All posts by Tom

Launch Day

A security helocopter surveys the area aound the launch pad for the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft before its arrival.  Photo Credit (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
A security helocopter surveys the area aound the launch pad for the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft before its arrival. Photo Credit (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Mission: One Year in Space

Spacecraft: Soyuz TMA-16M

Crew: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka

Launch Day / Time: 27 March 2015 at 19:42 UTC / 15:42 EDT

Launch site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

Note: Crew members Kelly and Kornienko will be aboard the ISS until March 2016. The long duration is to study how the body reacts and adapts to life in space. The research is needed for future missions say to Mars and may have implications for helping patients here on Earth recovering from long terms of bed rest to helping those with poor immune systems.

Scott Kelly has a twin brother, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly who will participate in a number of comparative genetic studies.

From NASA:
There are seven key elements of research on the one-year mission. Functional studies will examine crew member performance during and after the 12-month span. Behavioral studies will monitor sleep patterns and exercise routines. Visual impairment will be studied by measuring changes in pressure inside the human skull. Metabolic investigations will examine the immune system and effects of stress. Physical performance will be monitored through exercise examinations. Researchers will also monitor microbial changes in the crew, as well as the human factors associated with how the crew interacts aboard the station.

NASA-TV coverage is scheduled to begin at 18:30 UTC / 14:30 EDT

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

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Jupiter’s Aurora

Credit: JAXA
Credit: JAXA

Last week we had a beautiful display of the aurora courtesy of a solar storm. Other planets are known to have auroral activity. Jupiter included, however the giant planet has auroral activity that isn’t always due to solar storms

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) using their Hisaki satellite detected flare-ups get started by the interaction with the Jupiter moon Io and the planet. The results of two months observing Jupiter with Hisaki were published in a paper by Tomoki Kimura of JAXA and his colleagues in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.


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Waiting for Philae

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credits ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credits ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

A Rosetta NAVCAM image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 81.4 km / 50.6 miles. ESA did a nice job of processing the image in order to bring out some of the outflow. The outflow should become more evident over time and give 67P/G-C the classic comet look.

In the mean time Rosetta is intermittently sending radio signals to the Philae lander to establish contact. So far nothing has been heard from the little lander. Possibly the solar panels have not built up enough power in the systems to function or maybe it is just too cold. The lander remains in hibernation.

Philae needs an internal temperature above -45 C / -49 F and five watts of power to turn on – which is pretty impressive. The lander needs to be able to generate 19 watts in order to send signals to Rosetta.

ESA is choosing when to send signals to Philae so the alignment between it and Rosetta and presumably the sun to have the best chance for success. The first half of April will be the next best opportunity to contact.

If you click the image above you will see a version with some of the craters labeled.

Have a look at Rosetta Blog “Waiting patently for Philae” for more detail.

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Radio Saturn

Saturn seen in radio waves. Image: I. de Pater, J.R. Dickel; NRAO/AUI/NSF
Saturn seen in radio waves. Image: I. de Pater, J.R. Dickel; NRAO/AUI/NSF

This is what Saturn looks like to the Very Large Array or VLA. The VLA “sees” in a part of the spectrum we can’t see – the radio spectrum.

Here’s the NRAO description of the image:

Note the bright disk of the planet with a gradual fading toward the edge, called limb darkening. This illustrates a gradual cooling outward in Saturn’s atmosphere. The rings are seen in emission outside the disk but then in front of the planet they absorb the radiation from the bright disk behind, appearing as a dark band. In visual light they appear bright everywhere because they reflect the incident sunlight but at radio wavelengths the sunlight is fainter and we see the actual emission from Saturn.

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Mercury’s North Pole

Temperature map of Mercury's north polar region. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Temperature map of Mercury’s north polar region. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Here’s an orthographic look at the north polar region from the Messenger spacecraft. The view is colored by the maximum biannual surface temperature. The temperature ranges from over 400 K / 127 C / 260 F for the red colors down to 50 K / -223 C /-370 F for the purple colors. Temperatures on Mercury do exceed 350 C / 660 F in places.

The largest crater shown is called Prokofiev and it is centered at 85.77 degrees latitude. The interior of the purple colored craters are easily cold enough for water ice to be stable – hard to imagine but true.

There is big news coming in the Messenger mission. The spacecraft is orbiting closer and closer to the surface of the planet being boosted by thrusters when necessary. One orbit brought Messenger to within 11.6 km / 7.2 miles of the surface of Mercury. The Thrusters increased the speed of the spacecraft by 3.07 meters per second or 6.87 miles per hour and increased the minimum close-approach altitude of 34 km / 21.4 miles.

The problem is the propellant is about gone and this means the Messenger spacecraft will end its mission by crashing into the surface of Mercury. There is another thruster maneuver on 02 April, this will probably be the last such event. Messenger is expected to impact the surface of Mercury later in April, May at the latest.

Europe will visit the inner-most planet with the launch of BepiColumbo in 2016 and a trip of 7 years.

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New Craters on the Moon

The bright flash of a meteor impact was seen on the moon a couple of years ago on 17 March 2013. The flash was some 10 times any flash recorded before. NASA recorded the flash at lunar coordinates 20.6°N, 336.1°E.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to image the location before and after and it turns out it has found a few more.

The video and a really cool before/after image is located at the NASA site.`

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Solar Eclipse LIVE

The solar eclipse live feed from Cloud Tube. Most of North America will NOT see the eclipse. Have a look here to check if it is visible where you are. I am in North America so I will not be able to see it for myself, so I hope the live link works!

The eclipse starts at 07:41 UTC and ends at 11:50 UTC. It’s “almost” a spring eclipse too but not quite.

Speaking of spring:

Happy Spring!

The March Equinox occurs at 22:45 UTC / 18:45 EDT today.

I still have 22 cm of snow on the ground so spring can’t get here too soon :)

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Ultraviolet Aurora on Mars

Image Credit: University of Colorado
Image Credit: University of Colorado

The MAVEN spacecraft using the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph observed a bright ultraviolet auroral glow around Mars’ northern hemisphere for five days in December 2014.

“What’s especially surprising about the aurora we saw is how deep in the atmosphere it occurs – much deeper than at Earth or elsewhere on Mars,” said Arnaud Stiepen, IUVS team member at the University of Colorado. “The electrons producing it must be really energetic.”

The aurora here on Earth, like the stunning display of 18 March (and one I missed due to sky conditions) is caused by energetic particles hitting the upper atmosphere and causing gasses to glow. The Martian aurora is also thought to be the Sun, however since Mars has lost it’s protective magnetic field the particles can directly hit the atmosphere.

MAVEN’s Solar Energetic Particle instrument detected a surge in energetic electrons at the onset of the aurora.

It will be very interesting to see if this is repeated following the recent display here and it may not be depending on whether or not Mars is in the path of the solar ejecta.

In the mean time keep an eye on the sky as the Sun is starting to pick up in activity or so it would seem.

For the latest summary of current solar conditions you can check out the WWV text alerts,  paying attention to the K index and the lines at the end as in following sample from 18 March:

:Product: Geophysical Alert Message wwv.txt
:Issued: 2015 Mar 18 2105 UTC
# Prepared by the US Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, Space Weather Prediction Center
# Geophysical Alert Message
Solar-terrestrial indices for 18 March follow.
Solar flux 115 and estimated planetary A-index 45.
The estimated planetary K-index at 2100 UTC on 18 March was 5.

Space weather for the past 24 hours has been severe.
Geomagnetic storms reaching the G4 level occurred.
Radio blackouts reaching the R1 level occurred.

Space weather for the next 24 hours is predicted to be minor.
Geomagnetic storms reaching the G1 level are expected.

If you are a ham radio operator or have a shortwave radio you can also hear these messages on WWV at  10 and 15 MHZ.  WWV (and sister stations) can be heard on other frequencies, these two frequencies are probably the best all around choices.

About WWV

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Saturn’s Rings

The rings of Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


Cassini captured this image of the Saturn rings and the little moon Prometheus. I got to thinking about the early drawings, in particular the famous 1666 drawing by Robert Hooke showing the shadows from the planet and rings.


As an aside, Robert Hooke is probably one of the most famous scientists many school kids have never heard of.

From NASA’s Groovy:

From afar, Saturn’s rings look like a solid, homogenous disk of material. But upon closer examination from Cassini, we see that there are varied structures in the rings at almost every scale imaginable.

Structures in the rings can be caused by many things, but often times Saturn’s many moons are the culprits. The dark gaps near the left edge of the A ring (the broad, outermost ring here) are caused by the moons (Pan and Daphnis) embedded in the gaps, while the wider Cassini division (dark area between the B ring and A ring here) is created by a resonance with the medium-sized moon Mimas (which orbits well outside the rings). Prometheus is seen orbiting just outside the A ring in the lower left quadrant of this image; the F ring can be faintly seen to the left of Prometheus.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 15 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken in red light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Jan. 8, 2015.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 566,000 miles (911,000 kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 37 degrees. Image scale is 34 miles (54 kilometers) per pixel.

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