Category Archives: Space

The Great Conjunction – December 15th

Better results tonight – if you’re on the West Coast, go look *NOW* and you can probably still see it. (Assuming your skies aren’t cloudy, of course…) Look to the southwest!

Gorgeous! Jupiter (brighter) on the bottom, Saturn on the top.

Zoomed in (300 mm telephoto lens on a Canon Rebel XT) you can clearly see a couple of the moons on Jupiter.

Go look! Or if it’s too late tonight for you or it’s cloudy where you are, look tomorrow! Or Thursday!

Closest approach will be next Monday, December 21st!

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The Great Conjunction – December 14th

The good news is that it was crystal clear tonight.

The bad news is that I need to get out a little earlier, before Jupiter and Saturn get down into the trees. They’re moving toward the west, heading for the morning sky not too long after the conjunction, which means they’re setting earlier than they did a month or two ago, or even a week or two ago. So they were sort of “down among ’em.”

The worse news was that it was again windy as hell, which means that any kind of a long exposure with the telephoto lens extended out had the camera bouncing around like it was on a roller coaster.

Yeah, don’t think NASA’s going to be asking to use that photo any time soon.

But if you’re dedicated and persistent (as opposed to stubborn and pig-headed – it’s a very fine line) you might get one decent photo at maximum magnification.

It’s a short one, so this photo didn’t collect as many photons as the ones on Thursday, but you can see that they’re getting closer.

Tomorrow we try again…

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Cloudy Sunday

Again, no good view of the Great Conjunction from our part of the planet tonight.

The clouds were thin enough a couple of times to see Jupiter through, and I was pretty sure I could see Saturn at one point, but conditions were far from ideal for astronomy.

Tonight’s the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, which by all accounts from those reporting in from across the world and country is doing pretty well, several bright meteors per hour, even from light polluted cities. I may stick my head out before I go to bed. But I’ll have to remember to be back in by midnight. Not a Cinderella problem, but a much more practical issue with the lawn sprinklers coming on promptly at midnight.

I’m cold enough – cold and wet sounds like a good way to get sick. Sorry, there’s enough of that going around without going out and doing something stupid.

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The Great Conjunction – December 10th

The planets move about the sky in their orbits, like clockwork, and sometimes they come near each other from our viewpoint. This is called a conjunction.

We’ve had conjunctions before, they’re not that uncommon at all. Jupiter and Venus get close pretty regularly. The Moon literally “runs over” planets from time to time (this is referred to as an occultation) and gets close to something (often Venus) pretty much every month.

You’ve probably heard news reports, possibly some rabid ones, about the “Christmas star” coming up in eleven days. The simple fact is that it’s just another conjunction, where Jupiter and Saturn will be in conjunction, close together from our viewpoint in the solar system. What makes this one special is that both planets are reasonably bright, and for this particular conjunction they’re going to be REALLY close together.

It should look gorgeous.

You don’t need a telescope. You don’t even need binoculars, although even a simple pair will show you some of the larger and brighter moons of both Saturn and Jupiter. You just need your naked eye and a clear sunset sky. Go out right after sunset, look to the southwest.

Jupiter will be very bright, white, and Saturn will be just a bit to the upper left of it, slightly dimmer, with a slight yellowish tinge if you’ve got a clear, dark sky.

If you’ve got binoculars or a big telephoto lens, zoom in a bit. Depending on timing, you may see four small dots in a line near Jupiter, and maybe one small dot near Saturn. Those would be moons.

Blow this (so-so quality) picture up and you’ll see two small dots at about the four o’clock position on Jupiter, and maybe one very near Saturn at about the seven o’clock position.

Over the next eleven days the two planets will appear to get closer and closer. They’ll be just a small fraction of this distance apart.

Tomorrow night I’ll try to get a better tripod setup so there’s not so much vibration, and I’ll try to get better pictures. I hope you’ll be out trying to see it as well.

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Congrats Yet Again, SpaceX!

I ranted and raved enthusiastically here when SpaceX first landed a Falcon 9 first stage booster on a barge, something I thought was insane to even try when I first heard of it, and I’m a space cadet with a science & engineering background. Obviously I needed to be thinking bigger, since not only did they prove it can be done, they now do it regularly and almost routinely. (Another launch scheduled for Saturday afternoon, a SiriusXM satellite.) They’ve now had 68 successful booster recoveries and one booster has been launched 7 times already.

But they’re going to retire the Falcon 9 sooner rather than later because they’re building Starship, a two stage monstrosity that will be bigger than NASA’s old Saturn V rocket. The first stage (Super Heavy) will fly back and land like the Falcon 9 does and the second (Starship) will go to orbit, the ISS, the moon, Mars, beyond (literally) and then re-enter the atmosphere like a cross between the Space Shuttle and a space capsule, landing upright like the Falcon 9 first stage does. To be used again, and again, and again…

Yeah. Right.

Today they had the first really big test flight of a full-size, early design of the Starship. SN8 is the 8th Starship test vehicle to be built, and it was scheduled to take off, fly to about 44,000 feet, cut off its engines, flip over onto its belly to coast and glide and slow down, switch fuel tanks, at the last second (and I didn’t realize just how much “last second” meant “LAST FREAKIN’ SECOND” until I saw them do it) relight the engines and flip back up to an upright position, and land gently upright. Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, gave it no better than a 1 in 3 chance of success. Most everyone at SpaceX would have been perfectly happy if it had lifted off and gotten to 44,000 feet before blowing up or spinning out of control. That would have been wonderful for a first test flight.

It. Was. Amazing!

(video from SpaceX – it’s a long video since there was a scrub and a re-set in there, so go to the 1:47:53 mark for the launch if it doesn’t go there automatically)

Take off with no explosion! ✅

Throttle back one engine, then a second one, to keep the loads on the vehicle in range ✅ (Those of us not on the inside at SpaceX didn’t know it was supposed to happen so it looked like a problem, but it was going just as planned.)

Reach 44,000 feet, shut down the engines, flip over onto our belly without going out of control. ✅ ✅ ✅

Maintain perfect control gliding back down toward not just the planet, but the precise point on the planet where the landing pad is! ✅

Perform that engine restart and flip back up to vertical thing! ✅ (They’re calling that maneuver the “Crazy Elon.” If you’ve watched “Hunt For Red October,” you’ll know why.)

Get vertical, get down right onto the landing pad, land upright… ✅ ✅ ✅

…way, way to freaking fast and end in a gigantic explosion ❌❌❌🚀💥💥💥😥

It was a test flight with minimal expectations and maximum hopes. We got much closer to the maximum than the minimum. And that’s how we get that much closer to doing it all next time. They’re already building SN9 through SN15, as well as the first Super Heavy, SH1.

I may yet get the chance to get this creaky, flabby butt of mine off the planet.

Finally, if you want to know just how insane that final “Crazy Elon” move is and just how “last minute” that flip is, watch this video that SpaceX released late tonight from a camera very near the landing pad, looking straight up at the incoming SN8.

Outstanding!!

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Maybe Tomorrow

The Chinese have landed a robot probe on the moon. It’s scooped up samples and then taken off to lunar orbit, heading back to Earth in a little bit. It will be the first time since the mid 1970’s that samples have been brought back from the moon.

The Japanese had their own asteroid sample pick up a couple years ago and on Saturday the vehicle with the sample will be coming back to land in Australia.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Arecibo radio telescope collapsed in Puerto Rico.

We could use a win. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, SpaceX is going to try to take a 30-story rocket that looks like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel and send it 50,000 feet up into the sky, then try to land it like they do their Falcon 9 rockets.

It’s insane. It will be cool. Let’s do it!

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ISS & Dragon

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

(Image from Heavens-Above.com)

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…

Meh.

Except…

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.

AND THERE THEY WERE!!!

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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