Space News by David Glass with additions by Eddie Dealtry
Welcome to the May newsletter, published as Slides presented at our May meeting. As follows:
Welcome to the April newsletter. In order to reduce the work in our monthly newsletters, we now publish the Slides presented at our April meeting. As follows:
See the Albeireo page on wikipedia.
Welcome to the December newsletter. Sadly, on many fronts, the Covid crisis continues, so I hope you all managing to keep well and keep occupied. The weather clearly hasn’t cooperated much this past month. Aurora have been seen and photographed, Comet Leonard is approaching visual visibility – I think I picked it up in binoculars on a strongly moonlit night a week or so ago – but I may have been kidding myself! Orion is now prominent, so some fun to be had there if the clouds disappear. Jupiter has been looking nice but is now getting rather low for good clarity.
On a practical society note, we have the AGM this coming Thursday, December 2nd @7pm, along with David’s astro-quiz. The night will only be on Zoom and not in hybrid format, so don’t turn up at the museum, there will be no one there. Should be a fun night – no pressure David. Festive hats are not a dress-code requirement, but here is nothing to stop you!
Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.
At the moment there seems to be a pause in the construction around the launch area, with a lot of cranes etc taken off site. The massive tower holding the “chopsticks” intended to catch an incoming booster and position a starship on it are essentially complete, and much of the scaffolding around it has been taken away. On 12/11/21, all six Raptor engines on Starship 20 were test-fired. There is also a booster rocket (BN4) in the launch area which has Raptor engines fitted, but BN5 in the construction area is catching up fast and it’s not clear which one will be used for testing and a future launch. There’s a very nice discussion of what’s happening here.
At the moment it’s unlikely that there will be a launch to orbit in 2021, but we can look forward to more tests and possibly test flights of booster and starship separately.
Another outfit has joined the select group who have put a craft into orbit. This time it’s Astra, who used their relatively small rocket to put a test payload into 500 km high orbit. This was achieved after just 5 years’ development. Their aim was to develop a small 2-stage rocket and launch system that can be mass-produced and launched from spaceports anywhere on the planet. This “Rocket 3” development can carry a 50kg payload to orbit, and a planned “Rocket 4” should be able to carry up to 200kg.
The launch site for this was Kodiak Island in Alaska, which emphasises the wide range of launch sites that could be used for this rocket.
The launch of JWST will be a huge event in astronomy and astrophysics, which so many science goals depending on its successful launch, deployment and commissioning. So, the last thing that people want to hear right now is that a failing clamp sent an unexpected vibration through the spacecraft – which is precisely what happened. Engineers seem to be quietly confident that everything is OK with the spacecraft, which is robust enough to withstand launch into space. However, nobody needs that additional stress! The planned launch date in December may slip a bit, but we will have to wait and see.
We all know that there are near-earth objects (NEOs) orbiting the Sun. At the moment none of these pose a significant risk to the Earth (although the name Apophis does pop up in news articles from time to time!), but one day we may detect one that could collide with the Earth. So, what can we do about it? The Double- Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is designed to see whether the course of a smallish asteroid can be deflected by a spacecraft impacting it, and its spacecraft was launched this month to intercept a binary asteroid, 65803 Didymos. The larger of the bodies is about 780km across, but the smaller one is about 160km across. This a size of interest in terms of protecting the Earth, because there are a lot of them and not all of them have been detected yet. The aim is to create a small deflection by crashing the spacecraft into the smaller body. The deflection should be measurable by tracking the asteroid from Earth, and there’s already been an intense campaign of observation to determine its current track.
There’s a nice description of the mission here.
And, if you want to become a certified “Planetary Defender”, you can take quiz!
Modern astrobiology depends on being able to recognise signs of life here on Earth, in order to spot it elsewhere in the Solar System (or possibly beyond – roll on JWST!). This means that astrobiologists can be found deep inside caves, in submarines at the deep ocean floor near hydrothermal vents, risking their existence near boiling volcanic lakes etc trying to gather samples of life in the most extreme environments known. A study published in October didn’t go this far, but concentrated on a hostile, arid environment that could represent conditions on Mars. They concentrated on finding compounds that are associated with cell membranes, proteins, and immune response. Key to this was the development of their “LDChip”, a single device for detecting key molecules which may find its way onto future spacecraft.
The rocks they investigated were carbonates from the Atacama Desert, Chile (where the ALMA telescope is located). The rocks are thought to be from between the Triassic and Jurassic eras, when a huge mass- extinction event occurred. The results showed limited signs of life, associated with cell shutdown and survival in harsh conditions which could be expected if a mass-extinction event was underway.
The full paper on this research is here.
But a summary with more detail than in this newsletter can be found here.
Several spacecraft have been powered by ion-propulsion systems, where an electric field is used to accelerate ions to create a thrust. The Hyabusa-2 spacecraft which successfully got samples back to Earth from the asteroid 162173 Ryugu used one. The thrust from these systems is tiny, about that of the downforce of a small hedgerow bird sitting on a branch. However, the thrust can be applied for months at a time and the effect on a spacecraft’s trajectory is dramatic.
Traditionally, these systems have used xenon gas (relatively heavy atoms) to provide the ions. However, a team has now developed an ion-propulsion system that uses iodine instead, which is abundant on Earth and produces more thrust than a xenon-based system so less propellant mass is needed for the same job. A downside though is that iodine is corrosive, so electronics and other potentially-affected systems on a spacecraft have to be protected adequately. The new system has been tested aboard a 20kg Cubesat launched from China in November 2020. A full description of the engine and its performance can be found in an article in Nature (getting published there is an achievement in itself!), available in full here.
Double stars can be very pretty, especially if the two stars have contrasting colours. Double stars have the advantage that they are little affected by light pollution or the phase of the Moon, unlike for example the faint fuzzy blobs of galaxies.
Splitting very close doubles can be an interesting challenge but you may be limited by the resolution of your optics. A very rough rule of thumb is that on an ideal night [do we get those in Cumbria?] your binoculars/telescope can resolve objects that have an angular separation of 140/aperture in mm [5.5/aperture in inches], so for a pair of 10×50 binoculars, you could separate stars if they are 140/50 ~ 3 arc seconds. I suspect 5 arc seconds might be a more likely possibility in this case.
Generally double stars with a colour difference are more interesting and beautiful to observe, especially if they are not too different in brightness. Having said that Castor, α Geminorum, is a pretty double with both stars being white and having a similar brightness.
One classic and rather lovely double star is Albireo in β Cygni – the head of the swan.
The picture above is one I took in September using my 8” Meade SCT and a Canon DSLR. The primary star is a lovely golden yellow at magnitude 3.4 whilst the companion at magnitude 4.7 is a lovely blue colour. They are just splitable using a x20 magnification.
The annotated right-hand picture defines a few of the numbers in the table below. North is up as seen in binoculars, but be careful here as different styles of telescope with give different orientations (never mind the effect of a star diagonal!). For example, a Newtonian, Dobsonian or refractor will give west to the left and north down, whilst a Schmitt-Cassegrain or a Maksutov will give North up and East to the right [as will a refractor and a diagonal).
So what do the labels mean? The separation is just the angular separation in arc seconds of the two stars, whilst the position angle is the angle of the line joining the two stars measured going in a direction through east – so can vary from 0° to 350°.
Sometimes, the human brain plays tricks on you. Despite the temperature of a star, which fixes the colour and the spectral class, if the brighter star has a strong colour, you perceive the fainter star to have the complementary colour [for red that is cyan] rather than its true colour! You’ve probably seen this with an afterimage after looking at a bright coloured object. This is a nice website on this point. And different people see slightly different colours just to confuse things even more.
The following is a list of winter coloured double star systems worth looking at for their colours, based on a 2016 article in Sky and Telescope by Bob King1 – who based his article on an earlier one by Alan Adler2. You might need some planetarium software to find some of these pairs.
|Star||R.A. Dec.||Mags||Sep.||P.A.||Colour difference||Spec. class||Optimium magnification|
|η Cas||00h49m||+57° 49′||3.5||7.2||13″||317°||1.7||GO, K7||58x|
|1 Ari||01h50m||+22° 16′||5.9||7.2||2,9″||164°||3.5||K1, A6||268x|
|γ And||02h04m||+42° 20′||2.1||4.8||9.8″||64°||3.5||K3, B8||77x|
|ι Tri = 6 Tri||02h12m||+30° 18′||5.3||6.7||4″||69°||1||G5, F5||188x|
|η Per||02h51m||+55° 54′||3.8||8.5||22″||301°||3||K3, A3||27x|
|32 Eri||03h54m||–02° 57′||4.8||5.9||7″||254°||2.6||G8, A2||107x|
|ρ Ori||05h13m||+02° 52′||4.6||8.5||7″||64°||1.7||K3, F7||107x|
|14 Aur||05h15m||+32° 41′||5.0||7.4||15″||226°||0.4||A9, F3||50x|
|ι Ori||05h35m||+05° 57′||2.9||7.0||10.9″||142°||0.2||O9, B1||69x|
|ι Cnc||08h47m||+28° 46′||4.0||6.6||30.6″||307°||2.6||G8, A2||25x|
|ζ Lyr||18h45m||+37° 36′||4.3||5.6||44″||150°||1.1||B7, A8||17x|
|Albireo||19h31m||+27° 57′||3.4||4.7||35″||54°||3.5||K3, B8||21x|
|31 Cyg||20h14m||+46° 44′||3.8||4.8||107″||325°||29||K2, B3||7x|
|β Cap||20h21m||–14° 47′||3.2||6.1||307″||267°||3.2||K0, B8||4x|
|γ Del||20h47m||+16° 07′||4.4||5.0||9″||67°||1.4||K1, F7||83x|
|δ Cep||22h29m||+58° 25′||4.1||6.3||40.9″||191°||2.5||G2, B7||18x|
I’ve only seen a few of these but I hope to see some more. I hope you can see some too.
And… the November newsletter.
Well, winter is nearly here with the end of summer time. Nights are drawing in, cloud guaranteed especially when there is some time-limited viewing opportunity or aurora likely! Such is astronomical viewing in Cumbria. All you can do is get out when it is clear and enjoy. This month’s sky notes give the usual details of what is visible, subject to me discovering them as I’m not very good at looking for unusual events like planets or comets aligning up with each other or interesting deep sky objects.
In addition, this month, there are some details of a comet, Comet Leonard C/2021 A1 which has the potential to become quite bright [here we go again?]. This particular long period comet has been around the Sun a few times, which tends to make them more predictable as most volatile materials will have vapourised in previous perihelia. Volatile materials in ‘new’ comets tend to cause sudden outbursts leading people to think it’ll be much brighter when it gets closer to the Sun and so they often disappointed when the volatiles then stop vaporising and the comet dims. Hopefully this comet will behave and not disappoint when it is closest to Earth on December 12th. It is quite well-placed in the early morning sky in early December but rattles low along the western horizon in the evenings. Fingers crossed.
Committee members required. David and I have worked hard to keep the the Society alive and active. We really need to keep the momentum and help the Society to grow. For this, we really need some more people on the committee. David and I are getting somewhat ‘burnt out’ so we do need help. Please think seriously about volunteering, and let us know at a meeting or by email if you can help.
Also, don’t forget, contributions to the newsletter from any member are most welcome. They could be stories, historical snippets or photographs.
Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.
Thursday November 4th, 7pm Kendal Museum, or online on Zoom.
Speaker: Jack Ellerby Friends of the Lake District on “The Cumbria Dark Skies Project”.
No doubt will tell us about some of his successes to get a reduction of light pollution in the Lake District national park.
Just a gentle reminder that the Society will be running a Moonwatch on the Kirbie Kendal School playing fields on Friday November 12th starting at 18:30 and expecting to finish by 21:00. There is plenty of parking in the school car park and overflow, if that is full, at the Leisure centre up Burton Road. This is the Society’s Dark Skies Cumbria Festival that is running from 6th – 14th November .
All welcome. Members of the public have been asked to book on the FLD website, but EAS members can just turn up – you might get asked a few questions by visitors!
Don’t forget the joint north-west societies Christmas dinner. This usually includes the societies from Lancaster & Morecambe, Blackpool and Preston. Date: 16th December. Location: Garstang. There will be the usual after-dinner talk from Prof. Allan Chapman with the meal costing £30. If you are interested, please let the committee know by email with a deadline for monies collection of our December meeting.
You may be aware that the Society gets third party liability insurance through the FAS. In addition, they also produce quarterly newsletters which sometimes contain an interesting article. These are available online, so go and have a look.
Still lots of construction work going on at Boca Chica, Texas, including the installation of the catch arms (‘chopsticks’) on the Mechazilla tower. We posted a link to an animation of what these are for in a previous newsletter – these are key to the rapid turnaround of boosters and starships to get material and personnel into orbit and beyond. There were also two test fires of the Raptor engines on a starship, S20, on 21/10 after proof tests late in September.
These tests involved ignition of both the sea -level optimised and vacuum-optimised engines for use in space, and were separated by a relatively short interval (just over an hour). The sea-level engines are gimballed and have been seen in action already for landing starships. The scale of the engines is seriously impressive – imagine screamingly hot gas at an exit pressure of about 300 bar (4,400 psi) blasting out of them:
No specific date has been announced for an orbital flight involving S20, but it may not be too long a wait.
On 4/10, Blue Origin’s flight NS-18 took four new passengers to the edge of space and back. One of these was William Shatner (the original Captain James T. Kirk for non-Star Trek fans), who at 90 became the oldest person to go into space. See here.
You will notice that I’m not using the term “astronaut” – the IAU changed the definition and I’m not sure that these passengers qualify. The link contains a replay of the build-up, launch and landing – it starts at 2h 26min, but the launch is at 2h 23min.
The flight went smoothly, and they are always fascinating to watch. However, the flight was eclipsed by Shatner’s reaction when he got out of the capsule. They say that seeing the Earth from space changes people…and he was visibly overwhelmed by what he saw (zoom to 2h 43 min in the replay). Here’s an interview where he discussed what he experienced:
Steady progress is being made towards getting the SLS ready for its first flight (Artemis 1), which could be in February 2022. On 22/10 the Orion crew capsule was stacked onto the SLS, which is another milestone:
This now allows the end-to-end testing of the fully integrated rocket, including a full countdown practice. The rocket can then be moved to the launch pad on its mobile launcher for a full “wet dress rehearsal” test where it is loaded with cryogenic propellants and unloaded. Click on image to enlarge.
After a 16-day boat trip, the James Webb Space Telescope was unloaded at the Guiana space centre on 12/10 and is being made ready for launch sometime in December (on or around 18/12 is planned):
The launch will use an Ariane 5 rocket, and will get the JWST to the L2 Lagrange point behind the Moon where its position will be relatively stable (think of a weight on the end of a piece of string circling a central point – that’s how gravity will pull on the telescope). For a straightforward description of Lagrange points, take a look here.
16/12 saw the launch of Lucy, a spacecraft intended to explore the Trojan asteroids that occupy space along Jupiter’s orbital path (at Lagrange points!). it should visit eight trojans over a period of about 12 years. These Trojans are thought to be remnants of the material from the earliest days of the Solar system, and studying them will help to plug gaps in our knowledge of how the Solar system formed. For more details of this fascinating mission, take a look at lucy.swri.edu and check out the mission overview in particular.
Currently (29/10) there seems to be an issue with the unfurling of its solar arrays, which hopefully will be resolved soon. Apart from that the spacecraft is healthy.
Astronomers are great at wringing out science from any viable data source. In this case, a team used an image from the LORRI camera on the New Horizons spacecraft to image the far side of Pluto, illuminated only by the very faint reflected light from Pluto’s companion Charon. After some intelligent processing of the data, they managed to detect a high-albedo (i.e. reflective) region in the Southern hemisphere which could be a patch of frozen nitrogen. However, the South polar region had lower albedo, which might point to interesting seasonal phenomena.
The preprint of the research paper on this study is available here.
…and a non-technical summary is here.
There used to be three ideas of how the Moon formed: the fission theory where a large mass of the presumed rapidly spinning Earth tore off to form the Moon; the capture theory, where the Earth gravitationally captured a body that had formed elsewhere; the co-creation theory, where the earth and Moon both formed at the same time in a similar region of space.
One indication that the fission theory was correct is that the average density of the Moon was very similar to that of the outer layers of the Earth as would be expected if some of the Earth’s outer layers were ripped off. However, the Apollo rock samples had more refractory elements and less volatile elements than those of the Earth’s surface rocks. Volatile materials boil at relatively low temperatures (900°C) compared to refractory ones (>1400°C). This suggested that the Moon formed from material that was heated to a higher temperature than the Earth so that some of the volatile material boiled away.
However, the consensus now is that none of these three ideas is correct. At a conference in 1974, Donald Davis and William Hartmann proposed an impact hypothesis. It turns out in the subsequent discussion that another group (Cameron and Ward) were independently working on a similar idea. The idea was that the Moon formed some 4.5 billion years ago from an off-centre collision between the Earth and a Mars-sized body, later named Theia after a daughter of Earth goddess Gaia and the sky god Uranus in Greek mythology. Debris from the Earth’s surface spalled off from the collision forming the Moon with most of Theia being absorbed onto the Earth. This ‘graze and merge’ scenario would explain the lack of both volatiles and a lunar iron core, assuming the iron was already in the Earth’s core. It also explains why the Earth spin axis is tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic. But it left several questions unanswered, not least that simulations rarely gave a Moon with an Earth-like composition and the collision speed had to be improbably low.
Now, new simulations reported in the Planetary Journal (Erik Asphaug et al 2021 Planet. Sci. J. 2 200.) suggest that with faster approach speeds, Earth and Theia do a ‘hit and run’ where they come into violent contact for a short time (30 minutes) before what’s left of Theia escapes. Material passes between the two objects which has time to mix as the surfaces are molten post impact. Crucially, having lost a lot of energy and hence slower, Theia frequently comes back to have another glancing collision with the Earth in typically 0.1–1 million years according to the simulations. This second collision can now be a ‘graze and merge’ scenario as Theia sometimes approaches with the previously improbably low speed. This neatly solves both the composition and speed issues.
The paper goes into a lot more detail on material transfer and mixing if you are interested. No doubt this new model will have some other issues too, but it is an interesting new take on an old model.
Whilst on the subject of moon formation. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile has found evidence of a possible moon-forming region surrounding a newly forming and recently-discovered exoplanet PDS70c. This orbits the young star PDS70, which is 370 light-years away. The observation, reported over the summer in The Astrophysical Journal Letters ( Myriam Benisty et al 2021 ApJL 916 L2), could lead to important insights into how moons and planets form and evolve within young star systems.
Discs of gas and dust often surround young stars with rings and gaps cleared out by newly forming planets. These planets can also acquire discs of their own, it is believed that moons can form in these discs with a similar effect, more gaps. So far, the process has not been directly observed.
ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) first detected two exoplanets forming round PDS70 by direct infrared images of the system Since then, these giant Jupiter-like planets have been observed using a variety of other techniques. In particular observations in the hydrogen-alpha (Hα) emission wavelength, associated with ionised hydrogen, suggest given the Hα emission that the planets were still accreting material.
ALMA is a millimetre wave telescope that detects the emissions from cool dust grains. The new observations of PDS70 clearly show a disc surrounding the outermost exoplanet, PDS70c, with an outer radius no larger than 1.2 au. They calculate that the disc could contain anywhere between 0.7% and 3.1% of Earth’s mass – enough material to form up to three satellites with similar masses to Earth’s Moon. In addition, the material in PDS70c’s disc is well within the radius where it would be retained by the exoplanet – providing ideal conditions for a moon to form.
The innermost exoplanet, PDS70b, did not display any clear evidence for a circumplanetary disc which could mean that the planet has a far smaller radius within which orbiting material can be retained. Alternatively, PDS70c could have ‘hoovered’ up all the dust as its orbit is better placed within PDS70’s circumstellar disc
The astronomers hope that observations with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile and become available in 2027, could provide direct high-resolution images of the system. This could be a unique opportunity to study the formation of planets and moons which ultimately could improve our understanding of how moons form around young gas-giant planets.
There were reports in the archive late last year [ here] of the possible detection of an exo-galactic planet in M51 using the Chandra X-ray telescope. This work has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Astronomy which, sadly I think, is behind a paywall. Try it.here .
The observers measured the brightness of one of the strongest X-ray sources in M51, with the exciting title of M51-ULS-1. The source is an X-ray binary system, typically containing a compact object, a neutron star or black hole, pulling in gas from a closely orbiting companion star. The material near the neutron star or black hole becomes superheated and glows at X-ray wavelengths, producing a very compact, planetary sized, X-ray source.
The observers noted the detected signal drop to zero for about 3 hours whilst observing the source for 53 hours. They concluded a Saturn-sized planet orbiting the compact object transited the X-ray source. Because the source is so compact, the transit completely occulted the source, totally different to normal exoplanet transits where even a 1% reduction or less is typical. The researchers deduced an orbital distance of about twice the distance of Saturn from our Sun. Unfortunately, the orbital period is estimated to be about 70 years so the gold-standard of a repeat transition proving it is an orbiting exoplanet cannot be done.
The authors also considered whether the dip could be due to:
So they are left with the conclusion that they have observed the first ever exo-galactic planetary transit. They go onto say that “the search for extroplanets, planets in orbits located outside the Milky Way, has now become a realistic and practical enterprise.”
Not only do we have exo-planets, we now have extroplanets!
Well time keeps flying by, so another newsletter.
Next meeting will be on October 7th at 7pm when Simon Ebo (UCLAN) will speak to us on ‘The Search for Exoplanets’. The meeting will again be a hybrid one with some people in Kendal Museum, including the speaker, and others on Zoom. Connection details will be distributed shortly. Hopefully, we’ll see a few people in person.
Over the past 18 months or so, when we couldn’t meet at the Museum, the Society has been kept alive and active thanks to the enthusiasm of the members and the work of the committee. We really need to keep the momentum and help the Society to grow. For this, we really need some more people on the committee. At the moment we are operating without either a Secretary or a Treasurer and this has put extra load on each of us. We could also do with a new Chair. Would you be prepared to take on a committee role? No experience is necessary for co-opted committee members, but if you can keep notes and write letters you would be great for Secretary. If you can write cheques and keep accounts you would be great for Treasurer. And anyone who can be the focus for the Society and lead it into the future would make an excellent Chair. Please think seriously about this, and let us know at a meeting or by email if you can help.
Also, don’t forget, contributions to the newsletter from any member are most welcome. They could be stories, historical snippets or photographs.
Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.
The Society has been contacted about a possible joint north-west societies Christmas dinner. This usually includes the societies from Lancaster & Morecambe, Blackpool and Preston and can be good opportunity to socialise with others interested in astronomy from outside our area. The provisional date is Thursday 16th December. There will be the usual after-dinner talk from Prof. Allan Chapman with the meal costing £30. At this early stage, this is rather provisional as we all have no idea what the situation will be by December.
Further details will be circulated as soon as we know more.
SpaceX sent four inspirational civilians on an orbital flight (Inspiration4) in a Crew Dragon capsule, launched by a Falcon 9 rocket. This is all proven technology, which has got people to the International Space Station and back. The flight was funded by one of the crew and was to generate support for the paediatric cancer centre at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee.
The Dragon capsule was launched on 16,th September at just after 8pm EDT to an altitude of about 350 miles, above the orbit of the International Space Station, and splashed down on the 19th. A large window replaced the usual docking hatch to give amazing views. The flight went smoothly, except for issues with the toilet. No such flight is complete without a zero-gee indicator, and this time it was Jude, a small puppy in a spacesuit (replicas are for sale via the hospital).
For a detailed briefing on the flight and the crew, take a look here.
Meanwhile, it’s been construction, construction and more construction at the Boca Chica complex in Texas. Most notably, the massive launch support tower has been finished and a “quick disconnect” arm has been fitted. This will connect to rockets for transfer of utilities such as fuel. Note the stabilisation “claws” at the end.
Later (possibly soon), two enormous “catch arms” will be fitted. The purpose of these catch arms is the stuff of science fiction – it’s intended to catch a descending booster (chopstick style), place it on a launch support and then plant a Starship on it ready for a quick re-launch. For an animation of how it is intended to work, take a look here.
The whole assembly has been nicknamed “Mechazilla”, from a (fictional) giant mechanised dinosaur that went head- to-head with Godzilla (also fictional, for the avoidance of any doubt).
At the time of writing, one of the boosters (BN4) is sitting on a launch support ring on site and is awaiting testing, and Starship SN20 is also sitting in the launch area after having thermal insulation tiles replaced. This is all adding up to a possible launch of a starship into orbit in the not-too-distant future. Keep an eye on the webcams looking at the site (see previous newsletters)!
NASA’s SLS is intended to get people back to the Moon at some point. It is currently in a Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) on a mobile launcher (ML-1), and is being prepared and tested for its eventual first test flight which could be as early as December this year. One recent milestone is an umbilical release and retract test (URRT), which simulates the detachment of umbilicals and their rigid arm from the rocket prior to launch.
The test covered numerous sub-systems to ensure that they worked, and will help to ensure a smooth launch. The video shows that the solid rocket boosters are in place. The mobile launcher allows the rocket assembly to be moved to the launch pad, provides all necessary connections for utilities, communications prior to launch and allows access for personnel and crew. For more details of the test, the rocket and the mobile launcher, have a look here.
The next flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard is likely to be in October (on or around the 12th), and will carry more civilian paying passengers on a sub-orbital flight into space. The whole flight, from lift-off to capsule landing, lasts about 12 minutes so it’s worth trying to watch it live or recorded. There are rumours going round that one of these passengers is no stranger to space travel across our galaxy neighbourhood, and would become the oldest human ever to go into space. We watch and wait!
The possible contribution of amateur astronomers to the field should never be underestimated. One amateur astronomer (José Luis Pereira, Brazil) was filming Jupiter through a telescope looking for potential impact flashes when this happened…
The InSight lander on Mars is equipped with extremely sensitive seismometers, and is intended to detect and record marsquakes which can be used to infer the interior structure of the planet (prospectors for oil and gas do this routinely here on Earth). And not just the thud of the next failed ESA lander (as Simon White pointed out!). On the 18th September (Sol 1000 for the lander), a magnitude 4.2 marsquake occurred which lasted for 90 minutes. Two previous events in August hit magnitudes 4.1 and 4.2. The measurements allow the locations of the tremors to be estimated, and will be of use in studying the internal structure of the planet. For further details, including a description of some of the challenges faced by landers such as this, have a look here.
The James Webb Space telescope (JWST) is a highly-anticipated mission to put a seriously big (6.5m mirror) near- to mid-infrared telescope at the L2 Lagrange point (behind the Moon). It can observe beyond the capabilities of Hubble and ground-based telescopes, and allow new science to be explored (e.g. formation of the earliest galaxies and exoplanet composition to name a couple). Numerous papers are being released on ArXiV discussing how JWST observations can be used for science, presumably as a warm-up for actual proposals for observation time. However, JWST has been subject to many delays, and no launch date was forthcoming – until very recently. A date of 18th December is now proposed, and astronomers all over the planet will be delighted to see it happen. But, it’s better to delay and get it right than see it blow up, so let’s hope it goes soon but safely!
After many years of little NASA involvement in lunar exploration, NASA has announced the proposed landing site for its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission due for launch in 2023. The mission is designed to search for possible water ice deposits in parts of craters that are permanently in shadow. Finding usable water on the Moon would provide a valuable in-situ resource for future astronauts and colonies.
The selected landing site had to satisfy four main criteria: Visible from Earth for direct line-of-sight communication; sunlight access for solar power generation; terrain that the rover should be able cross; and for the scientific value, a site expected to contain water ice.
Four sites were considered aworth Crater, Nobile Crater, a ridge that runs between Shackleton and de Gerlache craters, and Shoemaker Crater. The site finally chosen was Nobile crater (85.2°S 53.5°E). A nice video showing this here.
Naturally, something this close to the lunar pole is very hard to see from Earth.
It is hoped that the rover will travel around 20km over 100 days or so investigating the area popping into shadowed areas to investigate before returning to sunlit areas to recharge its batteries. The rover will be automated to some extent in a similar way to the rovers which have been deployed on Mars but the direct line-of-sight communication potential means it could be driven in almost real-time from the Earth!
The rover isn’t large, the usual analogy is that it is the size of a golf cart – about 1.5 x 1.5 x 2.5m. Each wheel can be independently pointed so that it can crab sideways, diagonally, spin on its axis and move in any direction without changing the way it is pointing. It even has headlights! On board will be instruments to find the ice, and also drill down (up to 1m) into the regolith to bring samples to the surface for further analysis. The three spectrometers measure volatiles, like water, and the mineral composition. There will also be a range of cameras to both navigate and image samples.
This could be a really exciting mission.
Well, that is impossible, isn’t it? Once a massive star has exploded, in the process destroying itself and leaving behind a neutron star or black hole, surely it can’t do it again. Well, that is correct, but general relativity has given us the chance to watch one explode again – maybe.
What the scientists have now done is calculate the light paths from the supernova to Earth and realised that a there is a good chance that there is a longer, and therefore later arriving at Earth, fourth path. They predict that this will become visible in 2037 give or take 2 years and appear within the yellow circle. For a simple animation of the light path, see here.
Such measurements as these may be useful as they can be used to constrain the cosmic expansion rate and dark energy models. No doubt, Hubble’s successor will be periodically imaging this cluster to see if the ‘supernova’ reappears.
For the past year or so I’ve been trying to image the Cygnus Loop supernova remnant. So what is this?
It is situated near one of the wings of Cygnus, the Swan. The large loop is the result of the death of a large star, 12 to 15 times the mass of the Sun, that came to the end of its life some 21,000 years ago. Recent measurements have put the distance of the ‘loop’ and therefore the original precursor star at 2,400 light years, which means that the object is about 130 light years in diameter. The estimated mass of the precursor star suggests that there would be a neutron star produced, but no trace has been detected.
What you see here is the result of the expanding debris from the supernova explosion encountering the material in the interstellar medium, causing this to emit light – obviously UV but also hydrogen emission in the visible and some other elements, predominantly oxygen and sulphur. The whole structure also goes by the name The Veil Nebula with various components names as in the figure. The Western Veil also goes by the name The Witches Broom Nebula.
I said it was large… The angular size on the sky is nearly 3° across. That is 6 times the angular diameter of the full moon, or about the width of your hand held at arms length!
Last year, I attempted detailed images of the Eastern and Western components with my 10” Newtonian telescope and astro-camera, although the seeing was rather poor when I imaged the Western Veil. I also photographed the whole nebula in one image using a telephoto lens and my Canon DSLR camera. The resulting image was in the January 2021 newsletter and it showed the characteristic issue with imaging with a standard DSLR – light from the brightest spectral component, the red line from hydrogen (H alpha at 656nm), is blocked by the filters inside the camera required to get facial colours looking right. To avoid this, this time I used my cooled astronomical camera which is very sensitive at that wavelength. I also reimaged the Western Veil component with my 10” Newtonian telescope to complete my set of the brightest two bits. I should add that each of these more detailed images are mosaiced from three separate images as the field of view of the telescope is too small to get everything in one shot
So the results…
Welcome to the September newsletter. I’d like to take this opportunity to those new members who have recently joined us. We all hope you will enjoy the Society.
As discussed last month, we are holding our meeting tomorrow (as I write this) in a hybrid manner – with a live audience in the museum and ‘Zoomed’ in members. We will see how this goes regarding future meetings. As we are having a live meeting, with David presenting space news and recent astronomical information, I decided partly due to time constraints just to focus this newsletter on “what’s in the sky” this month.
Now that the nights are drawing in, I hope you can get out and see the stars when Cumbrian weather permits. It’s always hit and miss. The forecasts aren’t always correct [do I hear a few titters?] but they do give a general idea. Clear Outside (https://clearoutside.com/forecast/54.34/-2.75?view=midday) often shows 100% cloud when in reality, it is just a thin high haze. Whilst that is not great for imaging or viewing faint galaxies, it hardly affects the brighter objects, double stars, the Moon or planets. So you have to look carefully at the details in these forecasts.
Don’t forget, contributions to the newsletter from any member are most welcome. They could be stories, historical snippets or photographs. Just get in contact with an email.
So, to conclude, enjoy the last of the summer and keep safe. Clear skies. Clear Skies.
Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.
They are customizable to your location – the links below are set to Kendal.
This satellite view I find quite useful as it shows the cloud cover for the previous 21⁄2 hours or so. This lets you have an idea as to what cloud is coming … switch to infra-red to view the clouds at night.
Welcome to the August newsletter. I hope you are keeping well.
I’d like to take this opportunity to those new members who have joined us over the summer. We all hope you enjoy the Society.
We hope you have been making the best of the unusual dry summer weather and have managed to see some of the noctilucent cloud displays. The one on July 7th was very good and I believe there was another great display a few days later, one I managed to miss. Whilst they are ‘only clouds’ they are quite spectacular with their eerie blue colour and strand-like structures. Sadly, the displays are probably now finished for this year.
Don’t forget to look out for the Perseid meteor shower which peaks around dawn on August 13th. Take a look as this is probably the best meteor shower of the year, and there is no Moon getting in the way There is lots of activity a day or so either side of the peak so if it is clear, get out somewhere dark, take a comfy chair/recliner and just look up! Meteors should be visible nearly anywhere in the sky but the trails will point back to the radiant in the constellation Perseus. At 23:00 on the 11th, Perseus will be in the NE, moving further east and higher as time goes by.
The committee took the decision for a meeting holiday over the summer, so our next meeting will be at 7pm on September 2nd, when we have Pete Williamson FRAS speaking on “Herschel to Hawkwind, Astronomy & Music: How each influence each other”. That brings us to the venue. We hope to be able to hold the meeting as ‘normal’ at Kendal Museum, but of course that is dependent on the state of the pandemic. It is also unclear at this stage if Pete will be with us in person. Obviously, that is a personal decision for him. The bottom line is that the meeting is likely to be a ‘hybrid’ with some people present in person and others connected via Zoom.
David Glass and Phil Morris have visited the Museum to talk to the management, whilst Clive was on Zoom and acted as a remote member. Two critical items were discussed:
Firstly, ventilation. As we all now know, good airflow is critical in reducing the potential of infection. We have agreed with the Museum that we could run meetings with two fire doors open. In addition, we were assured that the windows that have been painted shut would be fixed in time for our meeting. However, note that it is likely to be colder than normal, so if you attend, wrap up well.
Secondly, we realise that there may still be people who are unwilling to attend in any enclosed space, so David has tested live streaming the meeting via Zoom. This appears to work quite well. On the test, questions could be asked in the room and heard by the remote audience, and vice versa. If our speaker can’t make it, they will still be able to give their presentation via Zoom, as now, but at least we will have the added benefit of seeing each other again.
Of course, this is all provisional as we have no idea what the virus will do.
Don’t forget, contributions to the newsletter from any member are most welcome. They could be stories, historical snippets or photographs. Just get in contact with an email.
So, to conclude, enjoy the last of the summer and keep safe. Clear skies. Clear Skies.
Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.
Many of you will have heard or read about the Dark Skies Cumbria Project organised by The Friends of the Lake District run by Jack Ellerby – see here.
We hope Jack will give the Society an update on progress with the project at our November meeting.
The Society, through your committee, has been supporting the project and have had over the past few years several discussions with Jack, and previously Johanna Korndorfer [who gave us a talk in 2018]. Amongst other things, I have been looking at local planning applications and commenting on proposals if they appeared likely to increase light pollution – a recent case in point being the proposal to increase the size of the Carus Green golf driving range which we circulated information about in an email. Whilst I have nothing against their expansion per se, their current lighting is appalling and hopefully the criticism received from several sources will spur the Club to think more carefully about their lighting and bring it into the 21st Century
However, that it not the point of this article. I want to report that the Project has employed professional consultants to survey the excessive lighting in Kendal. The report identifies most of the prominent ‘culprits’, around 100 with very few surprises, and Jack is expecting to approach those businesses and diplomatically talk to the about reducing the problem, and in the long term possibly save them money! In addition, the Project, working with Cumbria County Councils lighting team, has successfully delivered new downward pointing warmer LED light arrays on Low Fellside in Kendal, replacing lights that illuminated walls on buildings and the sky rather than the intended paths. Whilst a very small step in the greater scheme of things, it is a first step in the right direction.
As part of a dark sky festival, we [EAS] will be running, subject to any Covid restrictions, a Moonwatch open to the general public. The date is likely to be Friday November 12th. The venue is still being discussed as our initial first choice venue will be problematic due to flood defence works. A likely candidate is Gooseholme in Kendal but that has yet to be confirmed. The committee would appreciate support, and a few telescopes, from the membership if it is clear.
It’s been a busy few months since the last newsletter! I’ve included some detailed items below, but we’ve also seen the Hubble Space Telescope come to a halt thanks to a glitch (but is now working again), the ISS perturbed by a misfiring thruster and astronaut Gus Grissom possibly exonerated for losing his nerve, blowing the hatch and sinking the Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7.
During July, two key sub-orbital flights carrying civilian passengers took place after years of testing and validation of the spaceships. On 11/7/21, Virgin Galactic launched its SpaceShip Two spaceplane Unity from underneath the wing of its WhiteKnight Two carrier aircraft, from an altitude of 50,000 ft. Unity was then propelled by its own rocket motor whose 70 second burn kicked Unity to an altitude of about 86 km, a point at which space is said to start. Unity then descended under gravity and glided safely to land at Spaceport America, New Mexico where is journey started. The passengers, including Sir Richard Branson, experienced microgravity for a few minutes and got to see the curvature of the Earth from space.
To learn more about the hardware, here.
And for a 3-minute video that captures the flight well, see here.
For a more conventional rocket launch experience for sub-orbital passengers, there’s Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, which took its first passengers on a sub-orbital flight to about 100 km on 20/7/21 from its launch site in Texas. The passengers included Geoff Bezos, and Wally Funk (age 82) who was trained as female astronaut in the 1960s but never got to fly at the time. The passengers travelled in a comfortable capsule with big windows mounted on a booster rocket, so they got to experience a traditional countdown, lift-off, capsule separation and a parachute/rocket assisted landing with great views – all of which went smoothly. For the full webcast of the flight (over 2 hours!), see here (LONG video!!) and zoom forward to about 1 hour 40 min to see the flight. And here’s the landing:
I haven’t dared to look at the price tag for tickets!
All the passengers on board might have thought they would come back as astronauts from this trip because they technically went into space. However, the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority, USA) saw what was on the horizon and changed the definition. Not only do the people on board need to be crew, not passengers (i.e. employees or contractors of Blue Origin) to be classed as astronauts, but they need to carry out “activities during the flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” The change came into force on the same day that New Shepard launched with passengers. Whether that dampens the experience for paying passengers remains to be seen. The passengers on board Unity might still have a case though – all of them were tagged “mission specialists”!
We got to see the test launch and successful landing of Starship SN15 just before our last Zoom meeting in May. Since then, there haven’t been any more flights, but there was a test fire of Raptor engines on the other part of the eventual rocket on 19/7/21 – the booster, which is even taller than the Starship. This booster is still in place near the launch site. There has also been a lot of construction work going on, to provide a massive launch tower, new fuel storage tanks and a giant ring to stand the rocket on prior to launch. There’s a nice summary here of what’s been happening and what is planned.
Bath University was scheduled to hold the annual National Astronomy Meeting in July 2020, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society. This didn’t happen because of lockdown, but it did take place this year – online. I “attended” to present a research poster. The parallel sessions and plenary talks were all very well run online, and the poster session was run via gather.town which was fun! In this, participants choose an avatar for themselves and end up in a plan view of a foyer and poster halls to navigate through using the arrow keys. If participants get close enough, their camera and mic feeds spring into action and they can chat. There were also “easter eggs” hidden throughout the space, with facts about Bath, the university and astronomy. People could also meet in breakout areas for discussions. The plenary talks were all very good, and are available here (click on the youtube link after the summary of each talk).
Although it would have been great to visit Bath, this was an excellent alternative which in my opinion worked very well. The next NAM is in Warwick in 2022, and there is talk of making this a “hybrid” meeting with people both there in person and attending online.
Welcome to the May newsletter. We hope you are keeping well and also have been using the unusual clear weather to good effect and have been enjoying the fantastic skies. I’ve certainly been busy.
It’s looking like some time yet before we can start holding meetings in the Museum. We are not planning meetings in June, July and August at this stage, a slightly longer summer break than normal. I hope that we can be back in the Museum in September but that raises some questions for everyone – not least, for example, is our speaker willing to travel to Kendal!
The committee realises that some members may feel unable or unwilling for personal reasons to attend meetings in person for some time beyond the Government’s hoped for end of restrictions. Therefore, we would be interested to know if people would be willing to go to the museum assuming that the current situation progresses as hoped with an end to lockdown measures mid-June. Please let us know by email using email@example.com. One possibility, which we would need to investigate to see if possible, would be to live-stream the meeting on Zoom. This would require the agreement of the Museum and Kendal College for us to use their network. While not ideal, at least it would allow those members ‘shielding’ to participate.
We’ll look toward producing another newsletter probably early July, depending on what the circumstances are then. We can always alert you to interesting events by email.
Summer is fast approaching. From May 11th, the sky is not fully dark – defined as the sun being at least 18° below the horizon. Astronomical darkness doesn’t occur again until August 3rd. You can still see things in the twilight but with less contrast, so if clear go out and look. Look out for the Perseid meteor shower, visible a day or so either side of August 12th.
As we said previously, we’d welcome contributions to the newsletter from any member. Just get in contact with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, to conclude, enjoy the summer and keep safe.
Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.
Not long ago the Society got an email from the owners of Hare Hill, a farm on Cartmel Fell (about 1.5 miles North of High Newton) with amazing dark skies. They have a converted barn which they use for courses and events, and were interested in finding someone who could lead stargazing courses for them. We couldn’t think of anyone immediately (unless you know someone!), but we did enquire about holding observing evenings for the Society at the barn. The answer was Yes! So, Clive Rowland and David Glass went over there to meet the owner and take a look at the facilities. Both concluded that this would be an excellent venue for stargazing, with fantastic views and access to the barn for hot drinks (at cost), power and shelter. We will contact the owners again later this year to set up a session along the same lines as previous ones (covid permitting).
While finishing the last newsletter, we just caught the flight and dramatic end to Starship SN11 in a mid-air explosion. Official word from SpaceX is that the explosion was due to a methane leak around one of the engines. Undeterred, Starship SN15 was moved from the construction area to one of the launch pads on 8/4/21. Here’s how to move a starship (~22 min long, not a lot happens for the first 3 minutes – zoom to 9 minutes for the move). The video also shows new Ground Support Equipment (GSE) tanks for the bulk storage of cryogenic liquids, built on site using the same design principles employed for Starships. These are now in service.
A keen eye can spot differences between SN11 and SN15 – a few obvious ones are heat shielding and a different shape to the inboard leading edges of the flaps (flings, flamps, flaperons or whatever they are actually called, there are lots of names being used!). One commentator points out differences to external vent positions and external pipework, hinting at changes to internal configurations. Perhaps this includes a permanent means of pressurising the methane storage tank instead of padding it with helium (see previous newsletters).
At the time of writing (25/4/21), SN15 has undergone pressure testing at ambient temperature and filling/emptying with cryogenic liquids. There is no indication of when test fires might occur, but they could happen w/c 26/4/21.
SpaceX had a major success on 23/4/21. Dragon Crew-2 was launched smoothly and successfully, and four astronauts boarded the International Space Station on 24/4/21. This launch was significant because both the first stage booster and the Dragon capsule had been used previously, so this was a test of the principle of re-use. Also, the wife of one of the first astronauts to be sent up by SpaceX was on board this flight (and sat in the seat used by her husband). The Falcon-9 first stage booster landed successfully on a drone ship, I think – the live satellite feed kept dropping out.
The whole build up to launch and the launch itself can be watched here (LONG video >4 hours, but zoom to 4h20 to catch the launch): But all that pales into insignificance compared to the main issue that everyone wants to know about. What was the zero-gee indicator?? This time it was Jellycat’s My First Penguin, named GuinGuin by the children of one of the astronauts:
Zoom forward to 4h55m to see GuinGuin put in its first appearance.
Another smooth launch was achieved by Blue Origin’s New Shepard NS-15 on 14/4/21. The capsule got to 348,753 feet altitude, above the Karman line so anyone on board would technically be an astronaut. This time it was only Mannequin Skywalker – however, a dry run was carried out for the boarding of astronauts prior to flight, so perhaps the next flight will have people on board. Both the capsule and booster landed safely. You can watch the astronaut dry run, the launch and landings here.
In an achievement to rival the first powered flight by humans on Earth, a small, light drone helicopter named Ingenuity has flown on Mars. Three times to date (19th April, 22nd April and 25th April). Check out Stuart Atkinson’s excellent Facebook page Postcards from Perseverance to see some amazing images of these historic events.
Perseverance is currently at work on the surface of Mars, and although the pioneering flight of the Ingenuity helicopter has captured the limelight of this mission recently (rightly so!!) there is other amazing science going on as well.
Perseverance is carrying a package named MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), which is intended to test a means of making breathable oxygen (>98% purity) from the Martian atmosphere which is mostly carbon dioxide. The process is relatively simple, but uses some clever electrochemistry. The feed gas from the atmosphere is first pressurised. it is then passed to a solid oxide electrolysis (SOXE) stack operating at about 800°C, which is effectively solid cathodes and anodes supported on a ceramic structure. The cathode is a catalyst, where a reaction producing oxygen and carbon monoxide from carbon dioxide occurs if an electrical potential is applied across the anode and cathode. The oxygen migrates to the anode where it is collected. The stack has no moving parts, and needs no additional chemicals or solvents apart from the feed carbon dioxide to make oxygen.
MOXIE has so far managed to produce 5 grams of oxygen at a flow rate of about 10 g/hour. The power requirement for this is 300W.
Thinking back to the talk, at our last Zoom meeting, by Dr Hannah Sargent on the importance of using on-planet resources for long-term missions, this result is an important milestone.
Red dwarf stars have been found with Earth-like planets in close orbits in the “habitable zone”, where liquid water could exist on the surface and life could get a foothold. However, red dwarf stars are known to have exceptionally violent stellar flares which eclipse anything our own Sun has produced to date. A planet in a close orbit in the path of one of these would not necessarily be a friendly place for life. The reasons for these enormous flares on such small stars are the subject of ongoing research.
This month, it was announced that a record-breaking stellar flare was observed on our nearest-neighbour star, Proxima Centauri, and because of patient observing with multiple telescopes it was captured at multiple wavelengths, from far-ultraviolet to millimetre. The star increased in brightness by a factor of 14,000 at ultra-violet wavelengths, and the flare was about 100 times more powerful than similar flares from the Sun. The results will help understand the nature of these flares and improve understanding of how they are produced.
Further information can be found here.
An open-source version of the paper describing the observations can be found here (with a nice introduction).
Nova V1405 Cas in the constellation of Cassiopeia, is still about magnitude 8. Since first being measured [AAVSO data] on 20th March at around magnitude 7.8, it has faded a little so that currently it is about 8.1. Details on how to find it are in the April Newsletter. It isn’t well placed for me at the moment as it is behind my house until early morning.
In the last newsletter I included a photo of a supernova in a faint spiral galaxy NGC3320. I have been following it ever since grabbing an image every few days to see how it behaves…
I have refined my analysis technique, as my initial estimate was as suspected overoptimistically bright. The above image is taken with my 10” Newtonian reflector using a cooled monochromatic camera. An Astronomix luminance L2 filter is used to remove both infra-red and UV light. I took 15 images each of 30 seconds and after calibration and alignment, I averaged then to produce my final image with reduced noise. The images are short exposures to avoid any possibility of oversaturating the supernova or any stars that are of interest for calculating the supernova magnitude. Using the programme AIP4WinV2 – originally distributed as part of Richard Berry’s excellent book “The Handbook of Astronomical Image Processing”, but is now free.
This supernova is believed to be a Type II supernova, identified by the presence of spectral lines of hydrogen, where the stellar core has collapsed following the exhaustion of all elements that can undergo fusion. The infalling material compresses the core, forming a neutron star (or a black hole if the mass if greater than about 40 solar masses), and some of the infalling material bounces back forming a shock wave which blasts off the outer stellar atmosphere, resulting in the ‘explosion’ we see.
In the most common type II supernovae, Type II-P, a plateau appears 30 to 80 days after the peak luminosity. This comes from the shock wave ionising the hydrogen-rich envelope which then slowly recombines over a few months. Whether 2021gmj is of this type, is certainly not yet clear from my data – the reason I intend to keep measuring it as long as possible.
Stuart Atkinson posted on Facebook on April 15th about a bright supernova SN2021hiz in the faint galaxy IC3322A in Virgo – round about magnitude 13. It was clear that night… so… You can see the supernova clearly outshines the whole galaxy.
The ‘bright’ elliptical galaxy at the left is NGC 4365 and the other edge on spiral at the centre-bottom of the image is IC3322. I’ve counted over 20 other galaxies in this image, presumably all part of the Virgo cluster. My measurement on April 15th gave a magnitude of 12.95 in the visible band using the same technique as for SN2021gmj. I tried to measure again on April 24th but the Moon was too bright and close for useful images.
Thanks to Stuart for the heads up on this supernova.
Moral: I must look more often at the Rochester Astronomy page which lists recently detected supernovae by dedicated research instruments and satellites.
Welcome to the April 2021 newsletter. Not a lot to say this month. Our virtual Zoom programme continues and the weather continues to not play fair. I guess that is one downside of living in Cumbria.
There has been auroral activity recently although for the best nights we were clouded out. As I write this, the reduction in restrictions due to coronavirus are imminent, so you should be able to travel a little bit further to get some darker skies. If the auroral alerts go off [e.g. Glendale Skye auroral alert phone app, or the aurora-service.eu website is predicting in its 3-day forecast that activity is going to be 5 or above, then get out and have a look if the Solar wind gauges Bz [left gauge] is negative [in the amber or red].
Other news, there is a binocular nova visible in Cassiopea, more on this later.
Our next meeting is this coming Thursday, April 1st, with Hannah Sargeant from the OU talking on ‘The Hunt for Lunar Water’. Our May meeting is Dr Dimitris Stamatellos from UCLAN speaking on Faraway worlds: Exoplanets and planet formation. I hope to see you these.Finally, we hope everyone is keeping well.
Ian Bradley, on behalf of the EAS committee.
Just after the last newsletter was published, SpaceX managed to launch its Starship SN10 to an altitude of about 10km, and managed to land it – for a short while anyway. For a very good replay of events on 3/3/21, see here (LONG VIDEO!) And zoom forward to about 10h 20m. Don’t stop watching after the landing, there’s a surprise coming at 10h 34m! The commentary will keep you engaged until then.
If you’ve seen the video, you will have seen the recently landed (but not quite vertical) starship suffer an internal explosion and jump back into the air again for another (and more destructive) landing. You may also have seen a fire in progress in the engine area just before landing, which seemed to continue after landing. Is this connected with the explosion? The outside of the lower part of the rocket looks like it’s still frosted up after landing, which means that there is still cryogenic liquid methane (flammable!) on board. Although the storage tank is made of stainless steel, it is very thin-walled and it is possible that the fire might have weakened it. Or, the tank may have been damaged on impact. Or, the non-upright landing may have damaged pipework around the engines leading to a methane leak which then built up a flammable gas cloud around the engines. Whatever the explanation, the result was an unscheduled re-launch.
In spite of the dramatic turn of events, the flight was successful in many ways including the first upright landing of a starship. Next, SN11 was wheeled out for positioning on a launch platform on 7/3/21. After two static firings of the engines (the latter requiring an engine change), SN11 was awaiting a final static fire test before launch. As I’m writing I have the live feeds running from LabPadre and NASASpaceflight running – the final static firing has just happened (13:09 GMT 26/3/21), and there is a lot of anticipation for a launch today. Almost everything is in place – the road is closed, the launchpad is clear, Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) and Notices to Mariners are in place. And so we wait…Nope, it’s been scrubbed for today! Monday 29/3 is a possibility, so tune in and see.
If you want to drop in on the Boca Chica facility at any time and see what’s going on, try: LabPadre’s Nerdle Cam which also has a microphone so you can listen in as well (currently I hear something like a wailing seagull nearby and the sound of sporadic high-pressure gas venting from the launch area). Occasional running commentary only. On a windy day at the site the sound feed can be very relaxing! Check out LabPadre’s other cameras as well.
Well, SN11 didn’t launch on Monday 29th – but it did launch at 08:00 local time (13:00 BST) on the 30th. An excellent replay of events is here (scroll through to 2 hours 14, and back out when you’ve seen/heard enough!).
It was very foggy at Boca Chica, so ground-based cameras couldn’t see much. However, the NasaSpaceflight feed cut over to SpaceX’s cameras on board. All seemed to be going well, with the starship transitioning to horizontal and controlling its freefall very well. Then came engine re-ignition at an altitude of about 1km just before 08:06…the cameras showing the engines then cut out, and the feed from a ground-based camera showed large pieces of debris raining down on the site, with some impressive clunking noises as they landed. Smaller pieces of debris may have hit some of the cameras in use – this is why it’s a good idea to clear the area when conducting test flights!
The reason for the breakup of the starship remains a mystery at this point, but hopefully the information gained will be of use. The official quote for the flights was that it was an “exciting test”! Nobody at ground level could see what happened fully, so we need to wait for an official word on this.
[Editors comment: Musk also tweeted “At least the crater is in the right place! Apparently, debris found on a bench 5 miles from the launch site – did it explode in mid-air rather than a ground impact?]
You may recall that NASA managed a partial test (“Green Run”) of its Space Launch System (SLS) at the Stennis test facility in Mississippi, on 19/1/21. This was scheduled to last 8 minutes (the full duration of a launch), but it only lasted just over a minute because of an automated shutdown. On 18/3/21, they tried again – and the engines burned for the full duration. Here’s a video showing the whole event (>1 hour long, but zoom forward to about 47 minutes to pick up the start of the action unless you want the background info).
The amount of water needed to quench the exhaust and deaden the sound of the engines is impressive – the huge clouds of water vapour generated are obvious. The gimballing of the engines during the test is intentional, and is how the rocket is steered in flight. Next, SLS will be refurbished where needed and shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, ready for an actual launch sometime. The plan is for a crewed flight to the Moon in 2024.
Parts of the UK were treated to a decent fireball on 28/2/21, visible across parts of the South West of England. A chunk of it ended up on someone’s driveway in Gloucestershire and is now known as the Winchcombe Meteorite…
The meteorite is a very rare carbonaceous chondrite, which apparently feels like soft coal. Its composition will inform studies of the formation of the early Solar system, alongside the pristine asteroid samples recovered by the Osiris-Rex and Hyabsa-2 spacecraft. The fireball was caught on several doorbell and other security cameras, and it should be possible to use this information to estimate where the meteor came from.
Then, a sonic boom was heard across the South West of England, Wales and France on 20/3/21. This was not RAF Typhoons on their way to intercept incoming aircraft, but another fireball…
Some folk report a sighting of it during the day, which means that it must have been comparatively large to be that visible. And, if the incoming meteor makes a sonic boom like that, some believe that it’s an indicator that fragments could well have landed. No reports of meteorite findings yet!
The EHT is a planet-wide network of telescopes operating at mm wavelengths, capable of micro-arcsecond resolution. You may recall the amazing image of the material around the active galaxy M87’s central supermassive black hole, from April 2019. During the observations the telescopes also recorded the polarity of the incoming radiation, and further analysis has been done of this polarisation. The result is striking…..
Polarisation such as this is associated with a powerful magnetic field close in to the black hole. The results can contribute to the understanding of how these black holes “feed”, i.e. draw matter in toward them, which is influenced by the presence of a magnetic field. The creation of the spectacular jets from the centre of active galaxies, like the one from M87, is also associated with magnetism, so the results could help here too. If you want to see the very recent science papers on this, go to here and here The number of people involved in these papers is very impressive.
For a short explainer on the significance of this work, take a look at this video from Prof. Derek Ward-Thompson of the University of Central Lancashire…
It seems wrong not to report the current goings on with the rovers on Mars as there is plenty of activity. Curiosity continues to do great science and Perseverance is working up to it.
Perseverance after a few short survey trips is gearing up to release the 1.8 kg Ingenuity helicopter. As I write this, the transport cover has been released and the first of many steps in lowering the helicopter to the surface have been taken. The survey identified a ‘flight zone’ and an ‘airfield’, a 10 x 10m square of flat area free from rocks and obstructions.
NASA is billing this as a ‘Wright Brothers’ moment – the first flight on another planet. They even went so far on this linkage as to place on Ingenuity a small piece of the material used to create the Wright brothers’ plane, the Flyer. Don’t worry they didn’t purloin a piece from the actual plane, this was a bit left over from its construction! Apparently, Apollo 11 flew a different piece of material and a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer to the Moon.
The plan is to position Perseverance on a bluff, Van Zyl Overlook, on the right of the image to video the first flight. This flight will be a sequence of pre-programmed instructions to rise a few meters, hover maybe do a left-right rotation and then return back to the surface lasting only 20 to 30 seconds. It will be an amazing achievement if it is successful. Ingenuity is a flight technology demonstrator and will never go far. It is limited to 90 seconds flight and will probably only travel 300 meters or so. But the Wright Brothers’ flight was only 12 seconds!
Perseverance’s main task is to explore the region, in particularly the remains of an ancient river delta. It has already returned some images of a 10 metre high rock exposure not too far away. Stratification is some exposures is clear.
Meanwhile, over at Gale Crater, Curiosity has taken a nice selfie at the Norton drilling site and Mont Mercou. You can see the drill hole and the surrounding grey dust on the slabs in front of the rover. This image is a mosaic of 60 individual pictures taken with MAHLI camera at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm on sol 3070 (26 March 2021). Mont Mercou is a stratified butte 7m high and 15m long. This image was assembled by Thomas Appéré using the NASA raw images.
To my complete surprise, a busy pair of tree surgeons enlightened me to the age of a felled tree in Fowling Lane: ‘Probably, planted by the Blind Philosopher’. News to me. On enquiry, the ‘Blind Philosopher’ is news to a number of us.
Arthur Eddington is not our only influential, local physicist, apparently. We can also brag about John Gough (1757 – 1825) ‘The Blind Philosopher’ from ‘Fowl Ing Lane’. Contemporary John Dalton (he from Cockermouth of Atomic theory fame) described Gough as a ‘prodigy in scientific attainments’. Other contemporaries described him as a self-taught mathematician, physicist, botanist and meteorologist.
An autobiography held by Kendal Archive makes references to his scientific work – dealing with his youth ‘before leaving the world’, continued his by son Thomas (a surgeon of Kendal 1804 – 1880).
Gough was left blind after suffering smallpox at two years old. His mother spent a great deal of time and energy on his ‘Learning when blind’. Early on Gough is demonstrating a prodigious memory for abstract ideas, augmented by a ‘lively idea of appearance’ using the sense of feeling, touch. He could differentiate soils from parts of the garden as well as from different seasons. Thomas records that his father even handled ‘venomous … [and] carnivorous animals with no fear’.
In lines 498-514 of the Prelude – Book Seven of “The Excursion” (1813) – William Wordsworth’s writes of Gough:
‘none whose figure did not live/ Upon his touch’
Gough also drew a number of Cambridge students, travelling to Kendal for tutoring. Some of their number went on to become ‘wranglers’ and masters of colleges, including the mathematician William Whewell – of the Whewell equation.
John Dalton also visited for tutorials. Notwithstanding, after Dalton’s published his Atomic theory, Gough mounts a vigorous criticism of his (inaccurate) atomic weights.
Gough’s own researches led to a discovery in the thermodynamics of rubber-like materials leading to publication of three experiments, the second and third ‘with a thermometer’! (Reference #2, below). When rubber is under tension, counter-intuitively, it contracts on heating (rather than expanding). The experimental physicist James Joule (he of the SI unit of energy) a student of John Dalton (himself a one-time student of Gough) investigated and developed his discovery to become the eponymous Gough–Joule effect.
More than a century after Gough and Joule’s investigations, a low ambient temperature is attributed to the cause of O-ring sealing failures during the tragic launch of Shuttle Challenger .
Previously, the record low temperature for a launch was 12°C. At ‑2°C, Engineers refused to sign-off such a low-temperature launch. Nevertheless, it went ahead. A subsequent consensus cites external O-rings failing to seal fuel under pressure as a factor. A ‘primary’ O-ring dropped below the glass transition temperature and the secondary O-ring was not in its seated position – which has been attributed to bending metal. A launch temperature that is far lower than the construction environment, points to the polymer O-rings expanding away from the seal joints for the good folk up Fowling Lane, the Gough–Joule effect.
See also: ‘Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester’ are behind a paywall, the society’s Welcome page is here.
In the constellation of Cassiopeia, a new star has been discovered by Yuji Nakamura of Japan. He discovered the object at magnitude 9.6 in four images he took with a 135-mm lens on March 18th where four days earlier nothing was visible brighter than magnitude 13. It has the name V1405Cas if you want to find more details on it from either the AAVSO or the British Astronomy Society.
At the time of writing, March 29th, it is currently at magnitude 7.9, well within the range of a pair of binoculars. It is quite easy to find as it is very close to M52. It is best seen either early evening or before dawn in the northern sky as Cassiopeia dips beneath the Pole Star around midnight so the nova is then quite low, 25°.
There is a useful article in Sky and Telescope on it here.
Star hopping should get you there quite easily by star hopping from Caph, β Cassiopeia magnitude 2.3. A typical binocular field of view is around 6° and for reference, Caph is 5° away from Schedar. Follow the two brightish stars, both magnitude 4.9, and hang a left to the ‘triangle’ of magnitude 6 & 7 stars. The nova is between there and M52, the upper right of the two obvious bright stars below M52 around 10pm at night. The lower star is HIP 115691, magnitude 6.6.
I measured it on March 21st and found it to be magnitude 7.9. It looked reddish in a colour image, albeit one synthesized from narrowband Ha [red] and OIII [blue/green] filter images. My image is over the page together with the AAVSO finder chart with comparison stars if you are interested in trying to determine the nova’ magnitude. Typically, classical novae brighten by 10 – 12 magnitudes over a few days, and then fades by 2 magnitudes over either a few weeks or over 100 days depending on whether it is a ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ type nova. If the weather clears, over the next couple of months, get out and try and repeatedly measure it and plot your own light curve.
So what is a nova? This is a classical nova system consisting of two stars very close together. One is a main sequence or red giant star and the other is a dead star, a white dwarf. A white dwarf is a star that at the end of its life, blew off all its outer layers leaving only the naked core. No fusion is ongoing there and it will steadily cool and dim over time as energy is radiated away.
The two stars are so close together that material from the ‘live’ star streams across the Roche Lobe onto the surface of the white dwarf, accretion. Over time, sufficient material builds up to satisfy the temperature and density criteria for fusion to occur, and some of the surface material ‘ignites’ blasting off the majority of the accumulated material. It is this hot expanding envelope that we see. As a large fraction will be hydrogen, I’m not surprised that I detected lots of hydrogen in my colour image.
The California Nebula in Pegasus. This large nebula is excited by the star on the right – Menkib, Xi Persei, a very hot and bright type O7 star. I had difficulties with haze and low altitude for the lower half of the two-panel mosaic. A project for next year…
Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of February 28th and March 2nd using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Hα and OIII filters. Hα mapped to red and OIII to both green and blue. Total exposure time over 8 hours.
Who can resist the Horsehead and Flame nebulae. Taken March 1st with a very strong Moon using using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with narrowband Hα and OIII filters with Hα mapped to red and OIII to both green and blue.
Supernova SN2021gmj in NGC3310 in Ursa Major. The star was discovered on 20 March 2021 at magnitude 16. My photograph was taken on March 21st @ 20:45 when I estimated it [with difficulty] to be 14.5. I was probably generous due to contamination from the spiral arm in my estimation as others see it as just over 15.
Welcome to the March newsletter.
Little did we think that when we decided to produce a newsletter for last April, that we’d still be doing it a year later. Given the Prime Ministers aspirations published yesterday [Monday 22nd February], it looks unlikely that we’ll be back in the Museum before May at the earliest. Even then, I suspect some members may not be willing to attend Kendal Museum for meetings. I also suspect that speakers before the summer will either be unable or unwilling to travel. For example, universities currently have their hands full trying to deliver courses and they will probably not quickly remove the current staff travel ban. Obviously, the Committee will just follow the guidance and we’ll inform you about what is happening through either this august publication or by email.
The recent astronomical news, quite rightly, has been dominated by Mars and the successful Perseverance landing. The landing video, do I need to say more, is extraordinary and well worth watching if you haven’t already seen it. But Perseverance wasn’t the only arrival at Mars as there were orbiters from both the Chinese and UAE too. The Chinese probe has a small rover too. The reason all three arrived at a similar time is simply due to orbital mechanics. More from David on these later.
I guess this is time for my frequent moan at the lack of clear skies in Cumbria… it certainly hasn’t been great this past month with only the odd short break. It was even cloudy at full moon! Mind you, the forecasts haven’t been accurate either as I found two clear nights mid-month [10th & 11th] which weren’t forecast to be – that makes planning and preparation difficult.
Last spring/summer we were rewarded with the first decent naked eye comet for quite some while – Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3. For some stunning images, including something called the sodium tail, which I admit I’d never heard of, have a look at this link.
Sadly, no more naked eye comets are due for a bit although one, COMET LEONARD C/2021 A1, is possible low in the northern sky during early December. We’ll just have to see.
Don’t forget that at the end of the month, Sunday 28th March, the clocks change as we revert to summer time.
So, keep safe and don’t forget our upcoming meeting on March 4th – with Megan Argo from UCLAN on the Square Kilometre Array.
You’ve probably seen the iconic photographs of the two SpaceX spaceships SN9 and SN10 both sat together on the launchpad prior to the launch of SN9. I thought it might be useful to see the launch site to give a bit more context to David’s excellent reports. The assembly and control centre is a around 3km away from the launch site.
They looked quite close together, and although they are quite large at 50m tall and 9m diameter, they do seem quite close to one another and the landing zone. Having seen SN8 have a RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly or in English, a destructive crash landing) on the failed landing attempt, I wondered at the possibility of the crash debris damaging the other rocket… so I looked for some aerial photos…
To give an idea of scale in the first photograph, the distance from the left-hand edge of the construction site to the wall on the right of the tank farm is approximately 500m so the centre of the landing pad is about 200m from the launch test stands. They really are surprisingly close together. I guess that shows the confidence of SpaceX in their engineering and design. The second image, which must be a slightly earlier image, shows SN9 and SN10 on their launch test stands and the landing pad behind with what I presume is the remaining debris on the pad from SN8. Clearly the pad was damaged by the crash landing and was then undergoing repair
On 9/2/21, the Hope probe from the United Arab Emirates successfully completed its braking manoeuvre and entered the orbit of Mars. The probe will study the upper Martian atmosphere, with the aim of discovering why Mars lost its water around 3 billion years ago and is now so cold and dry. It will look at how particles are being lost from the planet and escape into space and how the upper atmosphere interacts with the atmospheric layers below. The Martian atmosphere is tenuous and much thinner than the atmosphere that we enjoy here on Earth. Initially the UAE programme is destined to last 2 years and we should get some excellent photographs from its advanced Hi-Res camera. The probe was launched by Japan, is managed by the UAE and has collaborations with United States Universities – a truly international effort.
Here is a video (just over a minute long) revealing the rationale behind the mission.
The image below contains more on the probe…
And here’s one of the first images to be returned from Hope…
Hope’s research aims build upon NASA`s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) mission, which was dedicated to researching the upper atmosphere of Mars and determining the importance of the role a planet’s magnetic field plays in the retention of an atmosphere. Hope, however, will be at a much higher orbit (22,000 – 44,000km) instead of MAVEN`s 4,500 to 150km. MAVEN has been in orbit since 2014, and has painstakingly created a map of electric current systems (interaction of charged particles in the atmosphere and the solar wind). For more details, MAVEN’s home page is here. Some very interesting information on mapping electric currents, and the importance of the planet’s magnetic field in regulating climate and retaining water can be found here (~4 minutes)
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft successfully entered the orbit of Mars on 18/2/21. Richard Rae mentioned this ambitious Chinese mission in a talk to EAS last year and you may remember it comprises 3-parts – an orbiter, a lander and a rover. If successfully deployed, this will be an engineering first for remote planetary exploration, whereby the three components are contained within one payload at launch.
Tianwen-1 means “questions to heaven” and China will become the second nation to operate a rover on the planet’s surface. The craft is currently able to collect information on potential landing sites in the Utopia Planitia region. Here is an inspiring video of Tianwen-1 during February`s orbital capture from space.com. The landing containing the rover is expected to occur in May or June of this year. The rover carries scientific payloads to investigate the minerals on the Martian surface as well as a ground penetrating radar to detect ice deposits.
Here is a (1 minute video) representation of how everything should go from space.com. This is a pathfinder mission for the Chinese exploration of Mars as there are plans for future mission to retrieve Martian samples and bring them back to Earth by 2030.
Few of us can have missed the spectacular landing of the new Perseverance rover on Mars on 18/2/21 – or the equally spectacular coverage of the event, and the initial images and videos released afterwards which really highlighted the technology at work. So, I won’t dwell on it here. If you want to watch it again, highlights and video footage released post-landing are here. Raw images from the rover are coming in, and can be found at here.
Stuart Atkinson does an excellent job of processing these images to bring out the best in them – check out his Facebook page “Postcards from Perseverance”.
After the successful test firings of the engines on Starship SN9, we just had to wait until it was launched up to an altitude of a few kilometres and brought safely back. They got part of it right.
SpaceX never seem to announce when tests and launches are going to happen (please put me right if they do!), so the only way to find out is to check with online resources frequently. SpaceX’s Twitter feed can be of use, but it can also be very informative to use Labpadre’s or NASASpaceflight’s live streams on YouTube. I check the LabPadre feeds daily. On 2/2/21 I found that the SN9 launch was imminent, so throughout the afternoon I kept checking, but not a lot seemed to be happening so I parked it. Then by chance I checked the SpaceX twitter feed that evening, and found a live feed with a countdown – 1 minute 30 seconds to go! Here are some of the live images from LabPadre’s Nerdle Cam that I screen grabbed after a panic rush to grab the laptop. The test didn’t quite go to plan…
Launch – looking good!
Five minutes later. Er…should it be coming in on its back?? Nope.
(all images credit: LabPadre)
Fireball from the liquid methane tank, oxygen tank detached and failed separately (right of image). Jet- propelled debris from the non-burning release is apparent – look closely in both images! Something is skating along the ground in the right-hand image.
During the flight, the Twitter live feed showed a large stream of cryogenic vapour coming out of the back of the rocket, which might have been unignited fuel/oxygen/both. Without sufficient engine power and the ability to steer properly, a crash was inevitable.
The only thing to do after an event like that is to try again. SN10 is in position, and is now getting ready to fly. The first test firing of its engines was on 23/2/21, after which one of the engines was replaced. The second test firing was on 25/2/21… (sound available!).
So, we now wait for readiness to launch of SN10, which hopefully will be soon (but we’ve said that before and it’s taken ages!).
Shortly after the SN9 flight, SN7.2 (a lightweight cryogenic liquid storage tank for use in future Starships was pressure tested on 4/2/21. It did fail (see image), but at least the test will have helped to establish the limits for operation.
I tried pitch-and-putt once. I declared myself dangerous, and consequently I’ve never developed an interest in golf. However, this is a moment where golf was out of this world. Alan Shepard was commander of the Apollo 14 mission in early February 1971 (50 years ago!), and took with him a specially-designed golf club head that would fit on a lunar sampling tool. On 6/2/71 he took two one-handed shots from the Moon’s surface. The second one apparently went “miles and miles and miles”…
Andy Saunders, an image specialist who specialises in re-mastering Apollo images, has analysed photos and images of the event from the astronauts’ cameras, a camera on the Lunar Module and images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Features are apparent on the Lunar surface from this classic experiment…
The maximum distance travelled for the second ball was about 40 yards – and there’s no blaming a gopher that picked up the ball and ran back with it. The challenge for future visitors is to do better!
How many images of the night skies have been taken? Millions probably, adding up everything from backyard astronomers to professional observatories. This article turns this on its head.
The one object we don’t think of imaging at night is Planet Earth, not least because we can’t beyond our terrestrial horizons. Yet humans have launched satellites and probes into the solar system and beyond, bearing cameras. They are our selfie sticks. They photograph us and our world.
This article presents a selection of visually great and also significant images together with their history. It follows on from the February Newsletter where Graham Fell recollected the 2013 photo of Earth taken by Voyager with at least members of EAS waving back at it.
It all started with this, Photo 1, the first image of Earth taken from space, in October 1946. The camera was on board a V2 rocket captured by the Americans from the Germans at the end of WW2. The warhead was replaced with scientific instruments and a 35mm cine camera taking one frame every few seconds.
The photo here was taken from a height of 105km, considerably beating the previous altitude record of 22km in a balloon flight. The camera was destroyed in the crash landing on return but the film survived in a sturdy steel case.
All image credits are NASA.
At the time the V2 image must have seemed remarkable. Today it looks pretty tame through eyes accustomed to the Hubble Space Telescope images. A more modern equivalent of the V2 cloudscape nevertheless does pack a punch. This shot (Photo 2) from May 2011 of clouds from orbit was the first picture taken of a Space Shuttle attached to the International Space Station and gives a good indication of its scale. It was taken from the Soyuz capsule being used to bring astronauts home. The thin blue envelope of the atmosphere shows clearly at the edge of the planet and the floating structure of the ISS is still novel. We see a lot of images shot from the ISS but not many of the outside detail.
The image was not released for some weeks after being taken. The camera’s SD card was left on board the Soyuz craft. At least they got it back, which is more than they did with the V2s. Sixty-four V2s were launched between 1946 and 1952 taking photos of the Earth. A lot of cameras got trashed.
For something iconic featuring the Earth, we have to go back some decades to the Apollo lunar missions. This image (Photo 3) was taken from the Apollo 8 Moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders. For many at the time, and even now, the pure beauty of the planet and the contrasting desolation of the lunar surface was a haunting sight. Phases of the Earth are still an unexpected sight too.
The patterns of clouds on these Apollo images have been compared to those taken on the same date from Earth orbit satellites, identical, in an effort to debunk the claim that the Moon landings were faked in a Hollywood studio. But you can’t convince some people. No doubt the satellite images were all faked as well in Photoshop.
Kennedy said in his 1962 speech that the goal was to land a man on the Moon and return him safely. A lot was riding on this as well as on accomplishing it within the decade as promised.
Photo 4 shows the ascent of the Lunar Module (LM) about to reunite with the Command and Service Module (CSM). It is a photograph that very nearly didn’t get taken. Things had not gone to plan. The connection between the CSM and LM was not fully depressurised and the LM got an extra impetus from escaping air when disconnected. Armstrong reckoned it would send the LM past the planned landing point by 3 miles. Then two alarms registered computer processing overload, the second being a Master Alarm that set off a klaxon. Aldrin later described it as what you got in a Dive, dive, dive scene in a submarine movie (this sort of thing ).
Armstrong switched to manual control at about 500 feet. Although Aldrin was designated Pilot for the LM his role was not to fly it as such but be Chief Engineer. Much of the descent was computer controlled and any human intervention was Armstrong’s job as Commander. The manual controls were on the left side of the LM looking outwards where Armstrong stood, and the LM was too small in any case for the two astronauts to swap places quickly. Armstrong got the LM down with just 18 seconds of fuel to spare, four miles past target, and with the LM sliding several feet sideways on the lunar surface on contact. Renowned for his ultra-coolness in actual emergencies, Armstrong’s heart rate nevertheless doubled to hit 156 per minute by the time the Eagle had landed.
The photo illustrates a key accomplishment of the Apollo 11 astronauts, at a finalising point in the mission – getting there, completing the exploration, getting off the Moon in one piece and preparing to dock with the CSM, with home in sight. It was taken by Michael Collins on the CSM on 21 July 1969. Though not the mission Commander, it was his job to fly the CSM for real rather than Armstrong. Soberingly, he was the pilot trained to be able to return home solo if the other two astronauts were killed outright or stranded on the Moon
HG Wells began War of the Worlds with these words: ‘No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.’[end Quote]
What might the Martians have seen? With the help of an increasingly long selfie stick we now know (Photo 5). This is a milestone image of the Earth, the first taken from the surface of another planet. Curiosity sent it back on 31 January 2014. It provokes the question: Will there ever be a moment when a human born on Mars looks up at a bright star that is Earth, and wonders what it’s like, never having been there?
The next two selfies were taken on the same day, 29 July 2013, but from different directions. The first image (Photo 6) shows Earth and Moon viewed from Mercury, captured by a Messenger probe looking for moons of Mercury. Pluto is said to be in the field of view, but is far too small to show up. The distorted shapes are due to overexposure. It’s arguably not packing the visual punch of some of the other selfies. But taken from a distance of 98 million km by a robotic spacecraft that got there safely, achieved orbit, took images and successfully transmitted the data back home, it sums up how much a species of tree dwelling primates had evolved to aspire to and then achieve.
From the other side of Earth orbit, the Cassini probe imaged us as described in the February ’21 Newsletter. This (Photo 7) is another from the sequence of images, with a close up of the rings and with the Moon recorded as well but not visible here. It was taken from the impressive distance of 1.5 billion km. Carl Sagan, the planetary scientist, populariser of astronomy, cosmologist, pondered on these images and our true significance. He saw them as transcending all our earthly preoccupations, the Earth floating as a speck in an infinite Cosmos. He called it a very small stage in a vast arena.
Carl Sagan was also involved with the final selfie for this article. Voyager 1 was by this time heading to the fringes of the Solar System. He strongly advocated capturing a view of Earth, from what was a record distance away, at approximately 6.4 billion kilometres. NASA was unsure, concerned that sunlight even at that range might burn out the camera (as had happened on the Apollo 12 mission).
In the end, a wide-angle image of the sun was taken using the darkest on-board camera filter with the shortest possible exposure. The results have been presented by NASA first as a mosaic of the wide angle shot and two narrow angle colour frames (Photo 8), containing Earth and Venus. They are in the correct place in the image and taken using three coloured filters (at less than 1 second exposure each). There doesn’t seem to be a version actually showing the planets. The alternative highly processed version (Photo 9) does show Earth, coincidentally in a shaft of sunlight scattered off the Voyager camera shading.
Carl Sagan made a renowned poetic speech about the blue dot of Earth, so easily masked by a mote of dust on a computer screen. Sagan died in December 1996 but left a recording of his 4-minute speech available here.
This is the concluding line, fitting at a time of pandemic and growing urgency about global warming:
“[This distant image of our tiny world] … to me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”
Carl Sagan 1994
Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of February 10th & 11th using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Hα and OIII filters. Total exposure time over 7 hours.
M42 and M43 in Orion with NGC1977, The Running Man Nebula, above..
Two-panel mosaic imaged from Kendal over the nights of January 30th and February 10th using a Skywatcher 10″ Newtonian, and a QHY163m mono camera with Ha and OIII filters. Even with 30 second exposures, the core of M42 is blown out!.