Monthly Archives: March 2009

The skies over Kendal this month…

More Clouds (this seems to be a monthly thing).

Ok, if the clouds should happen to depart for a while (and here’s Kendal’s Met check to see if and when they might), here’s a brief roundup of what might be visible in the skies this month, including the stuff I was gazing at last night just as the clouds rolled in:

Solar System

The Lyrid meteor storm will occur on the 22/23rd of April, sending out roughly 15 meteors an hour from the constellation Lyra. Lyrids are linked to the Comet Thatcher and are pretty reliable in that a steady flow of around the same number of meteors happens every year. The best time will be between 1-2am on the morning of the 23rd, looking towards the East. A slender crescent Moon means little natural light pollution will interfere with the storm this year.

The Moon will be occulting the Pleiades this month at 21:31UT on the 26th of April.

The Planets

Jupiter remains poorly placed for observing, rising shortly before dawn. Mars is similarly stricken through the month. Venus, although brighter in the Dawn sky, will also be rising shortly before the Sun during the month. Within the past few days, Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun (leading some to take pictures of Venus in its new phases during the daytime) and so has transferred from dusk to dawn.

Saturn remains well placed for observation, presently appearing just below the constellation of Leo, rising in the evenning. It is an obvious bright dot below Leo by the naked eye, a yellow disc with a slender line through it through a telescope. This slender line, once the great rings of Saturn, will continue to thin and thin as Saturn approaches the point in its orbit where the rings will be edge on to the Earth. The rings, the moon Titan and some bands should be visible through even a small telescope – though a fast one like mine does wash out the bands.

Mercury reaches greatest elongation on the 26th of April. This puts it at its furthest distance from the Sun, making it available for viewing. On that day, it should be visible for a couple of hours after the Sun has set, and for the few days either side of that date, it will still be visible for an hour or so.

A few things outside the solar system

In the lower part of the constellation of Gemini lies a Cepheid variable star, which alters its luminosity from 3.6 to 4.2 magnitudes, over ten or so days. To the lower right of Gemini is the Eskimo nebula.

The constellation of Leo provides not only a colourful sickle of different stars, but also (between its body and the planet Saturn) two galaxies of magnitude 8.9 and 9.3, M66 and M65, respectively. Further to the West, a magnitude 9.2 and 9.7 pair of galaxies – M96 and M95. A final galaxy can be found by following the sickle to wear the point should be and using the two stars along the point, head down to find the magnitude 8.9 galaxy NGC 2903.

The pinwheel and whirlpool galaxies as well as the owl nebula are all available to see this month in and around the Big Dipper, which soon rises overhead after sunset.

The Usual Stuff

If you want to watch satellites flaring or passing in the sky (even sometimes during the day), then go to Heavens Above to get times and directions. If you need assistance in deciding where things are in the sky, why not install the free program Stellarium, which does all the work for you? Finally, to avoid the dreaded clouds, Met Check gives a quick forecast and the Met satellites or other satellites can be used to track breaks in the cloud, if you are truly determine to catch that comet (or even the moon at this rate)…

Public events

As part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, the Eddington Society will be laying to rest the memory of the Venus and Saturn watches with a public observing eventMoon Watch, on Friday the 3rd from 7:30pm at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. This is round the corner from my place, so I may even be sticking my telescope in the mud with the rest of them. Either way, I’ll be there.

The Spring MoonWatch has begun (which is why our event above is being held), lasting until the 5th of April. This is one of a couple of weeks when the Moon is in a favourable position for detail to be seen on the surface. Too close to new Moon and there’s nothing lit up, too close to the full Moon and there’s no shadow to bring out detail. As part of the International Year of Astronomy and the telescopes for schools initiative, the Society for Popular Astronomy has organised these country-wide watches to give everyone the chance to see… well… probably clouds. The date of the Eddington Society MoonWatch also coincides with the 100 Hours of Astronomy event, wherebye public observing will be carried out all over the planet during these hundred hours – from top observatories to guy on the pavement with a telescope. Go to the website to view “Around the world in 80 telescopes” and the 24 hour live observatories on the 3-4th of April. There may be cloud above us but somewhere in the world has to have a clear sky.

Don’t they?



Following on from the space station post, today I will be blogging about Space Ports – like airports or seaports, spaceports are places from which humans set out on a journey. Unlike airports or seaports, journeys from spaceports have only been undertaken by an elite few and furthermore, there are only a few spaceports in existence around the world.

The Baikonur Cosmodrone

Established on the 2nd of June 1955, the Baikonur Cosmodrone in Kazakhstan was the world’s first spaceport. During the Soviet Era, Baikonur acted as a military testbed for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles at the same time as its achievements in the space industry. It was the launchpad for the various Soviet and Russian space stations – the Salyut, Almaz and Mir stations and programs – as well as the place from whence the first man to orbit the Earth, Yuri Gagarin, set off on his journey on April 12th 1961.

Other missions associated with the Cosmodrone include the rest of the Vostok missions from 1960-63, the Voskhod missions from 1964-5 and the Soyuz missions from 1966 until the present day. Some commercial spaceflights and those of other governments have expressed interest in using the Cosmodrone for their own programs should they reach fruition. The Cosmodrone was also to host the Buran shuttle, the Soviet version of the space shuttle, but after a few unmanned flights, the shuttle program was canceled as the Soviet Union fell.

The Kennedy Space Centre

The KSC is located near Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA. Technically, there are two space ports here as the Cape Canaveral air force station made the first launches of the Mercury program while KSC was still in the process of being built. Those launches included the first American in space, Alan Shepard, who launched on the 5th of May 1961. In the following year, KSC was built and declared operational.

The Gemini program then saw launches taking place from the completed KSC in 1965-6. The Apollo program, including the Lunar landing missions, began at the Cape Canaveral site in 1967, with Apollo 4 onwards launched from the KSC from 1967-73. On April 12th 1981, the Shuttle program began launched from KSC (which continues to the present day, though not for much longer) and one of two shuttle landing strips for shuttles is at the facility. The Orion program designated to follow the shuttle program is also expected to launch from KSC.

The Edwards Air Force Base

The Edwards Air Force base is located between Kern County and Los Angles in Antelope Valley, in the USA. It was built in 1933 and became operational from 1948 onwards. This is more of an accidental spaceport in that Edwards tests new aircraft. Amongst the aircraft tested there were the X-15 rocket planes, two of which managed to achieve altitudes higher than 100 km, the international boundary for space-flight. Both of these were flown by Joe Walker on the 19th of July and 22nd of August 1963, the first person to visit space twice.

In the shuttle era, Edwards tested the Enterprise, the prototype shuttle, and also became the other of two designated shuttle landing strips.

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre was founded in 1958 and became one several spaceports China used to launch vehicles into space. It is located somewhere close to Jiuquan, though in a neighbouring province and forms part of the Dongfen Space City. On the 15th of October 2003, JSLC became the fourth Governmental spaceport to launch humans into space. It repeated its success twice more to date, with launches on October 12th 2005 and September 15th 2008. The Shenzhou launch program includes further manned and unmanned missions with the ultimate intention of putting a Chinese space station into orbit.

Mojave Air and Space port

Mojave was certified as a spaceport on June 17th 2004, making it the only private facility to date to be so designated. It is located in Mojave, California in the USA, close to Edwards. On the 21st of Jult 2004, the first private spaceflight was performed by SpaceShipOne. Two further spaceflights on the 29th September and 4th of October 2004 were carried out to win the Ansari X prize for privately funded space flight. Currently, Mojave is used by, amongst others, Boeing and Virgin Galactic to test their future spaceplanes.

Space Stations

I’ve posted quite a bit on things related to the International Space Station, so I suppose it’d be useful to do a quick rundown on the lineage of the space station – how many have we had up there, how did we arrive at the present design – as the full solar panel array is unfurled in the skies above.

Space stations have a number of things to worry about. Increased radiation from the Sun and the radiation belts, remaining low enough to avoid these, but high enough to stay in orbit, producing power and recycling enough of the materials used by the inhabitants to remain habitable, shifting orbits in the case of possible collision with debris and having a reliable computer system. Some have been successful, others less so.

Who wants a bolthole in space?

Well, quite a few different powers would like some little getaway up near the stars. The two that were in the best position to do it, however, were the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. The Space Race between the two was fought on many grounds – satellites, rocket technology – and some say ended with the planting of an American flag in the lunar regolith in 1969. However, the battle for manned orbital dominance raged on until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of the two space programs.

Despite all this, the initial war that led to the building of the first US space station came not from external threats, but internal wrangling. Wernher von Braun, the ex-Nazi rocket scientist submitted proposals for an orbital station along with his Moon mission plans to the army in the late 1950’s. The following decade saw the US Air Force begin plans to put this into operation, much to the horror of the new NASA organisation. Nasa responded with Skylab, a space station built out of parts of the rocket that launched it, effectively blasting out the fuel and using the tank of one of the launch stages as the main body. However, before Skylab was able to fly, the Soviet Union already had two space station programs in operation – DOS, the civilian space station program and OPS, the military space station program. Almaz was the name of the OPS station program, however OPS stations were disguised and launched under the pretense of being civilian stations under the Salyut series.

In 1969, the Americans had landed on the Moon and put the Soviet space program on the back foot, desperately searching for a new direction. Vladimir Chelomei developed a military space station named Almaz. This did not meet with government approval and was initially abandoned, but mirroring the Air Force-Nasa conflict in the US, a more science oriented group under the leadership of Sergei Korolev proposed an adaption of Almaz for civilian scientific use. This could be developed and put into orbit far more swiftly than the American Skylab proposal and was immediately sanctioned. Although Almaz would be secretly resurrected within the Salyut program, on April 19th 1971, Salyut 1 became the first ever Space Station.

Salyut 1

Salyut 1

1st Generation Space Stations

The first generation space stations are so called because they consist of a single habitable tank and a docking port. In the case of Salyut 1, there were three main compartments – a docking cone around 2m in diameter, a 4m diameter main compartment, where people lived and worked and an auxiliary compartment, 2m in diameter, which was unpressurised and contained all the workings of the station. The station was 20m in length. The station also contained the Orion 1 Space Observatory, and during the space station’s operational time, Viktor Patsayev became the first human to operate a telescope outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, taking ultraviolet spectra of Vega and Beta Centauri. Until this point, telescopes had to be balloon, satellite or rocket mounted and flown without operators to view wavelengths outside the visible region (which are absorbed and stopped high in the Earth’s atmosphere). The first attempt at a manned mission to Salyut 1 failed when the crew found they couldn’t dock securely. Soyuz 11 managed to dock and the crew spent nearly 24 days on the station. They carried out astronomical, meteorological, geological and biological tests before finally departing after electrical fires and other problems on board. Sadly after they left, the Soyuz 11 vehicle depressurised during descent, killing the three Cosmonauts on board. Pressurised suites were always worn during descent after this accident. Salyut 1 was taken out of orbit and sent on a controlled descent over the Pacific ocean on October 11th 1971, ending a world first in space exploration.



Almaz returned in the form of Salyut 2, only to be destroyed during launch on April 4th 1973. A month later on May 11th, the real Salyut 2 was launched flawlessly, but a computer failure lead to the orbital rockets firing continuously until the fuel had run out. The Soviets covered up the loss by suggesting it was just an old rocket and allowed it to fall back to Earth. 14th, Skylab was launched by the US. Skylab barely made it to orbit, losing the micro-meteorite and sun shield as well as one of its main solar panels. The first manned mission to skylab, eleven days later, began with emergency repairs to salvage the station. These were successful and the astronauts remained on board for 28 days. Further missions to the station on the 28th of July and 16th of November put astronauts on the station for 59 and 84 days, respectively. Skylab carried out 2,000 hours of experiments including solar experiments that lead to the discovery of coronal holes – regions of the Sun that appear dark when viewed in x-ray, where the fast solar wind streams from. Skylab was abandoned in 1974 after the third crew departed and the US withdrew from manned spaceflight after the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Skylab remained in orbit until expansion of the atmosphere during an active period of the solar cycle began to initiate re-entry. The US had managed to re-establish contact and reorientated the station for re-entry over the Indian Ocean, from where some of it was later recovered.

Salyut 3

Salyut 3

A few months after Skylab was abandoned, Almaz made it into orbit under the name Salyut 3. Launched on the 25th June 1974, Salyut 3 obtained an altitude of around 270 km. Soyuz 14 launched on the 3rd of July to drop off a crew, who then remained for nearly sixteen days. Salyut 3 was the first station to maintain geostationary orbit – staying above the same spot on the Earth’s surface, allowing studies of that spot. This was achieved not by being in the Clark orbit (where the station would’ve naturally remained geostationary) but by firing the thrusters of the station repeatedly. Salyut 3 contained a number of cameras, a detachable module for recovery of data and a gun, fired three times against target satellites between 0.5-3km away, successfully destroying the target. On August 26th, Soyuz 15 launched to attempt to drop off a crew, but failed to dock. On the 23rd of September, the detachable module returned to Earth. On the 24th of January 1975, the gun was tested and later that day, Salyut 3 re-entered the atmosphere.

Salyut 4

Salyut 4

A month before the decay of Salyut 3, Salyut 4 was launched on December 26th 1974. A copy of the ill-fated DOS-3, Salyut 4 made it into orbit and provided a platform for x-ray studies of space. Soyuz 17 launched on February 10th 1975, dropping off a crew who remained for nearly 30 days to carry out astronomical observations. Soyuz 18 launched on May 24th and dropped off a crew for nearly 63 days for solar and Earth observations as well as biological experiments including vegetables grown in space and fitness training. Soyuz 20 made a three month unmanned dock to the station to prove it was durable for long period occupation. Salyut 4 was taken out of orbit on 2nd of February 1977 and re-entered the atmosphere the following day, burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

Salyut 5

Salyut 5

Salyut 5 was launched on 22nd of June 1976. It was the third and final Almaz station and was very similar to Salyut 3 in design, including the detachable data module. Soyuz 21 launched on July 6th to put the first crew on board. They remained for over 49 days, performing military and solar experiments as well as a link-up to schoolchildren on the ground. Poisonous gases filled the station at one point and the cosmonauts returned in poor physical and mental shape. Soyuz 24 launched on the 7th February 1977, putting a crew on board who stayed for over 17 days. They changed the cabin air, repaired the station and performed solar studies. The station ejected its data module the day after this mission ended. Although a third manned mission was planned, the station ran low on fuel and re-entered the atmosphere on the 8th of August 1977, ending the first generation of stations.

2nd Generation Space Stations

The second generation of space stations is considered to have begun with the addition of a second docking port to the original Almaz spaceframe in Salyut 6. The addition of a second docking port meant new crews and resupply modules could arrive at the station whilst the vehicle of the original crew remained docked, allowing long duration stays. Salyut 6 was launched on the 29th of September 1977, shortly after the end of the previous generation of stations. The station was composed of the most successful parts of the previous stations and meant for a long stay in orbit. During its lifetime and in addition to the manned crew, the station received 12 resupply trips, including fuel and equipment without disturbing the science going on. The station was also more habitable than previous versions, with cots for sleeping, showers, soundproofing for machinery and a gymnasium. The station carried a 1.5 meter telescope, operating in infrared, ultraviolet and submilimetre wavelengths. A radio telescope was later delivered and topographic and photographic cameras watched the Earth from above. In total, there were 6 long duration and 10 short duration stays on board Salyut 6, varying from just under four days to just under 185. Many astronomical and human adaptability experiments were carried out in this time, and the station welcomed visitors from all over the Warsaw Pact. After nearly half a decade in space, and following the launch of the next station, Salyut 6 was decommissioned and taken out of orbit on the 29th of June 1982 – by which time I was in the world, looking up at the stars.

Salyut 6

Salyut 6

The final Salyut station, and indeed the final of the second generation stations, was Salyut 7. Launched on the 19th of April 1982, Salyut 7 was originally the back up for Salyut 6, but as the intended next station Mir wasn’t out of development, 7 became the next mission. It served as a link between the second and third generations as the second docking port became used to test the adding of new modules to the station. The station had constant hot water, redesigned console seats, a fridge and electric ovens. A porthole had its UV filter stripped off to act as a sterilising bay. The visitors to the station included French and Indian cosmonauts. The station was used to test the docking of large modules directly and although it suffered several technical failures, the experience gained in salvaging the station was to be used extensively with Mir. Six crews stayed on Salyut 7, ranging from 8-237 days in duration. On 9th of September 1983, Salyut 7 suffered a fuel leak. Several tools were sent up and spacewalks undertaken to repair the leak successfully. On the 12th of February 1985, the station shut itself down and all contact was lost. The next mission to the station found the walls covered in ice and all systems down, though structurally intact. The fault was identified as a sensor controlling battery charge and after the batteries had been replaced, the station warmed up for several more years of operation. The station was taken out of orbit on the 7th of February 1991. This ended the second generation of space stations.

Salyut 7

Salyut 7

3rd Generation Space Stations



During Salyut 7’s stay in orbit, the nations below began to reach once again for new stations. In 1984, Reagan announced the US would be creating Space Station Freedom, later canceled but revived as the backbone of the International Space Station. In 1985, Europe announced the Space Station Columbus, which later became a module of the International Space Station. But it was in 1986 that the final Soviet station was launched, one whose technological achievements would underpin the design of the ISS, that station was Mir. Launched on the 19th of February 1986, the Mir core module was joined by the rest of the station’s modules in a ten year construction program that outlasted the Soviet Union below it. The result of an upgrade to Almaz first planned in 1976, from which the second generation appeared as a spin-off, Mir was the first space station designed for long term continuous inhabitence. Despite its long planning process, Mir was launched prematurely due to political imperative. As a result, the infrastructure wasn’t yet in place to launch all the required modules. Cosmonauts instead moved from Mir to Salyut 7, taking material from that station and taking it back to Mir over 124 days. The first 51 were spent turning on Mir and getting it working, the next fifty one on Salyut 7, gathering the material whilst an unmanned vehicle tested Mir’s transfer module and added more material. Then back for another 20 days on Mir conducting Earth observations. On September 5th 1989, the next module of Mir was launched and with it a human presence that would continue for just shy of a decade. Progress in building the station then continued until the launch of October the 2nd 1991. After this date, the Soviet Union fell without another launch and the two modules still to go had to be mothballed without the money to launch them. In September 1993, it was announced that the US and Russia would both co-operate in creating the International Space Station. This would involve two phases, the first would be shuttle missions to Mir. This meant a US presence on the station, the launch of the two modules mothballed previously and the construction and launch of an adapted docking module. In the mid 90’s Mir suffered two disasters – a small fire and a collision with an unmanned Progress vehicle, which holed one of the new modules. Although the station was severely damaged and the US nearly recalled its astronauts due to the perceived dangers, the station was repaired. US astronauts left in 1998 and all others cleared out by August 1999. Funding was diverted to the ISS and Mir burnt up over the South Pacific on March 23rd 2001.

Mir re-entry

Mir re-entry

The International Space Station is presently under construction. As I write, the space shuttle Discovery, which removed the final US astronauts from Mir is conducting the final ever shuttle mission, STS-119, and has installed the final solar panels, taking the images in the video below (click through for high definition). The ISS incorporates the planned Mir 2, Space Station Freedom and the Columbus project. It has been visited by people from sixteen nations and hosted the first six space tourists. It is expected to be completed by 2011 and already spans nearly 200 meters. The International Space Station can be viewed from the ground via timings released through Heaven’s Above or Nasa’s own version of that website. Apps have been developed to allow Heavens Above data to be twittered to people in certain areas – also includes an rss feed for those without twitter. And I’ve posted pictures of 1-second exposure trails of an ISS pass in a previous post. Like Mir, the ISS can also be tracked by amateur radio hams, and video footage of the day is also now being released.

Private Space Stations

Although many are planned, there are currently two private space stations in orbit of the Earth. Genesis I was launched on July 12th 2006 and Genesis II on June 28th 2007. I suffered a massive radiation event, but recovered and returned to optimal operating capacity. II carries a space bingo set for public entertainment, but both stations are unmanned and are intended as one third scale models of the real inflatable station to be launched in the future.

The Great Moonbuggy Race

In a week’s time, competitors from all over the globe will descend on the US Space and Rocket centre in Huntsville Alabama to fight it out for the title of winners of the Great Moonbuggy Race. The Race is exactly what it sounds like – Educational establishments are encouraged to design and build their own Moon-buggy like carts, conforming to certain standards outlined on the website, and then send them round a fiendish obstacle course, which takes in all the sights of the Space and Rocket centre as well as testing the buggies – some to destruction.

Developments from design to race of various competitors can be followed via the Moon Buggy Nasa blog, and through twitter and facebook.

This reminds me of the final year or so of primary school, when one of the projects was to build miniature Moon Buggies that were then pulled along a cratered surface by string, the winner being the one at the end closest resembling what it appeared like at the beginning… Originally, it was supposed to be a time trial, but multiple failures took the time right out of it.

Not quite there yet...

Not quite there yet...

If you’re in Washington, DC in the USA…

Then why not pop over to the National Mall and see NASA’s new Orion Spacecraft, or at least a mock-up of it. The full sized model will be available for viewing on the 30th of March – Monday. A public briefing will be given at 10 am.

Artists impression

Artists impression

Information from an asteroid

via Asteroid Impact Helps Trace Meteorite Origins.

I put up a post previously about an asteroid impact, which was quite special because it was the first time an asteroid had been spotted on its way here and tracked until it hit the atmosphere. Video of the asteroid in space and images of the trails left when the thing exploded 37 kilometres above Sudan were included in the post. Scientists then gathered the remains of the asteroid to get some information about it. That was last year, now we’re getting details of what has been learnt from the asteroid impact.

Asteroids to date have only ever been seen in space. We either see pieces of rock floating about, or pieces of rock on the ground, with nothing in between. The pieces of rock on the ground are classified in their own way according to their composition (stony, iron etc) and those floating in space are classified according to their spectrum. The spectrum is the light reflected by the asteroid from the Sun. Molecules in the asteroid absorb certain parts of the spectrum according to their composition, with each molecule or atom having a specific spectrum or finger print that can be recorded and read. This reflectance spectrum is our only source of info about what the asteroid is composed of.

Not any more.

Now we have meteorites that have been picked up, dropped in a lab, cut up and analysed. We have measurements of the spectrum of the asteroid, meaning we can now see how a certain type of asteroid has produced a certain type of meteorite. Now doing this with only a sample of one asteroid means there’s not much that can be inferred in a general sense, but lots of information about this single rock can be gained. If, as in this case, the rock turns out to be an unusual one, any general rules we try to get out of it will fail.

The first surprise was the amount of Carbon in the asteroid. Asteroids form graphite like deposits when cooked in high temperatures or pressures. Nanodiamonds, another form of Carbon also form under high pressures and temperatures and seeing how much of both types of carbon are in there can tell us about the asteroid’s past. This one was subjected to the highest extremes recorded, giving it the highest carbon content known so far.

Secondly, there was the oxygen isotope ratios. Oxygen atoms have eight protons and eight electrons in them, but different isotopes of Oxygen have different numbers of neutrons – eight, nine or ten in the case of the three most common ones measured in meteorites. The ratios of the three forms of oxygen atoms tell us where the asteroid came from. This one belongs in a group of meteorites that have been steadily landing here from somewhere, but we as of yet don’t know where as no parent planet or body with the same isotope signature has been found – though it is believed a chunk of it has been found in the form of another large asteroid, which is where we believe this little asteroid came from.

Creating a curry fit for space

via Indian scientists told to create a curry fit for an astronaut.

One thing is important for astronauts – don’t get ill. Arriving in space only to find the food disagrees with you can be a real downer, and to prevent this every country that sends up astronauts sends their cuisine up there with them. India’s new entry into the space race means the race is on to develop a curry good enough to satisfy the stomachs of their spacemen, even 600 kilometres in the sky.