Wednesday, January 20, 2016

'Planet X' now 'Planet Nine?'



There may be a ninth planet in the solar system, after all. Earlier today, it was announced by astronomer Mike Brown of Caltech, among others, that there might be a planet 10 times more massive than earth orbiting the Sun in the far-off Kuiper Belt at a distance more than 20 times farther than Neptune. The existence of this dark, far-away world was hypothesized by analyzing irregularities in the orbits of distant Kuiper Belt objects, which seem to suggest that there is interaction with some large, as-yet unseen body.

For, Brown, this finding would be both ironic and vindicating as Brown was the astronomer who discovered Sedna, the body Brown initially believed to be the 10th planet at discovery. 30% more massive than Pluto but over 3 times more distant, Sedna never held the status of 'planet' despite being bigger than Pluto. Why? When it was discovered in 1930, Pluto was thought to be alone. By 2005, Sedna was known to be one of hundreds of Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), which raised a question: how could the bigger of the two bodies not be a planet while the smaller one was a planet? End result: the word 'planet' was defined for the first time, Pluto was demoted to 'dwarf planet,' and Neptune became the outermost planet in the solar system.

Fast-forward 16 years.

This hypothetical Planet Nine, if confirmed, is no dwarf based upon the evidence being used to make a case for its existence.

According to the research paper, six KBOs orbit the sun on elliptical paths that all point in the same direction. The kicker that provides evidence for a massive planet? All six bodies are moving at different speeds and they all share the same tilt, roughly 30 degrees down relative to the ecliptic plane, on which all 8 planets orbit the Sun. According to the scientists, the odds of this occurring by random chance is 7/1000.

Additionally, the team used other possibilities to explain the orbits of these 6 oddball KBOs, namely interactions with other KBOs. In the end, such calculations didn't match up with the observations, but when the numbers for a 10-Earth mass planet were put into the equation, the model worked much better. In addition, the existence of such a large body could also explain orbital oddities in Brown's Sedna and another large KBO, 2012VP113.

In speaking to the press, Brown said that not only did Planet Nine kill two birds (the 6 oddball KBO orbits and oddities for Sedna and 2012VP113) with one stone, but also a third that they didn't even know about, namely the absence of a between Earth and Neptune-size planet, now known to be the most common size in the cosmos, in our own solar system.

As of now, the orbit for this hypothetical planet has been calculated and the hunt is on to spot it visually. Brown has said that he would like to be the first to make visual confirmation but will be okay if another team beats him to it because this finding could be the impetus for a whole new generation of planet finders to go to the telescopes and begin searching the skies.

Hopefully, someone will visually confirm this planet's existence sooner rather than later.




Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?


For something even better, follow this blog.

Friday, December 25, 2015

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?


It is one of the most universally recognized images of all time but no one knows exactly what it was. For 2000 years, the Star of Bethlehem has captivated people the world over. Described in the Bible as the star that led the 3 Magi to the infant Christ, little else is related about the Star, leaving a lot of questions, and just as many possible answers to its true identity assuming that the whole story of the Star was not made up by the Biblical writer (the Star only appears in the Gospel of Matthew).

One problem that must be confronted right before we can even start to narrow down the possible identities of the Star is this: no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. Our current calendar is based on the birth of Christ in that His birth separates the B.C./A.D. eras. However, it is clear that the dating is wrong as the Bible describes how the Holy Family fled to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod, a well-documented historical figure who died in 4 B.C. Thus, 4 B.C. is the last possible year in which Jesus could have been born. It is now generally thought that Jesus was born anywhere between 8 and 4 B.C.

Now that our time frame has been narrowed down, we can start looking to the sky.


There are two schools of thought about the Star of Bethlehem: it was either astronomical or astrological. Astronomical possibilities include supernova, planets, comets, and conjunctions. However, with historic records available from all over the world from the time of the Star, no such events were recorded anywhere by anyone, leaving astrology as the more likely explanation to the Star story.

People at this time were almost universal believers in astrology. A notable exception here were the Jews, who were forbidden to practice astrology at numerous spots in the Old Testament. As far as everyone else was concerned, heavenly bodies had special meaning.

One thing we know was that the Magi came from the East. Considering the geographical location of Judea, “East” almost certainly meant Persia. In Persian language, the word “magi” referred to Zoroastrian priests, who practiced medicine and magic (“magic” comes from “magi”), which could also include astrology, at which the Persians were very sophisticated. Coincidentally, it is this astronomical focus of the Persians that can cause the traditional astronomical explanations for the Star to be discounted. 

One particular passage in Matthew can greatly narrow down possible candidates for the true Star of Bethlehem. According to the Gospel, “the star which they had seen in the East went before them till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” If this is to be believed, the Star was a planet. Over the course of months, a star's position will change as it rises about four minutes earlier each night. Stars don't stand still, but planets do.

Observe a planet over the course of a year (Mars is best as it is closest), noting where it is in the constellations. For most of the time, it moves with the background stars. However, there are times where it stops, reverses course, stops again, then continues forward with the stars once more. This apparent change in direction called retrograde motion is an optical illusion caused by the Earth passing the slower planet as both orbit the Sun. A comparison can be made to passing cars on the highway. As you pass, the slower car seems to travel backwards. The same is true of planets.

Besides retrograde motion, there is more. Planets and constellations had particular significance. Jupiter was widely considered to be associated with kingship. The constellation of Aires the ram was often associated with Israel/Judea. Putting this information together with the knowledge that the Star of Bethlehem was almost certainly a planet allows one to start putting the puzzle together.

In 6 B.C., an astronomical/astrological event that fits the bill very nicely occurred. In that year, the planet Jupiter (planet of kingship) moved into the constellation of Aires (the constellation for Israel/Judea). Thus, this could be interpreted as a sign that a new king of Israel was born. To add even more weight to the hypothesis, Jupiter first appeared as a morning object in the East. At this time, the Sun was also in Aires (Jupiter was rising just ahead of the Sun). In astrology, any constellation is at its most influential when the Sun is in it. Also, it was believed at the time that planets were at their most powerful as they emerged in the East after a period of invisibility in the Sun's glare.

As it would have taken the Magi months to reach Bethlehem from Persia, this also explains the motion of the Star. As time progressed, the Magi could have observed Jupiter slow down and stop before going into retrograde motion. The stoppage could have coincided with the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem after stopping in Jerusalem and being told of the prophecy predicting the Messiah's birth there.

In the end, though, the Star of Bethlehem will probably remain a matter of faith.



Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?


For something even better, follow this blog.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Dark Side to Cyber Monday

Last Friday was Black Friday for brick and mortar retailers. The nickname comes from the fact that this one day will often put unprofitable stores into the black (profit) for the year. Next up: Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, which is traditionally the busiest day of the year for online shoppers. While the Internet is undoubtedly convenient for shopping and many online stores offer lower prices than can be found in real stores, there are some things worth considering before clicking on the “buy” button.


The most obvious, potentially irritating problem with online buying is returning something should a product be defective. For brick and mortar stores, the return policies for cameras and other high tech electronics is often shorter than for other merchandise. The same is often true online. Unlike a regular retail store, returning something to an online vendor is not as simple as taking the product back. Online retailers often have specific instructions for returning an item in regards to packing and shipping. Sometimes the customer must gain prior approval beforehand as well. So if you buy something online and then have to make a return, be sure to follow the directions carefully.


After the returning process should something go wrong, the fact that there is no hands-on with your prospective buy is the second main drawback of buying online. Generally, cameras should be a safe bet. However, SLR lenses can be a different story. While most lenses work as they should right out of the box, there is always a small percentage that have bugs, often amounting to focusing inaccuracy where the lens will front or back focus in relation to the intended subject. This is most common (although still rare) in third party lenses, but it can occur on manufacturer optics as well. While newer mid to high-end digital SLRs have a feature to compensate for this, older and entry level models do not, which means having to return the lens. In a brick and mortar store, the salesman will often allow you to bring your camera and try out the lens before buying.


Lastly, for people wishing to avoid sales taxes brought about by buying in-store, consider this: shipping charges. While you may save on the taxes, the savings there will probably be wiped out by the cost of getting the bought online item to your front door. The good news is that some online retailers offer free shipping on some items. Also, with the shopping officially season upon us, many online retailers are more likely to sweeten the deal with free shipping this time of year. Back to taxes, you may or may not have to pay. Generally speaking, if your product ships from a different state, you're off the hook to Uncle Sam.


Yes, online stores are great for convenience and saving money. Millions of satisfied shoppers will attest to this fact. However, it is only fair to point out the down sides to online shopping.


Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?

For something even better, follow this blog.





Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Moon to Occult Aldebaran Thanksgiving Morning


Be Thankful because tomorrow morning, the Moon will occult (eclipse) Aldebaran around 5:45am EST. While lunar occultations of stars are not overly rare, an occultation of such a bright star is a bit of a rarity. To see the show, go out about 5:30am and train your telescope on the Moon. To get exact time Aldebaran will suddenly blink off as the Moon moves in front of the star (there being no atmosphere on the Moon, there will be no dimming, only an abrupt disappearance) go to this website and plug in your latitude and longitude. As the time approaches, stare into the eyepiece and wait for the eye of Taurus to abruptly vanish. Another idea: hook up a video recording device to the telescope and record the event as it happens! Yes, it comes at anything but a convenient hour for most people but this is an event worth getting up early for!

Clear skies and good luck!


Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?


For something even better, follow this blog.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How to Avoid Sales Gimmicks

The goal of any salesman, or woman, is to sell products in order to get an extra, per sale commission for each item sold. So the more things you sell, the more you make. Now that we know why store workers can be sometimes rather pushy in trying to sell a product, we will delve into ways that people can often be coerced into buying a camera.

1. The megapixel myth. Often sharing real estate on the front of a camera right with the manufacturer's name is the megapixel count. This is most often seen on compact point and shoots. The aim is this: trick beginners into thinking that lots of pixels are good. Wrong! In fact, more pixels are often worse for image quality. Why? Because when it comes to pixels,
pixel density is what really counts. Take any sensor of a given size. If you want to cram more pixels onto that particular sensor without increasing its size, there is only one thing to do: decrease pixel size. Small pixels gather less light, which offers less signal to drown out any background noise. The result: crappy pictures.
Nowadays, it's hard to find even a cheap camera under 14Mp. I've made great 8”x11” prints with 3Mp images. For most of us, giving some room to crop, 5-6Mp should be sufficient. Fortunately, the megapixel madness seems to be ending, as many manufacturers are now taking a different approach to pixel counts, either holding steady or even reducing them.
2. Tons of file size options. Today's cameras come with all kinds of options for your picture files. Beyond file formats, there are the “quality” settings, which are basically the image sizes. Think about it: who needs half a dozen picture sizes? I always find myself using one or two: full size or smallest size. Why? If you care about your images, you want all the flexibility of RAW and none of the limitations of JPEGs, which truly stink when it comes to retaining detail at high sensitivity. Then, if you want to resize your images, you can always do that later. If you want convenience and room on your memory card/hard drive, shoot low quality JPEG. A 2Mp image will fill most computer screens with room to spare and will be plenty to make your less photographically inclined friends/family happy when you decide to share the pictures.
3. Shooting modes by the truckload. Again, this is another compact point and shoot transgression. In an effort to make the cameras as user friendly as possibly, manufacturers load them with shooting modes that anyone who actually bothers to learn a little about photography will ever need. Portrait, landscape, macro, sports, night, dusk, kids, fireworks, group photo, smile detection, indoor, beach, snow, back lighting, and panorama, plus the traditional time value, aperture value, and full manual. Talk about information overload! Some cameras have a dozen or more shooting modes, all of which can just be intimidating because, after all, who wants to use the wrong setting? My advice: get a camera that allows for traditional aperture and time priority, plus full manual control, learn about achieving proper exposure, then take some pictures.
4. Magnification mania. Again, this is a point and shoot problem. Some cameras will boast zooming powers of over 50, or even 100x magnification! Sounds good until you consider the major catch: most of this is what is called “digital zoom,” which basically crops off the edges of the images, leaving a tiny, low resolution center that appears to be greatly magnified since the edges of the picture are gone. Besides the huge loss of resolution, there is also the problem of avoiding camera shake, which, like the subject, will also be greatly magnified at such extreme telephoto focal lengths.
5. Electronic image stabilization. In an effort to suppress camera shake (mentioned above), good cameras will utilize sensor or lens based stabilization. To cut costs, manufactures employ another type of stabilization, which is called electronic stabilization. In fact, electronic stabilization is not stabilization at all, it is in-camera sharpening. This is the same thing you can do yourself in even the most basic photo editing software. The problem with electronic stabilization is that it can only work effectively on the shots with the slightest blur to sharpen up the edges while sensor and lens based stabilization will prevent blur altogether, but only to a point that depends on how steady your hands are.
6. Stratospheric ISO settings. While the megapixel race was the chief marketing ploy of digital's first decade, the focus seems to have shifted to insanely high ISO settings for low light/action shooting. Just a few years ago, point and shoots usually stopped at ISO 400. Simultaneously, most digital SLRs maxed out at ISO 3200. Then came Nikon's D3 in 2007 with the then astounding ISO 25,600 setting. Needless to say, with everyone maxed out at ISO 3200, the cameras following the D3, both P&S and SLR, upped their ISO levels, with SLRs seeking to break the ISO 10,000 barrier and P&S models entering ISO 3200 territory, formerly the SLR realm. Now, we're up over ISO 200,000! Any camera regardless of type is going to be noisy at its top ISO settings, so don't be suckered in to buying a camera for it's “class-leading” ISO settings, which will just give you a grainy, color splotched mess. To be safe, consider the ISO setting 2 f-stops down from maximum as the highest usable, but even this may be generous on some models.
Extended warranties. Last but not least, don't get suckered into buying an extended warranty. Cameras come with manufacturer warranties, typically of year's duration. With all their complexities, if a digital camera is going to break, there's a very good chance that it will do so by the time the year is up. This is what is sometimes referred to as “infant mortality” because a camera, if it's going to break, will often break within days of coming out of the box. And if your camera is still working good after a year, there's a good chance that it will enjoy a long, productive life. Back to the warranties, unless the warranty offers accidental damage protection, skip it. Warranty providers will look for any sign of “abuse”to get out of fixing your camera because fixing a camera at their expense costs money and thus adversely impacts their profits. Preaching great customer service is one thing, practicing it is another.

Now that you have some tips for camera buying this
Christmas season, go out into the hostile world of retail can use this wisdom to your advantage!


Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?


For something even better, follow this blog.

Why Extended Warranties are a Scam

Millions of people will head to stores on busiest shopping day of the year. Many of them will return home as victims of a scam. Forget calling the police, they can't do anything about it, as the con you and millions of others have fallen for was perfectly legal. So what is this con job being legally perpetrated against Americans all over the country? Two words: extended warranties.
Extended warranties are undeniably good for two parties: the retailer and the salesman. The retailer gets more money. The salesman gets an extra commission. These are the reasons stores and salesmen push extended warranties for cameras and other electronic devices so much. They want their money first thing, any concern for you probably comes in a distant second. Extended warranties give stores and salesmen money, and consumers a lighter wallet. So why are extended warranties a con job?
Extended warranties are a scam because, chances are, you'll never need them. Manufacturers offer full warranties for their products, provided they're factory sealed and have entered the country of destination via the designated courier. Obviously, gray market and refurbished items don't get a manufacturer's warranty. The lower cost comes at a price. Back onto warranties. The manufacturer's warranty will normally cover any repairs needed because of “normal wear and tear” within a given time frame from the date of purchase. The good news is that things as complex as today's electronics, if faulty, will probably break within a year, if not much sooner. Chances are, if your camera works fine for a year, it will keep right on working for a long time to come.
Besides cost consideration comes what the warranty will and will not cover. Most extended warranties will only cover repairs from “normal wear and tear,” which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Companies may brag about great customer service, but fixing a product at their own expense costs the repair company money. Because of this, the company may refuse to repair your equipment if, in their eyes, the equipment shows signs of “abuse,” which could be as minor as paint wearing off from regular usage or as major as being waterlogged after being caught in a sudden rainstorm. Unless it is a warranty that specifically covers accidental damage, almost anything can warrant repair service being denied. The warranty company gets your money and you get your broken camera back.
So, when that salesperson offers you an extended warranty, think carefully. Unless the warranty specifically covers accidental damage, skip it. A much more encompassing alternative to an extended warranty is insurance, which should protect against damage and even theft, which no warranty will cover. Check with your home insurance company to see if it is possible to get a rider policy for photo gear attached to the main policy. Having done this myself and knowing other people who have also done so, I can safely say that this is a lot cheaper than any warranty and offers complete protection and piece of mind that warranties don't.


Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?

For something even better, follow this blog.



How to Avoid Buying a Junk Telescope

The year is already winding to a close, which means that Christmas, the time for gift giving, is just around the corner. So, if you're looking to buy a telescope for someone else or yourself, quality should be a prime consideration. So, how can one go about staying clear of the junk telescope blues?

It's easy by following these simple suggestions.

First, the source. Generally speaking, stores that don't specialize in telescopes/optics are not the best source to buy telescopes, or at least high-quality ones. Yes, while deals are a-plenty in those 'mart' stores, one should avoid the telescopes as the low prices are inherent of low quality. Instead, buy from a specialty optics store. Many camera stores also deal in telescopes, too.

Second, look at the box. Generally speaking, screaming advertising ploys of “see Pluto” and “600 power” are there to take advantage of consumer ignorance, as are colorful images. First, as a general rule of optics, 1 inch of aperture is good for 50x power so, to get 600x, one would need a 12 inch scope. The pictures? Many people new to astronomy assume that they will be able to see such things through scopes, which is completely untrue.

Size matters. In telescopes, 1 ¼ inch is the standard size for eyepieces. These same scopes, through adapters, can also be made to use 2 inch eyepieces, too. On the other hand, junk telescopes come with .965” inch eyepieces. Besides being similar to looking through peepholes (not easy), the small eyepieces are a red flag announcing that the telescope is junk.

Build quality/attention to detail. If there is a display model telescope set up, look at it. If either the scope or mount has a lot of plastic, skip it. Low build quality denotes junk. Also, if the scope is on a alt.-az. or equatorial mount, if it doesn't come with fine adjustment knobs, looking elsewhere is probably a good idea as high-quality scopes include these very useful items.

Computers are costly. Going to show that technology isn't always good, there are cheap telescope setups with computerization selling for around $250. Avoid these toys at all cost! A good computerized mount along (no scope included) will sell for around $600. When it comes to computer-controlled scopes, this is one case where you always get what you pay for.

As a last tip, trust the above tips, not manufacturer nameplate. At one time, the big three of American astronomy, Orion, Celestron, and Meade, were synonymous with quality. Not anymore. Everyone is selling cheap, sub $100 scopes targeted toward buyers who don't want to pay much. The companies get their money and the ignorant buyers get the shaft, showing the importance of doing your research.

Yes, there are a lot of telescopes and companies selling them but, with a little reading, avoiding the junk scope blues is an easy thing to do.

Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?

For something even better, follow this blog.