Category Archives: Space

ISS & Dragon

There was a so-so ISS pass over SoCal tonight.

(Image from

It was low, it was only a partially visible pass, I’ve got a street light smack dab in the middle of that view from my front yard so I would have to go down the hill a ways to see it…



The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that was carrying four astronauts (three from the US, one from Japan) was about 7km from ISS, getting ready to dock. I was hoping to be able to see the two of them flying together, like a double star cruising across the sky.


Coming up from the center bottom toward the top of that telephone pole (ignore all of the power lines, and that plane heading off toward Camarillo) is the trail of the two spacecraft. It fades into orbital night just as it passes the pole.

Here are the blown up version of the last three five-second exposures, from right to left. You can see how bright the streak is on the right, fading in the center, and going quickly to orange, red, and black on the left.

I wasn’t at all sure that I would really be able to see the two vehicles as discrete points of light since they were so close, but it was quite distinct and amazing. The pictures don’t show it well because: a) the long, five-second exposures blur the two together since they’re traveling in the same direction, and; b) that stupid issue I’m still having with getting this lens to focus for astrophotography.

Nonetheless, click on that wide combination of three images to blow it up to full size. Look at that middle image. As the two started to fade and get dimmer, they start to not record photons over the top of each other and you can (kinda? sorta?) see that there are two streaks there right next to each other, not one large streak.

And of course, shortly after this, we got to watch this:

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On The Precipice Of The Future

So… We all know what tomorrow is and what’s at stake. I’m feeling confident, but then again, I was feeling fine four years ago too, so once burned, twice shy.

But while contemplating the future for us all, I wanted tonight to make sure everyone had seen a couple of things that relate to a bigger, better future that’s important to me and all of us, even those not in the US.

First, today’s the 20th anniversary of the day the first crew boarded the International Space Station.

For every single day for the past twenty years, there have been at least two or three folks off the planet. Always. Every day.

That record is still fragile. If there were an emergency on ISS (and there have been a couple times when things could have gone south that badly) the crew can always escape in their Soyuz or Shuttle or Dragon or (soon) their Starliner and come home. But that endurance streak would be snapped.

Some time in the next few years there will probably be a Chinese station, independent of ISS. And there’s talk of the Russians taking their modules from ISS and breaking away to join with some new modules they’re building to make an independent station, separate from the ISS. And there might be independent, commercial stations, or even hotels and tourist stations, within the next ten years or so. And before that we’ll probably have folks living permanently in a station orbiting the moon or down on the lunar surface.

We just have to get there from here.

Meanwhile, way out in the solar system, an American robot spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx has been orbiting a “tiny” asteroid called Bennu for a couple of years. In that time it’s mapped the miniscule gravitational field (you or I could easily just jump off the asteroid with escape velocity) and mapped it to astonishing precision.

That biggest boulder in the lower right is 10-20 meters across, with the whole thing being roughly 490 meters in diameter. It’s a “rubble pile” asteroid, debris left over from the formation of the solar system a few billion years ago.

One key goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission was to get a sample from the surface and return it to Earth for study. To do this there’s an arm on the spacecraft with a collector plate that’s about the size of a large pizza pan and six or seven inches thick. OSIRIS-REx was designed to do a Touch And Go (TAG) maneuver where the head would come in contact softly (-ish) with the surface for a few seconds, a stream of gas would get sprayed, causing debris, dust, and rocks to get sprayed up into the collector plate and captured.

They had no idea how well or how poorly this would work. Put the plate down on a rock and you get nothing but a broken spacecraft. Put it down crooked or not flat and you only collect a few grams of material. A lot could go wrong, and this was all being done by a robot acting on its own. At the time of the sample retrieval, Bennu was 233 million miles from Earth, over 18 light-minutes away. We couldn’t control it “live,” we just had to program it and hope for the best.

Two weeks ago, on October 20th, they made their attempt. The surface had been mapped and a flat spot was targeted, but it was the size of a couple of parking spaces, with larger rocks all around that could destroy the arm. Was the surface going to be hard or rocky? Or super soft and fluffy so the collector plate would sink down in and be trapped? Or somewhere in between?

It was spectacular! The targeting was perfect, just a couple inches off after seven years in space, billions of miles traveled. The surface was soft and fluffy and the blast of air kicked up a HUGE cloud of material, much of it being trapped in the collector plate. The collector plate head actually sank down into the surface a foot or so, so it’s a good thing you or I weren’t there trying to jump off the surface. It’s so fluffy and loose we would probably sink right down in.

They were hoping to maybe collect 60 grams of material, about the size of a candy bar. Instead they filled the collector head with an estimated 4,000+ grams of material, so much that the mechanism for keeping it in got jammed open and they were starting to leak material. Before they could lose very much, they skipped a few anticipated steps and moved on to stowing the collector head and its treasure for the journey back to Earth.

My point is that we are capable of amazing things as a people, when we work together and dare to dream. Obviously the last four years have shown what can happen if we allow fear and hatred to separate us, and this year has shown what can happen and how many of us can die if we ignore science and reason.

But tomorrow that can change, and I’m hoping it will. We can start to fix the damage done in the last four years and to set sight on the stars again.

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Smoky October Full Moonrise

Three days ago, back before I realized that I would be triggered by a software “update” (done no doubt for “my benefit”) (YES, I’m still pissy about it, I’ll start behaving now, sorta), I was down the block looking for the first full moon moonrise of October.

There was a LOT of smoke still being kicked out by the Bobcat Fire off in that direction. (Hey, they’re all the way up to 88% contained now!) That streak above it is a plane going into Runway 08 at Burbank – we’re looking right down the flight path.

It was incredibly orange! This doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Shorter exposures that don’t show the landscape but bring out the detail in the moon do a much better job of showing what it actually looked like. Let’s hear it for the human eye with a MUCH higher dynamic range than even the best digital cameras.

Twenty-five minutes or so after rising, the moon was out of the worst of the smoke and just looking a bit brownish.

That’s one – look for a second full moon, a “blue moon,” on Halloween night, October 31st!

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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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