December 30, 2010

Alert! Stellar occultation tonight. Watch a star blink out

I just received word on this. There will be an occultation of star UCAC2 35157066, an 11th magnitude star in northern Orion this evening, 31 Dec 0130-0147UT over north America.

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The star will be occulted by asteroid (565) Marbachia. The centerline path of the occultation sweeps from southern Massachusetts through New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, southern Ohio, along the Ohio river border of Kentucky and Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, extreme southeastern Arizona and into Mexico.

For the Louisville area the star should blink out for approximately 3 seconds at 01:42:45 UT (8:42:45 PM EST) approximately. Consult the chart. If you observe this occulation please report results, negative or positive, to me and I will pass them on. A negative result is as important as positive one as it helps define the shape of the asteroid.

Click the link  or the map above for maps and timings.

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December 29, 2010

A birthday star party for Maille

Tuesday evening, December 28, we enjoyed an overhead 90 degree pass of ISS. It was also the 9th birthday for our neighbor and “adopted” granddaughter, Maille.

Maille has many interests and enjoys stargazing. My birthday gift for Maille was a little star map, a mini star party where we viewed Jupiter with our Dobsonian telescope and the ISS pass. After the ISS pass Maille and I checked the winter constellations on her star map and went back outside to look for them.

As soon as we were outdoors Maille looked up and pointed out the “baseball diamond”, the Great Square of Pegasus. We looked at Cassiopeia, Perseus, Cygnus, the Pleiades and Ursa Minor. She had her first experience as a “telescope driver” while we were observing Jupiter. Maille learned how to use the Telrad finder and focus the eyepiece tube on our classic Coulter Dob. We enjoyed observing Jupiter and the Galillean moons together.

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During the ISS pass I shot some images of it flying overhead. This is easy to do. Depending on how bright the sky is I take “bulb” exposures of 15 to 30 seconds duration on a tripod using a shutter release cable.
In this image the ISS track displays as the bright line in center frame. The view was to the southwest as ISS approached zenith, the station’s track starts center frame and rises.

For upcoming ISS passes at your location click the Heavens-Above link on the right side of the page.

Clear skies, Mark the StarGeezer

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December 26, 2010

Santa’s flight causes stellar occultations

I received the following message from Ted Blank of IOTA (The International Occultation Timing Association). IOTA members enjoy observing stars and planets disappearing behind (being occulted by) the Moon, asteroids, planets or Santa and his reindeer!

Occultations by Santa’s sleigh occurred worldwide last night. The path covered the entire planet with a slight north (pole)-ward shift toward morning. Red-sensitive cameras were overwhelmed by light from Rudolph’s nose, and a magnitude increase was reported as soon as the event began. D and R events from the reindeer’s antlers occurred too close together for accurate timing. If you didn’t observe this event, you should try to be good next year to increase your chance of a hit. Merry Christmas everybody.

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December 14, 2010

A unique chance to see ISS/Soyuz flying in “formation”

If you’d like to watch the International Space Station fly over your back yard this week you’ll want to be outside before dawn. ISS visible passes go through cycles due to Earth’s rotation below the station’s orbit. This week the visible passes are in the morning for North America. Remember we’re able to see ISS reflecting sunlight when it passes over our location just prior to sunrise or following sunset.

This week we have an even more intriguing chance to watch ISS followed by a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on Thursday and Friday mornings 16 and 17 December. The ISS Expedition 26/27 Crew will be launched to ISS aboard Soyuz 25 on Wednesday, 15 December at 19:09 UT (2:09 pm EST). The Soyuz will dock with ISS Friday afternoon. It takes about 46 hours from launch to docking for Space Shuttles, Soyuz, Progress and other spacecraft. By now I hope you have figured out where I’m going with this.

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If there is a visible ISS pass at your location on Thursday or early Friday I suggest you watch for the Soyuz following ISS. I expect Soyuz 25 will be trailing ISS by at least 20 minutes on Thursday morning. On Friday it should be following ISS by a minute or two, since it will be about 7 hours from rendezvous and docking for observers in the Americas. Click the Heavens-Above link on the right side of the page to check pass times for ISS and dozens of other spacecraft for any location in the world. I have had the good fortune of seeing ISS flying in “formation” with Space Shuttles and a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft. Progress and Soyuz are very similar in size. Once Soyuz TMA 20 has launched I expect orbital tracking data will be available on the websites linked below.

Image above: The Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft is rolled out by train on its way to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Monday, Dec. 13, 2010, in Kazakhstan. The launch of the Soyuz spacecraft with Expedition 26 Soyuz Commander Dmitry Kondratyev, NASA Flight Engineer Catherine Coleman and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 16. Image Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

For observers in Kentucky and Southern Indiana visible ISS passes will occur as follows:

Tuesday 6:50-6:54am WSW>SE peaking 45 degrees;

Wednesday 5:43-5:44am E>SE peaking 25 degrees;

Thursday 6:08-6:10am S>SSE peaking 30 degrees

You can also “observe” Soyuz/ISS passes via radio. During orbital operations while Soyuz is enroute to ISS monitor the following frequencies:
121.750 Mhz (Soyuz/ISS ranging/docking and FM voice)*, 130.167 ISS (ranging/docking), 143.625 ISS, 166.000 Soyuz/ISS, 259.700 STS ISS Crew/payload transport AM voice

Useful links:

Zariya Russian Spaceflight

NASA Soyuz timeline

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December 12, 2010

A Monday night “Triple Play”

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Sure it’s “hoops” and football playoff time so please forgive the baseball analogy. Alert observers will be treated to a “celestial triple-play” Monday night/Tuesday morning 13-14 December. The chart to the left shows the southwestern horizon at 5:55pm EST for Louisville, KY. Observers worldwide should be able to observe this conjunction once the Sun has set. Warning: NEVER point an unfiltered telescope or binoculars at or near the Sun. You can blind yourself or severely damage your vision.

The first event of the trio will be the most difficult to observe, a conjunction of planets Mercury and Mars which will appear within a degree of each other very low in the southwest at sunset. Binoculars or a telescope will be required. Pluto will be a few degrees NW (above and to the right) of Mars and Mercury but it will be virtually impossible to see in the twilight.

Once Mercury and Mars have set turn your gaze higher to the south where the Moon will be a mere 6 degrees NNW (above and right) of brilliant Jupiter. You shouldn’t have any difficulty finding the bright pair and if you have a telescope Uranus is still about a degree NNE (above left) of Jupiter. Enjoy the view as the pair track west and set around midnight. During the following evenings use Jupiter as a reference point to watch as the relative position of the Moon moves east each evening.

As the gibbous Moon and Jupiter sink to the west meteor watching becomes the main attraction. Many people consider the Geminids to be the finest, most reliable annual shower. Geminids tend to be bright with frequent fireballs and up to 120 meteors per hour under extremely dark skies. The debris trail for the Geminids is rather “chunky” and unusual. The Geminids are associated with asteroid Phaethon 3200 rather than a cometary body. As the name implies, the Geminids “radiant” eminates from near the stars Castor and Pollux at the “feet” of constellation Gemini. Tracing the path of any meteors you observe backwards should lead you to Gemini. The radiant will rise early in the evening and culminate high to the south around 2am local time. Best time to observe will be between midnight and dawn but anytime Monday night should be interesting.

For more see this NASA Science News article

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December 2, 2010

NASA Astrobiologists find microbes grow in arsenic

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In findings released today a team of NASA astrobiologists report finding and growing microbes in arsenic. This finding revolutionizes theoretical astrobiology and adds a whole new dynamic to the search for extraterrestrial life. Read more here

 Image above left: Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic.

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