Posts Tagged ‘Space’

Sky Watching

Friday, March 9th, 2012

With the current solar flare all over the tech news, I had hoped to see the Northern Lights tonight. Solar flares affects the Earth’s magnetic field in a way that I’m not qualified to explain, but the result is the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, can be visible at much lower latitudes than normal.

However, even without the Northern Lights the night sky is fascinating. We’re lucky here as we have very limited amounts of street lighting, so that orange glow seen in the sky around towns and cities is never a problem.

The night sky is also more accessible than ever thanks to excellent software that means anybody can find out what they’re seeing. I’ve blogged about it before, but Stellarium is fantastic, and free. On the iPhone Distant Suns is also excellent, along with GoSkyWatch and Pocket Universe. They also use the iPhone GPS and Gyro so it’s a case of point the phone, identify the star!

At this time of year Orion is not as prominent as during mid-Winter, but Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is still readily observable. Directly south at around 8PM this week and 20 degrees above the horizon. The planets are also stunning with Venus and Jupiter in the south west between sunset and 8PM, Venus being the brighter object. Mars is a bit close to the full moon currently, but in another week it will be clear again. Have a look also for M45, the Pleiades Cluster (or Seven Sisters), between Orion and Venus but higher up.

The International Space Station also makes an appearance occasionally. It’s especially awesome as it sails brightly through the sky in silence. When the timings are right the station orbital plane runs over the southern part of Wales, and at 400Km altitude is visible from southern France and the Faroes at the same time. The station needs to be in sunlight whilst the observer is in darkness, so just before sunrise or after sunset. For the next month or so it will be on the dawn side at UK latitudes, but mid April and it should be visible again in the evening. The stunning, and free application Celestia can help visualise the mechanics of orbit, but doesn’t use real-time orbital elements. The website http://www.heavens-above.com is the easiest way to find the visible passes. On the iPhone there is also GoSatWatch.

Both Stellarium and Celestia are Windows/Mac/Linux compatible too, so no excuses!

Finally, tonight I saw Fedex 1, a Boeing 777 Freighter out of Stansted heading for Memphis. Not in the same league as the other stuff, but I still love watching jet contrails illuminated by moonlight. Again, there’s an app for that! http://www.FlightRadar24.com, also on iPhone!

A couple of other similar posts: Celestial Nav | ISS

First Orbit

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

12th April 1961 at 06:07UTC, Vostok 1 launches from Tyuratam, Kazakhstan and carries Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to the first manned spaceflight and one complete orbit of Earth. Today a film called “First Orbit” premieres on YouTube and features footage shot from the International Space Station that recreates as far as is possible what Yuri Gagarin would have seen.

In the years after Vostok 1 we built ever more powerful spacecraft, travelled to the Moon with Apollo, and explored onwards to the planets and stars with Voyager.

Yet the vehicle that captured my generation’s imagination is the Space Shuttle.

Exactly Twenty years after Gagarin’s flight, and exactly thirty years ago today,  the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Centre on STS-1, the first space shuttle spaceflight with astronauts Bob Crippen and John Young.

Columbia launches on STS-1 (Nasa : Public Domain)

Unfortunately after the first flights the shuttle only appeared in mainstream headlines in tragedy. Challenger was lost in January 1986 on STS-51-L and Columbia on STS-107 in February 2003.

I was 7 years old when Challenger was lost, and still remember watching TV when the show was interrupted with the news – I couldn’t believe what I was watching. President Reagan said later “Sometimes when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”

The shuttle program did continue after both disasters, with Discovery leading the return to flight in both cases. The continuation of the shuttle program has lead to significant achievements in space.

The shuttle facilitated the Hubble Telescope, and the uncomparable Hubble Ultra Deep Field image.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field (Nasa : Public Domain)

Every few days the unaided eye can now watch the International Space Station soar overhead just after dusk – and without the shuttle the space station would not have existed.

The ISS from Discovery on her final flight (Nasa : Public Domain)

Even the elevation data on my humble aviation GPS is provided thanks to Endeavour on STS-99 Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.

Discovery has already been retired, Endeavour and Atlantis will be following later this year, then we’ll be back to rockets and capsules for orbital spaceflight.

It took 32 years from the Wright Brothers to get to the DC3 and reliable, comfortable air travel, and 14 years later the de Havilland Comet made it’s contribution to jet transport and aerostructure materials science. In SpaceFlight the Shuttle was a massive leap ahead compared with Gagarin’s Vostok capsule, and was flown only twenty years later.

Yet in the thirty years since STS-1 have we moved forward significantly?

Would the Comet have been built if we were happy with the range and speed of the DC3?  Therein lies the problem – where do we go from here? Low Earth Orbit has become the desination rather than a waypoint. We’re going on holiday to the departure lounge.

Perhaps the Shuttle has reached the end of it’s useful life. Perhaps Low Earth Orbit is now solely the domain of commercial launch systems, but I for one long for the day when awesome sci-fi-esque spaceplanes once again convey humans to orbit, from where they can embark on journeys to the stars.

Spaceships

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

“What is the best spaceship from Science Fiction?” sounds like an interesting starting point for a geeky sci-fi debate – How would the Millennium Falcon fare against a Borg cube?  What about Battlestar Galactica and the Vipers vs. the TCS Concordia and her Rapiers?

One thing is for sure – all the best Sci-Fi spaceships have very little in common with real life rockets. The nature of real life rocket launch operations is a far cry from Mos Eisley spaceport, with the process being controlled by scientists, mathematicians, engineers and computers. With the Shuttle retiring, pure rockets were all we had left.

Until yesterday however, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was unveiled.

Five years ago SpaceShipOne became the first commercial space ship designed for humans rather than satellites and science. But at that point, space tourism still sounded like the stuff of science fiction, right up there with moon biodomes and orbiting hotels.

Yet today we’ve got a suborbital system based on a platform that, whilst not exactly proven, is at least a real life system that has been demonstrated to work. Commercial launches may only be a couple of years away.

The best bit is SpaceShipTwo is a proper space ship!  She’s flown by two pilots, with joysticks, from a spaceport in the desert, and though I guess it would be asking too much to have a smuggler and a wookie up front, we’re on the right track.

Holiday Photos

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Yesterday we got back from our Summer holiday to Disney’s Corondo Springs in Orlando, Florida. Once again a great time was had, we visited all the Disney Parks and Waterparks, and Seaworld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica. We couldn’t hire a Ford Mustang this year, but fortunately we were able to upgrade to a Dodge Challenger, which was super as they’re still not commonly available through the dealers in Florida.

This year was made extra-special by being there for the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. We went out to the Kennedy Space Centre on 4 separate days. First on the Satuday to see the visitor centre and the launch, but this was scrubbed due to lightning striking the pad the previous evening. The launch was put back 24 hours, so on Sunday we went our again only for the proximity of thunderstorms to cancel the launch at less than 20 minutes to go. Monday was almost exactly a repeat performance with a 48 hour delay. Finally on Wednesday everything went according to plan and Endeavour lifted off just after 18:00 EDT.

After all the cancellations (STS-127 had also scrubbed twice in June) I spent most of Wednesday convinced she wasn’t going to go, and the launch window would be over so I’d not get to see it. Given the shuttle program is finishing next year, I’d probably never get another chance to see a shuttle launch. Even at 30 seconds to go, when the auto-sequence had started with Endeavour’s own computers monitoring the launch I didn’t think she would launch. Five shuttle launches have been aborted by the launch sequencer between the main engine start at 6.6 seconds to go, and booster ignition. 5 seconds to go and I still didn’t believe it would happen.

At two seconds to go my mind changed from not thinking it was going to happen, to not wanting to see anything bad happen.

The big screen at the visitor centre showed the boosters ignite, followed shortly by Endeavour clearing the tower at LC39A. 10 seconds later she was visible above the tree line. A few more seconds passed and then we heard the noise too. I wasn’t even looking through the camera, just pointing it in the approximate direction with a finger squeezing the motordrive.

I heard the audio feed in the background: “Endeavour – go at throttle-up”.  It was just after that point on the 28th of January 1986 that the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost. Judging by the reaction of the crowd, everybody knew that too.

We stood there watching the trail, and at 2m 5s into the launch we saw the boosters separate on the big screen, and the separation was just barely visible directly. A wave of euphoria swept over the crowd at that point. In what seems like a few seconds later we heard that the external tank had separated, and Endeavour was safely in orbit.

It was an awesome experience. I’ve been interested in the Space Shuttle for as long as I can remember, and with the pending termination of the programme coupled with the tight launch windows related to the ISS mission launches I never thought I would get to see a launch. I got really lucky, and Catherine was fine about 3 extra days of the holiday being interrupted. Secretly I think she really enjoyed seeing it too.

Anyway, here’s the pictures:-

(There are only a couple of the launch – I wanted to watch it for real, not through the viewfinder! Try Youtube for a Video)

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom
  • Our Dodge Challenger Rental
  • Disney's Magic Kindgom
  • STS-127 Launch - Endeavour at 63 Seconds
  • STS-127 Launch - Endeavour at 25 seconds
  • Busch Gardens
  • Busch Gardens
  • Busch Gardens
  • Busch Gardens
  • STS-127 Aborted on the 12th due to this weather.
  • Seaworld Orlando
  • Seaworld Orlando
  • Seaworld Orlando
  • KSC Visitor Centre on a Launch Day, aborted with 15 minutes to run.
  • The astronaut memorial at KSC. Naming (among others) crew from Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia
  • KSC Weather
  • KSC Rocket Garden
  • Vehicle Assembly Building
  • The Space Shuttle Endeavour on the pad at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Centre
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom

Anyway, I don’t go in for holiday souveners much, so I only got two STS-127 t-shirts, a STS-127 mug, a STS-127 baseball cap and an STS-127 pin badge…

Back to work!

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

We got back to the Island on Sunday morning after spending Christmas in Belfast and New Year in Ayrshire. Whilst we were in Scotland, the snow conditions in the Scottish Ski Areas meant it wasn’t worth making the trip up, but as a consequence we were able to finish the level 4 snowboarding at Xscape, and we’re both now able to hire snowboards and use the slope without an instructor!

It’s still dark getting home from work, so it’s unlikely I’ll be flying my Esky Belt-CP Radio Controlled Helicopter unless we get a nice weekend. I’ve had it since November and only flown it (well, skated around the floor), 5 times.

However, a nice clear night last night let me try out one of my other Christmas presents. My parents got me the Celestron Skymaster 15×70 Binoculars for starwatching. I’ve been talking off and on about a telescope for the past year, but always get put off as I probably wouldn’t have the time to take it out, align it and so on. The binoculars are a great solution and last night I was able to see the Pleiades Cluster (M45) and Orion Nebula (M42). The latter especially was great as although it’s almost visible with the unaided eye, the nebula cloud is clearly visible through the binoculars.

But why is the post called “Back to work!” – I hate going back to work after Christmas without a holiday booked, and we had nothing booked for 2009. So, first day back I requested a holiday week at the end of February so we can go skiing, and by the end of the week the holiday should be booked! Anyway, as it stands, today I’ve got 37 work days till that comes around. That’s only 6 full Mon-Fri weeks!