Apollo revisited: Cosmic rays buzz Buzz Aldrin’s eyes

Buzz Aldrin, Apollo astronaut and second to walk on the moon, demonstrates the ALFMED device astronauts used to record the cosmic rays that flashed inside their eyeballs during their journeys to the moon and back. Credit: NASA

With the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaching this weekend, let’s look back at a peculiar discovery made while astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong left the safety of Earth for the lunar unknown.

Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field protects us from cosmic rays, which are high-speed protons and other atomic nuclei that shoot across the galaxy like so many submicroscopic billiard balls. They pack a punch. The most powerful contain the same energy as a baseball traveling at 56 mph. Scientists believe cosmic rays originate from exploding supernovae.

En route to the moon in 1969 Buzz Aldrin reported seeing flashes in his eyes in the darkened cabin of the command module. Neil Armstrong noticed them too. Back in 1952, physicist Cornelius Tobias predicted that cosmic rays could interact with light-sensing cells in astronauts’ eyeballs to generate the perception of flashing lights.

Flash patterns observed by Apollo astronauts.

After Aldrin and Armstrong reported their experience, NASA asked future astronauts to be on the lookout for the same and report anything unusual. Later missions even included a special device called the ALFMED (Apollo Light Flash Moving Emulsion Detector), a helmet the astronaut wore to dark-adapt the eyes to better see the flashes. It also held film that recorded cosmic ray hits that were later correlated with the times flashes were seen.

The device conclusively proved that the flashes, dashed lines and occasional glowing puffs the space travelers reported were clearly caused by cosmic rays.

While not every Apollo astronaut saw them, most did and described them as white or colorless spots, stripes, streaks, explosions and multiple tracks. They occurred on average once every 2.9 minutes. For some, the flashes were so frequent it made getting to sleep a challenge.

A cosmic ray hit on the sensor in a camera appears as a segmented line. Credit: NASA/Don Petit

You don’t have to go all the way to the moon to experience this ocular light show. Free from the protection of the atmosphere, International Space Station (ISS) astronaut Don Petit saw them from Earth orbit, describing the flashes poetically as ‘fairies’:

“In space I see things that are not there. Flashes in my eyes, like luminous dancing fairies, give a subtle display of light that is easy to overlook when I’m consumed by normal tasks. But in the dark confines of my sleep station, with the droopy eyelids of pending sleep, I see the flashing fairies.”

It’s thought that as a cosmic ray passes through the retina it causes rod and cone cells to fire, creating the perception of light. According to Petit, a straight-on ray looks like a fuzzy dot, a ray at an angle, a segmented line. Some tracks even have branches like lightning that resemble sparks. Cosmic rays contribute most of the radiation received by astronauts on board the ISS. To date, no one has reached the dosage limit and had to return to a desk job on Earth.

You might think the hull of the space station would keep away cosmic rays, but they’re so tiny and so energetic they pass right through. They can affect electronics too, locking up computers and destroying pixel elements on a camera’s sensor. Petit says you can reboot the computers, but the effect on the sensors is cumulative. Over time, pictures become dotted with pixelly white ‘snow’. Time for a new CCD.

Artistic impression of cosmic rays entering Earth’s atmosphere. Primary rays strike the upper air and create rich showers of less energetic particles. Credit: Asimmetrie/Infn

Studies of cosmic rays on the eyes and bodies of astronauts continues right up through the present with the Alteino-Sileye3 detector used to monitor the radiation environment and light flash phenomenon in the space station.

Cosmic ray flashes remind me of the unexpected benefits of taking a trip to a far-away place. No one considered the possibility (except theoretically), yet by going, we not only discovered a new phenomenon but opened up a lively field of study.

‘Hello World’ laser message from space jazzes NASA

Frame from the ‘Hello World’ video sent on June 5, 2014 from the space station to Table Mountain using a laser instead of radio waves. Credit: NASA

Scientists are calling it the difference between dial-up and DSL. On June 5, the International Space Station passed over Table Mountain Observatory near Los Angeles, California and beamed an HD video to researchers waiting below.  Unlike normal data transmissions, which are broadcast on radio waves, this one came packaged in a beam of laser light.

“It was incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station,” says Matt Abrahamson, who manages the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Click to watch the ‘Hello World’ video beamed from the ISS

The 148-second movie titled ‘Hello World’, which you can watch above, demonstrated how sending data by modulating a laser signal is SO much faster than using radio waves. It took all of 3.5 seconds to transmit a single copy of the video message, which would have taken more than 10 minutes using traditional methods.

Because the space station zips around the Earth so quickly, a laser was directed from the ground to the station. Once ‘locked in’, astronauts could fire the 2.5 watt encoded laser beam in the return direction. Credit: NASA

But there was some fancy footing involved in making sure the message arrived on target from the space station. Imagine how tricky it would be to aim a narrow laser beam at a ground station while traveling at 17,500 mph (28,000 km/hr). To accomplish the feat, a laser at Table Mountain illuminated the space station while the OPALS unit sent its own 2.5 watt encoded laser signal right back in the same direction carrying the HD video.

At left: Illustration showing the 2.5 watt OPALS laser beaming video to Earth. At right, the laser beam arrives from the ISS as seen on the computer monitor at Table Mountain Observatory. Credit: NASA

There’s an enormous amount of data in space transmissions – just think of the reams of photographs – making lasers a far faster alternative to getting those data to the scientists and public who crave them.

Prepare for sleepless nights – space station marathon starts this week!

The International Space Station cuts across sky and clouds alike in this time exposure image. Starting later this week, the station will be in continuous sunlight and be visible on passes all night long. Credit: Bob King

I love watching the space station. It’s the brightest satellite and makes frequent passes. It’s also unique. Most satellites are either spent rocket stages or unmanned science and surveillance probes. The ISS is inhabited by a crew of astronauts. Real people. Every time I see that bright, moving light I think of them up there taking pictures of ‘down here’, performing experiments, cracking jokes and pondering the meaning of it all while staring out the panoramic cupola windows.

The ISS’s orbit is inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator and passes overhead for anyone living between 51.6 degrees north and 51.6 degrees south latitude. It’s visible well beyond this zone also but never passes through the zenith.

Diagram showing the Earth in late May when the space station’s orbital track is closely aligned with the day-night terminator. The astronauts see the sun 24-hours a day (midnight sun effect) while we on the ground get to watch repeated passes. Credit: Bob King

Most of the time we get one easy-to-see bright pass preceded or followed by a fainter partial pass. ‘Partials’ occur when the space station glides into Earth’s shadow and disappears from view during an appearance. But in late May-early June each year, the space station’s orbit and Earth’s day-night terminator nearly align. From the astronauts’ viewpoint, it’s the time of the midnight sun. From down on the planet between latitudes 40-55 degrees north, the ISS remains in sunlight during every single 90 minute pass.


In late May-early June near the summer solstice, the sun doesn’t set on the International Space Station

Instead of once or twice a night, we’ll see 4-5 passes starting about May 30. For instance, on May 31 from Duluth, Minn. we’re graced with four appearances at 12:12 a.m, 1:44 a.m., 3:20 a.m. and 11:23 p.m. The best nights are June 4 and 6 with five passes. By the 10th, the ISS ‘marathon’ winds down and we return to 2-3 passes a night.

The ISS always appears in the western sky first, rising up contrary to the movement of the stars, and traveling to the east. Low altitude passes put a lot of lateral distance between you and the station, making them fainter. Not by much though. Even on a low arc, the ISS shines as bright as Vega. Overhead passes means the ISS is as close as it can get – straight up at about 250 miles away. When you get one of those, the station’s only a magnitude shy of the planet Venus and absolutely stunning.

The ISS is huge – about the size of a pro football field – and consists of many separate modules linked together like a colossal Tinkertoy creation. Large solar panels power the station. Credit: NASA

If you closely watch the ISS as it moves against the starry sky, it will appear to move jerkily. This would be very bad orbital maneuvering if true. What you’re really seeing are your own jerky eye movements transposed on the sky. Some of my favorite passes are those when the space station fades from view mid-track as it passes into Earth’s shadow. I always keep binoculars handy for these passes so I can watch the station turn orange and red as it experience one of its many orbital sunsets. Try it sometime.

There are many ways to find out when the ISS will pass over your city. My favorite are the listings in Heavens-Above. Login with your city and you’ll see a complete list with links to create maps of the station’s track across the sky. There’s also Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby tracker. Type in your zip code and hit enter. Couldn’t be easier. You can also have NASA send you an e-mail when the most favorable (highest, brightest) passes occur by adding your e-mail to the Spot the Station site. Be aware though that you won’t be notified on some of the less favorable passes.

Well, I’m going to prep for the marathon. Eat lots of pasta you know and keep a favorite beverage handy. See you in spirit on the course.

See the space station this week / Jupiter and moon a sparkling sight tonight

One of the Expedition 39 crew members aboard the International Space Station photographed a curtain of aurora hovering over blue twilight over northeastern Kazakhstan recently. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) returns this week to highlight the evening sky. Outside of Venus and the moon, the ISS is the brightest, star-like object in the nighttime sky. It orbits from west to east, the same direction the Earth rotates, and crosses the sky in about five minutes. At an altitude of about 250 miles, the station orbits above most of the auroras we see which is why astronauts get such cool photos of the northern and southern lights from orbit.

Expedition 38 photo of the Kavir Desert in Iran taken with a 200mm lens looks more like swirly water than rock formations. The lack of soil and vegetation allows the geological structure of the rocks to stand out. According to geologists, the patterns result from the gentle folding of numerous, thin, light and dark layers of rock. Later erosion by wind and water cut a flat surface across the folds exposing their internal structure. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The new evening observing season begins for many locations across the northern hemisphere with passes happening once or twice a night. To watch the space station, go out a couple minutes before it’s expected to appear and look for a pale yellow “star” brighter than any other moving from west to east across the sky.

You might be able to also see the Progress 54 cargo craft in the coming week after it undocks with the ISS tomorrow morning and before its destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean on April 18. I’ll have viewing tips and times when they’re available. The departure makes way for the arrival of Progress 55 on April 9, which will deliver almost 3 tons of food, fuel and supplies.

Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev looks at the Earth through the windows of the International Space Station’s cupola this past week. The Expedition 39 crew has been busy with biomedical research this past week focusing on how the immune system responds to living in space. Click to learn more. Credit: NASA-TV

Click HERE or HERE to find times and directions to look for your town. I’ve included a list of times when the ISS will be visible for skywatchers in the Duluth, Minn. U.S. region at the end of this article.

The half moon will be in conjunction with the brilliant planet Jupiter this evening. The map shows the sky facing southwest around 9 p.m. local time. Stellarium

While you’re waiting for the six-man crew of the station to fly over your house or apartment, don’t forget to look up at the first quarter moon in the constellation Gemini tonight. Just “three fingers” or 5 degrees above it shines Jupiter. They’ll make an eye-catching pair for sure.

The moon tonight as seen from North America. How many dark seas or lunar maria (MAH-ree-uh) can you see? Credit: Christian Legrande, Patrick Chevalley / Virtual Moon Atlas

For another easy observing project, try spotting all five of the lunar “seas” visible tonight. These largish, dark spots that form the face of the man in the moon are plains of now-solidified basaltic lavas that erupted 3-3.5 billion years ago in the basins of what were then enormous impact craters. They’re rich in iron and slightly younger than the lighter, older lunar highlands (white regions) which makes them appear darker.

Funny, isn’t it, that all that lunar tranquillity and sweetness should be marred by “crisis”, but I guess this half of the moon serves as a metaphor for life.

Space station viewing times for Duluth, Minn. region:

* Tonight Sun. April 6 starting at 8:29 p.m. Low pass across the south-southeastern sky. Max. elevation: 18 degrees (10 degrees equal one fist held at arm’s length against the sky)
* Mon. April 7 at 9:15 p.m. high across the southern sky. Brilliant pass with max. elevation of 66 degrees
* Tues. April 8 at 8:26 p.m. (high in the south at 42 degrees) and again at 10:03 p.m. across the northwestern sky. Max. elevation: 48 degrees.
* Weds. April 9 at 9:14 p.m. high in the northern sky. Max. elevation: 63 degrees

Valentine’s Day auroras and a big full moon to boot

Valentine’s Day – and particularly Valentine’s Night – will be special this year. Not only is the moon full, but auroras are in the forecast. Illustration: Bob King

High speed solar blasts that departed the sun on Feb. 11 may combine to deliver a sweet auroral bouquet Friday night. NOAA space weather forecasters predict a 25% chance of minor storms Thursday night, but that rises to 40% Friday night with a 20% chance for a major storm. We’re not talking the high Arctic here – this is the prediction for middle latitudes where we wear less sealskin and more hoodies.

The full moon rises in Leo the Lion not far from its brightest star Regulus Friday night. Click map to find what time the moon rises for your town. Stellarium

Definitely one of the happier auroral forecasts I’ve seen in a while. Friday night’s a big night with lots of Valentine’s fun happening including the Full Snow Moon. Watch for the moon to rise around sunset, cross the south meridian around midnight and set at sunrise the next morning. Might I suggest a walk in the moonlight after dinner with your sweeheart?

While we’d normally be thrilled to have a big moon in the sky, it will put a ding in any auroras that might show. I’ll keep you updated.

The International Space Station will also be making passes of a less passionate sort this week and next. Below are times for the Duluth, Minn. region. Click HERE and HERE for times for your town.

* Tonight Feb. 13 beginning at 7:32 p.m. across the northern sky. Disappears in Earth’s shadow below the North Star a couple minutes later. In binoculars, watch as the ISS fades and turns orange and then red as the sun sets on the ship 250 miles high.
* Fri. Feb. 14 at 6:43 p.m. Bright pass across the north.
* Sat. Feb. 15 at 7:32 p.m. across the north. Disappears below the North Star again.
* Sun. Feb. at 6:43 p.m. Bright pass across the north.

Jupiter meets the moon / Two comets pass in the night / Space station at dusk

A 22-degree halo, formed by light refracting through the faces of hexagonal ice crystals in cirrostratus clouds, reaches almost to Jupiter (lower left) last night Feb. 8. Credit: Bob King

The moving moon keeps things interesting on a very human time scale, gliding about one outstretched fist to the east every night. Last night ice-crystally clouds made a beautiful lunar halo that nearly but not quite touched Jupiter.

The moon will lie about a bit more than a fist to Jupiter’s right tonight and below it tomorrow night. Stellarium

Tonight the moon will lie to the right of the brilliant planet, while on Monday the two will be in conjunction with the waxing gibbous moon floating just below. It’s fun to watch the moon’s travels across the sky. Because of its 5.1 degree tilted orbit, the moon follows a slightly different track through the zodiac constellations each month in a cycle lasting 18.6 years. Planets move, stars drift westward with the seasons – taken all together, the moon makes repeated visits in ever-different arrangements with the bright stars and planets it passes every month.

This wide view shows much of the sky facing south about 90 minutes before sunrise. In addition to the bright planets, two bright stars – Antares in Scorpius and Spica in Virgo – join the scene. Stellarium

Yesterday morning was clear and I went out to look at comets and planets. How convenient that the morning planets are arrayed across the southern sky, so that one might begin on one end with Mars and finish up with Venus.

Like a kid, I started with the eye-candy planet Saturn first, then jumped over to the Venusian crescent and finally hit Mars as the sky was turning blue. What a lineup – wonderful opportunities to meet our planetary neighbors as long as you’re dressed for the weather.

Comets C/2012 X1 LINEAR (top) and C/2013 R1 Lovejoy appear to be chasing each other in this photo taken with a wide field 4-inch telescope before dawn Feb. 8, 2014. They were about 2.5 degrees apart at the time. Credit: Damian Peach

Comets C/2013 R1 Lovejoy at magnitude 8 and C/2012 X1 LINEAR at 9 still shine brightly enough to show in 6-inch and larger telescopes. Both are in the constellation Ophiuchus and well-placed for observation in the eastern sky just before the start of dawn. On Feb. 6 they were in conjunction only 2 degrees apart – a rare event. Despite appearances, the two comets are unrelated and many millions of miles apart.

Although they’re slowly parting, both are still within 3 degrees of each other, making it fun to drop in on both of them with a telescope. UK astrophotographer Damian Peach captured a wonderful image of the pair on Feb. 8. For finder maps and more information on Lovejoy and XI LINEAR, click HERE.

From aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Rick Mastracchio tweeted this view of Sochi, Russia, the site of the XXII Winter Olympic Games. Credit: NASA

Out at dusk these February evenings? The International Space Station (ISS) is making passes at us just in time for Valentine’s Day. The Expedition 38 crew has been working on biomedical research and performing tests on miniature free-flying robots inside the station called Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites or simply, SPHERES.

Bowling-ball-sized robot spheres in the space station help with routine monitoring, maintenance and data transfer. Credit: NASA

The volleyball-sized robots has been working on the station since 2006; they take photos and videos, make Wi-Fi connections and fly in formation. They’ll also be used outside the station to make repairs, conduct inspections and assist in de-orbiting malfunctioning spacecraft.

From the ground, the football-field sized space station looks like a brilliant yellow star traveling from west to east across the sky. I’ve listed a few times below when it’s visible from the Duluth, Minn. region. For times and directions for your town, go to Heavens Above or key in your zip code at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys link.

* Tonight Feb. 9 starting at 5:57 p.m. Low pass across the south-southeast. Max. brightness at magnitude -1.8. Second brief, brilliant appearance in the west at 7:33 p.m. Disappears into Earth’s shadow 2 minutes later. Magnitude -2.4

* Mon. Feb. 10 at 6:44 p.m. Fabulously bright, high pass across the top of the sky. Mag. -3.4!

* Tues. Feb. 11 at  5:56 p.m. high in the southern sky. Glides very close to Jupiter seconds before 6 p.m. Mag. -3.0

* Weds. Feb. 12 at 6:44 p.m. high in the northern sky. Mag. -2.7

Moon grazes Hyades cluster tonight / Cygnus cargo ship chases space station

The moon skirts the top of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster this evening. The map shows the view in binoculars around 9 p.m. CST. The moon will pass closest to 61 and 68 Tauri. Stellarium

You like to know where your moon is, right? Tonight’s waxing gibbous moon will pass through the northern reaches of the Hyades Star Cluster. Nothing grandiose here but a pretty sight in binoculars. Bright Aldebaran, Taurus the Bull’s most luminous star, will lie about 3 degrees southeast of the moon while 61 and 68 Tauri will be only 1/2 degree away.

Come the wee hours Sunday morning, the moon’s movement eastward will put in conjunction with Aldebaran with their separation narrowing to just 2 degrees. Skywatchers living in the southern U.S. will see the moon slightly north of the position shown in the map, while those living in central Canada will see it displaced a small amount to the south.

Orbital Sciences Corp’s Antares rocket lifts off from the launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Thursday, carrying the Cygnus space cargo ship. This is the first of three delivery missions this year for the private company. Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) continues to make daily passes during morning twilight for many locations across the U.S. and Canada. Tomorrow morning astronauts on board the station will use the robotic arm to snare the Cygnus cargo ship that was launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia Thursday. It’s the private firm’s first official cargo-carrying mission to the ISS.

Delays due to the frigid weather, the anticipated radiation storm from the solar flare and the “time out” to repair a radiator leak on the station delayed the mission for weeks. The ship contains the 2,780 pounds of food and supplies plus 33 miniature cubesat satellites and 23 student-designed experiments that will involve more than 9,000 students on the ground. The experiments are all in the life sciences and range from amoeba reproduction to salamanders. There’s even an ant farm on board!

The “Max” books series, including “Max Goes to the Space Station” will arrive at the space station early tomorrow morning. They’ll be read aloud by the astronauts and shared with children back on Earth. Credit: Big Kid Science/NASA

Astronauts opening up their goodies will also find copies of five storybooks about the space adventures of a dog named Max by Jeffrey Bennett. They’re part of a new educational program called “Story Time in Space” where astronauts will videotape themselves reading books about space suitable for young readers. The videos will then be posted online for parents and teachers to access for their students.

Reading a book from orbit – a lovely way to connect with the cosmos.

Astronauts will capture Cygnus with the robotic arm when it’s 30 feet from the station tomorrow morning at 5:02 a.m. CST. The two will be very close together and may require binoculars to separate. If you’re lucky enough to have a space station pass before or around that time, give it a try. Here are two sites you can check to see when the ISS passes over your town:

* Heavens Above – select your city
* Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys – type in your zip code

More information about the Cygnus mission is available HERE.

Space station tries to keep its cool in Christmastime evening skies

The International Space Station orbits Earth about 250 miles overhead while traveling at 17,100 mph. The sunlit rim of the planet is seen in the background. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Like an ornament on a tether, the International Space Station (ISS) is making passes across the evening sky now through the end of the year from many locations in the northern hemisphere. You can watch for it at dusk from almost anywhere; unlike many celestial objects, the ISS can even be seen from the downtowns of light-polluted cities.

Ground control and astronauts are working to correct a recent malfunction in one of the station’s two cooling loops responsible for dissipating the station’s excess heat. The loops circulate ammonia outside the space station through giant radiators to keep the station cool. Besides heat from electronic equipment, the ISS experiences temperatures on its hull of 200 degrees when it’s exposed to the sun.

As they figure out how to fix it, a second unit is working properly and the astronauts are safe. Mission managers have deferred the decision on whether to proceed with or postpone the launch of the Cygnus commercial cargo craft until more is known about the cooling problem. Cygnus is currently scheduled to launch Dec. 18 from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and rendezvous with the station on Dec. 21, according to NASA’s ISS website. To learn more about how the space station keeps its cool, click HERE.

Astronaut Scott Parazynski is lowered on the robotic arm of the ISS to inspect his work on repairing a damaged section in one of the solar arrays in Nov. 2007. Credit: NASA

The space station moves from west to east across the sky and takes from a couple to five minutes to make a complete pass. You might notice it has a yellowish color – that’s from sunlight reflected from its eight sets of solar panels.

Here are times for viewing the station from the Duluth, Minn. area. Type your zip code into Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page or check out Heavens Above for times for your town.

* Today Dec. 14 starting at 6:10 p.m. Bright, high pass to 66 degrees altitude after which it suddenly will fade upon entering Earth’s shadow

* Sun. Dec. 15 at 5:22 p.m. Brilliant pass straight across the top of the sky. The ISS will shine at magnitude -3.3, just one magnitude fainter than Venus

* Mon. Dec. 16 at 6:11 p.m. across the northern sky. Max. altitude: 41 degrees

* Tues. Dec. 17 at 5:22 p.m. high in the north. Max. altitude: 51 degrees

* Weds. Dec. 18 at 6:11 p.m. across the north. Max. altitude: 34 degrees

* Thurs. Dec. 19 at 5:22 p.m. across the northern sky. Max. altitude: 37 degrees

* Fri. Dec. 20 at 6:11 p.m. in the north. Max. alitude: 36 degrees

See a lunar crater arc tonight / 4-comet tableau / Space station flybys

Tonight’s gibbous moon features a lovely arc of large craters visible in binoculars beginning with Plato on down to Clavius. Credit: Christian Legrand and Patrick Chevalley’s Virtual Moon Atlas

If you step outside tonight you’ll see a bright waxing gibbous moon below the Great Square of Pegasus. Far to the moon’s lower right shines Fomalhaut, the only bright star in the southern half of the sky during early evening hours.

The waxing gibbous moon shines high in the southern sky below the Square of Pegasus during early evening hours tonight. Stellarium

While the moon looks smooth and pasty to the naked eye, binoculars will show its biggest craters and rough, crinkly surface especially if you direct your gaze along the terminator, the curving border separating the bright, sunlit portion of the moon from the part that’s still in darkness.

Tonight’s 9-day-old moon features an arc of four prominent lunar craters just this side of the terminator: Plato, Copernicus, Tycho and Clavius. Plato, the northernmost and 68 miles across (109 km), looks like an oval swimming pool only instead of water it’s filled with dark, titanium-rich lava that solidified some 3.8 billion years ago.

Dropping south we next encounter Copernicus (58-miles / 93 km). Though smaller than Plato, it looks far more impressive because the crater sits at the center of a great corona of rays. Lunar rays form when material blasted out by an impact fall back to the surface to create long chains of secondary craters. Seen from 240,000 miles away in binoculars and telescope they look like wispy white tendrils.

Copernicus is a bowl 2.3 miles (3.75 km) deep that was blasted out in the not-to-distant past 800 million years ago. I know that sounds like a lot of years but compared to 3.84 billion years for Plato, Copernicus is a youngster. If you have a scope, look inside and around the the crater to see and appreciate how rugged and relatively fresh it is.

Continuing along the arc we meet Tycho (53 miles / 86 km), the largest fresh crater on the near side of the moon. The asteroid that excavated it struck the moon about 108 million years ago during the heyday of the dinosaurs. Sharply-defined walls and a pointed central mountain peak reflect its youth. Even without water and air, erosion happens all over the moon. The temperature extremes of the lunar day-night cycle break down the rocks, while bombardment of the surface by solar particles and radiation gradually “sandpapers” them to a powdery finish.

Like Copernicus, Tycho’s wears a crown of rays best seen around full moon.

Our last stop is Clavius, the third largest crater on the visible side of the moon. Measuring 140 miles across or about the distance between Duluth, Minn. and Minneapolis, this 4-billion-year-old scar is so huge it’s riddled with dozens of younger craters easily visible in a small telescope. Glide down the arc tonight and see all four craters.

Clockwise from top left: Comets 2P/Encke on Nov. 4, ISON (Nov. 12), C/2012X1 (Nov. 6). and Lovejoy (Nov. 10) . All four comets are visible  in 50mm and larger binoculars from a dark sky site. Comet ISON’s dust and gas tails are now very obvious. Credits: Damian Peach (Encke and X1) and Michael Jaeger (ISON and Lovejoy).

I thought I’d put together an updated tableau of the four bright morning comets Encke, ISON, Lovejoy and C/2012 X1. Encke will meet up with Mercury this weekend a few days before Comet ISON does the same on Nov. 17. Speaking of ISON, it’s developed two very clear tails the past few days – one of dust and the other gas. I’ll have a map in Friday’s blog to help you find the two. Meanwhile, Lovejoy has quietly slipped into Leo the Lion and C/2012 X1 is approaching the bright star Arcturus. There is a lot happening before sunrise!

That includes the return of the space station passes for many northern hemisphere locations. I’ve listed bright passes for the Duluth, Minn. region below. Click over to Heavens-Above or Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby page for times for your city.

* Weds. morning Nov. 13 starting at 5:44 a.m. in the southwest and traveling to the northeast. Brilliant pass high in the southern sky.
*  Thurs. Nov. 14 at 6:31 a.m. Nice bright pass halfway up across the northern sky.
*  Fri. Nov. 15 at 5:45 a.m. passes almost directly overhead. Brilliant!
*  Sat. Nov. 16 at 6:31 a.m. halfway up across the northern sky.
*  Sun. Nov. 17 at 5:45 a.m. Another pass halfway up in the northern sky
*  Mon. Nov. 18 at 6:31 a.m. in the northern sky

Amazing photos of ATV-4 “Einstein” cargo ship’s fiery re-entry

The space cargo ship Einstein burns up as it plunges through Earth’s atmosphere Nov. 2, 2013. Only a few of the photos show the long orange flame. Could it be leftover fuel ignited by the heat? Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ESA

At 6:04 a.m. CST Nov. 2 the Einstein cargo ship harmlessly burned up in Earth’s atmosphere over an uninhabited part of the Pacific Ocean. You’ll recall the ship docked to the International Space Station last June to deliver fuel, food and equipment; it was ‘de-orbited’ 5 months later on Oct. 28 carrying 1.6 tons of waste. While it’s unlikely anyone saw it from the ground, eyes from above got a fabulous view.

Further along during its descent Einstein begins to break into many smaller pieces. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ESA

After undocking, the ship was put through a series of delicate maneuvers over a period of 5 days to position it directly under the space station. Once its controlled descent began, astronauts on board the station readied cameras ready to record the craft’s spectacular disintegration.

Individual pieces burn up under the intense atmospheric pressure and heat experienced during reentry. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ESA

The photos begin when Einstein was 62 miles (100 km) below the station or about 195 miles (313 km) high. Notice how the whole ship looks like a giant meteor at first, but as it breaks into bits, each piece becomes its own smaller meteor until the whole grows into massive swarm of flaming debris. Burning trash never looked so beautiful!

Crop of a high-resolution photo of Einstein showing many pieces of burning debris. Credit: NASA/ESA

Scientists went through the trouble of lining up the two spacecraft and having photos taken to learn more about what happens to spacecraft upon reentry. The last time NASA and ESA photographed a returning cargo ship was in 2008.


Video made from the complete set of re-entry photos made by Vladimir Jankijevic

Click HERE to see the complete set of high resolution pictures of the event or watch it flash by in the awesome video made by Vladimir Jankijevic, one of our readers.