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.

‘Einstein’ takes out the trash, bids farewell to space station

TV image of the Albert Einstein cargo ship, also called ATV-4, in the process of docking with the International Space Station (ISS) on June 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/ESA

Time for Einstein to merge with the space-time continuum. The European space cargo ship dubbed Albert Einstein will undock from the International Space Station tomorrow morning (Oct. 28) at 3:59 a.m. CDT and drop back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere over an uninhabited part of the Pacific Ocean on November 2.

An earlier cargo ship, the ATV-3 (Automated Transfer Vehicle-3), approaches the space station for docking in March 2012. Photo taken while the two craft orbited Earth’s nightside. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The Mac truck-sized ship was launched on June 5 and docked with the station 10 days later carrying fuel, water, oxygen, food, science experiments and special treats like aubergine parmigiana and mushroom and pesto risotto selected by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano to share with his crewmates.

Cargo ship ATV-3 fires its thrusters to boost the ISS into a higher orbit last fall. Cargo ships like Einstein provide critical boosts to the station to keep it orbiting at the right altitude. Credit: NASA

In addition to serving as cargo carrier, one of Einstein’s key functions was to boost itself and the ISS to a higher orbit using its thrusters and 2580kg of propellant. Even though the space station orbits some 250 miles above Earth’s surface, it experiences resistance from the wisps of atmosphere still present at these heady heights. Without a periodic boost from cargo ships or the station’s engines, the drag on the ship would eventually lower its orbit and send it burning up in the atmosphere.

Einstein won’t be going back empty. He’ll haul out the trash on his way home, returning in a fiery demise over the Pacific packed with six tons of garbage and human waste.

For U.S. locations, the ISS continues making passes through the first half of the new week. Times for the Duluth, Minn. region are listed below. I’m hoping that one of the satellite sites will also publish predictions for Einstein’s final passes. If they become available, I’ll post them here so some of you lucky observers can spot the ship before it’s incinerated.

Screen shot from the ISS Detector app for Android. Credit: RunaR

To find times for evening ISS passes for your city, click over to Heavens Above or Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page. There are also some great phone apps available to alert you to space station fly-overs. Check out ISS Detector for Android (free) and ISS FlyOver for iPhone ($0.99).

ISS viewing times for Duluth, Minn. region:

* Tonight Oct. 27 starting at 6:47 p.m. First appears in the northwestern sky and travels across the southern sky while moving to the east. Brilliant, fine pass! Max. altitude of 51 degrees. A balled fist held at arm’s length covers 10 degrees of sky.

* Monday Oct. 28 at 7:37 p.m. Low pass in the southwest-south. Max. altitude 14 degrees.

* Tuesday Oct. 29 at 6:48 p.m. Slightly higher pass across the southwest-south. Max. altitude 22 degrees.

Space station returns to evening sky – how Russia and China helped us see it

Looking down on the aurora australis or southern lights from the International Space Station from about 250 miles up. Credit: NASA

I always enjoy the return of the International Space Station (ISS) to the evening sky. It’s fun to look up and know a half dozen people 250 miles up are flying at more than 17,500 mph over my house. For many locations in the northern hemisphere it’s now easy to spot the ISS at dusk as a brilliant, pale yellow “star” moving from west to east. Most passes happen during twilight and last about 5 minutes. Times and links for looking can be found at the end of this blog.

Since the station’s orbit is tilted 51.6 degrees to the Earth’s equator, it swings over the southern tip of South America (51.6 degrees south) back up to 51.6 degrees north across Canada and northern Europe. If you live north or south of 51.6 degrees latitude, no problem. While the ISS will never pass overhead from your high latitude, you can still see it well north and south of its orbital limits because it’s 250 miles high and visible far and wide.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s lower inclination orbit means it’s only visible from lower latitudes. Skywatchers in the northern U.S. don’t get to see regular passes as they do the space station. Credit: NASA

U.S. spacecraft, like the Hubble Space Telescope, are normally launched into orbits inclined 28.5 degrees, the same as Cape Canaveral’s latitude, to take advantage of the Earth’s speed of rotation. Our planet rotates fastest at the equator and slowest at the poles. When you launch a rocket it, gets a free ride in the west to east direction courtesy of our spinning planet. If you want to send a craft into an orbit with an inclination different from the latitude it was launched, you have to burn more fuel. That costs money.

The ISS overflies much of the civilized world from its highly-inclined orbit (shown in blue). The three curves show the ground tracks of multiple orbits around the Earth. As the ISS circles the planet, Earth rotates to the east, shifting each new track to the west.

So why not save money by sending the ISS into an orbit equal to Cape Canaveral’s latitude? Sure, but we’re not the only ones running the space station operation. Russia shuttles astronauts and cargo to and from the space station with its Progress and Soyuz spacecraft. The U.S. worked with Russia to pick the best orbital tilt. Since Russia launches Progress and Soyuz from Baikonur (latitude 46 degrees N), a high inclination orbit made economic sense. It also lets astronauts study more of the Earth’s surface compared to an orbit closer to the equator. 75 percent of the planet and 95 percent of its inhabited lands are open to view.

Rockets coming from the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Russia headed for the space station are sent into orbits inclined 51.6 degrees to avoid overflying China shortly after launch. Credit: Wikipedia

OK great. So why isn’t the orbit inclined 46 degrees?  Baikonur’s not too far from the Chinese border as the rocket flies. Any booster stages falling back to Earth after launch would land in China, not the most desirable situation. Launching at the steeper trajectory of 51.6 ensures the boosters remain in Russian with the spacecraft well on its way into space when it passes over China.

With its lower inclination orbit of 28.5 degrees, the Hubble Space Telescope can’t be seen from the northern U.S. and Canada. Had we not cooperated with the Russians on ISS missions, it’s possible that the space station would have been launched into a 28.5 degree orbit and been invisible to skywatchers across large stretches of the globe. Including my town of Duluth!

I’d like to tell you what the astronauts are up to this week, but the government shutdown has shuttered most NASA websites including those connected with the space station and its status. Strangely enough, NASA’s Spotthestation site, which will e-mail you with predictions of where and when to see the ISS, is still up and running.

Below I’ve included times when the station is visible from the Duluth, Minn. region. You can always get predictions for your town from Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby page or times and handy maps from Heavens Above.

All times CDT:

* Tonight Oct. 10 beginning at 7:30 p.m. Maximum height: 32 degrees. Appears in the south and disappears in the east.
* Fri. Oct. 11 at 8:18 p.m. Max. height: 76 degrees. Appears in the west and disappears nearly overhead
* Sat. Oct. 12 at 8:19 p.m. Max. height: 44 degrees. Appears in the west and disappears in the north.
* Sun. Oct. 14 at 7:31 p.m. Max. height: 57 degrees. Appears in the west and disappears in the northeast

Movie day! Cool space station docking; Lake Chebarkul gives up 5 more meteorites


Expedition 37 arrives at the International Space Station last night 

Last night a Soyuz rocket carrying three members of the Expedition 37 crew blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan headed for the International Space Station. Instead of dallying in orbit, the crew took the fast lane to the station, docking fewer than 6 hours later.

I thought you’d enjoy the video. The quality’s great and you get to hear the audio too as the craft lines up and docks with the station. Funny how the Soyuz looks like an old propeller plane. Just a happenstance of angle (the wing-like solar arrays are edge-on to the camera) and shapes.

Flames, like this one pictured here, burn more perfectly in microgravity, helping researchers get a better understanding of the nature of combustion in space and on Earth.
Credit: NASA

After docking at the Poisk mini-research module, crew members Oleg Kotov, Mike Hopkins and Sergey Ryazanskiy were welcomed aboard shortly before midnight. The crew will study human physiology and health including how the body changes shape in microgravity as well as the effects of weightlessness on the immune system.

Science is happening all the time on the ISS. Last week the crew examined everything from combustion and fire suppression in space to studying how metallic crystals transition from liquid to solid when creating alloys.

Frame from the video of today’s latest meteorites found on the bottom of Lake Chebarkul. Click to watch. Credit: OSU Search-and-Rescue Service – Chelyabinsk region

Meanwhile back on Earth, Russian divers recovered five more hefty chunks of the Chelyabinsk meteorite from Lake Chebarkul today. Athough the video’s in Russian, it’s easy to see what’s going on. The fragments, measuring from 4 to 12 inches (10-30 cm) were taken back to the beach and weighed and bagged. Enjoy the cute diving mascot.

The mass of the entire Chelyabinsk meteorite as it entered the atmosphere is estimated at 11,000 tons (10,000 metric tons). Most of it broke into small pieces. What’s believed to be the largest fragment, a half-ton hulk at the bottom of the lake, remains buried under an 8-foot (2.5 m) layer of silt. Scientists are pumping out mud from around the meteorite and expect to fish it out by Oct. 4.