Posted by: distributorcap | June 12, 2009

Fly Me To The Moon

and let me play among the stars…..

In 7th grade, the required science was earth science. Not one to pass up an event, Mrs Whateverhernamewas took us on a late winter field trip – March 7, 1970. And where did we go? A whole 20 yards to the front of Heritage Junior High School to see the closest the New York area would come to a total solar eclipse for centuries. We made eclipse cutouts (so we wouldn’t look directly at the Sun) and took turns crowding around a special reflective telescope to watch it (in 1970 there were no portable TVs to watch outside). The moon covered 96% of the Sun and a darkness did set it. It was my first eclipse. The next time New York City will see a solar eclipse over 90% is on April 8, 2024 – 15 years is an eternity in a country going nuts.

This event got me fascinated by astronomy. I was such a nerd about it that I could actually identify many of the constellations in the northern hemisphere (88) and their main stars. I know, pretty bizarre.

So with that in mind, here are my 10 favorite heavenly “objects”

10. The Galilean Moons – With 63 moons, Jupiter is a solar system unto itself. The four largest – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are called the Galilean moons. These satellites were discovered by Galileo Galilei (hence their name) in 1610. The innermost moon is Io. Io rotates around Jupiter in 1.8 days and has a diameter of 2,263 miles, making it the 4th largest moon in the Solar System. Io is the most geologically active body (including planets) in the Solar System – with over 400 live volcanoes. The 2nd moon is Europa. Europa takes 3.5 days to circle Jupiter and is 1,939 miles in diameter. The surface of Europa is surrounded by a thick layer of ice. Scientists theorize under the ice is liquid water – where (like in the depth of earth’s oceans) some microbial life could possibly exist. Number 3 moon is Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System. With a diameter of 3,270 miles, it is bigger than the planet Mercury. Ganymede takes 7.2 days to spin around Jupiter. It has a very thin atmosphere. The final Galilean moon is Callisto. This satellite has a diameter of 2,995 miles, making it the 2nd largest Galilean moon and the 3rd largest in the Solar System. The other 59 almost don’t matter. While Galileo realized the the Earth was not the center of the Universe – there are still people in the 21st century that do think that. Many are in the US government.

9. Crab Nebula – located in the constellation Taurus, the Crab Nebula was first observed by in 1731. This striking work of nature is the remnant of a massive star explosion, or supernova. The Crab Nebula corresponds to the historical records of both Arab and Chinese astronomers, who witnessed a “star” bright enough to be seen during the daylight for 23 days and 650 nights – in 1054. The nebula lies about 6,300 light years from Earth. This sort of looks like Sarah Palin’s brain.

8. Orion – is one of the largest and most easily identifiable constellations in the skies. In Greek mythology, Orion was the hunter. The belt of Orion includes three very bright stars in a row. Jutting from the belt is the Orion nebula, which comprises the hunter’s sword. Surrounding the belt are four bright stars, which represent Orion’s body. The two most prominent stars in Orion are the “left foot” – Rigel (7th brightest star in the sky) and the “right shoulder” Betelgeuse (12th brightest in the sky). Betelgeuse is a red giant nearing the end of its life. The positioning of Orion makes it useful in locating many of the major stars in the sky – Sirius, Aldebaran, Castor, and Pollux. Unlike Dick Cheney, Orion the Hunter hasn’t shot anyone in the face.

7. Andromeda – is a spiral galaxy in the constellation Andromeda, some 2.5 million light years from away. It is one of the farthest objects visible with the naked eye and the nearest major neighbor to our galaxy. Andromeda contains over 1 trillion stars, more than the Milky Way. The earliest recording of Andromeda is in 964 AD. Andromeda is approaching the Milky Way and the two galaxies will eventually collide in about 2.5 billion years. Start stocking up now.

6. Comet Shoemaker-Levy – was a comet that collided with the planet Jupiter in July 1994, the first direct observation of two Solar System bodies colliding. When Shoemaker Levy passed close to Jupiter in 1992, the gravitational forces of the giant planet pulled it apart. Two years later it slammed into the planet, leaving very visible scars. The Galileo spacecraft circling Jupiter observed the impact. All told there were 21 collisions. The largest impact released energy equivalent to 6 million megatons of TNT. The wreck of Shoemaker Levy resembles the wreck of the GOP.

5. The Hubble Telescope – was carried into space by the space shuttle Discovery in 1990. At a cost of $2.5 billion, it is the largest space telescope every put into service and has brought the astronomical community an immense amount of information. After it was put into commission, images showed there was a serious problem with the optics. It turned out the Hubble’s mirror was ground to the wrong shape by 2.2 micrometers – it was nearsighted. The telescope received corrective lenses in a shuttle service mission in 1993. With no atmosphere to distort images, Hubble has made some significant discoveries. It observed supernova, analyzed black holes, refined the age of the universe, and discovered extra-solar planets. Anyone can apply for time on the telescope. It can also see Russia from its home.

4. Pluto and Eris – poor non-Disney Pluto, from 1930 to 2006, it was the 9th and newest planet in the Solar System. When the IAU set the definition of planets in 2005, Pluto was delisted and now classified as a “dwarf planet.” However, to add insult to injury, Pluto was not even the largest dwarf planet. Eris, discovered in 2005 is about 1,489 miles in diameter. Pluto, smaller than our Moon, is 1,485 miles in diameter – 4 miles shorter (how they can tell a four mile difference from billions of miles away is amazing). Pluto has a highly eccentric orbit around the Sun, taking it closer to the Sun than Neptune for around 20 years. Pluto also lies 17 degrees above the ecliptic plane of the other 8 non-dwarf planets. Eris is three times further from the Sun than Pluto, one of the most distant objects in the Solar System. Eris would be a great home for Rush, Hannity and Cheney.

3. Titan – is the largest moon orbiting Saturn and the second largest natural satellite in the Solar System. Titan has a diameter of 3,200 miles and rotates around Saturn every 15 days. Like our moon, Titan’s orbit and rotation are equal – so the same side faces the planet all the time. Titan is the only moon in the Solar System with a significant atmosphere. It is composed of ice and rocky materials. When the Cassini mission arrived at Saturn in 2004, the spacecraft launched the Huygens Probe (named after the discoverer of Titan) to the surface of Titan. The probe discovered huge liquid hydrocarbon lakes – much like the Earth’s oceans. The atmosphere is mostly nitrogen with methane gas. Titan has a climate – with rain and wind. The surface has dunes and shorelines. Scientists say Titan has much of the same makeup of early Earth – only a lot colder – meaning this moon is cited as a possible place for microbial life to exist. It also makes a great Vonnegut title (The Sirens of Titan).

2. Voyager 1 & 2 – the most prolific and productive spacecraft ever launched. V2 was launched August 20, 1977 and V1 16 days later on September 5. Both probes have far outlived there original missions and have provided a wealth of information. Voyager 1 visited Jupiter in early 1979 and Saturn in late 1980. Scientists chose to have Voyager 1 fly close to Titan, thus taking it out of the plane of the planets – and therefore no further planetary missions were viable. Voyager 2 visited Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1981. Due to a rare alignment of the planets, scientists were able to take Voyager 2 on the Grand Tour of the outer giants. On January 24, 1986, Voyager 2 flew by Uranus (not my anus – yours with Klingons), and on August 25, 1989 the spacecraft approached Neptune – the first encounters with these planets. In 2007, both probes crossed the heliosheath and will soon be the first man made objects to leave the Solar System. Voyager 2 is 8.1 billion miles from Earth, while Voyager 1 is over 10 billion miles. If all goes well both craft will continue sending information to Earth until 2025 – making these missions almost 50 years old. Voyager 2 will pass somewhat near Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) in around 300,000 years. Tickets are on sale now.

1. All the rest – the Horsehead Nebula, the Milky Way, Ceres, Alpha Centauri, Sirius, Uranus, the Moon, Halley’s Comet, Jupiter, Saturn, the space shuttle….


  1. Beautiful pics, thank you.

  2. Great photos and great pics. #11 and #12 for me would be Venus and Mars. Both so much like Earth yet "a miss". If Venus had been in Mars' place and vice verse there may have been a second civilization in the Solar System. There has been a great series called "The Universe" on the History Channel over the past weeks that I have been recording, but the best series on the Solar System was the BBC's "The Planets"

  3. Great post, DCap. I have always loved anything associated with stars, planets and space. I think I remember that same eclipse – we lived up near Rochester then, and I remember being out in the yard looking through something just as you did so we wouldn't be looking directly at the sun. I think we did something with cardboard as well as having the telescopy thing.

  4. Growing up watching the astronauts landing on the moon, I too have been an amateur astronomer all my life. The only thing that kept me from pursuing such a career was my fear of math. Beautiful post!And my gosh, truer words were never spoken: "15 years is an eternity in a country going nuts." Frightening, isn't it?

  5. Mrs Whateverhernamewas….gees I think I took Algebra from her cousin… Mr. Whateverhisnamewas…. and I still can't do math with my shoes on!Seeing Stars? I remember picking a fight with this really really big kid in eighth grade…. boy did I see stars. These days I just look at the night sky and say, "Wow,". It is as scientific as I get. have a good weekend.

  6. I remember when poor, ole Jupiter was still saddled with less than 20 moons.Very cool stuff.

  7. You left out that Voyager was later assimilated and returned to earth by a large gaseous life form. It called itself Vger and almost kicked our ass…Seriously though, this is great stuff!

  8. Please do not blindly accept the controversial IAU planet definition. Pluto and Eris are planets.Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. One reason the IAU definition makes no sense is it says dwarf planets are not planets at all! That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the IAU definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity–a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds. These reasons are why many astronomers, lay people, and educators are either ignoring the demotion entirely or working to get it overturned. I am a writer and amateur astronomer and proud to be one of these people. You can read more about why Pluto is a planet and worldwide efforts to overturn the demotion on my Pluto Blog at

  9. i had forgotten how gorgeous the night sky can be until hurricane wilma hit. this entire area had no power, and there were no city lights to interfere with the moon and stars.

  10. I always liked science, and astronomy, in school too. You are a teacher right? ;~) You packed a lot of info into a tight post. Very well written.

  11. Great post! I don't know if you follow APOD,but if not, I think you'd enjoy it. A recent picture there that gives me goose bumps is this one, an astrophotograph superposed over a time-lapse photo of the night sky over a house; what we'd see in the sky if we had telescopic eyes. Orion is in that mess of billowing nebulae just over the house's roof.

  12. This may be obvious and/or gauche, but I'm a big fan of the sun.I once mused that the Sun seemed like a very rational thing to worship, if one had to worship something.Thoughtfully, and after a pause, my friend said that a more rational god is probably the distance between the earth and the sun. I've always thought this was a capital idea for a deity.

  13. My husband is a total astronomy buff. Half of our garage is filled with various telescopes. He is involved in the local astronomy club- the cool thing is they get together at different places & a bunch of people set up scopes– everything from home made scopes, to crazy elaborate home made scopes…. lots of dobsonian scopes that are huge. One can wander from one scope to the next & look at different objects in the sky or sometimes the same object through different scopes, with different powers of viewing or filters. WOW!!!I like the Swan nebula, and still am amazed to see that cool ring around Saturn & all the moons of Saturn. A few friends & I took a chance to go to the coast when the Perseid meteor showers happened. It was a crap shoot as the coast notoriously fogs/clouds up– but it was super clear & no light pollution…WOW it was stunningly beautiful. We pretty much stayed up most of the night oowing & awwwing @ Mother Nature's light show.One public viewing session, when Jupiter was clear… someone said…. What is the planet with the equal signs on it? !Anyway, the husband drags out books & maps & grids & lists of the Messier objects. The serious ones are documenting the objects they can find. I just gaze at the pretty stars, planets & what not, & take it in. The Univesity has an open to the public observatory in central Oregon…. one person was up on a ladder looking out of the humungous scope– he kept saying he was not viewing it at a good angle…. not seeing it…. then suddenly he said OOOooooooh!The finder window showed a glimpse of clear sky & more stars in the viewer than sky. When it was my turn, I had the OOOooooooh view of the high mountain sky as well.

  14. Interesting piece. Like you, I think Pluto got the short end of the stick. Plus, now the little mnemonic we all learned (My Very Educated Mother….) ends prematurely without Pluto! Bastards.

  15. Kz – thanksToujours – I do believe that we are not the only form of life out there. This cannot be a fluke – there has to be klingons, romulans, ferengi, cardassians and the guy who serves Man somewhereMaui – thanks. I really remember going outside for that eclipse with our little cardboard boxes, everyone wanted to look in the special telescopeDg – if I can do math, anyone canOk – I can remember my kindergarten and 1st grade teachers, but not earth science. Your kind of science is good tooRandal – I remember when earth had no moonSkyler – I think that was that Star trek episode where JeanLuc Picard was doing Troi in the Jeffreys tubeLaurel – thanks for stopping by. Will check your Pluto blogNonnie – when you see the sky in places with no light pollution and can actually see the milky way – it is amazingLiberality – thanks. Not a teacher, just a corporate whore who should be doing teachingLockwood – thanks, gonna check out APODSator – the sun is ok LOL. Fran – the planet with equal signs LOL — seeing Saturn and Jupiter through a telescope is amazing, and the pictures Voyager sent back of Neptune where among the most beautiful images ever.Chris – I still include Pluto, who cares what a bunch of astromers said – mnemonic rules

  16. Really love astronomy and the space program . I have really loved to gaze at pictures of other galaxies and wonder about what possible civilizations might exist amongst those stars. Great post!

  17. hello guys, I like your blog is very interesting your subject …. I would like to receive information about this!

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