Friday, July 1, 2011

July 2011 Highlights

Well, we are heading into another month. Prime time to be enjoying cookouts and beaches and all that great stuff. Or at least that's the case for the northern hemisphere. I am off on vacation, so this is a scheduled post this time around. But, at least with these it is pretty easy to schedule. There are plenty of sites to see this month, and it will be plenty warm, so no excuse to not go out and enjoy the night sky! You all know you like a cool summer's night, so let's see what we got:

July 1: New Moon: The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth.
            Partial Solar Eclipse: This one will only be visible off the coast of Antarctica. It you see it, I salute your bravery.

July 4: Earth at Aphelion: The furthest distance of the Earth from the Sun, occurs at 15h UT with the distance between the Earth and the Sun being about 152.1 million km, or 1.01674 astronomical units (AU).

July 8: Space Shuttle Atlantis: Scheduled as the final space shuttle launch, Atlantis STS-135 is targeted for 11:26 a.m. EDT. If you are on the east coast of the U.S., you should be able to get a decent glance as it climbs into space, Western Europe should also be able to get a glance too. Being the final launch, I encourage anyone that is able to to go out and watch. It really is something to see a shuttle streak across a stark blue sky.
           First Quarter Moon: The Moon is halfway through the waxing phase, a great time for observing as the shadows provide wonderful contrast.

July 12: Neptune: Completes it's first orbit since discovery in 1846.

July 15: Full Moon: The Moon will be directly opposite the Earth from the Sun and will be fully illuminated as seen from Earth. This moon, in the Native American tradition of naming the full moons throughout the year, is known as the Full Thunder Moon. It gets its name from the prevalence of thunderstorms at this time of year.

July 21: Moon at apogee: The furthest distance of the Moon from the Earth occurs at 23h UT, at a distance of 404,355 km.

July 23: Last Quarter Moon: Halfway through the Moon's waning phase, The next New Moon will be July 1st.

July 28-29: Southern Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower: (active July 18-August 18) Usually an average meteor shower, expect around 20 meteors per hour during it's peak. The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Aquarius. A thin crescent moon should make for excellent observing. Best observing is to the east after midnight in a dark location.

July 30: New Moon: The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth. This is the second new moon of the month, an interesting occasion that occurs just as frequently as the full moon's blue moon. A supposed name for this event is the Black Moon, but there is nothing official.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

'Gone' on Vacation.

I am going to be spending a week or two down in North Carolina at the Outer Banks with my girlfriend. I will have my laptop and telescope and stuff with me, so I will make occasional updates on whatever catches my fancy. I will try to cover the final space shuttle launch, which is hopefully on the 8th, if it doesn't get delayed. I might even get to watch it travel up the eastern seaboard if we time it right.

Needless to say, I am excited to spend some time with my girlfriend, but the Outer Banks has another draw. See, it gets dark there, really really dark. To give you an idea of this, and maybe inspire some jealousy, I want you to watch the video below. It circulated on a couple astronomy blogs around June 15th. It is made by Daniel Lowe, and he wrote an article on how the video was made.

You are gonna want to set it to HD and turn full screen on.

Night Motion Timelapse: Outer Banks from Daniel Dragon Films on Vimeo.
(Yes that's a fire across the water in some of the footage. There has been a wildfire on the mainland that has been going on for some months now.)

Beautiful and majestic, I cannot wait to get out under the stars and snuggle up with my girl.

The video is on Vimeo, so I'm not sure how well that works internationally,
but maybe there is a Youtube version out there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Preparing for Final Flight

The last space shuttle mission is about a week and a half away. The Space Shuttle Atlantis is gearing up for launch on July 8th. The 'Final Four' astronauts are on site and conducting practice runs while Atlantis is being a thorough examination in preparation for launch.

But Atlantis sure does look amazing in the morning light. NASA recently released the above photo of the Sun rising behind Space Shuttle Atlantis, taken on June 23rd.

Meanwhile, the crew of STS-135 (the designation of this final mission) have been hard at work. The 'Grande Finale' of NASA's shuttle program is approaching fast. This is one time where we do not want 'bombs bursting in air.' The end of the Shuttle Era is less than a month away.

STS-135 crew at a Q&A session with journalists at base of Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center. From left; Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus; Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer

It is an uncertain time in human space exploration and no one is going to be expected to preform higher or undergo more scrutiny than these four brave people. The STS-135 team consists of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus.

In a bittersweet moment, Commander Ferguson has this to say to journalists greeting the astronauts; "We are incredibly proud to represent this, the final flight. I speak on behalf of the crew, everyone in the astronaut office, and I’m sure everybody here at KSC in saying that we are just trying to savor the moment. As our children and our children’s children ask us, we want to be able to say, 'We remember when there was a space shuttle.'"

After three decades of missions, it will be sad to see the shuttles retired. But, we can hope it is not a permanent set back. We have barely tested the vast ocean of space, merely gotten our feet wet. Plans are being made for much needed replacements. The shuttles have provided a wonderful amount of workforce, but they are not without fault, as the multiple delays have shown. It is even likely that Atlantis will be delayed. Hopefully replacements come swiftly and effectively. The plans for new capsules right now seems to be working, they are expected to be 300% safer than the shuttles. It is hoped to be a safe and effective means of transporting man to the next frontier.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Close Call With an Asteroid

Earlier today, (Monday, June 27 2011) at 17:01 UTC (1:01 PM Eastern US time) a small rock, roughly 10 meters in size, and named Asteroid 2011 MD, flew right past the Earth. In fact, if flew really really close to Earth, at about 12,400 km (7430 mi) from Earth’s surface. That distance is less than the diameter of the Earth itself! Or about 1/32 the distance to the Moon. But astronomers were dead on in determining that it would miss us.

Trajectory of near-Earth asteroid 2011 MD passing Earth on June 27, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office.

It is actually fairly easy to determine where things are heading in space, or at least in the vicinity of our Solar System. The advent of Kepler's laws of planetary motion, along with Newtonian physics and some other neat tricks of the trade, and super computers for crunching the numbers, and really all that is needed is a velocity and a direction. So astronomers generally have a high degree of accuracy on object motion, there are perturbations every once in awhile, but this is usually because of some unseen gravitation interaction.

The biggest threat when it comes with asteroids of this size is the lack of warning. 2011 MD was discovered a mere 5 days before our encounter with it. Now, some people have been claiming that if an asteroid like this were to impact the Earth, it would send a tsunami across the planet twice. Which really just is not true. This was a loose, stony asteroid, like most asteroids, and would have broken up harmlessly in the atmosphere with no ground damage. If anything, it would be a hell of an early fireworks show. The worrisome ones are made up of iron, but aren't very common.

2011 MD on Monday, June 27, 2011 at 09:30 UTC. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Giovanni Sostero at the Faulkes Telescope South

Of course, it was also a great chance for amateur and professional astronomers to study an asteroid up close. Lately, it's been up to us to send probes and robots to check out asteroids, so it's nice for them to stop by for a visit once in awhile. There have been some great photos posted in this Universe Today article, and has a couple of images and movies up. Researchers have also used radio telescopes to study this piece of Solar System history.

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait wrote an excellent article and suggested that this is the kind of object that future space missions will be looking to explore. It would be relatively easy, easier than getting to the Moon, to put a man on an asteroid like this. Again, the biggest short fall being the lack of warning. But now that we know about this object, and know it will be about another 13 years before it comes this close again, maybe we can have a mission put together by then. Here's hoping to that great future.