and there have been none for 33 years—then suddenly four in short succession: tonight’s eclipse will be the final of the batch.  I missed the last bloodmoons thanks to clouds and scheduling mishaps…and who knows what I will be doing 18 years from now (hopefully showing beautiful paintings in a fancy gallery or directing cyborgs on a floating city above Venus…but probably decomposing or still working as a lackey in title insurance).  Tonight’s event begins at 9:07 PM EST and maximum umbra (“shadow”) occurs at 10:48 PM.

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I baked a turkey and made an almond pie for the celestial event (although dark clouds are already swirling on the horizon).  Hopefully some of you will join me on rooftops, observatory turrets, and in special moon-viewing pavilions to watch the celestial show!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof...it's really hard to draw in the dark!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof…it’s really hard to draw in the dark!

Artist's conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

Artist’s conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

More dramatic news from the far reaches of the solar system: NASA’s probe New Horizons has awakened from its nine year hibernation and is powering up to approach Pluto!  Although it sounds like “New Horizons” is a boy band, NASA gave up on trying to launch every saccharine teenybopper act into the Kuiper belt (although that is a laudable goal): instead the probe is named after the fact that New Horizons is the first human spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet Pluto and its little moons Charon and Hydra. Launched in January of 2006, New Horizons set the record for the highest launch speed of a human-made object from Earth.  The grand piano-sized spacecraft has spent the intervening years hurtling through the darkness of space–although it has periodically come to partial wakefulness to check in with mission control and to snap some dramatic flyby photos of famous locations along its trip (like this photo montage of Jupiter and Io).  The craft also used Jupiter’s gravity well to increase its velocity.

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Since the time the probe was launched, astronomers have discovered two new miniature moons of Pluto: Kerberus and Styx.  This means that New Horizons mission planners were forced to assess the possibility of a catastrophic collision with unseen debris or dust left over from these satellites. Computer models suggest that the likelihood of such an accident is remote, but, just in case, NASA has added two dramatic contingency plans for the mission. In one emergency plan, the probe’s satellite dish acts as a dust shield, in the other, the craft drops dangerously close to Pluto, where atmospheric drag has presumably cleared the surrounding space of particles.  These worst case plans will almost certainly not be needed, although we will learn more as New Horizons gets closer to the dwarf planet.

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After flying past Pluto next July, New Horizons will hurtle into the Kuiper belt where NASA hopes the probe will rendezvous with an icy Kuiper belt object so that we can learn more about these enigmatic leftovers from the creation of the solar system.  The coming 7 months should be filled with excitement as we learn more about the Pluto system!
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According to astronomers, on Tuesday April 15th 2014 the heavens over North America will feature a rare and magnificent spectacle—a blood moon! The term “blood moon” refers to a full lunar eclipse in which the earth’s umbral shadow completely covers the surface of the full moon. The lunar surface will actually look red because of refracted light from around the earth’s edges. I’m not sure how the term “blood moon” has come to eclipse the more scientific sounding “full lunar eclipse” (probably through internet click-baiting, like everything else) but you have to admit it sounds cool and scary. The phenomena will be visible from the western hemisphere from 1:58 AM EST into the wee hours (peaking between 3:00 AM and 4:00 AM) .

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This is a pretty time of year and I am looking forward to sitting in the garden with some plum wine and honey cakes during the eclipse (assuming spring clouds do not intervene). Unfortunately some people have really gotten riled up by the “blood moon’s” dramatic Steven King rebranding. Pastor John Hagee of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas has written a book about how tonight’s lunar eclipse (the first of a series of consecutive total lunar eclipses known as a “tetrad) will usher in the biblical end times. Dragons and apocalyptic horsemen will roam the world’s strip malls and Jesus will run around biting people and gouging out eyes…or something like that (I might have sort have glossed over the Book of Revelations after slogging through all those tedious Paul chapters of the New Testament).

John Hagee...well, he certainly looks trustworthy...

John Hagee…well, he certainly looks trustworthy…

Some things get old and wear away, but charlatans trying to scare people with bargain basement eschatology never go out of style. However if you still want some mythology to go along your astronomy (but you aren’t quite ready for the last judgment) there is a Mayan heroine whose name was Xquic, which means “Blood Moon”.  She was the daughter of one of the lords of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, which was filled with tenebrous monsters and cannibal gods. Xquic fell in love with the severed head of a human hero and gave birth to the hero twins whose exploits changed the nature of the Mayan cosmos. Perhaps you could spare lovely Xquic a thought as you watch the moon darken and turn incarnadine—but maybe you’ll be to busy eating honey cakes… or fighting with the mounted incarnation of pestilence!

Oh man, Tuesday is going to be a long day...

Oh man, Tuesday is going to be a long day…

Neptune's Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

Neptune’s Moon Triton photographed by Voyager 2 (NASA)

It is absolutely freezing here in Brooklyn—a great vortex of bitter Arctic air has swirled south across huge swathes of the nation.  The temperature here is 9° Fahrenheit (or -13° Celsius).  Imagine how much worse things are in Minnesota, where it is -14° Fahrenheit (or -25° Celsius).  Brrr!  It hurts my fingers to write about it–even in my overheated study (well—bedroom, really).  Now truly stretch your mind from the frozen heartland of America to the edge of the planetary solar system.  The largest moon of the ice giant Neptune is the moon Triton, discovered in 1846 by English astronomer/brewer William Lassell, and named for the son of Poseidon.  On the surface of Triton temperatures plunge to 36…which is to say 36 K (Kelvin). To translate that is -237° Celsius or a bone chilling -395° Fahrenheit.

Artist's rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Artist’s rendering of an ice volcano on Triton with Neptune in the background (NASA)

Triton is a strange moon.  It is the seventh largest moon in the solar system and it is the only large moon to orbit its planet in a direction opposite from the planet’s rotation (which is called a retrograde orbit).  Since there is no model for retrograde moons forming from accretion disks, Triton must be a captured object from the Oort cloud—and, indeed, the moon is extremely similar in composition to Pluto and other dwarf planets of the Solar system’s distant periphery.  Despite the extreme cold of Triton’s surface, the moon is geologically active.  Like Earth, the moon is probably differentiated into layers: a core, a mantle, and a crust.  The crust is formed of ice: frozen water, methane, and nitrogen.  A large polar cap covers the southern pole, but much of the rest of the moon is a“cantaloupe” surface of melted and refrozen ice.  The surface is (geologically) young.  Cryovolcanic activity and tidal forces have kept the ice active.  Cryovolcanoes were first spotted on Triton during the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989 (the first time such phenomenon were ever observed).  Because of tidal warming (caused by gravitational interaction with Neptune), Triton may have once had a liquid ocean beneath the crust, but this has likely solidified assuming that there is no radioactive decay from the rocky core.

A size comparison of Earth, Earth's moon, and Triton

A size comparison of Earth, Earth’s moon, and Triton

Triton is closer to Neptune than the Earth’s moon is to Earth…and Neptune is seventeen times more massive than Earth.  This doesn’t bode well for the long term future of Triton.  Within the next three and a half billion years, the moon will either be pulled into Neptune’s surface and swallowed or it will be ripped to pieces and form a spectacular ring structure like Saturn’s.

China’s "Moon Rabbit" lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

China’s “Moon Rabbit” lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

It is time to congratulate the Chinese space agency for landing a probe and rover on the moon. The landing was the first “soft landing” (where no equipment is damaged) on the lunar surface in 37 years—so I am also happy that humankind is back on its nearest neighbor.  The Chang’e lunar lander touched down on the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday Morning, December 14th (at least in EST).  The Jade Rabbit rover successfully drove out onto the arid dust of the flat “bay” a few hours later.  Hopefully the Chinese mission will continue to go successfully and the Chinese Space Agency will continue to launch ambitious space missions.  With a command economy and authoritarian government, the People’s Republic could pour money into aerospace science and quickly push space exploration forward–much in the way that the Soviet Union did back in the glory days of the space race.  Such a challenge would be good for international science, and it would be good to remind our worthless legislators here in the United States to work together to properly fund science, research, and development.

Chang'e

Chang’e

Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in classical Chinese myth, but her story is sad and ambiguous.  It is a tale open to several different interpretations (which I will write about, but not now). The moon rabbit, also known as the jade rabbit was originally a pet of the lonely moon goddess, however because his story is far less tragic than hers (and because he is a lovable trickster-rabbit), he has become a figure of immense popularity.  According to myth he is an apothecary who grinds medicines, spells, and immortality elixirs on behalf of the gods (and for himself–because what trickster doesn’t skim a little?).

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The jade rabbit shows up everywhere in Chinese myth and culture.  He even pops in for cameos in some of the great works of Chinese literature (for example, he is the final antagonist in “Journey to the West” wherein the heroes discover him masquerading as the princess of India!).  More importantly, in East Asia, it is believed that the stains of the moon are the image of the jade rabbit. Although I have never been able to see the “man on the moon”, the jade rabbit is always there on a bright full moon.  I am glad the Chinese space agency named their space probe after this master apothecary and superb trickster!

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