Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ category

Observation Log 9/9/09: ISS/Discovery overflight, with a frightening surprise

September 9, 2009

Discovery passed almost directly overhead tonight, with the ISS following 27 seconds later. Thankfully Jan was there to share it, and to witness something we’ve never seen before or probably will see again.

Just as Discovery passed straight overhead, a plume of white, faintly colorful reflections appeared right around it, and expanded for about ten seconds, dimming as it grew with the shuttle still in the middle. It was still faintly visible when it was about 1/2° across, or about the apparent size of the full moon. My immediate thought was something had gone terribly wrong. After a moment I realized we’d probably seen the Orbital Maneuvering System fire a burst of flames, during operation or perhaps testing.

I had a video camera set up to try and catch some light trails, but unfortunately it wasn’t pointed straight up. Even so, that was just stunning.

Observation Log 9/8/09: The Space Shuttle and ISS fly overhead, about 1° apart!

September 8, 2009

That was amazing. Shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station just graced our skies. The shuttle had departed the ISS a few hours ago, and was visible about a degree ahead of the station as they passed from the SW to the E. Culmination was at 31°, and even through the haze both vehicles were plainly visible without binoculars.

Wow! I only wish I could have shared that with someone.

Observation Log 7/20/09: ISS & STS-127

July 20, 2009

The International Space Station, currently docked with Space Shuttle Endeavour, just made a nice pass overhead. Although I have broken clouds at the moment, I managed to get a very nice view.

In the process, I tested a valuable new technique (for me, at least) for spotting ISS passes. I have an iPhone 3GS, which has a built-in clock and a built-in compass. So, I set up several alarms for the sighting (start, highest elevation, and end), noting from Heavens Above what the compass direction would be and putting that number in each alarm. When the alarms go off, I can quickly pull up the compass and know where to look.

This might seem a bit of overkill, except that my attempt to spot the ISS about a week ago failed! I’ve never completely missed it before. The pass was low in the sky and went through skyglow from the city to the north, but I think I should have been able to see it. Anyway, this little trick should help.

If I had unlimited energy and resources, I would love to write an iPhone application that would use the GPS, compass, the timers, and the inclinometers in the iPhone to allow a user to find any sky object (satellites especially) just by pointing the phone at the sky. Words or sounds could indicate which way to adjust the pointing angle (up, down, left, right) to find what you’re looking for. Real fanatics fans like myself could even hold a laser pointer with the phone, to make spotting even easier! Hopefully someone will do that some day soon!

Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” TV series, now free online

June 19, 2009

This is a real treasure. Many thanks go to

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "Carl Sagan’s "Cosmos" TV series, now …", posted with vodpod

Observation Log 3/15/09: STS-119 launch!

March 15, 2009

STS-119 visibility during launch

STS-119 visibility during launch

I’m amazed and excited. A few days ago, I saw a graphic on showing the distances at which the Discovery Shuttle would be visible after its launch. I’d always wondered if launches would be visible if they went up the east coast. Now I know the answer is, “Yes, definitely!”

With all the usual planning, I set up my iPhone to sound alarms at critical times, like when to leave the house, the moment of the launch, the moment the shuttle should become visible, and the approximate time of Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO). I tried a new location with a good southern exposure, which worked great. And my wife came along, making it even more fun.

We each had binoculars trained on the SSW sky when the alarm sounded that something should be visible. I wasn’t sure how high the shuttle would be, so I was scanning a tallish area, alternating between through-the-binos viewing and just looking. I first spotted it with only my eyes, a larger-then-usual, orange light traveling right to left, maybe 7° above the local horizon and rising. Jan saw it too, mainly without her binoculars. I got it in my binoculars immediately, and followed for a few moments. I saw a poof of flame, which I gather was MECO, and the shuttle became faint but still visible with the binos. I kept it in sight, and watched as it performed a series of Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) burns, each one a bright flash of orange light, during the following 30 seconds. By the time I lost it, the shuttle was well to my southeast, far beyond the time I’d expected.

I have always wanted to see a Shuttle launch, especially at night. This is probably the closest I will come. To know that capsule was sitting at Cape Canaveral eight minutes before I watched it reaching orbit is awe-inspiring.

This was a true gift; one of my most treasured sightings which I’ll always remember.

Observation Log 2/25/09: Comet Lulin!

February 25, 2009

Hiya kids. I’ve been observing casually whenever possible, and catching every ISS overflight I can. Nothing worth writing about, and life/work has been far too busy to wax eloquent on anything except, “When is bedtime?”

Still, this was an exception.

It was an easy hop from Saturn to locate Comet Lulin. The coma was well-defined, and easily 1° across. The nucleus was also easily spotted, centered within. Averted vision revealed a bit more light, but not a lot. I was only out for 10 minutes tops, so between that and the sky conditions it wasn’t a fantastic opportunity; just a very good one.

Tonight is my first non-overcast night in a while, and coincidentally the evening of Lulin’s closest pass, approximately 38 million miles from Earth. I know it’s impossible, but it actually looked closer than the background stars!

Richard Garriott, astronaut & former colleague.

October 11, 2008

It was once written of Richard Garriott, (a.k.a. Lord British, creator of the “Ultima” series of role-playing games) that he was “happy to bask in the reflected glow of his father’s fame.” His dad is NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, who flew missions to SkyLab as well as early Space Shuttle missions. In about 14 hours, Richard will be flying from the Baikonur Cosmodrome into space, to arrive at the International Space Station in a few days. He’s fulfilling a lifelong dream, one I never knew we shared, and I wish him… well, I don’t have the words to express what an awe-inspiring experience a week on the ISS could be, but I hope he realizes all his desires for the trip, and that he comes home safely.

In a way, I have basked in the reflected glow of Richard’s fame. I knew and worked side-by-side with Richard for a handful of years in the mid-1980s. I co-wrote an adaptation of Steve Jackson’s “Ogre” board game for his company Origin Systems, and I had my hand in Ultima IV, Ultima V, and a rewrite of Ultima I. My office shared a wall with Richard’s (when the offices were still in NH), and I still live in the house I bought to be near Origin so long ago. For a while I was his right-hand man, always within earshot and always ready to write and refine the tools he used to create his games.

So, even though we knew each other as young men (he was in his early 20s, I in my late 20s) he had a lasting effect on the arc of my life. I always believed I had a hit game in me, if I ever had the chance to design one. Unfortunately, Origin moved to Austin, Texas, and though I probably had a job there if I wanted it, moving wasn’t an option for me. So, against my wishes, my time in the computer gaming industry came to a close. Richard hated what he called in an interview “the frozen northern wastelands,” and that was that.

I was very surprised to learn in later years that another of my Origin colleagues, back then a cocky but likable kid of 19 with a wife, a child, and a beat-up Yugo, would later find fame and wealth in his own right. John Romero and I have gotten back in touch in the last few years, and though he’s had to weather some storms in his life, he’s approachable and genuine. Who could have guessed back then that John, of all the hopeful programmers, would be Lady Luck’s next choice? Which really isn’t a fair thing to say, by the way… Luck won’t get you far without the kind of talent John has, or the hard work he has done. At 19, he had written and published more games than I had by 29, and he was just warming up.

It was bittersweet when I first learned of Richard’s impending space flight. He was news, and so it was hard to avoid for a few weeks last year. Remembering Richard was uncomfortable for the sense of loss it evoked. Still, he was quite young, and perhaps a bit spoiled and sheltered by his considerable wealth at such an early age. I like to think things would have been different had we all been older and wiser.

In the end, I have had a very full life of my own, with a wonderful daughter and grandchildren, and a rewarding career in biotechnology software. My most gratifying career accomplishment was a team effort which introduced a new cancer screening test. Over 80% of women in the US get this test annually, and internationally the numbers are growing. My “awe-inspiring experience,” though private and rightly so, is the satisfaction I feel for making a difference in women’s lives, and the lives of their families and loves ones. I have had the privilege of bringing good to the world. I don’t have $25M to spend for a week’s vacation in space, but when I look back, and look at today… well, I can’t imagine things turning out any better than they did. Thanks Richard and Robert, for all you did for me. Good journeys.