November 29, 2014

Review: Destination Mars.

On sale now!

Early this August, a historical event will occur. A rover launched last Thanksgiving weekend will descend via sky crane to the surface of Mars. After the first “six-minutes off terror,” the Mars Science Laboratory will be ready to do some serious science on the Red Planet. [Read more...]

Astro-Challenge: The Ruddy Hues of UU Aurigae.

Carbon stars are some of our “surprise faves” to show off to folks when it comes to variable stars. Objects like V Hydrae and R Leporis, otherwise known as Hind’s Crimson Star exhibit a cherry red hue as they fatten up on carbon fusion and filter through red-wavelength light late in their stellar careers. This week, I’d like to challenge you to point your scope high in the January evening sky at another colorful wintertime sight to add to your repertoire, UU Aurigae, a variable star located along the Gemini/Aurigae border. This star varies from a maximum brightness of +5 to a minimum of +7 to +10 with two superimposed periods of 233 and 438 days. UU Aurigae just came off of a minimum magnitude around +7 in the early Fall of 2011 and should be headed towards a maximum of +5 in spring of this year.

Created by Author in Starry Night, north is to the left.

A C5II-type star on the Morgan-Keenan C System of carbon abundance, UU Aurigae has an R-I color index of +1.43 (Hind’s, one of the reddest stars in the sky has a R-I of +1.47 for context) and is classified as a semi-regular variable. Observers report its color as a deep orange-to-red, and it’s always an interesting study to note how the color of such stars changes as they approach maximum. UU Aurigae lies 5 degrees NW of the +3.6 magnitude close double star (at 2.9” arc seconds of separation) Theta Geminorum. Its coordinates are:

Right Ascension: 06 Hours, 36.5’

Declination: +38° 27’

Good luck, and let us know about your respective observing anecdotes as you track down this ruby-tinged wonder.

In other astronomical events of note this week, the +14.8 magnitude asteroid 911 Agamemnon occults a +7.8 magnitude star in the constellation of the Lynx. The 200 kilometer-wide path will cover a stretch of the Earth’s surface touching down along the U.S. east coast across New Jersey-Virginia at 11:31 UT on January 19th, tracking across central Canada and Alaska before departing our planet over Siberia and Mongolia at 11:41 UT.  If you’ve never caught an asteroid occultation of a star, this would be a fine one to watch, and one of the better events of 2012.

Also Comet P/2006 T1 Levy reached a perihelion of 1.007 astronomical units from the Sun on January 14th and was predicted to have attained magnitude +7 by now as it crossed from Pisces into Cetus on the 17th; however, current observations place it more along the lines of less than +17 magnitude visually. It is suspected that the comet was in outburst when first discovered by David Levy from Jarnac observatory in Vail, Arizona (only miles away from the now defunct Very Small Observatory of Astroguyz fame.) The comet has apparently pulled an “Elenin” and disintegrated… hopefully, dependable Comet C/2009 P1 Garradd continues its track record as a fine binocular comet in the morning skies this spring.  Also sometimes listed by its recovery designation of P/2011 Y1 Levy, it’s still amusing to watch as certain unnamed and obviously automated sites continue to list P/2006 T1 Levy as a bright comet! Need a human astro-fact checker there, guys? Comet P/2006 T1 Levy will also make its closest approach to Earth on January 26th at just shy of 22 million miles (about 88x the Moon’s orbital radius) distant.

Finally, we’ve been following the stranded Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft on every pass over Astroguyz HQ this past week; the most recent updated projections for re-entry stands at 14:35 UTC on January 15th, ±1 day. This all assumes, of course, that the probe hasn’t already re-entered as you’re reading this! Interestingly, we have a visual pass over a local Star Party that we’re attending Saturday night January 15th! Come on out to Starkey Park if you’re in the New Port Richey area; you just might see UU Aurigae and a satellite re-entry to boot! Incidentally, rough back-of-the-envelope calculations for seeing Phobos-Grunt re-entering while above your local horizon (assuming you live between latitudes 50° north or south, along with about 95% of the human population) are about 300-to-1 against; a long shot, but better than the lottery! Also, the Phobos-Grunt saga has spun off a whole host of bizarre (and of course, web circulating) tales, proof of the Mark Twain  adage that a lie can fly around the world while the truth is “just putting on its shoes…” Not the least of which are that the probe will “hit Afghanistan” (the aforementioned odds for such a prediction aren’t much better for them than any other country) and that the HAARP array in Alaska had something to do with disabling the probe. (The failure occurred before the passage of the spacecraft over HAARP) still, we’re going to miss explaining the name “Phobos-Grunt” to friends and family, many who are already convinced that us astro-bloggers are a bit “off our rockers,” anyway!

A Weekend of Sun, Fun & Astronomy at Delray Beach, Florida!

Delray Beach sunrise. (All photos in post by Author).

Stargazing and traveling are literally a “match made in heaven”; as long as there’s a sky to be seen overhead, your observatory can be said to be where ever you make it. Such was the case this past weekend, when we bundled up the ‘scopes and made the pilgrimage to the Atlantic side of the Florida peninsula to Delray Beach for three days of sun, fun and a little surreptitious stargazing while based out of the Marriott Spa and Resort. [Read more...]

AstroEvents- Hunting things that “Flash” in the January Sky.

Phobos-Grunt+meteor… a scene to be repeated this week?

(Photo by Author; click to enlarge).

2012 is here, and the world shows no sign of ending as the heavens spin on their appointed rounds high overhead. But the diligent observer may be rewarded with several unique an spurious sights, both natural and manmade… [Read more...]

2011: The Year in Science.

No matter what your field or discipline was, 2011 stands as an amazing year for the history books. Change and transition seems to be the watch-word as regimes have been overthrown, the US space program sits at a crossroads, and cultural and social change has taken place worldwide.
[Read more...]

15.11.11-Hunting for Phobos-Grunt.

Have you seen me? (Artist’s concept. Credit: ROSCOSMOS).

By now, you’ve heard the news; Russia’s Phobos-Grunt (Grunt meaning Soil) spacecraft is stuck in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Launched on November 8th out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Zenit rocket designed to place the Mars-bound spacecraft worked flawlessly, and then… silence. Since that fateful evening, engineers have tried without avail to hail the stranded spacecraft. This loss represents quite a blow to exploration of the solar system. One of the first spacecraft to head towards Mars from the Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Phobos-Grunt was ambitious, with plans to land on the Martian moon Phobos and perform a sample return mission. And of course, the view of Mars from Phobos would have been stunning! Also lost was the 250lb Chinese Yinghou-1 spacecraft, which would have orbited Mars for two years studying the local environment.

As of this writing, engineers are continuing to attempt to establish contact with the spacecraft, but thus far to no avail. The loss is eerily similar to that of the Russian Mars 96 spacecraft that fell back to Earth near the Chile-Bolivia border after also failing to leave Earth orbit in 1996. Mars 96 contained 200 grams of plutonium fuel which was to power surface penetrator experiments, and Phobos-Grunt also carries its own variety of toxic fuel in the form of 16,000+ pounds of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.  Hydrazine is nasty stuff; F-16 aircraft use the rocket fuel to run their emergency power units. During our stint in the USAF, we were told in our yearly aircraft safety training that hydrazine “smells like ammonia,” but also that if you could smell it, it was already probably too late! In any event… all eyes are now turning from getting this spacecraft to Mars to just where it’s going to come down during re-entry.  Phobos-Grunt is currently parked in a 51.4° degree inclination orbit, similar to the International Space Station (both were launched from Baikonur) but of course, neither would be accessible from the other.  ISS astros did have the opportunity to attempt and get a visual on the spacecraft, and reported no flash of the engine attempting departure from LEO.  Phobos-Grunt is in a 208 x 334 kilometer altitude orbit, and completes a circuit around the planet every 90 minutes. Heavens-Above now has predictions up on their main-page, and I was able to catch it in orbit this past Saturday morning with binocs as it passed by the bright star Aldebaran. I’d say it was about a magnitude fainter than the star, between magnitude +1 and +2. I can also attest that the prediction was within 30 seconds accurate, and the brightness was steady, which suggests no current tumbling is being experienced by the spacecraft. The way the orbit has been evolving has suggested to some that perhaps the spacecraft is still able to fire thrusters on its own, although is unable to communicate.

Just what will happen to Phobos-Grunt? Well, current predictions are for it to burn up in our atmosphere by January of 2012; chances are that it will come in over the ocean (over 70% of the span of its orbit) and most of its hazardous payload will burn up on re-entry. The thought certainly isn’t a comfortable one, however, and there is some precedent to preemptively shooting down hydrazine-laden spacecraft such as was done for the spy satellite USA-193 in February 2008.  It’s a good thought-exercise to wonder what options might exist if we still had a space shuttle on hand, but we don’t; Clint Eastwood isn’t going to saddle up anytime soon and go after Phobos-Grunt ala Space Cowboys.

If there’s any lesson to learn from this, it’s that perhaps spacecraft need to be equipped with an autonomous de-orbit option. The bad PR gained by Phobos-Grunt will now no doubt be spun into negative press for the upcoming Mars Curiosity launch on November 25th with its own plutonium payload. Yes, we’re biased in favor of space travel, and we know we’re editorializing, but we echo the words of Carl Sagan in saying that “Space travel is the best use of nuclear material I can think of…” the previous launches of Cassini and New Horizons attracted a scattering of protesters and no doubt Mars Curiosity will be no different. They even co-opted two of our personal heroes, Michio Kaku and Ralph Nader to their cause, but I’m sorry, our Carl trumps your Ralph and Michio, any day. I feel that in this instance, the fears of the protesters are misplaced; coal-fired plants, for example, release substantial amounts of radioactive radon, uranium and polonium into our atmosphere every day. The plutonium on Curiosity is containerized in graphite and purposely over-engineered to survive a launch mishap. For example, plutonium discarded by the Apollo 13 mission near Fuji (aboard the Lunar Module to be used as part of the ALSEP lunar surface experiments) has never shown signs of leakage after decades of sweeps of the area. Again, not comforting, especially if it was deposited in your backyard, but like with questions of energy in general, space travel often presents the “devil you can live with” scenario… the alternative is to turn away from space exploration and become a “risk adverse” society.

OK, done editorializing now… let the troll-mail begin. Do get out there and watch for Phobos-Grunt as it makes a pass overhead in the coming weeks. Strange to think, this is on the heels of the recent UARS and ROSAT re-entries… lots of continuing drama in LEO!

Extra credit: Another Russian interplanetary mission has been long suspected of being the source of the infamous Kecksburg, Pennsylvania “UFO incident” which occurred on December 9th 1965… the failed Kosmos-96 spacecraft bound for Venus launched on November 23rd of that year!

November 2011: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere.

A “Warhol Moon!” (Photo mosaic by Author).

Wow, can you believe that 2011 is coming to a close? It seems that it was only yesterday that we where installing Windows 98 and fretting about Y2K, and now we have a decade plus of the 21st century under our belts… this month brings a pair of launches headed towards the Red Planet, a partial solar eclipse for distant lands, and a Tweetup for one of the aforementioned launches: [Read more...]

Astro-Events: An Opposition and an Occultation!

Looking west from Astroguyz HQ Oct 27th at sunset. (Created by the Author using Starry Night & Paint).

This week marks the return of the King of the Planets to evening skies, as well as a close lunar-planetary grouping for well placed observers and a chance to spy an unusual asteroid. [Read more...]

04.01.11:A Martian Eclipse.

Phobos in transit. (Credit: NASA/Cornell/JPL/Texas A&M)

I never get tired of catching a glimpse of the sky from other vantage points in the solar system… today, as residents of the Old World enjoy a partial solar eclipse on Earth, we thought we would direct your gaze to an eclipse from Mars. [Read more...]