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After almost 4,000 days in space, this probe died for science

This week Mercury shows its best face in homage to the Messenger spacecraft, which crashed into the planet early morning April 30.
    The craft was launched in August 2004 and reached Mercury in March 2011, the first to orbit the innermost planet. Since then it has circled Mercury more than 4,100 times, compiling more data in the process than everything combined before that.
    Thursday, April 30, scientists at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab cut life support on their prodigy, and shortly thereafter the craft fell from orbit, plummeting to the surface at more than 8,750 miles an hour. Messenger was already running on borrowed time, having exhausted its traditional fuel supply, but programmers were able to supplement it with helium onboard for other reasons. Now that, too, is exhausted.
    “I guess the end is coming,” the Messenger team posted earlier on Twitter “After 10 years, spacecraft will end life as just another crater on Mercury's surface.” A big crater, more than 50 feet wide.
    The elusive planet is not only difficult to spot, it had been difficult to study before Messenger. Less than 45 percent of Mercury’s surface had even been photographed, and that decades ago. In its four years in orbit, Messenger sent more than a quarter-million photos back to earth. it found volcanoes, discovered polar caps of frozen water and studied Mercury’s chemical makeup.
    Mercury “is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our solar system formed and evolved,” NASA explains on its Messenger website. “Mercury is an extreme: the smallest, the densest, it has the oldest surface, the largest daily variations in surface temperature — and it’s the least explored.”
    Mercury reaches its greatest elongation from the sun on May 7, climbing 20 degrees above the horizon. Look for it low in the west just after sunset this week. You may need binoculars close to sunset when it’s at its highest, but by 9pm it should easily be visible as it prepares to set. Much-brighter Venus is 20 degrees higher, and Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull is 10 degrees to Mercury’s left.
    These are the last nights to see Mars, which is even deeper in the glare of sunset than Mercury. Jupiter shines high in the south at nightfall, while Saturn rises around the same time. Look for the just-past-full moon near Saturn Monday and Tuesday night.

More ups and downs

Will 101 million spawning-age females produce a sustainable future for Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs?
    That’s the $64,000 question raised by this year’s Winter Dredge Survey, Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ census of crabs asleep in the mud of the Bay.
    The population is well — more than half — below the target female population of 215 million. This year shows an uptick. But the survey’s 24-year history has been consistently up and down. Only two years — 2010 and 2011 — have surpassed the target. Four — including 2014 — have fallen to or below the much lower threshold of 70,000, meaning a depleted population. On the chart, this year is average below average.
    Crab fishery managers use the Dredge Survey results to determine how many crabs can be harvested. This year, commercial female catch is allowed but regulated. Recreational crabbers must return females to the water.
    Better news is the rising total of crabs living in the Bay: 411 million, despite the hard winter. Only 10 years of the survey have found higher numbers, and seven of those years were in the 1990s. The other three highs coincided with or followed the boom female years of 2010 and 2011.
    That, said DNR Secretary Mark Belton, “is good news for the crabs and for Marylanders who enjoy them all summer long.”
    Read the full survey at http://tiny.cc/lgsjxx.

Is humanity suited to play god?

Code writer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson: Unbroken) gets the break of a lifetime when he wins a contest to meet his boss, tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac: A Most Violent Year). The trip of a lifetime begins oddly: Caleb is loaded onto a helicopter, flown to the middle of nowhere, dropped off in a field and told to follow the river.
    He arrives at Nathan’s secluded cabin, where he’s given a keycard and a nondisclosure agreement. If Caleb signs, Nathan promises to reveal the real reason behind the trip; if he refuses, Nathan will hand him a beer and wish him the best.
    Eager to impress his boss and find out what innovations await, Caleb signs. Nathan in turn spills the beans: The spacious woodland home isn’t a residence; it’s a research facility. Nathan has invented the first artificially intelligent machine, and he wants Caleb to administer a Turing Test to determine whether his creation has consciousness.
    Upon meeting the machine, Ava (Alicia Vikander: Seventh Son), Caleb is astounded by the technology. He is also charmed. As Caleb and Ava bond, Nathan’s erratic drunken behavior and the facility’s frequent power outages grow worrisome. During one blackout, Ava implores Caleb not to trust Nathan.
    Creepy, tense and deeply thoughtful, Ex Machina is sci-fi for thinking moviegoers. Writer/director Alex Garland (Dredd) creates an uneasy world heavy with film reference and metaphor. So much is owed to 2001: A Space Odyssey that it wouldn’t be out of place to hear HAL’s voice boom through the sparse white and gray rooms. Garland also uses his directorial debut to show off a talent for camera work. Each frame is carefully constructed to build tension. Glass walls reveal vast yet claustrophobic space. Objects are a little off center in the frame, throwing the viewer off kilter.
    Garland’s greatest triumph, however, is his script. It works equally as rumination on the nature of invention, debate on what makes us human or metaphor for misogyny in the modern world. Viewers can dig deep to follow these themes or simply enjoy the interplay among three characters trapped in a small space.
    As Caleb, Gleeson is full of admiration and moral certainty. Once he begins to question, Gleeson lets his character unravel spectacularly. In the showier role of Nathan, Isaac is superb. He slinks into rooms, leers and drinks, his huge bushy beard making him a Howard Hughes-like figure.
    However, Vikander is the star of the film. As Ava she manages to imbue her character with childlike wonder, intelligence and burgeoning sexuality. Vikander’s nuanced performance makes Ava’s sexuality part of her embrace of humanity and learning about interaction. She is both heartbreaking and frightening as a machine who may be more human that the men evaluating her.

Great Sci-Fi • R • 108 mins.

Prune buddleia, forsythia, weigela and privet with a heavy hand

To rejuvenate, some plants must have their stems pruned near the ground. The plants I’m describing each have a large root system, so the crowns will send up numerous new stems.  
    The butterfly bush (buddleia), for example, should have all its branches cut down to within inches of the ground every year in early spring. Severe spring pruning encourages the development of strong stems that will flower more profusely. I use a chainsaw to prune my buddleia at the beginning of March, which encourages the plant to flower sooner.
    Forsythia needs proper annual pruning. I make it a habit to prune one-third of the branches on my forsythia plants every year as soon as the petals fall. I start by removing the older stems with gray bark. I then remove all branches originating from the base that are smaller than a pencil in diameter as well as branches that are arching toward the ground. If you allow arching branches to touch the ground, they will root, and before you know it your mother plant will have produced daughter plants, and soon you will have more forsythia plants than you know what to do with. Forsythia grown without pruning will often die because of over-crowding of the branches.
    If you’ve fallen behind on the job, prune both species close to the ground as soon as most of the flower petals have fallen. If you prune now, new vigorous stems will emerge from the roots within a few weeks. Allow these stems to grow all summer long without further pruning. If the plants are in good condition, the new stems will grow to a height of five to six feet by mid July, and their bark will be brownish-yellow.
    Weigela also blooms better if one-third of old branches are cut out each year. Use the same approach as described for forsythia, removing the biggest woody branches. Shaped forsythia plants look awful, but weigela can be pruned for size, branch by branch as far back as one-third. Cut them back to a point where two branches meet. Untended weigela can take hacking, cutting all branches back to about four inches above ground level.
    Privet hedges that are old or have not been properly shaped often lose their bottom branches and leaves, making them appear top-heavy. Such hedges can be rejuvenated by simply cutting all of the stems very close to the ground and allowing new young stems to grow. The earlier in spring you prune them the better.
    The training of a new hedge begins as soon as the majority of the stems have grown 12 to 16 inches. To build a uniform hedge, pull a string the length of the hedge 10 inches above the ground, and prune away all stems that are above the string. Repeat after the new stems have grown another 12 to 16 inches, this time cutting them back to 20 inches above the ground. Continue until the hedge has achieved the desired height.
    To retain foliage from top to bottom, always shape the hedge so that the top is narrower than the bottom.  If you allow the top of the hedge to grow wider than the bottom, the top will shade the lower branches, which will lose their leaves.

Baitfishing by water and from shore

Mike Ebersberger has a strategy for big, early season stripers on the Chesapeake. Not a fan of trolling, he prefers baitfishing the rockfish trophy season.
    His method is simple: “Find a place away from other boats, anchor up on the edge of the main Bay channel in 25 feet of water with a muddy or sandy bottom,” says the manager of Angler’s Sport Center. “Drop a couple big chunks of menhaden, the fresher the better, on two- or three-ounce sinkers. Wait for a big rock to come along and inhale one of them.”
    His favorite areas include the Baltimore Light, Podickery Point, Sandy Point, just south of the Western Shore rock pile below the Bay Bridge, and Hackett’s Bar.
    Ebersberger acknowledges that not all of his friends have followed his recommendations, preferring to take their chances trolling. But those that have followed his lead, he says, have caught their fish on light tackle and with hardly any expenditure of fuel.
    Getting an early start is part of the strategy. This time of year, fishing boat traffic and the accompanying engine noise and wake can stifle an otherwise promising bite. Getting on the water and dropping lines at 5am, the legal opening, greatly improves your chance of getting a trophy-sized keeper before the trolling fleet arrives on site.
    If arising well before dawn or dedicating a morning to sport (instead of work) is a problem, fishing the waning light of evening and into the dark can be almost as productive. Rockfish are light-averse and often prefer to begin their dining in the wee hours of the evening rather than in the full blaze of the sun. And you’ll be more likely to have the Bay all to yourself.

Shore Fishing
    Shore-bound anglers have another tactic for the early season: fishing bloodworms from public access fishing areas around the Bay. Not just any bloodworms, nor pieces of bloodworms, but large, whole bloodworms presented on the bottom on 6/0 to 8/0 circle hooks.
    Using nine- to 12-foot surf rods and spin reels holding 250 to 350 yards of 20-pound mono or 30- to 65-pound braid, anglers are scoring trophies with no more investment than a bit of time and a bag or two of
specially select bloodworms.
    Bloodworms are not found naturally in the Chesapeake region. They are harvested by hand from the saltwater mud flats of Maine and shipped to area sporting good stores. The closest thing to a bloodworm in the Chesapeake is an oyster worm, which, while looking almost identical to a bloodworm, is only about two inches long and much too slender to thread on a hook.
    Our migratory striped bass, however, are fresh from the ocean, used to feeding on the bloodworms of the New England littoral and consider a fat six-incher a tasty treat indeed. Even bigger worms are often available directly from Maine and are even more tempting. Try Luke Delano at bloodwormdepot.com for eight- to 10-inchers as thick as a No. 2 pencil.
    Favorite spots for these live-bait anglers on the Western Shore are Fort Smallwood Park, Downs Memorial Park, the beach at Sandy Point State Park, Thomas Point Park, Mayo Beach Park and Point Lookout State Park. The Eastern Shore sweet spots are at Betteron Park and Rock Hall at the mouth of the Chester, the pier at Matapeake State Park and the Black Walnut Bulkhead on the southern tip of Tilghman Island.
    Find other locations at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Boating/Pages/water-access/boatramps.aspx.

Fishing College

    Dennis Doyle teaches Chesapeake Bay light-tackle fishing at Anne Arundel ­Community College May 9 (filling fast) and June 5 (AHC 362): aacc.edu/noncredit;
410-777-2222.

Set to music, Oscar Wilde is twice as funny

It’s ironic that when Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in 1895, many critics loved its humor but were taken aback at its lightness, its refusal to take on heavy social or political issues of the time, as most dramas had done. The irony is that it’s exactly this drive to escape the heavy responsibilities of “position” that impel Jack Worthing to create an alter ego, Ernest, through whom Jack can live a life untethered by the demands of position.
    Even so, Wilde’s Earnest was quickly acclaimed one of his greatest works, and certainly his greatest comedy, one that moved the audience to laughter consistently and whose dialogue and characters rang so true that even today the plot seems as likely as life. Take this thespian froth, add music that stays true to the times and the story, and you end up with the hilarious hit that The Colonial Players of Annapolis is displaying on its in-the-round stage through May 16.
    Director Rick Wade — a long-time directing, acting and playwright veteran of Colonial Players (Wade wrote the book for the group’s version of A Christmas Carol, a three-decade Annapolis tradition) — knows just how to make the most of that stage. Along with set and floor designer Edd Miller and lighting designer Frank Florentine, Wade turns Colonial’s theater into a garden of comedy, with pastel flowers lining the walls behind the audience, a floor just as beautiful, lights constantly in motion and set pieces cleverly rearranged during quickly choreographed scene changes ranging from London flats to a country garden.
    Worthing, played by Eric Hufford, and his pal Algernon, played by Steven Baird, have a nice camaraderie on stage, giving the little digs that friends do. When Algernon, whose cousin Gwendolyn Jack is in love with, figures out Jack’s Ernest ruse, the plot takes off. It’s a plot that, because of Wilde’s intricacy with words and humor, requires direction that keeps the pace moving. In turn, the cast must have the talent to not only portray these characters brightly but also to reject the temptation to allow the pace to trip up a basic acting requirement: The audience must hear and understand you, especially in the round, when the actor is always facing away from at least one section of the audience. This cast gets the job done.
    From the impossible patter of “A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother” to the round of “My Eternal Devotion,” some very nice voices are on display here. But never does the music take precedence over the comedy.
    This is a stellar cast. Erica Jureckson as Gwendolyn and Sarah Wade as Cecily, the young ward of Worthing, work very well together, especially when singing “My Very First Impression,” an irony about their ability to size up a man on first glance. Greg Jones as Lane, Worthing’s valet, is top-notch and in fine voice in “You Can’t Make Love,” with Sherri Millan’s servant girl Effie, about the many burdens of upper classdom that prevent their enjoying … ahem … life to its fullest. As Gwendolyn’s mother Lady Bracknell, Barbara Bartos is the picture of rigid elitism in that “handbag” song and throughout. And as Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, Dianne and Duncan Hood get plenty of laughs but serve up a touching dose of mature puppy love as well as dance around their feelings for each other in “Metaphorically Speaking.”
    There are others, including several smaller characters who do double duty keeping the scene changes brisk, often getting their own tee-hees. The bottom line here is every audience’s top priority in a comedy: Keep things moving, and make us laugh. They do, and you will.


Playing thru May 16: ThFSa 8pm; Su 2pm: Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; thecolonialplayers.org.

Before you answer it, think safety

A glimpse of a small boat under full sail sets my heart racing.
    Back to the Water is a season all its own in Chesapeake Country, aligned with spring but serving separate pleasures.
    We expect less warmth of Back to the Water. Winds are often gusty, giving sailors some fun, and water temperatures in the mid 50s mean a cold bath that could do you harm. Air temperatures could be colder or much warmer on a day on the water, which is all in the day. If you’re one of those people who the water’s pull affects like the tides, the weather won’t keep you on land.
    For fishing people, the pull of their prey is irresistible. For boaters, it’s the call of the wild: reunion with the elements, timelessness, freedom. Sailboaters work the elements to their purpose or try themselves against them. Motorboaters command horsepower and ride the thrill of speed.
    Hailing from parts of the Midwest where cornfields were the biggest open spaces and rivers the waterways, I know how lucky we are to live here, where water is ours for the taking — in sizes from ponds and creeks to the ocean.
    Plenty of us out here have the boats to get us on the water. But you don’t have to own the boat — or a big boat — to have its pleasure. Kayaks — a bandwagon barely moving when New Bay Times began — are as common and affordable (or pricey) as bikes. If you haven’t gotten one of your own yet, you can paddle for minimal rental costs, even free, all over Chesapeake Country. Any day now, you’ll be seeing opportunities in our 8 Days a Week calendar of events.
    Getting out on the water on bigger boats, sail and motor, is no problem, either. Find options of both sorts in a range of prices at City Dock Annapolis and on historic boats at Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons.
    Not even disabilities need keep a water lover landlocked. Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating offers free sailing excursions and lessons at Sandy Point State Park: www.crabsailing.org.
    When you’re out on the water with a professional captain or guide, safety will be your first lesson. Make safety your first priority when you’re on your own, and you’ll vastly improve your chances of returning home after a beautiful voyage on the water.
    The bad luck boating stories in my collection are not all funny; there’s major mishap among them, and far too much tragedy.
    Last year, Maryland Natural Resources Police investigated 23 water-related deaths, 17 involving boats. Nationally, nearly 85 percent of all drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.
    In the excitement of splashing your boat for the first time this season, Col. George F. Johnson IV, superintendent of NRP, warns boaters “may overlook some things that will keep them out of harm’s way. We urge everyone to take 15 minutes or so to do a stem-to-stern equipment check. If you get stopped on the water, our officers will conduct a safety inspection and may issue a citation or require you to return to shore.”
    No-penalty safety inspections are also offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary: http://cgaux.org/vsc.
    To make yourself and your passengers (even your dog) as safe as your boat, buy a new, comfortable lifejacket and wear it. Modern inflatable life jackets and vests are a world away from the old cumbersome Mae Wests. They’re even stylish, and stay flat until you need them.
    “People think that in an accident they will have time to grab their life jacket and put it on,” warns Johnson. “In reality, bad things often happen in the blink of an eye. And once you’re in the water, it may be too late. Life jackets only work when you wear them.”
    One more thing: Please, if you haven’t yet, take the Maryland Safe Boating Class. It’s life-saving and very accessible with online (www.boat-ed.com/maryland‎) as well as instructed options (again, watch 8 Days a week).

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com

AACC Students shine in this classic thriller of unexpected stardom and unrequited love

Since Opera AACC debuted 13 years ago, the company has been renowned for outstanding productions, and this year’s The Phantom of the Opera is no exception. The surprise difference, however, is a first ever all-student cast. Students studied a range of skills from vocal production to theater props and technology at Anne Arundel Community College. You’d have to drive to Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory to find a better student version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning musical: a classic thriller of unexpected stardom and unrequited love.
    This mammoth undertaking includes costumes and makeup worthy of La Scala; a versatile set featuring starry nights, rolling fog, a subterranean lake and a hand-beaded chandelier 100 hours in creation; a finely tuned and precise ensemble of 26 singers with a fine ballet troupe; and some of the most fabulous voices you’ll hear on an amateur stage.
    Laura Sparks shimmers as Christine, the chorus girl turned star. Jeffrey Walter as Raoul has a swoon-worthy voice and bearing. Emily Sergo’s diva, Carlotta, exhibits phenomenal coloratura and comedic timing. Character actors Kevin Cleaver and Leonard Gilbert as managers Andre and Firmin delight, as does Lucy Bobbin as Meg. As for the Phantom, Sophomore Gabe Taylor has a heart-breaking high tenor, though his low notes, so integral to this role, lack the command that age will bring.
    The greatest musical moments come in the octet Prima Donna, the Act II opening chorus Masquerade and Christine’s duet with Raoul, All I Ask of You. See it with the one you love and feel the tender frisson.
    Technically, this show is well directed and produced with few exceptions. Christine and the Phantom are a physical mismatch, as she towers over him. Body mics do a disservice to several cast members, providing excessive consonants at the expense of the musical line. Backstage activity is all too visible to opera goers seated in the wings of the auditorium. The clumsy handling of the chandelier detracts from the spectacle. Still, these are minor points in an otherwise must-see gem of contemporary musical theater.


Director: Douglas Brandt Byerly. Music director and conductor: Blair Skinner. Set: Sean J. Urbantke. Sound: Christopher L. Ballengee. Lights: Michael D. Klima. Makeup and wigs: Kristin Clippard. Choreography: Kristi Schaffner.

Playing thru April 25: Th 7:30pm; FSa 8pm: Kauffman Theater at the Pascal Center, AACC, Arnold; $25 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-777-2457.

Use this summer to grow big bulbs for fall harvest

I like to plant onions in early April. But if you have not ordered your onion plants yet, there is still time.
    Forget about those onion sets that only produce green onions, or scallions. Grow some real bulbing onions like Copra, Candy, Big Day, Super Star and Sweet Spanish. If you want to grow onions this summer, make certain that you order long-day or intermediate onions. Do not order short-day onions because they will produce only green onions during summer’s long days.
    Onion plants are sold in bunches of about 77 plants.
    Onions grow best in soil rich in organic matter with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. If you have not had your soil tested in the past three years, now is the time to have it done.
    Prepare the planting beds by first spreading an inch-thick layer of compost over the area and tilling it in. Avoid stepping on the prepared soil; it needs to be nice and loose so the small onion plants can be pressed in easily.  
    To maximize production, I plant in beds about 2 feet wide the length of the garden. The average spacing for most onions is four by four inches. To facilitate planting, I have built myself a dibble board. The board is two feet long and four inches wide. Into it I drilled pegs cut from a broom handle and glued to quarter-inch dowels.
    Press the dibble board into the loose soil and insert an onion plant into each hole. The planting holes are evenly spaced so the onions can easily be cultivated with an onion hoe’s narrow blade.  
    After planting, place a shower head at the end of the hose and water the  bed thoroughly so that loose soil is washed into each planting hole.  
    To minimize weeding, I apply Preen three to four weeks after planting. Irrigate the Preen into the soil immediately after applying it.  Top-dress the onion beds in early June.
    As soon as the onion tops start turning brown, in mid to late August, knock the tails to the ground with the back of a rake. You’ll minimize neck rot without having to apply fungicide.
    Eat at once or, for storage, leave in the ground until the tails wilt and dry. Then harvest, braid and hang out of sunlight in open air.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The moon visits the Beehive Cluster and more

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter phase Saturday, shining below and to the left of Jupiter. The moon is near the center of the constellation Cancer.
    Were the crab not on the ecliptic, it’s doubtful it would hold its place in the zodiac, as none of its stars are brighter than 3rd magnitude. (The ecliptic is the path of the sun, moon and planets as they circle through our skies.) But what it lacks in bright stars it makes up for in sheer quantity, as it hosts the Beehive Cluster. The Beehive is near the center of Cancer, about halfway between Regulus in Leo and Pollux in Gemini. Seen with the unaided eye, it appears as a dull smudge of light. However, binoculars or a small telescope reveal dozens of individual stars. But there’s even more to the Beehive than that, as it is a stellar incubator with thousands of infant stars.
    With binoculars at hand late Saturday and early Sunday, see if you can spot the ninth-magnitude asteroid Juno just above the moon. Your best chance is around 2am when the moon is about to set and the two appear above the west-northwest horizon.
    Sunday the moon is to the lower left of Jupiter, while above and to the left of the moon is the first-magnitude star Regulus, the three forming a near-perfect triangle. By Monday the moon lies just four degrees below Regulus.
    The five naked-eye planets are visible this week. Venus blazes in the west in evening twilight and sets in the west-northwest nearly two hours after dark. Scour the horizon below Venus for Mercury, appearing 30 minutes after sunset. The innermost planet is surprisingly bright, unlike Mars, which is just a few degrees to Mercury’s upper left. Jupiter shines high in the south as darkness falls and sets a little after 2am. Saturn rises with Scorpius around 10pm and is high in the south come dawn.