Monday, February 28, 2011

March Skies – History is Made at Mercury

Hey Space Placers!
Ready for spring, yet? You do not have long to wait as the change in seasons astronomically occurs on March 20th at 7:21 p.m. EDT. I say “astronomically” because with the way our weather has been lately who knows what Mother Nature has in store for us. Notice the “EDT”? Yes, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) begins on the 13th at 2 a.m.

All of this adds up to more daylight which is why we are now holding our public observing sessions at George Mason University (GMU) Observatory starting at 7:00 p.m., 9 March and then 8:30 p.m. on the 23rd.

These sessions are free and open to the public. I have been very happy to see a large number of families attending. I hope to see you there.
Read More About It:

Skywatching Highlights

The Earth undergoes a change in seasons at the Vernal Equinox as spring occurs in the Northern Hemisphere and it becomes fall in the southern hemisphere. Day and night would be almost equal in length at this time were it not for daylight savings time. Our planet’s seasons occur due to the 23.5 degree tilt in our planet’s axis and our annual orbit around the Sun.
Read More About It:

Mercury provides an excellent opportunity to be easily seen after the second week of March. Mercury will be passing near far brighter Jupiter in the western sky after sunset from the 13th to the 16th. Jupiter is the brightest object in that portion of the sky and is easily spotted. Once you have zeroed in on Jupiter look just to the right. The fairly bright “star” you see close to Jupiter is Mercury. Having a clear western horizon and binoculars will greatly enhance your view. I will be providing more information in my blog.

Speaking of Mercury, spaceflight and planetary exploration history will be made on the 17th when NASA and Johns Hopkins University’s MESSENGER spacecraft enters orbit around Mercury. This is the first time in history that this has happened. MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, which highlights the scientific goals of the mission. MESSENGER has traveled almost 5 BILLION miles and 6 ½ years to get to this milestone. I can hardly wait to explore this planet via MESSENGER and the Internet.
Read More About It:

Brilliant Venus continues to grace the morning sky low in the southeast about 40 minutes before dawn as the month begins. On the 1st and 31st the waning crescent Moon passes to the left of Venus. As the month progresses Venus will be getting lower to the horizon.

Mars cannot be seen.

Bright Jupiter is low in the west at sunset and remains visible until about two hours after sunset. The waxing crescent Moon passes to the left of Jupiter on the 6th. If you have binoculars or a telescope you can watch the four main moons of Jupiter change their position night after night.

Saturn rises in the southeastern sky about two hours after sunset as March begins and at sunset by month’s end. If you have a telescope be sure to check out the ringed planet.

New Moon is on the 4th, First Quarter Moon is on the 12th and this month’s Full Moon occurs on the 19th. This month’s Full Moon is called the “Full Worm Moon” in recognition of the beginning of spring and warmer temperatures. Last Quarter Moon is on the 26th.

Here are our down to Earth events for this month.

Open House at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory, will be at 8 p.m. on the 5th and the 20th.
Read More About It:

The National Capital Astronomers (NCA) have their monthly meeting on the 12th at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory. The speaker is Dr. John Debes (GSFC), A Stellar Debris Disk Flapping in the Interstellar Wind.
Read More About It:

The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) will meet at 7 p.m. at George Mason University (GMU) on the 13th. The speaker is Jessica Rosenberg, “Gas and Stars in the Local Universe - What Normal Matter Can Teach us About the Formation and Evolution of Galaxies”.
Read More About It:

NOVAC will host several star parties this month that are open to the public.
Read More About It:

The United States Naval Observatory (USNO) has Monday night tours but space is limited.
Read More About It:

The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has several space related activities this month.
Read More About It:

The TriState Astronomers General Meeting will be held on the 16th, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., at the William Brish Planetarium, Commonwealth Ave, Hagerstown, MD.
Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sky Guy Viewing ALERT

Hey Space Placers!

In the hours before dawn on the 28th and 1 March, make sure you view the beautiful sight of the waning crescent Moon and brilliant Venus in the southeastern sky. Unless you are completely cloudy, it is worth taking a look as the two brightest objects in the night sky will be gliding by one another.

If you have binoculars use them to look at the Moon as there may be Earthshine present - the illuminating of the dark portion of the Moon by the reflection of sunlight off our planet's clouds and oceans. This is always a pretty sight.

In the DC area you can spot them about a fist-width above the horizon at 5:45 a.m. They will get higher in the sky as time goes on but the sky will begin to brighten after 6:15 a.m. You can spot them until it is almost dawn.

Dawn view

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, February 25, 2011

See Discovery CLOSE UP!

Hey Space Placers!

You HAVE to check out this website:

Absolutely incredible pictures are posted that make you feel as though you are there on the launch pad. You can scroll any way you want to get the view you want. The pictures are very clear and allow us to see Discovery (and the other shuttles on the page) as you never will.

I found myself going through them all and taking my time in doing so.

Enjoy the views and take your is time well spent.

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Discovery Lifts Off for the 39th Time!

Hey Space Placers!

I hope you watched the beautiful lift-off of Space Shuttle Discovery today. It is the last time we will ever see her do so.

Discovery lifts off.

Off on an 11-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver supplies, a large storage container and a Robonaut, Discovery will link up to the ISS in 2 days. Upon her return to Earth, Discovery will be stripped and sold to a museum somewhere.

There are 2 shuttle missions left if NASA can get the funding for the flight this summer. The end of the 30-year era of the Space Shuttle is fast approaching.

Follow the mission here:

On a personal note I saw Discovery in December on the launch pad and the pictures I took of her will join those I have of Endeavour and Challenger....personal treasures beyond compare.

I will be watching for viewing opportunities of the ISS so we can all wave at a million plus pounds of spacecraft, 12 humans and a Robonaut!

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Good Night at GMU Observatory

Hey Space Placers!

We had 45 people show up tonight to look through our Meade 12" -the 32" should be in place in a month or so.

We looked at Juipter through the trees and saw all 4 main moons plus the rejuvinated south equatorial belt. We had our crowd spent time "under the dome" and gave them the somewhat unsettling experience of watching the sky turn as the dome moves.

We discussed stellar birth as the saw the new-born stars in the stellar nursery of the Orion Nebula. We tried to see the Crab Nebula - a supernova remnant but it couldn't be seen.

A real crowd pleaser was looking at brilliant Sirius - the brightest star in the night time sky - got a lot of ohhhs and awwws out of that view.

Everyone that was there got a free monthly star chart and sky calendar.

We finished up by looking at the winter constellations and showing our skyguests how to pick out some winter favorites like Oprion and Taurus.

I hope you will show up in two weeks.

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

STS-133 & Discovery are GO!!!

Hey Space Placers!

Discovery, the oldest space shuttle, is GO for launch on Feb. 24th at 4:50 p.m. EST, on her last scheduled mission.

STS-133 will go to the International Space Station (ISS) and deliver supplies, parts and a new ISS crewmember - a non-human one at that (see my earlier blog on Robonaut 2).

You can read about the STS-133 mission here:

Hope to see you at GMU Observatory on 2-23-11 at 7 p.m.!

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, February 21, 2011

At George Mason University Observatory

Hey Space Placers!

This Wednesday, 23 February at 7 pm, weather permittng, the Observatory at George Mason University will be open to the public.

We will have telescopes and astronomers and yours truly there for enjoying the sky and looking through telescopes at a variety of objects.

Check out this link for more information:

Hope to see you there!

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, February 18, 2011

Start of Solar Maximum???

Hey Space Placers!

To us living on Earth the Sun seems to be the same day in and day out - fortunately for us it is very constant. But the Sun does undergo an eleven year cycle that goes from a Solar Minimum, a period where the Sun has few if any susnpots (areas of magnetic concentrations that disrupt energy production in the Sun's "surface" and appear as dark spots) to Solar Maximum - a period of intense solar activity capped by giant blasts of energy and material into space.

The Sun has just gone through a very deep and long Solar Minimum, lasting a longer period of time than was predicted. It appears the Sun is heading into Solar Maximum as unspot activity seems to be picking up. We also just experienced on the 14th the most energetic X-ray outburst from the Sun in four years.

 February 15th's solar flare

 We have spacecraft that are monitoring the Sun on both sides, STEREO A and STEREO B, the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) and the Solar  and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). With this Maximum we will have the greatest collection of telescopes, spacecraft and instrumentation ever to watch, record and analyze.

I am looking forward to the results - and observing the Sun myself in the coming years.

Check the Sun out every day at:

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Deep Impact Crater

Hey Space Placers,

Here is the Stardust-NExT photo of the Deep Impact crater (see my earlier posts). The Stardust photo is on the right while the Deep Impact photo is on the left. The close up images detected many changes on the comet and a significant amount of erosion from the Sun's heating. The close up images will be studied in detail to document the changes. I expect we will see more in the months to come.
Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Comet Tempel-1 Flyby - WOW!!!!

Hey Space Placers!

The Stardust-NExT flyby of Comet Tempel-1 was a success and then some.  There was a glitch in the sequence of photos relayed back to Earth but that was an inconvenience, not mission affecting. This glitch did delay the news conference held and disappointed people who had stayed up on Valentine's Day evening to watch the images return to Earth.

The first images were the long distance views - the closeups from the 112 mile flyby were downloaded much later - there were 72 images in all. The mission's objective was to see how much and in what way the comet had changed in the 5 years since it was imaged by the Deep Impact spacecraft in July 2005,  especially since the comet had undergone heating by the Sun during that time. With the details and clarity of the images the mission objectives were easily surpassed. The science team will be working with these images and other data for some time and our knowledge of comets will be greatly enhanced.

The photos were amazingly sharp and clear as you can see by this sample.

The bonus and to me highlight of the mission was the imaging of the area where the comet was hit by an 800 pound copper "bullet"  launched by the Deep Impact spacecraft in July 2005. The resulting crater could not be imaged by Deep Impact because there was so much water and dust kicked up by the impact that the impact area could not be seen. Because of that, many questions were left unanswered such as how big was the crater, how deep, could we see the interior of the comet via the crater walls and could we determine more about the composition of the comet?

Preliminary information is that the Deep Impact crater was about 500 feet across. I will post an image when it is available.

This mission "only" cost $29 million (see my blog tomorrow on NASA's budget) since we reused the Stardust spacecraft. The spacecraft has used up all or most of its fuel so it will wander in orbit around the Sun for eons to come.

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, February 14, 2011

NASA Budget

Hey Space Placers!

Here is the link to NASA's budget for 2012 and $18.7 billion:

Haven't read through it yet and Stardust-NExT is on target for flyby of Comet Tempel-1 in a little over an hour.

More on both tomorrow.

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Big Day Monday

Hey Space Pacers!

Tomorrow, Valentine's Day, we are going to get a ring side seat at a flyby of Comet Tempel 1 courtesy of the Stardust-NExT spacecraft. It will be late at night on the east coast so I won't post until Tuesday in all probability.

Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, February 12, 2011

NASA's Future

Hey Space Placers!

NASA will be discussing its' budget next week and I look forward to seeing the outcome of these discussions. For all that NASA does - aeronautical (in the atmosphere involving aircraft) and space related (manned and unmanned) the US taxpayer gets a good bargain for just a smidgen over $18 billion a year. The King of Pyramid Schemes looted over $50 billion out of his clients and we spend $100's of billions per year on gambling and our pets. Puts it in perspective - at least for me. NASA is cheap in terms of cost vs. benefit and make no mistake about it - we need the US space program as a nation and a species.

The budget talks are going to show that NASA has not been given sufficient funding for the tasks that Congress has mandated it to do - build a heavy lift vehicle and get the US back into manned spaceflight following the retirement of the shuttles this year - more on that in a bit.

There are several plans on the table for commercial spacecraft companies to use shuttles and the solid rocket boosters for keeping the US in the manned spaceflight business by as early as 2013. Some plans involve using the Ares 1X launch vehicle, some the Orion manned space capsule and others the shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis. Again, this is thinking being done by private space companies.

We have invested billions, yes billions in developing the Ares 1X manned rated launch vehicle, the heavy lift vehicle called Ares V and the Orion space capsule. The hardware is still being built even though the full scale Constellation program was ended by the President last year.

See a YouTube video on the building of the Orion Ground Test Article Command Module:

NASA is in a flux as to where it is to go funding and hardware wise. Let's hope something gets resolved that salvages the billions spent already and gets the US back into the manned spaceflight program and going SOMEWHERE other than Low Earth Orbit (LEO)....the Moon or an asteroid.

I can guarantee you the Chinese are going to do it......seen their China commercials that promote their spaceflight program by zooming out from their Taikonauts????

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ring of Black Holes

Hey Space Placers!

Look at this incredible composite picture made of images from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Space Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Chandra data is in pink while HST is the other colors.
Arp 147, a pair of interacting galaxies
These interacting galactic remnants have formed the ring of high mass stars that includes black holes formed when super massive stars exploded. The ring has about 9 black holes located where the pink sources are.

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mark Kelly Back in Command of STS-134

Hey Space Placers,

NASA announced last Friday that Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabby Giffords,  had decided to return to command STS-134. Giffords is undergoing intensive therapy for her head wound suffered when shot in Tucson a month ago today. Kelly stated that his family was behind his decision and he was sure that Giffords would be at the Cape in April to see his launch.

This is good news for all of us as it means that Gabby is doing well enough for her husband to get back to work. I look forward to seeing her at the VIP section on launch day.

Sky Guy in VA 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super SUNday

Hey Space Placers!

We all know it is Super Bowl Sunday....but this is also an historic day in the study of our star, the Sun. Today, February 6th, for the first time in history, humanity can observe the ENTIRE Sun at once.
We can see the face of the Sun that faces away from Earth as well as that side we have always.

We are able to do this because of an ingenious solar mission that uses twin spacecraft that on this date reach their coverage positions.  STEREO A and STEREO B are positioned in space 180 degrees apart so that we can see all of the Sun. The picture below is the first ever all coverage photograph made of the Sun by STEREO A and B.

Latest image of the far side of the Sun based on high resolution STEREO data, taken on February 6, 2011 at 23:56 UT. 
 We will now be able to study the whole Sun at once and see what is happening (developing) on the "back side" of the Sun. Such coverage will fill in gaps of observational data that up to now were based on just half of the picture.

Breakthroughs in solar science and space weather and solar activity forecasting - very important as Solar Maximum is set to begin just about any day now.

Read More About It:

So go Steelers and Packers and STEREO A & B!!!!!!

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, February 5, 2011

R2 Set For ISS Duty

Hey Space Placers!

Did you know that Space Shuttle Discovery and the STS-133 mission will be taking an extra crewmember to the International Space Station? That may not seem unusual at first, but the crewmember's name is "R2" - the world's first dexterous robot to be launched into space.

JSC2010-E-090926 -- Robonaut 2
R2 will be sent to ISS w/o legs but will still be put through training and acclimation. Legs will follow on a later mission. Read more about it:

I am sure R2 will be like R2D2 from Star Wars instead of "Open the pod bay doors please HAL" from 2001! It will be fun to watch R2 in the coming years.

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, February 3, 2011

February Skies

Hey Space Placers!

I n early February we mark the halfway point for this interesting winter. We have had some really clear nights as well as cloudy ones -- not to mention foul weather! There are some great sky sights to see this month as three bright planets will be visible. Be sure to join me and other astronomers at George Mason University Observatory on Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. and on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. to check out the skies. Check here for more details.

Skywatching Highlights

Mercury is too difficult to see this month.

Brilliant Venus continues to grace the dark morning sky in the southeast, rising about two hours before dawn as the month begins. On Feb. 28, a thin crescent moon will be to the upper right of Venus. If you have binoculars it would be worth looking at Venus and the surrounding starfields throughout the month as the planet is in the constellation of Sagittarius - a very star-rich region of the sky.

Mars cannot be seen this month.

Bright Jupiter is in the west at sunset and remains visible until about 9:30 p.m. as the month begins but sets by 8:00 p.m. by month's end. The moon passes to the right of Jupiter on Feb. 6. If you have binoculars or a telescope you can watch the four main moons of Jupiter change their position night after night.

Saturn rises in the eastern sky at 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 1 and at 8:30 p.m. by month's end. The moon passes below Saturn on Feb. 20 and forms a triangle with the bright star Spica to the upper left. If you have a telescope, be sure to check out the ringed planet as a large storm continues to rage high in Saturn's clouds.

The new moon is Feb. 2. The first-quarter moon is Feb. 11, and this month's full moon occurs Feb. 18. This month's full moon is called the "Full Snow Moon" in recognition of the heaviest snowfall of the winter months. Last-quarter moon is Feb. 24. On Feb. 25, the bright orange star Antares will be to the right of the moon.

Here are our down to Earth events for this month:

Open House at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory, will be at 8 p.m. on Feb. 5 and Feb. 20.

The National Capital Astronomershas its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 12 at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory. The speaker is Dr. Brian Jackson (GSFC) on "From Extrasolar Gas Giant to Hot, Rocky Planet."

The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club will meet at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at George Mason University. The speaker is Tom Hill, discussing the importance of space exploration to our future and what can be done to improve upon the last 50 years of progress in America.

The United States Naval Observatory has Monday night tours but space is limited.

The National Air and Space Museum has several space-related activities this month.

The TriState AstronomersGeneral Meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at the William Brish Planetarium on Commonwealth Avenue in Hagerstown, Md.

Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch on her last mission Feb. 24. STS-133 will take supplies to the International Space Station. You can follow developments here.

Clear Skies!

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Columbia....8 Years Later

Hey SPace Placers!

It is hard to believe that it has been 8 years since we lost the crew of Columbia as she/they were returning to Earth from a successful science mission. They were just minutes from touchdown at Cape Kennedy when Columbia broke apart de to losing her left wing.

The crew and ship were doomed at liftoff when a chunk of foam from the External Tank broke off and hit a reinforced carbon-carbon panel on the leading edge of the left wing. Upon re-entry superheated air entered the wing, deformed the aerodynamic capability of the left wing and Columbia broke apart due to the resulting aerodynamical stresses. The shuttle and the remains of her crew were strewn over a wide swath of the southern U.S.

On the NASA web site today: "STS-1, Columbia's maiden voyage, launched on April 12, 1981, and was the inaugural flight in the Space Shuttle Program. Columbia and its crew were lost during STS-107 mission in 2003. As the shuttle lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 16, a small portion of foam broke away from the external fuel tank and struck the orbiter's left wing. The resulting damage created a hole in the wing's leading edge, which caused the vehicle to break apart during reentry on Feb. 1."

Sky Guy in VA