Quadrantids Tonight!

The Quandrantids meteor shower peaks tonight. A nearly New Moon should make for dark skies, depending on cloud coverage.

Normally, you can tell which constellation the shower will appear to radiate from by the name of the shower. e.g. Leonids = Leo, Orionids = Orion, Geminids = Gemeni, etc.

The Quadrantids radiate from Quadrans Muralis, which is no longer considered a constellation. So, where should you look? The constellation Bootes (Arcturus is a bright star in this constellation) would be a good point to consider the radiant. But don’t get too hung up on looking at the radiant point, or you’ll miss many of them. If you were to take pictures of each meteor tonight, and extend the lines they trace across the sky, the radiant is the place where most of those lines would intersect. Polaris (the North Star) would be a good spot to look at; if the skies are clear, that’s where my camera will be pointing.

For more specifics, check out this website.

Happy Observing!

Space Science in 2010

It’s time to start a new year (possibly a new decade, depending on how you want to look at it), but before we do that, let’s take a look back at what 2010 meant for the space sciences.

Let’s talk launches.
As far as lobbing the most things up into space this year, Russia takes the cake. There were 74 space launches in 2010, and close to half of those (31) were undertaken by Russia. The USA and China each had about half as many as Russia; 15. The European Space Agency sent up 6 rockets. Rounding out the remainder were India with 3, Japan with 2, and Israel and South Korea each with 1. Four launches in the world were unsuccessful.

The European Space Agency had a successful year. Their Cryosat-2 Earth explorer launched in April (following the failed launch of Cryosat-1 in 2005) is live and collecting data on how Earth’s ice fields are responding to global climate change.

The Planck orbiting observatory released its first all-sky scan data, and the produced image definitely ranks among the top for 2010 and beyond:

Planck all-sky survey

Click for full size. - Source: ESA - Planck

(For the above image labeled with reference points, check this link.)
You’re seeing the microwave sky as seen by Planck, which will continue in 2011 to map out the Cosmic Microwave Background.

ESA’s comet-chaser, Rosetta, performed a fly-by of the asteroid 21 Lutetia.

Closest fly-by of 21 Lutetia

Click for large version - Source: ESA / Rosetta

One of my favorite Rosetta images so far is of 21 Lutetia, but from a bit further away; however, from that distance a special treat comes into view:

21 Lutetia with Saturn in background.

Click to biggify - Source ESA / Rosetta

Saturn! And I can’t help to notice that this is just about what Saturn looks like on Earth through a Galileoscope.

I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of ESA’s contributions to space science in 2010, but we’ll have a chance to get to know what they’re up to over the next year, as we continue to cover Rosetta, Planck, Cryosat, and more!

NASA had a big year in 2010. President Obama laid out a new direction for NASA in February, and in April, detailed plans for future space exploration.

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” the president said. “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

I certainly hope to see it too!

NASA launched a new set of eyes to observe the Sun, in the SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory). Of course I have a pretty image to share from SDO:

Solar Eclipse Seen From SDO

Click for large version - Souce: NASA / SDO

This October 2010 image shows a solar eclipse from SDO’s vantage point.

Following last year’s bombing of the Moon (okay, not bombing, but they did punch a pretty nice dent into it with their Centaur impactor, sending a plume of debris 12 miles high after a 5,600 mph impact), NASA’s LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) released some new and promising data:

Scientists determined the soil in the moon’s shadowy craters is rich in useful materials, including water in the form of mostly pure ice crystals. Researchers also found the moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. By understanding the processes and environments that determine the delivery of water to the moon, where water ice is, and the active water cycle, future mission planners may be able to better determine which locations will have easily-accessible water. – NASA

Finally, NASA brought us the science (and unncessary hooplah) around some arsenic-munching bacteria. With rampant and irresponsible speculation following NASA’s pre-announcement teaser — “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” — release, many of us anxiously awaited the release of the actual report. Unfortunately, NASA didn’t announce the discovery of alien life. It also didn’t announce that it found life on Earth actively consuming arsenic — although many media reports said otherwise. These bacteria were collected from a lake and brought to a lab where biologists replaced some of its phosphorus with arsenic, to which it apparently managed to continue growing. Simply, all life as we know it uses phosphorus as a backbone of its DNA, so knowing that something could survive and grow with arsenic in place of phosphorus would re-write what we know about how life exists in the universe. However, at the time of this writing, there’s some serious criticism of the findings. Hopefully, it will be ironed out in 2011.

News also came from the Voyager mission, which has been unfolding our understanding of our solar system for more than 30 years. The Voyager 1 spacecraft reached a point on the edge of the solar system, where the solar wind no longer has any outward motion. The wind is no longer in Voyager 1’s sails, yet it continues on. (Expect more on the Voyager mission from this blog, as it’s probably deserves the most credit for getting me interested in space science.)

And that’s just a tiny sampling of what NASA is continuously kicking out.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had a bittersweet year.

Bitter: Their third planetary explorer Planet-C (Akatsuki) failed to insert itself into Venus’ orbit. The mission isn’t lost though, as they’ll get a re-do in six years when the craft re-approaches Venus. I’m sure JAXA will find ways to conduct science with Akatsuki in the meantime.

Sweet: They launched the first space-kite! IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) is the first project to demonstrate interplanetary travel using solar-sail technology. So far, IKAROS is working beautifully and may form as the basis for alternative means of getting around in the galaxy.

Sweet+: JAXA’s Hayabusa craft also completed the legwork on a mission that launched in 2003. The mission was to approach an asteroid, touch-down to collect particle samples, and then return them to Earth for analysis. While the mission ran into a number of complications, ultimately it was a very remarkable feat of engineering and technology. The spacecraft, and samples capsule, returned to Earth in June of 2010; with the spacecraft burning up on re-entry (as planned). In November, JAXA confirmed that most of the particles collected were in fact from the target asteroid, Itokawa. Further analysis is ongoing. The mission is an exciting example of what JAXA is capable of, and I recommend reading a full account of the entire mission.

The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), as mentioned before, took the lead on putting things into orbit. Roscosmos had 31 launches, more than the US and China combined. Here’s an explanatory image (a picture is worth a thousand words, ya’know), showing Russia’s space plans in 2010, and reality:

Russian Space Plans and Reality 2010

You'll want to click the image for the large version - RussianSpaceWeb.com

The private sector also began to get involved with spaceflight in a big way in 2010.
SpaceX conducted the first successful launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in early December 2010; the first time this has been accomplished by a private company.
Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo completed a number of manned glide tests, paving the way for SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbital craft.

While we’ve covered a number of major events in 2010, I’ve actually only scratched the surface. A single blog, let alone a single blog post, simply can’t cover everything that multi-billion dollar budgets, devoted to space sciences from dozens of countries around the globe, accomplish in a given year — and 2010 was a great one!

So to 2010, “Well done!”, and now on to 2011!

The Star-Splitter – Robert Frost

The Star-Splitter
Listen, as read by Robert Frost:
(Audio Source: PoetryFoundation.org.)

“You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?”
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.

“What do you want with one of those blame things?”
I asked him well beforehand. “Don’t you get one!”

“Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,” he said.
“I’ll have one if I sell my farm to buy it.”
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn’t move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
He had been heard to say by several:
“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me.”
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.

Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn’t sentient; the house
Didn’t feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?

Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn’t selling tickets,
Was setting out up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.

He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for stargazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

Total Lunar Eclipse

If you have clear skies, be sure to take the opportunity to view the total lunar eclipse of December 20/21, 2010. My forecast isn’t looking good, but I’m holding out hope that I’ll get a clear view and get some photographs of the event. The following image does a great job of detailing when to look, and what you can expect:
Total Lunar Eclipse of December 2010
*Note, the times listed on this image are for Alaskan time, which is 4 hours earlier than Eastern time.
I got the image from Mr. Eclipse who not only explains what you’re seeing, but provides a wealth of other information, including how to photograph it.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon enters the shadow of Earth. This can only happen during a full moon, but not every full moon coincides with an eclipse. Why? Because the Moon’s orbit is inclined about 5.1° to the Earth. So a lunar eclipse will occur when a full moon also happens to be on the same plane, or 0°, as the Earth.

If you’re plagued by cloudy skies, you can still watch it and participate in a live chat, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

So there you have it, no excuses. If you miss this one and reside in the North America, you won’t have another chance until 2014.

Happy observing!

Pac-Man On Mimas

Saturn’s icy moon, Mimas, has long been remarked for its large Herschel Crater giving it the appearance of the Death Star, the fictional space station of Star Wars fame.


Death-Star-esque Mimas, imaged by Cassini — Click for high-resolution view

Perhaps Mimas inspired George Lucas when creating the Death Star? Nope; Voyager was the first to give us close-up views of Mimas, a few years after ‘A New Hope’ was in theatres.

But earlier this year, Mimas revealed another uncanny secret resemblance to something out of recent pop-culture history: Pac-Man!

Mimas Temperature Map

Mimas Temperature Map – Click for a Pac-tastic Larger Version

So what we’re seeing here is a map of temperature differences placed over a visual-light image of Mimas. If you think it’s curious that the highest temperatures seem to vary in such a way, you’re not alone:

“Even though we can’t explain the observed pattern of surface temperatures on Mimas, the giant Herschel crater is a leading suspect[.]” “The energy of impact that created it several billion years ago has been estimated to be one-seventh of Mimas’s own gravitational energy. Anything much larger would likely have torn the moon apart. We really would like to see if there is also an anomalous temperature pattern on the other side of Herschel, which has not been observed so closely.” – Dr. Mike Flasar, composite infrared spectrometer principal investigator from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The following image gives an idea of how what’s actually occurring on Mimas compared to what would previously be expected:

Comparison of different images of Mimas.

Comparison between expected temperature-map, actual temperature-map, visual light, and actual temperature-map layered on visual light images. – Click for full version.

A leading theory is that different textures of surface materials (mostly water ice with small amounts of rock) are holding on to heat from the Sun differently, but what is still not understood is why such sharp boundaries exist between these textures — giving the Pac-Man shape. It’s possible that the impact that caused the Herschel Crater distributed the more heat-absorbent materials in that pattern, but Mimas is constantly bombarded by impacts (as can be clearly seen when viewing the high resolution image of Mimas above), which you’d expect to destroy long ago any non-uniform surface make-up.

So for now, no definite answer is available. Luckily, we have the amazing Cassini orbiter up there, collecting more data for the scientists to work with.

Astronomy Art – The Cosmos Gallery

I came across a website showcasing some very beautiful art, this morning. Fine art + Astronomy is a magical equation. See for yourself:

Jupiter's Red Spot

Red Spot of Jupiter

Purchase some of this original and amazing art and/or help contribute to the artist’s next project.

Cosmic Paparazzi – Saturn and Tethys

Saturn and moon Tethys

Saturn and moon Tethys

(Click image for full resolution)

This view of Saturn, its rings and the moon Tethys represents “Target 1” in the fall 2009 edition of the Cassini Scientist for a Day contest. (See http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/education/scientistforaday8thedition/.) The contest is designed to give students a taste of life as a scientist by challenging them to write an essay describing the value of one target choice among three for Cassini to image.

A bonus feature in the image is the presence of bright spokes on and just above the ansa, or curved edge of the darkened ringplane. The spokes are made visible here by sunlight scattering through the dust-sized icy particles and toward Cassini’s cameras.

Images taken using red, blue and green spectral filters were combined to create this color view. The images were acquired with the Cassini wide-angle camera on Oct. 11, 2009 at a distance of 1.7 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Saturn. – NASA

Geminids Meteor Shower – Live Webcam

Cloudy skies, but still want to see the Geminids?

NASA has created a live webcam feed from their all-sky meteor camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center. A radio-static “soundtrack” is being played along with the video.

When a meteor burns up in the atmosphere, it also produces a trail of ionized particles that reflect radio waves. If the meteor is located in the right spot in Huntsville’s sky, the signal from the station transmitter is reflected to the radio receiver, and you will hear a “ping” above the static noise. – NASA

If you have clear skies, make it a late night and watch what should be a brilliant meteor shower. If the handful of fireballs I’ve seen over the past few nights are any indication, we should have a nice show as the Geminids peak this evening and into tomorrow morning. The best views will certainly be after the Moon sets, especially between 1am and 3am local time; however, if you cannot stay up that late look towards the East before you go to bed and you should see a handful.