Archive for the ‘Missions and Launches’ Category

Wile E. Coyote Hired by NASA!

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Well, not really. After all, despite being a self-described super-genius, good ‘ol Wile E. is a coyote … and fictional. But still, if the cartoon canine somehow could take over a NASA mission, and if he somehow suspected the Road Runner was on the moon, the result would probably be something along the lines of what’s going to happen Friday morning. Starting at about 7:31 a.m. EDT, NASA will continue it’s “let’s smash stuff open and see what’s inside” method of exploration by having it’s LCROSS mission impact the moon, not just once, but twice. First the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation Sensing Satellite) will separate from the empty Centaur rocket stage that helped send it on it’s mission. The rocket stage will be sent crashing into the lunar crater Cabeus. The LCROSS itself will be close behind, first monitoring the results of the Centaur impact, then impacting itself. The purpose of all this is to look for signs of water ice near the lunar south pole. Such a find could be a great boon to future manned moon missions. If you have a backyard scope ten inches or larger in diameter, you may be able to see the debris plume kicked up by the impacts yourself.  Check out this article for more information on when and where to look.


Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Cruising silently through space, a comet is headed straight toward the planet. Nothing can stop the inevitable impact. It sounds like the setup for yet another disaster movie. But about a week ago, it really happened. However there was never any need to call Bruce Willis. The planet in peril was Jupiter. And far from being a disaster, the impact (probably by a comet, although scientists don’t know for sure) has been a boon for astronomers observing the dark mark left in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Even the testing and calibration of the upgraded Hubble telescope was put on hold to get pictures of the rare event. More information about the impact and Hubble’s picture taking can be found in this article.

To the backyard astronomer, the most important question about the mark left by the impact is “Can I see it?”  The answer is a clear and definite maybe. The good news is that Jupiter is currently in prime viewing position for us in North America, shining brightly in the southern sky. But whether the impact mark (estimated to be the size of the Pacific Ocean) can be seen depends on the quality of your telescope and the viewing conditions. My advice is to go with the highest magnification the seeing allows, put in a dark blue filter (to heighten contrast) if you have one, and give it a try. Of course, with Jupiter rotating on it’s axis, there’s always the risk that even if everything else is good, the mark will be on the “wrong” side of the planet. But at worst, you can still spend some time looking at Jupiter’s cloud bands and large moons, always interesting telescopic targets in their own right.

… in Peace For All Mankind

Monday, July 20th, 2009

40 years ago today, humans, for the first time, set foot on a world other than their own. It was the fulfillment of a goal set in 1961 by President Kennedy when he said “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” The place Apollo 11 landed is the southern Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis). Although the backyard astronomer has no chance of seeing the landing site itself (it can just barely be seen by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) , the Mare Tranquillitatis can be easily seen, and is highlighted on the picture below. So take a look at the Mare Tranquillitatis tonight, and think of the bravery it took to land there.


Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Sunday, July 5th, 2009
Mare Nubium

NASA’s hoped for return to the moon took another step as the new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has begun sending back images of the moon’s surface. The pictures of the Mare Nubium represent NASA’s first clear, close look at the moon in a decade. Besides allowing more detailed maps of the lunar surface, the orbiter will seek out potential landing sites for future astronauts. More information about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can be found at this SPACE.COM article.

Is That a Spaceship in the Sky?

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Have you ever gone outside at night and seen a spaceship flying overhead? If you’ve spent much time at all looking at the night sky, the answer is probably yes. Now I’m not talking about anything piloted by little green men. These spaceships are of a very Earthly origin. Although the space shuttle, on it’s mission to service the Hubble telescope, is in an orbit that won’t make it visible from North America, the next few days will be ideal for viewing the International Space Station (ISS). Visible as a point of light (brighter than magnitude -2 on some passes) moving at a quick but steady pace across the sky, seeing the ISS can add a bit of extra fun to a night of stargazing. Check out the Heavens Above website to find when the ISS will be visible from your location.