Clouds Vs Moon

Again we have several layers of high clouds, so the Venus & Jupiter show was spotty at best. They could be seen, but only very intermittently and then only because they are bright enough to shine through thin cloud bands. Along with the clouds has been an uncommon amount of humidity for Southern California. We’re not talking Florida or Louisiana humidity (or Missouri, or Virginia, etc etc) but it’s considerably higher than we ever usually get. And for some reason, lots of mosquitoes. Between last night and tonight, my legs and arms look like pin cushions.

The heavier clouds are coming in from the east, where the almost-full moon is trying to rise. I never actually saw the moon, but the battle between it and the clouds was a thing of beauty. The collateral damage that illuminated the herringbone cloud patterns above were amazing.

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Jewels In The Sunset, June 30th (Conjunction)

Approximately 0.3° separation. For reference, the sun and moon average around 0.5° in apparent diameter, so either would cover both Venus and Jupiter if they happened to be in the right spot tonight. (Now THAT would be a rare event!) You can see how over the last eleven days (June 19th, June 20th, June 21st, June 22nd, June 25th, and June 29th) they’ve gotten closer and closer.


(Image: Weather Channel app)

Of course, Murphy rules. Starting about 14:00 it was getting cloudy and by 17:00 it was raining.


Here’s that “usual” view to the west from our front yard at 17:55. I was not happy.


By 20:00 it had started to clear a bit. I started to have hope.

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By 20:40 there were just a few thin, high clouds over most of the western sky. There were our jewels!

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Where last night Jupiter was at “the 11:00 position” compared to Venus, tonight they’ve passed each other and Jupiter is in “the 1:00 position.”

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The pictures don’t do it justice. It was beautiful, two bright jewels side by side in the darkening twilight.

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As it got darker, the clouds started to move back in a bit, but Venus and Jupiter also looked that much brighter against a dark background.

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Zoomed in with the 300mm lens, you can’t see the crescent shape of Venus, but you can see the Galilean moons of Jupiter. (And a funky, ghostly lens flare from Venus, which does in fact show the crescent shape.)

I pulled the small telescope out, the two planets fitting easily into the field of view. In the scope, the thin crescent shape of Venus was obvious, Jupiter showed as an oblate sphere with several bands visible, and the four Galilean moons were very clearly visible. It was spectacular.

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Fitting the camera to the small scope again proved problematic. Focus is part of the problem, exposure is another. While I played around with both and took a lot of photos at different exposures and different focus points, I never hit that sweet spot. This image was the closest I came. There is enough detail on Venus (lower left) to see a bit of the crescent, and if you blow the picture up to full size, you can see just a hint of the Galilean moons. Most noticeable is the color difference – Venus is bright white, while Jupiter shows some pastel color.

The Long-Suffering Wife came out to take a look, and the Youngest Daughter took a look before heading back home. (Jessie did not look, being ever so Bohemian with that “been-there, done-that” attitude.) Then, just 45 minutes after it started, a good two hours before Venus and Jupiter would actually set, the clouds started rolling back in and it all vanished.

I’m glad that the Fates parted the clouds long enough for me to get a glimpse tonight. It was magnificent!

If you didn’t see it tonight, keep watching! The two will start to pull apart from each other, but they’ll still be bright in the west after sundown for weeks to come. There will be another grouping when the young moon moves back into the evening sky in about three weeks. Venus and Jupiter will get back together in the pre-dawn morning sky in October, being separated by only 1° on October 26, 2015. Next year we’ll do it again, and on August 27, 2016 Jupiter and Venus will be separated by less than 0.1°, a third of their current separation.

Keep watching the skies! (And be patient if it’s cloudy.)



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Jewels In The Sunset, June 29th

“Keep on target…” Starting about ten days ago (June 19th, June 20th, June 21st, June 22nd, and June 25th) we’ve checked in on the local celestial mechanics at play for our edification and enjoyment.

In the Sixteenth or Seventeen Century we would have been doing science. In the Twenty-First Century we can fling robots across the solar system and hit a spot the size of a baseball field from over three billion miles away. Today we know exactly how puny we are in an incredibly vast universe, but we also can be pretty clever little primates, so we can admire the dance of the planets on an intellectual level while also just loving the sight of the pretty lights in the sky.

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We’ve still got some monsoonal weather being sucked up from Baja, so one must be patient and wait for them to shift about a bit. Do you see Venus and Jupiter? Neither did I.

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There they are! Still peeking through a high layer of clouds painted pink by the sunset, but there where they should be.

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Then, of course, a band of clouds will move back in front of them.

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It does make for a beautiful sunset. Much better than the “clear and a million” version, as long as the scattered clouds stay scattered.

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Even in the early parts of civil twilight we can see Galilean moons lined up around Jupiter.

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As it gets darker, they really stand out.

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They’re less than 1° apart tonight, and will be even closer tomorrow night.

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Dancing with the cloud bands.

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Along with the clouds came some humidity and an uncommon number of mosquitoes and bugs. As lovely as it would be to sit out and watch these guys set, I think I’ll wait until tomorrow night and pick up some DEET and a telescope.

Let’s hope it’s clear. If it’s clear where you are tomorrow shortly after sunset, take a look. If you can take a picture, feel free to share it here in the comments!


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Another “Bad Day”

Another rocket launch, another “bad day.” Another thrilling launch, followed by a very brief moment of, “Huh, what’s that?” Then nothing but blue sky and falling bits of smoking debris. Another punch in the gut.

Very preliminary indications are that something happened with the second stage as it was being pressurized prior to being lit off after the first stage disconnected. There may have been some sort of rupture in the fuel tank, but the first stage seemed to be running just fine right up until the point where all of that venting fuel from the second stage hit the exhaust plume and ignited.

We have no idea how long the investigation will take or when SpaceX will return to flight. It won’t be the two years or more that NASA took after Challenger and Columbia, but it won’t be just a month or two either.

Last October, the Orbital Sciences Antares exploded just above the pad at Wallops Island in Virginia. They’re still figuring out what went wrong with their rocket and trying to fix it, but in the meantime they’re getting ready to return to flight using an Atlas V rocket to take their Cygnus vehicle to ISS.

Just a few weeks ago, a Russian Soyuz malfunctioned after reaching orbit and sent the Progress cargo vehicle tumbling out of control and unable to reach ISS.

Now with the SpaceX accident, that’s three cargo launch failures on three separate vehicles in the last eight months. We’re running out of ways to get supplies and materials up to ISS, and with Dragon down for an undetermined time, we have pretty close to zero ability to get anything down from ISS other than the crew. Returning Soyuz crews have enough room for a couple of pounds of stuff, but that’s nothing compared to the hundreds and thousands of pounds that Dragon can bring down. And don’t even get me started on the tons that the Space Shuttle could bring down if they weren’t in museums…

Dragon, like the Cygnus and Progress vehicles before it, was uncrewed, carrying only supplies to ISS. No lives were lost, just material. Some of it (a replacement US space suit, a docking port for the upcoming crewed Dragon and crewed CT-100 from Boeing, science experiments) will be a pain to rebuild and replace, but it can be done. Some of the scientific hardware destroyed was actually rebuilt experiments from students, replacing experiments destroyed in the Cygnus accident.

The ISS crew’s in no danger, they have provisions (food, water, air, experiments, replacement parts) to last them until the end of October if nothing else gets to them. There is another Progress scheduled for Thursday night (in the US) this week, and the next Japanese HTV cargo ship in August. The Antares launch on the Delta V might also be able to be moved up into late October or November.

Long term, the most significant effect might be to cause delays in the Commercial Crew program. Right now the only way to get humans up to the ISS or back down is by using a Russian Soyuz. The SpaceX Crewed Dragon and the Boeing CT-100 are supposed to launch in 2017, but this could get delayed. It was already being threatened with delays because Congress, in their completely finite wisdom (or complete lack thereof) has cut about $250M from this year’s budget for Commercial Crew. Part of the reason that Congress cut the Commercial Crew budget seems to be that they don’t want to fund development by both Boeing and by SpaceX – they just want one or the other. Some of them will point at today’s accident and say, “See, we were right!”

In fact, it proves the exact opposite, showing just how wrong they are. Getting off the planet into space remains one of the single most difficult tasks ever faced by humans. It’s dangerous, it’s risky, it allows for almost zero tolerance for mistakes or bad luck. 99.9999999% of a million or more complex events all have to work perfectly, or it’s “a bad day.” When an accident happens, the organization flying that vehicle has to figure out what happened and how to prevent it in the future. That always takes months and sometimes takes years. While that organization is grounded, you MUST have other independent organizations with similar capabilities that can keep flying and take up the slack. There truly are no other options if we intend to be a spacefaring species.

Here’s another thing for our Congress critters to think about. Right now we’re 100% dependent on the Russians to take our astronauts up to ISS and to bring them back down. We’re paying the Russians for this service. Last I looked it was about $65M per seat, but may have gone up again. So when Congress says they want to save money by cutting the Commercial Crew budget by $250M, do they not realize that the delays that cut will cause will force us to spend over $550M to buy more Soyuz seats from the Russians? Tell me again, Senator, how is paying $550M to the Russians a better deal than spending $250M here in the US?

More importantly yet, our political relationship with the Russian government continues to deteriorate. While the personnel at NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos all work together well, without any regard for international politics, the upper levels of both governments are a different story. Things got frosty after Russian invaded Ukraine, and they continue to go downhill. We’re now putting heavy weaponry back into Eastern Europe just in case it’s needed should Russia decide to invade anyone else. At what point do the Russians just flat out say, “Keep your cash, get your astronauts up and down on your own. Oops, right, you can’t! Sucks to be you!!”

Congress’s response if that happens will be…what? “Our bad, never saw that coming.” Or maybe, “It’s all NASA’s fault!! Fix it!!” (Two guesses, first one doesn’t count.)

SpaceX will figure out what happened today, they’ll make changes, and they’ll re-launch. With luck it will only be six to eight months, during which time our Japanese friends will launch their HTV, the Russians will get the Progress vehicles going again (no pressure for this week’s launch, guys!), and Orbital Systems will get their Cygnus flying again. Eventually SpaceX and Boeing will start launching crewed vehicles from US soil, even if it doesn’t happen in 2017.

I have no doubt that there will come a day, hopefully in my lifetime, when SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital, ESA, Sierra Nevada, JAXA, Roscosmos, and NASA are just the oldest and most experienced of dozens of launch providers.

I’m waiting for a day when there are multiple space stations in LEO (Low Earth Orbit), some as research labs, some as factories, some as solar power plants, some as construction sites for deep space vehicles, and some as hotels and recreation centers.

I’m waiting for the day when going for a week in zero-G at a LEO hotel is no more expensive or exotic than a week’s cruise through the Caribbean or Mediterranean is now.

But today was not that day. Today was a bad day.


We did not go to space today.

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Sunset, Yesterday Evening, June 26th


  1. It was totally clouded over (as predicted), so no fiery sunset, no Jupiter, no Venus, no moon.
  2. It was The Long-Suffering Wife’s birthday, so we were out at a truly wonderful Brazilian fusion restaurant in Tarzana. If you’re in the area, we can recommend it. The food was amazing, and the entertainment was rather eye-catching as well.

So here’s the sunset and conjunction pictures from yesterday. They were going to go up Friday night, but somehow we got infested with rainbows.

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Unlike the previous “clear and a million” evenings, tonight we had the beginning of a monsoonal front moving up from Baja.

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It wasn’t the absolute best sunset we’ve ever had, but it was pretty nice.

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In that pink, cotton candy sky it was harder to see Venus and Jupiter, especially during dusk when the clouds were illuminated.

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Venus wasn’t too hard. It’s the third brightest natural object in the sky, after all. (You do know what the first two would be, right?)

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Jupiter was a little harder, and when it got darker it also got a bit cloudier. But finally it popped out into view.

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Once it was almost fully dark and the clouds were still fairly thin, there they were. I hope this wasn’t the last we see of them here in LA before the conjunction on Tuesday.

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The moon, of course, was lovely. With a relatively large (300 mm) telephoto lens, it’s bright enough so you can get by without a tripod and not get blurring by shooting all the way up at 1/4000 sec.

We’ll see if the clouds clear tomorrow.

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Images & A Story Saved For Today

There was something else penciled in for today’s post and a special set of pictures saved for some other special day, but then the world changed and I realized that today was the special day.

Two months ago when I had spent a week in Washington for the Hubble 25 NASA Social, I flew back to Los Angeles through Dallas Fort-Worth. As anyone who has flown through DFW knows, weather can be a factor there. Large thunderstorms are not uncommon and they can snarl traffic throughout the nation and the world as delays and cancellations start to cascade through the air traffic control system. This was one of those days.

Just out of Washington we were informed that instead of a direct route (over West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas) we would be diverted north in order to avoid storms. We would be going across Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. This would make us late, most of us would miss our connections, blah blah blah, except that the connections were just as screwed up as we were, so…

As is my wont, I took pictures out the window while flying. After bouncing through some significant storms and turbulence on our downwind leg over Mesquite, we turned to base south of DFW, then turned north on final, broke through underneath the clouds and found this:

IMG_8897A double rainbow off to the east! The clouds were in layers with rain falling between them, and the sun setting in the west was in a perfect position to make a spectacular display.

IMG_8912As we turned and dodged thunderstorms, the rainbows turned with us, sometimes fading as the sun would go behind a cloud off to the west.

IMG_8919But they always came back again, just as strong, the second (outer) rainbow just about as bright as I’ve ever seen one.

IMG_8921Then I looked up…

IMG_8922…and contorted in my seat as best I could to look back. Not only did we have a double rainbow, but we had a full-arc rainbow! It was the first time I had ever seen such a thing. I wanted to get the entire rainbow into one picture, but the full arc is too wide for anything but a wide-angle lens.

Wait! I could shoot multiple frames and combine them into a panorama! I was shooting pictures with my iPhone and really wanted to get to my DSLR to get a better set of pictures to combine into the panorama. But on short final, trays up, seat backs in a full and upright position, my good cameras safely buried under the seat in front of me, and only seconds to go before the rainbow would fade, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Then it occurred to me that my iPhone has that panorama mode. We were bouncing all over the place in the turbulence – would the iPhone’s panorama software handle that?

IMG_8932Click on this and the picture below to get the full-sized images. Look at them full screen and in all their glory.

IMG_8933Not only was the rainbow a full arc, but it was a double! The outside arc was more visible on the ends near the ground, but the dark area between the two arcs was quite distinct and the full outside arc could be seen dimly.

This was a fantastic end to a fantastic trip. There were all of the flight delays to deal with, but that just gave me a chance to go through these pictures and start tweeting and emailing copies to American Airlines and several prominent online science journalists and photographers.

It should be obvious why a story about rainbows, especially a story full of excitement, passion, and beauty, would be so appropriate today. It was a very good day when I caught the images of this complete arc double rainbow – it was a very good day today as well.

Today deserves these rainbows.

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Jewels In The Sunset, June 25th

Celestial mechanics is your friend. Last Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, and Monday night, Jupiter and Venus are moving toward conjunction, with the crescent moon making a brief appearance.

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Last night, Wednesday, I caught them a little later than normal, which meant they were closer to the western horizon. It also meant the only good place to get a picture without a street light in it was out in the middle of the street. (We only had to dodge two cars at the last second!)

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Tonight, higher in the sky — but still closer together. Well, at least from our point of view. Venus, the brighter one on the lower right, is 0.5533 AU (51 million miles) away from Earth, while Jupiter is 6.02 AU (559 million miles) away.

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They’ll be quite the sight over the next few nights, with their closest approach to each other (in our sky) on Tuesday, June 30th.

Of course, Murphy being the impish demighod that he is…


…and with a monsoonal flow setting up, a few news outlets are predicting a good chance of scattered thunderstorms.

Well played, Murphy, well played!

(I think we’ll be fine, and we may even get some spectacular sunsets to boot! Paul-lyanna Forever!)

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