Category Archives: Space

It Was A Good Night To Go To Space

SpaceX launched it first Falcon 9 in quite a while out of Vandenberg tonight. Vandenberg’s about 125 miles to the northwest from where I am in Los Angeles, up on the Central California Coast.

There have been some FREAKIN’ SPECTACULAR launches out of Vandyland as seen from LA, particularly when they happen just after sunset and the huge clouds of gas from the rocket catch the fading sunlight…

Tonight’s launch was a little bit later than sunset, so it wasn’t clear what we would see. But what the heck, eh? Let’s get out one of the good video cameras instead of the iPhone, set it up on a tripod…

The audio you hear from SpaceX’s launch webcast is lagging by about 30 seconds behind what’s really happening. So you see the rocket start to come over the horizon behind the mountains to our west and climb toward main engine cut off (MECO). There are a couple of spots where you see it “blank out” for half a second – that’s it going behind the palm trees across the street.

While this video stops after MECO, with binoculars I could watch the second stage go all the way to the southern horizon, by which time it was well to the south of us, probably way down off of Baja.

Next, it’s time to go see a launch. The ULA and NOAA are launching an Atlas V with Landsat 9 soon – it was supposed to be September 12th (good thing it moved back, I’m still swamped), then September 16th (still swamped), and now NET (No Earlier Than) September 23rd (I won’t be swamped!). We’ll see if I can sneak away for a day. That will be even MORE spectacular.

I’ll probably tell you about it if/when it happens…

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Take The Time

We can get way too tied up with work and deadlines and stress, and skip the little things that might only take a minute or two but which can make all the difference in the world to our quality of life and sanity.

Such was the case tonight when I got so caught up that I nearly missed this – Venus in the lower left, the three-day old crescent Moon above, just 4° away.

We got the work done, hit the deadline, it’s satisfying and rewarding – but then I urged others to go outside and look.

They’re smart, good people. They did. You should too.

Seek out the little, beautiful things. Tomorrow night the Moon will have moved, but it will still be beautiful, and if you look up and to your left towards the south and the zenith, you’ll see bright Jupiter, and between Jupiter and the Moon you’ll see Saturn. If you have even a pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to see a couple of Jupiter’s moons, and craters, mountains, and mare on the Moon. If you have even a small telescope you can see the rings of Saturn and maybe Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

But maybe it will be cloudy or raining! So sit in the garage or on the porch and listen to the rain, not just the rain-ish sounding 45-second loop on that meditation or relaxation app.

Or listen to the wind through the trees, or the wind chimes, or the surf on the shore. Even the sounds of traffic on a nearby freeway will sound like surf. (“Ish…”)

Whatever – don’t wait for a rainbow or lightning to see you out. Go searching for the beauty and force yourself to let your shoulders slump, your jaw unclench, you gut to untighten.

C’mon – you did all of that budget re-modeling and you built all of those massive, interlinked Excel files! Surely you can figure out how to relax for a few minutes!

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That Time Of Month Again

Two days past new moon, and the thin, bright, crescent moon is making the evening sky in the west extra beautiful.

Every month there’s a good chance that something else relatively nearby (on an astronomical scale) will be up there with it.

This month it’s Venus, up there to the left. (Ignore the lens reflection of the moon up there on top, it’s an illusion.)

In theory, Mercury’s there right below the moon, about a smidge above the mountain in the lower right corner, but you won’t see it in these images. It’s still way to close to the Sun and will set before it gets dark enough to be seen. If you want to see it, go look back in May when they were all there together and a little higher and closer together.

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Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space, Sunsets

A Second Clear Night

Last night’s post was rushed – I was running out of time before my self-imposed “posting deadline” of midnight. So it got cut off abruptly, with the bottom line being that I could see the bright star Capella rising very, very near the horizon in the northeast. That’s rare in SoCal, especially these days, since there’s usually so much haze and coastal clouds scattering the ever present light pollution.

Tonight it was clear again, so I went to take pictures. Again it’s clear, but Capella doesn’t rise until after 22:00, and it doesn’t clear the fence until after 23:00, so this will be rushed as well. (For example, I didn’t have the time to clean up all of the “hot” pixels in Photoshop – please ignore all of those bright red and bright purple specks.)

First of all, here’s a very quickly annotated copy – the (currently) sideways “W” or “M” shape of Cassiopeia  up high, near the north pole, which is unmarked but just to the left of it, right around the left edge of the image. And down below, grateful for that hole or notch in the top of the hedge, is Capella.

Here’s the unedited image. Click on it to blow it up and explore.

And there’s one more item annotated in the image, just to the left of the tree, a bit above Cassiopeia – that’s the Andromeda Galaxy.

No kidding!

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ISS Pass – August 04th

It’s getting near the end of the “season” for great ISS passes here. The high beta angle period has passed and after the next few days we’ll be moving back to mostly morning passes. Like, 04:00-ish morning. Uh, no thanks!

But for tonight, there was a spectacular, almost horizon-to-horizon pass, going almost through the zenith (87º maximum) and at mag -3.8.

The problem was that it was just a bit too early and too bright to be taking longer (3 or 4 second) exposures, and even one-second exposures would be bright and potentially overexposed. But taking shorter exposures, as we’ve learned, can overwhelm the older camera and memory cards, taking pictures faster than they can be saved.

I took a shot at it, with one-second exposures and about one-second pauses between photos. The end result came out great, heading from just before the zenith to the eastern horizon, although it looks a bit more like a dashed line than normal, with the gaps being the longer pauses between shots to give the camera time to keep up.

I like it!

This is that wide angle, “light bucket” lens that I like so much, with an easy and almost perfect focus at infinity, so it looks clean and sharp. Later I went out when it was fully dark and played with what it would do in LA’s light polluted and slightly hazy skies, with interesting results. I’ll share those in the next couple of days after I get some time to go through them.

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ISS Pass – July 14th

It’s “high beta-angle” season on the ISS – short version without getting into too many discussions of orbital mechanics (maybe some other time…) is that for a few days the ISS is in the sun 24/7, so if it’s in your night sky it’s highly visible. There are some great passes coming up this week for most places, sometimes both in the sunset hours an hour or two after sunset in the evening and in the pre-dawn hours in the very early morning.

(Click to see it BIG – it’s worth it!)

It came up from the south-southwest (lower right, behind the telephone pole) and headed close to the zenith (i.e., directly overhead). One problem is that honkin’ big streetlight right there, which in turn caused caused those UFO-looking lens flares at the top. They’re reflections, not UFOs, which I guess makes them IFOs.

The second problem is those two jets coming out of LAX. The one on the right is Alaska SkyWest flight #3300 headed toward Boise…

(Image from FlightRadar24 app)

…while the one on the left is Delta flight #2408 to Seattle. Bye, guys!!

(Image from FlightRadar24 app)

The bigger problem is that it was barely an hour after sunset, not very dark, a little hazy so we got some reflected light pollution dancing around. I tried at first doing 1-second photos to keep the sky from over exposing, but I was also saving photos in RAW format in addition to JPG format and with a shot every second the camera couldn’t keep up with storing the images. So I switched to 4-second exposures and hoped for the best. “The best” in this case is a bit over exposed.

But then it swung through the zenith (center right) and headed down toward the north-northeast horizon (lower left). That sky didn’t have a street light or lens flares in it, and the sky was darker to the east, so the background light didn’t overexpose the frames quite as much. And that plane is unidentified, but it sounded like a Cessna or Cirrus, probably out of Van Nuys.

Lessons learned tonight? Again, I love this lens. Not much I can do about how bright or dark the sky is. But there are a number of opportunities for great evening passes for the next few days still. If you can, check out some of the NASA or other websites for ISS tracking to see if there’s a pass for you this week, or better yet, check out the site for pass predictions and maps.

Finally, there are also a number of opportunities for great morning passes for the next few days. You won’t see any pictures of those here. I don’t get to bed until nearly 1AM and I’m up a very few short hours later. I’m not getting up at Oh-freakin’-dark-thirty just to see a morning ISS pass. Sorry!


Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space

Planetary Conjunction – July 12th

Celestial mechanics, right there in plain sight. Yesterday’s photos + 24 hours (give or take a few minutes).

Mars is fading, as expected. Needed binoculars to see it, and you’ll probably have to click to see the full-sized image to see it here.

There it is! Just about eight hours from their (apparent!) closest approach to each other. The word “apparent” is key here. Remember, we’re all gravitationally bound (for the moment) to giant balls of rock, water, and gas, which are in turn spinning on their axes, which in turn are in orbit at thousands of miles an hour around a small, yellow, G-class star, so while they look close together from this particular point of view, they’re actually 74,400,000 miles apart from each other.

This is much closer, which is why even with a relatively simple and cheap camera system you can see craters and other features.

Aside from all of that, it’s simply very pretty to look at in the cooling evening sunset.

Then our 3rd rock from the Sun spins from in front of this view back over my head and behind us, causing the planets and Moon to appear to sink below the western horizon.

There they go, down behind the trees! Once they get down into the muck and coastal haze and we’re looking through a thick chunk of the atmosphere, it’s amazing how much the color from Mars varies every second or two. Mostly a dark orange, but sometimes much less red color and sometimes almost white for a second or two.

While the Moon, exposed to bring out detail at the terminator, is a fingernail crescent…

…and exposed to bring out the Earthshine, starts to also share the sky with some of the other background stars in the constellation Leo. (That’s Al Jabbah [Eta Leonis] to the upper left of the Moon, a white supergiant star about 2,000 light years from Earth.)

If you couldn’t look tonight or tried and got foiled by the weather or clouds, try to look tomorrow night! Let me know if you saw this!

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From Left To Right – Mars – Venus – Crescent Moon

I think I gave a heads up about this a month or so ago but it snuck up on me.

Mars (getting faint, reddish) on the left of Venus (bright white) with the two-day old crescent Moon (it’s the moon-ish looking thing over by the phallic tree, duh) lined up as advertisec.

Could have gone out and caught them a few minutes earlier, but then Mars would have been pretty washed out in the sunset. As it was I never saw Mars with the naked eye, but it was easily visible in binoculars.

Over the next few days Mars will get more dim and start sinking toward the horizon. It will be going around the far side of the Sun from our viewpoint, so if you have anything you want to tell your Martian rover or orbiter, now would be a really good time to do so. In a week or so it will be out of touch for a month or so.

Venus will be getting brighter and higher in the sky for another month or so, then starting its trip back around the gravitational race track and too near the Sun to be seen.

Tonight I had to shift a bit and put that tall tree between the Moon and the planets so that I could get one more set of photos before the Moon was down behind the trees. Stupid planetary rotation…

Taking individual close ups, the Moon was very cresecenty and had some details and craters visible along the terminator.

If I had better equipment and could get a better, more detailed picture of Venus, you would see that it’s in a crescent phase exactly like the Moon’s phase. It’s a geometry thing over 186,000,000 miles. (Give or take a couple million.)

As always, if click on the photos you’ll get to see them in full-screen or full size.

Also, as always, if you missed it tonight it will still (sorta) be there tomorrow night and every night at sunset for a few days, taking into account the above notes about Mars getting dimmer and sinking down below and past Venus (in a relative way) and the Moon moving up into the sky and getting more towards a quarter moon every day.


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Crescent Moon & Venus & Mars – June 13th

A tale of three pictures in one sky, and the different camera equipment needed to tell those three stories.

I thought that the Moon would still be close enough to Venus to be captured in one frame using the 75-300 mm zoom lens – NOPE! Too far apart tonight. So I had to go back into the house and get the camera with the 18-55 mm “normal” lens. Zoomed in to 55 mm, you can just get the Moon at top left, Mars directly below it, and Venus just quite not setting in the lower right. Good thing that gap in the trees is there and my front yard is a bit elevated. What a glorious thing a flat western horizon would be!

The Moon is about three days past new, so along the terminator line you can start to see some nice shadows in the craters. This is using the big lens at 300 mm.

But if you wait for it to get a bit darker and then you overexpose the Moon, you can spot Mars directly below it. Also using the 300 mm zoom lens, just using a 1 second exposure instead of a 1/100 second exposure.

The Moon is on it’s merry way up toward the zenith and full moon in ten days. Venus is climbing away from the Sun while Mars is sinking toward the Sun. Keep an eye on July 10th and 11th! Venus, Mars, and the just-past new crescent (AGAIN!) Moon will all be piled up in a wonderful conjunction. This June arrangement is just a rehearsal!


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Crescent Moon & Venus – June 12th

Looking at how often I post variations of this exact shot, with the two or three or four-day old crescent moon and Venus or Saturn or Jupiter or some combination of them all, you would almost think that there’s some pattern here…

As the prophecy (i.e, the astronomical ephemeris) foretold, the Moon has passed Venus to the west of the Sun.

Tonight I remembered to go out about 45 minutes earlier than last night. It worked (of course).

In the not-quite-dark-yet dusk, the Moon was a crescent, two and a half days (ish) from full moon (which caused that partial and annular solar eclipse on Thursday morning, remember?) with lots of Earthshine.

It was wonderful, clear, cool, a tiny breeze and the stars starting to come out. I could hear two parties going off in the neighborhood – probably graduation celebrations.

As Venus was headed toward the horizon somewhere far beyond Santa Barbara, the Moon was perched atop this tree, with some large hawk or raptor of some sort having just glided in to roost in the tree just at the lower right.

As it got darker, even though the Moon was sinking down into the coastal haze, the Earthshine got easier to see.

I’m grateful that it was clear two days in a row – given the week’s forecast for hot, Hot, HOT weather every day, we might be able to luck out for the rest of the week. Of course, it’s also predicted to be 117° to 120°+ all week, so that’s a mixed blessing.

If you can get a chance to see these two planetary objects over the next couple of nights after sunset, take it! Just go out and sit and watch for a bit. (Put on bug spray…)

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