May 28, 2020

28.05.11: Spiders in SPACE (…ACE).

A Terrestrial Golden Orb Spider. (Image Credit: NASA & Danielle Anthony).

The recent final mission of the space shuttle Endeavour brought some very special residents to the International Space Station. Delivered in the cargo manifest of STS-134 was the Commercial Generic Bio-processing Apparatus Science Insert -05 containing a pair of golden orb spiders. [Read more...]

May 2011: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere.

April’s rising Pink Moon. (Photo by Author).

The month of May brings with it the beginnings of true summer-like weather for most of the northern hemisphere. We’ve survived a wacky weather spring, and the planets are just starting to peep out from behind the Sun in the dawn sky. What follows is projects in the works and goings-on that are up and coming this month from all things Astroguyz;   [Read more...]

The U.S. Space Shuttle Program; A Personal Retrospective.

As we approach what are the last flights of the United States Space Shuttle Program this year, many a media outlet will be revving up tributes, retrospectives and docu-dramas expounding on all that was the shuttle era. Rather than rehash what the shuttle has done, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the role the shuttle has played in my life.

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13.04.11: Here Be Shuttles!

The Space Shuttle program may be winding up, but you may soon have a chance to see one of these storied orbiters, in person. Yesterday, NASA officials announced the final resting places for the three remaining orbiters in the shuttle fleet; and the big winners are:

- Atlantis will go to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida;

- Endeavour will go to the Los Angeles California Science Center;

- Discovery will go to the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly Virgina.

And that will leave the Space Shuttle orbiter Enterprise, which never flew into space, to be transferred from the Smithsonian to the New York City Sea, Air, & Space Museum.

A mock trainer, Shuttle Orbiter Pathfinder, currently resides at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Also, hundreds of other select pieces of shuttle hardware and memorabilia will be located to other institutions throughout the nation. The announcement coincided with the 30th anniversary of the launch of STS-1 and Space Shuttle Columbia back in 1981, and the 50thanniversary of manned spaceflight with Yuri Gargin’s first epochal launch aboard Vostok 1 in 1961. During that time, the fleet has experienced highs with the launch and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, the deployment of the Chandra and Compton observatories, and the completion of the International Space Station as well as lows with the tragic loss of the Columbia and Challenger spacecraft along with their gallant crews. As we near the end of the program, look for a personal retrospective on the Space Shuttle and these historic orbiters. (Remember, we launch a shuttle but land an orbiter!) it seems weird that we’ve been flying Space Shuttles for over half of our personal existence on this planet, and a generation has come of age knowing nothing but. Hopefully, a brave new launch vehicle will be well established and performing routine space flights by the next decadal anniversary in 2021!

24.02.11: Hefty Anti-particle Found.

The menagerie of bizarre sub-atomic particles just got stranger, as scientists at Long Islands Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider recently unveiled the discovery of the heaviest anti-particle yet discovered. Dubbed the antihypertriton, this strange beast sits at 200 milli-electron volts (for comparison, an electron volt about 1.602 x 10-19 joules), beating out old fashioned anti-helium.

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December 2010: Life in the Astroblogosphere.

We’re back… December 2010 sees us here at Astroguyz wrapping up our 3-year plus quest for an online science teaching degree and a return to full-bore content creation.  And none too soon, as December is generally our busiest (and most intriguing!) month of the year…

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Astro Event of the Week: Spot Atlantis on its Final Flight!

This week sees the first in a series of finales; three shuttle missions remain, and the first shuttle up for its final voyage is Atlantis and STS-132. This is a resupply mission to the International Space Station, as NASA prepares to enter life aboard the ISS without a shuttle next year. Atlantis first took to space on October 3, 1985 and has performed such notable feats as the launching of the Magellan & Galileo spacecraft as well as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and last year’s final repair of the Hubble Space Telescope aboard STS-125. Atlantis takes its name from the famous sailing ship that first scouted out Wood’s Hole in the early 20th century, the RV Atlantis. After STS-132, Atlantis will have logged nearly 300 days in space. Atlantis will be kept for a STS-335 Launch On Need standby for the final STS-134 flight of Endeavour later this year, which is also the last of the shuttle program.

The good news is several sighting opportunities should be possible for both Atlantis and the ISS during its 13 day planned mission. Launch is scheduled for 2:20 PM EDT on Friday, May 14th, and the shuttle will pass over Europe as it lifts into orbit that evening at dusk. Interestingly, it looks like the Sun angle may be setting up for some transit sighting opportunities over the US Southeast during this mission. Docking will occur on day three, which will be on the 17th if everything launches on schedule. Lit dusk passes on the pair will favor the US eastern seaboard, and generally, the farther north you are, the higher the STS-ISS pair will be. Around late June, the ISS will enter a summertime orbital phase where its orbit will actually be permanently illuminated at times, and even now, the nights aboard the ISS are drawing up short. Do track sites such as Heavens Above, CALsky, Spaceweather, and this space for updates… it’s worth it to see Atlantis do its thing one more time!

(Note: An orbital ballet of sorts is also in progess at the ISS; today, the Progress 36 module undocks from the nadir port of the Zvezda  module. Progress will deorbit and burn up over the Pacific in June. Then, on Wednesday, cosmonaut Kotokov will pilot the Soyuz TMA-17 and undock from the aft end of the Zarya module and move it to replace Progress, freeing it up for the installation of the MRM-1  carried aboard Atlantis. Talk about a cool valet job!)

The astro-word for this week is: Space Tweetup! A space tweetup is an alignment of two or more space enthusiasts for a space flight cause via that most venerable of 140 character platforms, Twitter. A Tweetup may be virtual, as in “let’s watch a launch via NASA TV and tweet about it” or in person, as in next week’s NASA tweetup for the STS-132 launch, of which Astroguyz is proud to be a member. NASA obviously “get’s it,” and is eager to promote new technology and engage its legion of fans, many whom feel disenfranchised with the “old school” media. People often ask me, “Why bother with Twitter?” I reply that events like the NASA tweetup have given me the opportunity to gain access normally reserved only for a select few, and an ability to connect to readers in a way not possible previous. It’s hard to imagine that scant decades ago, the monthly astronomy magazine bulletins would tell us about the comet that had long since come and gone; through Twitter communities, I can not only act on alerts for new objects, but share images straight from the eyepiece in real time. I highly encourage anyone interested to apply for a NASAtweetup; it’s open to all, and they’ve had events at the Kennedy and Johnson Space Center and in Baltimore at the Goddard Space Center thus far. And if you can’t make it, you can always participate vicariously online!

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!

15.04.10: President Obama Addresses the Space Coast.

President Obama made a short stop to speak at the Kennedy Space Center today on his way to Miami. He was greeted by both space enthusiasts and nervous NASA employees who rightly wonder about the ultimate fate of their jobs as a result of the ending of the Space Shuttle program later this year. Would his speech be a Kennedy-esque vision or a consolation prize?

It’s a truism that when Kennedy spoke we didn’t even know how to reach LEO; 8 years later, we were on the Moon. That’s the kind of vision we need. Obama’s last visit to Florida didn’t fill NASA fans with a lot of hope; not only did he essentially nix the Constellation, but his promised “train to Disneyland” seemed like a bit of a snub. Mind you, we like this Prez… during the election, he was the only candidate that could speak articulately about science. Still, there seems to be a certain reluctance for the current administration to do something truly visionary. [Read more...]

Attack of the Smartphones: A NASATweetup at the Johnson Space Flight Center!

We came, we saw, we tweeted profusely… last month’s Tweetup at the Johnson Spaceflight Center was a resounding success. Only the fourth official NASA tweetup ever held, this was the first at the JSC and the first attended by Astroguyz. What follows is a sort of after-action report, both of the JSC and the world of space-tweeting in general; [Read more...]

Satellite Spotting: A Quick How-to Guide.

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.

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.

24.08.09: STS-128; A Dramatic Night-time Spaceshot!

This last week of August marks the return of the Space Shuttle to low-Earth orbit; Discovery is next up with mission STS-128 and an early morning launch on Tuesday, August 25th at 1:36 AM EDT. This should provide quite a light show to the Florida Space Coast for hundreds of miles around! [Read more...]