April 29, 2011

The Great May Morning Planet Meeting

Early morning sky gazers in May will be dazzled by the “Great May Planet Gathering” before dawn. If you’re a planet watcher you already know that for about six weeks you’ve had two choices, Saturn up all night and just past opposition and Venus in the morning before sunrise.

This nearly month long “planetary convention” will find Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury clustered together in the pre-dawn twilight for much of May. Jupiter will appear to zoom westward, rising earlier each day. Jove will be the eastern most (nearest the Sun) as May begins, but by late May Jupiter will have moved all the way to the west side of the group. Watching as Jupiter moves west among this planetary grouping will most certainly be the major highlight of this apparition.

I’ll get into the more highlights of our May Planet Convention later, but here are a couple of noteworthy ones to get us started: 

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On Sunday morning, May 1 the waning crescent Moon will appear less than 6 degrees above tightly clustered Jupiter and Mars with Mercury and Venus a few degrees to the west (right) as seen in the chart to the left which I prepared using John Walker’s Your Sky Click to enlarge

The foursome will appear together within a circle of under 6 degrees on May 12th. As I mentioned above, Jupiter’s westward rush through the group will be one of the most interesting aspects of this conjunction.

One further note,  viewing this spectacluar grouping will require haze free skies and good optical aid (ie, high quality binoculars or a telescope). The map is a view of the eastern horizon at 10:15 UT, 6:15 am local EDT. In all time zones the best time to be watching will be about 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise.

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STS-134 launch scrubbed until at least Monday, May 2nd

Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-134 launch to the International Space Station was scrubbed on Friday afternoon as the crew was enroute to launch pad 39A. During pre-launch tests heater thermostats on Auxiliary Power Unit 1 failed to turn on. The APU’s provide hydraulic pressure which drives the Shuttle’s “aero control surfaces” during launch and landing phases.

Mission Management Team Chair and Shuttle Launch Integration Manager, Mike Moses explained the importance of the APU heaters that keep the hydrazine fuel from freezing in orbit. There are two heaters on APU 1 and both are required for operations. “It was pretty straight-forward scrub today,” said Moses. “The team made a very good call.”

The next launch opportunity will be no earlier than 2:33 pm EDT, Monday, May 2nd.

Learn more here

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April 28, 2011

Endeavour, STS-134 and AMS-02

The primary payload on the Endeavour,  STS-134 mission to ISS is a wonderous experiment called AMS-02, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. I’ve been vaguely, remotely aware of this particle physics detector for about 18 months. I recall learning that launch of the AMS-02 payload was being bumped back due to an issue with the magnets and sensors on the device.

365820main_ams-021.jpg Image left: AMS-02 during preparation for launch aboard Shuttle Endeavour

I seem to recall learning of this experiment in late 2009. In the intervening months the international team lead by Nobel laureate Dr. Samuel Ting, of MIT has completely redesigned and re-engineered the spectrometer replacing what had been super cooled electro magnets with a “simpler” permanent magnet configuration.

I’ve seen, heard or read several interviews with Ting recently and have come to learn and somewhat comprehend the implications that the science we may gather from AMS-02’s cluster of sensors may utterly reshape our understanding of the Universe.

AMS-02 is a state of the art particle physics detector. Once installed on the zenith side of ISS port truss, AMS-02 will strive to “advance knowledge of the universe and lead to the understanding of the universe’s origin by searching for antimatter, dark matter and measuring cosmic rays”

When it’s powered up it will begin collecting data and operate 24/7/365 gathering data at an incredible 7GB per secon

I believe the forthcoming discoveries AMS-02 will rival HST in terms of their profound impact on our understanding of physics and the nature of the Universe. Stay tuned

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Saturday, April 30th, Spring’s “cross quarter” day

Saturday, April 30th is the “cross quarter” day for the Spring season in the northern hemisphere. That is, we’re midway between the spring, or vernal equinox, and summer solstice. This is Spring’s equivalent to Winter’s cross quarter day, February 2nd.

Anything familiar about that date? Right, Groundhog day. Other cross quarter days are August 1st (midway between summer solstice and autumn equinox) and November 11 (I think) which is the middle of the Fall season in the northern hemisphere and “primavera” or Spring in the south.

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April 21, 2011

Watch for the Lyrid meteors Friday evening

The Lyrid meteor shower will peak Friday evening/Saturday morning, April 22-23. The best time to watch for the Lyrids this year will be between about 10:30 pm Friday evening and 1:30 am Saturday morning when the Moon will rise. The Lyrid “radiant” will rise in the east at about 10pm.

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This is an interesting shower because the hourly rates which have been reported in previous years seem to vary significantly. The average rate is about 23, but in some years rates have been as low as 14 per hour. However, a brief outburst of 90 per hour was reported in 1982.  Click image to enlarge

The best advice I can give you is to make yourself comfortable in the darkest spot you can find. Focus your attention on the darkest part of the sky, which likely will be directly overhead. Direct glare from outdoor lighting in the area will wash out your view, so find a dark spot and on Saturday ask your neighbors to shield and turn off their wasteful outdoor lights.

If you live in the Louisville, Ky area and are interested in joining me at the LAS observatory in Crawford county, In contact me here. 

The Lyrids are one of my favorite showers because the radiant is in the constellation Lyra. Our daughter, Lyra Sasheen, is named for this constellation which is rising during the late spring evenings of mid-May around the date of her birthday.

The chart, produced with the Stellarium freeware, shows the eastern horizon Saturday morning around 1:30 am local time. The Lyrid “radiant”, the point from which the meteors associated with this shower will appear to radiate from is indicated by the red lines between constellations Lyra and Hercules.

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April 15, 2011

ISS makes a fleeting appearance at “Thunder Over Louisville”

For those in Louisville who are planning on attending “Thunder Over Louisville” here is a bonus for you that will happen as the fireworks show is coming to a climax.

orbitdisplay.pngThe International Space Station will pass over Kentuckiana at exactly 10 pm! That’s the good news. The not so good news is that ISS will disappear into Earth’s shadow only a minute later at 10:01 while its about 20 degrees above the southwestern horizon.

For those watching Thunder on the Kentucky side of the Ohio this means looking to your left downriver. On the Indiana side look right.

If you miss Saturday night’s pass, don’t despair. We’re into a period when there will be several very good visible evening passes, if the weather cooperates. Monday evening ISS will be visible flying over head SW to NE at 9:15 to 9:21 pm. It will peak at 70 degrees off the SE horizon at 9:18. There will be an even better pass on Wednesday evening.
Click the image and connect to Heavens-Above for ISS pass times at your location.

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April 10, 2011

Ballooning across an ocean

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For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working with the “Speedball 1″ balloon team at LVL1 Louisville’s “hackerspace”. The Speedball 1 team is attempting to fly a radio/science package equipped helium balloon launched from Spaceport Indiana, across the Atlantic ocean. The goal is to safely land the balloon in Europe or Africa. I read a piece about LVL1 on the web and contacted them to learn more. Dan Bowen, the Speedball 1 team lead asked me about VHF antennas for the balloons satellite telemetry/data control system and I offered to help. I fabricated a VHF “JPole” antenna for the payload which seems to be working very well. That antenna will fly as the command/control satellite link antenna.

The balloon’s payload includes a cloud sensor, temperature/humidity sensor, GPS reporting system and a two watt ham radio beacon which will transmit location telemetry on the 40 meter ham radio band.

speedball-1-antenna-work-10-april-11-006.jpg Brad Luyster, Molly and Dan Bowen with the Speedball 1 payload visited my office where we tested VHF antennas for the Orbcomm command and control satellite link. Click image to enlarge

Payload preparation is in the final stages. I am working to tune up the 40 meter antenna that will be fastened to the balloons envelope. There will be live webcasts of the launch and mission once a launch date has been set. Stay tuned.

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