Time Trail

Time Trail

Many hiking trails are like narrow, linear time machines. This is certainly true for a place like the Grand Canyon or the Adirondacks, where even a little progress upward or downward can take one across geological epochs. There are also some trails that are defined by human interactions. Some of our local trails are like that but I can think of nowhere that this stands out more than on the Lehigh Valley Trail (LVT) and Genesee Valley Greenway (GVG).

I started out Sunday morning around 8:30 at the parking area just off East River Road in Rush, NY and started walking the trail toward the river, which is around 2.5 km west. This part of the LVT is a segment of the old Buffalo rail line. It is so nearly perfect a straight line that you can almost see down the trail to the river itself. Stepping from the parking area I entered the 1890s. That is the era when the rail line and trestle were established. The trail passes many tall abutments that were part of the railroad’s trestle bridge. This bridge stretched nearly 2 km, crossing the Genesee River and its wide floodplain. Part of the old bridge is now a crossing for hikers and cyclists. It is a big and bulky trestle bridge and even when the Genesee is running fast the bridge remains strong under your feet.

Cross that bridge and you’ve reached the westernmost extent of the LVT. The Greenway crosses the LVT and it runs north to Rochester and south toward Cuba, NY. The Greenway runs almost to the PA border. I decided to walk south. I’ve frequently cycled this route from Rochester so it is like an old friend. I suddenly realized that in turning left I had now dropped further back in time. The Greenway uses the original Genesee Valley Canal’s towpath. This canal, built in the 1830s and 1840s, connected with the main Erie Canal to the north. It was used to barge wheat to market in Rochester and points east.

Eventually the canal was replaced with a railroad. Even so, the ruins of several small locks can be found along here. The canal itself is now a deep ditch that occasionally runs parallel to the hiking trail. I often wonder about the generations of horses and boys that helped to pull the barges along the towpath. I wonder who they were, what stories they might tell, and where life took them.

I walked down to Avon (Marker 17 on the GVG map) and then headed back. I saw several critters, but mostly birds. Low flying turkey vultures and loud jays were a real surprise. Near a marshland I noted several downed trees resting in the old canal. I’m pretty sure based on the cuts that they were dropped by beavers. Box turtles were out sunning themselves on many of these fallen trees. That gave me real pause. I’ve never seen this along the GVG and it is sort of cool to think about the New York State mammal making a comeback along the Genesee. I know they’ve reintroduced river otters south in Letchworth State Park. I wonder about these curious critters. Will they build a lodge and dam somewhere?

I eventually returned to the car and the 21st century. (OK, my car is a ’99 Corolla…but even so). It was a good hike and great practice for the bigger hikes I plan to do later this season. RT: 12 kilometers. Not a bad outing!

The Workaday Spacewalk

The Workaday Spacewalk

As I write two astronauts are performing a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station. I like to call the ISS “Izzy.” This was a nickname for the station used throughout the novel Seveneves by author Neal Stephenson.  I try to catch the daily updates from Izzy. I find it all very interesting. Currently serving aboard are 6 explorers: 3 Russian cosmonauts named Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzihkov, and Oleg Novitskiy, a French astronaut named Thomas Pesquet, and 2 American astronauts. Currently the spacewalk features the 2 Americans: Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson. Just before lunchtime (EST) Peggy Whitson broke the record for most accumulated spacewalk time for a female astronaut. That’s amazing and I wonder if such records will always be kept.

I’m watching a livestream courtesy of NASA TV. Its nice to full screen it and see all the happenings via the astronauts’ helmet cams. While I hammer out LabVIEW code I pick up voices and glance at images. Their EVA work seems at times strenuous, detail-oriented, and intense. But what is striking me today is how workaday it all seems. I’ve read that astronauts make it all look “easy” because of their long hours of training. I’m sure as in most things practice makes perfect. Yet from my vicarious view over the shoulder of each astronaut today’s deployment of protective covers seems like a routine task being undertaken by two focused yet almost casual professionals. And that sense of normalcy is pretty cool. It’s nice to watch an event where rationality, eagerness, and common-sense rule.

Not that today’s spacewalk was not without incident. One of the covers that was to be deployed went adrift. On the Izzy Cam it became a receding dot against the dark, starless sky. There was brief talk about going to retrieve it but that was ruled out. The tracking team noted it was in a position ahead of the station and poses no “re-contact hazard.” I think that means the lost cover will not become a thing that goes bump in the night.

The team on the ground worked with existing hardware to put together a Plan B. They need to cover up a section of the station’s docking adapter. They opted to use the bag that the covers come in. Shane and Peggy were pretty quick to adapt what materials they had to get the job done. Listening in, the casual viewer might not have known that anything had gone awry. No worries, I heard Shane say. Pretty cool.

The spacewalk continues and my workaday salad is now depleted. Back to the lab with me as Peggy, Shane, and company circle the Earth. Keep up the good work, you guys!

March Is A Riddle

March Is A Riddle

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold—-when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade. —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Chapter 54)

March is a riddle. I’m sure there are meteorological and climatology-based explanations for the inherent fickleness of this month.  But to me March has always offered winter’s last hurrah. In Rochester, we sometimes get what I like to call a false spring. It begins mid-February and wraps up near the end of that month. Like February, false spring is short. We might get a few consecutive days where the thermometers edge upward and the thermostats are lowered. And after January any outside air temperature in the 40s Fahrenheit seems downright balmy. Then we all make the Mistake and tell ourselves that March, and therefore spring, is just around the corner. Many conversations in the department break room center on this hypothesis. There may even be reports of robin sightings.

This year March First started out warm but then a blast of wintry wind pummeled the city. In the days following the temperatures dropped below freezing and a few passing flurries powdered our area. It was pretty. And perhaps a sign that winter was giving up but just making an effort for show. But by that first weekend rumors abounded that more winds were on the way. Soon, we heard ominous warnings from that most modern of oracles: the weatherman. High winds and gale warnings. Squirrels going to ground. Trouble! Harbingers, harbingers everywhere! It was as if we were all in that first chapter of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes when a strange, wizened little man has limped into town carrying lightning rods for sale. We all held our breath.

Tuesday, March 7th, saw a beautiful beginning with the brightest, bluest sky. Cloudless and clear. Yet the winds came and strengthened all day. The Rochester Airport recorded gusts of 81 MPH and the last flight was allowed to land at noon. Power lines and infrastructure succumbed and by that afternoon my son called me at work with a report of no power.

I arrived home late and our entire block, several square miles, was dark. We opted to go out and have dinner. We searched amid darkened intersections where nervous cars stopped and started. Above us hollow traffic lights swayed uselessly in the high wind. Standing against the growing night our old haunts seemed entirely abandoned. Had we really, ever, eaten there? It seemed like another age now. We made desperate calls and to our surprise found that our favorite Thai restaurant remained valiantly open. We drove a half mile to this little oasis of light and warmth and enjoyed delicious phad thai and panang tofu. Like two idlers in a far-off land we laughed about not having to cook dinner. Around us in the dining room the lights flickered and dimmed with each passing gust.

Back home, we climbed into our winter kit and read books by flashlight. We snuggled into these amazing arctic bags, one a gift from my Dad and another a gift from my wife. I received the first when we started our winter camping adventures many years ago. You know a woman loves you when she spends $300 on a sleeping bag. My son and I talked about finally being able to enjoy a night “in the mountains.” The next day it was chilly in the house. I opted not to shave, which seemed like a bonus despite everything, and headed into work. My son joined me as there are things to do in warm places at the University of Rochester. Also, we assumed, ample connectivity. Ah, these first world problems.

Dinner that night was at the fabulous Texas Roadhouse. We don’t often eat out but without power it seemed like a good bet. The block was dark but the few shops around the restaurant were lit up. The sight of 30 power company trucks in the parking lot was quite impressive. Although we laughed that maybe the crews restored the power here first so that they could have a good meal. Who can blame them? They came from all over the Northeast and eastern Canada to help restore light to our beleaguered city. We were very thankful for their help.

Dinner was yummy. Our waitress was very nice and we all empathized about our new lives without electricity at home. Camping was definitely a theme. Aidan and I enjoyed dinner under the watchful gaze of Gene Autry posters while country music twanged from the overhead speakers.  Occasionally the wait staff would gather around a patron’s table to dance, sing happy birthday, and conclude the short festivities with a mighty yee-haw. There is now a strict and inviolable agreement between my son and I that this will never be something we experience at any eating establishment. We shook hands on it as another diner was serenaded. But boy, the steaks were really delicious.

Power remained out for two days. We got up on a very chilly Friday morning and talked about a story we had read aloud the night before. The Forgotten Enemy was written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1949. It’s about the last man alive in London’s urban snowscape during the onset of a new ice age. It opens with furs thudding to the ground as Professor Millward is startled awake by the distant booming of glaciers. Later our hero is even chased out of Piccadilly by a polar bear and must seek shelter in the abandoned Underground. The story seemed very topical. We quickly got dressed and wandered out in search of coffee.

Work was quite busy and we stayed late. Maybe to catch up, maybe just to stay warm. We then headed home. There was the promising sign of street lamps as we pulled into our parking lot but our building was quite dark. Resignedly, we went through the main door and just as we got up the stairs to our apartment the lights went on. Perfect timing! We were very happy for electricity but kept those arctic bags close as it took awhile for our little place to warm up. We took it easy with whatever we switched on, avoiding the high amperage stuff like the microwave. Neither of us wanted to be the guy who overloaded the strained system and caused a regional blackout.

A week later power was almost fully restored to our area. And yet the weatherman returned with more grim news. An incoming storm was predicted. It was called Stella. Like hurricanes, winter storms have names now. The name reminded me of A Streetcar Named Desire and I put it on reserve at Netflix. Yet experience now led me to ask whether the power would remain for me to watch?

Stella did indeed arrive. Yet many are now calling it the Ides of March storm. Like an over-eager conspirator this weather pattern decided on an early start. It began on March the 14th and we all knew to beware. By noon the heavy snow started really coming down outside my office window. The University is on Spring Break so it was quiet to begin with. The snow just added to the hush. By mid-afternoon people were being encouraged to stagger their departures from work to help minimize traffic delays. I left around 3PM and was very grateful for the shuttle bus home.

By the next day I experienced what might best be called my first snow day in 12 years at the University of Rochester. All non-essential personnel were asked to stay home. As I don’t do surgery or keep the University’s power plant operating I decided I was non-essential. Hard to believe it was Spring Break. Glad the students all got away when they could. It was nice to stay indoors, have tea, and watch it pile up outside. The facilities people at our apartment did a great job keeping up with it. However, by the end of the day 26.3 inches of snow had fallen. It was amazing!

A week later Rochester is still cleaning up and the snow banks are still quite high. I walked home last night and there were some challenges. But perhaps not the ones experienced by poor Professor Millward in the Clarke story! I warily check the calendar on my computer’s desktop. March still has ten days before some distant midnight turns over and brings us the month of April. Yesterday spring arrived.

We’ll see if it is for real this time.

Note on photo: The Sphinx emerges from the snow yesterday near Rettner Hall at the University of Rochester.

Brighter Stars, Higher Horizons

Brighter Stars, Higher Horizons

Yesterday, at a news conference featuring several scientists from various parts of the world, NASA announced a discovery around a red dwarf star some 39 light-years away. The star, dubbed Trappist-1, features seven newly discovered exo-planets, all of which are close in size to the Earth. It was an amazing discovery, and the men and women on the stage comfortably, confidently, and enthusiastically shared their new findings with not just their fellow researchers, but with the world. The event was live-streamed and anyone with access could watch. It is an amazing time we live in and what was once only speculation is now a cornerstone of research, funding, and careers. All of us advance when such discoveries are made, if only to appreciate the greater good around us.

Dan Rather, at his Facebook page, noted that “in a world of echoing anxiety and a rise of small-mindedness, we lose the awe that can inspire us to act with greatness. We are in the process of being diminished, and we must resolve to not let those forces crush us.

Thankfully at times like this, we have the world of science. There is Incredible news of a new solar system discovered . Seven planets orbiting around another star that may be similar to our own beloved Earth. Astounding.”

Mr. Rather went on to recall a poem by Robert Frost. The poem is called “Choose Something Like A Star.” It is about scientific endeavor and perhaps, in a sense, the demand by Nature that we understand the world, or worlds, around us. But to me really the poem touches an idea suggested by Carl Sagan that we, humanity, exist as a way for the Universe to understand itself.

I’ve included the poem below. I think it is fitting after this recent, great discovery.  Worlds without end.

“Choose Something Like a Star”

by Robert Frost (1943)

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

“Choose Something Like a Star” by Robert Frost, from Collected Poems, Prose & Plays. © The Library of America, 1995.

Note: The image featured here was from the recent article in Nature. The image shows a size comparison of Trappist-1’s newly discovered companions with the Earth as reference.

19 February 1942

19 February 1942

One thing that science fiction has done since perhaps the Golden Age is to explore what might best be termed The Other: the other person, gender, species, background, idea, or culture. For me the exploration of the other comes forth in many works both old and new but books such as A.E. van Vogt’s Slan and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness come immediately to mind. Such works explore with great vigor what it means to be both within a culture but also to stand apart from that culture. Indeed the characters in many such books live in the world but must often simultaneously hide from it. The parallels between fiction and history are endless, and I’ll let the reader explore such titles further. The best things about such works is that they do, hopefully, engage the reader and establish empathy not just for the characters in a book but for those around us: friends, neighbors, co-workers, distant strangers.

In philosophy and psychology several people have explored what it means to be The Other. This has included Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Jacques Derrida. Edward Saïd suggested that identifying a person or group as The Other establishes an Us-vs-Them mentality and from there a State, any State, can disenfranchise either foreigners or a segment of its own populace.

The crux of this was described in an entry on “Otherness” in The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, Third Edition, (1999) as “the imposition of Otherness alienates the labelled person from the centre of society, and places him or her at the margins of society, for being the Other.” Grim stuff, and the linkages to the internment of Japanese-Americans as well as the ups and downs of the recent executive order from the White House are obvious.

Yet on a more hopeful note I would have to agree with the author David Brin who wrote:     “(A) Doctrine of Otherness insists that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something of value to offer.” It takes real courage to listen, perhaps more-so to evaluate and reason. Empathy is a tough path and there are easier trails to navigate. Sadly, those easier, less burdened trails typically lead downward.

There was a recent photographic display about the internment of Japanese Americans at the Hartnett Gallery at the University of Rochester. The photographer had taken a road trip and photographed the various camps around the country. With few exceptions not much remained of these places. Maybe a single standing structure or a plaque. History, I suppose, strikes a locale but briefly, and then moves on.

I’m wondering if at some point all of these internment camps should not have been preserved. If visits to these remote places were made part of a required high school curricula (either on-site or thru a travelling exhibit or oral history presentations) I have to wonder if the enormity and illegality of the current and intended Muslim and Immigrant Bans would not register with a wider proportion of the citizenry. Perhaps. Perhaps not. We remain, as a culture, a throw-away society. I am now certain that in addition to Fact this also includes both memory and all recollection of wrong-doing.

I saw this article at CNN and opted to re-post it here. I can think of no better spokesperson for what happened in 1942…and the recent events in these early weeks of 2017…than George Takei.

The future will be better, even if it takes a long time to get there.



Attitude Hold

Attitude Hold

Last week saw several memorials to fallen astronauts, beginning with what may be the last “official” gathering to remember the crew of Apollo 1, who were lost in 1967. None of these lives were lost in vain, which is easier to say if you did not have a friend or family member among them. Still, such people as Gus Grissom or Judy Resnick or Mike Anderson cause us groundsiders to look up and wonder, and try a little harder, and remember that the Earth is a very small place. They helped all of us take tentative steps toward the promise of a better future. And in that, I think, is their memorial. Worlds without end.

Below is a short story I wrote a few years back during the flight of STS-135. It was published in the anthology magazine Infinities 4 in 2011.


It wasn’t a very big telescope, as telescopes went. It was a stout barrel and it held a ten inch lens. That sounded impressive unless you compared it with the big professional telescopes at places like Kitt Peak, Mount Wilson, or that astronomer’s paradise known as Mauna Kea. So be it, it was the resource we had and like all resources Uncle Ty put it to good use. You could always count on him to do that, scavenge a thing declared useless and then turn it into gold.

He had found the big Meade at a garage sale, sitting forlornly amid lawnmower parts and plastic storage bins. A lifelong amateur astronomer, he paid the asking price of $500 and opted to eat potatoes, beans, and toast for the rest of that month. Never married and 57 years old, the single life allowed such impulses. That had been some years ago. Other budgetary as well as gastronomic sacrifices allowed him to accumulate a collection of hardware and instruments: all astronomical both in price and end-use. Ty asked a perplexed buddy who owned a Sawz-All to cut the roof off an old shed that sat in the far corner of his backyard. Once rollers and weatherproofing were added it made a very neat and passable observatory. He could be found there most evenings when he wasn’t working some night shift at the nearby paper plant.

As we lived on the adjoining property my sister and I got to visit him often. The winters were a bit more challenging than the summers, but at least when it was cold the bugs weren’t biting. And, oh, how those winter stars burned in the sky! Uncle Ty taught us the names of almost all of them. My mother, Ty’s baby sister, would insist we not stay out too late. But the siblings had worked out a call system via the intercom Ty had created between our houses. Thus, unknown to us until much later, our arrivals and departures were well-monitored.

One summer, Uncle Ty had alerted us for several days to the thing that would be in the sky that night. It was always some surprise: a comet or planet or oddball piece of space junk. And typically fuzzy, even in a telescope as large as Ty’s. You had to squint or look out the side of your eye or even imagine what he described. Sometimes wonders, Ty would joke, and sometime blunders.

Yet some of the planets he showed us burned into the back of your mind: ruddy Mars with its pale ice caps, crescent Venus, striped Jupiter and once even a tiny, embryo-like Saturn with razor-sharp rings. And he could find little jewels of stars or clusters of fog or bright new suns that clung together like orphaned children. Thus we ran greedily down the footpath that led from our big old house to Uncle Ty’s trailer. Above us the sky stood clear and bright and the backbone arch of the Milky Way curved from east to west. All those marvels above would soon be siphoned down through the lens of Ty’s telescope.

Just for us.

We rounded the trailer and past his antique Olds Delta 88. The lights inside the trailer were dimmed by a rheostat. Yet as we passed the aluminum-framed windows you could see his Hall of Fame. Colorful patches lined the walls just beneath the ceiling. Each was no more than 4-inches across but all were miniature works of art. They were mission patches from NASA projects like Gemini and Apollo and a big tin can with a windmill that had been called Skylab.

The bulk of the patches were for the Space Shuttle. We all knew about that. Our science teacher had a little model of the winged space ship in her classroom. The shuttle rode into space on five rocket motors and clung to the back of a fuel tank that was painted the color of a Florida tangerine. When its trip was done it came back to Earth like a glider. Two space shuttles had been destroyed. My buddy Glenn really latched on to that fact. He admired anything that blew up. Otherwise he hated science class.

“Hey Ty!” my sister and I called as we ran past the tall hedges and up to the observatory. Ty poked his long horsy face out the door. In the red light he used to protect his night vision he looked lean and gaunt. On Halloween you might have said spooky. His crooked smile dispelled any scariness. Even Camille, my kid sister, wasn’t scared of the observatory and all its weird equipment anymore.

“Hey Joe, hey Cammie,” Ty replied. When we were alone he didn’t mind if we didn’t call him “uncle.” At twelve it made me feel like we were all grown-ups and on an equal footing. But when Mom was around we called him Uncle Ty otherwise she would pitch a fit. Mom was a big churchgoer, and by default had high expectations regarding our level of manners when it came to kin or strangers. ‘Nuff said on that subject, I suppose.

“Can you see anything yet?” I asked.

“Soon. I have everything lined up,” Ty said in a baritone that seemed as smooth as the purr of the car engines he was always working on. He had two Oldsmobiles that were over 40 years old. He kept their big V8s in mint condition. When winter hit the North Country he’d park them in storage until the twin demons of snow and salt went away. Occasionally the VFW would ask him to drive one or the other in a village parade.

He called the old cars Challenger and Columbia. After the two shuttles, of course. Framed photos of the lost crews from each ship hung in the little observatory. I often studied those faces. They looked like brave people, but also kind. Scientists and pilots who were also moms and dads, aunts and uncles. Something in their eyes made them sort of young-looking, even if they were really old people. I don’t know how else to describe them.

“Just waiting for it to drop into view,” Ty said and then looked toward the western horizon. This early in July you had to stay up late before the sun’s light was totally gone from the sky. A smudge on the horizon was all that remained of the sun now. Stars owned the night. And something else…

“Is that it?” Cammie asked. I marveled. She was getting better at spotting things in the night sky than me! Her count for meteors totally outstripped my own, even allowing for the few that we both made up when the other’s back was turned. Meteors were lightning-quick. Like stray thoughts or memories from when you were very little.

I looked in the direction she was pointing. A bright star was rising silently above the horizon. It looked like a dazzling flare and rivaled anything else crowding the sky above Uncle Ty’s trailer. It swept eastward. Usually you would see a light and it would be some airplane heading toward the little airport in Fulton. But not this. No, it moved with a relentless energy all its own and you actually held your breath as it cut across the heavens above you. It was as silent as the star-crowded sky, and that very sky seemed to part ways in order to let it pass.

“There’s Icy,” Cammie said informatively. That is what she had always called the International Space Station. We stood rooted as the ISS, that lonely human outpost, passed above us. I wondered who was there tonight and if they were looking down at us right now.

“Right you are,” Ty said. He got busy then. He dimmed the red lights and re-checked his home-built PC. Cables ran from the boxy computer to the camera that hung like an afterthought from the eyepiece of the telescope. The camera was a heavy arrangement and had to be counter-weighted by an old peanut butter jar filled with lead shot. That was so the ‘scope wouldn’t slew over on its mount. It was a delicate balance and Ty had the arrangement perfected.

Once, when Dad caught a break from his work schedule he came over to Ty’s and looked around the observatory. “It’s all a patchwork,” Dad said, laughing. “But if you say it works, I guess it works. Sure a sight. Wouldn’t stand down at the plant, though.”

Ty just shrugged and smiled. “Perfection is the enemy of just good enough,” he said. That was sort of Ty’s motto. And he lived by it. He had had some college. Physics, Mom said. But the tuition money had run out and the city where he lived got a little too busy for him. So one day he just packed up and headed home for the North Country.

“He was always clever,” Mom had told us once. “As good as any college grad, I guess. He can sure talk like one, anyway. All those books he reads.” Then she would sigh, almost wearily. “I suppose he could be off doing all those space things he’s so fond of,” she would say. “But you know he’s just content to fiddle and play around and be who he is.”

Ty turned a knob and scanned the western horizon. He checked the PC and camera one more time. He kept a split eye-piece at what he called “the business end of the telescope.” Thus he could peek through an eye-piece and see the night sky at the same time that the camera was scanning it. That set-up had cost him more than the telescope itself, he had said. Special order through some optics manufacturer. Another month of beans on toast.

“There it is,” he whispered. He hit a switch and the telescope began to track. Another one of Uncle Ty’s modifications made special just to let the old ‘scope chase spacecraft. On the PC a little blob of light at the center of the screen grew. It resolved into a triangular shape. The space shuttle Atlantis winged through the cosmos. Cammie and I breathed a collective “ohhhh.”

It was the Last Shuttle, Ty had said. The last mission of over one hundred that had flown. For the last decade most of the missions had been dedicated to building the ISS. Now the shuttles were being retired. The proud ships would become museum pieces. Except for the two that had challenged the sky and been destroyed.

“It’s chasing Icy,” Cammie said.

Ty smiled. “Yup. Like a hound after a rabbit. That ship’s hauling the mail. The last supply run to the ISS. It’s a short visit at the space station and then back home for the crew.”

“The last one,” I said. “Ever.”

Ty shrugged. “Something will replace the shuttle. Someone somewhere is always working on the next big thing.” Mom said Uncle Ty was always talking about the Next Big Thing.

Atlantis rose in the dark sky above us, a bright jewel among distant stars. A meteor crossed heaven somewhere in its wake. A startling sight and one we goggled at. Another confirmed meteor that Cammie and I would add to our count! The Atlantis Meteor we would later call it.

“Can I run the telescope?” Cammie asked.

I rolled my eyes in the darkness. Cammie always wanted to “run the telescope” no matter what was going on. And Ty would always let her. Even if it might mess up whatever he was observing. “I’m not publishing any of this data,” he would say. And then just laugh.

Cammie stepped up to the eyepiece and her small hand adjusted the focus knob. The barely defined triangular shape on the screen became an irregular blob. Then she adjusted the knob in the other direction. Just when Atlantis went back into focus Cammie overcompensated.

Suddenly there was three of everything on the screen. But most especially three shuttles. Atlantis hung in the middle, but now one fuzzy duplicate shuttle flew just ahead of it and another followed. It looked like a flying formation of space shuttles. Like some sort of cosmic air show. I shook my head. Leave it to Cammie.

“Whups,” Cammie said, looking at the screen. “Now there are three. I’ll fix it.”

But Uncle Ty put his hand on Cammie’s shoulder and whispered, “Wait.” His voice was so soft that I could barely hear him over the whine of the tracking motor. He stared at the screen for a long time. Then his eyes went to the two photos on the observatory wall. The lost crews of Columbia and Challenger looked back at him. Overhead, Atlantis winged its way to the east, a tiny bubble of air and light and life.

On the screen the three images continued to fly in formation. A glitch in the focal alignment, surely. A product of old optics and my sister’s untrained hand.

Cammie turned to look up at Ty, her hair dropping across one eye. “I’ll fix it,” she said and her voice was as soft as the night.

“No,” Uncle Ty said quietly. “Tonight I think we’ll let Atlantis fly with her sisters.”


Note the featured artwork is called “Attitude Hold” by Kim Poor, 1986

The Moons of Jupiter

The Moons of Jupiter

“…three fixed stars, totally invisible.” —Galileo Galilei, from Sidereus Nuncius, 1610

On a January night in 1610, just over 400 years ago, the Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei pointed a carefully made telescope toward Jupiter. We can imagine him peering through the objective of the tube-shaped refractor and gazing at the distant planet. Known across millennia, Jupiter was one of the original “wanderers” of primitive astronomy. In a sense, for Galileo, Jupiter was old news.

However on the night of January 7th 1610, Galileo spotted something new. Through his telescope he saw two tiny “stars” to the east of Jupiter, and one to the west. These, bright, tiny specks formed three points on an imaginary line that ran across Jupiter’s equator.

Galileo quickly sketched what he saw and then turned to other heavenly bodies. The odd chance of seeing three stars lining up so neatly next to Jupiter likely puzzled him, and the next night he looked again toward Jupiter. On January 8th the inconceivable had seemed to happen as now the tiny stars had switched positions! As if to befuddle him all three of the new stars had moved to line up on the west side of Jupiter. His observations continued on January 9th, 10th, and 11th. All during these nights the little stars skipped around the parent body.

Galileo continued to observe Jupiter for several weeks. Nightly he tracked and recorded the changes in position of the three stars. However, within a week of his initial observation he noted a fourth, slightly smaller speck and began to record its position as well. Over the course of the observations he began to surmise that these new stars were not fixed against the background but were moving around the planet. This was a logical step for the astronomer since it was known that the Moon revolved about the Earth.

Galileo soon worked with the publisher Thomas Baglioni of Padua to print these and other observations in his Sidereus Nuncius, or the Sidereal Messenger. The little book is sometimes described as a treatise or pamphlet. The observations are quite detailed given the basic instrument Galileo used. The observational drawings, particularly those of the Moon, are quite striking.

The little book was groundbreaking, however. At the time the Ptolemaic geocentric system held that all other objects in the Cosmos revolved around the Earth. Galileo’s little stars, circling not Earth but Jupiter,  showed that this widely accepted system was flawed. Although an amazing discovery, Galileo also had more worldly matters to attend to, and in the Sidereus Nuncius he referred to Jupiter’s newly discovered moons as the “Medicean or Cosimo Stars” in order to pay respect to Cosimo II, Duke of Tuscany and the Medici family, who were his patrons.

Today, these four satellites of Jupiter are called the Galilean satellites. In order of distance from Jupiter they are known as Io, Europa , Ganymede, and Callisto. The names were based on a suggestion by Johannes Kepler but were applied for the first time by Simon Marius of Germany, who actually discovered the moons independently of Galileo in late 1609.

The four satellites have been observed and studied for many years. Today any amateur astronomy magazine will offer a monthly sidereal table of the moons’ positions around Jupiter. Space probes such as the Pioneers and Voyagers have flown past Jupiter and imaged the Galilean satellites. These moons are worlds unto themselves and the Voyager probes provided dramatic imagery, particularly of Io with its volcanoes.

The Galilean satellites are worlds of fire and ice. Io’s volcanoes of sulfur and heated volatiles seem to be turning the moon inside out. Io was the first world other than Earth where active volcanoes were seen erupting. Color imagery from the Voyager spacecraft and later the aptly named Galileo probe revealed Io to have a hellish but fascinating landscape.

Seemingly nearby but at another planetary extreme is Europa. Europa is a frozen ball of ices with curious geyser-like plumes and vast sheets of knotted surface ice. Intriguing fracture lines make this world look like a cosmic cue-ball. Tidal flexing as this moon races around mighty Jupiter likely causes the kilometers-thick layers of ices to expand and contract. Across Europa, Jupiter drives forces that seem akin to a form of plate tectonics. The tidal flexing of the ice sheets likely releases its energy as heat. This suggests that somewhere far below its surface of ice Europa may have an ocean of liquid water. And where there is water could there also be life?

Ganymede is a mix of topographies and landscapes. As with its nearer siblings, Ganymede’s surface features are wrenched over millennia by the slow tectonic upheavals caused by Jupiter’s patient yet powerful gravity. The world is a splotchy mix of rock and ice and has a worn, weathered and in places sinuous appearance.

Further out and away from Jupiter sits Callisto. This world is a place seemingly trapped and frozen like a snapshot in time. The tidal flexing that impacts the three inner moons is less powerful here. And very little heat lurks below Callisto’s surface. Thus, not much changes on its mottled dark and light surface. Indeed, it is believed that Callisto’s features have changed very little across billions of years. The biggest upheavals come with the occasional asteroid or meteor impact. Otherwise, Callisto’s topography is subject to the slow, patient gnawing of crater walls and rilles by the process of sublimation. Ices and other volatiles slowly out-gas, leaving only rock or the occasional slump of gravel and dust. Callisto is a tomb, but astronomers use it as a baseline for what other moons eventually become. It is a starting point in the study of planetary formation, and an important one.

And all this started when somebody turned a small telescope skyward.