Category Archives: Space

Upcoming ISS Passes Over SoCal

If you live in the Southern California area, heads up for the next few evenings, ESPECIALLY TOMORROW.

We’ve gotten to the time of year where the planetary tilt and the orbital plane of the International Space Station (ISS) align and there are a LOT of excellent evening passes coming up.

(Image from Heavens-Above.com)

Tonight we saw a wonderful, bright, high pass that went right through the Big Dipper almost directly overhead and then faded into shadow.

Tomorrow night at 20:55 the ISS will rise in the south-southwest, go high through the sky, get VERY bright, and then disappear over the horizon to the northeast.

(Image from Heavens-Above.com)

There are other evening passes later in the week that will be lovely, just not as high and as bright as Friday’s.

There are also some spectacular passes before sunrise this week, but the odds of me dragging my butt out of bed at 04:15 or the like to see it are very, VERY close to zero. I’m about a thousand hours short of sleep in the last six months, unless the alien mothership is coming in, I’m staying in bed.

As Dirty Harry said, “A man has got to know his limitations!”

 

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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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Juxtaposition

I am, of course, following the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission tonight. It’s fifty years ago that the explosion occurred while they were about half way to the moon, turning what had started to become a “routine” flight to the moon (c’mon, really??!!) into the world’s most “successful failure.”

All of the Apollo missions can be re-lived at apolloinrealtime.org – it’s an astonishing project. For this mission, go to apolloinrealtime.org/13 and click on the “sync to today’s clock” clock icon in the middle left – you’ll follow along in real time with pictures, video, all of the ground to space audio, all of the audio from dozens of ground controllers as they tried to troubleshoot the problems. Or you can use one of the slider bars on top to go to any particular point in the mission and follow along.

It was a major catastrophe that hit pretty much out of nowhere. In seconds they went from bored to dozens of life and death decisions per minute. One mistake and the crew would be lost and our space program would have gone in a much different direction.

I’m amazed by the teamwork shown in listening to the “background” loops as the different systems engineers worked together to make sure that they could shut down the damaged Command Module and do an emergency power up of the Lunar Module to use it as a “lifeboat” to get the crew home. It’s amazing, a thing of joy.

And that got me thinking about the crisis we find ourselves in.

It might not have sprung out of nowhere to hit us in seconds – we had months to see the problem start, grow, spread, and finally reach us. But more importantly, our situation doesn’t involve three lives – it could easily end up with 300,000 lives just in this country, and in a worst case scenario where the virus spreads unchecked through places like India and Africa, it could easily cost 3,000,000 lives worldwide in the next year.

And listening to that 1970 NASA team spring into action and troubleshoot that situation and solve one problem after another, step by step, truly highlights the deplorable response to our current crisis. As if the normal, daily, background incompetence and buffoonery wasn’t bad enough, today we got the Mango Mussolini totally melting down at his daily press conference and apparently declaring himself to be a god? Supreme grand high poobah? Chief cook and bottle washer?

Oh, right, “megalomaniac dictator” is the term I was looking for. He’s not even trying to hide it any more.

Good thing that the GOP “leadership” is going to step up and use their clearly defined powers under the Constitution to act as a brake on his lunacy…

So, when we talk about how great we are as Americans, how we “put a man on the moon,” how we’re the folks that can solve any problem, beat any enemy – tonight we get to see how that might have once been true, at least a little bit, but it was fifty years ago.

Today? We can’t even get rid of this two-bit, tin pot dictator who’s killing hundreds of thousands of us, enriching himself and his cronies, lying through his teeth with every breath, and betraying our country to our allies.

If we want to actually solve any of the problems dragging us down to be a third-rate, backwater country maybe we could start with removing that particular cancer so we can start again being like Gene Kranz and his crew.

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Clear & A Million Again

Over the last week or two there have been a series of AMAZING passes of the ISS over SoCal in the evenings, and we’ve had rain and clouds every freaking day. I may have whinged about this.

Yesterday…

…clear and a million again. Not a cloud to be seen.

Quick, we’ve had ISS passes almost every night for the last two weeks! When’s the pass tonight?

*crickets*

The next visible pass over SoCal is a truly marginal one, low in the sky, only lasts thirty seconds, in the morning, nine days from now.

Foxtrot. Mike. Lima.

Did everyone enjoy Easter?

 

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