Saturday, March 31, 2012

March 31 in History

In 1596 René Descartes was born in Le Haye Touraine, Touraine (present-day Descartes, Indre-et-Loire). A philosopher, mathematician, and writer, Descartes spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day. Descartes' influence in mathematics is equally apparent; the Cartesian coordinate system — allowing algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two-dimensional coordinate system — was named after him. He is credited as the father of analytical geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. Descartes was also one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution. Descartes is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement "Cogito ergo sum" (French: "Je pense, donc je suis;" English: "I think, therefore I am"). Descartes died in Stockholm, Sweden on February 11, 1650.

In 1727 Sir Isaac Newton died at the age of 84. An English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, Newton is considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived. His monograph Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, lays the foundations for most of classical mechanics.

In 1934 Italian physicist Carlo Rubbia was born. A particle physicist and inventor, Rubbia shared the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics with Simon van der Meer for work leading to the discovery of the W and Z particles at CERN.

In 1918 Daylight saving time went into effect in the United States for the first time.

In 1927 U.S. actor William Daniels was born. In addition to his work on stage, in movies and television, Daniels is best known by geeks as the voice of the Knight Industries Two-Thousand (K.I.T.T.) in the 1980s NBC television series Knight Rider.

In 1966 the Soviet scientific probe Luna 10 was launched aboard a Molniya launch vehicle. Luna 10 entered lunar orbit on April 10, becoming the first artificial satellite to orbit the Moon. Luna 10 continued in operation until May 30.

In 1970 Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite to be successfully launched in to Earth orbit, re-entered Earth's atmosphere after 12 years in orbit. 

In 1997 after 25 years of operation, routine telemetry and ground control with the NASA robotic spacecraft Pioneer 10 was terminated. At that moment the probe was 6.7 billion miles from Earth, traveling at 28,000 miles per hour. Launched in 1972, Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to traverse the asteroid belt, the first to complete an interplanetary mission to Jupiter, and the first to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System. It is estimated that in two million years, Pioneer 10 will reach the system of the red-giant star Aldeberan in the constellation of Taurus.


Friday, March 30, 2012

March 30 in History

In 1961 British astronomer Philibert Jacques Melotte died. Born January 29, 1880, Melotte’s parents emigrated to Great Brittan from Belgium. In 1908 Melotte discovered a moon of Jupiter. Originally designated “Jupiter VII,” it was given the name Pasiphaë in 1975.

Melotte discovered one asteroid, 676 Melitta, in 1909. The asteroid name is in fact the Attic form of the Greek Melissa, the bee. In that same year Melotte was awarded the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

In Melotte’s 1915 catalog of deep sky objects he recorded a star cluster in the constellation Coma Berenices which is commonly designated Mel 111. The cluster did not appear in the Messier catalogue or the New General Catalogue because it was not proven to be a true star cluster until 1938.

In 1982 NASA's Space Shuttle Columbia and mission STS-3 landed at White Sands Space Harbor (Northrop Strip) near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Launched March 22 from Launch Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, the crew included Commander Jack R. Lousma and Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton. The crew continued the testing of the "Canadarm" Remote Manipulator System (RMS), conducted several on-orbit experiments, and continued the general shakedown of Shuttle Columbia and flight procedures.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Mars is Still a Good Show

This year's opposition of the planet Mars took place back on March 3rd. Even so, there is still time to get a good look at the Red Planet. Looking overhead at local midnight, you can find this orange-colored body shining at -0.83 magnitude in the constellation Leo, the Lion. Mars is currently 0.722 Astronomical Units away, or 6 minutes away at speed of light.

The above image depicts the planet Mars (red and white symbol) in the constellation Leo. (The image was produced using Your Sky software by John Walker, available online at )


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Venus/Jupiter/Crescent Moon at Sunset

Last month, the planets Venus and Jupiter and the crescent Moon aligned beautifully for evening sky watchers. And we get another beautiful show tonight and tomorrow. On the evenings of March 25th and 26th, the three will form a bright triangle in the western sky at sunset.

Venus shines at -4.34 magnitude and Jupiter at a slightly-dimmer -1.86 magnitude. The crescent Moon outshines them both, at about -7 magnitude, and will grow brighter over the two evenings as the phase waxesgrows to cover more of the lunar surface.

The above image depicts the planets Venus (blue and white symbol at top) and Jupiter (gold symbol in the middle) and the crescent Moon (crescent symbol) in the western horizon around sunset on March 25th. Please note that in the actual sky the symbolic Moon phase would be rotated one quarter clockwise, so the lit portion faces the horizon. The red background in the image indicates that the sky is in twilight, transitioning from full daylight to full darkness. The outlines of the surrounding constellations are marked and labeled. They are, clockwise from the top, Aries, Triangulum, Pisces, and Cetus. (The image was produced using Your Sky software by John Walker, available online at )


Friday, March 23, 2012

Sun's Dimensions Refined

The image shows the Mercury transit of the sun on Nov. 8, 2006, as seen from the   NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Image Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO

A team of scientists from Hawaii, Brazil, and California universities has measured the diameter of the Sun with new accuracy by using the instruments aboard the NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) to time the transits of the planet Mercury across the face of the Sun in 2003 and 2006.

The team is composed of Marcelo Emilio (visiting from Ponta Grossa, Brazil), Jeff Kuhn, and Isabelle Scholl from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy in collaboration with Rock Bush from Stanford University, California. They made the measurements with SOHO's Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI).

The team's results show the Sun's radius to be 432,687 miles (696,342 kilometers) with an uncertainty of only 40 miles (65km). By using the SOHO spacecraft, the team avoided the blurring caused by Earth's atmosphere that occurs when observations are made from the ground.

SOHO has a distinct advantage. Not only does the observatory have an uninterrupted view of our nearest star -- hovering around the Earth-sun Lagrange point 1 (L1), 1.5 million miles from Earth in the direction of the sun -- it doesn't suffer the obscuring effects of the Earth's atmosphere.

The same team is preparing to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun on June 5. They expect these observations will improve on the accuracy of their Mercury-transit observations.

Follow the link below to learn more about SOHO and the recent transits.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

The First Lunar Photo Shoot

Happy anniversary to lunar photography! On March 23, 1840, the first photograph of the Moon a daguerreotype, was taken by American astronomer and medical doctor John William Draper (1811-1882). Draper’s fascination with chemical responses to light also led him to take the first photo of the Orion Nebula.
Okay, Moon. Say "cheese!" I'm so sorry, but I just had to say that.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Ēosturmōnaþ!

Today, for the Northern Hemisphere, is the Vernal Equinox, and for the Southern Hemisphere it is the Autumnal Equinox. An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is inclined neither away from nor toward the Sun, and the center of the Sun is in the same plane as the Earth's equator. The term equinox can also be used to describe the date when such a passage happens. The name "equinox" is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because around the equinox, the length of the night is approximately equal to the length of the day.

At an equinox, the Sun is at one of two opposite points in the earth’s orbit where the celestial equator (i.e. declination 0) and ecliptic intersect. These points of intersection are called equinoctial points. In the Northern Hemisphere the days will start to be longer than the nights, brining on the northern Spring and Summer. In the Southern Hemisphere the days will grow shorter than the nights, creating the southern Autumn and Winter.

In ancient Germanic cultures this was the time of Eostre (or Ostara), the pagan goddess of the month of Ēosturmōnaþ (our April) during which feasts were held in her honor. So to the ancients, we wish for this time of year a Happy Ēosturmōnaþ (Happy Easter)!


Monday, March 19, 2012

New Moon and Messier Marathons

Right now the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun, and that means we have New Moon! If you were well rested and had the ambition, could have your own mini Messier Marathon, looking for as many dim Messier objects from dusk until dawn as you could manage. And if you had several friends with telescopes and an evening to burn, you could have a more coordinated event. In this way all of those present could dash from 'scope to 'scope as each object was centered in the eyepiece. Once everyone had a look, that operator would the move on to the next object while the group gets their look at another object at another telescope.

If you do not know about Messier objects, or about their namesake, French astronomer Charles Messier, you would do well to check out both them and him. Follow these links to learn more.

Charles Messier

The Messier Catalog of Objects


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saturn This Week

The planet Saturn rises each night this week at around 9:30 PM local daylight time. It appears at its highest in the south around 3 AM. The ringed planet shines at magnitude 0.3 and stands out against the backdrop of the constellation Virgo the Maiden, just 6° east-northeast of its brightest star, magnitude 1.0 Spica. When viewed through a telescope, the planet measures 19" across while the rings span 43" and tilt 15° to our line of sight.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

NuSTAR Launch Delayed

The above image is an artist's concept showing the NuSTAR X-ray telescope in orbit. NuSTAR uses two identical optics modules (shown at right) in order to increase sensitivity. The background shows an image of the galactic center as taken from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Image Credit: NASA

The launch of the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission has been delayed. Originally scheduled for this month, NASA recently announced that the March 13 "flight readiness review" was rescheduled in order to allow additional time to confirm the validity of the flight computer software used by the launch.The extra time to complete the software review means that the $165 million spacecraft won't be able to lift off this month as planned, but space agency officials expect it to be ready to launch in the next two months.

The NuSTAR mission will deploy the first pair of orbital telescopes to image the sky in the high energy X-ray (6 - 79 keV) region of the electromagnetic spectrum. NuSTAR will study black holes and other high-energy puzzles in our universe. NuSTAR will be launched into a low-Earth, near-equatorial orbit on a Pegasus XL rocket from the Reagan Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. To learn more about the NuSTART mission, visit this site:

NASA/Caltech NuSTAR Mission


Friday, March 16, 2012

Arid Meteor Shower

Today is the peak of the Arid meteor shower. This is a southern-hemisphere shower and can best be viewed from south of Earth's equator. Its meteors may be visible from March 14 through 18 with the peak on March 16. The meteors have a modest rate of 5 per hour. They appear to originate from a point in the constellation of Ara, the Altar (Right Ascention 16 hours 20 minutes, Declination -48°). Saddly, if you cannot see the constallation Ara in your nighttime sky, you will not be able to enjoy this shower. The Arid shower is also known as the Corona Australid shower, after the nearby constellation Corona Australis, the Southern Crown.

The above image depicts the area around the radiant of the Arid meteor shower. The bright yellow lines near the center of the image suggest the point in the sky out of which the Arid meteors will appear to radiate. The outlines of the surrounding constellations are marked and labeled. (The image was produced using Your Sky software by John Walker, available online at )


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Apollo Landing Sites Revisited

Image shows descent stage of the Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle. Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been orbiting our Moon since 2009, taking amazing high-resolution images of its surface. In 2011 NASA decided to lower the LRO's mapping orbit from its usual 50 km (30 miles) down to 25 km (15 miles). While the spacecraft could not sustain this orbit indefinitely, because variations in the density of the Moon would soon pull the spacecraft to the surface, it could operate at that height for short periods of time. And during those short periods the LRO team obtained amazing images of the Apollo landing sites.

Of course, the primary goal of the LRO mission is to pave the way for the future by returning detailed lunar data. This data will help identify safe landing sites for future explorers, locate potential resources, describe the moon's radiation environment and demonstrate new technologies. Even so, these images help to remind us of mankind's past achievements, while shaping mankind's dreams for the future.

The full detail of the Apollo site imaging can be seen here:


Venus-Jupiter Conjunction

The planets Venus and Jupiter will be in conjunction on March 15th, 2012, appearing to pass within 3° of each other in our nighttime sky. The two planets have been getting gradually closer in our sky for the last month. Venus is the higher, and brighter object, and Jupiter is the lower and dimmer one.

The above image depicts the western sky on March 15 around 9 PM Daylight Time (8 PM local time). The two planet symbols in the center of the image represent the positions of Jupiter and Venus. Jupiter is the gold symbol on the left and Venus is the blue-and-white symbol on the right. The outlines of the surrounding constellations are marked and labeled. In addition, above the planets is marked the location of M45 (Messier object 45), a small cluster of stars that is also known as the Pleiades. (The image was produced using Your Sky software by John Walker, available online at )

Of course, Venus and Jupiter are really separated by millions of kilometers (Venus orbits the sun closer than Earth, and Jupiter orbits much farther away than Earth). But from our perspective on Earth, we see the two objects closely aligned. This alignment is called a conjunction.

On March 15th, 2012 at 10:37 UTC, Venus and Jupiter reach 3° distance from one another. That’s approximately 6 times the width of the full Moon (or six times the width of your extended thumb).

The conjunction will be visible from everywhere on Earth. The two planets will brighten in the West shortly after sunset. And because Venus and Jupiter are two of the brightest objects, they will be visible even in the most light polluted (brightly lit) cities.

As a special bonus, the planet Mars is also high and bright in the sky, visible as that bright red “star” further to the East. Mars recently reached its closest point to Earth, known as opposition. Mars won’t be this close and bright for two more years.

And on March 25th, 2012, the New Moon will join the pair again to create a triple conjunction. Another great photo opportunity.

A visual separation of 3° sounds close, but these planets can actually appear much closer. For example, on October 26, 2015, the two planets will appear to be only 1° apart. But our current Venus/Jupiter conjunction is one of the best we’ll see for a few years because the two planets are so high in the sky after the Sun sets.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Sci-Fi Stuff: Airshows and Space

Hard-core science fiction fans probably know about this already, but if you are a fan of sci-fi television and movies from the 1970's, you simply must check out the photos created for the Sci-Fi Airshow (, a creation of artist Bill George. Open for "tours" on their virtual tarmac are aircraft and spacecraft from "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Planet of the Apes," "Land of the Giants," "Space: 1999," "Battlestar Galactica," and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." Check out the slide-show guided tour here:
...and please take a look a this video of the new items coming soon, with craft from "Lost in Space" and elsewhere:
And speaking of "Space: 1999," HDFilms President Jace Hall is working with ITV Studios America to develop "Space: 2099," a new version of the TV series which ran from 1975 to 1977. Personally, I just hope they keep the original spaceship designs. For more information, please check out these links.
Jace Hall Talks "Space: 2099":
"Space: 2099," the Series (an HDFilms site):

Friday, March 09, 2012

Mosaic of the Moon

Hey there, friend. Come over here. You want to see a truly amazing image of the moon? With a resolution so impressive that you will think you are in lunar orbit. Well have I got a photo for you. Honest! This may sound like a cheesy sales pitch from a guy wearing a trench coat and standing in a dark alley, but I’m very serious.
Netherlander photographer André van der Hoeven began experimenting with astrophotography in April of 2010 and has had some wonderful success so far. His latest creation is a photo mosaic of a gibbous moon that is 3890 x 4650 pixels in size—that’s a 18 megapixel image, in case you were wondering. Using a Celestron C11 (11”) Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, Van der Hoeven imaged the moon in pieces, taking 30 seconds of video for each portion. The video captured at a rate of 60 frames per second, so a total of 1,800 frames were captured for each area exposed. Van der Hoeven then used software to pick the best of those frames, and then used more software to sharpen the selected image. He repeated this process 107 times until he had imaged the entire visible surface, and then seamlessly joined the images. The result is a lunar mosaic that is like none other to date. Incidentally, I would have teased you with a low-resolution version of the image here, but the image is rightfully the property of Mr. Van der Hoeven and I did not request his permission to display it (There are rules about this sort of thing).
To see Van der Hoeven’s photo-blog page on the mosaic, click here:
…and to see the actual mosaic, in all of its lunar glory, click here:
Please be patient, as the image will take a minute to load. I promise you that your patience will be rewarded.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Petition for Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons mission is well on its way to distant Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft is currently projected to fly-by Pluto on July 14, 2015. In an effort to keep the mission in the public spotlight, an effort is underway to petition the United States Postal Service to publish a stamp in 2015 which promotes the New Horizons mission.
Proposed stamp design.
As of March 7, the petition has collected just over 10,000 of the desired 100,000 signatures. If you would like to take sign this petition Click This Link to take you to the online signing page. And you better hurry. The petition will be available through March 13.
Launched from Cape Canaveral on January 19, 2006, New Horizons is the first mission in NASA's New Frontiers missions and the first of any mission to visit distant Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Following the Pluto fly-by, the spacecraft will be directed to fly-by one or more Kuiper belt objects if candidates can be identified.

To sign the petition:
To visit the New Horizons mission site at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory: