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A Spectacular Meteor Shower Predicted for this Weekend

December 9th, 2009
Geminid Meteor Shower, Source: NASA

Geminid Meteor Shower, Source: NASA

The Geminid Meteor Shower doesn’t usually get the full-court press offered to the two other notables, namely the Leonids and the Perseids.  However, recent studies point to an expected increase in meteor shower activity from the Geminids that will continue for the next few decades.  Why? Jupiter’s gravitational influence is going to steadily push more of the stream of ejected material from the extinct comet Phaeton our way over this course of time. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about Phaeton slamming into us, which is now technically just an asteroid.

At worse, about 100 streaks an hour can be expected starting around midnight local time in North America.  Start by finding Orion, look at his arrow-wielding arm, follow it “up” until you reach the constellation Gemini.  That’ll be where it appears the shower is coming from.

What of the prediction of increased shower activity? At they high end, you’re looking at possibly 200 streaks an hour.  Wow!

Source: NASA

Space

That’s a Nice Looking Spaceship – I Want One

December 7th, 2009
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo (SS2).  I'll wait for version NCC-1701.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo (SS2). I'll wait for version NCC-1701.

Perhaps sometime later in my lifetime I will have mustered the gumption, not to mention the cash required to jump onto Virgin Galactic’s tour of outer space.  But for those of you who not only have enough of both but have been one of the first to reserve your seat into one of the first of such rides for the paying public, aside from those willing to fork over $1M for a jouney on the ISS, here’s what your ride will look like.

The rest of us will just have to sit back and drool.

Space, Travel

Cool Piece of Astronomical Software of the Day: Stellarium

September 4th, 2009

Stellarium (courtesy of Stellarium.org)

Stellarium (courtesy of Stellarium.org)

Ever wonder what is that third star from the right?  Could that planet be Jupiter or possibly Venus?  Or, are you just planning a stargazing trip to someplace distant sometime in the far off  future and are wondering what you can expect to see?

Then, Stellarium is just for you.

While the free downloadable software (Windows, Mac, Linux) has been around for a while, it still hasn’t hit version 1.0.  As of this article, it’s on version 0.10.2.  Still, despite my best efforts, I could not get the program to crash, and I run an old P4 1.73Ghz PC.  I can only imagine how it will work on a newer computer.

As you can see from the screen shot, Stellarium will give you a view of the night sky, as if you walked outside your home on a clear, dark night.  But, that’s just the beginning.

Read more…

Reviews, Space

Here Comes the Sun…Spot

June 19th, 2009
The Sun, as of 19 June 2009.  Courtesy of the National Solar Observatory/AURA/NSF.

The Sun, as of 19 June 2009. Courtesy of the National Solar Observatory/AURA/NSF.

If you’re a geek like me, you’ve kept your telescopic solar filter on the shelf for more years than you care to remember because of the lack of anything of interest on the sun. Well, time to dust it off. At least, if the scientists at the National Solar Observatory have the right idea.

Scientists have observed that solar activity waxes and wanes on an 11 year cycle. Why? Nobody yet knows. But when solar activity increases, all sorts of havoc gets wrecked onto our satellites and telecommunication systems, and at the same time we see a marked increase in aurora activity. For amateur astronomers, as even professional ones I suppose, increased activity means that sunspots are back. And peering at the sun with a telescope fitted with a high-grade solar filter suddenly becomes interesting again.

Read more…

Space

Shuttle Mission STS-119, Carrying Two Teachers, Will Not Launch As Planned

February 21st, 2009
Discovery on STS-119 at the Vehicle Assembly Building.  Photo courtesy of NASA.

Discovery at the Vehicle Assembly Building in January 2009. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The again-delayed shuttle mission STS-119 is supposed to be special for a number of reasons.  First, three of the would-be astronauts are first-timers, and of those two are former educators.  Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold were both former high school teachers who were elevated to the ranks of Mission Specialists after undergoing NASA’s standard training for all astronauts.  The hope, of course, is to continue to spark the imagination of students everywhere and engage them on an academic level.

But this mission seeks to accomplish much more.  As the 10th-to-the-last shuttle mission ever (unless things change), STS-119 seeks to install the final set of solar arrays onto the International Space Station and fix the failed toilet to tap urine conversion system.

Of course there will be a wealth of on-board science experiments and ISS construction that will ensue over the 14 day mission.  But one interesting bit includes a one-off heat shield tile that will be placed under the left wing.  It will sport an irregular bump of 0.25 inches and will be monitored during re-entry at Mach 15 to understand the heating effects on that tile.  I can’t wait to catch the video on YouTube.

Oh, why is this mission delayed?  Endeavor’s flight in November 2008 was marred by a failure of a hydrogen flow control valve, one of three that adjusts the flow of gaseous hydrogen to fill the void of liquid hydrogen used during assent.  Fortunately, this particular failure was compensated for by the other two and the assent proceeded without a hitch.  But upon landing and an inspection of the valve, engineers were left with answering a basic question: Could this failure have led to catastrophe?

Well, it’s 6 days before the intended launch date of February 27.  And without a firm answer, NASA has wisely decided to postpone the mission.

More to come…

Space

THEMIS (Aurora research and more!) Update

February 16th, 2009
Photo courtesy of NASA.  Artists rendition of Earths magnetic field.

Photo courtesy of NASA. Artist's rendition of Earth's magnetic field.

If you recall, THEMIS is the awful name given to the amazing set of satellites charged with learning about how the solar wind affects Earth’s magnetic field, auroras, and shortages to our power grid.

Without getting into the nitty gritty, late last year initial results indicate that indeed our magnetic field is leaky as previously predicted.  However, what surprised scientists is the finding that more solar particle penetrate Earth’s magnetic field when it’s aligned with the sun’s magnetic field, not against it.

And it’s when the sun’s magnetic field switches orientation that ours tears open, ultimately wrecking havoc yet yielding amazing auroras.  For the science intense, you can go straight to the source.  For those looking for auroras, look no further than here.

Space

A Few Favorite Aurora Pictures

February 16th, 2009

Science isn’t all about number crunching.  Sometimes physics is fun.  And as a follow up of an aurora article I wrote some time back with regard to the mission of NASA’s THEMIS, I thought about revisiting the set of probes to see if anything new has developed.  Well, new things have developed, specifically, a better understanding of how solar particles breach our planet’s magnetic field.  You can attempt to read and understand more about that here.

Once you’re done, enjoy the pictures that follow.

Strang

Photo by Joshua Strang. This image was taken over Alaska, and was voted Wikipedia Commons Picture of the Year for 2006.

Photo courtesy of NASA.  This image, taken from the International Space Station in February 2, 2003 shows green and red aurora.  Depending on conditions, the ISS can travel through, above, or below aurora.

Photo courtesy of NASA. This image, taken from the International Space Station in February 2, 2003 shows green and red aurora. Depending on conditions, the ISS can travel through, above, or below aurora.

Aurora as seen by the ISS

Photo by Don Pettit, ISS Science Officer in 2003.  Here’s another instance of the ISS going head to head with a green aurora.

aurora_kuenzli_big

Photo by Bud Kuenzli, courtesy of NASA.  This photo, taken over an Alaskan lake captures not just an awesome aurora, but a shooting star and the the Pleiades. You can find the original description here.

Interesting Pics, Space

Global Warming to an Extrasolar Extreme

January 29th, 2009
Extreme global warming, far, far away.  Photo courtesy of NASA.

Extreme global warming, far, far away. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Most climate experts believe a 3 degree Fahrenheit increase in out planet’s temperature over the next 100 years would spell disaster. 10 degrees would be catastrophic. What about 1000 degrees?

Ursa Major.  Photo courtesy of Wikisky.org

Ursa Major. Photo courtesy of Wikisky.org

There’s a Jupiter-sized planet that orbits a star 190 light years away located in the constellation Ursa Major, or what most of us recognize as the Big Dipper.

Read more…

Space

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