Comet Holmes – even more a mystery

Remember Comet Holmes? If you are an amateur astronomer you undoubtedly do.

Comet Holmes among the stars of Perseus, Nov 11, 2007 - from Driftway Observatory, Westport.

Comet Holmes among the stars of Perseus, Nov 11, 2007 - from Driftway Observatory, Westport.

It was putting on a great show through late October and most of November of last year. What’s more, it was really a freakish one that surprised astronomers. Holmes is one of those “regulars” in the comet world, a familiar periodic comet that comes around every six years or so and puts on a pretty hum-drum display. It has been known for well over a century. But twice – once in November of 1892 and once last year – it suddenly exploded – no one knows why – and brightened a million fold. Now that get’s your attention.

I was thinking about it today when I stumbled across some of my pictures of it, and I wondered whether anyone had figured out yet just what caused the sudden eruption. What I found was a fairly recent (October) NASA press release that explains that it is still a puzzle – in fact, in some ways it’s now something more of a puzzle then it was last year. (Next two photos are from NASA.)


Spitzer’s infrared picture at left reveals fine dust particles that make up the outer shell, or coma, of the comet. The nucleus of the comet is within the bright whitish spot in the center, while the yellow area shows solid particles that were blown from the comet in the explosion. The comet is headed away from the sun, which lies beyond the right-hand side of the picture.(From NASA press release.)

Comet Holmes enhanced

The contrast-enhanced picture . . . shows the comet’s outer shell, and strange filaments, or streamers, of dust. The streamers and shell are a yet another mystery surrounding comet Holmes. Scientists had initially suspected that the streamers were small dust particles ejected from fragments of the nucleus, or from hyerpactive jets on the nucleus, during the October 2007 explosion. If so, both the streamers and the shell should have shifted their orientation as the comet followed its orbit around the sun. Radiation pressure from the sun should have swept the material back and away from it. But pictures of comet Holmes taken by Spitzer over time show the streamers and shell in the same configuration, and not pointing away from the sun. The observations have left astronomers stumped.(From NASA press release.)

Here's how Comet Holmes appeared to me on November 11, 2007. Like so many amateurs, I observed it many nights that fall with naked eye and various telescopes. This is simply a snapshot of a video screen taken when using a small telescope with the Color Hyper Malincam  - a special super-sensitive video camera - to observe it.

Here's how Comet Holmes appeared to me on November 11, 2007. Like so many amateurs, I observed it many nights that fall with naked eye and various telescopes. This is simply a snapshot of a video screen taken when using the Color Hyper Malincam to observe it.

Here are some more details from the NASA release:

Comet Holmes not only has unusual dusty components, it also does not look like a typical comet. According to Jeremie Vaubaillon, a colleague of Reach’s at Caltech, pictures snapped from the ground shortly after the outburst revealed streamers in the shell of dust surrounding the comet. Scientists suspect they were produced after the explosion by fragments escaping the comet’s nucleus.

In November 2007, the streamers pointed away from the sun, which seemed natural because scientists believed that radiation from the sun was pushing these fragments straight back. However, when Spitzer imaged the same streamers in March 2008, they were surprised to find them still pointing in the same direction as five months before, even though the comet had moved and sunlight was arriving from a different location. “We have never seen anything like this in a comet before. The extended shape still needs to be fully understood,” said Vaubaillon.

He notes that the shell surrounding the comet also acts peculiarly. The shape of the shell did not change as expected from November 2007 to March 2008. Vaubaillon said this is because the dust grains seen in March 2008 are relatively large, approximately one millimeter in size, and thus harder to move.

“If the shell was comprised of smaller dust grains, it would have changed as the orientation of the sun changes with time,” said Vaubaillon. “This Spitzer image is very unique. No other telescope has seen comet Holmes in this much detail, five months after the explosion.”

“Like people, all comets are a little different. We’ve been studying comets for hundreds of years — 116 years in the case of comet Holmes — but still do not really understand them,” said Reach. “However, with the Spitzer observations and data from other telescopes, we are getting closer.”

Who’s black? Who’s white? Who cares?

Bren’s been saying this all along. I’ve wondered about it from time to time. So it’s nice to see Marie Arana taking it on in the Washington Post – President-elect Obama is neither black nor white and by calling him black we’re perpetuating racism. He calls himself black, but it was interesting that in one recent public statement about the White House puppy quest he referred to himself as a “mutt.” I like that – especially when you consider that a lot of folks these days are not at all happy with the problems you can have with pure bred dogs and are either opting for mutts, or opting, as we did, for intentional cross breeding – ehh . . . intentional mutts. (Ours are cockapoos.) There is a richness in genetic diversity that we tend to play down because we’re still so damned tribal by instinct.

Anyways, Arana writes:

He is also half white.

Unless the one-drop rule still applies, our president-elect is not black.

We call him that — he calls himself that — because we use dated language and logic. After more than 300 years and much difficult history, we hew to the old racist rule: Part-black is all black. Fifty percent equals a hundred. There’s no in-between.

That was my reaction when I read these words on the front page of this newspaper the day after the election: “Obama Makes History: U.S. Decisively Elects First Black President.”

The phrase was repeated in much the same form by one media organization after another. It’s as if we have one foot in the future and another still mired in the Old South. We are racially sophisticated enough to elect a non-white president, and we are so racially backward that we insist on calling him black. Progress has outpaced vocabulary.

I could’t find the orignal WaPoarticle on their site, but it was republished by the New Bedford Standard-Times today and can be read in full here.

This is too good! Robin Williams on politicians ;-)

Don F. sent this to me with the brief notation:

Robin Williams, always good

Wow! You got that right, Don. (Interesting though. I found the beginning Obama material so-so. Is it just me? Or are even the best comedians going to struggle for the next four – let’s hope 8 – years? They must really be hoping Sarah Palin stays in the spotlight!)

Ehhh . . .is this bad? Really bad?

From this morning’s Washington Post:

Retailers posted the worst November sales in more than 30 years yesterday, as holiday shopping not only failed to lift the economy but showed that the financial crisis is further distressing everyday consumers.

About 30 major companies — including Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch and Target — posted sales declines at established stores. Overall, retail sales in November fell 2.7 percent compared with the same month last year, marking the second consecutive negative month, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

I have a problem here. I don’t mean to appear unfeeling. I know that a worsening retail situation will hurt a lot of people who live on the margins.I feel for them much more than I feel when I ee the stock market going down and people like me lose some networth. Yeah, I’ve also seen this slumping economy cut my own net worth by something approaching half, but it’s all paper value. Doesn’t impact me right now in real ways.

But when the first alarm went off in September I immediately put planned major purchases on hold. My gut instinct then was this is what everyone would do – or most people – and the result would be it will make the situation worse.

And so it has. But is this bad?

There’s a part of me that is screaming “wake up America! You could be a world leader. You may be the major hope of civilization, if not our species. You – America – may hold the key to massive problems with the environment going haywire and radical religious elements expressing their fear as hatred in violent acts. ”

Yeah – part of this waking up business was electing Barach Obama president. But in the end this isn’t about him – it’s about us. He knows he can’t do it all – he just thinks he can inspire us to do it. So a big part of this waking up is us starting to take the world seriously again. Many of us have been living in a ridiculous dream world where houses keep getting bigger to hold the pile of stuff that’s under the Christmas tree which also keeps getting bigger. And, of course, China is pumping in goodies here as if our appetite for anything and everything is without limit. And it would seem to be.

So maybe we need a wake-up call to put the brakes on this wild, unfettered consumerism? That should have been obvious when Bren and I – mostly Bren – spent so much time this summer cleaning out the basement. It should be obvious when you look at all the “garage” or “tag” sales. It should be obvious when you see you can buy things, like telescopes, that are the same size and power – and the same price – as what you paid 30 years ago.

Yesterday a nice old guy called me to tell me he had bought a new telescope for $15. He admitted he knew nothing about telescopes or astronomy and he didn’t have any plans for this one, but he had looked at the Moon and Jupiter and Venus the other night – and when he saw this telescope, well he couldn’t resist. He just had to know what it was you could buy for $15. And it was a lot. I think my first telescope was much like what he bought and I paid at least $25 for it and that was half a century ago.

But we know why the prices are low. We know other people are living like hell so we can live like kinds. W know the world has a very unlevel playing field, but we don’t like to think about it. We know we’ve stoppe making thng and jobs have been outsourced overseas and we owe a ton of money to China. We know people in other countries are living in poverty making us toys and stuff – but we don’t like to think about it. We’ve been having a ball!

My mother used to tell me I was “spending like a drunken sailor” when I was a kid and blew my allowance on something silly. Well, an awful lot of us have gotten awfully used to spending like drunken sailors. So maybe a few percentage points drop in retail sales is a good thing. Maybe we’re starting to understand we don’t need all of this stuff?

Hey – maybe we are actually making some judgments between those two critical words – “want” and “need.” Maybe we’re developing some self discipline.

Is this funny? Well, if it is, I’m laughing at myself because my last post was about being disappointed with FedEx for not keeping me well-informed about where my most recent toy is. Yeah, if I’m honest, it’s a “want” – not a “need.”

But I have reigned in my spending at least by the amount consumer retail sales are falling, so I’m doing my share 😉

But seriously – we may be seeing just the start. This could get serious. It could get ugly. But it also could be that cold slap across the face that we all need to come to our senses and start paying our dues as a society. Maybe in the end we’ll look back on this and as retail sales – and the economy – slumps, we’ll say “thanks, I needed that.”

Then again, maybe our changes now will be too little, too late. This does feel like we’re at a hinge in history – but a rusty one. Maybe this is just the “gloomy Gus” in me. See, I thought I saw this slump coming years ago. For the past five years I’ve been toning down my investment – modest as they are – and putting my life savings into conservative stuff with no chance of making more than about 5 percent. This wasn’t because I know a lot about the economy, nor because I have a better crystal ball than most – it was just simply a gnawing feeling that we were all living too high on the hog and someday that little piggy was going to go to market without us.

Hey FedEx! Is Rudolph AWOL?

Update: 4:30 pm Dec. 6 -All is forgiven – Santa arrived – she was cery bice, too – carrying a package with ease that I could hardly lift – ahh youth 😉 So while FedEx tracking l(in this case) eaves something to be desired, the service performed up to my expectations. That is, the original delivery date was today and it arrived today. Rudolph is doing fine, as well – so case closed!

Update: 4:30 pm Dec. 5 – package has arrived in Connecticut and delivery is now estimated for tomorrow – the original delivery date. Now my main concern is do they make residential deliveries on Saturday? (Maybe the anser is “yes” for the Christmas season? We’ll see.) But I’m now optimistic that at least the original schedule will be met and my package has not been lost in the fog of a weather delay. Call off the red alert for Rudolph 😉

Free Christmas Clipart Picture of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Click Here to Get Free Images at Clipart Guide.comI usually find the FedEx tracking of a package helpful. My latest experience is just – well – annoying. I mean I’m a 68-year-old kid waiting for Santa and he’s a no-show!

I placed an order on November 28. The company I ordered from – very reliable = showed it as shipped on Nov. 29 – Saturday. OK, so it doesn’t show up in the FedEx system until Monday, Dec. 1 with an expected delivery date of December 6. (Another Saturday – do they deliver on Saturday?) But apparently it hasn’t even been picked up yet.

I later learn it arrives at the FedEd location at 8:27 pm Dec. 1. OK. But no more data yet from Fed Ex – then on December 2 it shows up in the FedEX system “in tranit” and great news! It is Tuesday, and the new expected delivery date is now Thursday, Dec. 4 – whoopee!

Anxious, I check regularly. No more reports on its progress. Thursday morning – no new reports. For it to be delivered it must be in the neighborhood now, right – the “on the truck” thing. . I don’t really expect it, but I make preparations for it to arrive (about an hour’s work) and all day I go out of my way to be around home because I will have to sign for this. There is an ominous hint on the FedEx tracking site though – a red note that says there’s bad weather at the Memphis hub. No specific indication that this affects my package – just a general “oops” alert. I’m still seeing an expected delivery date of that day,

It doesn’t come, of course, though the dogs call me to the door several times with unexpected barking. (They’re my alarm – I don’t hear well.) When I get up this morning only one thing has changed – still have the red alert notice, still show the “in transit” with no new entries – but now there is no expected delivery date showing. Not Thursday (past) or Saturday (tomorrow) nothing. So my gut feeling is for now my precious cargo is lost in either real space or cyberspace or both.

This is like learning that it’s a foggy Christmas Eve and Santa can’t find Rudolph anywhere! Come on FedEd, stop toying with my emotions 😉