Earth--Day and Night Regions

Earth--Day and Night Regions

Planetary Positions

Friday, February 25, 2011

Spotting The Space Shuttle And The International Space Station (ISS)


NASA's space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station are seen in this time-lapse image as they fly over Leiden, The Netherlands, just before the two spacecraft docked on March 17, 2009 during the STS-119 mission. The shuttle is the object slightly fainter and lower in the sky. Movement is from right to left

CREDIT: Marco Langbroek

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Skywatchers across parts of the United States and Canada have a chance tonight (Feb. 25) to spot NASA's space shuttle Discovery – on its last-ever mission – as it chases the International Space Station across the night sky.

The shuttle and space station will be visible to the unaided eye as separate entities, appearing as bright "stars" sailing across this evening's twilight sky. Skywatchers with clear skies in the northern U.S. and southern Canada have the best chances of seeing the two spacecraft. [Photos of Space Shuttles and Stations from Earth]

The International Space Station is can be easily seen on clear nights without a telescope because of its huge size and solar arrays. It is as long as a football field and has enough living space for astronauts as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

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On good passes, the space station is so bright it can rival the planet Venus in the sky and appears more than 25 times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Discovery launched into space Thursday and is scheduled to dock at the space station on tomorrow (Feb. 26) at 2:16 p.m. EST (1919 GMT). So by Saturday evening, both will appear as a singular bright moving object.

The International Space Station makes one full orbit around Earth about once every 91.5 minutes. Initially, after Thursday's launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Discovery trailed the space station across the sky by about 37 minutes.

By tonight, that gap will have diminished to about 15 minutes. That means it will not be possible to see both space vehicles in the sky at the same time; rather Discovery would appear first, followed less than a half hour later by the space station traveling along basically the same path.

Discovery is flying an 11-day mission to deliver a new storage room and humanoid robot to the International Space Station. This is the final flight of shuttle Discovery since NASA plans to retire the orbiter along with the rest of the shuttle fleet later this year.

Discovery is NASA's most-flown shuttle and is making its 39th trip into space.

Region of visibility

So far as visibility is concerned, it appears that skywatchers living in the southern and central United States may be out of luck for seeing Discovery or the space station. This is because the trajectories of the spacecraft will send them on paths that are either too low or overhead during daylight hours, rendering them invisible.

In the northern United States, there is a chance of spotting Discovery and the station on paths that will begin in the western sky then skim on a low arc in a direction toward the north and east.

In most cases, the highest that either the shuttle or space station will get above the northern horizon, will be about 15 degrees. Your clenched fist held at arm's length measures approximately 10 degrees. So a 15 degree pass would be equal to about one and a half fists up from the horizon.

From southern Canada, the two space vehicles will make an even higher arc across the sky. From Montreal and Calgary, for example, there are predicted passes that are more than 40 degrees above the horizon – nearly halfway from the horizon to the overhead point (called the zenith).

How bright will they be?

Most satellites become visible only when they are in sunlight and the observer is in deep twilight or darkness. This usually means shortly after dusk or before dawn.

Because of the International Space Station's massive size and configuration of highly reflective solar panels, it is the brightest man-made object currently in orbit around the Earth.

Some have even caught a glimpse of the space station just prior to sunset or shortly after sunrise. And as a bonus, sunlight glinting directly off the solar panels can sometimes make the ISS appear to briefly flare to super-brilliance.

The space shuttle also appears as a very bright (magnitude 0 to -1) object; almost matching Sirius, though nowhere near as dazzling as the ISS.

When and where to look

So what are the chances of spotting Discovery and the space station from your particular hometown?

You can easily find out by searching for one of these four popular Web sites: Chris Peat's Heavens Above, Science@NASA's J-Pass, NASA's SkyWatch and

Each will ask for your zip code or city, and respond with a list of suggested spotting times. Predictions computed a few days ahead of time are usually accurate within a few minutes. However, they can change due to the slow decay of the space station's orbit and periodic reboosts to higher altitudes.

Another great site is this one, which provides real-time satellite tracking and shows you at any given moment during the day or night over what part of the Earth the ISS or shuttle happens to be.

Check the websites frequently for updates as viewing conditions can sometimes change due to mission developments.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.

Sun Whips Out Massive Flare


On February 24, 2011, the Sun blasted a titanic M class flare; but not aimed at Earth. This time-lapse video displays about 90 minutes of activity; one frame taken every 24 seconds by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).
Credit: NASA

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Space Shuttle Discovery Launches On Final Voyage

From the AP and Yahoo News:

Space shuttle Discovery launches on final voyage

Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida 

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Discovery  Discovery STS-133

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STS-133 Discovery

Space Shuttle

Discovery   Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy ...

Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy ... Space Shuttle Discovery

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Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle

Reuters – Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, February …

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn, Ap Aerospace Writer – 35 mins ago

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Discovery, the world's most traveled spaceship, thundered into orbit for the final time Thursday, heading toward the International Space Station on a journey that marks the beginning of the end of the shuttle era.

The six astronauts on board, all experienced space fliers, were thrilled to be on their way after a delay of nearly four months for fuel tank repairs. But it puts Discovery on the cusp of retirement when it returns in 11 days and eventually heads to a museum.

Discovery is the oldest of NASA's three surviving space shuttles and the first to be decommissioned this year. Two missions remain, first by Atlantis and then Endeavour, to end the 30-year program.

Launch director Mike Leinbach anticipated it would be "tough" to see Discovery take off for the 39th and final time, and even harder when it returns March 7.

"It's a very, very personal thing that we love to do," Leinbach explained. "It's a lot more than just our livelihood. It gets in our soul."

Emotions ran high as Discovery rocketed off its seaside pad into a late afternoon clear blue sky, and arced out over the Atlantic on its farewell flight. There were a tense few minutes before liftoff when an Air Force computer problem popped up. The issue was resolved and Discovery took off about three minutes late, with just a few seconds left.

"The venerable veteran of America's human spaceflight fleet," as the launch commentator called it earlier in the day, will reach the space station Saturday, delivering a small chamber full of supplies and an experimental humanoid robot. The orbiting lab was soaring over the South Pacific when Discovery blasted off under the command of retired Air Force Col. Steven Lindsey.

NASA is under presidential direction to retire the shuttle fleet this summer, let private companies take over trips to orbit and focus on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars.

An estimated 40,000 guests gathered at Kennedy Space Center to witness history in the making, including a small delegation from Congress and Florida's new Gov. Rick Scott. Discovery frenzy took over not only the launch site, but neighboring towns.

Roads leading to the launching site were jammed with cars parked two and three deep; recreational vehicles snagged prime viewing spots along the Banana River well before dawn. Businesses and governments joined in, their signs offering words of encouragement. "The heavens await Discovery," a Cocoa Beach church proclaimed. Groceries stocked up on extra red, white and blue cakes with shuttle pictures. Stores ran out of camera batteries.

Click image to see photos of Discovery launch, NASA

Reuters/Joe Skipper

The launch team also got into the act. A competition was held to craft the departing salutation from Launch Control; Kennedy's public affairs office normally comes up with the parting line. Souvenir photos of Discovery were set aside for controllers in the firing room. Many posed for group shots.

Lindsey and his crew paused to take in the significance of it all, before boarding Discovery. They embraced in a group hug at the base of the launch pad.

Unlike the first try back in November, no hydrogen gas leaked during Thursday's fueling.

NASA also was confident no cracks would develop in the external fuel tank; nothing serious was spotted during the final checks at the pad. Both problems cropped up during the initial countdown in early November, and the repairs took almost four months. The cracks in the midsection of the tank, which holds instruments but no fuel, could have been dangerous.

The lengthy postponement kept one of the original crew from flying.

Astronaut Timothy Kopra, the lead spacewalker, was hurt when he wrecked his bicycle last month. Experienced spacewalker Stephen Bowen stepped in and became the first astronaut to fly back-to-back shuttle missions.

Packed aboard Discovery is Robonaut 2, or R2, set to become the first humanoid robot in space. The experimental machine — looking human from the waist up — will remain boxed until after Discovery departs. Its twin was at the launch site, perched atop a rover, waving goodbye.

Discovery already has 143 million miles to its credit, beginning with its first flight in 1984. By the time this mission ends, the shuttle will have tacked on another 4.5 million miles. And it will have spent 363 days in space and circled Earth 5,800 times.

No other spacecraft has been launched so many times.

Discovery's list of achievements include delivering the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit, carrying the first Russian cosmonaut to launch on a U.S. spaceship, performing the first rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir with the first female shuttle pilot in the cockpit, returning Mercury astronaut John Glenn to orbit, and bringing shuttle flights back to life after the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

Discovery is expected to be eventually put on display by the Smithsonian Institution.




Friday, February 18, 2011

Six Solar System Planets Shine In One New Photo



Wow! 6 Solar System Planets Shine in One New Photo

Date: 18 February 2011 Time: 03:20 PM ET

The MESSENGER spacecraft, which is in orbit around Mercury, collected this series of images to complete a "family portrait" of our Solar System as seen from the inside looking out. The majority of this mosaic was obtained on 3 November 2010. Uranus and Ne

The MESSENGER spacecraft, which is headed for orbit around Mercury, collected this series of images to complete a "family portrait" of our Solar System as seen from the inside looking out. The majority of this mosaic was obtained on 3 November 2010. Uranus and Neptune remained too faint to detect with even the longest camera exposure time, but their positions are indicated.

CREDIT: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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A NASA spacecraft heading for Mercury has beamed to Earth an amazing space photo: A family portrait of six major planets in our solar system.

To make the planet photo mosaic, NASA's Messenger spacecraft snapped 34 individual images over a two-week period last November. Messenger mission scientists took those images and stitched them together into a single mosaic to build a view of our solar system as it appears from the center. [See the solar system planets portrait]

"This snapshot of our neighborhood also reminds us that Earth is a member of a planetary family that was formed by common processes four and a half billion years ago," said Messenger mission principal investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in a statement. "Our spacecraft is soon to orbit the innermost member of the family, one that holds many new answers to how Earth-like planets are assembled and evolve."

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The Messenger spacecraft has flown by Mercury three times since its launch in 2004 and will arrive in orbit around the planet on March 18. Messenger's name is short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging.

In the new photo, Messenger's cameras were able to spot all the major planets except Uranus and Neptune, which were too faint to detect, mission scientists said. Earth's moon and several of Jupiter's big moons – the Galilean satellites Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io – were also visible, and are highlighted in insets.

Bright Venus starts the portrait off at the far left, followed by Earth and its moon, and Jupiter. Messenger scientists then indicate where Uranus and Neptune were in their orbits at the time, and move on to show Mars, Mercury and Saturn.

The planets appear in a narrow S-shaped belt due to the tilted orbit of the Messenger spacecraft with respect to the ecliptic – or general plane – of the solar system.

That made it a challenge to point Messenger's cameras in the right place to capture as many planets as it did. Scientists used a narrow-angle camera and a wide-angle camera on the spacecraft to make the planet portrait.

"It’s not easy to find a moment when many of the planets are within a single field of view from that perspective, and we have strong sun-pointing constraints on our ability to image in some directions," Solomon said.

The scientists used software to simulate the Messenger spacecraft's location to see which planets might be visible to its cameras. They also had to tweak some of Messenger's photos in order to bring out their planet targets. [Our Solar System from the Inside Out]

"The images are stretched to make it easier to detect the planets, though this stretch also highlights light scattered off of the planet limbs, and in some cases creates artifacts such as the non-spherical shape of some planets," explained Messenger imaging team member Brett Denevi of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Messenger mission scientists said the new planet portrait offers a reverse view of the solar system. In 1990, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft snapped a photo of the solar system as seen from the region of Neptune looking in.

"Seeing our solar system as just these little specks of light, it reminds you of how lucky we are that we've had the chance, through so many missions, to get up close and explore the incredible diversity and geology that each planet and moon displays," Denevi said. "Mercury has been just a dot on the horizon for most of history, and we get to fill in the details and know it as a real world. What an amazing opportunity!"

Follow on Twitter @Spacedotcom for the latest news from space.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Largest Planet In The Solar System Could Be About To Be Discovered--And It's Up To Four Times The Size Of Jupiter

From The Daily Mail (U.K.): 

Largest planet in the solar system could be about to be discovered - and it's up to four times the size of Jupiter

By Daily Mail Reporter

Last updated at 9:52 AM on 14th February 2011

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Scientists believe they may have found a new planet in the far reaches of the solar system, up to four times the mass of Jupiter.

Its orbit would be thousands of times further from the Sun than the Earth's - which could explain why it has so far remained undiscovered.

Data which could prove the existence of Tyche, a gas giant in the outer Oort Cloud, is set to be released later this year - although some believe proof has already been garnered by Nasa with its pace telescope, Wise, and is waiting to be pored over.

A new world? Astronomers believe a huge gas giant may be within the remote Oort Cloud region

Prof Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette believes the data may prove Tyche's existence within two years.

He told the Independent: 'If it does, [fellow astrophysicist Prof John Matese] and I will be doing cartwheels. And that's not easy at our age.'

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He added he believes it will mainly be made of hydrogen and helium, with an atmosphere like Jupiter's, with spots and rings and clouds, adding: 'You'd also expect it to have moons. All the outer planets have them.'

He believes the planet is so huge, it will ahve a raised temperature left from its formation that will make it far higher than others, such as Pluto, at -73C, as 'it takes an object this size a long time to cool off'.

Isolated: The Oort Cloud, where Tyche is believed to be, is a sphere with a radius of one light year
Isolated: The Oort Cloud, where Tyche is believed to be, is a sphere with a radius of one light year

He and Prof Matese first suggested Tyche existed because of the angle comets were arriving, with a fifth of the expected number since 1898 entering higher than expected.

However, Tyche - if it exists - should also dislodge comets closer to home, from the inner Oort Cloud, but they have not been seen.

If confirmed, the status and name of the new planet - which would become the ninth and potentially the largest - would then have to be agreed by the International Astronomical Union.

Currently named Tyche, from the Greek goddess that governed the destiny of a city, its name may have to change, as it originated from a theory which has now been largely abandoned.

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