Category Archives: Space

Fifty Years Ago Today

I was in Florida. And it turns out I wrote a pretty decent account of that trip ten years ago today.

So read this!

The tl;dr version – I was 17, somehow got permission to take time off school, made it from a small town in Vermont to Florida, and saw the last Saturn V launch when Skylab launched on May 14, 1973.

It was quite the adventure. You know how they say you learn to make good decisions by living through the bad decisions you make? That trip was FULL of bad decisions, and decisions made out of ignorance. But it was spectacular, definitely changed my life.

Apollo Command-Service Module (CSM) training simulator, seen on the Kennedy Space Center tour a day or two before the launch.

The Saturn IB up on stilts to use the Saturn V launch pad, with the Apollo capsule that would take the Skylab I crew up. It was supposed to launch the next day, but due to the damage the Skylab took on launch it took eleven days of desperate work to figure out how to save the mission and prepare for the rescue. The Skylab I crew launched on May 25th, but I was back in high school in Vermont by that time.

The final Saturn V, with the Skylab spacecraft on top.

In some ways for me, the most simple but amazing fact is that in 50 years I’ve never been back to KSC to see the new museums, the space shuttle Atlantis, or a launch. I’ve been to five NASA Socials (see that “search” box?), I’ve finally seen a launch out of Vandenberg, I’ve been to the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, to the associated Udvar-Hazy museum at Dulles, to a ton of air shows, flown in P-51 Mustangs and a B-25 and a B-29 and done aerobatics in an SNJ and a bunch of other planes with the CAF, and even got my own pilot’s license (gotta get current and get flying again, but that’s a different rant)… But I’ve never been back to KSC.

It can’t be that hard to see a launch these days, SpaceX is launching about once a week or more, ULA has the Vulcan coming online soon and they’re still launching the last of the Atlas missions, Blue Origin is getting ready to go orbital soon.

Gotta fix that. Soon.

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Filed under Paul, Photography, Space, Travel

ISS Pass – May 13th

If you’ve seen any of the previous pictures that I’ve posted of ISS passes over the years (go ahead, look now if you want, I’ll wait) you’ll have seen that they’re all different. The one constant is that they’re west to east paths (within certain ranges), but every time there are different paramters. Like where the ISS rises in the west (-ish) and where it sets in the east (-ish). How much of the pass is visible – for an evening pass the ISS often passes into shadow somewhere along the line, while for pre-dawn passes (which I am NOT getting up for about 99.999% of the time!) it will appear out shadow somewhere overhead. Another key is how high it gets. Sometimes it’s down near the northern or southern horizon and you just barely see it above the horizon.

The spectacular passes are when it goes from horizon to horizon while passing through or near the zenith, the spot directly overhead. Those are the brightest passes, and the longest.

Tonight’s pass, courtesy of

Look at that track! Starting at the lower right in the southwest, through the zenith (okay, 88º elevation, where the zenith is at 90º), and back down to the horizon in the northeast. Of course, this almost guaranteed that it would be cloudy, because Murphy’s an asshole.

Much to my surprise, it was clear as a bell.

The good news is that the pass was spectacular. The bad news is that I live in the middle of a big city with a ton of street lights, general light pollution, and every house lit up with porch and security lights. So there’s a lot of glare.

I first saw it with the naked ey about the time it crossed the path of that aircraft in the lower left. The coastal fog and haze will do that. But it got bright quickly and climbed out of that haze. Then, when it got into the wires overhead, it was time to quickly flip the tripod 180º and look toward the northeast.

The ISS was just behind the edge of that well-illuminated tree as it started to descend from the zenith to behind my neighbor’s house. At least the telephone pole, while somewhat unphotogenic, wasn’t in the way.

If you’re in SoCal, there are more passes in the next few days. Tomorrow night (May 14th) at 21:31:17. The 15th at 20:42:00, the 17th at 20:43:04, and the 22nd at 23:10. All of those are lower toward the horizon and dimmer. The passes on the 14th and 15th will be the best of the lot. (There are also some better AM passes but again, *A*freaking*M*, as in 04:50:35 on the 14th. Knock yourself out!)

No matter where you are, again, go to to get predictions for passes of the ISS (and lots of other bright spacecraft) over your location.

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Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space

Aurora Hunting

Some of you may have heard that there’s a large electromagetic storm going on above Earth’s poles tonight. This is caused by a very large Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) that exploded off of the Sun two days ago and hit the Earth straight on tonight. It’s not large enough to cause a catastrophic event (google “Carrington Event,” the results of which would be many orders of magnitude worse if it were to happen in today’s computer-driven, satellite based, electronic world) but it is expected to cause the most extensive display of aurora in more than twenty years.

As we approach midnight on the US west coast, we’re getting pictures online from aurora seen as far south as Kansas, Kentucky, and Virginia. Out here there are sitings as far south as Grass Valley, CA (just north of Sacremento) and just south of Lake Tahoe, NV.

Even with that, it’s still highly unlikely that we would see aurora here in Los Angeles, three hundred or miles south of there. With light pollution to boot. Possible! But highly unlikely.

I went out with the camera using the “light bucket” lens – wide angled, very high speed, sharp focus – to see if I might just get lucky and see something the naked eye can’t pick out.

(Click on the image to see it full sized – it’s nice! I’m giving you the big file, not compressed to save disk space!)

The glow at the bottom right is just the usual light pollution from the San Fernando Valley. Above is the Big Dipper with the two end “pointer” stars aimed at Polaris, the North Star. Some other interesting stuff possibly visible – but no sign of any red or green aurora.

I hope you got more lucky!

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Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space

Odds & Sods, April 20th

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you heard that SpaceX launched its SuperHeavy booster and Starship spacecraft. You also heard that it blew up.

There are lots of folks who aren’t fans of money spent on space programs, either private or government, and a lot of folks who aren’t big fans of Elon Musk. They’re all having a field day making  jokes and declarations that the day was an epic failure.

It was far from a failure. This was a first test flight of something so cutting edge that it’s never even been fantasized about by any other space program. I ranted a bit about what an eventual success of Starship will mean for the world, humanity, the future of mankind, blah blah blah.

For something this revolutionary, never tried before, the first flight is truly a “test” flight. They’ve done tens of thousands of hours of simulations and systems tests and static fires and wet dress rehearsals. Now it was time to push the big red button, light those 33 engines, and if they all light (or at least most of them) then you can get off the ground and see what actually happens. That was today.

Now there’s going to be months of analysis. They’re going to have to figure out why those couple of engines didn’t light. They’re going to have to figure out why the stages didn’t separate. They’re going to have to rebuild big chunks of the pad and figure out how how to keep it from getting chewed up on the next launch.

Disappointment? Sure, it would have been really cool to go off flawlessly. But that’s not the real world.

They’ll figure it out. Be patient.

Speaking of disappointment, I got the news today that not one, but two houses that I’ve been lusting after got sold. We’ve been looking at houses for a couple of years, if by “looking” you mean “looking at thousands of houses on Zillow.” It will be a big move, but renting sucks.

One house outside of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois we went and saw last summer when we were in Chicago. I had serious house lust, the place was glorious, huge, majestic, and incredibly low priced compared to the LA real estate market. However, I was alone in those feelings.

The other house was up in the High Desert about three hours away, two hours outside of Los Angeles. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was very functional, good sized, lots of storage, a decent neighborhood, and reasonably priced for the LA real estate market. We’ve been meaning to take a trip up there to take a look but the schedule never worked out. Now it’s gone.

Disappointment? Sure, it would have been really cool to get one of them. But that’s not the real world.

I’ll figure it out. Be patient.

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Filed under Castle Willett, Space

Sunset – April 16th

Sunset is an interesting benchmark for our human brains. While our lives are run by clocks these days, most of the measures that we’ve created to mark the passing of time hae something to do with astronomical events and values. 24 hours to a day. 12 hours (sort of) of day and 12 hours (sort of) of night. 28 days to a lunar cycle. The starting dates for the four seasons. 365 days (sort of) to a year.

Sunset is often a time to think back on the day that’s ending and look forward to the day that’s starting with sunrise. That looking forward, that foreboding, that anticipation is weighing on me tonight.

Tomorrow morning, if all goes well, about 08:00 CDT (13:00 UTC, 06:00 PDT) we may see the first launch of SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft. And that could be a HUGE next step to make tomorrow’s world significantly different that tonight’s.

In tonight’s sunset sky, up in the upper right, is Venus. Let’s take it as an example.

Right now there are no spacecraft orbiting it or exploring it. We have had an orbiter there and it gave us a treasure trove of data. The US has never put a robot spacecraft on Venus’s surface, although the Russians have. However, due to the hellscape of monstrous atmospheric pressure and heat, those probes only sent back a handful of pictures and data, surviving only a couple of minutes.

There are proposals and new projects on the US slate. But with the current state of human launch capabilities, interplanetary probes are rare and expensive. Every gram of weight is incredibly precious, so spacecraft have to be optimized as much as possible, which means they’re expensive to design and expensive to design. And researchers and engineers typically get one chance to get it right, so everything has to be perfect.

In this case, sending something to Venus, even to do a limited set of tasks or carry a set of a dozen or so instruments and experiments, is something that happens every couple of decades and costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

Because it’s so expensive to launch. Because launch capabilities are so limited.

What if those restrictions were gone?

SpaceX’s Starship is designed to be reuseable the way that a 747 is reuseable. If every 747 took one flight and then was destroyed, flying on an commercial aircraft would be incredibly expensive and rare. But a 747, while costing hundreds of millions of dollars to build, has a lifetime of thousands of flights, usually several a day. So Boeing doesn’t build one from start to finish and then start on the next one – they rolled one off of the assembly line every couple of days, dozens a month, hundreds a year. And they all fly almost constantly, so it’s cheap enough to use them to bring planeloads of bananas from Central America and winter apples from Chili and FedEx packages from all over the world so that you and I could have those things the next day.

Let’s do that space.

If SpaceX builds Starships to fly dozens, hundreds, thousands of flights and builds hundreds and thousands of them and can launch each one multiple times a week, let alone multiple times per day, then getting into low Earth orbit (LEO) gets dirt cheap by today’s standards.

And if THAT happens, and you want to explore Venus, you don’t need to build billion dollar spacecraft that are relatively tiny and perfect with a limited suite of instruments. You can build a dozen, a hundred, a thousand spacecraft for a couple hundred thousand dollars each and flood Venus with orbiters, landers, rovers, balloons – whatever you can think of. And when you learn critical things from the first few, then you build better and cheaper and more capable spacecraft in the second round. It’s a positive feedback loop.

Do I expect Starship to launch tomorrow? Maybe, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a few tries and a few days. No one’s ever done this before and rockets are hard.

When they do launch, do I expect the first mission to go perfectly? Probably not. Remember, rockets are hard! But do I expect them to figure it out and keep trying and succeed in a few months? Yes, no doubt.

For our example, do I expect to have a hundred spacecraft in and around Venus in two years, or five years? No, obviously not. In ten years? Not a hundred, but maybe a handful, ideas that are just proposals now, fighting amongst each other to get that one golden ring from NASA for that one-in-a-decade slot. In twenty or twenty-five years? No doubt.

Tonight, at sunset, I look at Venus and there’s no way to scatter the planet with orbiters and landers and rovers and blimps.

Tomorrow, at sunset, we might be a LOT closer to the day that we can. And that day might be well in my lifetime.

Good luck tomorrow, Starship!

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Filed under Photography, Space, Sunsets

Late Night Launch From 100 Miles Away

If you’re a regular here, you’ve seen the western view from my front yard a few hundred times as I’ve shared sunset pictures of conjunctions and moonsets and planets and comets and, well, sunsets. For reference:

Last night about 23:48 SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a few dozen smallsats and cubesats and microsats and a couple of bigger satellites. They’re launching out of Vandenberg pretty regularly these days, but most are during the day and unless you know exactly where to look, you’re not going to spot that tiny, reasonably faint little dot in the bright sunlit sky. Or it will be cloudy.

But at night…

For reference, those dimly lit vertical lines are those palm trees in the center of the sunset picture and the tops of the neighbors’ trees can be seen at the bottom center and right. Vandenberg is at about midway between those big Italian cypress trees on the right, over the horizon. The rocket comes into view right about at the right base of Castle Peak, just to the left of the far left Italian cypress, headed up and to the left.

As the rocket rises it’s tail gets longer while the air pressure is dropping with increasing altitude. This is the first stage booster firing, nine Merlin engines, about 100 miles away, west of Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands.

Just a few seconds after this (all very visible to the eye, not so much to the cell phone camera) this flame trail cut off at MECO (Main Engine Cut Off). The first stage booster separated and the second stage engine ignited. There was a cloud of gas and exhaust visible dimly (nothing like the “jellyfish” effect you get with a sunset launch) and the booster relights a couple of engines for its “boosteback” burn, returning to land at Vandenberg to be used for an eleventh time in a few weeks. The second stage was visible all the way to the southern horizon until it disappeard over the Malibu Hills. By that time it was well south and still climbing, probably somewhere along the Baja Penninsula.

Next on the runway? Or the launch pad, in this case? The first Starship test flight, possibly as early as Monday morning about 07:00 CDT (05:00 PDT). That’s way early for an olde phart like me, and my Monday schedule is a bit packed. But one of my earliest memories is my Dad dragging me out of bed waaaaaaaay before sunrise to watch Alan Shepherd ride the first Mercury suborbital flight, so I think I’ll be able to pull this off.

Isn’t that why God invented caffeine?

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Filed under Photography, Space

Odds & Sods, April 14th

It was cloudy and foggy last night again and I didn’t get to see Spacex’s Transporter 7 launch out of Vandenberg just before midnight, because the weather sucked for them as well and they scrubbed. The weather is looking much better tonight, both here and there, so in twenty or so minutes (23:48 PDT) maybe we’ll get to see a launch.

SpaceX also got it’s launch license from the FAA today, the last step they needed before launching SuperHeavy Booster 7 carrying Starship Ship 24. They’ll probably try sometime after 07:00 AM CDT on Monday morning.

My son in Texas immediately asked if I would be getting there Saturday or Sunday. It’s with truly great sorrow that I had to acknowledge that I wouldn’t be making a last-minute, surprise trip. As I noted, being an adult sucks. “…For I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

I randomly had two movies on cable on as background while I was working the other night, and didn’t think anything of it, but it hit me later how they both examine similar themes from radically different viewpoints. Things like what it takes to make us human and how we treat other sentient beings and what rights those beings might have. First it was “Ex Machina,” which has always been stunning visually as well as thought provoking. The second was “The Truman Show,” a philosophical horror show masquerading as a Jim Carrey comedy.

Are Eva and Truman all that different at their cores?

Time to try and go see a rocket launch!

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Filed under Entertainment, Space

Leaving The Planet

If you’re up in a few hours, there’s scheduled to be a huge launch out of French Guiana at 04:45 AM PDT, about five hours from now.

Tomorrow night, about this time (23:25 PDT), there’s a launch out of Vandenberg. (Weather permitting.) Right now we have fairly heavy overcast and fog moving in, so if it’s like that tomorrow we won’t see a thing from here. But maybe, if it clears a bit…

Sometime next week, maybe as early as Monday, maybe not, assuming the FAA issues a launch license, there’s a launch out of Texas. It will be the first launch of a full SpaceX Starship. They won’t try to go for a full orbit and they won’t try to recover either the booster or the Starship vehicle – both will splashdown in the ocean and be destroyed, the booster off of Texas and the Starship off of Hawaii after about 3/4 of an orbit.

About the same time next week, there’s a Falcon Heavy taking off from Florida with a satellite heading for geosynchronous orbit. Because of the launch parameters, all three of the cores will be expended. None will be brought back for landing and re-use.

On top of all of that, SpaceX is launching a Falcon 9 from either Florida or California better than twice a week.

And that doesn’t count any of the crewed flights, missions to the ISS, private and government. Or the Chinese space station. Or the upcoming trips to the Moon.

If you want to be leaving the planet in your rear view mirror, it’s a good time for it.


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Venus & Jupiter Conjunction (Plus Five Days)

A few clouds moving in from the next storm make a great, colorful sunset.

But if you get enough light for the wonderful colors and spectacular gradient from pink to black, then you can only see Venus, not Jupiter. It’s fading. (I know how it feels…)

But if you let it get dark enough to see Jupiter, the clouds have started to roll in and all of the color is shot. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

Take what you can get, enjoy the moment, and watch the pretty planets.


Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space, Sunsets

Venus & Jupiter & Satellites

I thought these pictures were interesting, if far from perfect. They’re from the February 26th batch of pictures, three days before the Jupter & Venus conjunction.

They run from three seconds to eight seconds and they were shot with a 300mm zoom lens and the wind was blowing like a demon, so you can see that they’re a bit jittery and smeared as the camera bounced around.

That’s not why I want to share them with you.

Blow each of them up to full sized (click on the image) and you’ll see a number of very faint but visible criss-crossed lines. Better yet, save them or load all five photos in and the flip through them to animate them a bit.

You’ll see at least five items crossing the field, the faint lines getting longer as the exposures get longer.

These are satelittes, and given their close proximity to each I suspect they might be part of a Starlink swarm.

The only orbiting objects I normally capture is the ISS, which is brighter than Venus or Jupiter here. Yet at random, here I’ve spotted at least five background objects over the course of a thirty-seven second series of pictures.

When you see news articles about the Hubble Space Telescope or ground-based telescopes having trouble with all of the satellites up there ruining their observations, believe them!

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Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space