Category Archives: Space

Still There

Mount Wilson Observatory was still there this morning. (All photos from the HPWREN webcam system.)

There were some hairy moments overnight. This morning they were dropping another ring of Phos-Chek around the site

And this afternoon there was another flare up on the north side.

But tonight it was clear-ish, at least early on.

Of course, about 23:45 tonight, maybe ten minutes ago, we had a 4.8 earthquake down there in those lights, which rattled us a bit over here fifty miles away. Just to remind us where we are and that this year will never, ever end.

In case we had forgotten.

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Mount Wilson Tonight

They thought they were out of the woods on the Bobcat fire after a flare-up that got within 500 yards of Mt. Wilson Observatory a couple nights ago.

Not so.

The Bobcat fire started just before noon on Sunday, the 13th. Four days later, it’s only 9% contained and it’s now threatening thousands of homes in both the San Gabriel Valley on the Los Angeles side of the mountains as well as communities on the northern, Antelope Valley side of the mountains.

And now it’s dangerously close to the Mount Wilson Observatory again.

These might be backfires, set deliberately by the firefighters under controlled conditions to increase the amount of defensible space around the facility. It’s hard for fire to burn through an area that’s already burned – no fuel.

But from the webcams on the observatory domes, it looks very close and very dangerous. (Photos below from the UC San Diego HPWREN network.)

The only good news is that it seems that it was worse a couple hours ago in terms of flames leaping fifty feet into the air. These photos were taken at 23:00, 23:16, and 23:25 respectively.

The lights of Los Angeles are beautiful – they also seriously limit the ability of this world-class astronomical observatory to do world-class observations.

You can also see, through the clouds, in the upper right of the left-hand frame, Jupiter and Saturn drifting through the smoke.

Let’s hope that Mount Wilson is still there in the morning. And next week. And onward.

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Moon Triangle-Ish

Over the last couple of nights the moon, a little past a quarter full, has been sailing past Jupiter and Saturn, all positioned high in the evening sky, bright and beautiful.

Last night:

That’s Jupiter on the right of the moon, Saturn a bit dimmer to the upper left.

At some point the three of them made a nice, even triangle – I was on the wrong side of the planet to see it.

Instead, tonight the moon had passed that point and was now on the far side of Saturn, at least from this viewpoint.

One would assume that if the Moon had been transported to where it was literally on the other side of Saturn:

  • It would look much smaller and more dim
  • There probably would have been major headlines to go along with the catastrophic, world-wide earthquakes, tidal waves, and other calamities associated with a gravitational disruption of that scale.

We also notice that the zoomed in views both nights, with all pictures taken on my iPhone, are grainy as hell. But as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you at the time.

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ISS Pass – August 02

I mainly wanted to take tonight’s picture because I’ve been trying to experiment with the focusing on this new lens that’s been giving me fits. There’s progress, this is MUCH better than what I got the other night. (Which I didn’t share with you because, you know, it sucked.)

The stars are still trailing because the Earth is moving over the course of these twenty-nine images and two minutes and forty-two seconds. Haven’t figured out a way to stop that, and probably wouldn’t do it if I could because, you know, destruction of civilization and all human life. (Although there are days…)

But the focus is much better and everything’s pretty sharp. I’ve got passes over the next few nights so I’ll keep playing with it to see if I can get it better.

You’ll see the Big Dipper up there, so Comet NEOWISE is up there somwhere, probably to the left of the ISS track and about halfway to the top of the tree on a line between the top of the tree and the far right star in the “bowl” of the Dipper. But I doubt it can be seen, again with the full Moon rising in the east and a fair amount of smoke and haze still in the air.

(Image: Star Walk)

Speaking of that smoke, in this image of the ISS track you can see how red the ISS looks down near the horizon versus how it looks overhead. That’s caused by the path of the light traveling through a lot more air down there, plus the smoke, so just the Sun and Moon will look orange or red as their rising or setting, so will the ISS.

What you won’t see tonight that you might have seen last night is the Dragon spacecraft – it landed in the water off of Pensacola, Florida this afternoon. The entry, descent, and landing were just about perfect, and Bob and Doug are back home with their families tonight, while a few hundred pounds of critical science results and samples are on their way back to their Earth-bound research labs, and the Dragon spacecraft is headed back to Kennedy Space Center where it will be examined in great detail (this was a test flight, after all) and then refurbished for use on the Crew-2 flight to ISS next year.

 

 

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Hidden Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft undocked from the ISS this afternoon and is on it’s way to splashdown off of Florida early tomorrow afternoon. Sometimes when the Shuttle would be coming or going from the ISS it was fairly easy to see it during a good ISS pass since it was fairly large and reflected a lot of light. The Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft are considerably smaller than Shuttle was, but if you have a good pass and they’re near the ISS, you might see them trailing along or leading, depending on their orbit.

There was a so-so ISS pass over SoCal tonight – low on the horizon, so we were seeing it through a lot of atmosphere at best, and our atmosphere is a bit hazy at the moment. While we don’t have any storms or clouds, we have plenty of smoke to go around. The fire near us from yesterday is out, but there are a handful of others around and one HUGE one that broke out this afternoon (way out in Riverside County), so the seeing is marginal.

Plus, there’s this monstrously huge source of “natural” light pollution up there tonight:

The moon is only a couple of days from full, and with that bright moonlight bouncing off of all of that smoke and haze, it’s ugly for star gazing. On the other hand, to the right of the moon is Jupiter and its moons, and to the left is Saturn and its rings, so even with binoculars it was nice to see detail in those objects.

But I did not see the Dragon. I saw the ISS and looked carefully, but couldn’t spot the Dragon. (I also looked to see if I could still spot the comet with binoculars, but struck out there also.)

While I had my Hidden Dragon, I did not see any Crouching Tiger. Which is just as well, because, you know, TIGER! The last thing I needed today was to be eaten and killed, or killed and eaten. (The order doesn’t matter to me, both are very bad.)

What I was constantly accompanied by during my astrophotographical quests of the evening were these guys:

These two finally got tired of running away every time I came out, especially since I wasn’t going to go under that honkin’ huge street light there, so they just decided to stay. There were another three or four who were just running wind sprints across the street and into the bushes every time I came out. More power to them.

Good luck coming home tomorrow, Doug and Bob! Go Dragon!

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Onward To Mars!

I had an alarm set for 04:45 so that I could watch Perseverance and Ingenuity launch toward Mars. Turns out I didn’t need it.

Alrighty then!

The launch was flawless.

So now the spacecraft coast for seven months with a couple of small course corrections as needed until it intercepts Mars and lands at Jezero on February 18, 2021. After enduring and surviving (and nailing the landing) in the classic “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

It’s only rocket science.

Not seismology!

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Perseverance & Ingenuity

If the weather holds (it’s looking 80% likely for a “go” right now) and the rocket gods smile on us, in a little under six hours the next NASA/JPL rover will be on its way to Mars atop a ULA Atlas V rocket.

Perseverance is an SUV-sized, nuclear-powered rover packed with experiments to search for signs of life on Mars. It will also cache a handful of samples for return to Earth, hopefully being picked up by the 2026 rover. It’s got even more and higher resolution cameras than Curiosity does (Curiosity is still going strong BTW, now it its 2,837th sol of its 687 sol mission), including cameras that will give us a HD view of the “seven minutes of terror” that are what it takes to land on Mars.

Finally, Perseverance also has experiments that will start to look toward humans being on Mars. There are multiple samples of spacesuit materials that will be exposed to the Martian environment (dust, wind, perchlorates in the soil, radiation, cold) as well as an experiment that will demonstrate how oxygen can be removed from the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere and stored for human use.

Also being carried by Perseverance is Ingenuity, a helicopter drone that has been designed to fly in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars. It’s stowed underneath the body of Perseverance, but after landing it will be unfolded, put on the ground, and Perseverance will drive away and expose Ingenuity.

(If you don’t think any of this is super, duper, über cool, then please unfollow me now…)

For the rest of us, NASA-TV coverage starts at 07:00 EDT (04:00 PDT, god help me!) with the launch window opening at 07:50 EDT (04:50 PDT).

We might be fighting COVID and actual demons, but let’s not forget that there are reasons we’re fighting. Family, friends, and freedom may be at the absolute top of the list of reasons, but stuff like this is pretty solidly in the Top Ten in my book.

Go Atlas!

Go Centaur!

Go Perseverance!

Go Ingenuity!

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My Letter From Hogwarts

Or at least, its equivalent.

IT’S FROM KENNEDY SPACE CENTER!!! TO **ME**!!!

It MUST be the letter telling me that I’ve been picked to be an astronaut, RIGHT??!!

Or maybe they’ve heard about how I want to go to Mars and they want me to join NASA and head up that project, RIGHT??!!

It’s too thin and flat to actually be the keys to my very own space shuttle – but, hey, they probably don’t use keys, they probably use a credit card like ID thingie, and that will fit in here so that MUST be it, RIGHT??!!

Oh…

It’s those masks that I ordered from the KSC gift shop.

Oh…

Sniffle…

Deep, shuddering breath…

A single tear…

Well, they’re very nice NASA face masks. I’m sure they’re exactly like the ones the astronauts wear…

 

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The Comet From The Back Yard

I think I said two nights ago that I was probably done trying to take pictures of Comet NEOWISE F3 since it was starting to fade significantly (it still is) and being a low-contrast object that has its light spread out across the tail and comet head, it was difficult to photograph well from my front yard given all of the street lights and lights from the neighbors’ houses (which are still on).

I was wrong.

The key is that the obvious finally clicked for me tonight and I realized that I was still thinking like the comet was way down near the horizon and I had to see it from the front yard just before it set. But it’s now moved way up by the bowl of the Big Dipper, so maybe I could see it from my back yard? Where the house and trees that would have blocked seeing the comet when it was near the horizon now will block the light from all of the streetlights and neighbors’ porches. Maybe?

Yes, indeedy, that works like a charm. With one little non-insurmountable problem.

It’s lovely and all, but it causes its own share of light pollution. Tonight was tolerable but in a week it will be full and freakishly bright, while the comet will continue to fade, so that will become problematic. But a problem for another night.

A 20-second exposure at 70mm shows where it is. It’s definitely dimmer by a lot, but the green color is still evident.

But without the street lights in view, I can go to a 30-second exposure and bring out more detail and color. The stars are no longer pinpoints, “trailing” as the Earth moves. The next step would be to mount the camera on my telescope’s equitorial mount so that it spins the camera “backward” at exactly the same rate as the Earth rotates “forward” – maybe I can try that later.

Zooming in to 300mm, a 4-second exposure keeps the trailing to a minimum and the green color really pops, but you don’t see much of the tail.

Zoomed in part way at 114mm, a 25-second exposure starts to bring out the tail.

Finally, zooming in to 300mm and taking a 30 second exposure, the comet’s head is trailed but really shows it’s green color, while the tail is smeared due to trailing, but has more detail showing.

Finally, because I remembered an old trick used by earlier astronomers when searching for comets and asteroids on photographic plates, I inverted the image from black to white and I enhanced the contrast in Photoshop. Now that tail is really obvious!

Not bad for haven called it quits 48 hours ago!

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The Comet Closest

Tonight’s the night that Comet NEOWISE F3 is closest to Earth. This is not to say that it’s actually really close at all (approximately 64,300,000 miles), but it is the closest it will come as it heads back out to the dim, cold, empty regions of the solar system.

But first, before it gets dark, the monthly cycle has rolled around and the three-day-old crescent moon is back in our skies.

As always, the crescent Moon is a high dynamic range object. The illuminated crescent is quite bright, to to capture it you need a short exposure (1/25 second), but doing so makes it hard to see the palm trees that it was sharing that spot of sky with – perhaps if you have a good, high contrast monitor you can see their faint silhouettes.

Shoot a two-second exposure and the darkened face of the moon starts to come out due to Earthshine, sunlight reflected off of the Earth, onto the Moon, and then back to us. You can also start to see the brighter stars, as well as the aforementioned palm tree silhouettes. But the illuminated portion of the Moon is completely overexposed.

Finally, if you wait until about 21:45 and shoot a 15-second exposure, you’ll catch the comet with a distinct green color showing around the head, but not as much tail visible in the hazy, light-polluted skies of Los Angeles.

That’s the big difference in location – you’ll notice in all of the really fantastic comet photos taken from dark sky locations, the sky is almost jet black and a ton of detail can be seen in the tail, including the ion tail which is split off from the dust tail. Here in the big city, a long exposure just starts to turn everything grey.

So while I’ll still be going out and watching the comet, I don’t anticipate too many more photos, if any, unless something dramatic happens. “Dramatic” could include getting my telescope cleaned and repaired, getting the chance to drive for a few hours to get off to a dark sky location, or both.

The odds of either or both happening are…astronomical!

But the comet is still visible easily with binoculars, even from a city with all of its lights, and in a dark sky it’s still (barely) a naked eye object, so if you haven’t seen it yet, take your shot!

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