Category Archives: Astronomy

Venus In The Pink

Just like “Groundhog Day.” A truly great movie, by the way, but I never actually wanted to live it.

Another evening where I walked away from the mountain of work at my desk and the Deadlines From Hell ™ and took thirty or forty minutes to read and watch the sunset.

Do you see Venus up there? It’s right there in the clouds, but they’re not that thick, so you can see it shining through just below the three power lines, about halfway between the trees on either side of the picture. Click on the image to blow it up to full size – it’s there!

Can you see it now? Like a diamond floating up there in pink cotton candy.

The sunset two days ago was very much orange and yellow where tonight was very much pink and purple.

And as before, and as it will be tomorrow, eventually it all fades to black. I waved to Major who was walking by, disappointed by the absence of the bunnies who won’t come out when I’m sitting out there.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll sit out in the back yard to harass the wrens instead so that Major can spook the bunnies.

It’s the little things.

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Starlink Sighting

(Prelude – a word about “apparent magnitude,” i.e., how bright stars are. It’s like golf where the scoring is backwards – small or negative numbers are brighter, big or positive numbers are dimmer. The brightest stars in the sky are about M+0 (“magnitude zero”) to M-1.5. Venus right now is very bright, M-4.7. The full moon gets up to M-13. Getting dimmer, you get into positive numbers. The stars in the Big Dipper are M+1.8 to M+3.3, which will be relevant later in this article. The human eye in a dark, clear sky can see down to about M+6, but in Los Angeles on a light polluted night, you’ll be lucky to see down to M+4.)

SpaceX is in the process of launching a whole constellation of small-ish satellites called Starlink. When done, they’ll offer high-speed internet to just about any spot on Earth.

The positives and negatives of Starlink are complex. The positive of offering reasonably priced high-speed internet anywhere is obvious. The negatives are more subtle for the general public and involve the potential for catastrophic space debris events and the disruption to ground-based astronomy.

If you’ve hung out on this site for any length of time you know that I’m a bit obsessed with the sky and love to watch the ISS pass over. (There’s a “search” button over there on the right – put in “ISS” – waste the next few hours.) Since the Starlink satellites launch sixty at a time, all into the same orbit, gradually spreading out and separating over time, the effect is that of a “string of pearls,” one satellite after another following each other in the same orbit.

This is how the internet delivery system works. You launch a bunch of satellites into the same orbit and they gradually fill that orbital plane. Then you do another plane at a slightly different inclination. And another. And another. And finally you get that picture from the Starlink site like a web filling the sky, so that at any given time at any given point on the planet you have at least one, maybe two or three satellites above the horizon for you. While they’re all travelling and will disappear over your horizon in eight to ten minutes, there will be others following right behind. You’ll always have some of them up there.

So the first reaction of many folks was, “COOL!! At night, where now we see things like ISS going over every now and then, once Starlink is up we’ll have these ‘trains’ or lines of satellites following each other any time, every night!” And about two seconds later, those who want to observe the sky and take pictures said, “SHIT!! At night, where now we see things like ISS going over every now and then, once Starlink is up we’ll have these ‘trains’ or lines of satellites following each other any time, every night!”

For the record, SpaceX is aware of the issue (and the bad publicity) and is working on minimizing the disruption to astronomy and visibility of the satellites in upcoming models. It’s not clear if this latest batch had any of the new designs incorporated into their construction.

There have been a half dozen or so Starlink launches to date, the last one earlier this week. There is, of course, a site for letting you know when you can see them, findstarlink.com. And you can use Heavens-Above.com if you’re already using that to track ISS sightings like I’ve been bitching at you to do for seven years. (In either program, obviously, put in your location, not mine. Unless you live near me.)

Tonight, I was told there was a GREAT pass of some of the Starlink 6 satellites. Great! I went out to see what the hubbub was about.

Earlier today there was supposed to be a GREAT pass of these same satellites over Florida, and a number of the launch photographers and NASA Social types I follow on Twitter were going to be looking. They universally reported a complete bust, saw nothing. So maybe those design changes are working?

I went out into the front and saw nothing at first. But it was a little hazy, the moon is bright, there are two street lights out there (you’ve seen them in my ISS photos), and the rabbits running around the front yard had triggered the motion activation on the security light over the garage. I saw nothing. A bust? Maybe those design changes are working?

Maybe.

I went out into the back yard where I’ve got trees and the house blocking big chunks of the sky, but also a lot more dark. And a chair to sit down it. I spent about ten minutes sweeping the sky with binoculars, figuring the Starlink satellites might be really dim. With the binoculars I’m looking at stars down to about M+5 or M+6, even with the haze and moonlight and light pollution. That’s dim, less than you can see with the naked eye even in a clear, dark sky. But I’m also looking at a very small spot of sky, so I would have to be lucky to spot a satellite.

Nada. Until…

Until something BRIGHT flashed through the field of view. I figured at first it was an airplane, a trans-Pacific flight out of LAX. I put down the binoculars and looked up toward the moon.

HOLY. SHIT.

The first one I saw was right by the quarter moon, which is bright. Even near the moon, it was easily visible. Comparing it other stars (particularly the stars in the Big Dipper), it was probably about M+1 to M+1.5. All of them I saw were definitely brighter than all of the stars in the Big Dipper, which range from M+1.8 to M+3.3 (see the prelude above).

Then I saw the second one coming up behind it. And I had the sense to look back to the northeast where they were headed. And I saw one, two, three, possibly a fourth “ahead” of the first one I had seen. They were fading as they got down into the heavier haze near the horizon.

And. They. Kept. Coming.

The were about 25° to 30° degrees apart. I base that estimate on the size of the Big Dipper – from the tip of the “handle” to the far side of the “dipper” (Alkaid to Dubhe, if you want to use the stars’ real names) is about 25.3° and the separation between Starlink satellites was about the same order of magnitude.

All told I saw fifteen or sixteen satellites. I don’t know if this was a smaller subset that’s broken off into a different orbit from the rest of the sixty launched earlier this week or if I just missed the first forty-plus when I was using the binoculars.

The next to last one in the train was odd, sort of in between the two last bright satellites, dimmer, and while going in the same direction, it was a couple of degrees off to the east of the track that the rest were on.

So…

Really mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, seeing dozens of satellites in the same orbit, following each other like that for what had to have been ten minutes or so… The five-year old deep down inside of me was just thrilled shitless to see that. I’m not gonna kid you about it.

But at the same time, as someone who has sat up all night with a set of cameras and a telescope, taking exposures from five minutes to sixty minutes, with mosquitoes or hip-deep snow and everything in between, I can see where this is going to really mess with both the amateurs and the pros doing astronomy. And folks who are trying to hunt for comets and asteroids are going to have fits.

That last bit probably worries me the most. Comets and asteroids are a one in a bunch of millions danger to the planet, but if you lose the odds you end up following the dinosaurs into oblivion. I would sort of like the folks hunting for those, many of them amateurs, to have the best conditions possible. They have enough problems with clouds, weather, light pollution, and airplanes. I don’t want to handicap them with a few thousand moving targets passing through every couple of minutes.

I mean, 2020 – right? With our luck there will be that rock with our name on it out there just passing Pluto and we could spot it and have twenty years to figure out a way to deflect it and save ourselves, but we’ll miss it because someone in East Podunk needs to be streaming high speed, high definition porn while also playing Animal Crossing…

On the other hand, if those next twenty years are like the last three, I might be on Team Asteroid.

In the meantime, now that I know what to look for, the next question is obvious.

How do I take pictures of it?

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Clouds Adding Character

Tonight’s layers of clouds didn’t “partially obscure the conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus.” Nah!

Such negativity! “Obscure” is such a judgmental term!

Nah, let’s say that they added color and character!

“Character!” Yeah, that’s it!

It was a group effort tonight! Clouds, moon, Venus!

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Again Look To The West After Sundown

For the next few days, the moon will be gorgeous and getting closer to Venus and then moving past it. If you didn’t see it tonight, look tomorrow, or Monday, or Tuesday…

Even early after sunset, way before it’s dark, you’ll spot the moon in the blue sky. It’s almost ludicrous how bright Venus is as well. I spotted it in the blue sky just a few minutes after sunset, when it was till plenty bright enough to read outside.

Tomorrow the moon will be a little more illuminated and will appear closer to where Venus is.

As it gets darker you’ll see other stars coming out. Just off to the left in this view is Orion, and just a bit higher than Venus you’ll see Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini.

To the left of the moon (on the left side of that palm tree) is Aldebaran. Once it gets a little bit more dark, you should be able to easily spot the Pleiades. (Remember?)

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Thirty Years Ago Today & Five Years Ago Today

Thirty years ago today the space shuttle Discovery launched with the Hubble Space Telescope onboard. It was placed into low Earth orbit the next day. Despite the problems that were discovered when the first pictures came down, Hubble became an astonishing success. Not only has it given us over 1,400,000 observations which have revolutionized astronomy, the crewed space shuttle missions to repair and later repeatedly upgrade the instruments on Hubble have been a truly amazing example of what a trained crew can accomplish in space.

In honor of that 30-year anniversary, NASA, ESA, and STSci have released this image of “the Cosmic Reef.” In it we see NGC 2020 (the large, red nebula) and NGC 2014 (the smaller, blue nebula).

(Image from NASA, ESA, and STSci)

These star-forming regions are part of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of ours that is 163,000 light years away.

In addition, a video about the image has been released by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.


This means a lot to me, for so many reasons. Among them is the fact that for the 25th anniversary of Hubble’s launch, I attended my fifth NASA Social, this one in Washington, D.C. For that event, NASA released this image of Westerlund 2.

(NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team)

(Here, here, here, here, here, here, and here are my posts from that NASA Social – other posts from around that time show pictures from my amazing sightseeing expeditions around Washington.)

When this picture was first revealed to the world, it was displayed on a huge video screen right over my head in the lobby of the Newseum,

I was sitting in the second row, behind three astronauts, one of whom was the head of NASA at the time.

(Astronaut and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was seated in front of me – he was a crew member on STS-31 which launched Hubble thirty years ago. Loren Shriver was seated at right – he commanded STS-31. Scott Altman is the one on the left who was walking toward us – he was the mission commander for STS-109 and STS-125, the fourth and fifth Hubble servicing missions.)

That afternoon was spent at Goddard where, among other über cool activities, I got to hold and play with one of the actual tools that was used in space to do perform one of the instrument upgrades.

Oh, and we got to see the Hubble’s successor, the Webb Space Telescope, which should launch next year.

Yeah. That was a pretty great day.

So, Happy Birthday, Hubble! Here’s to a few more years of service, and maybe even more if us clever little apes can figure out a way to service you again even without the Space Shuttle!

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When It Rains, It Pours

There’s a lot going on these days.

You might have noticed.

A lot of stress, not a lot of sleep, a lot of angst, not a lot of relaxation.

“Take care of yourself,” folks say, and that’s good advice. When you get on a plane they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first if there’s an emergency, because that way you can help others without being one of those who needs help.

So tonight was going to be great. There was an ASTONISHING space station pass over Southern California. Almost horizon to horizon, straight through the zenith, brighter than Venus. (Remember Venus?)

(Image from Heavens-Above.com – get it – use it!)

On top of that, there’s a “SUPERMOON” tonight! Yeah, y’all know how I feel about the sensational headlines and click bait. It’s a full moon when the moon is at perigee, the point in a body’s object when it’s closest to Earth, so it looks about 1% bigger than “normal.” You would never know that just by looking at it. But, it’s a full moon, it will be bright, it will be spectacular.

Been looking forward to this for days and days. Needed to remember the joys of the little things.

And Mother Nature said,

It’s been POURING. Flash flood alerts sort of pouring. Biblical-class rain on and off. You would be soaked to the skin just thinking about going outside.

So there was a really spectacular ISS pass. But we couldn’t see it.

There was a beautiful, bright full moon rising. (Unclear if it was “bad.”) But we couldn’t see it.

Mother Nature’s a bitch.

And not the good kind.

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Venus & Pleiades

I mentioned a few days ago while sharing pictures of the Moon and Venus that the Pleiades (an open cluster of bright, blue stars, easily visible to the naked eye) were nearby and Venus would be getting closer to them.

It’s happening over the next few nights and tonight’s clear (-ish) here so I decided to see what I could see with the big lens.

(As always, I urge you ignore the sensational headlines online no matter how tempting it might be to distract yourselves from news of the virus and the panic and our governmental ineptitude and the growing body count. This conjunction of Venus & the Pleiades is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – it happens about every eight years. And it’s not something you have to see TONIGHT or you’ll miss it – it will take place over the next week or two, so relax if it’s cloudy tonight and you missed it.)

With the telephoto lens and a tripod mounted camera, you tend to start getting “trailing” in longer exposures. This is caused by the Earth moving (and no, not in the “good” way!) and the camera not. So even at the widest field of view, after about a four second exposure you’ll get trails. But it’s easy to see the extremely bright Venus and the core of “The Seven Sisters.”

(As always, click on the images to see them full screen sized, they’ll look much better and you’ll see more detail.)

If you let the exposure go to out to twenty-five seconds you’ll see a LOT of stars – but they’re moving and trailing. And that’s some random satellite crossing the upper right quarter of the field.

Zoom in about half way and the trailing gets worse, so anything over two seconds starts to show trails

And if you go out to twenty-five seconds, Venus starts to look like a really bright comet as it smears across the image.

Finally, zoom all the way out to 300 mm and crop the image to get a nice shot of the core.

Let’s see what I can play with tomorrow night or Saturday if it’s clear! (And Los Angeles folks, there are some fantastic ISS passes coming up on the weekend!)

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