2012 Transit of Venus

2004 Venus Transit

2004 transit of Venus through a small telescope. Click image for source.

Next Tuesday, June 5th (June 5th in North America / June 6 eastern continents), you’ll have the opportunity to observe something that you’re extremely unlikely to ever see again. Over the course of a few hours, Venus will cross in front of the Sun from the vantage point of Earth. Venus will appear as a small black dot against the bright blazing disc of the Sun. Just like the annular eclipse from a couple of weeks ago, it is NOT SAFE to view this event directly. Here are a few ways to view it:

Disposable solar shade glasses – This is the cheapest and simplest method. These are the same glasses you would use to view a solar eclipse. They’re generally made of cardboard and have extremely dark film for lenses. When looking through them, you cannot see anything except for something as bright as the Sun. If you can see the surrounding landscape through them, they are NOT dark enough and you are at great risk of damaging your eyes.

Pinhole projection – If you’ve got clear skies and an overhead Sun, you can project the image of the Sun (and transit) using a simple pinhole projector. This can be as simple as a piece of paper with a hole poked in it, to a more elaborate and larger projector. Feel free to be creative, as long as you do it safely. Here are some sources for pinhole project ideas: Cosmos Magazine / TransitOfVenus.org / Exploratorium

Binocular/Telescope projection – You can also project a magnified view of the transit by using a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Here, you want to point the objective lens (the big lens away from the eyepiece) at the Sun, let the light go through the binoculars/telescope and project that image onto a shaded piece of paper. Experiment with different distances until you get everything in focus. Note, that doing this method for a significant amount of time can damage the optics in your binoculars or telescope.

Webcast – If the clouds have you down or the transit occurs during your night time where you live, you can still watch the event unfold from what will certainly be a number of online webcasts. My friends at Cosmoquest will be hosting a Google+ Hangout with various feeds of the transit, and Slooh will make an event out of it as well.

So now that you know how to look, you need to know when and where.

Map showing where the 2012 Venus transit will be visible from.[Map showing where the 2012 Venus transit will be visible from. Source: NASA / Click for larger view.]

Being an amateur astronomer in Alaska (especially along the coast) is the true definition of optimism. There are a lot of clouds year-round, never-ending sunlight during the Summer, and frigidly cold winters that make skygazing a test of tolerance and wills. That said, on those few nights where the clouds have retreated, it’s dark, and above zero… those nights are a-maz-ing. Coincidentally, Alaska is a prime viewing location for the 2012 transit of Venus — in fact, the entire event will be viewable from up here. Ironically, I’ll be out of the state during the transit and will only be able to catch it during a North Dakotan sunset (which sounds pretty, anyhow).

For the most accurate information for your location, there are a handful of resources. There are free iPhone and Android apps for your smartphone. Additionally, if you can find your location on a map this webpage is a fantastic guide. An example of how it varies from place to place:

My home in Kenai, Alaska (June 5th):
Venus crosses into the limb of the Sun at 2:06pm local time. Approximately 20 minutes later, Venus is fully within the disc of the Sun. It will slowly make its way across the face of the Sun over the next 6 hours, reaching the opposite limb at around 8:30pm local time. At 8:48, the show is over with the Sun still high in the sky.

Where I’ll be in North Dakota (June 5th):
The transit will begin at 5:04pm local time. By 8:27pm local time, Venus will be at the center-point of its transit. Around an hour later, the Sun will set, taking the transiting Venus with it.

The bottom line is, due to the duration of the event you should be able to get at least a glimpse of it from anywhere in North America, to a varying degree as shown above. And you’ll definitely want to make every opportunity to see it, because it will quite likely be the last time you have the chance — unless, of course, you plan on being alive for another 105 years (and still have the eyesight to see it!). That’s right, this will not occur again until 2117 — so this is your chance.

Good luck and happy observing!

SpaceX Launches Itself Towards History

SpaceX COTS 2 Mission Patch

SpaceX COTS 2 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Early Tuesday (5/22) morning, commercial spaceflight took an important step forward which, if everything goes as planned, will result in a historic bookmark in world history tomorrow morning. On May 22nd, 2012, at 3:44am (EST), the private aerospace company, SpaceX, became the first private organization to launch a space capsule filled with supplies on an intercept-course with the International Space Station. If everything checks out, NASA will give SpaceX the go-ahead to dock with the ISS. This first docking maneuver will be accomplished with the aid of the ISS’s robotic arm, which will grab a hold of the Dragon capsule and precisely mate it with the ISS. Subsequent missions will dock solely under Dragon’s power.

Based on my timezone and preferences, the launch was too early to wake up for, yet too late to stay up for. I set an alarm and woke up to watch the show. I watched the final couple of minutes of countdown before seeing that Falcon rocket gracefully take flight towards the stars. The launch feed was quite unlike the typical ones you’ll see coming out of NASA’s mission control. Where NASA’s controllers and announcers stoically announce data and rarely deviate from “strictly-business”, joy was ubiquitous following the Falcon launch and that emotion turned into sheer jubilation when the Dragon capsule separated from the Falcon and deployed its solar arrays.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, described the scene inside SpaceX headquarters:

 “People have really given it their all. We had most of the company gathered around SpaceX Mission Control. They are seeing the fruits of their labor and wondering if it is going to work. There is so much hope riding on that rocket. When it worked, and Dragon worked, and the solar arrays deployed, people saw their handiwork in space operating as it should. There was tremendous elation. For us it is like winning the Super Bowl.”

Regardless of the fact that I was too excited to fall asleep right away after turning off the NASA feed, I’m very glad I sacrificed some of my sleep to watch that historic scene unfold.

Early this morning, the Dragon capsule conducted a “fly-under” of the ISS, bringing it within 2.4 km of the station. A number of maneuvers and tests were conducted to ensure that the Dragon capsule was operating properly and could be completely controlled, in anticipation of tomorrow’s docking. Everything went flawlessly.

I’ll likely be sacrificing some more sleep to catch all the action.  You can too: Live coverage begins at 7:30am ET (3:30am Pacific), and the feed can be found at SpaceX’s website.

With The Supermoon Behind Us

Supermoon sinking into the atmosphere.
(International Space Station crewmember, André Kuipers, snapped this photo of the Supermoon sinking behind the Earth’s atmosphere.)
[Image credit: André Kuipers]

Did you get a chance to see this year’s “Supermoon“? Still confused as to what was so super about it, anyhow? Simply, the supermoon is the colloquial name for what is scientifically referred to as the perigee-syzygy moon. “The … what”, you ask? Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. The Moon orbits our Earth, not in a perfect circle, but in an ellipse. As a consequence of this, there are times the Moon is closer to the Earth and times it is further away. For any object orbiting the Earth, the part of its orbit that takes it furthest from our planet is called apogee. The closest point, perigee.

So now that we have perigee out of the way, “what was that other funny word again?” A syzygy,  (pronounced, Sizz-ih-gee), is a term used to refer to an astronomical event in which 3 celestial bodies form a straight line. In our case with the Moon, the bodies are the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. You’re probably realizing that the Sun-Earth-Moon system experiences two syzygies each month; we call them the New Moon and the Full Moon.  The lunar month (29.53059 days) is defined as the period of time between two identical syzygies (Full Moon-to-Full Moon / New Moon-to-New Moon).

Putting it all together now: a perigee-syzygy Moon is the Full Moon or New Moon which coincides with its closest approach to Earth. Keep in mind, a New Moon at perigee could also be referred to as a supermoon; however, it’s unlikely to generate much attention because we can’t see the New Moon from Earth. “Well, of course. That makes sense!

So now that we know what a supermoon perigee-syzygy Moon is, let’s talk about what a perigee-syzygy Moon does; or, more importantly, doesn’t do. There is no correlation between perigee and major earthquake activity. There is certainly no correlation between perigee and human behaviour (well, except for the fact that when people start talking about supermoons, more people are likely to take a look at the Moon on that occasion). “But what about bigger tides?” Well, yes! Tides are greatest during Full and New Moons, and there is an increase in the tides when the Moon is closer to the Earth as well. Luckily, tidal forces are weak and even the few percent increase due to the perigee-syzygy isn’t going to create anything that will cause alarm.

But I heard the supermoon is super big and super bright!” While the perigee-syzygy Full Moon is what we can call the biggest and brightest Moon of the year, it’s such a small degree bigger and brighter that its really not noticeable. In fact, last night’s supermoon was only about 1% bigger/brighter than last month’s Full Moon. It did appear 14% larger than the smallest Moon of the year, but again, you’d have to be using some tools other than just your eyes to notice the difference.

An image showing the difference between perigee and apogee Full Moons.
(This image shows the difference in apparent size between a Full Moon at perigee and a Full Moon at apogee. Lined up next to each other, the difference looks quite large. In the sky by themselves, you’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference.)
[Image credit: Copyright © 2001-2012, Anthony Ayiomamitis]

Now, I purposely waited until after the Supermoon had passed to offer this explanation. Why? Because I didn’t want to discourage people from thinking they might see something special if they looked up at the Full Moon last night. It wasn’t easy to stay quiet for a couple of reasons. First of all, all of the ridiculous claims and fear that is generally associated with this event is hard to ignore — and in cases where real fear was involved, I did explain how there was nothing to worry about. The other reason it was difficult to not publish this before the event was that I didn’t want to entirely erase the hype that inevitably surrounds the “Supermoon”. Call it selfish, but I wanted people looking up at the sky last night — even if it was under some slight false pretenses. I want people looking up every night, and if some buzz on the internet can help make that happen, well then… good.

The truth is, the Moon is amazing whenever you can see it. The light of a Full Moon creates amazing shadows on our planet, and is a comforting companion to have overhead at night. Waxing and waning Moons are also beautiful, because they occur at an angle with the Sun in which the shadows and craters are much more pronounced.  And a New Moon (one we cannot see) offers us the darkest skies to observe the other billions of fascinating objects that are just above our heads.  All of which are… well… Super.

Planetary Resources: From Sci-Fi to Reality

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar. Part of my kids' collection.

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the children's educational book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar

Exciting (and historic!) news came to the world via the space-front yesterday. A major announcement was made by Bellevue, Washington-based, entrepreneurial start-up, Planetary Resources. Yesterday morning, at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, they unveiled their plans — plans which up until now had existed primarily in the realm of science fiction: they intend to commercially explore and mine asteroids robotically.

So who are Planetary Resources, and do they have the… well, planetary resources to pull off such a feat?

Planetary Resources emerged from the cocoon of an organization, Arkyd Astronautics, which was founded in late-2010 by Dr. Peter Diamandis (spaceflight entrepreneur, founder of the X Prize Foundation) and Eric Anderson (founder of the commercial spaceflight/space tourism corporation, Space Adventures). If not there at the start-up, Chris Lewicki (a former NASA Mars Phoenix Lander mission manager) quickly came on board as president and chief engineer. They began very quietly, offering employment for engineers and other professionals and presenting themselves as devoted to  developing “disruptive technologies for the commercial robotic exploration of space”.

Then there are the prominent billionaire investors and advisors, including according to their April 18 teaser press release:

Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr.

If there is a group of people with the potential, background, and resources to make this venture a reality, I think we’re looking at it.

So what’s the plan here; plop some robotic miners on an asteroid, bring home a lode of precious metals, and sell it for profit? Yes and no. They claim their primary purpose is based on their vision, not a return on investment. That said, the potential return on investment is huge, even if it takes one heck of an initial investment to get to that point. If that claimed motivation is truly the case, I have extremely high hopes for Planetary Resources. The greatest breakthroughs and advancements, those technological leaps that change our world, generally don’t emerge out of a profit-plan. They bloom from inspiration and a yearning to do big things, to follow one’s passions wherever they might take them, no matter the cost. This venture can afford to follow those dreams. And while they will face many challenges along the way, as long as they stay motivated by their vision I don’t foresee them limited into accomplishing it.

Here’s a quick run-down of their initial plan:

They will begin by launching and deploying a number of small space telescopes — already developed under the Arkyd name — that will find, observe, and characterize near-Earth asteroids (NEOs, Near Earth Objects). The first of these is slated to go up within the next 24 months. Once asteroid targets have been selected, probes will be sent to them to begin mining operations.

Interestingly, their first mining goal won’t be to see what precious metals they can extract; their first targeted material will be water and other materials that can be used as supplies in space operations (oxygen, nitrogen, etc.). When you consider the costs of launching supplies from Earth into space, it’s overwhelming. During the historic press conference, former NASA astronaut and Planetary Resources adviser, Tom Jones, pointed out that carrying a single liter of water to the International Space Station costs approximately $20,000 USD! With such tremendous shipping costs, there’s little difference in the cost of putting a kilogram of gold or a liter of water into space — virtually all of the cost is fuel to get into orbit. So with that idea, turning asteroids into supply depots would be extremely valuable, and drastically reduce the cost of space programs.

Planetary Resources logo.

This will also allow Planetary Resources, and other companies that might emerge between now and then, the opportunity to extract other natural resources to return to Earth. Asteroids hold the potential to make some of Earth’s rarest materials abundant, and acquiring them for use on Earth could rapidly transform our technology and infrastructure.

If you want to delve deeper into the hows and technical details of the project, you can check out the FAQ on Planetary Resources’s website and watch the archived webcast of their groundbreaking press conference.

Again, I feel highly inspired by all of this. I feel extremely lucky to live in a time when exciting things like this begin to grow legs (I hope things move quickly enough that I will live to see humans exist as a true space-faring species).  The challenges will be immense, and I don’t even want to consider the up-front economics involved, but I believe now is the time to take this step forward — and whatever Planetary Resources undertakes and no matter how far they go, we’re headed in the right direction.