NASA in 2013

Yesterday was a look back at highlights from ESA, today we have the same for NASA.

Although I only mention two agencies, there were more including Japan, India and especially China making their mark.

The same can easily be said for the new commercial space companies such as Space X and Orbital,

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Video

The December Solstice

At 17:11 UTC, the very time of this posting, the December solstice occurred.

The word solstice comes from mid-13c., from Old French solstice (13c.), from Latin solstitium “point at which the sun seems to stand still,” especially the summer solstice, from sol “sun” (see sol) + past participle stem of sistere “to come to a stop, make stand still” (see assist (v.)).

One mis-conception about the December solstice (same for the June Solstice) is it occurs on the same day. While most of the time the winter solstice does fall on 21 December, depending on the moon the date can change a little.

The moon? Yep, the moon.

Watch the ISS spacewalks at the NASA TV link just below the banner at the top of the page.

Catching Up

GOCE comes home.  Credit: Bill Chater via ESA.

GOCE comes home. Credit: Bill Chater via ESA.

Now that MAVEN has launched, it might be a good time to sort of catch up a little on the newer unmanned missions.

The image above shows the GOCE spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. It was taken by Bill Chater in the Falklands at 21:20 local time on 11 November. Nice image, made the page this week too.

NASA’s LADEE mission is around halfway though the lunar commissioning phase, the orbit is about 250 km (155 mi) above the lunar surface. Instrument testing and calibration is continuing. Contact passes via a European ground station in Tenerife Spain have begun. NASA’s Update

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission continues to go well. On an earlier update (11 Nov) the spacecraft’s apogee was increased to 78276 km (48,638 miles), apogee being the part of the orbit where it is farthest from Earth. Another maneuver to increase Apogee has been completed and the current distance has increased to 118,642 km (73,720 miles). ISRO Mars Mission Page.

Plenty of activity to come too. Something like 60 (?) small cubesats are to be sent up in two separate launches on the 20 and 21 November and the SWARM launch on 22 November.

I am hoping the Gaia launch comes off in December too – that’s going to be a fantastic mission.

Busy times!

Radiation Plumes

Radiation plumes from 3C353. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Tokyo Institute of Technology/J.Kataoka et al, Radio: NRAO/VLA

Radiation plumes from 3C353. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Tokyo Institute of Technology/J.Kataoka et al, Radio: NRAO/VLA

From JPL and click the link for wallpaper sizes, looks great on my screen:

Jets generated by supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies can transport huge amounts of energy across great distances. 3C353 is a wide, double-lobed source where the galaxy is the tiny point in the center and giant plumes of radiation can be seen in X-rays from Chandra (purple) and radio data from the Very Large Array (orange).

3C353 is located in the constellation Ophiuchus and about 126-million parsecs / 410-million light-years away. I believe those radiation plumes span something like 181,000 parsecs / 590,000 light-years.

Ssssssh!

laddeepress

There is news on the LADEE mission. I got a kick out of the SpaceRef entry, made it sound like a secret. Oh yes, I know the gov”shutdown” and all, spacecraft controllers are “essential”, right? I would hope so anyway. Good news just the same.

From SpaceRef:

According to someone at NASA: “Early this morning (October 6), we fired LADEE’s main engine in a braking maneuver known as the Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI) burn.”

“This slowed the spacecraft’s velocity enough for it to be captured by the Moon’s gravity. This critical burn went flawlessly and LADEE is now in lunar orbit! Two more main engine burns, on October 9 and 12 will adjust LADEE’s trajectory, settling it into its commissioning orbit.”

There should be two more orbital adjustment burns, one today, October 9th and the third on October 12 when LADEE should be close to the 250 km (155 mile) altitude goal.

After the low orbit has been achieved the 30 day commissioning of the three science instruments begins, sensors are exposed and the laser communication demonstration of high-speed optical communications will start.  It will be fun to see how the laser communications works out.

After the commissioning phase the mission begins. Hopefully the bickering in the government will be over with and the mission teams can get to work. We shall see.

Image: NASA

Parting Shot from Voyager 2

Neptune and Triton 3 days after flyby. Triton is smaller crescent and is closer to viewer.

Neptune and Triton 3 days after flyby. Triton is smaller crescent and is the closer of the two. Credit: NASA

Here’s a parting shot from the Voyager 2 spacecraft of the planet Neptune and its large moon Triton taken shortly after the historic flyby of August 25, 1989.

Triton is an odd moon. Inclined 23 degrees from the plane of Neptunes equator and orbiting the planet in the opposite direction of the planet’s rotation would seem to indicate Triton was captured by Neptune’s gravity and not formed with the planet. Many moons in the solar system are retrograde (mostly around Jupiter) but Triton is by far the largest, at 2,706 km, it’s not much smaller than our moon.

Triton is very cold, only 38 Kelvin or – 235 C (-391 F). You’d think it would be frozen solid, yet the moon has a rather “young” surface. It is thought when the moon was captured it not unxepectedly had an eliptical orbit which became circular over time thanks to tidal forces from Neptune. The flexing and streching of the moon created heat in the interior of the moon and led to volcanic activity. Volcanic activity in this case would involve ices and not lava.

Read more about Neptune here and Triton here.

Southward Equinox

Depiction of illumination of the Earth on the equinox.  Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Depiction of illumination of the Earth on the equinox. Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Ah today is the Spring Equinox or Autumn Equinox depending on your location. If you are in northern hemisphere it is of course the autumn equinox and spring in the south.

One of the word origins has equinox coming from Medieval Latin equinoxium “equality of night (and Day)”. It’s easy to see why people think the day and night are the same length everywhere on Earth on the equinox. Problem is, this really isn’t quite true.

Here is how I like to think of it:

On the equinox (either the Northward or Southward) the sun’s rays are perpendicular to Earth as depicted on the image above,  The tilt of the Earth is seemingly absent at and for the moment of equinox (but ONLY for the moment because of course the tilt is in reality not gone at all).

The lengths of light/dark periods towards either pole is not the same as it is on the equator, but for this day the lengths of light/dark periods for a particular latitude above and below the equator ARE pretty much the same. Each hemisphere is illuminated equally so the length of daylight and darkness for say 40 degrees north AND south latitude are the same, but the same cannot be said for mis-matched latitudes like say 10 degrees north and 40 degrees south.

So when does that moment of Southward Equinox occur? It varies a wee bit from year to year, this year the Southward Equinox occurs today (September 22, 2013) at 20:44 UTC (16:44 EDT).

Edit:  Alan in his comment pointed out some confusing language on my part having to do with the 40 degree north and south example.  I am not meaning those particular latitudes have equal light and dark times of 12 hours each, rather the light and dark periods they do have will match and remember there is some discrepancy.

The actual sunrise and sunset values for 40 deg N and S are below:

40 North Sunrise is 1048 UTC and /Sunset is  2257 UTC

and

40 South Sunrise is 1047 UTC and /Sunset is  2258 UTC

Thanks Alan!

 

Earth Directed CME

The SOHO LASCO C2 instrument captured this image of the Earth-directed CME. SOHO's coronographs are able to take images of the solar corona by blocking the light coming directly from the Sun with an occulter disk. The location of the actual sun is shown with an image taken by SDO. Image and Captiont: ESA & NASA/SOHO, SDO

The SOHO LASCO C2 instrument captured this image of the Earth-directed CME. SOHO’s coronographs are able to take images of the solar corona by blocking the light coming directly from the Sun with an occulter disk. The location of the actual sun is shown with an image taken by SDO. Image and Captiont: ESA & NASA/SOHO, SDO

UPDATE:  The Sun has released a second CME; this one on 21 August and the current forecast is for minor geomagnetic storms levels (G1) from 21:00 UTC ON 24-August until about 06:00 UTC on 25-August.  If the forecast is correct expect an aurora so keep an eye to the sky if you can, especially at higher latitudes (towards the respective poles).

Maybe, I’ve been patiently waiting for the K-Index go up ever since this happened. Nothing much yet, there was a little blip and that’s about it. Listening to the WWV updates leads me to believe not much is going to happen either.

Looking at the bright side (no pun intended) the full moon would have probably washed out anything that wasn’t truly amazing. I am 45 deg North Latitude and points north of that or south of that Southern Latitude will have a much better chance of seeing an aurora so keep an eye out..

Still, I will keep an eye on the numbers and the sky, predictions have been wrong before!

From NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center::

On August 20, 2013 at 4:24 am EDT, the sun erupted with an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection or CME, a solar phenomenon which can send billions of tons of particles into space that can reach Earth one to three days later. These particles cannot travel through the atmosphere to harm humans on Earth, but they can affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground.

Continue reading

Comet Names

Comet P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW) Large Scale Phenomena Network.  Credit: NSSDC's Photo Gallery (NASA)

Comet P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW) Large Scale Phenomena Network. Credit: NSSDC’s Photo Gallery (NASA)

The way comets are named tells us a little about them, so let’s take a look.

First, the way comets are named was changed in 1994 at the International Astronomical Union at its General Assembly in The Hague. The following methodology started in 1995.

For clarity, I’m only going to present an overview and if you want more visit the IAU Cometary Designation System page.

Looking at these three comet names:

C/2012 S1 (ISON)
P/2013 O2 (PANSTARRS)
C/2013 O3 (MCNAUGHT)

The very first thing that stands out is they start with either a P or a C. If the letter is a P the comet is called a periodic and has an orbit of less than 200 years or has had more than one observed perihelion passage (closest approach to the Sun). Conversly a C is a non-periodic comet with a 200-year or more orbit.

It is possible to see a few other designations:
A means the body was actually an asteroid or minor planet and incorrectly classified as a comet.
X means an orbit could not be reliably determined for the comet.
D means a dead, broken up or lost comet.

A notable comet with the D designation would be: D/1993 F2 the famous comet which impacted Jupiter in 1994.

You will sometimes also see a number before the prefix. The number is a sequential number assigned and maintained by the IAU Minor Planet Center to comets that have been followed through aphelion or otherwise positivily identified for more than one orbit. The very first comet to be followed is very famous: 1P/1682 Q1 (Halleys), we are in the mulitple hundreds now.

Then the year of discovery, easy enough, in the list above ISON was discovered in 2012, and Halleys in 1682.

The next part is a way to tell which part of what month the comet was discovered AND the nth comet discovered in that period. In the examples above:

C/2012 S1 (ISON) has S1, the S meaning it was discovered in the second half of September (see table below) and it was the first comet disovered in that period.

The next two: P/2013 O2 (PANSTARRS) and C/2013 O3 (MCNAUGHT) were the second and third comets discovered in the second half of July.

Here’s the table (courtesy of the IAU):

Letter Dates Letter Dates
A - Jan. 1-15       B - Jan. 16-31
C - Feb. 1-15      D - Feb. 16-29
E - Mar. 1-15       F - Mar. 16-31
G - Apr. 1-15       H -  Apr. 16-30
J - May 1-15        K - May 16-31
L - June 1-15      M - June 16-30
N - July 1-15       O - July 16-31
P - Aug. 1-15      Q - Aug. 16-31
R - Sept.1-15      S - Sept.16-30
T - Oct. 1-15       U - Oct. 16-31
V - Nov. 1-15       W - Nov. 16-30
X - Dec. 1-15      Y - Dec. 16-31

I is omitted and Z is unused

Finally the person(s) or organizations/scientic efforts ex: PANSTARRS, LINEAR etc discovering the comet.

Again this is just an overview and not meant to capture all the nuances, you can find out everything else you might want to know at the link included at the beginning of the post and be sure to visit our Comet page.