Celestial Fireworks

They night sky is a fascinating place, particularly if you live under reasonably dark skies.  If you’re blitzed by light pollution, as are those who live in or near major cities, however, it can seem a pretty barren place, devoid of all but the brightest of stars.  In that case you might almost never look up, because what is there to see?

Sometimes, though, nature puts on a show that cuts through even the worst light pollution.  Such a show is in progress right now.  If you go outside just after sunset and look to the west, you’ll see two bright objects very close together and getting closer each day.

The brightest of the pair is Venus, the most brilliant object in Earth’s sky except for the moon and the sun.  No star and no other planet ever shines as brightly as Venus, so it’s instantly recognizable, even if you don’t know anything about astronomy.  Have a look tonight (or on the next clear night) and you’ll see what I mean.

The other object, roughly to the south (left) of Venus is giant Jupiter.  Aside from Venus itself, no planet is brighter than Jupiter, and no star is as bright.  So it, too, is instantly recognizable.  If it’s brighter than anything except Venus, it’s Jupiter.

JupiterVenus20150624The image above shows the evening sky at about 9:00 PM in Baltimore, Maryland on June 24, 2015, the day I’m writing this.   If you trace a line from Venus through Jupiter you’ll come to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, the lion.  Regulus is bright as stars go; it’s the 21st brightest star in the sky.  The two brightest stars in the sky right now are Arcturus, an orange star high up in the sky, and Vega, to the east and one of the three bright stars in the well-known “summer triangle.”  Finding them and comparing them to Jupiter and Venus can be interesting.

But here’s the really neat part: as the month wears on, Venus and Jupiter will grow closer and closer together, until on June 30th they are only about one-third of a degree apart.  How big is one-third of a degree?  Well, the full moon is roughly half a degree in diameter, so on the last day of June, Venus and Jupiter will be closer together than the full moon is wide.

In case you’re interested, this phenomenon–the closest approach of two celestial objects in the sky–is called appulse.  Another term sometimes used is conjunction, but technically conjunction occurs when two objects are at the same right ascension, which is essentially longitude projected onto the sky.  Venus and Jupiter will reach conjunction on July 1st, but they will be slightly farther apart than on June 30th.

By the by, “closeness” in this context is only how the objects appear in our sky.  In reality, Venus and Jupiter are nowhere near each other in space.  They just happen to line up along about the same line of sight from Earth.  Venus is 59 million miles away, while Jupiter is 561 million miles away.  The current positions of the inner planets and Jupiter are shown below.

SolarSystem2015-06-30

An event of this brilliance doesn’t happen too often, so be sure to get outside and have a look as often as possible between now and the end of the month.  And keep looking after that, as Venus and Jupiter continue their dance, gradually separating again in early July.

 

 

Making Tracks

Kathy and I have been traveling by train with some frequency in recent years.  Kathy’s first long-distance train ride was 13 years ago when our oldest granddaughter was born.  The delivery had been difficult (to put it mildly) and grandma’s presence was required for a few weeks.  Upon her return, she waxed euphoric over the wonders of train travel.

I had ridden commuter trains for awhile, but my first Amtrak ride took place a couple of years later, when we attended the Association for Baha’i Studies conference in Calgary.  We rode the Capitol Limited from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, and from there took the Empire Builder out to Shelby, Montana, where we rented a car for the drive up to Calgary.  (If you’re ever there, we recommend the O’Haire Manor Motel, a nice place and, if things haven’t changed, the only place in Shelby you can have a rental car delivered to you.)  The return trip featured the same two trains.  But this voyage wasn’t so smooth as Kathy’s previous; the train was late getting to Chicago, the Empire Builder broke down on the way back and was horribly late getting back to Chicago, and I learned that although like Kathy I do enjoy riding trains, unlike Kathy I can’t sleep very well in a coach seat.

For awhile, I thought maybe I was train-incompatible, because nearly every time I boarded a train, something happened to delay it, the people around us were strange, or something alarming happened.  On one trip, a woman who had spent three days on trains with her three young children had to get off with the help of paramedics when two of the kids got very sick.  I hope everything turned out okay for her and her family.

This past weekend, we took another trip to Chicago via the Capitol Limited, this time to visit my parents.  On the return trip, we spent the extra money for a sleeper, which made the trip even more enjoyable because it was quiet and I was able to actually sleep.  We met several nice people in the dining car along the way, including a couple traveling east to help their son’s family move to a new home and a teacher who had some very definite opinions on the test-driven paradigm of present-day education.  (Hint: He seriously didn’t like it.)

One interesting thing about train travel is that many of one’s fellow-passengers are veteran rail riders.  Amtrak ridership has increased significantly since 2001 and the increased hassle of traveling by air, but convenience and the relatively lower cost aren’t the only reasons people go by train.  Many truly love this form of transport, and it’s not hard to see why.  You don’t have to drive, you can get up and move around, you can see the country, and (if you’re a people person) you can meet lots of interesting characters.

There are downsides, to be sure, but that’s true of any form of travel.  For us, the pluses outweigh the minuses.

So long as I don’t put a hex on the train, anyway . . .

Header image courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

The Bonsai are Up!

During the winter, bonsai typically have to be stored to protect them from from the wind and from temperature fluctuations.  The cold isn’t so much the problem: trees that live in cold climates are designed to survive the cold.  The wind, though, can desiccate (dry out) a tree’s tissues, and temperature fluctuations can cause repeated freezing and thawing that can damage pots.

There are several strategies for dealing with these issues.  Deciduous trees can be stored in an unheated room or garage.  Once they’ve lost their leaves for the winter, they don’t need sunlight.  Due to lack of space, however, I have typically placed the trees under their benches and surrounded them with sheets of plastic to keep the wind at bay.  More recently, I’ve removed the shelving and simply placed the trees together, and used tall metal stakes to support the windbreak.

I generally put the trees into storage this way over the Thanksgiving weekend, as in my area that’s when temperatures are starting to get low enough that the trees will need some protection.  I put them back up on the benches in the early weeks of spring, depending upon how warm it’s getting.  This year I left them down a bit longer than usual, because the weather has been unusual.  As of today, however, they are back up.

I haven’t started repotting yet, although by all rights I probably should have done so a few weeks ago.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had time.  With luck I can get to that shortly.

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman