May 31, 2020

Week 1: Riding and Writing (from the) Road

The Hubble at the new Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center.

(Photo by author).

It has begun.

Last week, we issued the preamble to all that is Dark Skies 2014. This week sees wheels a rollin’ with a quick stop over on the Florida Space Coast. A small step (for a) man, sure, and not the darkest skies, but a stop over at the Kennedy Space Center is a must for any space fan. We’ve been by the KSC both as press and as a tourist about a dozen times over the past six years, and there’s always something new to be seen. Atlantis is now up for exhibit, and we always find that the Holiday Inn in Titusville is a great jump off point for hitting the Space Center. [Read more...]

23.10.12: Exciting Changes & More at the Kennedy Space Center.

39A +Solar Halo! (All photos by Author).

New and exciting things are afoot along the U.S. Space Coast. This past week, we had the chance to witness the transition of history up close as the age of the space shuttle comes to an end and we move into an era where NASA gets back to what it knows best; exploration. It’s been a bitter-sweet year, watching the four remaining orbiters (Enterprise, Endeavour, Discovery & Atlantis) get dispersed throughout the country.

We were thrilled to be able to witness the very last orbiter to occupy the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) before its transfer to the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex on November 2nd of this year;

We always seem to be “drawn”ť to Atlantis. The two launches that we had the privilege to witness up close where both Atlantis; STS-125 and the final repair mission to the Hubble from the visitor center, and STS-132 from the press site during the #NASATweetup. With the arrival of Endeavour to Los Angeles, an orbiter will never take to the skies again. It seems strange to watch the shuttle fleet go into retirement. I remember watching the very first drop tests of Enterprise carried out at Edwards as a kid in the late 70′s. It was always assumed that the shuttle fleet would grow and become a mainstay of the space program as we pressed outward from low Earth orbit as a dedicated work horse. It’s a strange sort of space policy we’ve ended up with, one that goes in fits and starts from one administration to the next.

Atlantis in the VAB.

But new beginnings are afoot, both in the space program and at the KSC visitor complex. Atlantis is scheduled to go on permanent display in July 2013, and will feature a thrilling exhibit showcasing the orbiter as if suspended in space with its payload bay doors open. A Rocket Garden Cafe is now open for business, with food that’s out of this world. Tours are also currently allowing folks to get up close to previously off-limits areas, such as launch pad 39A & the VAB. Signs of a brave new era are evident, as SpaceX has begun routine missions to the ISS and NASA’s Orion/MPCV is slated to once again take U.S. astronauts spaceward in the coming years. It was thrilling, just weeks ago, to watch the Falcon 9 rocket headed northeastward after the ISS; hopefully, that’ll once again become a frequent sight for U.S. Space Coast residents and visitors.

Historic Launch Pad 39A.

Do make an effort to visit the KSC as these “times of transition”ť are often the best to gain unprecedented access to some fascinating locales in space history. A big shout out and thanks to Andrea Farmer and @ExploreKSC for making it all possible!


Touring the KSC: It’s a Space Coast Weekend!

The Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC…(All photos by Author)

Only now, the story can be told; a true tale of our recent invite to tour the Kennedy Space Center! I know, as long time readers of this astro-forum you are probably saying that we’ve been over these hallowed grounds of space-dom many times before, what with our initial tour of the KSC back in 2008 our NASATweetup adventures at the launch of STS-132 and space shuttle Atlantis and our tips for launch-spotting off of the Space Coast. [Read more...]

Spotting Space Launches; Prime Sites for Free Viewing.

I’m always surprised how many everyday (i.e. non-space buffs!) I meet that fail to realize that space shots are visible to millions on almost a monthly basis. It’s almost as if the space program is this exotic thing that happens in strange and remote places, far from the eyes of the general public. But the reality is that it may be easier to spy a launch than you might think, and anyone can easily see the International Space Station or the Space Shuttle with the naked eye while it’s in orbit. There are about a half dozen spaceports worldwide that see at least monthly action, but for this post, we’ll talk about the two most famous; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center.

Last year, we were able to attend the STS-125 launch at the KSC; prices for general admission currently go for about $38 dollars US. Viewing was from the visitor center complex grounds, and while I wouldn’t deter anyone from the experience, we were still quite some distance away! You won’t see the shuttle sitting on the pad, and it will only be visible seconds after it clears the tree-line. It’s interesting to note that while the mainstream media generally ignores the manned spaceflight program, tickets for launch viewing also tend to sell out fast. In fact, if the quick sellout of tickets for next week’s STS-132 mission are any indication, a vast counter-movement of space enthusiasts exists that isn’t being served by the mass media. In fact, STS-132 viewing tickets appeared on EBay at magnitudes above the sale price hours after the sellout!The good news is you don’t have to sell the car (or a kidney) to see a launch. Several off-site areas exist where you can spy launches. If you find yourself along the Florida space coast or in the Orlando area, I invite you to keep an eye on the sky… we can even spot launches from the backyard of Astroguyz HQ, about 100 miles to the west! What follows are some tips and advice, both official and unofficial, from readers, followers, sources and personal trial and error experiences.

The first and foremost thing you’re going to want is information. When is the next launch? SpaceFlightNow is a daily “must look at” for us; it updates launches and schedules of spaceports worldwide. Keep in mind; there are only three shuttle launches left in the program! Unmanned launches are always cool as well, and look dramatically different in appearance as their payload is generally lighter than the multi-million ton shuttle. Launches out of the Cape also tend to have a more easterly track out to sea, while shuttle launches have to match up with the International Space Station in its 51.6° degree orbit and thus follow a more northeasterly track up the U.S. seaboard. For in-the-field satellite tracking, I point you towards the outstanding stand-alone free-ware resource Orbitron; just remember to update those TLEs occasionally to assure currency. Celestrak is also another ultimate resource for data, and CALsky will even give you custom built e-mail alerts for such events as dockings, solar and lunar transits, and decaying satellites. And don’t forget to follow @Astroguyz on Twitter for the latest launch updates!

The official NASA page lists some areas of interest for off-site viewing: It also mentions that audio transmissions for amateur radio operators are at 146.94 MHz and boaters can tune to Channel 16 VHF-FM for Coast Guard instructions on restricted areas during launch. Keep in mind, boats aren’t allowed north of mile marker 15 on the Banana River, and photography from a moving boat may be tricky, though not impossible.

An interesting site complete with diagramed maps comes to us via Peter Vidani and his Space Shuttle Launch Viewing Recommendations. He notes that Port Canaveral has the optimal viewing locale for launches out of the Cape, but may be used for KSC launches as well. Parrish Park is noted as another prime site, as it is only 12 miles from launch pad 39A. Construction at the Max Brewer Bridge has, however, limited parking. He also notes that while Space View Park is wired up with an audio feed from Mission Control; arrive early, as it gets very crowded!

Veteran launch photographer Ben Cooper also echoes the above, stating that; “Space View Park is definitely a fan favorite, because it has trees and monuments and a pier…a very nice place compared to just being at the side of the road or something. (As for) Tips and tricks…get there early, earlier is always better even if it is too early, you can’t go wrong getting a good spot. Everyone arrives at different times but leaves at once, so expect major traffic jams after the launch or scrub.” Make sure you are also flexible in your viewing plans, as launches can and do frequently scrub. High profile launches, such as last year’s Hubble repair or the final up-and-coming shuttle flight draw the largest crowds, but even a run of the mill telecommunications launch can be interesting… you might even catch something unusual, such as when the Solar Dynamics Observatory “pierced” a solar halo during launch earlier this year! Mr. Cooper’s site also gives an excellent rundown of Titusville viewing areas, as well as examples of his own launch photography.

Generally speaking, a night launch will provide a better contrast against the night sky; I usually shoot a few calibration shots before launch to have some idea of what shutter speeds I can get away with; remember, digital film is cheap. My usual setup is a video camera mounted and running on a tripod and a hand held DSLR, with NASA TV running in the background. Keep in mind that NASA TV does have a time delay; you may well see the shuttle a few seconds before launch is broadcast. Dawn and dusk launches are the ultimate, such as the recent outstanding STS-131 launch. Keep an eye on the sky directly afterwards, as glowing neon clouds may be seen high in the Earth’s atmosphere. These are the results of condensation in the wake of a launch contrail, and can be equally photogenic.

Some photography tricks I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, are as follows;

-          Be ready and flexible for changing light conditions; a night-time launch can quickly turn into daytime conditions. I always shoot on manual, and try to pre-focus on a bright planet or the Moon if available.

-          Know your equipment: this is a basic one that’s often overlooked. Give all gear a through “shakedown” before launch day and make sure all batteries are topped off… in astrophotography, the devil frequently lurks in the details!

-          Scout out a good foreground; scenery can make a good photo great. Such landmarks as the Disney castle, the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge in Ponte Vedra, palm trees, or the Moon add individuality to a shot. Check the azimuth of the launch pad against your viewing position so you know where the launch will be visible before hand; if you use the same sight frequently, note any land marks for future use.

-          Finally, don’t shoot video in the vertical position! I know this from my own experience; I failed to realize during the STS-125 launch that the software wouldn’t “de-rotate” the video the same as stills. Hey we’re big enough to admit our own mistakes.

-          Binocs are handy for sighting booster separations; I’ve seen the SRB detachment from a 100 miles away with our Canon IS 15x45s.

-          And don’t forget those non-photography related issues; be prepared for heat, UV, and bugs in the summer; Florida nights in the winter can be surprisingly chilly. Twitter follower @Dangerbarrow ) suggests packing a lunch, arriving several hours early and viewing from Titusville on the river would a fine way to spend a launch spotting-day.

Off beat viewing suggestions? Here are a few unique ideas that readers have batted our way;

Why not view the launch from a kayak? Adventure Central offers a unique tour viewing from Mosquito Lagoon that gives you an unrestricted and unique vantage point.  While not free, the $32 is a fraction of the KSC viewing price. Thanks to our friend Donna Frose teaching in Quito, Ecuador for sending this one our way!

Florida residents can also write their congress-person and request to view a launch; most elected officials in Florida recognize the value of the space industry and are thrilled to give their constituents a chance to see it in action, up close. Thanks to Ruth Arnold in Miami for bringing this to our attention.

Finally, why not join a NASAtweetup? These media events are raffled off periodically, and provide up-close access to launches and interviews with astronauts. Entry is open to anyone over 18 years of age with a Twitter account; simply follow the NASAtweetup page religiously, as event notifications frequently come and go.

And speaking of which, we here at Astroguyz are T-minus one week until departure for the STS-132 launch and the NASAtweetup! Follow this space as we track Atlantis in its final flight to the International Space Station…we promise we’ll keep the video camera in horizontal mode this time!

Editor’s Note: And for those partaking in a day tour of the KSC, check out these money saving tips from Wise!

May 2010: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere.

May brings ultimate news to the Astroguyz camp, with the selection for yet a second NASAtweetup, this time to the final launch of the shuttle Atlantis! Expect us “to be all STS-132, all the time” as we track events leading up to and during the launch. With that in mind posts will be noticeably space shuttle oriented, so be forewarned. So without further digression, here’s what you can expect from an Astroguyz soapbox coming to a viewing device of your electronic choosing…

Coming to a Sky near You: You’ve heard of em’, but have you ever tried spotting a quasar yourself? This month, we show you what it takes to cross this elusive class of objects off of your life list. And of course, we’ll keep you abreast of the latest STS/ISS sightings, as the pair couples and uncouples in low Earth orbit. For those fortunate to be positioned from northern Africa through Southeast Asia, the 2 day old Moon will occult Venus on the 16th. The rest of us will see a close conjunction of the pair. On the lunar surface, we explore Aristarchus, a crater home to the most recorded Transient Lunar Phenomena. On the final day of the month, the Moon once again meets up with S Scorpii in an interesting occultation of the close binary star. On that same date, we’ll point you towards an offbeat reader submitted event; Jupiter’s moons positioned in 1,2,3,4 order. Our own Moon will reach New on the 14th and Full phase on the 27th.

This Month in Science: Did we mention that we’ll be attending the NASA STS-132 Tweetup? Expect you-are-there tweet-reporting, videos, deep ponderous thoughts, and a full length after-action post. For those who didn’t get picked (hey, this was us more often than not!) we’ll give you a complete guide to off-site observing, good for both manned and unmanned launches both out of the KSC and the Cape. We also resume our exposé on Great Orbiting Observatories, this month delving into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. And speaking of UV, we review the UV flashlight from INova, and why you need one of these curious devices…

This Month in Science Fiction: This month, we take advantage of the spring publishing lull to work through some of our backlog. Expect a review of Solis by A.A. Attanasio, a book that we can’t believe let sit on our shelves all these years before finally cracking. We also review what’s rapidly become our favorite in Sci-Fi podcasting, the Drabblecast. In the hot-off-the-press-department, our advance copy of Dervish House by Ian MacDonald, soon to be released by Pyr just hit our doorstep and we’ve delved headlong into this tale of a futuristic Istanbul.

Launches in May: What with all this talk of adventure in a time of NASAtweetups, you might get the impression that STS-132 launches on May 14th at 2:19 P.M. EDT! This mission will be deploying the Russian-built Mini Research Module to be attached to the Zarya Module, as well as carrying further maintenance supplies and spare parts to the ISS. The flight is also notable as it is more than likely the last flight of the shuttle Atlantis, unless it launches in the very unlikely event of a rescue op during the final two missions. Astroguyz will be on hand to witness the final flight of Atlantis as she rides into orbit one last time. About a week prior, Falcon 9 will launch out of the Cape on May 8th at 11 AM EDT, on the qualifying flight of Space Xs Dragon spacecraft. This flight test is crucial to demonstrate that private companies can indeed fill in the gap left by the termination of the shuttle program and take up the duty of unmanned resupply of the ISS. Another interesting launch of note occurs on May 17th at 5:44 PM EDT, when Japan’s Akatsuki Venus Climate Orbiter departs Tanegashima Space Center for a journey to the cloud-shrouded world.  Follow these latest mission updates courtesy of SpaceFlightNow.

Astro Bloopers: Alright. This month’s snafu is spaceflight related, and the offense was committed twice in the past month by two separate organizations, both of which should have known better! The problem occurred with a common misconception of the Kennedy Space Center versus Cape Canaveral; both tend to be interchanged by the media, but are in fact separate installations! KSC is the launch site for manned missions such as the Shuttle and the Apollo missions; the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is the home of unmanned satellite and deep space probe launches. NOVA recently got the two exactly wrong in a recent otherwise outstanding episode, and then CNN bumped the lunacy up a notch during Obama’s visit to the Space Coast, referring to the KSC as the Kennedy Space Station! And they complain about us upstart blogs…what are they, missing a science reporter?

This Month in Astro-History: On May14th, 1973 Skylab was launched. The first manned space station for the United States, Skylab utilized left over Apollo hardware to cobble the station together and saw its first crew of three opening it for business on May 25th of the same year. Two more crews followed until abandonment in early 1974. Astronauts conducted several science experiments while in space, including solar observations and microgravity experiments. Ideas to eventually reoccupy Skylab when the Shuttle came online in the 80’s never materialized. Skylab re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere amid much media craziness on July 11th, 1979.

Astro Quote of the Month: “Everything really is made from one fire, the fire of all the stars. In that furious light, the stars forge the elements, strew them into the black void, and then stand around and watch the frantic atoms huddling together in the cold limits, sharing their small heat and enormous dreams.”

Solis, A.A. Attanasio.

Astro-event: SDO and STS-130 are go!

Two (count ‘em!) launches will light up the Florida Space Coast over the next few days; that of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-130 and the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). STS-130 is scheduled to liftoff from launch pad 39A out of the Kennedy Space Center on the morning of Sunday, February 7th at 04:39 AM EST enroute to the International Space Station. Cargo includes the Tranquility connecting node which houses the Cupola, a Millennium Falcon-like window that will give residents unprecedented views and aid in spacewalks and exterior work.

[Read more...]