March 29, 2020

Review: Falling to Earth by Al Worden and Francis French.

Out from Smithsonian Press!

We’re approaching 40 years since the last human set foot on the Moon, and we’ve yet to have the ability to point at a calendar and state unequivocally when such a feat may happen again. Thus, the era is dwindling when we can hear the stories of these early astronauts, in their own words. This week’s review entitled Falling to Earth tells the tale of NASA astronaut Al Worden, the Command Module pilot for Apollo 15. [Read more...]

19.03.11: Our Moon… in Cosmic Rays.

Sure, you’ve seen the Moon countless times, and perhaps you’ve been drawn out, zombie-like to view this weekend’s “Super-Moon,” but have you ever seen the moon in… cosmic rays?  This is but one gem that has come out of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

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Review: Journey Beyond Selene by Jeffery Kluger.

A classic of the early space age!

        A classic of the early space age!

     Before men landed on the Moon, we had to first crash land there successfully. This week, we dip back into the Astroguyz library to review the classic Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System by Jeffery Kluger. We dug this gem up from our favorite Tucson haunt Bookman’s years ago. Selene tells the fascinating tale of the evolution of the unmanned space program. [Read more...]

Review: Voyager by Stephen J. Pyne.

Ours may be an age of discovery like no other. This week, we look at Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery, by Stephen J. Pyne, out July 26th, 2010 from Viking Press. This fascinating work delves into the Voyager series of spacecraft missions from a unique perspective, juxtaposing it as a symbol of the third great age of exploration and drawing historical parallels and contrasts with past great expeditions of discovery.

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15.06.10: Found: Lunokhod 1.

NASA has located an old friend on the lunar surface; Lunokhod 1, which landed on the lunar surface in 1970 and fell silent after 11 months of service. A Soviet unmanned rover, Lunokhod 1 delivered some first rate science. Remember, the Apollo astronauts stayed on the lunar surface for a period of time equivalent to a weekend camping trip. With its old school tech, Lunokhod 1 is decidedly steam punk in appearance. Fans of this space will also remember its sister rover Lunokhod 2, purchased by Richard Gariott for $68,500 in 1993. Both were imaged and recovered by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter recently, and now scientists are recruiting the rovers to conduct science once again.  Lunokhod 1 was equipped with corner cube prisms, which reflect laser light back at exactly the direction that it came from. On April 22nd of this year, scientists at the Apache Point observatory in New Mexico fired (you always “fire” lasers!) laser pulses of light via the 3.5 meter telescope and were surprised with the results; more than 2,000 photons were successfully gathered on the first try. In fact, the reflectors on Lunokhod 1 are now brighter than on Lunokhod 2, which may be a scientific mystery in and of itself. Scientists hope to use studies in how the Moon moves through space to search out any potential kinks in General Relativity. That’s right; in the true spirit of science, Relativity (and Gravity, for that matter) is still being run through the mill, over a century later. Thus far, reality, as always, looks to be firmly on the side of Einstein, with the help of a now stationary defunct Soviet-era rover!

22.03.10- On the Trail of Lunar Water.

Last year’s big news story was the announcement of water on the Moon. This evidence came from five separate sources, and spanned over a decades’ worth of data. This climaxed with the October 9th impact of the LCROSS spacecraft in the quest for a moisture laden plume. Now, a reanalysis of lunar samples returned by Apollo astronauts have turned up evidence of microscopic water beads imbedded in volcanic glass. This leads scientist Alberto Saal to suggest that the lunar interior may contain water in the order of 745 parts per million, a tiny but measureable amount.

The first whiff of water in the form of clay hydroxyls came from the Clementine and Lunar Prospector orbiters in the mid 90’s. Cassini imaged the Moon in the infrared on its way out to Saturn, but the water signature detected at the time was suspected to be due to spacecraft contamination. More recently, lunar water got a boost from NASA’s spectrometer aboard the Indian orbiter Chandrayaan 1 and observations by the Deep Impact spacecraft in its role of simulated exoplanet hunter… keep in mind, the amount of water being discussed is tiny; were talking maybe a liter per ton of lunar regolith near the poles, and half that amount at the equator! With the cancellation of Constellation, it’s to be seen if any of the proposed unmanned rovers will take up the hunt for lunar water over the next few years.

AstroEvent: Exploring Clavius.

This week, as the Moon moves past 1st Quarter on the 23rd toward Full on the 30th is a good time to explore the lunar environs. Specifically, I’d like to turn your attention towards Clavius crater, a prominent feature in the southern lunar highlands. One of the largest impact craters on the Moon at 152.2 miles across, it’s large enough to actually see the lunar curvature in its structure, and houses many smaller craters within its walls. It is visible starting at 9-10 days after New Moon, and presents a slightly different face each lunation. In fact, Clavius is one of the few craters that may be discerned by keen eyed viewers with the naked eye. In a small telescope, the relatively ancient structure of Clavius contrasts well with the nearby splashiness of young Tycho. Are these ancient, broad floored craters the result of impacts, or do they suggest early volcanic activity? Most of the rocks returned by Apollo astronauts were igneous and basaltic by nature, suggesting the young Moon once had a molten crust.

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2009 UN3:A (Semi-) Bright Asteroid flyby.

This week, a brief cosmic interloper graces our skies. Tonight, 2009 UN3 will glide silently past Earth, at a distance of 0.03667 Astronomical Units, or about 3,400,000 miles. That equates to roughly 13 times the Earth-Moon distance. Not especially close, as Near Earth Asteroids go; 2009 UN3 isn’t considered a hazard on this pass, but has been classified as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid, (PHA) or one that warrants watching. What is interesting about this particular asteroid is the fact that it is nearly a kilometer in size, and thus should appear moderately bright. At maximum approach, 2009 UN3 will be approximately +12 in apparent magnitude, bright enough for moderate (8” aperture or larger) scopes. Closest approach occurs at 4:48 Universal Time (UT) on the 9th, at which time the asteroid will be moving in a south to north direction through the constellation  Corvus into Virgo around Right Ascension 12h 23’ 26.0” and southern declination -08° 55’ 30”. Keep in mind, the coordinates mentioned are topocentric; with Near Earth Objects (NEOs), parallax as viewed from along the Earth’s surface comes into play.

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12.01.10: Asteroid 2010 AL30 to Make a Close Pass Wednesday.

An interloper to the Earth-Moon system is paying us a visit tomorrow. Asteroid 2010 AL30 is gliding past us at a distance of 78,000 miles, only a little over three times the distance of the geosynchronous satellites and about one –third the Earth-Moon distance, an approach worth noting. First detected by astronomers conducting the LINEAR Near Earth Object survey on Monday, January 11th, 2010 AL30 appears to be a 10-meter class object, and its one year solar orbit raises the possibility that it may be a spent man-made object currently in orbit about the Sun. This has occurred previous, with the recovery of J002E3 in 2002, which gave away its Earthly manufacture due to the presence of titanium oxide paint (a highly un-asteroid-like coating!) in its spectral signature. Interestingly, the final stage Apollo boosters that sent men to the Moon were about 18 meters long and about 7 meters in diameter. Some objections have been raised ABOUT this hypothesis, however, because 2010 AL30’s velocity is inconsistent with a man-made object. Goldstone radar intends to monitor AL30 during its pass Wednesday, January 13th 2010. Amateur astronomers with large apertures and/or CCD imaging capability should be able to pick up AL30 as a swift moving, 14th magnitude (think faint) star gliding through the constellations Orion, Taurus, and Pisces. Chalk up another miss in the Near Earth Object category!

07.11.09:Attack of the Lunar Rovers!

NASA plans to send new hardware back to a familiar place; the Moon. Specifically, scientists at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona are studying the hugely successful rover activities on Mars to see if they can be emulated in a low-cost fashion on the Moon. It isn’t generally known that much of the Moon is largely unexplored from a ground-level perspective; the early unmanned Surveyor-style landers in the 60′s were stationary, and the Apollo astronauts were restricted to nearside, equatorial landing sites. Intelligent lunar rovers would allow for extensive surveys of unexplored areas such as the South Pole Aitken Basin, one of the largest impact basins in the solar system. Rovers could also scout out future manned landing sites as well as search for that treasure of treasures; water. Unlike the Martian rovers, the signal round trip is negligible, thus allowing for near real-time control. So, when might we see this new breed of lunar robots? Well, NASA has unofficial plans to place its first rover in 2014. The Chinese however, may beat us to tasting lunar dirt with the Chang’e-3 mission in 2013…who will win the battle of the 21st century lunar rovers? Stay tuned!

28.10.09:Near Earth Shenanigans.

Near Earth Objects (NEOs) have been in the news as of late, perhaps as a prelude to Halloween. First, we woke up the morning of the 17th to a near miss of 2009 TM8, an asteroid about 10 meters in diameter that passed 90% the distance of the Moon. Then just yesterday, astronomers announced that they are tracking an unknown object tentatively named 9U01FF6 that is currently in an elongated 31 day orbit about the Earth. In all likelihood, this is probably a recaptured piece of Apollo hardware; many boosters are now in Earth-crossing orbits about the Sun. But wouldn’t it be cool if we had a second natural Moon? Now, a report has come to light out of Indonesia of a possible bolide earlier this month. The video embedded above depicts a smoke trail consistent with a large meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere. The event occurred at around 03:00 UT (11:00 AM local) on October 8th; its rather mysterious that in this Age of Twitter, the report took more than two weeks to surface! Trust me, “remote” locales such as Southeast Asia are more hooked up in terms of wireless technology than much of the rural US…The event also set off 11 stations of the International Monitoring System, which gauges the atmosphere for violations of the nuclear test ban treaty. The asteroid suspect is estimated to have been 5-10 meters in diameter and produced a yield of about 30-50 kilotons. In contrast, the Fat Man atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was only a yield of 21 kilotons. The event was offshore and very near the coastal town of Bone, and was witnessed and recorded by the villagers as seen above. Events like this are estimated to happen once every 2-10 years, and lend credence to the hypothesis that a fairly large impactor may come in with no warning at all. And no, Virginia, this doesn’t appear to be a Latvian crater hoax this time around!

29.9.9: Can you Spot the Cave in Copernicus?

I’ve got a unique challenge for you, as you brush up on your lunar geography in anticipation for next weeks’ LCROSS impact. Next time you’re viewing the waxing gibbous Moon with your friends, amaze them (or make them think your totally crazy) by issuing the off-handed remark; “Did you know that there is a ‘cave’ in the crater Copernicus? The “cave” in question is, of course, an optical illusion. Its interesting to note, however, that in the pre-Apollo era, would-be Selenographers were faced with a lunar landscape that was much less straight forward. This first came to our attention while reading a February 2003 article in Sky & Telescope written by Steven O’Meara. The cave itself rests on the northern inner lip of the crater and is elusive unless caught at the precise sun-angle of 10.7 degrees above the local lunar horizon. This generally occurs around 10-12 days of age, and I encourage you to take a look early this week. [Read more...]

22.9.9 Update: The Lunar Lander Challenge.

NASA wants you to design the next round of moon vehicles. The Lunar Lander Challenge has been going on hot and heavy since July, with four separate teams vying at various levels. The latest attempt was the Xombie lander flown by Masten Space Systems debuted on the 16th of this month, at the attempt of a level 1 $150,000 prize. The lander failed to meet the criterion, but made for a cool video! Masten plans for two more attempts on Oct 7-8 and 28-29 before the close of the Oct 31st window. The Challenge is part of the Lunar X Prize Foundation, and four teams are competing over the next six weeks at Moffett Field, California and Masten Space Systems at their Mojave test center. May the best lander win!

August 2009:News & Notes

- The LRO Photographs the Apollo landing sites: Fans of this space may have noticed the racy lunar pics we ran a week back as part of our From Earth to the Moon review. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter did indeed snap pics of the famous Apollo landing sites last month. These clearly show the hardware left at multiple sites, as well as the base(s) of the Lunar Lander ascent stages, complete with shadow. You can even see the astronaut’s foot trails in the lunar dust! And the LRO hasn’t even entered its cruising orbit yet… expect more great pics to come! [Read more...]

Apollo 11 40 Years Later: Did We Really go to the Moon?



As the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing rolls around this month, its time to address the inevitable. Every so often at a star party, someone asks me if you can see the flag(s) we left on the Moon. When I explain that even the largest pieces of hardware, the base of the lunar landers, were only a scant seven meters across, far below the resolution power of my 8″ reflector, someone inevitably pipes up in the dark; “because we never did go there, that’s really why!”

Of course, I already know that no amount of reasoning will dissuade some people; the outlook is “the government hides everything,” and that tends to be the ultimate answer for any conspiracy. [Read more...]

July09: News & Notes.

- Teenage Supernova Discovery: Ah…who says you can’t engage kids in science anymore? Supernova 2008ha was recently discovered by Caroline Moore of Warwick, New York. Discovery actually occurred back in November 7th of last year, and buzz has just passed around the Internet as this is one of the weakest supernovas to be discovered. Perhaps that’s why the big guys missed it…

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In The Shadow of The Moon: A Review.

Next year will mark 40 years since man first stepped on the Moon. The documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, directed by David Sington, depicts the voyage of the man to the Moon using exclusively the voices of the astronauts themselves.

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