April 1, 2020

AstroEvent of the Week:08.06.09:the STS-127 Launch.

(Hey, can you believe that we’ve been doing “Event of the Week” for exactly a year now without missing a beat? I thought that next week’s Summer Solstice post rang a bell… ironically, our first “event” post was also a Shuttle launch!)

The shuttle Endeavor is once again vaulting into orbit. Fresh off of STS-400, the stand-by contingency mission to rescue Atlantis that was thankfully never needed, it is slated for launch from the Kennedy Space Center Saturday morning. The window opens up 7:17 AM EDT on June 13th, shortly after local sunrise. This should afford cool launch views for hundreds of miles around, (including Astroguyz HQ, about 105 miles away!) weather willing. Like the rest of the remaining shuttle flights, this one is in support of the International Space Station (ISS). STS-127 will be the second longest shuttle flight at a slated 15 days, and could break Endeavor’s own record of 16 days set back in 1995 on STS-67. This will be the first of three remaining flights for Endeavor, and after STS-127 only seven scheduled shuttle flights remain. Carrying a crew of seven, the primary goal of STS-127 is to install two components of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM); the Exposed Section & the Exposed Facility; a platform to house experiments that will be exposed to space. And you thought that new deck you just built was plain cool…STS will also ferry up cargo and supplies. This will also be the largest number of astronauts aboard the ISS at one time, bringing the total population to 13. Another first; when astronaut Julie Payette joins Robert Thirsk aboard the ISS, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA; yes, there is a Canadian Space Agency!) will have two astronauts in orbit at once! Way to go, eh?

So, what are the visibility prospects? Glancing at ye ole Orbitron, it looks like the best passes are early AM for the US East Coast… docking should occur on or around flight day 3. Fun fact: at an orbital angle of 51.6 degrees, did you know its possible on some years (usually around the solstice) for the station to stay lit continuously? This doesn’t occur during STS-127, but is worth keeping an eye out for. Check it out on your favorite orbital simulation software (or in the summer night sky) sometime!

This week’s astro-buzz term is noctilucent clouds. These eerie, ghost-like clouds can sometimes be seen in the deep dawn or dusk skies. Also known as mesospheric clouds, these clouds occur at about 50 miles altitude, or the edge of space. What do these have to do with the shuttle, you might ask? Sometimes (such as the dusk lift off of STS-119 this past March,) noctilucent clouds can persist for an hour or so after launch… areas further west might just see this illusive phenomenon in the eastern dawn sky. A connection with these high altitude clouds and the on going solar minimum is well known. What is less well known is why they’re more frequent in late spring and becoming more so. In fact, there is no recorded sightings prior to 1885! Is this perhaps yet another harbinger of climate change?

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