The Earth sets over the moon as seen from the Kaguya spacecraft – JAXA/NHK
Cloudy skies are in the forecast tonight and tomorrow. Why not kick back and enjoy a movie or two? For your astro pleasure, I have two wonderful, short films to share from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
The largest lunar mission since Apollo is underway right now. Japan’s SELENE or Selenological and Engineering Explorer, nicknamed Kaguya, is in orbit around the moon. It’s equipped with two HDTV cameras for shooting video of our lunar neighbor – and Earth — during its visit. The photo above is just one frame of a short movie. Looks unreal, doesn’t it?
Scientists hope to learn more about the moon’s geology, composition, gravity field and what’s under the crust during the mission.
To see the Earth drop away as you orbit the moon with Kaguya, click Earthset and then click on the picture link in the lower left of your screen. You’ll have a choice of video formats. After a few seconds of Japanese, the show begins. Click Earthrise for a wide-angle view of our planet slowly emerging from the lunar horizon.
Finally, Jim Schaff of Hermantown sent me an excellent photo of the International Space Station sliding up near the Pleiades around 9:43 p.m. Friday night. Did you get to see it too?
The ISS near the Pleiades Friday – 16mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 1600 — Jim Schaff
Current space station crew / NASA (The Expedition 16 crew members pose for a portrait at the Johnson Space Center. From the left (front row) are Russia’s Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, flight engineer and Soyuz commander; astronaut Peggy Whitson, commander; and Malaysian spaceflight participant Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. From the left (back row) are European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Léopold Eyharts, astronaut Garrett Reisman and astronaut Dan Tani, all flight engineers.)
Here’s one more update on seeing the International Space Station (ISS) and the European cargo ship Jules Verne as the station’s six-person crew carries out their docking mission. We have an exceptionally good pass of the ISS tonight in the Northland starting at 8:30 p.m.
The weather looks dicey but if we get lucky, you’ll see the ISS first appear alongside Orion in the southwest, slide nearly overhead and then fade in the northeast near bright Arcturus at 8:35 p.m. Jules Verne is supposed to precede it by two minutes (8:28 p.m.) but who knows. The European Space Agency is working on maneuvers today so it might actually be closer to the ISS than expected.
The key to finding Jules is to look for a dimmer moving "star" along the same track as the ISS. We have a ringside seat at this space jockey extravaganza for the entire upcoming week until the two finally dock in early April. Go to www.heavens-above.com for the latest times to take advantage of the opportunity.
While you watch, notice the color of the space station. The gold tint you’re seeing is sunlight reflected off the new, copper-colored solar arrays that power the ship.
Saturn and Regulus in Leo. Have you met their gaze? – Bob King / News Tribune
Have you noticed a pair of eyes looking over your shoulder these spring nights? I’m talking about the planet Saturn and the star Regulus in Leo the Lion. They’re now so close together, they really attract a casual skywatcher’s attention.
You’ll find the singular pair high in the southeastern sky after 9 o’clock. Saturn is the one on the left and also the brighter. Regulus is 77.5 light years away and to the naked eye, looks like an unassuming brightish star. It’s anything but.
Regulus is 350 times brighter than the sun, and spins on its axis at nearly 700,000 miles per hour, completing one spin in just under 16 hours. Compare that to the sun, which takes about 25 days to turn once on its axis. Regulus spins so quickly it’s stretched into something resembling an egg more than a sphere.
That zippy spin also makes Regulus five times hotter at its poles than the equator. Scientists attribute the star’s fast rotation to its youth, only 50 million years old compared to 4.5 billion for our sun. Youth has its advantages I guess.
Every star has a unique personality but great distance makes nearly all of them look alike. Astronomers tease out their personal details bit by bit through careful study. It’s the best we can do until someday we travel there ourselves.
Next time you go for a stroll under the night sky, look up to see who’s watching.
The Northern Lights last night at 11 p.m. — Bob King / News Tribune
Did you get a chance to see the aurora last night? From the countryside, it was active until past 11 o’clock. Faint rays like rising smoke streaked the north around 10 p.m. Later, a pale green glow swelled on the northern horizon accompanied by several very nice columns of shifting light. The greens and pinks are caused by electrons and protons from the solar wind exciting oxygen and nitrogen atoms high in the atmosphere.
As displays go, it was modest but very welcome on a cold, still night. The solar wind will continue to blow like a nor’easter, giving us a chance for auroras over the next few nights. Keep looking up.
Jules Verne has been maneuvering into position as it prepares for a practice docking with the International Space Station (ISS) on March 31. Because of these movements, the times given for the Jules Verne passes can be off a little.
That was the case last night. Jules Verne appeared about two minutes late and only one minute before the ISS. It caught me by surprise. The two spacecraft were only two outstretched fists apart. Jules Verne was a little brighter than Orion’s Belt stars while the ISS outshone Sirius, the brightest star.
Tonight’s first pass of the ISS, beginning at 8:08 p.m., will follow an arc from below Sirius in the southwest, across the south and all the way east almost to Arcturus. Jules Verne will travel the identical path about two minutes later.
The second pass of the ISS, beginning at 9:43 p.m., starts in the west and goes straight up alongside the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) before fading out. Jules Verne will again follow about two minutes later.
The ISS times are solid but Jules Verne’s may vary a bit. Enjoy your night out.
A quick reminder for satellite watchers tonight and tomorrow night. Here are times for viewing Jules Verne and the International Space Station from the Duluth-Superior region. Weather looks good and tonight’s passes should be bright. The photos will help you visualize what you’ll be seeing.
The ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) / NASA
* Jules Verne cargo ship moving from the SSW to S between 9:19-22 p.m. It will get as high as halfway to the top of the sky.
* The Space Station will follow the same path from 9:21-23 p.m.
Notice that the times overlap. The two ships are closing in on one another so it should be possible to see them at the same time in opposite parts of the sky.
Tomorrow – Special "DOUBLE PASS" night * This time that Space Station is first at 8:09-13 p.m. from SSW to east and again at 9:43-45 p.m. from west to NW.
* Jules Verne follows the same track from 8:10-15 p.m. and again from 9:45-47 p.m.
The sun today as seen from the SOHO spacecraft / SOHO-MDI
There’s aurora in the air. Last night I saw two plumes of light low in the northern sky around 10 p.m. They gradually brightened and then slowly faded like breath evaporating from a window pane. All the while, a low auroral arc smouldered in the distant treetops.
The Earth is being buffeted by a stream of subatomic particles flowing from an opening in the sun’s outer atmosphere called a coronal hole. When these particles strike the big magnetic bubble that surrounds out planet, they can send cascades of electrons and protons down toward the north and south poles, setting the upper atmosphere aglow in sheets of auroral color.
If you live up near the Arctic Circle, there’s an excellent chance you’ll see some exciting auroras over the next couple evenings. Here in our region we should see some activity too but it’s likely to be limited.
That may change soon. The photo above shows lots of new sunspots on the sun. And where there are spots, there’s a chance for solar flares. These enormous nuclear-style explosions can send lots of little particles at high speed right toward the Earth and ignite bright displays of the Northern Lights. Keep a watch over the next week.
Just caught the 9 p.m. pass of the International Space Station here from my front yard, and it was a brilliant one. Even through thin clouds, the ISS was brighter than nearby Sirius. The other satellite, Jules Verne, was dim. Clouds didn’t help either. Tomorrow night’s pass will be much higher and brighter. I hope you got to see them. If not, there’ll be opportunities through the remainder of the week.
This just in from from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab:
"NASA’s Cassini spacecraft tasted and sampled a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn’s moon Enceladus during a close flyby on March 12. Scientists are amazed that this tiny moon is so active, "hot" and brimming with water vapor and organic chemicals." The geysers are erupting from the fissures pictured below.
Heat radiates from 95-mile long cracks in the crust of Enceladus / NASA
More on this in the coming days. Now time to walk the dog.
I got home late last night after looking at Saturn, a dozen galaxies and a beautiful star cluster in my telescope from a dark place north of home. The house was quiet but a light was on in my older daughter’s room.
"Dad, can you give me a back rub?" she asked after I’d removed my heavy coat and insulated pants. I was ready for bed but how could I refuse? She enjoyed the rub as we talked about the little events of the day. And my hands came back to earth as they were warmed by the massage. Returning home to a welcoming voice after a night of observing is a wonderful thing.
The Clear Sky Chart indicates clear skies early this evening. That’s a good thing since we’ll finally get the opportunity to see the tag team of the International Space Station (ISS) and Jules Verne cargo ship make some passes through our evening sky. The Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-123) is scheduled to land around 6 p.m. tonight otherwise it would be visible too.
I’ve listed a few times below for the Duluth-Superior area. As always, go to www.heavens-above.com for times for your location. Jules Verne preceeds the ISS by about four minutes and though not as bright, it’s still easy to see.
* Tonight: Jules Verne visible 8:55-57 p.m. in the south-southwest about three outstretched fists above the horizon. The ISS will follow the same path from 8:59-9:01 p.m. * Tomorrow March 27: Jules Verne from 9:17-19 p.m. halfway up in the sky. The ISS will follow from 9:21-23 p.m.
The Winter Hexagon / created with Stellarium
While you’re out, why not try to find the grand arrangement of bright winter stars called the Winter Hexagon. Start with Sirius, the brightest, and located nearly due south at 8:30 p.m. Work your way up to Procyon (in Canis Minor), Pollux and Castor (Gemini), Capella (Auriga), Aldebaran (Taurus) and down to Rigel in Orion. Notice that the hexagon corrals two other luminaries: Mars and Betelgeuse. All these bright stars sparkling in fading twilight is a sight not to miss.
Time exposure of star trails around Polaris / Bob King
Every day it’s a merry-go-around. The planet spins round and round with its axis pointed in the same direction at the same special star, Polaris. More familiar to us as the North Star, Polaris is a supergiant star much larger and brighter than the sun and located 430 light years away. When you find the North Star tonight, the light that touches your retina left the star in the year 1578, near the end of the Renaissance and 30 years before the invention of the telescope.
Use the "Pointers" to guide you to Polaris / created with Stellarium
Finding Polaris is easy. First locate the Big Dipper, high in the northeastern sky. Take the two stars at the end of the Bucket, nicknamed the Pointer Stars, and draw a line through them downward until you come to another star the same brightness as the Dipper stars.
Polaris heads up a fainter, smaller Little Dipper called Ursa Minor. You’ll need rural suburban skies to pick out this constellation. The North Star is the perfect direction indicator because it’s always due north in the same spot in the sky. Imagine it as hovering over Earth’s north polar axis. As our planet spins, all the other stars appear to describe circles about this one point where Polaris resides. The time exposure photo above shows this whirlpool or merry-go-round effect. It also includes a little surprise. In the upper right hand corner, a meteor was captured slicing across the frame.
I want to report that "Far" was able to find Arcturus the other night. Congrats! I’d also like to thank all those whose written kind comments about the blog.
Earthly stars Zellweger and Clooney — Bob King / News Tribune
Stars of the cosmic variety / NASA
Hollywood celebs George Clooney and Renee Zellweger came to Duluth today to promote the movie "Leatherheads." I’ve been so busy getting photos of these stars ready for the Web, I’ve hardly had time to consider the celestial variety, the really hot ones. So please enjoy this image from the Hubble Space Telescope. And remember that a front row seat at the night sky doesn’t require a press pass or a penny.