Sunday, January 24, 2010


Journey to the Seventh Planet

We all love M13 and M42 and Jupiter and Mars; that’s a given. There’s probably not a thing in the sky, no matter how lackluster, though, that doesn't have its fans, as I observed last week when talking about a particularly boring open cluster. I’m a case in point; a primary object of my affections has long been Uranus, the seventh stone from the Sun. An impressively large, distant, and mysterious gas giant of a world.

"Large, distant, and mysterious,” doesn’t necessarily translate into “visually interesting,” however. While Uranus has its charms for theorists, it ain’t much to look at, muchachos. Not much at all; even close-ups via Voyager 2 show an awfully bland world. It’s a faintly blue-green disk devoid of cloud features or other details due to an obscuring haze high in its atmosphere and very cold temperatures that inhibit atmospheric activity. In other words, like Saturn only moreso.

So why have I slavishly observed the planet’s every apparition for 40 solid years? Part of the reason was and still is the mystery factor. In the 1960s, the Solar System out beyond Saturn was unknown territory. We didn’t know a hell of a lot more about Uranus then than we had in its discoverer’s, Sir William Herschel’s, day. Mostly we knew it had five Moons, it was apparently a large gas giant, and it was possessed of an atmosphere heavy on the ammonia. Even in these latter days, to say we know all there is to know about the planet, its (relatively) recently discovered ring system, and its ever-growing retinue of moons is downright laughable.

Back in the vaunted Day, my fascination with this distant world—not to mention at least some of my “knowledge” about it—wasn’t all a result of Patrick Moore’s books. Most, I’ll admit, came from what was my favorite sci-fi movie for years, and years. A film that impressed me even more than The Angry Red Planet, if that was possible: 1962’s Journey to the Seventh Planet.

Which, on the surface, wasn’t that much different from ARP. It was directed by the same man, B movie king Sid Pink, and was written by his usual collaborator, Ib Melchior. Like the third member of Pink’s “Trilogy,” Reptilicus, it was filmed in Denmark to save on the moola, coming in at the miniscule price, even for the early 60s, of $75,000. In order to achieve that, Journey made use of mostly local talent. The only Hollywood actor on the bill was John Agar, who had, by the 1960s, gone from starring opposite John Wayne and being married to Shirley Temple to being a denizen of B films like The Mole People and Brain from the Planet Arous.

Was I looking forward to Journey to the Seventh Planet as the lights began to go down at the Roxy? Honestly, I can’t remember. Mama had no doubt allowed me my customary Almond Joy, dime box of popcorn, and Orange Crush, so I was happy enough, I suppose. By this time, the two of us had sat through nearly every first and second run sci-fi flick the 50s and 60s had given birth to, but only a relative few had really stimulated my imagination. So, I may not have been expecting too much. Not that my tastes were overly sophisticated, despite Mama making me squirm through multiple Bergman films; I had been absolutely awestruck, for example, by that recycled ersatz Godzilla, Gorgo, when he’d lumbered across the screen to stomp London into the ground.

Journey starts off in fairly unpromising fashion with a solemn narration ironic enough to be risible now:
There are no limits to the imagination, and man's ability to make reality out of his visions is his greatest strength. Through this skill, he has been able to conquer time and space. The story you are about to see takes place after man has solved the complex mysteries of space travel. The year is 2001. Life has changed now. The planet Earth is no longer racked by wars and threats of annihilation. Man has learned to live with himself.
Today, these words stimulate chilling memories of the narration at the beginning of the notorious Plan Nine from Outer Space rather than hopes for a bright future. Still, I reckon I must have been suitably impressed as a sprout.

Cut to a shot of an Atlas gantry, a 1950s blockhouse, serious looking rocket goobers, and the liftoff—of a Jupiter C—which morphs back into an Atlas in the very next shot, and stays in that form as a miniature streaking across space belching the mandatory flames from its nether regions.

Onboard, we’re introduced to the crew of the good ship Explorer 12. As budget casting dictated, we’ve got a mostly Scandinavian (“United Nations,” uh-huh) crew composed of the rock-jawed Captain Eric, second in-command Don, newbie Carl, and a pair of pretty much undeveloped characters, Svend and Barry (he’s a sorta faux-Irish Dane). Surprisingly, John Agar, the only actor close to being A Name, is not Captain Eric, but Second Officer Don. Undoubtedly, all the better for him to play the wisecracking, devil-may-care womanizer (like Gerald Mohr in Angry Red) who’s the only memorable character in the bunch. Reviewers in this latter age refer to the crew’s “G.I. hijinks,” but, unlike the fellers in ARP, the Explorer’s crew is a remarkably dour group except for Don (“I knew this UN biologist, and boy, was she biological!”).

By the way, I am not relying on my memories of the film; Miss Dorothy and I screened it just yesterday evening. One thing that amused us right off the bat? Even in 1962, media types worried about “Uranus.” The question, of course, being how to pronounce it so as not to make yourself the BUTT of jokes? Do you settle for the potentially embarrassing your-ANUS, or opt for URINE-us? I’ve never quite understood why urine is less troubling than anus, and have mostly used what a Classical scholar of my acquaintance says is probably closest to the ancient Greek, you-ray-nus. The Explorer’s crew? They choose an unutterably odd third path, “you-RAHN-us.” Go figger.

After our visit with the crew, where they open a letter instructing them to fly to the seventh planet, we, in rapid succession, pass Mars, which is red if not very Mars looking, and a Jupiter that resembles the 1950s Hale telescope images of the planet—but in colors that outdo even the Voyager images for garishness. Saturn is next, displaying a weirdly hazy-looking ring. As a kid, I assumed that was to meant to show it was composed of small ice particles. Now I suspect they just had a hard time doing a realistic ring—hell, Douglas Trumbull and company moved 2001: A Space Odyssey from Saturn to Jupiter because they couldn’t produce a set of rings that looked like anything other than a paper cutout.

One laudable thing about the voyage? This must be one of the few 50s - 60s sci-fi spaceflights that wasn’t imperiled by GIANT METEOR STORMS. Anyhoo, finally, after less than one reel, we are there, at mysterious Uranus, which, unfortunately, ain’t so mysterious looking. Not at first. At first it looks like just what it is, a blue-green ball of papier-mâché coated with moldy cottage cheese.

Has this sounded cornball and silly? It was and is, but no more so than any other sci-fi of the time. The amazing thing? The film picks up immediately and only falters toward the end, and even then only slightly. Out of all the sci-fi movies that rolled their garish dreams across the screen of the Roxy, this was the only pre-Kubrick one that strayed much from Hollywood and into the realm of true SF. Well, maybe First Spaceship on Venus did, too, but not as well as Journey.

I won’t spoil the movie for you, and insist you get a copy of your own, but the long and short of it is that in very Star-Trekkie fashion four years before Star Trek’s “Shore Leave,” the crew discovers Uranus to be a lush world that’s populated by scenes—and gorgeous young women—from their pasts. Yeppers, you guessed it: All IS NOT AS IT SEEMS. Journey, once it gets going, is quite a ride, and has some memorable moments. The scenes of a crew member exposing his arm to the (true) atmosphere of Uranus, and another who tears his pressure suit on a razor sharp blade of ice haunt me still.

My fond memories of the film itself are admittedly enhanced by what I saw in the lobby. On display was a cardboard, kid-sized Mercury space capsule, its interior festooned with buttons and lights that really lit up. What’s more, you could win it. Fill-out an entry form and little Rod would shortly be piloting his own Freedom 7 to splashdown. A-OK! Naturally, I didn’t win, but I spent a pleasant couple of weeks daydreaming about the fun I’d have if I did. It was really the movie that was most memorable part of the evening, anyway. I finally latched onto a DVD of the film a little while ago, but I didn’t need that to recall its high points. They were still locked in my mind in gaudy, delicious Technicolor.

Perhaps I wax too nostalgic. Don’t think this film is another 2001 or Star Trek. It’s not. It’s a B. But it is a B of a different color. The outer space exploring is only part of what’s on the menu. There’s at least a bow toward the exploration of the inner, psychological space that’s the beat of real Science Fiction. Journey actually precedes the oft-lauded film Solaris, which explores many of the same themes—if in slightly more mature fashion.

It’s pretty common knowledge that Gene Roddenberry was strongly influenced by another film of the era, 1956’s Forbidden Planet, but I wonder if he didn’t have a look at Journey, too. Certainly, a lot of Trek’s more “psychological” episodes bear more than passing resemblance to it. I doubt Sid and Ib thought too much about auteurship when the cameras were rolling in Denmark, but their humble little movie pushed the borders of sci-fi films out in a way that really hadn’t been done before and sadly ain’t been done much since.

If you’d like to follow in my footsteps to Uranus—dammit, in my head I just said, YOU-RAHN-US—there’s a remarkably good print of the film available on DVD as part of MGM’s “Midnight Movies Double Feature” series (paired with the execrable Invisible Invaders). The print is mostly pristine, with the color rich and true—it looks as if it were RIPPED OFF THE SCREEN OF THE ROXY yesterday. As an added fillip, the original song for the closing credits, Otto Brandenberg crooning about journeying to my favorite planet, has been restored (it was cut for the original U.S. release). Best part? Less than five stinking bucks for a good used copy from Amazon!

This wouldn’t be much of a blog entry if it didn’t cover some amateur astronomy ground, though, would it? Where’s the tie-in? What does the hook of this old movie hook into? Me trying to find the object of my affections, the real planet Uranus. My own Journey took a lot longer than that of the Explorer 12.

Some of us, from our lofty perches as Advanced Amateurs, have forgotten how difficult it is for a kid to get started in astronomy. Then or now. Lots of excitement, sure, but a small scope and a lack of knowledge make it a dicey thing to keep that excitement level up. After the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn and maybe the brightest Messiers, it gets harder. A lot harder. How do you stay enthusiastic if there’s nothing exciting to see? When you’ve looked at Saturn, beautiful as it is, for the umpteenth time?

I don’t believe I seriously tried to run down Hershcel’s Georgium Sidus with my first scope, my Tasco 3-inch Newtonian. As I recounted in the ARP blog, I didn’t even dare to go after bright Mars with that rig. Or much of anything else. The Moon Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and a bright star or two was most of my repertoire.

Then came the Palomar Junior and amateur astronomy began to slowly, ever so slowly, get better. Jupiter and Saturn were spectacular. The Moon was flat-out incredible. But, after the newness of the scope wore off, “what next” soon reared its ugly head. How did you find dim stuff? Galaxies fer instance? The Pal at least had a small (23-mm) finder—the Tasco made do with a peep sight—but with no one to teach me, and my fellow and equally benighted amateur buddies being content to stay on the Moon and bright planets, I was puzzled as to how you were supposed to locate faint objects. I pointed the scope in what I thought was the general direction of M101, but no spiral galaxy—or e’en fuzzy spot did I see.

My 4.25-inch Edmund wonder-machine did have setting circles, which, I’d heard, could find stuff for you. The question was “how.” I was aware—if dimly—that you looked up two sets of coordinates, declination and right ascension, for the object of your desires, moved the scope till the pointers were on those numbers, and the target would, simple as that, be in the eyepiece. Filled with naïve, youthful hope, I experimented with the circles one evening, but the they didn’t seem to work too well. In fact they didn’t work at all, with my Pal winding up pointing at the ground.

Part of the problem was that I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of right ascension, celestial longitude, east-west in the sky. Even silly little me could see the stars and planets rose in the east, moved across the sky, and set in the west. How could you use numbers in a book to point at a moving target? I’m not sure why, but it didn’t occur to me that you could point at a target with a known RA, a bright star maybe, and turn the RA circle until it read the correct value to “set” it (updating it manually as the night wore on).

I had trouble with declination, too, just as my students do today when I teach them to use analog setting circles. Dec circles, you see, are not labeled with north and south values. You gotta be aware than when you cross the Celestial Equator, you are in the southern hemisphere and must read “80,” for example, as “-/south 80.” Sure seems simple in the light of near half a century of experience, but it was not simple for li’l Rod.

Unfortunately, none of my astronomy books or the few the Possum Swamp Public Library possessed had decent directions regarding the use of setting circles. Usually, authors advised you to forget ‘em, or, if you just had to use ‘em, you were instructed to ignore the dreaded RA circle and just set-in declination and locate your object by “sweeping” in right ascension. That seemed like a silly way to use setting circles, though, and I remained stumped.

One cloudy evening, as I was paging through the latest Edmund Scientific catalog as was my frequent wont, I ran across the little device pictured here. This “Edmund Star Finder” was a pair of nice, large setting circles (large compared to the tiny, barely readable ones on the Palomar Junior) mated to a sight tube. You set-in RA and dec, and the tube (optic-less) would be pointing at the proper spot in the sky. I figgered I’d dial-in the values, take note of the position of the tube’s aim among the stars and move my scope to the same spot. In retrospect, this could have worked pretty well. I’ve seen folks use a latter day star finder, a Celestron SkyScout or Meade MySky in similar fashion with good results. The ad didn’t explicitly say so, but I assumed there would be instructions, including instructions on how to work the dadgummed RA circle.

In order to put my plan into effect, I’d first have to get the Star Finder, which looked to be a problem. In the fall 1966 Edmund catalog, the price of the gadget was $9.00. That don’t seem like anything at all now, I know, but then? Nine 1966 bucks is, depending on how you calculate it, at least sixty tiny 2010 dollars. Lawn mowing season was pretty much done, and I was still paying for the Pal…so how? Christmas was coming, and I could put the Star Finder at the top of my list. Santa likely wouldn’t bring me much else after that big an expenditure, but if the thing allowed me to see at least some of the wonders in my favorite astronomy picture books, it would be well worth it, wouldn’t it? I hoped so. I decided to take a chance.

Wouldn’t you know it? The Edmund Star Finder turned out to be a complete and utter bust. One of the few astro-buys I’ve made over near 50 years that I got no use out of at all. It didn’t take long to realize I’d fouled up, either. Yeah, it looked OK at first; I was pretty impressed when I unwrapped my prize on Christmas morning. The Finder was well made, with metal circles, though the sight tube was cardboard. There was even a little swinging pointer to indicate latitude so you could get polar aligned. The whole shebang mounted on a castoff camera tripod of the Old Man’s, and looked pretty sweet next to the Christmas tree.

That was where the good stopped, unfortunately. The RA circle had numbers on it even more cryptic than those on the Pal’s RA circle. It operated, it turned out, on the even more indecipherable (for me) hour angle system. The instructions, a slim sheath of mimeographed pages, provided zero help. They seemed to assume you’d already know all about not just right ascension, but local sidereal time, could figger out what the LST was, and knew how to calculate the hour angle from those two numbers. Since I didn’t? Almost unbelievably, the directions told me to use only the declination circle and sweep for objects in right ascension! Sheesh.

Despite a feeling of impending doom, I took the Star Finder outside on Christmas night. Not that I got much of anywhere with it, of course. I did have the intestinal fortitude not to throw it against the side of the house—it was my main present for the year, after all. Somewhat sadly, I packed it back in its cardboard shipping box, and resolved to figure it out “sometime.” In the end, it served as a decoration in my room through my teen years and not much more. Naturally, when Mama and Daddy asked how I liked my Big Gift, I had to smile and say, “Works great! I’m seeing a lot!” The biggest irony? I did eventually figure out how to work the thing, but by the time I did, I didn’t need it any more.

It was on this Christmas evening that amateur astronomy very nearly lost me, as unimaginable as that seems today. It probably would have lost me if’n I hadn’t had a star hopping epiphany on that very night. The Star Finder had been a major failure, but it was a brilliantly clear and velvety dark night, and I did have the scope outside. Looking over to the east at Orion, I suddenly realized I could see what I presumed was the Orion Nebula with my naked eyes. I’d read about the Great Nebula a zillion times already, and kinda-sorta knew where it was, but I hadn’t understood how easy it would be to see without optical aid. I whipped my Pal over to the fuzzy star, inserted my 1-inch focal length (no silly little millimeters then) Kellner eyepiece, and was near blown off my feet by my first ever look at M42.

I was excited enough by this success to run in the house and retrieve my “field guide,” The New Handbook of the Heavens and my almost new copy of Norton’s Star Atlas, which I hadn’t used a whole lot yet. According to both, not only was I looking at M42, there was another nebula in the vicinity, something called “M78.” I couldn’t see it naked eye, or in the finder, neither. But then came the epiphany. M78 formed a near right angle with the Belt Stars. What if I positioned my scope on that spot? I did so, and with just a little careful slewing around I noted a pair of stars surrounded by a puffball of nebulosity. Soon, I was drawing imaginary lines and triangles all over the sky and hopping my way to M37, M1, M35 and a couple more before the night was out.

It was a near thing, though. And that is why you will never, ever hear me whine about go-to making life too easy for the novices. They need all the help they can get to keep ‘em on the amateur astronomy strait and narrow. Showing them a DSO or two in your scope ain’t enough. They have to be able to find Good Stuff with their own telescopes if we are to keep them. “But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod,” you say, “them sprouts won’t learn the sky!” So freakin’ what, as long as they are having fun? They will, anyway. Learn the sky, that is. Most go-to scopes require you to at least know the bright stars in order to get aligned, and my experience is that learning 'em gets beginners over the hump, and they are soon picking out Piscis Austrinus with the best of us.

What about the purported subject of this blog, Uranus? Twasn’t long after I learned to hop that I tracked him down. I was now familiar enough with Norton’s to make real use of it, had at least somewhat figured out the celestial coordinate system, and plotted the planet’s position on the appropriate page of the atlas (oh, how I wish, 44 years later, that I hadn’t erased Uranus path across the stars). Eventually, the green god was in my eyepiece—which even with my new found competence was not as easy as my books had implied. I upped the power with my ½-inch Ramsden, laid on my Edmund Barlow, and had a look.

I know what you think I’m gonna say, that little sprout Rod was devastatingly disappointed when he finally saw the Seventh Planet, teary eyed even, just as he was after his first look at Mars. Nope. Not at all. Maybe my expectations were lower. Uranus was a truly distant world, and even the images from professional scopes looked pretty much like Jupiter had in my 3-inch Tasco. And maybe I had grown enough in our avocation to understand that you sometimes have to be satisfied with Been Theres.

No matter how good your skills or your scope, you’ve encountered plenty of those. Objects where the satisfaction comes from just saying “been there.” No, you can’t see M87’s Jet with your C8—or all Uranus’ “bright” Shakespearean Moons, but you have been there. I was thrilled, staring at the tiny blue-green b-b, to realize that I was seeing something with my own eyes that comparatively few of my fellow humans had seen or ever would see for themselves. Besides, not being able to see detail preserved the mystery a little longer. Maybe Uranus really did look at least a little like that weird, pock-marked ball of papier-mâché that capped my wondrous Journey to the Seventh Planet.

Down memory lane again, eh? Yep. As you might guess, that’s because the skies have been cloudy for over a week and the consarned Moon’s back, anyway. The Herschel Project is at All Stop. Ain’t got no new gear to play with. Ain’t even heard any good astro-related gossip, fer crying out loud. I am getting cabin fever bad, y’all. This weekend I’ll be lucky to see somethin’ in a sucker hole with the Burgess 15x70s. At least the Chiefland Spring Picnic is coming (April), and I’m hopin’ to get out to the Tanner-Williams dark site soon as Luna shrinks a little and see what C8 and Stellacam will do with some of the Herschel 2500. I may even bring a new (to me) piece of software that looks promising, Deep Sky Imaging, to bear on that.

Whatever happens, see y'all next Sunday!

Nice little story about the movie. I seem to remember that one.
As for the 7th planet, instead of pronouncing it as two words, "Your anus", I pronounce it as three words, " You ran us". Not "rahn", too dang uppity sounding to me. LOL
As always, enjoyed your effort.
"Serious lookin' rocket goobers" - that was funny :)

Oddly I think their pronunciation is close to be correct - the Greek word is Ouranos (oo-RAHN-ohss) and the Latin form is probably supposed to be said the same way - but I never do! YER-a-nuss for me.

Ib Melchior wrote one of my favorite "Outer Limits" episodes, "The Premonition", in which two people get out of sync with time and have to figure out how to get back and save their daughter as well in a world where everything is frozen. There plot has more holes than a whiffle ball, but the atmosphere is genuinely creepy and the "time being" scared the pee out of little old me way back when. Mary Murphy also helped me decide that I preferred brunettes.

I felt the same way about Uranus seeing it for the first time in my 3" refractor. The size was barely bigger than the diffraction disk of a star in that scope, but it was clearly not a star - it was a world, and VERY far away - 5 times as far away as Jupiter roughly - I would stare for minutes on end at the tiny blue dot and try to imagine what the Sun looked like from way out there. I think the reason it was so fascinating is - even astronomers were in the dark about this one. Up through Saturn, they had a good idea about all of them - but Uranus was no better known to the guys at Palomar than it was to me.

Hi Rod,
At first I thought this was going to be like Bob Berman's article "why is Neptune so ugly?". Glad I didn't just dismiss this entry.

I really relived my young days reading this one. I was about 10 and wanted a scope for xmas. I got it and then realized that no one could help me look at anything. The moon got old so I mainly looked at the girls down the street :) I finally came back to astronomy well into my 30's when a co-worker took me along to look through his 9.25. Now people think I'm the expert and I still know nothing.

I agree about go-to scopes. Without them I wouldn't have gotten back into the hobby. The more the better. As people buy stuff the prices go down which makes things nicer for all. Also on that vain is outreach. Yea we astronomers may only get 1 in 1000 hooked into the hobby, but isn't that a better result then zero? It also keeps our politicians at least somewhat interested in the space telescopes.
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