Saturday, August 29, 2009

Moon, Pleiades and the Perseids

As far as I'm concerned there is nothing more pretty then a celestial gathering of the Moon and Pleiades.

We just had one August 14. Next groupings of the two are September 10, October 7, November 3, and December 1, do yourself a favor and look at the pairing on one of these nights using binoculars.

If you're so inclined just email me and I'll tell you where and when to look, you won't regret it. I think I can almost see the usefulness of tweeter in a case like this, might learn how to tweet to give you a reminder.

What can I say, the Perseid meteor shower this year was probably the best shower I've seen in years. I missed the peak night due to clouds but was lucky enough to get some clear skies the following night, I later found out that this particular shower had 3 peaks, which is unusual, this year we happened through 3 distinct concentrated dust trails left behind by comet Swift Tuttle. The tiny dust particles aka meteoroids create the meteors aka falling stars we see by burning up through friction as they enter our atmosphere.

Was treated to around 30 an hour and 5 fireballs, but the real cool thing was I didn't watch it alone. As I was pulling up to my regular viewing spot I noticed a car parked, as I got closer I noticed a couple people in it, a Mother and son. They had heard about the event, believe it or not, not through my blog but through a local radio station, they decided to venture out to see their first ever meteor shower, the looks on their faces when the first fireball came along was more exciting to me then the fireball itself. They had lots of questions and I did my best to answer them and at the end of the day they went away a little more in tune with the cosmos, a very special night for us all.

Next major shower are the Orionids, peaking October 21. Look to the South East at the Constellation Orion around 10:00 pm for the show to start.

Expect around 20 or so an hour. They are generally small, fast and have a slight color to them as in the above image I took last year. Notice the bright Moon, it took away a lot of the contrast so I was only able to spot the very bright meteors, not to worry, this year the Moon will be coming off it's new Moon stage and will have set by that time leaving us a dark sky in which to pick off even the faintest of meteors.

I'll leave you with an animation of a bamboo forest just outside of Shanghai.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Shanghai...The Solar Eclipse

The night we arrived in Shanghai we were treated to an awesome lightning show. I took the image above from the balcony of my hotel suite the eve of the Total Solar Eclipse, with a grim weather forecast for eclipse day my thought was if I wasn't going to be imaging the eclipse, I might as well get some lightning shots.

Didn't get much sleep, up at 4:00 am organizing my equipment, then at t-90 minutes and counting to the eclipse I ventured out to find a spot I would be viewing it from. The tour organizers had paid extra for us to have a place on the hotel terrace to view the event, but after I walked along the China Sea beach that morning, I knew this was the place for me, ended up being a great decision.

Met all kinds of people from different countries, was filmed by a Beijing TV crew and saw lots of ghost like Junk ships on the China Sea , they seemed to disappear then reappear from behind pockets of mist and smog, very creepy cool , and the people,

People in awe,

Amazed people,

Cheering people.

Just before the eclipse started the clouds broke a little, enough so that we were able to view a partial eclipse, everybody cheered.

Our tour guide was kind enough to let me use his phone, I regularly called updates of the event into the CNN live crew. A CNN producer read my blog about me getting my first passport just to go see the eclipse in China. She emailed me and asked if I wanted to do an interview as well as do regular call ins to update CNN of the progress of the eclipse in Shanghai, I said sure, who wouldn't,very cool.

Saw it get dark,


Darkest......... all within a matter of minutes. So let me sum this up for you. I am in Shanghai on the China Sea beach, watching ghostly Junks float by, with people all around me watching my every move, on the phone with a producer from CNN giving her live updates on the Solar Eclipse I was viewing and imaging, oh and earlier was filmed by a Beijing TV crew for their nightly news... I remember thinking at the time that even my dreams don't get this good.

Just after totality it started to rain and some friends from my tour group helped me carry my equipment to the hotel, it was over , at least for us in Shanghai, an experience I will never forget and even to this day can't believe I was actually a part of.

The next day we visited the Old Shanghai Astronomical Observatory.

Our last major event on the tour was a visit to the 88th floor, the observation deck of the Jin Mao Tower, what a view of Shanghai,

All good things must come to an end but the memories and experiences I have gathered will never fade away, I took more then 1200 images and 6 hours of video to make sure they don't. Taking this trip to China was so not like me, being a claustrophobic fear of flying introvert, just goes to show you that fears can be conquered....... with the want and a lot of willpower.

I even learned a few words in Chinese, one phrase I remember is "Xie xie" pronounced "Sheh sheh" in English, means "Thank you", I use it when ever I buy Chinese food now, whenever I use the phrase the surprised look I get from the person behind the counter, and then they started talking back to me in Chinese, then I explained I don't know any other words, they look confused, I explain about my trip, they smile and I really got to stop doing that, but it is fun.

I look back on this adventure with fond memories, the kindness of the Chinese people, their vast and rich history, seeing the great Wall for the first time from a plane, touching and smelling the clay that the Terra-Cotta army was made from, all something one doesn't soon forget.

I'll leave you with a video I took from the observation floor of the Jin Mao Tower. Note that at 1:20 into the video I cut in a Mission Impossible III scene, in the bottom of the four tower images I took above, the tall round building and the slanted roof building next to it are involved.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two New NGC Premieres, Ride Of a Lifetime and Gumby

I'm going to take another break before I wrap up my China adventures to tell you of a couple of National Geographic Channel premieres coming this Sunday August 23rd at 9 and 10 pm EDT.

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First off at 9:00 pm EDT Alien Earths. Join a team of astronomers and leading scientists in the search for alien earths, another place we could call home. So far they have discovered around 350 planets, all of which you wouldn't want to live on. too hot, too cold, oceans filled with gas ect. With the aid of CGI animations you'll journey to these unbelievably strange and odd worlds, the stuff of sci fi. You'll also see what they are doing to hunt for worlds much like our own using Kepler, the first spacecraft of it's type able to discover earth size and smaller planets capable of supporting life as we know it. Of all the strange planets and oddities you'll discover my favorite is the Planemo, a poor little planet that has been thrown out of it's solar system into space. It wanders in the darkness of space, looking for a new home. I'm surprised no sci fi shows or books have been done using the Planemo as a story line, work with me on this one people.

A little planet gets the boot from it's solar system through a freak of gravity of a larger planet, gets captured by another system, maybe even a double star system, the planet develops a highly intelligent life form capable of light speed and they hear through the space grapevine a planet is being invaded by beings from the same planet that jostled them out of their solar system millions of years before, the planet being invaded is Earth. They come, rid us of the invading aliens and give us the technology to build holodecks.

Next at 10:00 pm EDT Hawking's Universe. Stephen Hawking is probably one of the most famous scientists in the word and you'll learn a little of his early life before he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease, meet his daughter, find out some of his major contributions to the field of astrophysics and learn of his quest to find the theory of everything. His goal in life, and I quote, "My goal is simple, it is the complete understanding of the universe, why it exists the way it is and why it exists at all". Hawking first put forth the theory that black holes are not completely black, that they give off radiation and are slowly evaporating through radiation, what we call "Hawking Radiation", named after him. His theory says that just before it goes into nothingness it gives off energy, depending on the size of the black hole, unspeakable energy, is this what caused the Big Bang? The preview dvds I received look real good, something you won't want to miss, again this Sunday starting at 9:00 pm EDT. Unfortunately these programs are only available in the US. Previous NGC shows I have mentioned here are slowly making their way to Canada through the Canadian Discovery HD Channel and the Canadian NGC, if you live in Canada just keep an eye open for them on those channels.

Now, I'd like to leave you with a video I took on my adventure in China, it is a ride on the Maglev, the worlds fastest railway in commercial use. We took the Maglev from the financial district in Shanghai to Shanghai's Pudong Airport, WOW, what a blast!! The 30 km distance took less then 7 minutes to cover, top speed 431 km and hour. Note at five and a half minutes into the ride a Maglev going in the opposite direction passes within feet of us scaring the crap out of me and a traveling partner, also notice at seven and a half minutes into the ride you'll see the Shanghai's 2010 World Expo mascot "Haibao". I'm thinking he looks a lot like Gumby, everybody thought I was crazy, especially the people that asked what a Gumby was, what do you think?

Real Gumby.

Haibao(Gumby wannabe).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Terra-Cotta Army

Often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world the Terra-Cotta Army, dating back to 210 BC was built to help the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang rule in the afterlife.

It is estimated that more then 700,000 laborers and craftsmen manufactured the estimated 9,000 soldiers, chariots and horses.

So far 3 main pits have been discovered; Pit 1 and the largest, the top 2 images above, contains the main army; Pit 2 the next largest and the image above contained specialized troops such as archers.

Pit 3 , the smallest of the three was the troop command center.

The army was discovered by some local farmers digging for water back in 1974 when they came across some pottery pieces, the rest is history. For a donation you can get a founding farmer to, (get it, founding farmer, just made that up right now), sign your Terra-Cotta Army book and then they will allow you to take their picture as well, one of the farmers is signing my book in the image above, very cool.

Before the Terra-Cotta Army there was a small village and Pomegranate growing fields. The villagers have all been relocated and a small tourist town now occupies the land.

The museum is just outside of Xi'an (pronounced she anne) China and receives 2 million tourists and visitors annually, the Queen Of England, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and me to name a few.

Our tour guide told us a couple interesting tidbits of info, a local person dressed up like a warrior and hid down amongst the figures, he managed to pull it off for quite awhile until someone saw him move and he was arrested, also apparently they had put a halt to the excavating because the warriors after being restored were losing their color, they have now figured out how to prevent that from happening and had just started to excavate a month before I arrived.

Besides soldiers, chariots and horses a large assortment of real armor, weapons, rare animal and bird figures and various types of pottery have been uncovered, as well as mass burial graves.

To keep the tomb a secret hundreds of officials and craftsmen involved in it's construction were buried alive with the dead Emperor. Just to the southwest of the mausoleum 42 mass graves have been uncovered, a lot of good the burying alive thing did, just 5 years after the Emperor's death General Xiang and his army looted and burned the Emperor's tomb destroying the Terra-Cotta Army.

The figures were created using molds and local clay heated to between 950 and 1050 degrees Celsius. The heads were made with 2 piece molds with the eyes, ears, mouth and hair added after to give each warrior their own individual look, actually there are some experts that say that real soldiers were used as models. I was so fascinated with that idea that I took a bunch of images using my telephoto lens, and they are all different, at least the images I collected, just think, when you are looking at the images below you could be looking into the face of someone that was an actual warrior back in the day!

I'll leave you with a video I took of the unforgettable event, notice at the beginning of the video I was told no pictures, still you can see the farmer signing some books before I turned off the camera, once inside the pits I was allowed to image again, but boy was it packed, had to push and shove my way into the front area, you can see where I almost lost my footing on a slope, all the area I could find to take pictures at the time, was also very hot, reached 40 c that day and wasn't much cooler in the building, very humid, you could smell the clay, added to the whole adventure.

Also look to the North East after darkness falls tonight , just under the W of Cassiopeia for the peak of the Perseid Meteor shower, could see as high as 40 meteors an hour, I'll be out trying to image them, should be a fairly good show.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tank Man and The "F" Word

My third day in China was very busy. We visited the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and Kunming Lake. Let me see, so far I have been frisked by a security guard in Vancouver, saw 2 people being whisked away in the Beijing airport to awaiting medical tents and medical personnel, got lost in the Beijing airport, was contacted by CNN for an interview, conquered my fear of flying and climbed the Great Wall of China, what a frigging adventure!!!

Our first stop was the gardens surrounding The Temple Of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven was constructed from 1406 to 1420 and visited annually by Emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties to pray for good harvests. Music and activities were everywhere.

I love traditional Chinese music, love the tones and shapes of their instruments, I recorded some musical shorts on video and posted it at the end of this post.

Along with the music there was Chinese Shuttlecock,

and Tai Chi going on.

One of my goals, besides viewing the eclipse, climbing the Great wall, oh yeah and seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors was to get me and a friend fake Rolex Watches, as well as pick me up a "I Climbed The Great Wall" t shirt, well I got my shirt the day before and the Rolex watches that day and had my first experience with the local street vendors, they are everywhere and there are some good deals to be had if you know how to barter.

Since you can't actually go inside the Temple I leaned over the railing to get a shot of the beautiful ceiling work.

After the temple it was off to Tiananmen Square, the largest urban square in the world.

I gotta say our tour guide was very knowledgeable, a walking wikipedia on the history of Beijing, mention anything he always had a answer that usually went on and on and on so much so my brain started to hurt with way too much information,Temple this, Dynasty that, but mention..."Tank Man"..................................................................................................................................
......................................................................ribbit............................................................., silence fell, now from what I've been told, there have been major advancements in the personal freedoms and choices of the Chinese peoples over the last several years but there is still one major topic or taboo that no one is allowed to talk about and that is the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Our tour guide either skirted or changed the subject every time I brought it up, there is no information on the subject over there, for some strange reason I thought there would be an X marking the spot or some kind of monument, seems the government is trying to either delete or re-write that part of their history. When I asked "can you at least point to the approximate area where it happened?" he hesitated then slowly pointed straight ahead down by the trees and and lamp posts on the image below. The avenue it occurred on, and you can see cars in the image below traveling on it is called Chang'an, it runs between Tiananmen Square and the entrance to the Forbidden City. Even today Freight trucks are not allowed to use the road and no commercial advertising is allowed within 100 metres of the street.

The government blocked twitter, blogger and even hotmail due to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, control the information flow, control the people.

That night I was watching the BBC news in my hotel room, they were reporting on a group of teenage students that were just quarantined at the Beijing Hospital, the reporter was saying the hospital was taking good care of them and that they were all having a great time, as he was reporting the camera was zooming in on the group about 30 or so yards away from the camera, behind a shoulder length chain link fence they were waving and smiling away to the reporters......., just kind of seemed a little staged, maybe not, maybe they were having a great time....behind the chain link fence.

This whole H1N1 thing brings up another question, the "F" word, what do the locals do if they feel a fever coming on? Do they sweat it out in hopes it's nothing too serious or do they pack their bags and expect to be away for a couple weeks? I asked the guide about this as well, he just laughed and said no problem, stay at home til better. The person sitting next to me on the plane was heading to Beijing from Vancouver to visit his family. I asked him how he felt about the virus and the quarantine, he said, China was a big place , lots of people and the government had to be careful.... that was it, then he went back to playing video games, he brought his laptop and was playing some cool space shooting game, and was actually very good, I dropped some hints about taking a turn, I even fixed his adapter for him so he could run it off the plane's electricity and said things like "cool game", and "how many lives do you have left", "I have a PS3" but he didn't take the hints, so I went back to watching "The Man From Planet X".

From Tiananmen square we entered The Forbidden City, 980 buildings and 8,700 rooms.
The Forbidden City was the imperial palace to the Ming and Qing dynasties, was built between 1406 and 1420 and was called forbidden because no one was allowed to enter or leave without the Emperor's permission. Such a huge place with magnificent buildings, again we did a lot of walking around, they kept it very clean, as we were waiting the hour it took for our guide to get through the lines to get tickets I got a picture of a cleaner and his cool witch type broom.

Kunming lake and the Summer Palace were our last stops that day. Once a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi, (Qing Dynasty) it is now a beautiful resort and lake for all to enjoy.

We also took a boat ride across the lake.

and saw some kites.

I'll leave you now with a video of some musical shorts, first a musical selection from the Tang Dynasty show I saw in Xian, then a quick change mask artist, some music from the park, a short of a singer from our Beijing hotel lobby and to end it off an actor from a play I saw, "The Legend Of Kung Fu" hitting a fish drum, fish never close their eyes, well they can't, therefore they are a symbol to monks to remain ever vigilant like them, next stop the Terracotta Warriors.