Friday, February 27, 2009

Frustrated whining and complaining of Seattle Astronomers

I'm feeling more tempted now to research who the authority is that I must contact to find out why astronomy has been canceled in Seattle - no, make that most of Western Washington - over the last 2.5 years. What did we do wrong? Did we upset one of those "La Nina" weather creatures of the Pacific waters? Does someone keep buying fancy new optics and let the clouds out when they open the box only releasing the curse?
I'm writing this to vent some of my extreme frustration over yesterday. As we know, Comet Lulin is in the skies right now. At this time it's just past Regulus in the constellation of Leo, and well placed high in the southern sky in the evenings. Higher is better, since there is less atmosphere to distort the view. So, all day yesterday (this is the day after another frustrating 3 inches of snow - which vanished quickly) I look out of my 10th floor office window and see Mt. Rainier super clear to the south. You know the days, it's when it's so clear that every time you look over it seems to be closer? By around lunchtime it was just south of Boeing Field "it lifted it's skirt and took a few steps forward" to quote my sister Linda who was also pleased with how the day looked..
Anticipating that we'll FINALLY get a great clear night for comet imaging, I was getting excited about the evening. A couple friends were coming over to play out back in our backyard observatory also. The Clear Sky Chart was even showing perfect conditions until about 2am. PERFECT! Plus, as a bonus it was Friday and we could do a late night of viewing.
3:30pm, I look out and Rainier had put on it's hat and it's "skirt" trailed off to the south. Quick peek at NOAA satellite images showed clouds quickly coming up from the south. Olympia - already 5,500 broken. Arrgghh!
5pm - game over! Nothing. Comet hidden, sky gone, disappointment maxed out to highest level, evening worthless again.

This is basically the typical pattern here in Seattle we have had on clear days for about the last 2 years. Fine during the day, clouds return at night. It does clear up a few days a month - during the FULL MOON! That is useless for anyone into deep sky observing like myself. The two big summer star parties over the last two years have been a total bust. Table mountain - clouds wind, freezing temperatures in August. Deception Pass - Clouds rain.

I'm not done, there's more. Light pollution. When it does clear, for the most part, there is always some haze in the sky, but that falls under the "cloud whining" mentioned above. It used to be that the sky appeared kind of pink here, but now I'm noticing that the sky, at least toward the west, has a bluish tinge to it. I'm thinking that is from the new "The Landing" mall down the hill from me. I was assured by the city of Renton (yes I did contact them about this) that lighting would follow strict rules and not go upward. I think they kept the promise, but I'm sure it's bouncing off the ground and going up. There was bill in the works (HB 1069) to reduce light pollution in Washington state that was going to the legislative session coming up. I just found out that it was canceled or shelved for another Don't they realize that good lighting will save money plus a lot of other bonuses? Everyone would win with this. It would cost something like $72,000 and the state is already in very deep financial trouble. Thanks to the economic mess, I think saving money on lighting has been ignored now.
I've been pretty hard-core into Astronomy for almost the last 10 years now, but I'm getting so frustrated with it all. I want to buy some new filters for imaging, but wondering if I should just drop that idea? Is 2 or 3 marginal nights in a 4 month period even enough to justify a a few hundred dollars for new filters?
The familiar full rows of horizontal disappointment

Now where did I put that bottle of vitamin D3 to cover my sun deficiency....?

Sunset to Moonrise at Paranal, Chile.

Just a fun little one minute video of a night at the ESO observatory in Chile. I first thought it was the sun coming up, but then the stars were still out. It was just light from the moonrise.
Skies once were like this just a few short years ago. Ok, more than just a few years, but maybe 30 years? I used to sleep on the backyard lawn in the summers and - faintly - still see the Milky Way in the sky. That is all gone now....and so is the slug that I found on my pillow next to my left ear when I woke up in the morning.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Track wreckage with Google Earth.

More fun and somewhat disturbing (but very cool!) features keep coming out for Google Earth. This time the latest add-on file for it is a way to track the chunks of shattered US/Russian satellites that collided on Feb. 10.
This is realtime data of the orbiting chunks that are being tracked and the orbital data provided by Celestrak. So now you can probably find the ISS, Shuttle, all your favorite satellites, and now even a couple swarms of garbage. The problem with Google Earth that I have is that once I start playing with it, I'll look at my watch and I've lost an hour. But traveled to many places. In a way, it's similar to snacking on M&Ms, I dare you - eat just one!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cassini mission summary in one chart.

I keep finding really cool stuff on Emily Lakdawalla's blog on The Planetary Society web page. She has all the good sources of space stuff. I'm working on getting more good sources all the time. Anyway, she just posted this really fancy chart showing the past, current (we are in the "Equinox" stage of the mission right now), and future extended mission of the Cassini orbiter. Looks like plenty of good moon passes coming up and then "Proximal Orbits" whatever that means.
Maybe that is where Cassni does some ring or cloud barnstorming before they crash it into Saturn? I'll have to look further into what that is. (As usual, click the image to see full size)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Just can't let go of Lulin, best thing in the sky right now.

I think I'll have to just take my images, stack them, do the best I can with the data, then post it on a share for others to fix. Here is my original image that I took and was disgusted with due to the 3D blobs.
Steve on the Yahoogroups turned it into this:

Then my friend Jeff over in Indonesia (yeah, astronomers make the world small) tweaked it even better:How's that for international cooperation! :-)

Why does Lulin have two tails?

Comet Lulin shows up in photos as having two tails, one in front and the other in back. Some earlier photos have it with a pointy horn sticking out the front. No, it's not a magic unicorn or space narwhal in search of NCC1701 to attack James T. Kirk and kill the nearest red-shirt, but it's just simply a dust tail that is seen from a different point of view. This comet is traveling toward us with the sun about 90 degrees off to the side. The solar wind blows the gas or hydrogen tail directly away from it, while the dust tail is just basically a skid mark left on the path of it's orbit.
This is a good diagram that should explain it well.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More on Comet Lulin

Tuesday morning comet Lulin will pass just 2 degrees from Saturn in the sky. I'm kind of excited to see what kind of images those lucky enough to have clear skies for that event will come up with.
I had a chance to view and image Lulin Friday night. We were out until about 2am despite the somewhat hazy skies and 28 degree temperatures. I took this image of the comet - with special thanks to Steve on the CCD-Newastro Yahoogroup for tweaking my image a bit. I had some really ugly dust blobs that didn't process out since I must have twisted the camera accidentally when I took the flat-field images. Didn't line up very well then. Steve used the Photoshop "heal' tool to fixe that. I'll give that a try myself and play with it some more and see if I can improve the colors some more in this shot.
There is hope for us in Seattle. Live comet images of the Saturn/Lulin conjunction will be availible on the Coca Cola Space Science Center web page. I thought Coca Cola was only good for keeping us late night guys up with a caffeine and sugar high? I guess the do sponsor some cool astronomy stuff too!
Also took this image of the Rosette Nebula while waiting for the comet to get higher in the sky. It's H-alpha with 10 exposures at 800 ISO at 7 minutes each.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Comet Lulin seen from Renton

Finally got my first image of C/2009 N3 (or better known as "Lulin") last night. It was high enough to just clear the wall of the observatory when I found it. It wasn't much to see in the eyepiece, just a very faint blob that could only be seen with averted vision. I was almost wondering if I had a galaxy instead, but then saw it was moving fast. Yep, Lulin has been found!
I tracked it with the scope guiding on the nucleus of the comet so I could get a good image of he comet itself. The stars are trailing not from the Earth's rotation, but the comet's fast movement. This image was taken over about a 40 minute time period. The tail can be seen faintly off to the left of the comet.
Again, the best night to see this fuzzy guy will be on the 24th, but I'm not confident about the forecast (Scott Sistek, are you reading this?). ;-)
I should have possibly another good night tonight before the clouds come back this weekend, so I'll see what happens. (Click on the image to see it in full size)
Also tried another target that I have yet to get a really good image of (the Crab Nebula - or M1). I think our scope has some problem autoguiding this part of sky since the stars always end up slightly 'Twinkie' shaped due to the back and forth motion of the autoguider. Argh! Still working on that....

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Harness a Horsey.

A quick peek at the very hard to photograph horsehead nebula in Orion. This beast is a tough one to image especially from my location in light polluted Renton. Again I cheated a little bit and sucked down the Hydrogen (red) wavelength with my expensive little H-alpha filter. Then tossed out the "R" of the RGB visible image and used the H-alpha for the red instead.
Skies were not good the Horsey was wandering over toward the west and squatting over the lights of the city making it a miserable place to image. By that time I switched over to Hydrogen and cut through the light pollution. That filter really does do magic!
Can't help a hazy sky though, so focus left something to be desired, and as always I never get as many frames as I would like, recycled some old flat/dark frames that I had and overall wasn't extremely pleased with the outcome. I guess it looks ok in the smaller size, but the full size image just looks pretty nasty. I might just be getting too critical of my work too....

Feb. 24 - good night to get out and look.

February 24 is a good night to get out and to some observing. Two interesting and kind of rare events are happening. First of all, we know that Comet Lulin will be at it's closest to Earth at .41 AU (or about 38 million miles) and it should be at it's brightest of about magnitude 5 or so. If the sky is dark enough, no telescope should be needed to see Lulin.
Wait! There more....swing your scope over to the right and look at the yellowish 'star' (shouldn't be twinkling since it's a planet) and zoom in on Saturn. Since the ring plane of the planet is lined up with Earth right now the rings look very thin, and also make the planet dimmer since we lose a lot of reflective stuff bouncing light off the rings. 2:54am PST Titan will work it's way across Saturn's face followed by it's shadow about 40 minutes later. Then about 2 hours later 4 more of the moons will appear and scoot across Saturn making for a 4 moon "eclipse".
Please let me know how this all looks. I don't expect to see anything since this is Seattle and we NEVER get to see anything cool in the sky like this.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 9, 2009 lunar eclipse --- Seen from the other end.

Here is a video of the lunar eclipse from this month. The video was taken from the Kaguya spacecraft orbiting the moon. Earthrise and solar eclipse seen from the moon. (Lunar eclipse seen from Earth).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shooting the moon this summer. Sounds like a viewing party to me!

The next exciting mission to the moon will launch sometime this summer. First of all the LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) is going up, and this is the spacecraft with the camera similar to the one around Mars on the MRO spacecraft that can see the rovers, Viking landers, Phoenix, the parachutes they rode down on, and hopefully find some wreckage of ESA's Beagle II someday. So, if they can be seen, we know that the Apollo landing sites will finally be seen. That will finally shut up "Swear on the Bible that you went to the moon Mr. Armstrong" - Bart Sibrel and all those others that think the Apollo missions were just a prequel to Capricorn One.
This spacecraft will also be riding along with the LCROSS spacecraft that is headed directly to the moon's surfae. No, not a soft landing, but more of a bullet like smacking. But first, the booster that takes them out of Earth's orbit is going to crash into a crater that is always in darkness, followed by LCROSS a few minutes later - after it flies through the plume and takes a quick sniff of the contents and radios it quickly back to Earth before it to meets it's doom from a very sudden stop. Why crash into the moon? Because we are searching for water. Not for hidden moon life, but for a source of H2O for future manned missions. The water can be used for many things including fuel if enough energy can be produced to separate it into Hydrogen and Oxygen for other uses.
It even gets on the west coast of the US (sometime betwen May and August this summer - depending on the launch date) we will have a view of the moon and its predicted that the plume from the crashing spacecraft will be visible from here. Amateur telescopes should be able to see the plume rise out of the crater and extend about 6 km above the surface and out 40 km in all directions.
Since it's summer, our chances are a lot better for clear skies and a chance to see it. I think I'll plan a backyard moon bashing party like we did when Deep Impact hit comet Temple 1 back in 2005. Couldn't see the comet in the West, but we had food, friends, and set up a backyard big screen TV with the projector and watched live NASA TV coverage out back. Good fun!

Photo update of the Constellation project. again posted a great photo essay on their site. This time it's another update on the progress of the next generation of US launch vehicles. President Obama has convinced congress to give NASA $1 billion as a stimulus check, and $400 million of that will go toward the new program. At least the NASA guys over there will have some job security for a few years putting this together.
The first test flight of the Aries 1-X (the one that will be the new manned launcher in 2014) will make it's first unmanned flight already this summer. It will be basically a "Alan Shepard" type of downrange ballistic shot for a quick test launch. More on that later....

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Possibly one less chunk of satellite collision wreckage to worry about?

This is a video from CNN of daytime coverage of a marathon in Austin Texas, but that's boring just looking at a bunch of running people. Check out what is in the background blue sky!
It could be part of one of the satellites that collided last week, or it could just be another random hunk of junk falling from they sky. I'll post anything else interesting when I see it.

There were no reports of ground strikes or interference with aircraft in flight, FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said.
Herwig told CNN the FAA received no reports from pilots in the air of any sightings but the agency recieved "numerous" calls from people on the ground from Dallas, Texas, south to Austin, Texas.
Video shot by a photographer from News 8 TV in Austin showed what appeared to be a meteor-like white fireball blazing across a clear blue sky Sunday morning. The photographer caught the incident while covering a marathon in Austin.
On Saturday, the FAA told pilots through its routine notification system that "a potential hazard may occur due to re-entry of satellite debris into the earth's atmosphere." The notice did not specify a time or location

More fun with HDR photography.

Lately I've been experimenting with something called "HDR photography" which means - High Dynamic Range. Basically, this is where you take at least 3 photos. Keep the aperture the same and do a shorter, normal and longer exposure to get the full range of light from the subject. This way you get details from the ground shadows as well as a properly exposed sky also (if you are doing outdoor photos). It gives a strange looking effect, but it's pretty much what your eye sees anyway, since when you look around at things, your eye will compensate for different amounts of light. This is just a way to do it with a camera.
Since the skies are mostly clouddy these days, I'm playing with less distant photography with the HDR tricks. Here is an example tutorial on how to do this with Photoshop.
I was at the Muesum of Flight yesterday to check out a model show, so I tried a few interesting subjects with this method. I'm not sure if I'm doing this all correctly yet, but I think the results are interesting.
(click the images for a full size view

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy V(838)alentines Day

V838 Monocerotis Parallel by Jukka Metsavainio
Cross your eyes until you see a 3d image.

I've seen a few examples of Jukka Metsavainio's work on Universe Today now and then. I just had to put a link to his stuff here since it's really cool stuff! If you can view a 3D image by crossing your eyes, check out his work on his blog page. Really neat stuff. Just relax your eyeballs, stare at the images and maybe cross them a little bit so the two images from into one which appears in the center. It should jump out at you in 3D if you do it right. I find this easier to view than one of those patterned images that you stare at for a while and finally see 3d Dinosaur popping out of the page!

Far far away - Music video.

Enough of this crashing satellite stuff for a while. Here is a cheerful and fun video. This is the full theme song from the daily International Year of Astronomy podcast theme.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Satellite crash - the news just keeps getting worse.

At first we just think "Oops! That was an unfortunate and expensive incident." Now as more details come out about the satellite collision, we find that the situation just gets more serious and could affect many more spacecraft. First, the remaining Iridium satellites are all in the same orbital altitude as the accident victims, so there are parts flying through that orbit which will eventually spread like a cloud of dust. This will put the Iridium system in danger since parts could eventually impact and destroy or damage the other satellites. This creates a chain reaction, on more gets hit, parts fly off, hits another, more parts fly....
It's a lot worse than just ducking under a flock of geese in an Airbus A320!
So the latest bad news is that the Hubble cold be in danger, as well as the astronauts going on the final upgrade mission. Here is a quote from ABC News website:

The already hobbled Hubble Space Telescope could be further harmed by space debris from Wednesday's unprecedented satellite collision, a chief NASA scientist told ABC News. There has always been a small risk that Hubble and other spacecraft could be damaged by the thousands of pieces of junk floating through space. But now that the space telescope is orbiting 75 miles below where the collision took place, experts say the risk is much greater. "Clearly debris from the event is going through the altitude that the Hubble flies, so we're going to be looking at what is the new risk to Hubble," said Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist at the Orbital Debris Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What are the chances?

Just a tiny fraction of a second difference, a couple feet or a tiny thruster nudge and the Iridium could have avoided the speeding Russian satellite carcass. Almost like standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross the street when flock of seagulls fly over you. Yeah, that happened to me yesterday and I was watching them in case I had to step to the side to avoid getting splattered.
Anyway, this picture shows the paths of the international incident between the US and Russian spacecraft. You know what they always say about crossing railroad tracks trying to beat a train through an intersection. Whack!

UPDATE: More information just keeps showing up about this. I just came across a video simulation of the collision. If this was cloud from a volcanic eruption (Google Alaska's Mt Redoubt) we would be getting some pretty sunsets! The chunks are most likely too small to be seen from the ground though, but who knows?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Crunch....two satellites collide in orbit.

I just got an email from one of my news sources at about a couple satellites that collided. Or I guess I should say...a US Iridium satellite and a hunk of leftover Russian junk.

A commercial Iridium communications satellite collided with a Russian satellite or satellite fragment, Tuesday, creating a cloud of wreckage in low-Earth orbit, officials said Wednesday. The international space station is not threatened by the debris, they said, but it's not yet clear whether it poses a risk to any other satellites in similar orbits.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Monday, February 9, 2009

Saturn ring gaps named

It used to just have a few names like "Cassini Division" or "Encke gap". But the USGS has officially given more names to gaps in Saturn's rings. Bond, Dawes, Herschel, Russell, Jeffreys, Kuiper, Laplace, Bessel, and Barnard are now names for gaps between the rings in Cassini division and the C-Ring. I didn't know the USGS tracked that stuff, but they do more than just earthquakes here on Earth.
....and we once thought the Cassini Division was a big gap that a spacecraft could fly through.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Fallen satellite finally flies.

Five years ago while being prepared for launch, the NOAA-N satellite had an unfortunate incident while being tipped from vertical to horizontal to be worked on. Seems that something wasn't attached and the satellite fell over onto the floor.
After $217 million worth of repairs, the bird finally flew this week. When officially operational, it then becomes known as NOAA-19. This is the last of the series of weather satellites which first started flying with TIROS 1 back in 1960. There have been 43 launched and this one is the 16th and final of the current series.
The fun thing about these satellites is that anyone can get images from this with fairly modest home equipment. A modified police scanner, a simple antenna, and a computer with software you can often find for free (see Wxtoimg) or for a reasonable fee you can add more features if you register the software. I've just received my first image on my home station this afternoon, and the picture is very clear and sharp (click on the image for a full sized view).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mars Bolide splatter on the surface.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera has once again found something pretty cool. This time it's a fresh set of craters on the surface which were created by a bolide which made it all the way to the ground. Here on Earth, we occasionally see these big, sky illuminating, and often exploding meteors. But most of the time, they break up well before hitting the ground - creating a valuable item which would go for big bucks on Ebay if you were more greedy for money than a piece of space stuff!
Since Mars' atmosphere is a lot thinner than Earth's stuff makes it to the ground much more often. That is what happened in this photo. This crater formed sometime between 2003 and 2007 since Mars Odyssey had imaged this area before and there was no splatter marks. This object had probably exploded in the air, broke up into smaller pieces and slammed into the surface creating the dark marks around the craters. But between the two big ones, there is a straight line. It's thought that the two pieces hit the ground at the same time, causing an interaction between the dust clouds or shock waves interacting with each other - forming the line between them. Is that cool or what?!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Update on station damage - none!

Seems that the station didn't do a "Galloping Gertie" oscillation after all and damage itself.

NASA update:
The ISS Mission Management Team determined Tuesday that the station was not structurally damaged by the oscillations that were experienced during a Jan. 14 reboost. A reboost that had been scheduled Wednesday will not be performed while Russian flight controllers review procedures and techniques.

Undocking of the ISS Progress 31 cargo craft is scheduled for Thursday, and the launch and docking of Progress 32 remains on track for next week. Future reboosts will be timed with other planned activities to maximize rendezvous options for the various spacecraft scheduled to visit the station.

On-orbit Status:
ISS Reboost Update: The IMMT (ISS Mission Management Team) agreed this morning to a Russian proposal to postpone the reboosts that were planned for tomorrow (2/4) and Saturday (2/7). Additional reboost may not be necessary if the Soyuz launch is delayed by one day (landing would be delayed by 2 days & Soyuz docked operations increased by 1 day). May need a reboost in the March timeframe. In the meantime, SM jets (not ME engines) will be used in the case of a DAM (Debris Avoidance Maneuver) if necessary.

Rocking and rolling ISS during boost.

Every now and then the ISS needs to be given a little push to stay in the proper orbit. If the station never got a boost now and then, it would simply fall out of the sky like Skylab and the Mir station did. A planned rocket firing was canceled today since there are worries that the station may have been damaged by a rough boosting last month. The automated boost is normally very gentle, when rockets are fired on the Zvezda module. Astronauts could normally sleep through a boost. Basically, last month the booster rockets started to gimbal back and forth searching for the right angle, and set up a swaying in the station that reached the ISS's resonant frequency. Then the entire station started oscillating. Remember what happened to the old Tacoma Narrows bridge?
This problem will possibly delay visiting spacecraft this month and a Soyuz flight in March. The video below shows the rocking while the rocket was burning.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Update on my new magazine subscription

I mentioned a couple days ago that I ordered a subscription to Astronomy Technology Today magazine. I paid an extra $30 on top of the yearly $15 so I could have access to the back issues on-line to download as .pdf files. Well, I get home tonight and find a big box at my door. Huh? I don't remember ordering anything?
I open the box and find that they sent me ALL the back issues from the magazine. Way cool! I don't remember telling them that my attention span for reading stuff on the screen is about as short as a clear night in Seattle, so this a greatly appreciated bonus. Now where do I start in this big pile......

New Google 5.0 - 3D Mars / Earth oceans

Amazing. Google just released the version 5.0 of Google Earth and it has everything. It now includes the ocean floor of Earth so you can dive down to the Titanic wreck or go down the bottom of Mariana Trench if you like. There is also a feature where you can see how cities and other features have changed over time, not sure if I want to see what happened to the Seattle area, probably kind of depressing seeing how everything is covered with "progress".
Mars is also improved now with 3D textures, canyons, mountains and landing sites. I guess you could say this is also the bottom of the Martian ocean if the discovery of past water is correct. Very impressive piece of software!
Works in Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ring of Fire is busy.

Friday morning at 5:25 am there was a 4.5 earthquake here in the Puget Sound area. I felt nothing since I was asleep. It would take at least a magnitude 6 to wake me up...and a few things falling on me.
It seems that a lot of people did feel it, those unfortunate enough to have to get up really early for work, or light sleepers. I've felt a 5.5 and couldn't miss the 6.8 from 2001 - the old 1910 vintage building I was in downtown was bouncing up and down, and computers fall off my desk and moved across the floor.
Also, up in Alaska the Mt. Redoubt volcano is expected to blow any day now. There could be some colorful sunsets if that does its thing. When it does go, I hope I can get a good image of the ash cloud from my basement satellite station. Just keep watching the news and webcams.