November 27, 2010

Celestial Events of Note: December 2010

Here is a summary of what I feel will be the most interesting and compelling “celestial events” for December, 2010

Lunar Occultation of Mars, Monday, December 6th


The “Red Planet” Mars will disappear behind a one day old crescent Moon on the evening of December 6th. This event will be best viewed by observers in Missouri and Kansas. Where I live in southern Indiana the occultation will begin only a few minutes before the Moon sets that evening at approximately 22:36 UT (5:36 pm EST). Moonset at my location will occur only about 25 minutes later at 6pm. Binoculars or a telescope will be necessary to observe as Mars disappears behind the dark limb of the Moon. For observers in the central plains Mars’ disappearance will happen in daylight. The reappearance of the planet will occur about an hour after disappearance depending on the observer’s location. Caution! If you will be observing this event during the daylight remember to avoid pointing binoculars or a telescope at the Sun. You will sustain permanent eye damage in less than a second. The map above left shows the view to the southwest at 22:35 UT (5:35 pm EST) for an observer in southern Indiana. Click image for more information.

1206mars.jpg This chart shows where the occulation of Mars will be visible. Click on image for timings at specific locations

Geminid Meteors Peak  December 14th

Many meteor watchers consider the Geminids to be the most consistent and active annual meteor shower. According to the latest Meteor Activity Outlook from the American Meteor Society : “No matter where you live, the first half of December provides some of the best meteor activity of the year. In the northern hemisphere the sporadic rates are still strong plus you can also count on strong activity from the Geminids, which peak on December 14.”

Learn more about the 2010 Geminids International Meteor Organization


Our friend Gary Winter at has produced another of his excellent animations, this one has details on the 2010 Geminid meteors

Total Lunar “Solstice” Eclipse, Monday/Tuesday December 20/21


Observers in the Americas and Pacific will have the “best seats in the house” to observe what will probably be the finest total eclipse of the Moon in years on the night of December 20/21. For observers in the eastern U.S. this will be an overnight event. For those on the west coast of North America and in the Pacific region this eclipse will be a more convenient evening event. Not only will the eclipse be spectacular for observers in the Americas and Pacific it will come only 16 hours before the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere/summer solstice in the south. Totality will last for one hour and 13 minutes. Click the image above to visit NASA’s eclipse site


 The graphic to the left demonstrates event timings for the total lunar eclipse in the US Eastern Time Zone. It is courtesy of my friend Larry Koehn and his excellent website Shadow and

Click the graphic to enlarge…and thanks Larry!

You are encouraged to report what you see during the eclipse. During every lunar eclipse the umbral shadow, the darkest part of the eclipse is about two percent larger than the geometry of the eclipse. This effect is called “enlargement of the umbra” and it varies from one eclipse to the next for reasons that are not clearly understood. This enlargement of the umbra is caused by Earth’s atmosphere. You can contribute valuable observational data by timing crater entrances and exits. For information on predicted timings of interest contact me. Learn more about this exercise here.

It is also valuable and interesting to estimate the scale of luminosity (”L”) using the Danjon scale.

I plan on observing and imaging this eclipse at a dark sky site in Indiana. If you would care to join me click the link above.

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“Wheels” down in Kazakhstan


The International Space Station/Soyuz TMA-19 crew safely landed in Kazakhstan on November 26th (the evening of the 25th in the Americas). ISS Expedition 25 Commander Doug “Wheels” Wheelock, Flight Engineers Shannon Walker and Fyodor Yurchikhin touched down right on schedule in the chilly plains of Asia. Yurchikhin was Soyuz commander during the “uphill” ride to orbit, de-orbit and return to earth. Yurchikhin hit the targetted landing spot so perfectly that crews aboard Russian Energia recovery helicopters watched the Soyuz descent module touchdown. NASA and Russian PAO cameras caught the landing on video. Recovery crews were on the ground and at the capsule less than five minutes after touchdown. Click the image for the complete story.

Image above left: Soyuz TMA-19 crewmembers — NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, (second left in blue), Expedition 25 commander, along with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, Soyuz commander, and NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, flight engineer — are seen after being removed from the Soyuz TMA-19 capsule near the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan Nov. 25, 2010 (USA time or Nov. 26 in local Kazakhstan time). The three are returning from over five months onboard the International Space Station where they served as members of the Expedition 24 and 25 crews. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Flight engineer Shannon Walker mentioned that she’d heard the Soyuz descent described as “a series of explosions followed by a car crash”. At touchdown the Soyuz is moving at about 10 meters per second or 22 miles per hour, rather like a fender bender. The Soyuz spacecraft consists of 3 sections, a propulsion/control module, the crew descent module and the orbital module. Following separation from ISS the Soyuz pulls away from the station. Once the spacecraft has separated from ISS the propulsion module fires a 4 minute de-orbit burn and the Soyuz is separated into 3 sections by explosive bolts. The ”orbital” and “propulsion” modules burn up on re-entry only the “descent” module returns intact. Learn more here.inside-tma-19-descent-module.jpg 

Image left: Inside the descent module of the Soyuz TMA-19, three Expedition 25 crew members rehearse for their scheduled return to Earth aboard the Soyuz. From the left are NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, commander; Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, both flight engineers.

For astronauts, cosmonauts and passengers who fly aboard the Soyuz the ride is a cozy one, kind of like 3 people in the front seat of a Volkswagon Beetle.

After contacting “Wheels” via amateur radio while he was aboard ISS in mid-November I felt a personal connection to him and the crew of Expedition 25. It’s good to know they’re home safely!

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November 17, 2010

Leonid meteors and Baby Black Holes

The Leonid meteor shower will peak Thursday morning, November 18th. Best time to watch for Leonids will be between 4 and 6am. Observers who are just west of the sunrise are riding along on the “front” of our planet as it orbits the Sun. Unfortunately the Moon is going to make watching the 2010 Leonid display difficult. Here is the Leonid forecast from the International Meteor Organization

The Leonids (LEO) are expected to peak on the Thursday morning November 18. Unfortunately this is just three days before the full moon so moonlight will be a major factor in reducing the activity you see. A few Leonids may be seen during the late morning hours from a radiant located at 10:07 (152) +23. This “radiant” lies in western Leo (within the “sickle”). This area of the sky does not clear the eastern hornizon until the late evening hours so no Leonid activity can be seen during the early evening hours. These meteors are best seen during the last hour before the onset of morning twilight, when the radiant lies highest above the horizon in a dark sky. Rates would most likely be 2-3 per hour all week long. At 71km/sec., the average Leonid is swift with a high percentage of trains.

A Baby Black Hole

Astronomers working with NASA’s Chandra Xray space observatory think they’ve found a “baby” black hole. They theorize that this “new” black hole is the result of a super nova, a star about 20 times the size of the Sun,  which collapsed. SN 1979C a super nova that was discovered in 1979 is very close to us, “only” 50 million light years away.


 Astronomers think they’re seeing a baby black hole that is only 30 years old. Well, actually it’s 50,000,030 years old, remember the M100 galaxy is 50 million light years away. Researchers have been monitoring the x-ray outbursts from the super nova since 1995. This x-ray radiation is the signature of a stellar collapse and, possibly, the creation of a black hole.

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November 14, 2010

Success! My ham radio contact with ISS! Plus a bit of news.

On my second try at contacting ISS Expedition 25 Commander Doug Wheelock via amateur radio I was very happy to hear “Wheels” acknowledge my ham radio callsign (K9GX) during an orbital pass over the Great Lakes at about 1pm Sunday afternoon.

When the ISS crew is “on the air” at the NA1SS/RS0ISS amateur station it’s not uncommon for dozens, if not hundreds, of hams to be calling up from below. Its a lot like what I imagine being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange must be like. Dozens of people shouting at you, wanting to be acknowledged. Timing and having a loud signal are critical.

I’ll post more later including streaming audio of portions of “Wheels” ham radio transmissions I recorded today. I was up at 5am to observe and image Venus before sunrise. After I put the telescope and other toys away I set about plugging in the ham radio and recording equipment because Cdr. Wheelock said he’d be on the radio again today.

Late this afternoon Wheels was on the air during another pass over the U.S. and Canada. During that pass Wheels said that NASA will announce that his “increment” aboard ISS will end a few days early. He will de-orbit with two crew-mates aboard a Russian Soyuz sometime before Thanksgiving. Presumably this is to accomodate the anticipated launch of Discovery mission STS-133 which was bumped to November 30 at the earliest following a series of technical glitches last week. Expect that announcement on Monday.

For now I’m very tired and going to watch some TV and get some sleep.

Remember, you read it on

Clear Skies, Mark the StarGeezer

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Didn’t SEE ISS Saturday evening, but HEARD it!

Because of cloud cover in the Louisville area Saturday evening I wasn’t able to SEE the International Space Station as it passed over the southeastern US. I did HEAR it. There is an amateur radio station aboard ISS. The ARISS (Amateur Radio on ISS) station consists of VHF and UHF equipment for FM voice and digital communications. Saturday evening’s pass brought ISS nearly directly overhead for those of us in Kentucky and southern Indiana. At my location the station’s peak altitude was 83 degrees off the northeastern horizon at about 6:55pm. I’ve been getting active on the ham radio bands recently and decided to listen for the ARISS station downlink since I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch the pass due to the cloud cover.

ariss_wheelock_3.jpgImage left: ISS Expedition 25 Commander Doug Wheelock, KF5BOC, operating the NA1SS amateur radio station aboard the space station. Courtesy NASA/AMSAT/ARRL

I have a bit of experience with ham radio from space. I’ve made several radio contacts using the early OSCAR satellites (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) which have been in space since the late 1970’s. When Owen Garriot took the first amateur radio equipment aboard a Space Shuttle in the early 80’s I heard him on a scanner. In the 90’s I heard cosmonauts aboard MIR and contacted STS-58 as part of the SAREX (Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment) in 1994.

Saturday evening I didn’t expect to hear anything except possibly the ISS digital “packet” bulletin board. I tuned my VHF amateur transceiver to the ISS 2 meter band downlink frequency at 145.800 Mhz and started reading the manual on one of my telescope mounts. I turned the radio on at about 6:30pm and forgot about it.


At 6:52pm I heard a burst of noise on the radio and knew that meant some sort of signal was coming up on the frequency. I remembered ISS was coming and opened the radio’s squelch control so I would hear any signal, no matter how weak. A minute or so later the voice of Expedition 25 Commander Doug “Wheels” Wheelock, KF5BOC, crackled through the radio’s speaker. Wheels was acknowledging contact with an amateur station in Wisconsin. He gave the other station’s call and said “welcome aboard the International Space Station, this is NA1SS”. NA1SS is the amateur callsign American ISS crew members use when operating the station.

During the next few minutes I heard NA1SS work stations in Illinois Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia. The station in Georgia was a “mobile” (a person operating from a car)! Wheels commented that he thought he was over South Carolina but the Sun had just gone down aboard ISS and he couldn’t see the ground.

If you have a scanner I suggest you plug 145.800 Mhz into one of its memories. Wheels said he would be operating the radio again on Sunday. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a “visual” pass to be a “radio” pass. Sunday morning ISS will pass over the southeastern US at 11:19am. I’ll be at the radio hoping to hear and TALK TO Commander Wheels. You will have a better chance of hearing the ARISS downlink with an outside mounted antenna.  With a handheld scanner go outside.
There will also be “visble” ISS passes Monday evening (15) at 6:09 pm and Wednesday evening (17) at 5:25 pm in the Louisville area, weather permitting.

For information on ISS passes at any location on Earth click

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November 12, 2010

Venus, Saturn and no Comet Friday morning

I went outside just before 6am this morning to search for comet Ikeya-Murakami and take a look at Venus. A few minutes after I set up my ETX-90 telescope, observing accessories table and chair here came astronomical twilight. I had forgotten about Saturn. The Ringed planet is about 12-13 degrees west of Venus presently.

Venus is a spectacular sight now, easy to spot with binoculars. At around 6am local time it will be the brightest “star” just above the horizon at east-southeast. Venus is about 10% illuminated and a beautiful  waxing crescent. In my 9 x 50 binoculars the crescent is easy to spot. I almost expected to see the Cheshire cat smiling!

With an 8mm eyepiece in the ETX-90 the planet’s disc was clearly apparent and at moments of good seeing I think I saw details in the cloud tops east of the terminator.

Saturn’s rings have opened slightly. The Ringed Planet is now rising about 4:45 am local time. I believe I spotted Titan east of Saturn’s disc. Saturn is about one and a half “fists” (at arm’s length) west of Venus or above and slightly right of Venus.

The sky brightened into astronomical twilight just as I settled in.  Venus was so breathtaking I only did a quick sweep with the binoculars and did not try for the comet again. If you intend to try for Ikeya-Murakami you want to be outside and dark adapted shortly after 5am local time.

Clear skies,

The StarGeezer

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November 11, 2010

Comets, Comets, Comets!

If you stay up late or rise a little early you have opportunities to observe not one, but TWO comets in the early morning sky.


On November 3rd a pair of Japanese comet hunters working independently announced the discovery of an eighth magnitude comet in constellation Virgo.

Designated C/2010 V1, comet Ikeya-Murakami is currently about 1.7 au from the Sun about the same distance as Mars.   Kaoru Ikeya spotted the comet with his 10-inch reflector at 39x, while Shigeki Murakami used an 18-inch reflector at 78x. This was Ikeya’s seventh discovery and the second for Murakami. The amazing thing about this discovery is that Ikeya and Murakami did it the “old fashioned” way, naked eye observation. Most modern discoveries of comets and asteroids are done photographically by comparing images taken hours or days apart.

During the second week of November observers have been reporting Ikeya-Murakami is brightening significantly. This is unusual because C/2010 V1 was closest to the Sun October 18th.

Ikeya-Murakami is located in the constellation Virgo, low above the eastern horizon about an hour before dawn. For the period of November 10-15 look for it southwest (below and to the right) of planet Saturn. Many observers report that it is visible using binoculars


Click on the finder chart which I prepared using Your Sky by John Walker

Comet 103P/Hartley 2 is currently appearing directly east of Orion’s belt. This comet was discovered in 1986 by Australian Malcomb Hartley. The comet visits the inner solar system every 6 years.  Earthbound observers have been watching Hartley 2 since late summer. The comet passed nearest the Sun and Earth in late October and was met by a traveler from Earth on November 4th. The EPOXI satellite flew by Hartley 2 last week and took some spectacular images of Hartley 2 which looks like a “bowling pin”. It is very active for such a small (1 mile) body.


Investigators conjecture that Hartley 2s core may be two rocky bodies sandwiched on ice. “Early observations of the comet show that, for the first time, we may be able to connect activity to individual features on the nucleus,” said EPOXI Principal Investigator Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park

hartley2_im3.pngCaption: This enhanced image, one of the closest taken of comet Hartley 2 by NASA’s EPOXI mission, shows jets and where they originate from the surface. There are jets outgassing from the sunward side, the night side, and along the terminator — the line between the two sides.

The image was taken by EPOXI’s Medium-Resolution Instrument on Nov. 4, 2010. The sun is to the right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

Hartley 2 is rising before midnight and as mentioned earlier is due east of Orion’s belt as of November 10.


The red line in the chart at the left shows the apparent path of comet Hartley 2 through about November 15th. From the 15th through the 25th moonlight will make observing the comet very difficult. The red line ends at the approximate position of Hartley 2 on 15 November

Unmanned Spaceflight forum member Daniel Machácek created this animation sequence using Squirlz Morph morphing freeware and still frame images taken by EPOXI. It is amazing and very creative.

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November 8, 2010

The STS-133 NASA Tweetup-The Survivors

By Brian Williams NASA STS-133 Tweetup Attendee


After a full week of anticipation, the NASA Tweetup was unceremoniously canceled Friday morning. We awoke Thursday morning to cloudy skies and a downpour of rain and it was announced that they could not even begin fueling of the external tank in the weather so it was announced that there would be yet another 24hr hold.

Image left: Brian at the mission countdown clock sporting a serious case of “Launch Scrub Boo-Boo Face”.
Friday morning was cloudless and beautiful and we were all excited and confident that we would see a launch that day. All of the attendees that were left  (at this point we hangers on had taken to being called the “STS-133 survivors” for sticking around when half of the attendees had already returned to their homes) left their hotels and house-shares with the excitement of kids on Christmas morning. It was as we were getting out of our cars at the press site, that the news started to trickle in from people who had sources at the launch pad. There was another leak, and it was bad enough that repairs might push Discovery out of her launch window all together.

tweetup-tent-friday.jpg Image left: NASA Tweetup Director Stephanie Shierholz delivers the bad news that Discovery’s launch would be postponed due to a leak on the external tank.
We slowly made our way to the “Tweetup Tent” with our heads held low, because we knew the news that was soon to be announced, and after waiting 30 minutes for confirmation, the director of the event, Stephanie Schierholz came in to give us the bad news. Her eyes were brimming with tears as she told us that the launch had been put on hold for another 72hrs to fix a 7 inch hole in the external tank and that this meant the end of the event and possibly a scrub for the launch all together as a similar problem had taken nearly a week to fix last time it occur ed. Even as she was speaking, a security guard drove out to the countdown clock and removed Discovery’s flag from the flagpole.
Some people took it in stride, others had no choice but to be heartbroken by missing the launch. Phylise Banner, whose father had worked on the Apollo program and had died earlier this year, had come to see the launch as a tribute to his memory and would now not get the chance for closure that she sought. The crew from GM, brought Robonaut out one more time, for pictures and a short demo, but that did nothing to help the mood. The rest of the day was spent consoling new friends and enjoying the last few moments together before we all went our separate ways.

robonaut.jpg Image left:  As Helen Bensen would say “Gort! Klaatu Barada Nikto!”.
For the most part, its hard to be disappointed at the end of what was a wonderful experience. We got to hang out with numerous astronauts, got to be the first non-press allowed into the VAB since 1979, got right next to the pad for a closer look at the shuttle than most people ever get before a launch, we even got a special demonstration of Robonaut, and most of all, we were introduced to fellow space enthusiasts from all around the world, who shared a passion for the future.
As someone who has been following the space program since I was a kid, I took something from missing the launch of Discovery that is almost as much a revelation as I feel I would have had if I had seen it up close. With the numerous and completely unrelated problems that delayed the shuttle time and time again until the final delay, it just goes to show that as much as the shuttle program has achieved over the years, it is a dated and very overly complicated vehicle.

The Space Shuttle is a beautiful piece of equipment, but the specters of Challenger and Columbia still hang over every launch and so even the slightest irregularity is cause for major concern and delay. The future of mankind is in space, but we need to find simpler and safer ways of getting there, whether that is through commercial spaceflight efforts like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, or a new NASA centralized government program like the now dead Constellation program. It may be easy to romanticize the shuttle for its years of service, but the Human Spaceflight Program is too important to allow ourselves to hold onto antiquated and temperamental equipment out of a sense of nostalgia, or even to keep ourselves from relying on others for a while.

 Image left: NASA security lowers Discovery’s flag following the announcement that the Mission Management team scrubbed the STS-133 launch until at least November 30.

Regardless of missing the launch, I will never forget my week of being a VIP at the agency that put man on the moon. It was once in a lifetime, and I will cherish the memories and friends that were made for the rest of my life.

Note from Mark, the StarGeezer: Brian Williams is a freelance writer who lives in the Louisville area. He was selected as a NASA STS-133 Tweetup attendee in an online drawing. I greatly appreciate Brian sharing his experiences at the Kennedy Space Center. Contact Brian here. Click any image to enlarge

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November 6, 2010

How dark is the sky in your backyard? Try the Great World Wide Star Count

gwwsc_2010_logo.jpgHow dark is the sky above your backyard? Because of excessive manmade lighting the skies over most urban and suburban areas are now whitewashed with glare at night.

The Great World Wide Star Count is a fun and easy exercise you can try to gauge the darkness or brightness of your sky and report the results.
There are five simple steps: Visit the GWWSC website and determine which constellation to observe. For those of us in the northern hemisphere it’s the constellation Cygnus. Go out and find Cygnus any evening through November 12. Compare what you see with the magnitude charts on the website. Finally, report what you see and view the results online.

Join thousands of students, families and “citizen scientists” from around the world counting stars in the Great World Wide Star Count!

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November 4, 2010

STS-133 Launch blog Wednesday, November 3rd


Brian @DeepSpacer didn’t send any blogs on NASA Tweetup activities on Wednesday. I believe Wednesday was an “off day” for the Tweetup attendees with no planned activities due to the additional launch delay. He did post some images from the Tweetup visit to launch pad 39A on Tuesday. Here are a few of them.

Hopefully Brian and the Tweetup attendees will see Discovery launch this afternoon at 3:29pm EDT. The weather forecast is not good. Click on any image to enlarge



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