Angular Diameter and the Viral “Moon-Sized Mars” Hoax

Facebook Post Hoax Spoilers: BOGUS

Every astro-enthusiast’s “favorite” hoax is making the rounds on social media again. If you haven’t heard already, this is completely untrue. This will not happen. It can not happen. That being said, when I see something like this in my newsfeed, the teacher in me says “This is a really great opportunity to educate people about actual astronomical concepts!” And the non-teacher part of me says, “Puppies! Puppies in my newsfeed! Squeeeeeee!” Well, you’re going to have to deal with the teacher part of me! (Yay?) Also, the really fun thing about this that it is quite easy to verify seemingly-outlandish Facebook posts like this on your own! All you need is:

  1. Pretty simple algebra
  2. Google-able reference tables (ex: diameters of planets or distances to planets)
  3.  Any number of plenty of planetarium apps or software!

To determine the veracity of the Facebook post, let us first discuss Angular DiameterAngular diameter is more or less the measure of how big an object appears in the sky. When we look at the sky, it appears to be half of a sphere, so from the horizon to zenith (straight above your head) would be 90 degrees. There are numerous guides on the internet and in books about using your outstretched hand to measure distances in the sky. For example, your fist would be about 10°, your thumb 2°, and your pinky 1°. That is great for measuring distances between objects in the night sky – if you are told that a comet will be 40° above the horizon, you can stack your fists to count up to 40°. However, measuring the size of an object such as a planet can be much more difficult as they appear significantly smaller.

Same Object: Different Relative Distance to Observer, © Justin Starr 2015

ttps://”> Same Object: Different Relative Distance to Observer; Image: © Justin Starr 2015


Different Objects: Same Distance from Observer, © Justin Starr 2015

ps://”> Different Objects: Same Distance from Observer; Image: © Justin Starr 2015

[/caption] We will have to divide the degrees into smaller units: arcminutes (1°=60 arcminutes) and arcseconds (1 arcminute = 60 arcseconds). In the case of determining how large Mars will appear, we will use the small angle-formula:

a_{arcseconds}= \frac{206265*d}{D}

  • a_{arcseconds} = angular diameter in arcseconds
  • 206265 = number of arcseconds in 1 radian
  • d = object’s physical diamter
  • D = physical distance to the object

Now we should have all of the tools we will need to pick apart the claims of this questionable Facebook post.

1) August 27 00:30 Lift your eyes and look up at the night sky.

OK, for starters they don’t give a location – 12:30am for whom, exactly? Eastern Time? Greenwich time? Let’s pick a location: New York City. Now the post does not actually specifically say that Mars will be next to the Moon. It says it will look “like two of the moon (sic) above the ground,” and the Photoshopped image shows them adjacent to one another. Let’s see what our planetarium software has to say.

Stellarium set to New York City, 15/08/27 00:30 EDT.”> Stellarium set to New York City, 15/08/27 00:30 EDT.

Notice anything

[/caption]Notice anything missing? There’s no Mars! It will not even rise until nearly 4:30am. And just to nitpick, the Moon will not be but rather a waxing gibbous. STRIKE ONE!.

2) “On this night, the planet Mars will pass just 34.65 million miles from the Earth.”

The distance between Mars and Earth is constantly changing. For one thing, Mars orbits further out than Earth and therefore Earth is completing orbits faster than Mars. Sometimes Mars is close in a Sun-Earth-Mars line. This closest approach for a superior planet (further away from the Sun than Earth) is called opposition and gives splendid views with telescopes.  When a superior planet is on the opposite side of the Sun from the Earth, it is called conjunction. Also, the planets don’t have perfectly circular orbits; the slight eccentricity of the elliptical orbits means that Earth and Mars are not always at the same distance during opposition; they can be a little bit closer or a little bit further apart. On August 27, 2003, Mars and Earth were indeed at one of their closest approaches in thousands of years. And, the distance that the post states was the actual distance between the two worlds. A modicum of truth! Nontheless: STRIKE TWO! (But it was once true in 2003) But what does that information mean to us for how the planet would actually appear in the night sky?…

3) To the naked eye it looks like two of the moon above the ground!

The Facebook hoax speaks in terms of miles, but I am going to switch to kilometers here. Using the small angle formula, we can determine how the angular size of Mars on that fateful night back in 2003.

  • d = Mars’s diameter is 6792 km
  • D = Mars at opposition in 2003 was 55.8*10^6 km

a= \frac{206265*6792km}{55.8*10^6 km}

a= 25.1"

This Wikipedia table lists Mars angular diameter as ranging from 3.5″ – 25.08″, so I think that the small angle approximation was pretty good! The Moon is roughly 30′, or half a degree. That is quite a difference in sizes! But those are just numbers. What does that mean for us in real life? Well, here is a graphic of  that giant  25.1 arcsecond Mars compared to a Moon at perigee (or a “Supermoon”) of 34 acruminutes.

Here is how Mars at maximim angular size would appear compared to a Supermoon of 34.1'”> Like spitting images of each other! Image: © Justin Starr 2015

No, it will not look like there

[/caption]No, it will not look like there are 2 moons above the ground. STRIKE THREE! YOU’RE OUTTA HERE!..

But wait! There’s more!

How close would Mars have to come to Earth for it to appear to be the same size as our Moon? Well, we’ll just use our trusty ol’ small angle formula and plug in some numbers! For the sake of round numbers, I’m going to pick the {impossible) matching angular size of Mars and Moon to be 30′ (remember the Moon can range from ~29.3′-34.1′ due to its elliptical orbit). To plug it into the small angle formula, I first have to convert it to arcseconds (multiply by 60) and get 1800 arcseconds.

Here’s our formula: a_{arcseconds}= \frac{206265*d}{D}

I’m going to rearrange it to isolate our variable of Distance because algebra:

D= \frac{206265*d}{a_{arcseconds}}

D = \frac{206265*6792km}{1800arcseconds}

D = 778306.6 km

Remember: The closest approach of Mars was 55.8 MILLION km. In order for Mars to appear as large as our Moon in the night sky, it would have to be 778.3 THOUSAND km. Also, interestingly enough, that would put the Moon nearly half-way between Earth and Mars, as the average distance of the Moon id 384.4 thousand km!

Look guys! Math is fun! I hope you enjoyed learning about angular distances and sizes. And remember: It is always good to be skeptical of anything you read on the Interwebs (including this post; please check my math!) but having the tools to be able to verify outlandish claims will only make you better informed and less likely to fall for such hogwash.  Now go outside and start measuring distances between celestial objects with your hands already!

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Why Don’t Eclipses Happen Every New/Full Moon?

On April 4th, 2015, there will be a Lunar Eclipse for some fortunate parts of the world. I reflect back to when I learned about the Moon, phases, eclipses, and such growing up and how I had trouble grasping some of these concepts. In retrospect, some of the difficulty I had may have been due to the diagrams that often accompanied the written concepts. For example, the image I created below is analogous to some you find in science textbooks and websites. It looks like there should be Lunar and Solar Eclipses in every single cycle.

Simple Moon Phase Diagram All Eclipses, All the Time!

The reason that we don’t have eclipses in every lunar cycle is because the plane of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is actually inclined at an angle with respect to the Ecliptic, or the apparent path the Sun takes during the year. The lunar orbital plane has a slight wobble to it, but the average angle of inclination of Luna’s orbit with respect to the ecliptic is 5.1 degrees. That may sound very small and insignificant. However, the Moon is VERY far away so even at only 5.1 degrees, those approximately 385,000 km can still bring Selene above and below the Earth with respect to the Sun.

We know that eclipses only occur when the objects are aligned in particular configurations.

But that is complicated by the inclination of the lunar orbit. Were the lunar orbit not inclined, there would indeed be eclipses every month. However, the angle of the orbit only allows for eclipses to occur at specific times: eclipses can only occur at nodes – the points at which the lunar orbit crosses the ecliptic – and these nodes must be in line with the Sun.

In order to make the concept easier to grasp, I made an image in Photoshop in which the relative sizes of the Earth and Moon are to scale as well as the relative distance between them. And because of that, it is big. As in, “nearly 6000 pixels wide” kind of big. To borrow from Phil Plait, you seriously need to embiggen this image. Consequence of working to scale, I suppose!

I mean REEEEAAAALLY big!sa Space is big. Like, really, REALLY big.

Now place the Sun in your mind’s eye anywhere you want. If the Sun is to the left of the image, you can see that the New/Full Moons are below/above the Earth respectively; no one is anyone else’s shadow and no eclipses occur. The nodes are perpendicular to the ecliptic; when the Moon crosses the ecliptic it would be in First or Last Quarter phase. But, ff the Sun is on the other side of the Earth or where we are sitting, you can see the the Moon crosses right behind the Earth (Lunar Eclipse) or in front (Solar Eclipse), causing the objects to cast shadows on one another.

If you were having any trouble visualizing orbits, phases, eclipses, etc, I truly hope this helped. And if it didn’t help, or I only confused you more, let me know why! I’d be more than happy to try and create more visual aids. Clear skies!

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Phases of Venus Resources

Attribution: Statis Kalyvas – VT-2004 programme

Full Moon Comparison

© Justin Starr 2015

On the night of Wednesday, February 11th, I took my new telescope out onto the balcony to get a glimpse of the setting Venus. I had been eager to see her phases with my own eyes for some time. Yes, Venus has phases just like our own natural satellite, the Moon! This is because Venus (and Mercury, for that matter) are inferior planets, meaning they are between us and our star. Sometimes we are looking at Venus when she is near the opposite side of the Sun (Naturally, we cannot see a full Venus because the Sun would be in the way). This placement lights up most of her face. As she swings around, moving closer to being between us the Sun, we begin to see more and more of her back; she increasingly wanes into a crescent while also becoming significantly larger in apparent angular size as well. Consider this: due to the Moon’s eliptical orbit, its distance from the Earth ranges from 225,804 miles (363,396 km) to 251,968 miles (405,504 km). This results in a measly 14% difference in angular diameter from perigee to apogee – a difference that can’t even really be discerned by the unaided eye. Venus, however, is orbiting the Sun, not us. Therefore, her distance from us can range from 24 million miles (38 million km) to 162 million miles (261 million kilometers)! While the range of 9.5 arcseonds – 61 arcseconds will also not be easily noticed by the naked eye, check out the above image for the drastic difference noticed through a telescope!

15-02-11 Sh*tty Venus capture... but it's definitely not a perfect circle!

15-02-11 Sh*tty Venus capture… but it’s definitely not a perfect circle!

Back to that fateful night: I peered through the eyepiece and saw a squished circle. For the first time in my life, I was able to see Venus as more than just a remarkably bright point of light in the early morning or evening sky that was without any type of definite shape. Here she was, in all her glory, with a limb sheared off by shadow. However, the seeing was rather poor that night. The turbulent atmosphere due to weather conditions was compounded by her low placement in the sky. This location brought her closer to the rooftops of the heat sink in which I reside, also known as New York City. The warmth radiating off of these buildings made her very jittery – violent air currents stretched and squeezed her, making her writhe and pulsate. I wanted to know what her actual phase was and how it compared to view I was being provided in these terrible observing conditions. I took to Twitter and asked of anyone who would listen:

Below are some of the useful responses I received. I encourage you to make use of them the next time you go and observe Venus.

The three tweets shown above were my favorites because they included nice visual renderings that were aesthetically pleasing as well as useful. Some of the results below are still quite useful but are more data/word oriented than visual.

If any of you readers has other suggestions for resources that you use, please feel free to tweet them to me or leave a reply in the comment section. Clear skies!

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My New Telescope: What and Why

I bought a new telescope. Or a cloud magnet. You say tomato…

"My optics bring all the clouds to the yard, damn right, they're better than yours..."

What did you DO?!

I will most likely not get to use my new gear for a few days because that’s the unwritten rule of astronomy. I’m not saying new telescopes cause bad skies but… well actually, yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Since I cannot show you what my fancy new optics can do yet, I thought I would at least tell you about the telescope I ultimately decided upon and why I chose it.

This guy right here.

I purchased the Celestron EdgeHD 8 with the CG-5 compatible dovetail rail. I also picked up some accessories to go along with it: a T-adapter for the EdgeHD 8 that threads into the rear cell or into the .7x focal reducer designed specifically for the EdgeHD and for APS-C sensors (like what is in my Canon 1000d DSLR), which I also bought. Why though, with the plethora of telescope choices that are out there, did I choose this particular telescope? I sweat over the decision for a long time – at least a year – but a variety of factors eventually led me to this telescope.


That guy right there.

My first telescope was an Orion ST80. It was cheap and it was small. It had acceptable optics and gave me pleasing views of the Moon, the Sun (with an appropriate solar filter, of course), the Pleiades, Jupiter and the Galileans, and Saturn’s undefined rings. The 4 lb. refractor’s portability made it a cinch to throw over my shoulder with its included carrying case and take it to Central Park or Carl Schurz Park with a tripod. When I eventually upgraded my mount to a computerized goto Celestron CG-5, the f/5 refractor easily captured large objects like the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula and could get objects as dim as about magnitude 8.5 like M82, the Cigar Galaxy.

This little guy had some drawbacks, though. Short-tube refractors by nature are more prone to chromatic aberration (CA). This was exacerbated by it being a doublet with relatively cheap glass. I could not get much definition on the planets – no phases of Venus, no Great Red Spot of Jupiter, no Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings. Mars… ugh, I don’t even want to talk about it.


Mars: “Talk about what?”

It was time to start researching and saving. But for what?

What Is the Right Telescope For Me?


Refractor Light Path ©Justin Starr

This can be a trick question. The reason this inquiry is so difficult is because there is no single telescope that is good for everything. Compromises must always be made. I considered high quality refractors – triplets with ED glass which would all but eliminate CA. A widefield triplet could capture massive and faint nebulae easily and with less exposure time because of their “fast” optics (~f/5). But they would be limited in their planetary photography abilities. Refractors also happen to be the most expensive telescope per square inch of aperture. I could spend over $1000 for just 80 millimeters of aperture. It would arguably be the most superior views available, but those views would come at quite a cost.


Reflector Light Path ©Justin Starr

What about a reflector? I didn’t even want to consider one of these guys just based on their size alone. An 8″ f/5 reflector can be just over 3 ft long, while the optical tube of an f/5.9 Dobsonian reflector can be nearly 4 ft long! I live in a one bedroom apartment in New York City you guys; storage space comes at quite a premium. Further, these things can be unwieldy to move about, which would potentially make it difficult for me to carry one to a park.


Schmidt-Cassegrain Light Path ©Justin Starr

The idea of a catadioptric telescope, like a Schmidt-Cassegrain (SCT), was quite appealing to me. I could get huge focal lengths in a small amount of physical distance due to the “folded light” design of these telescopes. The EdgeHD 8 has 2032 mm (80″) of focal length in an optical tube assembly that is only 17″ long! However, SCTs have their own drawbacks – namely coma (stretching of stars on the periphery due to the parabolic shape of the primary mirror), mirror shift during astrophotography sessions, and they need time to sit outside and acclimate to the ambient temperature in order to maintain focus.

Then Along Came EdgeHD…

Pictured: Tube Vent

Celestron: “Cooling vents located on the rear cell allow hot air to be released from behind the primary mirror. Each vent has an integrated 60 micron micro-mesh filter guaranteed to let warm air out without letting dust in.”

The EdgeHD design by Celestron had a lot going for it. They advertise coma-free optics, they added a mirror clutch mechanism that locks down the mirror once it is in focus to prevent mirror shift, and there are vents on build into the frame to allow the telescope’s optics to acclimate to the ambient temperature much quicker. Also, it is designed with an easily removable secondary mirror (Fastar compatible) converting the slow optics of an f/10 telescope into to a significantly faster f/2 telescope, which is super cool. (Caveat emptor: this requires buying Starizona’s HyperStar lens and a CCD camera. The use of Fastar with bigger SCTs allows attaching a DSLR to the HyperStar lens, but this feature is not compatible with the 8″ models. Therefore, a CCD camera would be required. A list of compatible cameras with a variety of SCT sizes, as well as additional information regarding HyperStar, can be found on this page.) At 14 lbs it can easily be carried by CG-5 and also be hauled to the park, especially in the swanky padded carry case I purchased along with the new scope.

Astrobin screen grab with photo by ©Ahmed Jaber screen grab with photo by ©Ahmed Jaber

I also used a number of fantastic internet resources for researching this particular telescope as well as others. There are a variety of web forums out there will people ask questions, write reviews, and more. These include,, and, to name a few. I asked people on Twitter about the telescopes they were using and how they felt about them. Also, a great resource for astrophotography purposes is Users fill out tech cards for their photos that indicate all the gear used. All of this data is easily searchable/filtered. As an example, this page shows search results of images shot through the Celestron EdgeHD 8. Astrobin may not be necessary if all you care about is visual observing, but for astrophotography purposes it is an invaluable resource for seeing what other people have been able to do with a given piece of equipment.

Sacrifices Must Be Made

As previously mentioned, no telescope is good for everything. What did I sacrifice? What corners were cut? And why?

For starters, I would have love love loved a bigger telescope. After all, what astronomer/astrophotographer doesn’t get aperture fever? More light, more magnification, more power. But as everyone’s favorite uncle says…

“Watch the hair!”

No, not that uncle. The other one.

Thanks, Uncle Ben.

The responsibility of paying for it. The responsibility for having to lug it around. The responsibility of mounting it. The responsibility for storing it, and so on. To illustrate the point, let’s look at the next model up, the EdgeHD 9.25, because I considered it for a bit. This telescope would have provided an extra inch and a quarter of aperture and would have allowed for 2″ eyepieces (the 8″ allows for 1.25″ eyepieces). But that extra 1.25″ of aperture would have cost an extra $1000, weighs 7 lbs more, and would have potentially pushed my CG-5 mount to the limit when the extra astrophotography accessories were added on. I don’t necessarily want to be carrying around a 21 lb OTA when I’m walking to the park. So eventually, you settle. Or make a wise, informed choice. Whatever you want to call it.

Gray Skies Are Gonna Clear Up

I mean, they have to right? It can’t be cloudy forever. It’s not like I live in Syracuse anymore. I can’t wait to get this bad boy outside. In the meantime, I’d like to give a shoutout to the wonderful folks over at Oceanside Photo and Telescope, or OPT (Twitter: @OPT_Telescopes), for helping me out with my purchases. One of their employees advised me against wasting my money on a particular Barlow due to issues of oversampling and explained to me the mathematics to figure out how many pixels per arcsecond I could expect to get. I have ordered from them before and will continue to order from them in the future with their incredible customer service, wonderful and expansive selection of gear, and impeccably shipped parcels. But OPT, if you’re reading this: I only asked for the telescope and accessories. There were no clouds on the invoice. Please, please, please, take them back.

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Measuring the Night Sky: Galilean Moons Vs. The Super Moon

By Jove, I think I got it!

Galileans by Jove      ©Justin Starr

On the night of Saturday, January 10th, 2015, I decided to go downstairs in front of my apartment building to observe and photograph Jupiter and the Galilean Moons. I had not been doing a lot of visual observing as of late, nor have I been taking many pictures through my telescope. My astrophotography habit has been very focused on widefield and landscape astrophotography for basically the last 6 months; I’ve mainly been using my 14mm/2.8 or 50mm/1.8 lenses.

As I processed my images, I grew curious: how much space did Jupiter and the Galileans occupy in the night sky? We often hear that, were it not so faint, we would see the Andromeda galaxy as about 6 times wider than the full Moon. I wanted to continue in the tradition of using Earth’s natural satellite as a standard of measure. How would the angular distance of Jupiter and the orbits of its 4 largest moons compare to the angular diameter of our nearest celestial neighbor?

It's a bird, it's a plane it's...

Super Moon – 34.1 arcminutes of angular awesome!

In order to determine the answer (or an approximation, at least), I could not use any old picture of the Moon. No, it needed to be a portrait of the lovely Selene that I had taken. That way, I would know without a doubt that the Moon and Jupiter were captured through the same telescope (Orion ST80) and with the same size imaging sensor (22.2 mm x 14.8 mm). As luck would have it, I had a photo of the Super Moon from August 10, 2014. This was useful because a little research determined that the angular diameter of the Super Moon is 34.1′ (arcminutes). I could now get a good approximation of the angular distance from the Jovian moon at one extreme (Ganymede) to the moon farthest away (Callisto).

I imported both images, uncropped, into Adobe Photoshop CC. I then aligned the layers so that Jupiter was on top of the Moon and reduced the opacity of the Moon. Jupiter’s orientation was rotated so that the orbits would be parallel to the horizontal axis. I added brackets showing the 34.1 arcminutes of Luna’s angular diameter. Next, I made a box that extended from Calisto to Ganymede and bisected it. Laying the box and subsequent copies along the previously-labeled angular diameter, I found that  in the current orientation of the gas giant’s satellites, it fit almost exactly 2.5 times! That meant that the angular distance from Ganymede to Callisto was roughly 13.64′ (34.1’/2.5).

How about that...

The angular distance of Ganymede to Callisto compared to the angular diameter of the Super Moon.


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To See the Unseeable Sight, To Hear the Unhearable Sound

“To dream… the impossible dream…
To fight… the unbeatable foe…
To bear… with unbearable sorrow…
To run… where the brave dare not go…”
– The Impossible Dream (The Quest) from Man of La Mancha; Lyrics by Joe Darion

My friend from high school and optical engineer at NASA JPL, Holly Bender, recently shared a post from I Fucking Love Science on the Facebook that began with a simple question: Is your red the same as my red? After a few introductory words by Elise Andrew, we were treated to the following wonderful video from Michael Stevens of Vsauce. Take a few moments to watch it if you can spare a few minutes:

If you chose to not watch the video, here’s a brief description of the first half: Michael discusses how we independently experience vision and touch and other phenomena but we can never know if someone else experiences the same exact sight or sensation. He says philosophers call these indescribable feelings as qualia, and calls the inability to express qualia to others (say, describing color to a person who has been blind their entire life) as the explanatory gap.

The video got me thinking and asking questions. I have found virtually no answers to any of these questions yet, but I will pose them to you and hopefully you will have as much fun (or brain-hurting) thinking about them as I had too. And if you have any insights to anything I say, please share in the comments!

1) As the caption to the IFSL link said, “It’s a question that everyone has pondered at one time or another: does everyone view colors the same way?” Why is it the question is so often applied to color? Why don’t more people ask about, say, sound? Does my perception of 440Hz sound like your perception of 440Hz? What is it about color that makes it a more “intuitive” question to ask and not about other features of our daily existences like sound?

2) Our eyes are attuned to a narrow band of wavelengths that we appropriately call the Visual Spectrum. We construct sensors that allow us to detect wavelengths outside of what we can see, and then create visual representations within our visual spectrum.

Left: Thermal Imaging / Right: Visible Light

JPL’s Art Hammon, seen in infrared and visible light. On the left, he holds a cup of hot coffee, on the right is a glass of ice water. Image credit: NASA/JPL

If you look at the picture to the left, the thermal image is not actually infrared light. Rather, it is a false color image in which lighter colors are hotter (shorter wavelength infrared) and darker colors are colder. Hence the hot coffee cup is bright white and the ice cold water is virtually black. But what would it be like to actually SEE infrared – to see with your own eyes footprints on the floor of where a person just stepped? What would it be like to see microwaves – to look up at the night sky and see the cosmic microwave background radiation, or to actually perceive the signal your cell phone emits?

The cilia deep within our ears give us the ability to hear from approximately 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (with sensitivity to certain frequencies varying in different parts of the range). Elephants use infrasound in some of their communications – Asian elephants from 14-24Hz and Africans 15-35. (I once saw a 60 Minutes program where the people could not perceive the elephant calls but they were recorded and transposed up into human hearing range).

Asian Elephants

“Two-Elephants” by Mohan Raj – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What would it be like to hear that low, or as high as a dog (60kHz), a cat (75kHz), or a bat (some up to 200kHz!). How do these other animals perceive sound in their minds? Is it transposed down? Is it just unfathomable to our limited minds (and visual/auditory receptors) as it is outside of our human experience? As I listen to pitches get higher and higher in frequency, they eventually just fade away as they go above and beyond the threshold of what will cause my insufficient cilia to vibrate.

3) It is interesting that we can simulate an experience of a removed sense but not an enhanced one. You can put special headphones on that will eliminate virtually all sound. You can be put into a pitch black room or where some type of eye covering to inhibit sight. A trichromat can look at picture with a certain color configuration and see what someone considered color-blind might see. But the senses are not able to be built upon. I will never understand the in-between colors that a tetrachromat can percieve (yes, they exist!).

I wish there was some way to experience these things, something that could be plugged into my brain that I could see these wavelengths in my mind’s eye or heard in my mind’s ear. After all, it is my brain that is taking the input from my sensory receptors and converting it into my personal experience. So what if the ears were bypassed and I could just “hear it in my brain? I want to know. I want to experience it. I know it is a fool’s errand, but as Don Quixote sings in”The Impossible Dream” Man of La Mancha:

“This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.”

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Teaching Astronomy? Yes, Please!

A very cool opportunity has come my way, largely thanks to being in the right place at the right time. I am going to be teaching astronomy/astrophotography seminars and workshops for the digital photography and video store, Berger Brothers! They have 3 locations on Long Island – Amityville, Huntington, and Syosset.  I am very excited to be working with the fine folks at Berger Brothers because they really seem to have a keen interest in not only selling/renting gear, but also in making sure their customers get the most out of their equipment. They do this by offering a variety of classes and workshops related to photo techniques, photo/video hardware, processing software, and more.

I went to their establishment in Syosset (which is where I grew up and where my parents still live) to look for a few items before my wife and I took our cross country road trip this summer. I needed a rear lens cap for my Canon 18-55mm lens, and was also interested in finding a red flashlight and maybe even a laser pointer for when we were in the dark skies of Death Valley, CA or Sedona, AZ. I began chatting up one of the guys who works in the store about my interest in astronomy and astrophotography. He informed me about an event they had coming up called “Shoot the Moon,” where attendees could bring their DSLR and mate it to a telescope to take pictures of our closest celestial neighbor. (I could not attend as it took place while I was on my trip). He also told me that the man who was in charge of their astro program was moving and they were in search of someone to take over. Like I said: right place, right time.

I conferred with the head of their education programs, and we are trying to come up with a variety of classes, seminars, and workshops out in the field to spread the love and know-how of taking pictures of our night sky and all the wonderful objects that reside within it. So keep an eye out; we may be heading out east to Montauk, vineyards, or to the beaches of the South Shore. We’ll go over processing software like Registax, Deep Sky Stacker, StarTrails and StarTrax. Their are so many ideas and even more ways to implement them! Can you tell I’m excited?!?!

Our first class is scheduled for Tuesday, November 18th at 6:30pm in the Syosset store. It will be an introduction to astrophotography – what is it, what can you shoot, what do you need, etc – and a primer on finding the right telescope for your visual/photographic needs. Maybe I’ll see you there! 😉

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A Tour of the Night Sky at the 8th Grade Formal, Year 2


Getting aligned to Saturn. 6/20/14

On Friday, June 20, 2014, my middle school held its annual 8th grade formal, the last school dance of the year before graduation. As some readers may recall, an impromptu star party occurred on the front lawn at the conclusion of last year’s event. I made the decision soon after that night that at the next formal I would bring my telescope.

In some ways, I may have been priming my students for this night over the course of the entire year. I mean, I talk about astronomy a pretty good deal to my kids… and I’m a music teacher. I’ve shown them my astrophotos, I randomly dropped facts or explained concepts. I helped when they had astronomy questions from their Earth Science class. And all the while, I was excited. I was passionate. There was no hint of self-consciousness. There were no worries of it being nerdy, uncool, whatever. There was only unbridled enthusiasm. I know it’s awesome… and I think that feeling becomes a little contagious.

Kids, especially at the middle school/high school age, can be very self-conscious. They want to feel the acceptance of their peers, they don’t want to feel like outcasts. They’re trying to figure out who they are and that fits into the scheme of things. So with fields of science such as astronomy, one might meet a little resistance, some walls that need to be chipped away at over time. One of the most important lessons I try to teach to my students is: Be who you are. Own it. Is there something about yourself your self-conscious about? Turn it around, make that self-perceived “weakness” a strength. (I have one specific story about that I’ll attach at the end of this post). I sometimes joke to my kids: I’m a grown, married man; I have no one to impress anymore! I’m free to be me. Of course, as adults we still long for acceptance – from family, from our coworkers, etc; it’s part of being a social animal. But at school, I aim to lead by example. I try to be the best me for the students. Are my ears a little pointy? I own it. I’m part elf/vampire/whatever. Can I be a little effeminate at times? Gurl, I own it [Insert self-deprecating joke about being a male chorus teacher here].

Related, another important lesson I try to impart by example is: don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Don not believe you aren’t allowed to like one thing because you also like something else. I get asked by students all the time, “How do you know this stuff? You’re a music teacher!” or “Why don’t you teach science?” (I think this may come from the compartmentalized fashion in which education occurs; you have your English class for English, Social Studies class for history and civics, etc). Yep, I love music and am lucky I get to teach music.


Some of my students made a little adjustment to the posters for the dance… XD

I also love science, particularly astronomy. And I play hockey. And I have a dog. And I eat Oreos. I’m what is called a person, a person with a variety of interests. And I want these future adults to be people too, not just walking singular interests by which they are defined.

I swear, there is a point to these last three seemingly-overly-tangential paragraphs. Part of this meandering stems from not being a writer, and part is it just being the end of the school year, at time in which I get very reflective. In the end, however, to paraphrase Eric Cartman: It’s my blog, I do what I want. As I was saying, I had primed them over the entire year to astronomy being awesome. Then recently, I lit the match: I told them I was bringing my telescope to the dance and that we would see Saturn. They were very excited. All we needed now was for the weather to cooperate.

The big day came but my ScopeNights app told me the conditions for that night would poor! The whole day I kept glancing out windows seeing what the situation was. It was a bright sunny day, but the cloud was just strewn with cirrus and altostratus clouds, particularly along the ecliptic of all possible places! My heart was beginning to feel heavy, but there was still time for conditions to clear up.

At around 7:10, I was able to momentarily forget about the sky as the kids started to arrive. They all looked amazing. The handsome young men were much more dressed up than last year with ties, a plethora of vests, a few tuxes, and hats were big this year for some reason. The beautiful young ladies wore a variety of sparkly dresses and gowns, hair all done, mani/pedis, fancy shoes that looked impossible to dance in (and ultimately were – lots of bare feet on the floor!). I was getting a little verklempt seeing these kids who I’ve watched grow for 3 years all gussied up, looking like the young adults they are becoming. Man, if I get this misty with my students, what kind of sopping mess of a parent will I be with my own children?!

Similar to last year, I boogied on the floor nearly the whole night and most likely worked off all the food I ate that week. Periodically, though, I would step outside just to see what there was to see. Although there were some clouds and haze, I clearly saw Mars, Spica, and Saturn all lined up. “This is going to happen,” I thought excitedly. The dance drew to a close with the lights turning on and one last song being played (“Let It Go” from Frozen). When the song concluded, the students made their way to the door to meet their waiting parents, and I went to the closet where I stashed my equipment. I quickly put everything together and brought it outside on to the lawn.

I was aware that it was late (the dance ended at 10pm) and parents wanted to leave. I quickly got Saturn “centered” in my 9mm EP, but then out of haste and worry that adults were eager to leave, I immediately threw in the 3x Barlow – a dramatic increase in zoom. I lost sight of the ringed planet and could not find it. Eventually I decided to cut my losses and (regrettably, for me at least) show them this wonder of the Solar System through the 9mm. I was sad, and also a little worried – would they be unimpressed or disappointed at this tiny gem in the eyepiece? I have a short-tube wide-field refractor; it’s really not very powerful. With the optical tube having only 400mm of focal length, the 9mm EP gives only 44.4x magnification, whereas throwing in the Barlow would have increased it to 133.3x – it is a very significant difference! But, looking at the positive, you could still clearly see space between the ring system and the globe. It was not just a little sphere with “ears” as Galileo saw in 1610. And the kids? They were ecstatic. Oos and Ahs and Wows and Holys.


I don’t think she understands how this works?

Their parents, and even school administrators, looked too. Another teacher and I pointed out other objects in the night sky: That red one over there, that’s Mars. The bright star right next to it, Spica. Straight up overhead, insanely bright Arcturus. You can find it by using the handle of the Big Dipper as a guide, or “following the arc to Arcturus.” Kids recited that the angle of Polaris is equal to your latitude, which they had learned in Earth Science class. One young lady excitedly told me that she started watching Cosmos with her father and they have watched 3 episodes so far. She was excited to continue. (This point touched my heart because it was something that she looked forward to as a thing she shared with her father… oh boy, when I have kids, let me tell you…) Shortly after, the group went their separate ways. I was about to pack up when I heard a voice say (somewhat mockingly, I might add), “What’s he looking at, space?” I looked to find a group of students waiting for rides home on the steps of the school who were trying to play it cool and disinterested. I called out, “Yeah, I’m looking at Saturn. Want a look?” The motley crew came running over and vied for who was first, who was next. A few shook my hand after they had their turn and disappeared into the night.

At first I thought I finally got to let them into my world. It was more than just talk and photos. It was real, seeing this lonely little planet suspended in the the inky black of space. But I actually let them into their world. I opened up a window for them to see more of the universe that they inhabit. I made it a little bit more accessible. The sky belongs to all of us if you want it. You just have to look.



Further Reading on the matter of Owning It:

A few of my students are in a tight-knit group of friends, and one of them is not a student of mine as she takes band instead of chorus (Boo! Hiss!). She would often come by room with my students and I would always encourage her to sing. And she always refused, claiming she was not a singer, couldn’t sing, didn’t like her voice, etc. There was no doubt, given her instrumental skills, that she was a great musician but she was adamant about not singing. This young lady did not like her voice and had zero confidence in it. Because it was low. It was deep. Girl could hit a D-flat below middle-C. That’s some serious contra-contralto notes right there! I always told her, “You know who else has a deep voice? Christina Perri. She often sings E-flats below middle-C”. She recently told me that she used to sing in chorus in elementary school but stopped because the teacher gave her a hard time for not being able to sing higher notes. I told her, “OK, you’ve got a deep voice. You’ve got to OWN it. Check this out.” I went to iPod which is perpetually plugged into the stereo in my classroom and turned on Nina Simone singing Feelin’ GoodThe young lady asked me, “Is this a guy?” I said no, it’s a lady named Nina Simone. She’s got a seriously deep voice and it’s awesomeShe seemed impress. Maybe in high school she’ll give that singin’ thing a try again…

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Empty Hallways: On the Cosmos Episode “Lost Worlds of Planet Earth” and the Unnamed Corridor of Extinction

The following is not the post I originally set out to write. Due to a variety of factors (that many people often bundle together and call “life”), my ability to watch the 9th episode of Cosmos, “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth,” was delayed. When I finally got to view it, I was both puzzled and disturbed at the way the empty, nameless corridor in the Halls of Extinction was described. It is referred to in the 5th and 6th segments of the show in the following manner:

Painting by Roelant Savery, 1620

“Really, Neil? Can’t think of at least ONE species that will be memorialized?” – Murray F. Dodobird

“[5th Segment] There is a corridor in the Halls of Extinction that is, right now, empty and unmarked. The autobiography of the Earth is still being written. There’s a chance that the end of our story lies in there… [6th Segment] This new corridor has no name above the entrance to designate its epoch. And we don’t yet know which failed species will be memorialized within its walls. What happens here, in countless ways both large and small, is being written by us right now.”

What troubled me about this is the epoch does have a name. We are currently in the geological epoch known as the Holocene, the warm interglacial geological time period that Dr. Tyson refers to in the 5th segment of the episode, although not by name:

“About 10,000 years ago, the manic swings of the climate and sea levels came to a stop. A new and gentler climate age began. It’s the one we live in now.”

And thus I said to myself, “I’m going to write about this issue because it is both perplexing in its omission but also a very interesting topic on its own.” Also, “RAWR! FEELINGS!” But then, while doing my research for this topic, I immediately came across a post at where someone had already said pretty much everything I wanted to say (because, as we know: ½Δtsnoozing = losing2). Becky Ferreira wrote:

Even Cosmos, which has valiantly exposed other unsettling truths, wouldn’t touch the word “Anthropocene” with a ten-foot pole. That’s a shame, because the new era is here, whether we like it or not. Cosmos missed an opportunity not only to make this point, but to suggest that the human-sculpted planet doesn’t necessarily have to be a cesspit of extinction, disaster, and suffering.

So this is where I’ll throw my hat in the ring; instead of criticizing the show for what I deemed an odd exclusion, I will try to defend the choice by illuminating a problem of taxonomy. You see, the eagle-eyed reader may have noticed that that I previously mentioned we are living in the Holocene epoch. BUT, Ferreira chided Dr. Tyson for not saying Anthropocene. What gives?

There is not a consensus as to whether we are still in the Holocene epoch, a time characterized by the growth and spread of humanity, or if it has given way to a new period shaped by humanity’s impact on the global environment known as the Anthropocene. An article in the triannually-published journal The Anthrpocene Review titled “The technofossil record of humans” states that humans are leaving behind many artifacts of our existence, big and small, that will leave behind a “fossil” record similar to that of, say, the dinosaurs. However, whereas the dinosaurs left behind bones, we will leave things behind in the strata that we built or manufactured – airports, hard drives, plastic-wrap, etc. If you were hoping for a quick resolution to this issue, you will unfortunately be dissapointed: the International Commission on Stratigraphy, or ICS (which I didn’t even know was a thing until I started researching this), apparently has the official word on naming epochs and won’t be discussing it until their next meeting in 2016. (For a very interesting discussion on this and other matters concerning the Anthropocene epoch, read Bruno Martini’s interview with Dr. David Grinspoon on

But this is about more than just the naming of periods of time on geological scales. This is about a corridor in the Hallways of Extinction, a memorial to those organisms lost in the 5 known mass extinction events plus a placeholder for the yet-unnamed sixth. In order to name an extinction event, you have to know in which epoch the mass extinction is taking place, such as the Late Devonian extinction event), or at the boundaries of which epochs, like the the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. Regarding our quandary of the current epoch, if you were to do a Google search for “Anthropocene Extinction” and “Holocene Extinction,” you would find articles that use both titles further illustrating the lack of consensus. What biologists do seem to agree on, however, is that the the current extinction rates are extremely high. Mass extinctions are defined by a 75% or more loss of species in a short geological period and we appear to be living within one such event.

Dr. Tyson has spoken about the negative impact humans are capable of having on the world – heck, episode 7 (“The Clean Room”) was centered around our polluting of the environment (and thus ourselves) with lead-laden gasoline. And, as Ms. Ferreira pointed out and is worth repeating, Cosmos has “has valiantly exposed other unsettling truths.” Therefore, I would like to believe that the exclusion of a heading for the unnamed hallway was due to an issue of taxonomy. Had Dr. Tyson referred to the corridor as the “Holocene Extinction,” the show could quickly becomes outdated if the ICS were to rule that we are in fact in the Anthropocene epoch, or vice versa.

The scientific consensus is that there is significant decline of species diversity that is indicative of a possible sixth mass extinction. The scientific consensus is that through a variety of factors (climate change, habitat destruction, etc) we are the drivers of that loss of biodiversity. What the jury is still out on, though, is what we call it. And of those 3 items, the last should really be the least of our worries. It is the geological and biological equivalent of the “Is Pluto a planet?” argument. Regardless of what word we ascribe to the object or the phenomenon, it’s still there. It’s still happening. And we still have to deal with it.

No taxonomy without represontonomy!

By Justin Starr @UrbanAstroNYC

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Catching Up: A Year In Astrophotos

I can’t believe I have neglected this blog for nearly a year. I’ve regrettably treated like my old membership to the Equinox Gym: paying for it, but not using it. Shameful, really. Much has happened over the course of these last 11 months that I would love to share, but for now, in the interest of not making this post a novel, I will just share with you astrophotos from the past year. Around last April, I finally bought a computerized mount that would allow me to take long exposure astrophotos – the Celestron CG-5. Then in June I obtained a DSLR camera – thanks Mom and Dad for the birthday gift! – that actually had the capability to take said-long exposures (as opposed to my iPhone).

Since then, I have managed to capture, in varying degrees of quality, 8 Messier Objects (Only 102 more to go!). Earlier captures had certain quality limitations, whether they were due to my lack of experience and the learning curve involved or technical limitations such as the severe light pollution that was increasingly managed with the acquisition of an LP filter. I will post the images in the order of capture, as opposed to their catalog number.

M63: Sunflower Galaxy (July 16, 2013)
13-07-06 M63

M51: Whirlpool Galaxy (July 17, 2013)
13-07-17 M51 (Whirlpool Galaxy)

M101: Pinwheel Galaxy (July 30, 2013)
M101 progress

M103: Open Cluster (July 30, 2013)
13-07-30 Messier 103

M81 and M82: Bode’s Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy (August 4, 2013, first use of LP filter)
13-08-04 Bode's (M81) and Cigar (M82)

M31: Andromeda Galaxy (November 30, 2013)
13-11-30 Andromeda Galaxy

M42: The Great Orion Nebula (February 18, 2014)
14-02-18: M42 - The Great Orion Nebula

I also managed to capture Supernova 2014J within M82 on January 30, 2014:
Supernova 2014J M82

And in this image we have star trails over New York City. The blue tint comes from the LP filter. I did not bother to attempt to process it out because I thought it gave the picture a very cool and surreal feeling.
Star Trails over New York City

I hope you enjoyed these pictures. It never ceases to amaze me that even within the confines of Manhattan and the apparent ceiling that all of the light puts between the city’s residents and the sky, it is still possible to capture and share these astronomical wonders.

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