Saturday, January 31, 2009

NASA slightly faked photo

There was a funny entry on Phil "Bad Astronomer" blog the other day that caught my attention. I have seen this photo floating around the internet before of the view from the shuttle cockpit while in orbit.
The funky thing about it that would get any NASA Hoaxer to stand up and start throwing chars is the fact that stars are visible along with the Earth out the front windows of the cockpit. Supposedly , it was taken on STS-101 while in orbit but wasn't after all. There is a Wikipedia entry that does mention that this is a composite image, but if you look at NASA's official site with the photo, they don't mention anything like that.
Faked or not, I don't really care. It is the cokpit of the shuttle and it's pretty darn cool when you view the full size image of it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Another magazine to add to my bus commute reading.

Maia was waiting at the doctor today for an appointment and saw a magazine that looked interesting in the waiting room. She looked at it and realized this was something I needed so she "borrowed" it. I took a look at it and agreed that it looks like it was worth subscribing so I just signed up - and paid extra for the back issues which can be downloaded.
It's $15/year and an additional $30 for access to the back issues. Looked good enough to pay the extra, so PayPal got a little exercise and I joint up. I'll review some articles after I read some of them!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another "Image of the Day" sites worth bookmarking

There is a lot of these things. Here is another good web page to add to your morning time wasting ritual of reading email and checking your favorite sites for new and interesting stuff.
This is NASA's Earth Observatory site. There is a little of everything here that involves looking down from orbit at the Earth. Most images are in super high-res too and a pretty hefty download in most cases. Here is what Washington looked like last week when we had all the fog, cold and gray weather.
It does have an RSS feed, so you can quickly know when the new images come out.

Spirit rover misbehaving?

Call in the Dog Whisperer? Seems that Spirit needs a little kick to remind it who is the boss. Our little rover in Gusev Crater isn't doing what it should and might be a little confused about it's location. I'm on a bunch of NASA email lists and got this message this afternoon. Hopefully the rover isn't sick...

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
January 28, 2009

Mars Rover Team Diagnosing Unexpected Behavior

PASADENA, Calif. - The team operating NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit plans diagnostic tests this week after Spirit did not report some of its weekend activities, including a request to determine its orientation after an incomplete drive.

On Sunday, during the 1,800th Martian day, or sol, of what was initially planned as a 90-sol mission on Mars, information radioed from Spirit indicated the rover had received its driving commands for the day but had not moved. That can happen for many reasons, including the rover properly sensing that it is not ready to drive. However, other behavior on Sol 1800 was even more unusual: Spirit apparently did not record the day's main activities into the non-volatile memory, the part of its memory that persists even when power is off.

On Monday, Spirit's controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., chose to command the rover on Tuesday, Sol 1802, to find the sun with its camera in order to precisely determine its orientation. Not knowing its orientation could have been one possible explanation for Spirit not doing its weekend drive. Early Tuesday,Spirit reported that it had tried to follow the commands, but had not located the sun.

"We don't have a good explanation yet for the way Spirit has been acting for the past few days," said JPL's Sharon Laubach, chief of the team that writes and checks commands for the rovers. "Our next steps will be diagnostic activities."

Among other possible causes, the team is considering a hypothesis of transitory effects from cosmic rays hitting electronics. On Tuesday, Spirit apparently used its non-volatile memory properly.

Despite the rover's unexplained behavior, Mars Exploration Rovers' Project Manager John Callas of JPL said Wednesday, "Right now, Spirit is under normal sequence control, reporting good health and responsive to commands from the ground."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, landed on Mars in January 2004 and have operated 20 times longer than their original prime missions.

Vote for the next Hubble target

Although it's not quite my choice what the Hubble looks at, this is kind of fun anyway. Now is the chance to vote on one of 6 objects (which Hubble has never imaged before). Pick your favorite and cast a vote. If the object is picked there will be 100 winners out of that voting group that will win a free 16 x 20 color photo of a Hubble shot. Nice!
I'll take that M-51 image for my prize please.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All your 70s favorites!

Here is a fun picture with a whole bunch of science fiction favorite characters from the 70s. I never really got into Buck Rogers, the old Battlestar Galactica was pretty cool, but that came out just after Star Wars, so it had some issues. But Space:1999, that was fine stuff. I was always found in front of the TV on Monday nights for that show, I think it came on at 8:00pm right after the Muppets.
(click the image for a full size, can you pick out all the shows?)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Personal tour of the ISS

Here is a set of interesting videos. ISS commander Mike Fincke takes viewers on a video tour of the ISS. I've only seen a little of the first one so far, but looks interesting.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Friday, January 23, 2009

I like my new toy!

I don't know what it means, but though it was funny....but kind of creepy also!

ISS seen through high clouds.

The ISS came over the house tonight at 5:33pm. I left work early as I watched the clouds come in from the south. It was a hazy cirrus layer probably 30,000 feet up. Just enough to be annoying. I gave it a try anyway since it was a nice pass directly overhead (the kind that hurts when crouching under the scope with knees bent backwards while guiding). Used Venus to focus sinee there wasn't anything else up there visible but clouds.
I'm happy with the results! All the modules are clearly seen, and if it was CLEAR out I'm sure it could be even sharper.
Click on image to see full size.

Another pocket sized universe.

It seems there there are several more new sky map programs coming out now for the iPhone/iPod Touch. I just found another one that I had to buy. It was $4.99 for the download and this one is called Star Walk. I'm easily amused by shiny things, pretty colors and visual bling, so I didn't hesitate too long and just downloaded this one.
The sky looks very nice on this one, with faint graphic outlines of the constallation that is centered on the screen, Milky Way, transparent horizon, and the ecliptic across the sky. Zoom in and tap on a star and hit the 'i' button and you'll get all the info on the object including all the Messier objects and planets. The "M" obects appear a bit oversized on the wide view, but give a quick view of where something is I guess. It does't have any moon info for Saturn or Jupiter and Saturn's rings are way too far open, so it's just a generic graphic for that. A future update I would like to see is a moon position for Saturn/Jupiter as well as Great Red Spot transit for Jupiter. Still, it's a nice little program for very cheap!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

No more space tourists after 2009

I had already collected $137.47 toward my $20 million for a ticket for a ride on a Soyuz to the ISS for my vacation. Now I see that there will be no more tourists after 2009. I would have had enough money by February 2098 at my rate of savings, so close...
Soon there will be a crew of 6 on board the ISS this year, so there just isn't room for visitors after that. The Soyuz can only hold 3 at a time, and spacecraft parking up there could be worse then Costco parking lot at Christmas - and no breaks if you have a handicapped tag either.
Our neighbor in Medina, Dr. Charles Simonyi, is currently training for his second trip up, but he will be the last tourist. We were fortunate to have him as a guest speaker for or club last fall, and are excited for him to get a chance to go a second time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration seen from 423 miles up.

Clear skies over Washington DC today. Here is a view just released of Obama's inauguration seen from the GeoEye-1 satellite. This bird orbits at an altitude of 423 miles above the Earth and has been used for Google Earth images.
The 'dirty' looking smudges that look like the ants that came out my driveway cracks, crawled into the house - and later in my cat food bowls in my kitchen - are humans! Click on the images for a closer view and you can make out the individual ants people.
Oh the humanity!

Revenge of the "Dwarf Planet"

Track satellites on your iPhone/iPod Touch

I just came across a program for Apple's iPhone/iPod for tracking satellites (thanks Robert!). I often make attempts to image the ISS as it passes over my house in Renton, but I check on Heavens-above website for the best info on the passes. This program does all that too, and had a sky diagram showing where it will show up. It is $9.99 for the download (amazing how rich some programmers are getting with these little applications that are popular.) and just takes a few moments before it's ready to run.
It does all the same things that the Heaven-above tracking does, but simpler. The only thing I see missing is the star chart on the sky passes, that is a handy thing to have so you can get a quick idea of where it will pass in reference to the stars. That could be in a future update I think, these little devices are amazing with the amount of power they have in such a small package!
As a bonus, there is also tracking for Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper's tool bag that she dropped while working on the ISS! Must be embarrassing, but possibly kind of a proud feeling to know that your lost bag with an expensive grease gun is tracked by many amatuer astronomers now.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Change is here tomorrow!

Tomorrow Barack Obama becomes our new President and hopefully can carry out his plan to get us out of our current state of affairs.
Ok, to keep the space theme going on this posting, I have to mention that NASA will be participating in the inauguration parade also. The crew of STS-126 will be in the parade as well as a prototype of a possible next generation lunar rover. This rover has living quarters, and could potentially house astronauts for up to 14 days on the moon.
We plan on having a TV set up at work so we can watch the inauguration. I think it will be a happy day for us all!

Foggy night backyard astronomy.

Finally a fairly clear night despite fairly lousy seeing (the stars were all twinkling even straight up!). Humidity was about 94%, and temperature near freezing, but the observatory does have a warm room with a heater. One of my 2 monitors finally blew up, probably from all the cold and damp weather lately, but I can get a new one for maybe $10. To top it off, I've been having problems with my dew heaters also.
Anyway, here is the first image of 2009 and probably the first in about 3 months.
The gory details for the techie types -
  • Camera: Canon 350D (modified - no red blocking IR filter)
  • Scope: Orion 80ED piggybacked on 12" Meade LX200
  • Autoguiding: Meade DSI on the 12" with MaxDLSR
  • Exposures: 24 at ISO 800. Between 10 seconds up to 3 minutes
  • Extra exposures: 10 with the H-Alpha filter used for the red channel of the RGB (bring out more of the whispy stuff normally lost in the light pollution)
  • Software: stacked, processed and aligned with ImagesPlus
Oh, guess I should mention this is M42 in Orion if you didn't recognize it already! (click for full sized image)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Another item for the 40th anniversary of the moon landings.

I was just wandering around YouTube searching for silly commercials and came across this beauty. Remember eating food sticks when you were a kid in the 70s when Apollo was landing on the moon? (If you were born in the late 60s at least).
They were those tasty sticks that had that space age paper with plastic and strange foil wrapping. Mom didn't have any trouble getting you to eat these since it was the same thing Neil and Buzz ate on the moon while drinking a tube of Tang (at least that is what they wanted us to believe). Of course, the sticks were so chewy and pasty, they were almost as much fun as silly putty. Roll it up into a ball, play with it a while, then finally eat it. Later you would find some of it stuck to the butt of your pajamas since you were sitting on it during a full 3 episodes of Saturday morning cartoons - Speed Racer, Marine Boy and Star Blazers. When New Zoo Review came on, it was time to quit and go ride Big Wheels with the boys up the hill - that pink hippo was just wrong.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Richardo Montalbán 1920 - 2009

Fire and ice to land on the moon.

NASA has been testing the next engine to land the Altair spacecraft on the moon. This is a test-firing of the engine which produces 13,000lbs of thrust as the exhaust heats up to 5,000 F. But....look at the rim of the engine bell, there are icicles forming on the edge.
The reason, the fuel for the engine is Cryogenic - which means it's very cold. -297 F liquid oxygen and -423 F liquid hydrogen. The nozzle is cooled by fuel running through the pipes which then cools the steam from the exhaust (at least on the outer parts) to freeze in to ice on the edge of the engine. Cool - really!

Stardust seen during flyby yesterday.

Yep, I knew someone would get a shot of this thing. It wasn't me, I don't have a fog filter, don't live 2,000 feet up above this inversion layer and haven't seen the sky in months now!
Anyway, this shot was taken with a 14 inch Celestron by Patrick Wiggins of Utah. I think skies are better down there than here in Seattle. Complain, gripe, moan.....

Another good photo essay from orbit. website has another good photo essay. This week it's a bunch of cool photos of the Earth taken from orbit. Here is one example, a great image of our favorite volcano.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stardust passing by - start collecting your bets.

The Stardust-NExt spacecraft did a swing-by of the Earth today (miss us by 10,000 km) to line itself up for a pass of Comet Temple-1 on Feb. 14, 2011. This spacecraft is the one that passed through Comet Wild-2's tail and collected dust on it's aero-gel paddle. It then dropped off the samples which returned to Earth. The paddle and capsule are now in the Smithsonian with the other milestones of flight including the Wright Brother's flyer.
The Deep Impact probe crashed into (yes, on purpose!) Comet Temple-1 on July 3, 2005 and blasted a big hole in it. So now Stardust has been send back to check it out. The question is, how big is the hole? Could you fit a stadium in it? A mountain? Or will there be enough dirt from the $4 billion Seattle Viaduct tunnel plan to fill the hole?
Time to start an office betting pool to see who comes the closest. But when you ask your coworkers of your plan, they will probably look at you funny and say "Wha? Comet? Huh? What the heck are you talking about? Is the mothership behind the comet?" Never mind.... just crawl back to your cubicle, they will forget about it soon enough.

School buses in space!

The next generation heavy lift rocket - Ares V - which will be similar to the Saturn V, will be quite a bit more powerful. This monster will have the volume to lift a cluster of 8 school buses, and the equivalent weight of 16 or 17 buses. Why? Just because it can!
Either sell and old bus to a group of artistic hippies dressed in paperclips for a pilgrimage to "Burning Man" or launch them into space. I guess either use would be just as strange...
Seriously, this thing will be able to launch some pretty big space telescopes in the future, spacecraft for the moon or Mars, modules for the space station...or a spare bus.
Unlike the shuttle cargo would be going on a one-way trip since it can't bring anything down - but how often did the shuttle bring stuff back? Not very often.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Billions and billions.....

When talking about large numbers - national debt, cost of the Iraq war, economic bailouts, or just the distance to stars we have to use some very large numbers. Unless the numbers are shortened a bit to a more readable format, the decimal point is just so far to the right of the long line of numbers that it's just totally pointless.
So, astronomers and other scientists like to abbreviate numbers using scientific notation, avagadro's number or mole, light year, parsec or simply 1 mile is the same as 5,280 feet.
We wouldn't want to write out light years in feet, since that would be:
1 Light Year = 3.10383858E+16 Feet -- to hard to write, so we use light years for distances to the stars....etc.
Anyway, the point of this blog entry is leading to a site that I came across that shows large numbers in an interesting format. It shows how large numbers of pennies would look. An interesting way to get a clue about how big numbers would look if shown as something familiar.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Did you hear that? They've shut down the main reactor. We'll be destroyed for sure. This is madness!

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is now vertical at Cape Canaveral and should launch in the next month or so on it's maiden flight. After a few tries their Falcon 1 rocket was the first private rocket to reach orbit successfully (see the video).
Elon Musk is the CEO of the company. Even if you don't know his name, you know what he did - he co-founded PayPal. Seems that a lot of these computer guys are going into rocketry. John Carmack from ID Software (Remember Doom and Quake?) wih Armadillo Aerospace, Paul Allen with his funding for Scaled Composites, and even Jeff Bezos of Amazon is getting into the space business with Blue Origin.
Anyway, I just liked the comment that "Olaf" made on Universe Today about the Falcon 9, saying how it resembled the back end of Princess Lea's ship with all those engines, so I had to find some comparison photos. I just had to throw in some more information about this since there is so much more behind the photo!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Bright winter comet - Comet Lulin

If it ever clears up around here, there is a comet in the sky right now and for the next couple months that should be visible. It's up in the morning sky right now, but will later be rising around midnight in February for those of us (like me) that are unable to wake up early.
The closest to Earth this will get is .42 AU or about 38,111,913 miles. (See why Astronomers us Astronomical Units for distance?)
This will be on February 24th, and it should be at the brightest also - about 5th magnitude. That is just a guess though, since comets could erupt or burp out a bunch of gas and dust brightening them. (Remember comet Holmes last year?) By this time it should be visible in late evening - good for us night owl types of observers.
I'll definitely try to get some images of this if possible, but I'm losing confidence in this hobby in the Seattle area over the last year and a half.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Japanese reinvent the space toilet

I don't know if I like this or not, but I guess it does have some advantages. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has been working on a wearable space toilet that they hope to have flushing in the next 5 years. This is kind of a techno diaper that will be worn at all times. When it detects the user has soiled themselves, a suction device will start up and draw the waste, sound and odors away. The plan is for it to even wash and dry the wearer.
Isn't this almost what mom did when you were just learning to use the ceramic chair?
The current ISS toilet uses a vacuum which requires a proper seal on the seat or the result can be unpleasant. It also requires extensive ground training in it's proper use.
I can imagine returning to Earth after a year or more in space with the trouser, there will be one more "movement" to re-adapt to under normal gravity!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Indiana Jones in space

Not quite Indiana Jones, but this next shuttle mission's "fun crew photo" sure looks like it. NASA's Space Flight Awareness site is where you can find the mission posters. There is the official poster as well as the fun one.
I've always liked the ISS Expedition 16 poster. Peggy Whitson looks like she would rip you a new one if you messed with her!
Now where can I get paper and enough ink to print out a full sized poster? Oh yeah, there is always that place called "work".

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

After Hubble - the James Webb telescope

In 2013, hopefully before the Hubble is a bunch of melted wreckage at the bottom of the ocean, the next Hubble replacement telescope will be launched. Primarily, an IR telescope, it should be able to see as well as Hubble does with visible light. The base of he telescope will be about the size of a tennis court and the mirror is made of 18 smaller segments that are coated with 24 karat gold, making it 95 percent reflective. This beast will live out at the L2 (Lagrange point 2) which is a stable orbit well past the moon at 940,000 miles out. Unlike the Hubble, no upgrades will be possible - at least until we can get a manned flight of some sort out past the moon. We are out of practice since it's been 40 years since anyone has been even 250,000 miles away from home.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Several photos from around the solar system today

  • Where is Opportunity on sol 1742?

  • What is Spirit doing? Sitting pretty still, but sending back more images for the "Bonestell Panorama"
| See full size |

Hubble and Spitzer
  • Hubble and Spitzer have been playing together and have created a new image of the center of our galaxy. I'm sure this is the Sagittarius area, but would like to see what nebulae are in the image.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A year of splendor - Saturn

Just click on this photo, I don't need to say anything else.

Spirit - 5 years on Mars - January 3, 2004

It was the evening of January 3, five years ago. We were clustered in a little group on my couch, me and a few of my best space geek friends, anxiously watching NASA TV live from DirecTV. The path of the signal from Mars took about 20 minutes from Mars to Earth, then picked up by NASA, then beamed over to the ground station, shot up 23,000 miles to the satellite, then back down 23,000 miles to my pizza plate sized dish on my roof. So we were seeing it as 'live' as possible.
We were looking at a bunch of JPL guys sitting in a room of computers looking a bit more tense then we were obviously. Entry - *Whew!* no metric conversion errors for this one. Decent - they say the chute opened, thats a good thing. Landing - a signal indicating it was bouncing across the surface came down. Stronger, weaker, stronger....lost....back again!
Spirit had landed! We then watched the room of JPL engineers and scientists freaking out. There was some cheering on my couch too!
Hours went by, we watched the smiling guys get serious again and hope that the rover had urolled it's bags and opened up with the shiny side up. It was after midnight when the screaming started again in Pasadena. First pictures were coming in. Show us, show us......JPL guys were standing in front of a big projection TV while a bunch of images spilled all over the screen. Finally, a close up was shown on the screen in front of us. Cooool....

Five years later, Spirit has hiked across the Gusev plains, climbed a mountain, survived an early memory problem, limps along on 5 wheels now, nearly died from lack of sun - only to get cleaned off by dust devils that cleared it's solar panels, and nearly died a second time recently.
I still check on the rovers daily, they still wander, although Spirit is kind of weak and mostly sitting still, Opportunity is working it's way to a huge crater 7 miles away. The journey continues....(enlarge photo)

| MER site at JPL |

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dead but not yet frozen Phoenix lander.

The Mars MRO orbiter got a shot of the Phoenix lander on December 21. First look at the spacecraft since it died recently. Hopefully, the spacecraft can still get some images of it later but it's getting dark up on that part of Mars since winter is coming. Could be interesting to see the lander surrounded by ice eventually.

2009 - International Year of Astronomy

Happy New Year!
Still looks like the same soggy, dark, cloudy crud (no snow right now at least!) as it was last year. It's always kind of a letdown when you look outside the next day and realize that it's just a number in our little human heads that changes and not much else, and we put up a fresh new calendar with 12 more kitty photos. But then again, the big change of 2009 won't come until January 20 when Obama takes the helm and steers us away from doom. I'll finally take the wrapper off my nice new US flag and hang that on the house proudly after waiting 8 years!
A new thing this year is that 2009 has been called the "International Year of Astronomy". This year was chosen since it's the 400th anniversary of the year that Galileo first pointed his telescope at the sky. Galileo's telescope was a pretty crappy thing, worse then even the cheapest Tasco found at Goodwill for $5.99 or the "450x Zoom Superscope" from Wallmart. But somehow he managed to discover moons of Jupiter, rings of Saturn, and craters on the moon before the church caught him and locked him up.
I'm still reading the details of what all this means, but basically, it seems to be a big push to get more people aware and interested in the coolest and most accessible (maybe not here in Seattle) science there is. A few of the web features....
  • Cosmic Diary - a blog site featuring professional scientists.
  • 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast - got an iPod for Christmas? You can sign up for a daily Podcast on astronomy to listen to. Differnet stories up there every day, and these are all put together and recorded by people all over the world. Got something you want to say? You can submit an entry if you like.
  • Of course any organization can't be worth a darn unless they are on social networking sites - Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.
What can you do to participate? Easy, go out at night and look up! Well, seriously....look for a local astronomy club and check out a few of their meetings, hopefully they have star parties (unless you are in Seattle), and other activities. I'll suggest one fine club to start with.
Should be an interesting year!