As a piano player, it should be no surprise that one of my favourite musicians is Billy Joel. 2013 is, believe it or not, the 20th anniversary of his very last pop album, after which he simply stopped composing pop tunes and devoted himself almost exclusively to classical music. This is River of Dreams, the amazing title track of the album, whose music video I had never seen before – and it’s not even blocked in Germany!
Yesterday’s Weekly Space Hangout had a report about a new nova that had suddenly appeared near the constellation Delphinus – I hadn’t heard about it before because I somehow missed the first great article on Universe Today and was really surprised when David Dickinson said that it would be at an easily viewable magnitude of somewhere between +4 and +5. Now, I have to admit that I am actually a very lousy amateur astronomer and until recently was always struggling to even recognize star constellations in the sky, but I have gotten steadily better at it. But my first reaction was to wonder if I would even be able to find the nova, let alone see it!
While the Perseids were a near-complete failure this year for us, thanks to the star charts provided by Universe Today and some very basic detective work by myself which mainly consisted of locating the constellation Delphinus in the first place, I was actually able see the nova (which is just a nova, not a supernova) with my own eyes just with the aid of my trusty old 8×40 binoculars. The problem was that I would never have recognized it as the nova because it just looks like another star when you look at it through binoculars – only after some intense star chart checking I was absolutely sure I had really found it It’s a case of “one star too many” and if you are not really familiar with this portion of the sky you would never come to the idea that something appeared that wasn’t there before.
So, this was my first nova sighting and I’m really happy I saw it, even if it was just another pinpoint of light. Perhaps I would even have managed to take a photo – if my camera can pick up the Andromeda Galaxy, a magnitude 4 nova should be no problem! But before I was able to set up the camera, the clouds came and for this reason, this article doesn’t have an image attached. I will try again tonight to at least see it, but for better images I recommend you go to the Universe Today article!
Actually, our dreaded curse of the Perseid Meteor Shower was already broken last year, when we had some spectacular good luck and were able to see quite a few meteors. But is the lucky streak going to hold this year? We were already able to see a few isolated ones recently and hopefully the weather is going to cooperate on the nights of August 10 to 13 – but the forecast doesn’t look good for our location. The best chance to see the Perseids should be on the 12th, but it is also possible that meteors can be seen on the previous and following nights.
If you want to know more about the Perseids, Universe Today has a really good Observer’s Guide written by David Dickinson and Fraser Cain has made a great short explainer video about meteors in general. In short, if you have a reasonably clear view of the sky to the east and northeast, you are all set to go! I hope that I can catch some this year since I’ve finally got a camera which can do really long exposure times – but I think we’re really out of luck if the weather keeps being so unstable. But still, fingers crossed!
[Update 12 August: Yesterday was a total wash-out – it was absolutely bucketing down. Tonight, at least at the moment (23:30), the clouds are occasionally allowing a brief look at the stars, and I at least saw one little meteor dashing right through Cassiopeia – and I was only looking out of the window!]
One year ago, shortly after the landing of the Curiosity Rover, I had put together a collection of useful links about the Mars missions, which I still frequently use. The reason for the list was to provide all the information without having to write constantly about the Mars missions myself, something which others are doing in a much better way. I’ve occasionally written articles about NASA and the Mars missions since then, but even one year later all these links are still valid and absolutely essential if you want to keep up with what’s going on on Mars.
NASA Websites – The official sources
• Mars Science Laboratory @ JPL – The most important, always up-to-date site
• Mars Science Laboratory Raw Images – Everything the rover cameras deliver
• Mars Science Laboratory @ NASA – NASAs Curiosity website with sometimes different content
• NASA Main Page – Not only Mars news, but still a great resource
• NASA Television – Live stream of the current program
• NASA Television @ Youtube – NTV’s video archive
Other Websites – The inofficial ones often do it much better
• Universe Today – Simply the best resource not only for Mars, but all things space
• Universe Today @ Youtube – All the videos from UT including the hangouts
• Bad Astronomy – Phil Plait’s Blog is an ideal addition to UT
• Planetary Society Blog – Emily Lakdawalla’s detailed reporting
• Curiosity Raw Images Browser – Better overview of the raw images including an RSS-Feed
• Mars Ogler – Another browser for the raw images
• Martian Vistas – Wonderfully edited images from all Mars rovers
• HiRISE Image Catalog – High resolution images from orbit (also with an RSS-Feed)
Twitter Streams – Because it’s often much faster
• Curiosity-Rover – NASA’s official account of the rover
• Mars Rovers – Joint account of all the rovers
• Universe Today – Not only announcements from the website
• Pamela L. Gay – Astronomer, educator, co-host of Astronomy Cast & CosmoQuest boss
• Nicole Gugliucci – Radio astronomer, educator & CosmoQuest post-doc
• Emily Lakdawalla – Planetary Society space evangelist
• Neil deGrasse Tyson – Astrophysicist and generally amazing and clever person
• Brian Cox – Some prof from Manchester, actually busy at the moment with other things
Just about exactly one year ago the Curiosity Rover had landed successfully on Mars – it was an exciting time and it still is, because the Mars Science Laboratory is still working full time and has made many amazing discoveries on the red planet. Back then, I was still writing mostly in German and posted an article about the landing, which I have translated into English for the anniversary because it’s still entirely valid and captures the excitement of the moment very well:
The Curiosity Rover has made it – this morning, the one-ton Mars truck performed a textbook landing on the red planet! After eight months and 567 million kilometers the new Mars rover arrived safely on the red planet in spite of the breakneck landing maneuver. Only a few minutes after landing the rover sent the first pictures back to earth – still in black-and-white and low resolution, but the landing site is already very well recognizable, if on the first glance unspectacular. But never forget that this is not some shoddy debris field on Earth, but the planet Mars!
I am always glad that I am able to witness such events – it’s not my first Mars rover landing, but every time it gets more exciting and fascinating, especially because the technology has improves so much. Even in 1997 (that was fifteen years ago!) it was possible to follow the landing of Mars Pathfinder on television, but also on the web and it got only better with Spirit and Opportunity in 2004. By now, NASA has really learned how to make a great website and even NASA TV has been watchable over the web for some time in a decent resolution.
But today the NASA is not the only news outlet reporting about their missions, sometimes others do it equally good and often better. The best example are the people from Universe Today, Bad Astronomy & Co, who organized a Virtual Landing Party in the shape of a Google+ Hangout, which is now viewable as a recording on Youtube. Only fifteen years ago this would have been complete science fiction, but now it has become reality – technology makes it possible! The next weeks, months and years are going to be very exciting Mars-wise – not only because of the many fascinating images, which are going to arrive very soon, but also because of the science. The chances that the Mars Science Laboratory is really going to find clues of water or even life are of course 50/50, but even the attempt is worth it!
And if someone asks me now what’s the point of all this, I can only answer with a something I often use: “Where’s your sense of wonder?”
This was one year ago. In the meantime, the Curiosity Rover has found definitive signs that there was flowing water on Mars – it was even established that the rover has landed in a dried-out riverbed. No signs of life, present or past, have been found, but that’s not really what the rover laboratory has been equipped for – it looks for the conditions under which life could have been possible and these have actually been positively identified. Now half the time allocated for the prime mission is over, but the rover is still healthy and there is much to discover on Mars. Even if Curiosity has lost a bit of interest from the media, the mission is still utterly fascinating.
To celebrate the landing anniversary, watch the Virtual Landing Party or yesterday’s Planetary Society Hangout, in which Emily Lakdawalla and Casey Dryer interviewed Curiosity deputy scientist Ashwin Vasavada. [Edit: two more hangouts to watch – Amy Shira Teitel, Scott Lewis, Jason Major and Ian O’Neill look back at Curiosity’s Landing and NASA’s and JPL’s celebration of the anniversary.] Also, my next posting will be an updated link collection to all things Mars.
Today’s Music Monday posting is just a bunch of guys having fun… but in this case, the guys are the Traveling Wilburys – Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne wielding guitars, while Jim Keltner helps out on drums. It was the most amazing “just for fun” supergroup of the 1999s and also originally included Roy Orbison, who had sadly died before the second Wilbury album was made in 1990, from which this great song, Inside Out, comes. Listen especially for the bridge sung by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, it’s pure magic. I didn’t even know that there was a video for this song until recently!
It’s been over eight months since the last major release, but now WordPress 3.6 has been released, which meant an update marathon for me – and I haven’t even checked out the new features like the media player! After each major upgrade, I have to redo a couple of small alterations in the code to make working with the built-in editor more comfortable. I had last described the changes in December in a German-language article, but this time I’m translating the updated tips into English.
HTML-Editor: The HTML source editor has been using Consolas as a fixed-width font since version 3.2, but the line height is still a bit to generous especially on smaller screens. The corresponding CSS definition can be found in the file wp-includes/css/editor.css, in which it is possible to change line-height: 150%; in the definition wp-editor-area (formerly textarea.wp-editor-area) to 120% or another desired value.
Visual Editor: The display font of the visual editor is still Times New Roman, but it can be changed in the CSS file wp-includes\js\tinymce\themes\advanced\skins\wp_theme\content.css by changing the font definition in the main .body tag from font: 13px/19px Georgia […] to another font like Verdana.
Get Shortlink: The shortlink button next to the permalink line sometimes pops into the next line on smaller 1024x displays, but the button description can be changed into something less big. Search for the string “Get Shortlink” in the file /wp-admin/edit-form-advanced.php and just change it into something else. The button can, of course, also be completely removed by deactivating the Jetpack module WP.ME-Shortlinks, but this is of no use if the feature is needed and the button is still too big.
And, of course, it needs to be said that I do not provide any guarantee for these “hacks” – you have to know what you’re doing if you are tinkering around in the innards of the WordPress system files. But if you’re careful and know your way around, these changes will not harm you WordPress installation at all – they are only a cosmetic makeover and no change in the program code is made.
Holy cow, that was a bit too much summer yesterday! I can take a dry heat of 30°C, but the nearly 35°C were really exhausting – and that was not even the highest temperature here in NRW! Yes, I know that in other parts of the world it’s even hotter, but we northern Europeans are comparative softies when it comes to high temperatures. 30°C is really hot, everything more is extremely uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous, because air conditioning is very uncommon around here and we are just not used to these high temperatures. But with only a bit of effort you can keep your flat reasonably cool as you can see, so I mostly kept inside yesterday. Today it’s about 8-9 degrees cooler than yesterday outside, so we can live again instead of just suffer along.
So, I survived the hottest day of 2013 (yet?), but all I got was a sweaty t-shirt! Maybe I’m babbling here, but yesterdays heat didn’t melt my brain completely thanks to the cooler indoor temperatures. I even got a little bit productive in the writing department, but just in case I put DVDLog on a summer hiatus yesterday and about the only thing I’m capable of at the moment are the daily postings over on the Photography Blog. And of course, on the hottest day of the year, a new version of WordPress comes out and I have to upgrade all the websites… but only after I’ve recovered a bit. This posting is basically just there to say I’m still alive and while not kicking bottom, at least I’m somewhat present. I have some fresh plans and ideas and as soon as I get my groove back, I’ll start working on the websites again.