Endeavour shuttle hits the mean streets of LA

Spectators gather to watch the space shuttle Endeavour outside of Randy’s Donuts as it waits to cross the 405 freeway in Inglewood, Calif., Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AP

How odd to see this magnificent flying machine bound to Earth and squeezing between power poles on a 12-mile journey to its exhibition space at the California Science Center. The soaring bird that performed balletic moves while docking with the space station at 17,000 mph now toddles along with great care at 2 mph.

Endeavour should arrive at the museum at 9 p.m. local time this evening. There the 75-ton spacecraft will be placed on permanent exhibit in a new addition that’s still under construction. While it hurts a little to be reminded of the shuttle program’s suspension, it’s heartening to think of the millions of people who will get to stand next to the shiny beast and be inspired by what it represents.

Spectators gather to watch the space shuttle Endeavour make its way down Manchester Blvd. in Los Angeles, Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. Credit: AP

The picture brightens more when you consider how private firms like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and others have taken up the slack by building their own suborbital vehicles that will one day take humans into space. Earlier this week, SpaceX successfully docked their Dragon cargo ship with the space station. OK, I don’t feel so bad now.

Today will involve some tight turns and strange sights including the wingtips of the beast gliding over homeowners’ driveways. Families have been warned to stay inside. Wish I could be there – I sense many a wonderful photo opportunity.

Endeavour docked to the ISS photographed on May 23, 2011. Click to enlarge. Credit: Paolo Nespoli / NASA

During its lifetime, the Endeavour shuttle visited the space station 25 times and put 123 million miles on its odometer or nearly the average distance from Earth to Mars (140 million) before ending its final mission last June. High points in its career and those of the astronauts who piloted it include missions to correct the Hubble Space Telescope’s flawed optics (1993) and numerous flights to transport key lab modules including those lovely cupola windows for installation on the space station.

Endeavour became something of a celebrity on May 23, 2011 when astronaut Paolo Nespoli snapped the first-ever portrait of a shuttle docked to the space station as he departed for Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule.

The other three surviving shuttles are or will be in museums out East. Discovery is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington; Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City;  and Atlantis will be exhibited at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

There’s a moon looking over your shoulder

The last quarter moon hangs high in the sky at breakfast time this month. Maps created with Stellarium

This morning the last quarter moon peered down over my house from high up in the southwestern sky. It was very plain to see. Have you noticed the moon lately in the daytime? For northern hemisphere observers, it’s out nearly all morning long if your sky is clean and blue.

There are two reasons for the moon’s easy visibility. The first has to do with phase. At full phase, it’s exactly opposite the sun – as far as it can get. When the sun sets, the moon rises, and when the moon sets the next morning, the sun rises. Each day after full moon, the moon moves about one outstretched fist eastward (left) in the direction of the sun as it orbits the Earth. 7 days after full – last quarter phase – it rises around midnight and set around noon the following day. That means it’s still up in the west well after sunrise.

The second reason for the moon’s easy visibility has to do with the direction of its path after full phase. Earlier this month, you might recall how low the full moon was in the southern sky. From my home it skirted the tree tops. That’s because it reached the lowest point in its path around the sky. The sun occupies the same spot in late December at the start of winter.  Recall that both it and the moon follow the same path in the sky called the ecliptic.

The last quarter moon joins the planet Jupiter in the constellation Aries at dawn tomorrow and Sunday.

Having hit its lowest point, the moon had nowhere to go but up. Now at last quarter phase, it’s positioned in Aries, halfway to the summer solstice point. Not only is the moon at a higher altitude, but like the spring sun vs. the winter sun, it hangs around longer in the sky. Over the coming mornings, the moon will wane to a crescent, get closer to the sun and also higher up in the sky. Watch for it.

If you prefer your moon observing in a dark sky, it will be passing the planet Jupiter this weekend. Watch for a nice pairing of the two tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday mornings. You can either go out around 1:30-2 a.m. when they first come up in the east or wait until dawn to see them nicely placed in the southeastern sky.

A member of the Expedition 28 crew aboard the space station caught this spectacular photo showing the space shuttle Atlantis actually hurtling through the Earth's atmosphere on its way back to Kennedy Space Center, Florida early yesterday. Airglow is visible in the background. Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

In case you didn’t see this cool photo of Atlantis, here it is. Be sure to click the image to see the BIG version. It shows the shuttle’s glowing plasma trail from superheated air as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere traveling at thousands of miles per hour. Look carefully to follow the trail all the way down to the cloud tops. Stars show in the picture, because it was taken in twilight before sunrise.

Atlantis touches down. How to see spectacular Iridium satellite flares

Space shuttle Atlantis lands for the final time at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this morning. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The space shuttle Atlantis landed at 4:57 a.m. CDT today at Kennedy Space Center in Florida after 200 orbits around Earth and a journey of 5,284,862 miles. Now that it’s back home, Atlantis won’t be going far. It’s slated to spend its retirement years on display at Kennedy’s Visitor Complex.

The shuttle crew delivered more than 9,400 pounds of spare parts, spare equipment and other supplies in the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module – including 2,677 pounds of food – that will sustain space station operations for the next year. As part of space station ‘closet cleaning’, Raffaello brought back nearly 5,700 pounds of unneeded materials. Staring this weekend, the International Space Station, home at the moment to six astronauts, will begin making passes across the dawn sky for much of the U.S. In Sunday’s blog, I’ll post a table of times when to watch for it.

The Iridium 96 satellite looks like a fireball as it briefly flares while passing over the neighborhood in July 2008. Photo: Bob King

The return of the space station got me thinking about Iridium satellites and the spectacular flares they produce when sunlight hits them just so. I’ve written about Iridium flares in the past, but now is a good time to revisit the topic. Summer weather brings more of us outside under the night sky, increasing the chance we’ll see one of one of these jaw-dropping events.

There are some 66 active Iridium satellites orbiting the Earth like electrons around the nucleus of an atom. They form a global ‘constellation’ 485 miles high used for relaying voice and data communications. The name ‘Iridium’ comes from the element iridium which is number 77 on the periodic table. The constellation was originally to consist of 77 satellites, but more have been launched over the years.

A mirror-like reflection of a bright light source off one of the antenna arrays on an Iridium satellite. Credit: SeeSat-L

Normally Iridiums are too faint to see except in binoculars, but they have silver-coated Teflon antenna arrays that reflect sunlight like a mirror. When the angle between satellite and observer is right, a brilliant reflection of the sun from the antennas causes an Iridium to suddenly and spectacularly brighten for between 5 and 20 seconds. Unlike a meteor, the satellite does not dash across the sky as it flares. It moves very slowly due to its high altitude, more than twice that of the space station.

Flares range in brightness from that of the Sirius, the brightest star in the sky at magnitude -1.4, all the way up to about -8, which is 20 times brighter than Venus (-4.5)! I’ve seen a few -8 flares, and they’re so intense, you think the object’s going to explode. Almost as suddenly as it appeared, the satellite fades back to invisibility 15 seconds later. Crazy.

There is one caveat, well, two really. Make sure your watch or cellphone is set to the correct time so you don’t miss the brief event. Secondly, flares are only visible with a range of less than 50 miles. The flares I see at my house will be brighter or fainter than the same seen across town.  That means you’ll need to find when they’re visible for exactly where you live.

The best and easiest to use resource is the Heavens Above website. Once there, login and select your location. Under the Satellites heading on the left side of the page, look for Iridium flares and click on the Next 7 days link. You’ll be taken to a page that shows a table of dates, times, intensities (the higher the negative number, the brighter the flare), the satellite’s number and its altitude and azimuth. Altitude tells you how high to look. If it’s 90 degrees, that’s overhead. If 45 degrees, that’s halfway between the horizon (0 degrees) and overhead.

This time exposure shows the how a flare from Iridium 75 evolved from invisibility (right) through peak brightness and then fadeout. Photo: Bob King

Azimuth tells you what direction to look. Due north is 0 degrees azimuth, east is 90, south is 180 and west 270. The final bit of information is how far you are from the flare’s center, where it reaches peak brightness. Click on the time link to see where the center is. For example, tonight there’s a nice -3 magnitude flare for my location at 9:44 p.m., but I see from the table that I’m 17.7 km west of the flare’s center. If I drove 17.7 km to the east, I’d see a humongous -8 magnitude flare instead. Will I do this? Only if I were able to drive my car on Lake Superior.

Heavens-Above even has a listing of flares visible in broad daylight. Too cool. However you see Iridium flares, bring a friend along and surprise them by ‘predicting’ that a brilliant object will appear shortly in the sky above.

Here are some times to watch for flares in the Duluth area for the coming evenings. Wherever you live, please drop us a line if you spot any.

* Tonight Thursday at 9:44 p.m. 2/3 the way up (59 degrees) in the northeastern sky (azimuth 63 degrees). Iridium 22 satellite.
* Friday July 22 at 9:38 p.m. again in the northeastern sky. Iridium 25. Second flare at 11:13 p.m.  from Iridium 31 27 degrees high (1/3 the way up)  in the northeast.
* Saturday at 9:32 p.m. 61 degrees high in the east-northeast from Iridium 47. This flare will be intensely bright at magnitude -7! A second flare from Iridium 90 at 11:07 p.m. 27 degrees high in the northeast.

New shuttle aurora pix plus good news at Vesta

This panoramic view was photographed from the International Space Station toward Earth, looking past space shuttle Atlantis' docked cargo bay and part of the station, including a solar array panel. Credit: NASA

What a picture! It was taken on July 14 as the shuttle-space station complex passed over the southern hemisphere. Check out the rind of aurora australis – the southern lights – around the Earth’s limb. The image was exposed long enough to capture a swath of the southern Milky Way along with the Southern Cross and Alpha and Beta Centauri. Alpha Centauri, in the constellation Centaurus the Centaur, is the nearest star system to Earth after the sun at a distance of 4.4 light years or about 26.4 trillion miles. It consists of a pair of closely-orbiting bright stars similar to the sun in size along with a third fainter red dwarf called Proxima Centauri.

Crux, better known as the Southern Cross, and 1st magnitude stars Alpha and Beta Centauri are shown in this cropped version of the photo above. Credit: NASA

At the time, observers in Antarctica, which currently experiences 24 hours of darkness during the southern winter, reported spectacular displays of the southern aurora. Click HERE to see another shuttle aurora photo or HERE for a gallery of images from the current mission.

While we’re on the topic of northern/southern lights, there’s a chance of minor auroras across southern Canada, Scandinavia and the northern U.S. tomorrow and Tuesday nights due to a coronal hole in just the right position to send high-speed solar particles in our planet’s direction.

The positions of Earth, Mars and Vesta are shown for today. Vesta is presently 116.2 million miles from Earth. Illustration: Bob King

Yesterday, Dawn became the first space probe to enter into orbit around a main belt asteroid. Vesta, we’ve got you covered! Right now, the craft is in a high and loose orbit around Vesta, but during the coming weeks, mission controllers will be carefully measuring the asteroid’s gravity and mass to calculate a final ‘survey orbit’ from which to study and photograph it up close. Sometime in early August, Dawn will begin mapping and science studies from a 1,700 mile high orbit that loops around Vesta’s poles.

This simulated view shows Dawn's position in relation to Vesta around 10 a.m. CDT today July 17. The blue streak represents the thrust from the craft's ion propulsion engine. Credit: NASA

“Dawn will be in a near-polar orbit,” says Marc Rayman, chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Its trajectory will take it over the north pole (which will be in darkness, because it will be northern hemisphere winter at that time), then over the terminator (the boundary between the illuminated and unilluminated sides), down over the equator, over the south pole, and then across the terminator again to pass over Vesta’s night side. Such an orbit allows the spacecraft to have a view of virtually every part of the lit surface at some time. Each revolution in survey orbit will take 2.5 to 3 days to complete.”

Rayman writes a great blog on the background and progress of Dawn and its Vestan mission. Check out his Dawn Journal. And congrats to the Dawn team for a job well done! So far, so good.

Juno to reveal the truth about her husband Jupiter’s affairs

Got 2 minutes and 47 seconds? Take a look at the amazing time-lapse video of the space shuttle Atlantis getting ‘suited up’ for its final launch last week. Three photographers used 15 cameras over 4 days to take the 120,000 photos used to create the video. We are pyramid builders at heart.

NASA's Jupiter probe Juno will launch next month and arrive at Jupiter in 2016. Credit: NASA

Although the ending of shuttle flights marks a downturn in the U.S. manned space program, unmanned missions continue unabated. The Juno spacecraft is scheduled to launch on Friday August 5 to Jupiter. It will be the first mission to the outer solar system to run completely on solar power instead of electricity generated through the decay of radioactive elements.

After a five-year interplanetary cruise, it will arrive at the planet in July 2016, enter into a polar orbit and study the giant planet for a year. Orbiting around the poles instead of the equator allows Juno to photograph and investigate Jupiter’s spectacular displays of the aurora borealis, precisely measure the planet’s gravity field, and tease out the structure of Jupiter’s vast magnetic field. Using microwaves, it will also probe deep beneath the clouds to determine how much water and ammonia is in the planet’s atmosphere. And it won’t stop there. Knowledge of the gravity field will help us understand the nature of Jupiter’s solid core.

Jupiter photographed on Monday this week (July 11) by astrophotographer Damian Peach of England. The North and South Equatorial cloud belts (big stripes) dominate the planet's atmosphere. The Great Red Spot is embedded within the southern edge of the South Equatorial Belt.

The probe is named after the Roman god Jupiter’s wife (and sister) Juno. At some point in their marriage, Juno grew suspicious of her husband’s many ‘out of town’ trips from Mount Olympus. One day, when Jupiter was having an illicit tryst with the fair Io, he spread a cloak of clouds around the entire Earth to hide it from her prying eyes. Juno suspected the ruse and used her special powers to penetrate the clouds and expose her husband’s true purpose. It’s a classic bit of saucy Greek mythology, but one that lends an oddly fitting name for a spaceship.

Technicians lower the special radiation vault onto the propulsion module of Juno. The radiation vault has titanium walls to protect the spacecraft's electronic brain and heart from Jupiter's harsh radiation environment. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/LMSS

Since it will spend so much time deep within Jupiter’s radiation field, all the important electronics will be kept safe in a special 500-lb. titantium box called the Jupiter Radiation Vault. When Juno’s year of study is finished, the craft will be sent on a collision course with the planet and burn up like a meteor in its atmosphere. Be sure to check out the de-orbiting video simulation.

Perhaps Juno will smile from faraway Mt. Olympus, when her namesake puts the sting on her husband one more time.

Join me for a roller coaster ride aboard Endeavour

A video camera on the exterior of the International Space Station captured this image of space shuttle Endeavour a little less than an hour after the two spacecraft undocked. Photo credit: NASA TV

Don’t miss the Double Flyby! Late last night, after the space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station (ISS), pilot Greg Johnson flew the craft in a circle around the station so the astronauts could take still and video pictures of it. Commander Mark Kelly then took the controls for a test of an automated rendezvous and docking system.

Tomorrow morning you’ll see one following the other as they take the same path across the dawn sky. For the Duluth, Minn. region, the Double Flyby – a brilliant one – begins at 4:10 a.m. when the pair first appears in the southwest moving east. They’ll glide through the constellation Aquila and Great Square of Pegasus, and cruise just above the planet Jupiter before “setting” in the east.  I don’t know yet which which craft will be leading and how far ahead of the other it will be, but the ISS is typically brighter than the shuttle. To ensure you see them both, start looking a few minutes early.

Since the shuttle will land at 1:35 a.m. Central Daylight time on June 1, this will be the last opportunity to see the two in tandem. I’m hoping our forecast for partly cloudy skies tonight holds true. This is one to set the alarm for.


Endeavour’s launch from booster cameras

Whether your skies are cloudy or clear, you don’t want to miss seeing this amazing video that shows the May 16 launch of Endeavour from the perspective of cameras mounted on its booster rockets. You’ll really feel like you’re on a roller coaster of a ride as you watch the liftoff from four different angles. I don’t know if this is the first time NASA has released these videos publicly, but it’s my first viewing.

A few things to watch and listen for are the darkening of the sky from blue to black with increasing altitude, the exhaust plume and its shadow visible back down on Earth, the drop in loudness of the burning fuel as the air thins out, the gradual increase in sound volume as the boosters fall back through the atmosphere and the final in-your-face ocean splashdown. You’ll find plenty of other interesting things going on as well. Be sure to punch the video up to full screen for maximum enjoyment.

Can you still spot the bright star Capella in the northwestern sky during evening twilight? This map shows the sky about 75 minutes after sunset. Created with Stellarium

When the shadows are deepening and twilight pink lingers in the west, Capella still twinkles brightly. This star, which is located in the northern constellation Auriga the Charioteer, is visible year-round for the northern U.S. and Canada, reaching its lowest point above the northern horizon around 2 a.m. in early June before resuming its climb in the east.

Capella looks a little lonely way down there, but being the 6th brightest star in the sky (magnitude 0.0), it still catches your eye. Because of its low altitude, Capella is typically aflutter with air turbulence, which causes its pinpoint image to shift this way and that making the star twinkle.

We look through a greater thickness of moving, turbulent air when our gaze is directed near the horizon. That's why stars twinkle more strongly there than overhead. Illustration: Bob King

If you notice it sputtering like a sparkler, take your binoculars out for a closer look. That way you’ll better see it twinkling in every color of the rainbow, flashing red to orange to blue as the varied air acts like a lens, refracting Capella like a prism into evanescent sparks of colored light.

Endeavour and ISS join the moon and Jupiter at dawn

Ouch! The Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft, carrying astronauts Cady Coleman, Paolo Nespoli and Dmitry Kondratyev, lands in a remote area in the steppes of Kazakhstan earlier this week. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Morning sky watchers, do we have something for you. The International Space Station (ISS) with space shuttle Endeavour in tow is once again making passes over North America at dawn. Since the shuttle will return to Earth during the early morning of June 1, we’ll hopefully get to see them separate and chase each other around the sky for a time before the landing.

Even better, a beautiful crescent moon will be buzzing the morning planets during the same time.  Tomorrow morning (Saturday) the moon will be about a fist to the upper right of Jupiter, but on Sunday they’ll be twice as close and rise together. The best time to see them is about 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise. Look very low in the eastern sky. Then on Monday morning a very thin lunar crescent will lie near the planets Mars and Venus. I’ll provide a map in Sunday’s blog to point you in the right direction.

This map shows the moon and the planet Jupiter about an hour before sunrise this weekend. Created with Stellarium

The times listed below for ISS/Endeavour viewing are Central Daylight and accurate for the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, go to Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby site and type in your zipcode or login in to Heavens Above and click on the ISS link. At the latter site, clicking on the date will bring up a map showing the space station’s path across your sky.

The space station/shuttle moves from west to east across the sky and appears like a bright, nearly-steady light. I say nearly because sometimes the ISS can flare to greater brightness for seconds at a time.

* Saturday May 28 starting at 4:35 a.m. The ISS will follow a low arc across the south and southeast. It passes very close to Jupiter near the end of its viewing path.
* Sunday May 29 at 4:58 a.m. Much brighter and higher pass in the south! Watch it cruise just a couple degrees above the crescent moon around 5:02 a.m.
* Monday May 30 at 3:47 a.m. Low pass in the southeastern sky
* Tuesday May 31 at 4:09 a.m. Fine, bright pass across the south.
* Wednesday June 1 at 4:31 a.m. across the top of the sky. Brilliant pass! Last one with the shuttle Endeavour before it lands.
* Thursday June 2 at 3:22 a.m. across the south-southeast and a second pass across the northern sky at 4:55 a.m.
* Friday June 3 at 3:43 a.m. Brilliant pass across the top of the sky!

Finally, according to NOAA space weather forecasters, there’s a chance for aurora at higher latitudes from May 27-29. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see the shuttle/ISS, moon and Jupiter with a dash of northern lights?

Unique shuttle-space station photo planned tonight

This photo, taken on Sept. 10, 1991, of Superior Fire Department Capt. Leonard Rouse giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a kitten. The kitten survived and was adopted by Rouse, who named it "Smudge". Credit: Charles Curtis, Duluth News-Tribune

I worked for many years with photographer Chuck Curtis at the Duluth News Tribune. He’s since passed away. Besides the daily run of photo assignments, Chuck would come up with occasional photo ideas of his own that he’d carefully plan out in advance for just the right angle and effect. I remember one in particular of an ice fisherman on Lake Superior taken from a great distance with a long telephoto lens at sunrise. He noted the sunrise point and the chose the best location from which to shoot in advance to capture the cold, colorful scene.

Early this evening, a Soyuz spacecraft piloted by Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and carrying NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and an Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli will undock from the International Space Station and back away to a distance of about 650 feet. Instead of departing immediately to return to Earth, the spacecraft will pause, allowing time for Nespoli to seat himself at a window to take still photos and video of the shuttle-space station- Russia/European cargo ship complex. Once he’s in position, the space station will be rotated through 130 degrees to show off the shuttle Endeavour to best advantage.

 A NASA simulation shows different views of how the shuttle Endeavour and International Space Station will appear this evening, when a the crew of a Russian Soyuz capsule photographs the complex after undocking. Credit: NASA TV

Sounds easy enough, but the unique opportunity to photograph all the international partners involved in the space station complex took plenty of work and cooperation with the Russian space agency Roscosmos responsible for the Soyuz craft. They originally nixed the idea because of technical reasons involved in the special maneuver, but because Endeavour’s launch was delayed two weeks, that put the shuttle at the station at the same time as the planned Soyuz return to Earth. Taking photos during the departure would almost be a no-brainer.

Once the Soyuz crew is on the ground, NASA and Roscosmos will release the pictures as soon as possible, perhaps even by tomorrow. It will be the first photo of a shuttle and the space station against the backdrop of Earth taken from a remote vantage point. If Chuck were still here, he’d be smiling in appreciation of such a well-planned photo op.

North is up in this photo taken on May 21 of Jupiter. The narrower, dark belt is the NEB; the broader, paler belt is the SEB. The dark spots are the shadows of the moons Io (left) and Europa. Credit: Christopher Go

As we’ve seen in recent blogs, Jupiter is returning to view in the morning sky in the constellation Pisces the Fish. You’ll find it very low due east some 30-45 minutes before sunrise. Of the four planets currently visible at dawn, it’s the easiest to spot. Recent photos taken by Philippine amateur astronomer and astrophotographer Christopher Go reveal that Jupiter’s South Equatorial Belt (SEB), famous for disappearing more than a year ago, has fully revived and easy to see in even small telescopes. The North Equatorial Belt (NEB) is very dark and red in color. What surprises will the planet have in store for us this season?

Antimatter, dark matter and strangelets – oh my!

The Huntsville-based NanoSail-D team stands with the fully deployed sail. The sail is made of an ultra-thin polymer coated with aluminum. Credit: NASA

I’d almost given up seeing NanoSail-D, the 107-square foot solar sail that was deployed on January 20 this year. On a pass a month ago, I saw just one brief flash. Last night, the sail was slated to zip north of Saturn and into Bootes not far from Arcturus around 9:15. To my complete surprise, it was a fantastic sight.

Since deployment, the sail has settled into a ‘flat spin’ as it orbits the Earth, meaning it’s turning round and round with its flat side parallel to the ground. This way it encounters less drag with the upper atmosphere. Depending on how sunlight strikes the sail’s surface as it crosses the observer’s sky, its brightness changes throughout a pass. Last night, it slowly pulsed from faint to bright and back again at least a dozen times. For a few seconds it even equaled brilliant Arcturus! It was fascinating to realize the changes I saw indicated a spinning craft. As the sail moved off to the north, it gradually faded, but I was still able to follow it in binoculars. Cool! Next time I’ll set up my camera.

If the weather's good, Duluth and region should see an excellent pass of NanoSail-D tonight (April 29). The sail looks like a moving 'star' that slowly brightens and dims as it follows the indicated path (green). Be sure to go out a few minutes before to get oriented and 'dark-adapt' your eyes. Created with Stellarium

NanoSail-D is a NASA project with the aim of testing the use of sails for possible attachment to defunct satellites so they can be safely burned up in Earth’s atmosphere when and where they need to be. This control is accomplished by the slow, steady drag of the sail against the upper atmosphere.

The sail originally orbited some 400 miles high but in the past three months has dropped 28 miles. Scientists expect it to continue orbiting the planet for a total of six months to a year. That means we’ll have plenty of viewing opportunities. And the lower it descends, the brighter and easier the sail will be to see.

Artist's view of the large-tent-sized NanoSail-D in orbit. Credit: NASA

Currently, mid-northern latitudes are in the middle of a series of both evening and morning passes. You can use the map above, which is good for the Duluth, Minn. region tonight, or go to the Heavens Above website, login and click on the NanoSail-D link. You’ll be shown a chart with times and brightnesses (mag or magnitude column). When the mag number is 2.0 or less, it’s worth your effort to go out for a look. Clicking on a particular date will take you to  general and detailed maps showing the sail’s path that night. One caveat: Despite the listed brightness, not every pass is visible to the eye. If you don’t see it the first time, try again another night.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will detect cosmic rays emitted by antimatter galaxies, dark matter and strangelets. Credit: MIT

Speaking of things flying across the sky, the space shuttle Endeavour was scheduled to liftoff this afternoon, but the launch has now been postponed for at least 48 hours due to malfunctioning heaters in the craft’s auxiliary power unit.

When it does take off, Endeavour will carry a unique instrument called an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station. The device will be used to hunt for galaxies made of antimatter, study the nature of ‘dark matter’ and look for a theoretical form of matter called strangelets. All of these exotic phenomena make their presence known through ultra-high energy, fast-moving particles called cosmic rays.

Mix antimatter and matter and you get a big boom!

During the origin of the Big Bang, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created. Antimatter looks and feels like regular matter, but the particles it’s made of have the opposite electric charge. On our solar systems, electrons have a negative charge, but antimatter electrons are positively charged. There are anti-hydrogen atoms made of oppositely charged electrons and protons. There may even be entire anti-planets, anti-stars and anti-galaxies out there.

If matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate each other in a tremendous explosion of energy. Maybe you saw the movie Angels & Demons, where actor Tom Hanks attempts to prevent a rogue group from destroying Vatican City using a dab of antimatter stolen from a particle accelerator lab. Once the antimatter breaches its containment system and comes in contact with air (regular matter) – KABOOM!

Since we don’t see any signs of antimatter explosions in the sky, scientists are hoping the AMS will detect a nucleus or two of anti-helium, which may have drifted into the neighborhood from a distant corner of the universe, perhaps from the realm of those theoretical antigalaxies.

Galaxy clusters like this one called Abell 1689 are held together by invisible dark matter. Without the pull of dark matter, the individual galaxies would go their own way. Credit: NASA/ESA

Dark matter comprises 83% of all the matter in the universe and not a single person knows what it is. While invisible, we can measure its gravitational effects. For instance, if it weren’t for the tug of dark matter, many galaxy clusters would simply fly apart. A leading theory says that it could be made of particles called neutralinos, which produce anti-electrons (antimatter) when they collide. If AMS find an excess of energetic neutralinos, we may well be on the road to understanding what this mysterious substance is.

Finally we come to strangelets. An atom is formed of tightly-packed nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by cloud-like electrons. A hydrogen atom has just one proton orbited by one electron. Typical carbon atoms have six protons, six neutrons and six electrons. If we could peer more closely, we’d see that protons and neutrons aren’t ‘solid balls’ but instead made of three smaller particles called quarks. Protons are composed of two ‘Up’ quarks and one ‘Down’ quark. Yes, the names are weird but they had to call them something. Scientists are known for their quirky sense of humor. Neutrons have two Down and one Up. Six types of quarks called ‘flavors’ are known: Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Charm and Strange.

A proton in the nucleus of an atom is made of two 'up' quarks and one 'down' quark. Credit: Arpad Horvath

Strangelets, if they exist, are particles made of Up, Down and Strange quarks. These oddballs may have been created along with protons and neutrons in the early universe or later during cosmic ray collisions. Finding strangelets might tell us whether tiny black holes, postulated to have formed in the early universe, exist or not. They may also be responsible for converting ordinary matter into the dark variety. Check out this short article to learn more.

The American physicist Richard Feynman once said: “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

(Some of the material for this blog was adapted from this NASA press release.)

Big Head Todd wakeup call and Spitzer’s Sunflower


Big Head Todd and the Monsters perform “Blue Sky” live in Mission Control this morning for the Discovery shuttle crew. This was the first time a crew has ever been awakened by a live band

Just a reminder. Unless the weather’s bad for the Wednesday landing of the space shuttle Discovery, tonight will be the last night we’ll get to see it in orbit before it returns to Earth. Some time later, the ship will be moved to the Smithsonian for display. You can watch it and the space station together in the sky twice this evening – at least in the Duluth, Minn. region

The first pass begins only 15 minutes after sunset at 6:20 p.m. CST. Both craft will cruise almost directly overhead and should be easy to see despite the bright sky. Discovery will fly by first, followed about two minutes later by the space station.  Which one will appear brighter? Likely the space station, but because of lighting angles, Discovery might briefly outshine the ISS.

A second, shorter-duration double flyby happens beginning at 7:56 p.m. very low in the southwestern sky. That one will be more difficult to see unless your view in that direction is ideal.

The various spiral arm segments of the Sunflower galaxy, also known as Messier 63, show up vividly in this image taken in infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope. The short slash at right is a distant background galaxy. Compare the labeled dust arms with their appearance in regular, visual light below. Click images to see larger, unlabeled versions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which can see beyond the color red and into the infrared part of the spectrum, recently photographed the Sunflower Galaxy, also known as M63 in Charles Messier’s catalog of deep sky objects. At 100,000 light years across, the galaxy is about the same size as our own Milky Way, and lies at a distance of 37 million light years. A small telescope shows it as a bright, fuzzy disk in the little constellation of Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs.

M63 photographed in visual light. Here the dust lanes, marked A,B and C, appear dark in silhouette against pale clouds of stars too faint and distant to resolve individually. The pink areas are concentrations of glowing nebulae and newborn stars. I've tipped the photo for easy comparison to the Spitzer image. Credit: Jim Misti

Infrared light is not visible to the human eye. Instead we sense it as warmth through our skin. Spitzer is optimized to gather and photograph infrared light, which makes it ideal for studying dust warmed by stars in the spiral arms of galaxies like the Sunflower.

The Sunflower Galaxy (M63) is located in the stick-like constellation Canes Venatici right across from the Dipper's Handle. This map shows the northeastern sky around 8 o'clock local time. Created with Stellarium

In visual light, galactic dust looks like dark stripes or lanes of material cutting through the galaxy’s disk. Visual light can’t penetrate dust, so it appear in silhouette, blocking the view of background star clouds in the galaxy.

Compare the Spitzer photo of dust lanes A,B and C to the same one in Jim Misti’s photo. They’re like negative images of each other!

I shot photos last week of a home energy audit, where a technician used a hand-held infrared camera to scan a home for cold spots from outside air. The images were colored similarly to those taken by Spitzer. Red and oranges indicated warmth; blue and purple cold. Everyone there seemed to have a nice, healthy glow.

Infrared light lets us see into dust clouds where stars are being born as well as spot asteroids and comets too faint to be seen visually. It cooks our food on the stove and keeps us warm around the fire. It’s my favorite part of the spectrum from November through April.