Archive for the ‘My Astronomy Log’ 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!

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 space.com 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!

Observing Log: ISS overflight

September 20, 2008

I just watched a beautiful pass by the ISS. That just never gets tired. It was moving, as always.

In the early spring, I shot video and saved screen shots to make a “How To Spot The ISS” video tutorial. I’ve been very busy at work for the last six months, so there’s no time to work on content of any kind (can you tell?). Still, it’s something high on my list of things to do.

A lunar eclipse and a cosmic perspective

February 20, 2008

lunareclipse.jpgThe moon is in totality as I write. It’s beautiful, a fleeting mask on a face that has looked down on Earth for billions of years.

I can’t help but think of the words of one of my heroes, Carolyn Porco, who currently leads the imaging team for Cassini:

To know that we can know so much about our Solar System and about our cosmos, for me, makes life meaningful. It’s very much like being in love. It’s very much that kind of relationship where you want to know more and you want to be one with the person you’re in love with or topic you’re studying. It’s a connection… it’s really a connection, and for me it’s… it’s like being allowed a glimpse of the miraculous.

(from “Nova: Voyage to the Mystery Moon,” first aired 4/4/2006)