July 29, 2014

13.10.11-The Great World-Wide Star Count Wants YOU!!!

Save our skies… (Photo by Author).

Ever wanted to do something about light pollution? Now you can, by bearing witness to the conditions of your (hopefully not deteriorating) night-time sky. This weekend, the Great World Wide Star Count gets underway, running from October 14th to the 28th.  Established in 2007, this annual event invites students, astronomy groups, and just plain ole’ individuals to look up and gauge the conditions of their local sky. The process is simple, and much like any good citizen science program, anyone can do “real science” after a brief ten minute tutorial straight off of the street. [Read more...]

No Nukes?-What the Plutonium Stoppage Means to the Space Program.

MMMmmmm….Plutonium cake… (Credit: Department of Energy).

(Editor’ s Note: We’d like to thank fellow backyard astronomer Clay M. Davis with giving us the “Nuclear Physics 101″ help embedded in this post!)

Amidst the impending decade of transition for the United States space program, a quiet fact is slowly rearing its ugly head, one that will have wide implications for the future of manned & unmanned space exploration. Specifically, NASA is running out of juice to explore the solar system. And that’s not a figurative or political metaphor, but we mean “juice” in terms of real, honest-to-goodness fuel in the form of plutonium-238. But first, a little background/history of this often maligned substance and its role in space;

When leaving our fair planet, mass is everything. Space being a harsh place, you must bring nearly everything you need, including fuel, with you. And yes, more fuel means more mass, means more fuel, means… well, you get the idea. One way around this is to use available solar energy for power generation, but this only works well in the inner solar system. Take a look at the solar panels on the Juno spacecraft bound for Jupiter next month… those things have to be huge in order to take advantage of the relatively feeble solar wattage available to it… this is all because of our friend the inverse square law which governs all things electromagnetic, light included.

To operate in the environs of deep space, you need a dependable power source. To compound problems, any prospective surface operations on the Moon or Mars must be able to utilize energy for long periods of sun-less operation; a lunar outpost would face nights that are about two Earth weeks long, for example. To this end, NASA has historically used Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs) as an electric “power plant” for long term space missions. These provide a lightweight, long-term source of fuel, generating from 20-300 watts of electricity. Most are about the size of a small person, and the first prototypes flew on the Transit-4A & 5BN1/2 spacecraft in the early 60’s. The Pioneer, Voyager, New Horizons, Galileo and Cassini spacecraft all sport Pu238 powered RTGs. The Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft also had RTGs, as did the long term Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) experiments that Apollo astronauts placed on the Moon. An ambitious sample return mission to the planet Pluto was even proposed in 2003 that would have utilized a small nuclear engine.

New Horizons in the laboratory with the RTG (on left) attached. (Credit: NASA).

This is not without risks; for example, the aborted Apollo 13 mission had to ditch their Lunar Module Aquarius in the Pacific Ocean near Fuji along with its nuclear fueled payload on return to Earth reentry (which by the way survived intact as intended and is somewhere in the deep ocean where it can do no harm). Pu238 has a half life of 87.7 years and a 55 kg mass can power a spacecraft like the Pluto-bound New Horizons mission for decades. The next spacecraft headed for Mars, the SUV sized Mars Science Laboratory, will also contain an RTG as it explores the environs of Gale crater, and doubtless this launch slated for late 2011 will draw a scattering of protesters as did the Galileo, New Horizons, and Cassini missions…

Yes, plutonium is nasty stuff. It is a strong alpha-emitter and a highly toxic metal. If inhaled, it exposes lung tissue to a very high local radiation dose with the attending risk of cancer. If ingested, some forms of plutonium accumulate in our bones where it can damage the body’s blood-forming mechanism and wreck havoc with DNA. NASA had historically pegged a chance of a launch failure of the New Horizons spacecraft at 350-to-1 against, which even then wouldn’t necessarily rupture the RTG and release the contained 11 kilograms of plutonium dioxide into the environment. Sampling conducted around the South Pacific resting place of the aforementioned Apollo 13 LM re-entry of the ascent stage of the Lunar Module, for example, suggests that the reentry of the RTG did NOT rupture the container, as no plutonium contamination has ever been found. The same went for another failure, that of the nuclear powered Nimbus B-1 weather satellite in 1968, in which case the RTG was recovered intact. Yes, the Soviets have had a few release failures historically (see below), but NASA knows its business and has a long standing track record of safely handling nuclear material. RTG’s are designed to withstand intact uncontrolled re-entry, spacecraft explosion, booster explosion, and a host of other high energy events without releasing the contents of the fuel package.  Of course, all stats are highly speculative. The black swan events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have served to demonize all things nuclear, much like the view that 19th century citizens had of electricity. Never mind that coal-fired plants put many times the equivalent of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere in the form of lead210, polonium214, thorium and radon gases, every day. Safety detectors at nuclear plants are often triggered during temperature inversions due to nearby coal plant emissions… radiation was part of our environment even before the Cold War and is here to stay. To quote Carl Sagan, “Space travel is one of the best uses of nuclear weapons that I can think of…” Whether it is as use as a thermal electric power plant, a nuclear propulsion engine, or even an Orion style bomb-propelled spacecraft, nuclear fission and the energy it produces provides us a way to get out into the solar system, now. Ideas such as fusion engines and Bussard ramjets are all well and good and should be researched, but for now are on the drawing board only. The joke is that contained fusion capability is always “20 years down the road” and may remain there for some time.

Any science fiction “space ark’ will likely include an RTG or two…(Amazing Stories cover/In the Public Domain).

And therein, as they say, lies the rub. But first let’s look at some basic nuclear physics. We promise, it will only hurt for a little bit…

Plutonium is an artificial element that does not occur in nature. First produced by Glen Seaborg and friends in 1940, plutonium is created in the modern day laboratory by the beta decay process which occurs when uranium238 is bombarded with neutrons and decays into unstable neptunium and then plutonium239, the “weapons grade” isotope of the stuff. If neptunium-237 is used as target (fertile material) instead of U238 in a “fast” reactor the product is plutonium238. Likewise, bombard uranium-238 with deuterium (2x hydrogen nuclei) in an accelerator and the decay result is Plutonium-238 Pu-238 produces 560 watts per kg of decay heat, 280x times that of Pu239. The United States ceased production of plutonium in 1989 as the Cold War ground to an end, (more on the political aspect in a moment) and starting that production train back up would be no easy process.  The United States and Russia have tiny dwindling reserves, and at best NASA has enough for one more Cassini-style mission and perhaps a small scout style mission like New Horizons past the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory. And as you can see, utilizing the pre-existing weaponized Pu239/240 would do little good beyond perhaps as part of an Orion-style propulsion system, as the energy of decay or the specific power yielded is just too low.  Reading the writing on the cosmic wall, things look pretty grim for the recent Planetary Exploration Decadal Survey published earlier this year; a Uranus probe, Titan blimp, and Enceladus or Europa orbiter plus lander would all require RTGs, as would the shelved Jupiter Icy Moons Mission. Contrast the problems the spunky Mars Rovers had with “dusty solar panels,” as well as the eventual lack of solar power that did the Mars Phoenix polar lander in…

One of the RTGs that flew on the Voyager spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).

Are there alternatives in the nuclear area? Yes, but not without cost; for example, there are difficulties with the use of thorium isotopes. Relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust compared to uranium, the preferable thorium232 & thorium230 isotopes have a low abundance and a relatively low specific power in comparison to plutonium, again, making it a very poor heat source. In addition, thorium232 is bread to uranium233, which is nasty stuff and emits a very penetrating dose of gamma radiation as it decays further to thallium208. (Remember the Hulk?) Weaponized plutonium 239/240 also has too low a specific power, creating a huge mass penalty for outgoing spacecraft with its very short 30 year half-life. Strontium90 can be used as a RTG, but also at a great mass penalty. Same goes for any prospects of a pulsed fission reactor. In the 50’s through 70’s, NASA and the Department of Energy looked into the possibility of building a nuclear engine via Project Rover. This phases included Kiwi, Phoebus, and Pewee engines which were tested at the Nevada Test Site Area 25 desert complex facility… several extreme high altitude nuclear detonations where also conducted, most notably the Starfish Prime project in 1962. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1967 put the lid on further weapons testing in space, along with the prospects for a development of a nuclear propulsion engine.

Small high power solid core fission reactors have been used in space as the heat source for turbo-electric high power applications (primarily Soviet radar-satellites for intelligence purposes). One accidently returned to Earth landing in Canada in the 1970’s causing much political uproar and very little environmental damage. Solid core propulsion reactors have been designed and tested in both the United States (NERVA) and Russia and have a solid theoretical and practical engineering foundation. None have been tested in space. This concept still stands as our best bet to get humans quickly to Mars.

 

Nuclear-fueled & ready to roll; the Mars Curiosity Rover. (Credit: NASA JPL/CalTech).

Currently, NASA faces a dilemma that will put a severe damper on outer solar system exploration in the coming decade. As mentioned, current plutonium reserves stand at about enough for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, which will contain 4.8kilograms of plutonium dioxide, and one last large & and perhaps one small outer solar system mission. MSL utilizes a new generation MMRTG (the “MM” stands for Multi-Mission) designed by Boeing that will produce 125 watts for up to 14 years. But the production of new plutonium would be difficult. Restart of the plutonium supply-line would be a lengthy process, and take perhaps a decade. Other nuclear based alternatives do indeed exist, but not without a penalty either in low thermal activity, volatility, expense in production, or short half life.

The implications of this factor may be grim for both manned and unmanned space travel to the outer solar system. Juxtaposed against at what the recent 2011 Decadal Survey for Planetary Exploration proposes, we’ll be lucky to see many of those ambitious “Battlestar Galactica” –style outer solar system missions come to pass. A mission like Juno headed to the environs around Jupiter gets around this somewhat by utilizing huge solar panels; Juno is scheduled to leave the pad at Cape Canaveral next month on August 5th and this will mark the first non-nuclear powered mission to the outer solar system. This will occur, however, at a huge cost; Juno must drag its panels along for the ride and will only operate in a wide 11-day Jovian orbit. This is necessary to keep Juno exposed to the Sun and will preclude exploration of the Jovian moons during its projected 32-orbit life span. The three solar arrays on Juno also equal an area of 650 sq ft, a large target for any debris in the Jovian system that makes engineers cringe. Solar cells are also sensitive to high radiation fields such as those encountered in Jupiter space. This is one of the factors behind Juno’s short mission life.

Landers, blimps and submersibles on Europa, Titan, and Enceladus will all operate well out of the Sun’s domain and will need said nuclear power plants to get the job done… contrast this with the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe, which landed on Titan after being released from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2004, which operated for scant hours on battery power before succumbing to the -179.5 C° temps that represent a nice balmy day on the Saturnian moon.

 

One of the “other” uses for plutonium; Fat Man on Tinian. (Credit: US Govt image in the Public Domain).

Part of what has always complicated matters is what is known as the Outer Space Treaty, or in its long-form, The Treaty on Principles Governing Activities of States in the Exploration and the Use of Space. Signed and ratified by the U.S., U.K. and the Soviet Union on January 1967, this treaty seeks to curb the militarization of space and specifically the use of space-based nuclear weapons as well as nuclear detonations in space.  This has formed the basis of a broad amalgam of what been termed over the years as “Space Law” which covers such things as the international use of space, salvage rights and claims, and the non-recognition of any territorial claims on a celestial body. And while “Space Court” hasn’t become filler for afternoon or late-night cable TV, the Treaty did largely keep nuclear weapons out of space during the Cold War. Some of the ideas for an “EMP shield” over the US from the 50’s are slightly frightening to read about today, as we would be now reaping the environmental consequences. While said treaties never specifically limited the use of fissile material for deep space exploration, the very concept and stigma of “Nukes in Space” made it suffer by extension. Whenever a launch with an RTG occurs, a small band of protesters gather outside the gates and grab the media spotlight until the payload has cleared Earth orbit. Modern day fears of all things nuclear can be likened to the 19th century suspicion of electricity, which to date has taken far more victims than the peaceful use of radioactive isotopes in space.

So, what’s a space-faring civilization to do? Certainly, the “not going into space” option is not one we want on the table, and warp or Faster-Than-Light drives ala every bad science fiction flick are nowhere in the immediate future. In our highly opinionated view, NASA has the following options;

3. Exploit other RTG sources at penalty. As mentioned previous, other nuclear sources in the form of Plutonium, Thorium, and Curium isotopes do exist and could be conceivably incorporated into RTGs; all, however, have problems. Some have unfavorable half-lives; others release too little energy or hazardous penetrating gamma-rays. Plutonium238 has high energy output throughout an appreciable life span, and its alpha particle emissions can be easily contained.

 

MER’s curium-containing spectrometer. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

2. Design innovative new technologies. Solar cell technology has come a long way in recent years, making perhaps exploration out to the orbit of Jupiter is do-able with enough collection area. The plucky Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers (which did contain Curium isotopes in their spectrometers!) made do well past their respective warranty dates using solar cells, and NASA’s Dawn spacecraft currently orbiting the asteroid Vesta sports an innovative ion-drive technology. Solar sails have made their debut on JAXA’s IKAROS spacecraft in the inner solar system, and perhaps a technology employing the use of space-based lasers could do double duty propelling spacecraft through the outer solar system like something out of a Larry Niven novel. Fusion of deuterium or helium3 resources could also provide a powerful light weight energy source, but of course this is all strictly drawing board stuff… the standing joke is that controlled fusion stated above is that its always “20 years away,” which leads us to option #3;

1. Push to restart plutonium production. Again, it is not that likely or even feasible that this will come to pass in today’s financially strapped post-Cold War environment. Other countries, such as India and China are looking to “go nuclear” to break their dependence on oil, but it would take some time for any trickle-down plutonium to reach the launch pad. Also, power reactors are not good producers of Pu238. The dedicated production of Pu238 requires either high neutron flux reactors or specialized “fast” reactors specifically designed for the production of trans-uranium isotopes. Going along with such specialized reactors are adequate safe facilities for the separation, concentration, and preparation of the final product. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have closed and decommissioned the vast majority of their plutonium production facilities and reactors. The reconstitution of these cold war process plants is as of this writing beyond reasonable consideration. The huge plants at Hanford Washington and Savanna River South Carolina made sense during the Cold War, where Pu238 was a minor byproduct in the production of many tons of weapons grade plutonium. Practically, specialized research reactors at Oak Ridge Tennesse and Idaho National Laboratory can breed Pu238 and special separation and processing facilities there could produce gram per cycle quantities. However about 5kg/yr would be required to meet anticipated needs requiring a retool of currently available reactors and processing labs. Such a mission deviates critical research facilities from their primary missions that are themselves vital to understanding materials for spacecraft. Construction of new reactors and facilities for the production and processing of fissile materials is also fraught with significant funding, environmental, treaty, and local / national opposition hurdles. This can lead to very significant increases in cost over initial estimates and multi-decade delays prior to construction or production. Based on the realities of nuclear materials production the levels of funding for Pu238 production restart are frighteningly small. NASA must rely on the DOE for the infrastructure and knowledge necessary and solutions to the problem must fit the realities within both agencies.

And that’s the grim reality of a brave new plutonium-free world that faces NASA; perhaps the solution will come as a combination of some or all of the above. The next decade will be fraught with crisis and opportunity… plutonium gives us a kind of Promethean bargain with its use; we can either build weapons and kill ourselves with it, or we can inherit the stars.

 

Near Earth Objects: Mitigating the Threat.

(Editor’s Note: What follows is a scenario/article along with an original lesson plan re-written for a blog format).

Arizona Meteor Crater… x100=a bad day for the Earth? (Photo by Author).

Eventually, it had to happen. With scant warning, the announcement is made that a large space rock is inbound to strike Earth and is only weeks away. The news largely takes the public by surprise; this is the big one, an extinction class event. People are exasperated to learn that little can be done to deflect the large impactor; all that remains is for scientists to predict the precise impact location and for world organizations to attempt evacuations so that some of humanity might survive… [Read more...]

12 Amazing Moments in Science.

 
Edwin Hubble in the archetypical Astronomer Pose! (Credit: NASA Quest).
Edwin Hubble in the archetypal astronomer pose! (Credit: NASA Quest).

 

   Let it be known that this post did indeed start with 12… whenever someone mentions the most exalted achievements of mankind, the topic usually comes around to science. Along with our art and music, we’re the only animals that will know of that routinely apply the scientific method to the universe around us. And yet, some scientific discoveries weren’t supposed to be made, and their advent catapulted us years ahead of our time, or at least had the potential to do so, if only they had been recognized. What follows is a list of surreptitious, un-authorized, or just plain awesome discoveries that gave us some key insight into the nature of reality. Just like in the Wizard of Oz, most scientists work for their entire lives just to get a brief glimpse of the man behind the curtain. Anyway, we tried to be as fair as possible and include examples from a cross-section of scientific disciplines; we also tried to include the rare but true tales alongside the ones everybody knows. If your fave didn’t make the cut, let us know; there’s certainly cyber-space for a part II! Thanks also to those intrepid readers who sent in their suggestions; you rock, as always…    [Read more...]

Satellite Spotting: A Quick How-to Guide.

 
Two objects you can see tonite; the Hubble Space Telescope & (if it's in orbit) the Space Shuttle! (Credit: Art Explosion).
Two objects you can see tonite; the Hubble Space Telescope & (if it’s in orbit) the Space Shuttle! (Credit: Art Explosion).

Go out any reasonably clear night around dawn or dusk and look up. Chances are, after a few minutes, a moving “star” will drift silently by. What you’ve just seen is a satellite in low Earth orbit, a symbol of our modern technological age. Many are truly surprised by this sight when I point it out at star parties; I always check for bright passes before I load the ‘scope in the car. Some are active; many are space junk or discarded boosters. A very few, like the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station, may have human eyes staring back at you; and an occasional rare spy satellite may even have electronic eyes of a more sinister nature.  This week, we’re going to discuss the astronomical sub-pursuit of “satellite spotting,” a pastime that anyone can quickly engage in with a minimum of gear and know how. All you really need is a set of eyes, patience, and knowledge of when and where to look. A good Internet connection (hey, you’re reading this, right?) and a pair of binoculars can up your game a notch, as you’ll soon see.

          Satellite spotting used to be a matter of national security. As recounted in Patrick McCray’s Keep Watching the Skies! Operation Moonwatch  recruited amateur spotters to keep tabs on the Russians, as our country found itself woefully unprepared for a potential “red menace from space”. This had its roots in pre-space age aircraft spotters placed along the U.S. coasts by the Civil Air Patrol. Moonwatch officially ended in 1975, but many aficionados liked what they saw, and kept up their skills via ham radio, home stapled newsletters, and various other pre-Internet modes of communiqué. Some can even still get the political goat of a space faring nation or two. For instance, in 1990 satellite spotters reported the classified shuttle deployed payload MISTY as alive and well, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government who had hoped to perhaps use the cover story of a failed launch to put the new breed of spy satellite in orbit.  Conversely, amateurs have been able to quickly confirm and/or deny such recent space age hopefuls as Iran and North Korea in their fortrays into space.

And of course, satellites have been the source of a good many UFO sightings over the years. Some, such as the ever-growing International Space Station, can appear brighter than Venus! Iridium flares are also splendid sights, often brightening up to magnitude -8 before fading out of sight.

Depiction of a Satellite Pass. (Created by Author).

 
Depiction of a Satellite Pass. (Created by Author).

So, you ask, how can I see these splendid sights? The best time is local dawn or dusk; even after the Sun has set on the Earth’s surface, it’s still shining and reflecting off of objects high over head. Anything that’s visible to the naked eye will be at least several meters across and in low Earth orbit about 50-200 miles up. At that height, things move around the Earth about once every 90 minutes. Fun fact: did you know that Sputnik I was invisible to the naked eye? The vision of folks gathering on their porches to witness this silent messenger of the Space Age now persists in our collective mythos; such a depiction was even shown in the movie October Sky. What most people saw was, in fact, the spent but much larger booster that put it there!

In any event, like much of astronomy, knowing what that moving dot is adds to the moment. At very least, it might help explain grandpa Jeb’s most current UFO sighting…. Here’s where ye ole Internet comes into play. Basically, you’ll need three pieces of information for a successful identification. What time an object is passing over, what’s its max altitude or elevation, and its position, or azimuth along the horizon. Match these up, and you’ve got yourself a successful sighting. Visual characteristics are handy; satellites do not blink (that’s a plane) or leave a fiery trail (that’s a meteor) unless, of course, the satellite itself is re-entering. Anyhow, when Astroguyz wants to know what’s up in the man-made sky, here’s where we turn;

Heavens-Above : This is the ultimate clearing house for online local astronomy; once you’ve got your local latitude, longitude and elevation preset in, it’ll predict passes in an easy to read format. This is a fine starting point and introduction to satellite tracking. The only drawback it has is they can be a bit slow on updates for recent launches.

Orbitron: this is an uber-cool applet that installs onto your computer; once configured, it’ll operate in the field, sans internet connection, a huge plus. The trick is to occasionally update the Two-Line Elements from time to time, as new stuff gets launched and old stuff decays; I find once a month is adequate or more frequently if it’s a rapidly evolving situation, like a recent Shuttle launch. Orbitron is the only true stand-alone, satellite simulation free-ware out there; you can even set it to chirp when a satellite enters or leaves the local sky! It’ll even take hand-loaded TLE’s with a little skill; the only objection would be the need for a possible addition of local constellations in overhead mode.   

Space Weather: If you want dirt simple, Space Weather’s simple satellite tracker is it; simply plug in your zip code for Canadian and US users, or  locale for international, and out comes the local flybys in a no fuss format. Even grampy Jeb could use it!

Spaceflight Now: A good place to track goings on in terms of recent and upcoming launches; Spaceflight Now publishes all worldwide launches right down to the communication satellite that currently brings such trailer park opuses as “Wife Swap” and “Monster Truck Mania” into your house. And their live chat and twitter feed  is indispensible for real time updates.

NASA: It can take some digging, but NASA publishes ground tracks for shuttle re-entries which can be copied and overlaid on Google Earth to aid with possible sightings.

So, what strange beasties are there in the satellite world? While not all inclusive, here’s a short list of what to look out for;

Manned missions: these are the ones that really stir the Buck Rodgers in all of us. It’s just plain neat to think that someone’s chasing zero-g M & Ms around the cabin, right over head. These days, most manned missions revolve around the International Space Station, but expect that to change as we return to the Moon later this decade.

Iridium and other flares: In the mid-90’s, Motorola launched a constellation of communications satellites designed for Sat-phone linkups. These sport three each solar panels that are refrigerator-sized and highly reflective, and if they catch the Sun just right, a brilliant flare will occur, sometimes up to -8 magnitude! Heavens-Above is a great site for predicting these, and you seldom have to wait more than a week to sight a flare from your locale.   

Space junk: After monitoring satellites a bit, you begin to realize just how crowded it’s getting up there. A great many objects in orbit are derelict, mostly boosters used to put satellites in odd or highly inclined orbits. And some can be downright unique, like the tool kit “dropped” by astronaut Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper last year while working outside of the ISS!

Spy and satellite constellations: Yes, there is some strange goings on in Earth orbit; satellite constellations, such as the NOSS series, are some of the weirdest (and rarest) things you’ll see in the manmade sky. These will look like a group of satellites moving in formation. I’ve seen this only once from North Pole, Alaska, and believe me, it’s a bizarre sight!     

Dumps, dockings and re-entries: If you’re persistent (and lucky) you may be able to witness a docking/undocking of the Shuttle or Soyuz with the ISS. Generally, these happen either two days before launch or landing… following the missions via streaming NASA TV  can come in handy to catch this. Does the Shuttle or ISS look a bit of a fuzzy halo or trail? You might have been lucky enough to catch a fluid dump, which can look pretty cool if you catch it just right. Re-entries of the Shuttle used to be common place, but after the Columbia disaster in 2003, are now less frequent. The shuttle now almost exclusively supports the ISS, which means it must match orbits with the station. Reentry now generally comes in over Central and South America. And of course, unscheduled reentries can happen any time!

So, you’ve seen the pretty moving dots and you want more? The sub genre of satellite spotting is always open to expansion and innovation;

Binocular spotting: A good many objects are out of naked eye visual grasp; a good pair of binocs will aid you in this task. To be effective, it’s helpful to know when a satellite is whizzing by a bright star. Simply aim at the star at the appointed time, and watch the object zip by. I successfully spotted the aforementioned errant tool bag this way! Wide field imaging around the Orion Nebula region some times of year can even turn up geosynchronous satellites, which give themselves away by their slow up and down nodding motion.  

Tracking and photography: A simple way to photograph a satellite pass or flare is to lock the shutter open as your quarry drifts by; a more difficult method is to video or photograph the target at higher magnification through the telescope. Setups can range from sophisticated computer tracking mounts to low tech manual setups; simply aim, keep the satellite in the crosshairs, and hope you nabbed a frame or two for later extraction. Both the Shuttle and the ISS are large enough to show telescopic detail. Another tried and true method is to fix on an object such as the Sun (with proper filter in place!) or Moon and let the satellite come to you. This has the advantage of being possible in the daylight, or when the satellite is not illuminated, although the object moves quick, less than ½ a second across the solar or lunar disk! CALsky can be configured to give you local e-mail alerts for transits in your area.  

Reporting: sure, these days, everybody’s got a blog; but it can also be a great way to get your sightings out. Also, Spaceweather is very approachable for amateur photography submissions, and their Spaceweather Flash routinely posts all things astronomical.

So there you have it, the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of satellite spotting. And unlike some exotic fields of amateur astronomy-dom, this is something you can do tonight with very little startup! Remember, the sky is waiting… and tracking the comings and goings of human and technological activity in orbit can be fun for the whole family to enjoy.

Drama in low Earth orbit! (Credit: STS-51A/NASA).

Drama in low Earth orbit! (Credit: STS-51A/NASA).

Meteor Shower Observing.

   Stand outside on any clear, moonless night, and watch the sky. Odds are within a few minutes a meteor will slide silently by. While most things in universe and astronomy seem to happen on geological time scales, meteors are quick and fleeting, and a meteor storm can be one of the most awesome spectacles, such as the great Leonid outburst in 1833 and 1966. [Read more...]

Join Forces with the Great Star Count!

Good news; its time to take action in the fight against light pollution!

Star Count.

A Distribution of North American Participants. (Credit: Windows on the Universe).

   On October 20th, 2008, Windows on the Universe will be launching the 2nd Annual World Wide Star Count  as part of its citizen sciece based initiative. The premise is dirt simple; look outside your particular locale and report what you see. Last year, we participated in the first annual star count, to much success! [Read more...]

The Drake Equation: A Primer.

Nothing fires the ol’ mental juices like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Only recently has the very idea of alien life moved from the realm of science fiction to a possible science reality in our lifetimes.

[Read more...]

Science on Your Desktop

Last week’s answer: Our luckless Venus transit astronomer was none other than 18th century French scientist Guillaume Le Gentil. Had he been successful, he would have no doubt been a more recognizable name today!

 SETI Classic.

SETI Classic.

  When nights turn cloudy, we here at Astroguyz head for ye’ ole Internet. The proliferation of online science programs has exploded in the past decade. [Read more...]

Determine your Longitude: the Lunar Eclipse Method Part II

Totality.

(All Photos by Author).

Hopefully, you had clear skies at your locale. My luck was pretty good… mostly clear skies through-out! My initial impressions were that of a very bright eclipse; the southern rim of the moon seemed especially bright. The color ranged from a dark blood red on the northern edge to an overall brownish glow. This seemed particularly prominent through binocs. And it was extremely cold! Temps ranged around zero Fahrenheit. The night was even punctuated by a fast pass of spy satellite USA 193, on what turned out to be its final orbit. So much for a scoop by Astroguys… [Read more...]

Determine Your Longitude: the Lunar Eclipse Method Part I

Eclipse.

A Ruddy Lunar Eclipse. (All photos by Author).

We’re back now with a new look! Hopefully, it’s less of an eyestrain for our loyal legion of readers… and just in time for this months’ Lunar Eclipse!

Getting an accurate fix on your position has long been a bane of the world traveler. Long before Global Positioning Systems, a way was sought for navigators to calculate their location using the stars. Latitude was easy enough; in the Northern Hemisphere, you simply have to measure the angle of Polaris, also known as the North Star, above the horizon. [Read more...]

Astro-Themed Drinks for Cloudy Nights

Flandrau.

To drink…(and/or) observe? (Photo by Author).

There is a long tradition of alcohol in Astronomy. Tycho Brahe was a great imbiber. Beer Crater (actually named after the imminent selenographer, Wilhelm Beer) on the Moon may well be ultimate site for a brewery one day. But when the cirrus starts getting thick, what’s one to do? True, you can only recollimate your mirrors so much. [Read more...]

The Contributions of Amateur Astronomers to Modern Science

graph.

The trend for comet discoveries. (Graph by Author).

(Author’s note; the essay below was a paper submitted recently by yours truly as part of my quest for a bachelors degree in science teaching. I’ve posted it here pretty much intact. Some explanations on the graphs have been expanded; I thought it was a shame for all of my research on the subject to go to waste. The bibliography is also included.)

Today, the modern science of astronomy is growing like never before. New technologies are opening up unseen vistas scarcely imagined just twenty years ago. [Read more...]

Measuring the Circumference of the Earth: the Eratosthenes Method

  This is one I duplicated in High School that I first heard about on Carl Sagans’ Cosmos series.  Way back in the 3rd Century BC, the Greek philospher Eratosthenes of Cyrene devised a method of calculating the circumference of the Earth. [Read more...]

Viewing a Low Altitude Occultation

Moon & Venus.

Daytime Moon & Venus. Photo by Author. 

   This past Thursday, I got an e-mail from Sky & Telescopes’ automated alert system; Monday, the 18th of June, there would be an occultation of Venus by the Moon visible from extreme northern New England and the Canadian Maritimes.  This occultation would also span the Atlantic, Europe, and into Asia, but would be especially difficult to spot from the continental US (what we in the miltary refer to as ConUS) due to its extremely low elevation in the day time sky.

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