Category Archives: Space

Happy Landiversary, Curiosity!

Ten years ago:

From: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Ten years ago, Opportunity made this terrifying, improbable ride from space to the surface of Mars, successfully plopping itself down in Gale Crater to look for evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface and the possibility of an environment which could have led to the evolution of life.

The SUV-sized rover was designed to last one Martian year, or 687 Earth days. Anything after that was gravy.

Today was day #2,965 of gravy as Curiosity continues to operate, explore, and climb while it sends back thousands of pictures and other data from the surface of Mars.

TEN FREAKIN’ YEARS!

(And going strong.)

Happy Landiversary, Curiosity! And congrats to everyone at NASA and JPL who continue to Dare Mighty Things.

Curiosity has taken over 500,000 images. What’s it looking at tosol?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

The ChemCam is looking at rocks.

Want to see a recent, more conventional image?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Click on it to see it full-sized, it’s a big image.

Carry on, Curiosity. You’re doing great!!

 

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ISS Pass – July 15th

As expected, the late ISS pass tonight was very low in the sky.

There’s the Big Dipper up there again, but instead of passing through the “bowl” of the dipper, the ISS path just barely passes above the trees.

Better yet, click on the image to blow it up to full sized – look at all of those planes, especially right down by the horizon. That’s all of the big jets coming into LAX from the Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest, and Asia.

No joy on seeing Dragon. With docking only about eight or nine hours away I figured that it would be close, but I didn’t see it at all, even watching for about ten minutes after ISS went by.

Finally, the other screw up was forgetting to check the camera battery. Instead of catching the ISS going just barely above those trees all the way to the far horizon, I just saw it for a few minutes.

Keep watching the skies!

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ISS Pass – July 14th

It’s been a while since we did this.

(Final image compiled from 68 images using StarStaX)

Aside from it simply being great to see the ISS pass over, with the launch of a SpaceX Cargo Draon less than four hours ago I was hoping that I might see the Dragon following the ISS.

I didn’t.

The reason that Dragons, Cargo and Crew, have an “instantaneous” launch window is because they launch into the ISS’s orbital plane as the instant that the orbital plane crosses over the launch pad. Getting high and getting fast are critical to rendezvous with an orbital target, but you’re maneuvering in three dimensions. Going “sideways” once in orbit, switching from one orbital plane to another, can be expensive in terms of fuel. But that orbital plane will cross right over you twice a day, so if you launch right then, you just have to go high and fast, not sideways. Restricting your chase to two dimensions simplifies the rendezvous considerably in terms of both complexity and fuel costs.

Because of that, when two objects in the same orbital plane pass overhead, you’ll see them playing follow-the-leader. If you see a set of Starlink satellites within a day or two of launch they’ll look like a string of pearls sailing across the sky. Similarly, if you see the ISS just after a Dragon, or Soyuz, or Cygnus has just left, or just before it arrives, you’ll see the bright ISS with the dimmer, smaller spacecraft following the same path.

It’s math. Physics. Orbital Mechanics!

Tonight, alas, the Dragon probably isn’t close enough since it just launched and won’t catch up to ISS until Saturday morning. Dragon will be in that orbital plane and will be cruising along that same path, but by the time it happens it won’t be in sunlight above Los Angeles. There’s another pass tomorrow night at 22:01, but it will be low to the horizon and might not even get above the level of those trees. But we’ll see what we can see. For now, enjoy tonight’s pass!

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2022’s Biggest & Brightest Full Moon

As we know, the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is not a perfect circle, but an ellipse.

So while we get a full moon every 28 days, sometimes it’s closer to Earth, sometimes further away.

When it’s closer, it’s slightly larger and brighter than average. Tonight’s full moon is the closest, and biggest, and brightest of 2022.

Rising through the costal clouds and LA’s smog and haze, it looked a little on the orange-ish side, although not as orange as it got during the lunar eclipse a couple months ago.

As it got a little higher it got a little brighter and much more it’s normal white color.

The media loves to go off with clickbait terms like “SUPERMOON!!!” and we know how I feel about that.

It finally cleared the trees. What amazes me is the quality of the iPhone image – look at the top, just to the right of the trees and you can see the stars at the “head” of Scorpius, even in the bright moonlight.

Time to go out and howl for a bit, joining with the coyotes down in the canyon.

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Random Old Photos – July 12th

Okay, maybe not entirely random…

Yesterday’s spectacular first image from JWST and today’s additional images and spectra and data of course had me thinking about my 2015 NASA Social in which I got to be one of the first to see the Hubble Space Telescope 25th Anniversary image as well as visit NASA Goddard where JWST was being assembled.

To see my full posts and pictures of that trip, either enter “NASA Social For Hubble25” in the search box at the upper right, or use the “Archives” box in the lower right to go to April 2015.

It was a fantastic trip!

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JWST

There was some pretty significant news from the astronomical world today. If your Twitter feed is anything like mine, you’ve probably seen this image a LOT this afternoon:

Image from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

This is a “deep field” image from the newly commissioned JWST. I’m giving you the full-sized image, so feel free to click on it and blow it up to explore the details. The bright spots with the six-pointed star image are foreground stars (the reflections are internal to the JWST) but everything else is a galaxy. Thousands of galaxies.

In addition, you can see some that are smeared out into curved lines, some with mirror images side-by-side. These are galaxies that lie behind a much bigger galaxy or even a black hole but the light from them has been bent by the graviation of the larger object stretching the fabric of space. There are some gorgeous, bigger (i.e., nearer) spiral galaxies, as well as some tiny, dark red spots that are the oldest galaxies in the image, back close to 13,000,000,000 years old, close to the beginning of the universe.

This image was released by the White House tonight at a press conference with the President and Vice-President. JWST is going to be a big deal, as far beyond the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) as HST was beyond ground-based telescopes thirty-two years ago.

Better yet, tomorrow morning there’s a NASA press conference where they’ll be giving us our first views of other new images from JWST. I know you can see it on NASA-TV, it may also be viewable on other sites.

And if you want to see bits of JWST hardware in the clean room at Goddard Space Center from my NASA Social there in 2015, check out this memory.

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Full Strawberry Supermoon Rising

As you’ve no doubt heard, there was a “supermoon” tonight. All that really means is that there’s a full moon, which happens every 28 days like clockwork. But as the Moon orbits Earth its orbit is elliptical, not circular, so some times at full moon it’s a touch closer, sometimes a bit further away, so sometimes it looks a bit bigger, and sometimes a bit smaller. It’s not that big of a difference, but clickbait’s gotta click.

As with the lunar eclipse last month, moonrise here is through the trees to the southeast and up from behind the Santa Monica Mountains, about in the Sepulveda Pass and Encino area. On the lower half of the frame, especially on the right, you can just start to see a few of the lights of Tarzana and Woodland Hills.

The moon was looking very red and smoky at moonrise. Guess why??!! Yep, between the normal junk in the air at sunset along the coast, LA’s smog, and a growing amount of smoke from the first of the season’s brush fires, there’s a lot of crap in the air. But once it got up above the mountains, it was definitely a full moon, about fourteen hours or so past full at this point.

Expose to bring out the trees and you SERIOUSLY overexpose the moon, which despite being dusky and orange and down in the atmospheric soup, is still reflecting a TON of light. A really good photographer or graphics artist would take this picture and the one above, taken seconds apart, and simply insert that moon into that bright spot and get something spectacular that looks pretty much like what the human eye sees. I, unfortunately, am not that photographer or graphics artist.

But occasionally I do get lucky. In my last set of pictures for the night, at the right point in the sequence (bracketing the exposures from about 1/1000 second to about 4 seconds, knowing that a couple in the middle will be exposed properly) a 737 out of Burbank Airport turned right 180º after takeoff (probably toward Northern California), passed over Van Nuys Airport (-ish), and right between me and that full strawberry supermoon. Click on the image to see it full sized… can you see it? Just inside the left side, at about the nine o’clock position?

Better lucky than good!

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MAYBE A Meteor “Storm” Tonight – MAYBE!

Posting this earlier than normal today so that some of you in the US and North America can get a bit of a head’s up…

You might have heard or seen some spectacular news report in the last day or two about a truly spectacular, amazing, mind-blowing, once in a lifetime Meteor STORM (OMG, Batman!! 🤩😲🤯) happening tonight. And it might be, so I’ll tell you what to look for. But I’ll also tell you that it might NOT be happening, and we simply don’t know. It’s a total crap shoot.

The short version – if you want, and if you have clear skies, around 22:00 PDT (01:00 EDT Monday morning), go find a dark spot. Get comfy and look for the bright star Arcturus. It’s going to be near the zenith (straight up) on the West Coast and a bit toward the west the further east you go. If you can find the Big Dipper toward the north, just follow the “handle” off about as far as the dipper is wide and the only real bright star in that area is Arcturus.

If you can’t find Arcturus, don’t sweat it! If the meteors come, they’ll be visible over a huge, wide swath of the sky. They’ll look like they’re coming from the general direction of Arcturus-ish, but if they’re there you’ll see them as long as you’re not lying face down, or asleep, or unconscious in some way.

These meteors will be fainter than other meteor showers, so don’t expect lightning-like flashes across the sky. They’ll be visible, but dimmer, and moving somewhat slowly. Almost like watching a jet passing overhead way up high, fading in, trailing along for a few seconds, then fading out.

The most likely probablility is that there might be 40 to 100 meteors an hour in a dark sky, which is only one a minute or so. If you’re not in a dark sky or if you have some haze, it could be a lot less.

BUT…

There’s this chance…

These meteors are dust and debris left over from a comet named 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, which disintigrated in 1995. That cloud of debris comes near our orbit about the time we’re here and in past years it’s been more of a “miss” than a “hit,” so it’s been a pretty minor meteor shower. You wouldn’t know it was happening unless you were looking for it and had a really dark sky.

But some of the astronomers tracking such things think there MIGHT be a possibility that this year we’ll go right through the middle of this cloud tonight. It’s an estimate based on a LOT of information with significant error bars, but there’s a chance that it could pay off.

For me, the worst case scenario is that I might spend an hour or so sitting out in the evening breezes and watching the skies, listening to the mockingbirds, coyotes, police cars, and jets going into Burbank. Not the worst fate. But if it pays off…

Some estimates are that, instead of 40 to 100 meteors an hour, we could have hundreds if not thousands.

So maybe you can go out, maybe you can’t. Maybe you see thousands of meteors – more likely you might, maybe, see a handful and get bitten by mosquitoes.

Put on some bug spray, just in case!

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Total Lunar Eclipse – Totality

When last we saw our plucky hero, he was cursing himself for staying at home where the rising, partially eclipsed full Moon was off behind a whole stand of pine trees. Our intrepid but well-meaning fool was dodging around the yard moving cameras and tripods to try to find holes through the trees to spot the Moon, as well trying to Livestream the whole chaotic mess on Facebook. (It’s still there – scan through the boring parts where I put the phone down to take these pictures, there are bits and pieces that didn’t suck completely!)

As the last bit of bright sunlight fades from the rim of the Moon and totality begins…

…and we see just how dark this eclipse will be. They vary, from being fairly bright to being quite, quite dark. On the darker ones (cause by more dust in the Earth’s atmosphere, blocking sunlight from making it through) the Moon can almost disappear in an urban setting with lots of light pollution. This eclipse was above average brightness.

To bring out the color I go to longer exposures, gathering more photons! Of course, since I wasn’t using my telescope as a humongous telephoto lens (if you thought using a tripod was a pain to use while bobbing and weaving through the branches to find a viewing angle, try it with an 8′ Newtonian on an equitorial mount!) and the camera wasn’t being guided (moving counter to the Earth’s rotation so that the Moon and stars seem to be still in the camera’s field of view) the images tend to blur just a bit.

You can definitely see some of the background stars from the constellations Scorpio and Libra. Once that bright, bright Moon is dimmed down by a factor of a couple thousand, the starts pop right out.

Of course, with the longer, untracked exposures, the background stars blur and trail a bit as well.

This would all be a lot easier to practice if these eclipses happened more than once every few years. Who do I talk to about getting that to happen?

The color was gorgous!

Even in the hazy, light-polluted skies of Los Angeles, this giant, glowing, orange ball in the sky was clearly visible and magnificent!

It’s finally sort of getting out from behind the trees, almost at the edge – and that bottom edge is starting to get awfully bright!

And there we’re done with totality as the bottom edge is awash in bright, reflected sunlight.

From here the brighter section got quickly much larger and more illuminated, while the eclipsed section got steadily smaller and harder to see as anything other than “dark.” After a bit less than an hour, the Moon was back to just being “full” and “incredibly bright.”

Time to wait a few more years for the next total lunar eclipse! Be ready when it comes, they’re pretty predictable, even if the weather won’t be.

 

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Total Lunar Eclipse – Partial

Poor planning. For whatever reason, when I had looked prior to the eclipse at where the Moon was rising and would be, I had it wrong. I thought it would be much easier to see from the back yard. Instead, I was fighting to find holes through the trees all night.

I knew that the Moon would already be in partial eclipse when it rose in Los Angeles. Celestial mechanics are out of my control, but if I had known then what I know now I probably would have packed up all of my gear and gone off to a local park where I had a good, clean, clear, flat, unobstructed view of the east.

C’est le vie!

As it was rising the Moon was orange, but that wasn’t because of the eclipse. That was because the light hitting it was going through a LOT of atmosphere as the sun set on the western horizon. Same thing that makes the sun look orange at sunset. But this Moon was just minutes away from full – it should have been 100% illuminated and round as round can be. Instead, half of it was in the Earth’s shadow, with more slipping into shadow by the minute.

The other effect you see from the Moon being so far down near the horizon and being seen through so much soupy, turbulent air was that it’s lumpy and uneven, distorted by the bubbles of hot air rising off the pavement and buildings of Los Angeles off to the east.

A few minutes later, when the Moon had risen a bit, you could more clearly see that it was still the same old white Moon that we’re used to, but with more and more of its surface covered by the Earth’s shadow.

About ten minutes before totality began, if I exposed for the illuminated part, the shadowed part seems to vanish…

…but if I expose for the shadowed part, the coppery orangish red color of the full eclipse starts to show through.

Pulling back from the closeup view, you can see the trees framing my view (as I was moving all over the yard to find holes to peek through) as well as the city below.

Finally, just a minute or so before totality, a long exposure to bring out the red color of the Moon as well as the city below. (THIS is a wonderful picture which I love dearly.)

Mere seconds before totality, the last little sliver of the Moon’s limb clinging to sunlight.

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