Archive for category Lost in Space

The joys of partial heavenly ignorance

By the time I was 11 or 12, I had memorized pretty much all of the constellations and their relative positions, even those I could never see at around 44 degrees north latitude. I rued the fact that two of the four brightest stars in the sky — Canopus and Alpha Centauri — would never be visible unless I traveled substantially farther south. Twenty-plus years later, when I found myself living at 26 degrees north latitude and recalled my then-dormant fondness for the night skies, I discovered that South Florida with its chronic haze and light pollution did not offer a sublime locale for stargazing.
I’m now further north and more or less in the sticks, and the Internet is substantially more useful than it was during the Reagan years. I’m still not as well in tune with the night skies as I was as a pre-teen, and my yen for picking out celestial objects now seems to strike most strongly when I find myself doing a run on a cold, clear evening, which is a little incovneient to both purposes, as more than once I’ve veered onto the shoulder and nearly into a ditch as a result of being transfixed by some astral grouping or another. Because it’s been a while since I paid close attention, I am often not able to locate or name a few prominent stars and other objects; I know just enough to be dangerous, or at least curious. But thanks to the Web, I’m able to resolve any emergent mysteries within minutes of getting home.

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The joys of partial heavenly ignorance

By the time I was 11 or 12, I had memorized pretty much all of the constellations and their relative positions, even those I could never see at around 44 degrees north latitude. I rued the fact that two of the four brightest stars in the sky — Canopus and Alpha Centauri — would never be visible unless I traveled substantially farther south. Twenty-plus years later, when I found myself living at 26 degrees north latitude and recalled my then-dormant fondness for the night skies, I discovered that South Florida with its chronic haze and light pollution did not offer a sublime locale for stargazing.
I’m now further north and more or less in the sticks, and the Internet is substantially more useful than it was during the Reagan years. I’m still not as well in tune with the night skies as I was as a pre-teen, and my yen for picking out celestial objects now seems to strike most strongly when I find myself doing a run on a cold, clear evening, which is a little incovneient to both purposes, as more than once I’ve veered onto the shoulder and nearly into a ditch as a result of being transfixed by some astral grouping or another. Because it’s been a while since I paid close attention, I am often not able to locate or name a few prominent stars and other objects; I know just enough to be dangerous, or at least curious. But thanks to the Web, I’m able to resolve any emergent mysteries within minutes of getting home.

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A hospitable dirtball?

The astronomy community is rocking. Say La Silla Chile 123 trilion times fast.
Scientists in Europe believe they have found a terrestrial planet orbiting a little ember of a star called Gliese 581 a mere 20.5 light-years from our solar system.
Astronomers separate known planets into “terrestrial” and “Jovian” types. The former, like Earth, are smaller, and made mostly of metal and dirt. The latter, like (you guessed it) Jupiter, are large and largely gaseous, consisting of methane and other substances surrounding a small solid core. At least that’s how I remember things.
As with members of multiple-star systems, the planet, dubbed 581 c, has given itself away by its effect on Gliese 581, which “wobbles” in a specific way as a result of its companion’s influence. We can’t see it; it’s believed to be less than 7 million miles from its sun, or about one eighteen-milionth the distance between us and the whole wonderful production. Its year is a fleeting 13 days. Methuselah would have lived to a grand old 25,000 or so there.

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Not from a YEC site

Image courtesy of the Smoot Group Cosmology site.
Not your everyday drinking cup

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Mile-wide asteroid zooms “close” to Earth

No one bothered making catastrophic movies about it, but this past weekend, a hunk of rock dubbed 2006 VV2 passed within about two million miles of Earth, specifically Southern California. Given this location overhead, in the late 1980s it might have been suspected of being a wayward mass of crack cocaine, but astronomers have determined that 2006 VV2 is in fact a much more conventional object.
With an apparent magnitude of 10.0, it can be seen with a fair-sized amateur telescope, but lies well outside the threshold of detection of the unaided eye, which can pick up celestial objects as dim as about 5.5 to 6.0 in magnitude.
As noted in the Sky & Telescope piece, approaches of this sort are not rare. Five years ago, two much smaller asteroids passed within 80,000 miles of our planet — only one third the distance to the Moon. (The mean distance of the earth to the sun is about 93,000,000 miles.) I don’t know exactly what would occur worldwide if a 160-meter-wide brick smashed into, say, Siberia, but I have a decent idea of what might happen if it touched down in my back yard, or at the Texaco station up yonder.
Fans of Armageddon and Deep Impact as well as the generally apocalypse-oriented may find fascination in the database of near-Earth objects.

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Mile-wide asteroid zooms “close” to Earth

No one bothered making catastrophic movies about it, but this past weekend, a hunk of rock dubbed 2006 VV2 passed within about two million miles of Earth, specifically Southern California. Given this location overhead, in the late 1980s it might have been suspected of being a wayward mass of crack cocaine, but astronomers have determined that 2006 VV2 is in fact a much more conventional object.
With an apparent magnitude of 10.0, it can be seen with a fair-sized amateur telescope, but lies well outside the threshold of detection of the unaided eye, which can pick up celestial objects as dim as about 5.5 to 6.0 in magnitude.
As noted in the Sky & Telescope piece, approaches of this sort are not rare. Five years ago, two much smaller asteroids passed within 80,000 miles of our planet — only one third the distance to the Moon. (The mean distance of the earth to the sun is about 93,000,000 miles.) I don’t know exactly what would occur worldwide if a 160-meter-wide brick smashed into, say, Siberia, but I have a decent idea of what might happen if it touched down in my back yard, or at the Texaco station up yonder.
Fans of Armageddon and Deep Impact as well as the generally apocalypse-oriented may find fascination in the database of near-Earth objects.

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Ersatz stargazing

Check out the Neave interactive planetarium. Best with the lights off and with a wide-screen TV as a monitor.

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Trenchcoats, mallets, wigs, diapers, BB guns and pepper spray

What do these things have in common? As you probably guessed, they were some of the accouterments of a NASA astronaut arrested yesterday in Orlando on charges of attempted kidnapping, battery, attempted vehicle burglary with battery, and destruction of evidence.
According to a police affidavit, Lisa Nowak, a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle Discovery flight last year, rocketed from Houston to Orlando — using diapers so she wouldn’t have to dock at any civilian rest areas — in order to ensure that U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman had not fallen into too close an orbit to the apparent graviational center of this three-body system, fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein.
Based on the article, it is not clear what to expect when, or if, Nowak re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
(Anyone care to guess what Jay Leno will have to say about this? I’ve already jettisoned every “witty” piece of payload I could detect…)

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STS-51-L: what went wrong

About eight hours after Challenger and its crew were lost, President Reagan addressed the nation on television; by a quirk of circumstance, a State of the Union address had been scheduled for January 28 well before the shuttle launch was delayed to this date. Reagan’s emoting about the fallen astronauts, for once, didn’t look glib or forced, yet I still thought with a trace of guilt that he nevertheless looked like something of a bumbling ass, prating on about American glory when this was theoretically the furthest thing from the minds of citizens of all of Planet Earth. 20 years later I would come to understand that this sort of mien, an apple-shining grin underlain by a trace of wanting to just get back to the damned ballgame, is perhaps obligatory in order to maintain a proper presidential bearing.

In the weeks following the disaster, when the extended Concord High School community became as morbidly and righteously — if not quite as dispassionately — drawn to the whys and the hows of the disaster as everyone else, it became obvious that the decision to launch the Shuttle in freezing conditions had been a lethal miscalculation.

Rapidly materializing in the relentless scope of public accusation and blame was Morton-Thiokol International (now ATK Launch Systems), the manufacturer of the infamous O-ring that became virtually synonymous with the corporate name. Despite hearing the term too many times to count in the aftermath of the explosion, few people I knew bothered to learn what an “O-Ring” actually was or what it was for, despite its being as simple a thing as it sounds.

In those days, the Concord Monitor was an afternoon newspaper, and the headline on January 28, 1986, succinct, aghast and in a Times-style font, stretched entirely across the width of the page: “Shuttle Explodes.” Although no one was rushing to point such things out at the time, this is technically incorrect. From a physical standpoint, the rapid chain of events — the rupture of a seal in Challenger’s right solid rocket booster (SRB), severe damage to its external fuel tank as a result of exposure to flames from the booster, and the consequent disintegration of the orbiter itself — are well understood.

In the hours before the launch, engineers from both NASA and Morton-Thiokol expressed concern about the cold-weather performance of the booster O-rings, arguing that it might not do its job below roughly 53 degrees Fahrenheit and could therefore allow fuel to escape. The low temperature at Cape Canaveral on the early morning of the 28th was about 30 degrees. When the O-ring failed, effectively shredding the spaceship and killing seven astronauts, it was exactly what engineers had warned could happen. In addition, engineers at Rockwell International, the civilian contractor responsible for most of the Shuttle’s construction, warned that chunks of ice that had accumulated on the launch “pad” itself could cause problems during lift-off, either structurally or as a result of being sucked into the engines (as in a classic airplane bird strike). In the end, these various admonitions were disregarded by both NASA and Morton Thiokol managers, and the launch was initiated in late morning.

Here, diagrammatically, is what the shuttle system consists of: orbiter, two SRBs and an external fuel tank.

The shuttle is powered by a triad of engines which generate approximately 400,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Each solid rocket booster, meanwhile, produces 3.3 million pounds of thrust on the launch pad, making it the most powerful rocket in the history of human aerospace engineering; its chief fuel is aluminum. These are shed at about two minutes into a shuttle flight (partially explaining why I and others confused the vehicle breakup with a normal event). The external tank contains a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that weighs almost twenty tons at launch. The boosters are re-usable, but the external tank — dropped from the shuttle moments after the engines are shut down — is not.

Hydrogen and oxygen are simple, lightweight elements, unlike the mixtures of long, unbranched hydrocarbons most commonly used to move civilians around in workaday motorcraft. If the shuttle used a conventional fuel, an age-old problem in rocket propulsion would arise: The weight of the fuel alone would be prohibitive in creating sufficient thrust to allow the orbiter, its payload, and the fuel and fuel tanks themselves to escape Earth’s gravitational clutches. But hydrogen, though it must be cooled to about -250 C to be converted to a liquid, has only about 1/14 the density of water. Its use in rocketry is indispensable.

Overnight, at least one O-ring had not re-expanded completely after contracting in the cold and becoming brittle — this is basic materials science, folks. Although it was not evident at the time, the actual failure of this ring occurred at ignition, toward the back of the right SRB. At this point, oxides produced from the combustion of propellant acted to temporarily seal a gap that otherwise would have allowed the unchecked escape of the extremely volatile booster contents. But as the shuttle rose and picked up speed, the stopgap plug could no longer withstand the shear forces exerted by atmospheric components, even five, six and finally eight miles above the earth.

About 58 seconds into the flight, a burst of flame shot out of the SRB (image). The shuttle continued on for another 10-12 seconds, during which time the flame burned a hole in the external tank. At T + 73 seconds, the tank failed and began to disintegrate; in short order, the beleaguered orbiter, tossed into an unanticipated flight pattern, was blown apart by forces far in excess of those it was built to withstand. The crew members probably lived until the crew cabin, designed generally in the manner of a NASACR driver cage in that it was in some ways a sturdier kernel than the shell of orbiter around it, smashed into the ocean at over 200 miles per hour. They may have been unconscious when the cabin hit the water owing to depressurization in the moments after the structure came apart, but given that three of the four “emergency response packs” in the cabin were found to have been deployed, it is virtually certain that — apocalyptic plumes of smoke notwithstanding — the sudden loss of integrity did not kill the astronauts outright.

The Challenger disaster put the shuttle program on ice for almost three years, and thanks mainly to human factors, a mishap of its magnitude may have been inevitable. The shuttle was never built to allow for a reasonable chance of escape by astronauts in the event of a catastrophe, with the apparent, overconfident aim being to avoid such unsavory things in the first place; yet NASA, as I’ll discuss in the next and final post in this burst of shuttle-related logorrhea, has never taken every step to minimize the chances of such a catastrophe. Taken together, and in the wake of the less-celebrated but equally tragic Columbia explosion of 2003, these factors have spelled the end of the Space Shuttle program, which saw its final launch in July 2011 (Atlantis, STS-135) and will, if all goes as planned, be superseded by the Orion Space Vehicle.

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“A major malfunction” turns 21

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was ripped apart 73 seconds after it lifted off. All seven astronauts on board lost their lives, probably when the still-intact and depressurized crew cabin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean moments later. As I have hinted strongly, I was then a student at Concord High School, where one of the crew members, Christa McAuliffe, was a teacher.
The destruction of the shuttle and the surrounding events consume a much larger fraction of my memory that I could have anticipated, and I was similarly unaware at the degree of emotion I would find wrapped in both the moments following the explosion and the pertinent islands of experience in the months and years thereafter. If the output includes mawkish essays like yesterday’s — which I wrote almost a year ago; Pink Floyd did not release A Momentary Lapse of Reason until 1987 — I can live with this.

Despite being a sophomore at CHS at the time, if I felt especially tied to the disaster and the drama both attending and preceding it, this was owed less to the whims of geography than to my childhood and adolescent interests. I’d been an astronomy fan since I was about 10, with my interest probably peaking at around age 12 or 13. I was only kid, and maybe the only person, in my circle of acquaintances to whom the sequence of letters O B A F G K M bore meaning. My favorite part of semi-regular trips to the Boston Museum of Science were all about the show in the Hayden Planetarium that most people slept through while I secretly danced and the did the wave. I still consider Cosmos the most incredibly informative and moving program I have ever watched on television (and one of the best books, with certainly the sublimest art of any science publication anywhere); Carl Sagan was my Reggie Jackson, the Voyager I and II missions my ongoing World Series. As a sixth-grader I was one of a five or six students in some extracurricular start-up program for astronomy nerds at Broken Ground School, and this led me to my first with a telescope of any consequence – the observatory at St. Paul’s School in Concord. (SPS is a prestigious prep school withan operating budget roughly equal to that of Mississippi; a few years ago, eyebrows were raised when the annual compensation of its rector was listed at close to $600,000, but its grounds were nice to have around when I was young.)

I had a detailed poster of the vehicle formally known as the Space Transportation System on my bedroom wall that was produced well before the first shuttle was launched or even built (it just kind of “showed up” one day; a theme of my childhood was my parents’ remarkable ability to make perfectly inspiring brain fodder “show up”).

I owned a Lego version of the prototype. I remember watching footage of the Enterprise (a test-only model) carried across the continental U.S. on the back of a 747, and being perversely excited that the much-smaller Space Shuttle would soon be doing things its formidable but staid Boeing cousin never could. This was at about the time Skylab was returning to Earth in hot bits and pieces and killing cows in Australia; I’d read all about the Apollo missions, which became an addition to human history at the same time I did, and was jazzed for (hu)manned space flight to get rolling again.

I never had Christa as a teacher. After being selected by NASA for the program in the summer of 1985, she went on a leave of absence to train. I knew her from assemblies, from talk shows, from the indulgent words of my own teachers. There was a yellowed road-race result with her name on it in my bedroom desk drawer: the Concord Five-Miler, sometime in the early 1980s, before I started running myself. I collected such things, which the Internet has rendered both obsolete and more valuable, with the obsessive fervor of anyone struck by honest passion amid the clamor of adolescence. I ran, I loved it. So did others. So did this astronaut-to-be…

I’ve already painted a picture of what that morning was like at Concord High. By the time the morning of January 28 dawned bright and clear and more than unusually cold in the U.S. Southeast — only now do I recognize how wacky it really is for the temperature to dip below freezing on the Florida coast — the shuttle launch had already been rescheduled twice owing to cold weather. Impatient teens as so many of us were, we’d come to figure we’d be lucky to see the thing go up before our winter break. I remember thinking that if my mother’s Toyota could run in subzero conditions, a multi-gazillion-dollar NASA commodity sure as hell ought to remain viable even if there was a nip in the air.

That morning, there were reporters from the major networks (at the time, there were only three) seeded throughout the school, interviewing kids and taking stock of what it all meant to the self-identity of a community that only a couple months earlier had seen a quiet, nondescript kid named Louis Cartier shot dead by the police outside the administrative offices after arriving that morning with a shotgun, taking a hostage and apparently vowing to put a load of buckshot in a stereotypical tormentor-bully on the football team. So when the day turned into something between a bad action movie and a Picasso painting, journalism at its hungriest was poised to throw down. And we all watched that night: The mass-televised image of a disbelieving and dejected Carina Dolcino standing at the back of a school cafeteria remained iconic two decades later. The unfailingly chirpy senior-class president had, however unwittingly, adorned herself with balloons and party favors in welcoming the blackest moment in Concord High School history, and in its annual coverage of the disaster, the newsies make sure we never forget it.

We were quickly dismissed from school — the principal, Charles Foley, did not announce when school would resume; this would be six days later — with all of us carried off by waiting cars and buses within, I would say, 90 minutes of the time what was left of the Challenger began sinking below the surface of the ocean.

I spent the afternoon as I probably would have given a surprise early furlough: racing my neighborhood buds up and down Mountain Road on skateboards, playing Nerf basketball in someone’s basement. There were no guidelines as to what anyone should think, say or feel, and no one seemed eager to produce any.

So we just lived; and waited. For the smoke, the skies beyond, and our hearts and minds to clear.

It would be some time.

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Into the distance, a ribbon of black

A skinny blond teen and two of his friends, a roving snapshot of 1980s Americana, shuck and jive into the bland fluorescence of their school’s cafeteria on an almost-mild midwinter morning. It is institutional off-white and nondescript — except for today. It smells of salt and grease and energy and noise — especially today.

The boys manifest the twerpishly confident manner pathognomonic of half-aware adolescent males, and when they spot the television they wander across the crowded room in search of a better vantage point. The insistence of the occasion fails to diminish the semidiscordant babble of two hundred bustling bags of hormones, but all eyes are trained on the screen. Few will say it, but this is their day; their school’s moment not only in but toward the sun. “Tide Pride” carries the ring of genuine meaning.

The face of a classmate, one of the lucky ones actually in Florida, winks across the screen. She is unaware of being in the camera’s lens because her eyes, aided by binoculars, are trained on the cold clear horizon. A collective hoot erupts among her schoolbound peers.

The moment is finally at hand. It has been long in coming after several frustrating but necessary delays: too cold. The scientists are tip-top and prideful and would no more capriciously reschedule this event than would the school’s fifteen hundred students and faculty cancel it. Yes, and faculty: for once teachers and students are aligned on parallel axes, unified in their anticipation of the greatest earthly (so to speak) undertaking ever to sweep through their mutual corridors and classrooms.

Ice is forming on the tips of my wings

Unheeded warnings, I thought I thought of everything

The students quiet themselves just enough to gather intelligence from onscreen and initiate a counting down from ten at the proper time. But this interlude is brief and when the triumphant if unheard roar of two impossibly powerful engines — gobbling up dangerously volatile but necessarily lightweight hydrogen — sends the space shuttle Challenger toward an unprecedented destiny, a chorus of cheers echoes throughout a room transformed. It is 11:37 a.m.

A minute into the launch, the level of chatter in the room has already ebbed toward near-standard lunchtime levels, and a few students are no longer glued to the screen at all. With the Challenger well clear of the launch pad, the worrisome and exciting part is over; all that remains is lots of footage of interesting if arcane experiments to be broadcast from outer space in the days to come.

At T plus 1:13, there is a flash on the screen; the blond youth does not move but his heart yields a burp. Twin plumes of smoke appear on either side of the soaring spacecraft, forming a curly-Y-shaped cloud of exhaust and post-traumatic effluvia that will later become blackly emblematic of the day’s incalculable, lethal boondoggle.

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer

A vapor trail in the empty air

NASA photo

A gasp thrums through the room, a synchronous surge of toxic adrenalin that vice-grips the kid’s chest just so, as in the instant after a stumble preceding a sure headlong fall. But then it is over.

The boosters, he thinks confidently. He has always loved astronomy and is something of an authority on the space program, he reckons, and this is what is supposed to happen as the shuttle zings toward the troposphere. They just dropped the fuel boosters. He figures his less-informed mates have intuited more or less the same thing.

He wanders into the food-service area. From the dairy cooler he selects an eight-ounce carton of Hood chocolate milk. A girl he does not know from the senior class is the only other student gathering victuals. And then one of the women behind the counter, short, fiftyish, aproned and hairnetted, begins speaking in a parrotlike squawk. THEY’RE SAYING THAT THING BLEW UP OVER THE DAMN WATER she declares, her face twisted into an almost parodic rictus of agitation. She was the Lunch Lady, all right.

The kid doesn’t believe her. She was, after all, the Lunch Lady, not the Launch Lady. How she came by her information he will never learn; she cannot see the television and no one can yet hear it. Perhaps she had a radio in the kitchen.

And then a huge cry of “QUIET!” — a male teacher is clearly its source — hammers through the shrill and panicky air. The kid replaces the carton of milk and gives the girl beside him a vacant yet purposeful glance and as he shuffles back toward his fellows, there is dead quiet in the cafeteria and only the television can now be heard.

The kid rejoins his friends as he focuses his disbelieving attention on the incantations of whoever is leading the broadcast. In a moment both his denial and his understanding are utterly complete. He swivels his head to say something to his friends (in a whisper; it is still preternaturally silent) and his words freeze on his palate as he sees their mouths hanging open and their eyes glazing over with terrible wonder.

And he realizes he looks just the same way.

The president of the senior class, wearing a party-favor hat and holding a kazoo, stands apart at the back of the room, looking perversely beatific as her face goes nineteen shades of slack. In hindsight her choice of accouterments is perfectly macabre and footage of her standing alone and defeated is later one of the prime shots fed by network television to all of America.

Because they all know. He knows and everyone in other corners of the school and the city and the nation and the world know that Concord High School social studies teacher S. Christa McAuliffe, tabbed to become the first teacher in space, will never make that journey or any other except down, down.

Then someone finally looses a tortured wail and the yammering starts and people are heading for the exits and what follows is a scene the kid at some level knows will never be replicated in his lifetime, not for him. Members of the major television networks, gathered in anticipation of what is ostensibly the greatest day in the school’s history, are suddenly charged with covering its darkest and they go at it like smiling piranhas, cornering gibbering students alone and in groups only to be warded off by teachers, some crying, with near-violent hysteria.

No one is running; this is not a theatrical panic scene or a nightclub conflagration. It is a sort of muted subatomic pandemonium that knocks every student, teacher, administrator on their backs with little fanfare. In short, no one, from the principal to the custodial staff, knows whether to shit or go blind. Instead, everyone shuffles around almost at random, muttering wide-eyed to anyone in reach: “Do you believe this? Do you f*cking believe this?” Those who doubt the perhaps overused description “zombie-like” as applied to human constructs were not in Concord High at midday on January 28th, 1986.

But there was no doubt about it. The Challenger, and with it the lives of seven astronauts, had been lost.

A soul in tension that’s learning to fly

Condition grounded but determined to try

Can’t keep my mind from the circling sky

Tongue-tied and twisted, just an Earth-bound misfit, I.

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“World’s biggest binoculars” belong to Chihuahua

As reported by Discover Magazine last month, the Large Binocular Telescope, situated at 10,500′ above sea level on Mt. Graham in Arizona’s Chihuahua Desert, is scheduled to be fully operational this month. The ‘scope’s pair of 27.6-foot mirrors have been polished to within 1/1,000,000th of an inch of perfection — roughly 120 times the reciprocal of the instrument’s cost in American dollars.
I want one of these. Apart from the technological pizazz inherent capturing , say, a galaxy 16 million light-years away with such visual clarity, the pictures are, well, pretty.

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The showered-ly lion

The Leonid metoer shower is here. The Leonids peak every 33 years or so. They were especially prominent at around the turn of the millennium, so on the whole this year won’t be one for the books. However, while North American viewers can expect a true peak tonight and tomorrow morning, this year’s shower has a twist: Beginning at around midnight (East Coast) or 9 p.m. (West Coast) tomorrow evening, an “outburst” caused by the passage of Earth through the remnants of the tail of comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle, which looped around the sun 74 years ago, will produce up to 10 meteors per minute for a period of several hours.
The action is in the east-southeastern sky, not far above the horizon at the peak of activity. Here’s where to look (graphic courtesy of Gary W. Kronk):
leonids.jpg
This year, Saturn will be just outside and to the right of the “sickle” in Leo (the lion’s head) and — if you hang out until just before dawn Sunday morning — more or less directly above a sliver of a waning crescent moon, with a just-risen Mercury slightly above and to the left of the moon.

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The Mama Cass phenomenon

I could be the only one who’s noticed this phenomenon, but after a quarter of a century of casual-to-serious skygrazing I doubt it.

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Cygnificant celestial sighting

Just a while ago I ventured outdoors with a pair of binoculars and had a look at Comet SWAN, which presently has an apparent magnitude of ~6.5 to 6.8 — just too faint for normal people to see with the unaided eye — and appears in the constellation Bootes.
SWAN.jpg

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June Cleaver got it right.

JuneCleaver.jpg
A little string of pearls is the perfect touch, even for a planet.
SaturnsPearls.jpg
Cassini Image Shows Saturn Draped in a String of Pearls
Does Saturn, ice cold martini in one hand, feather duster in the other, greet Jupiter at the door after he returns from a long day in orbit?

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The Pain on Pluto

Tim Kreider took a break from his cartoonist’s luxury vacation to comment on Pluto’s debasement. In case you missed it, check this out:
The Pain – When Will It End?

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Losing a planet to gain three more?

Several of my co-bloggers have mentioned this already. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has decided that Pluto — while still technically a planet in spite of its unique composition (ice) orbital plane (inclined 17 degrees) and orbital eccentricity (about 0.25) — now merits its own planetary subcategory, which the IAU has, aptly enough, dubbed “plutons” (although I would have preferred “plutelets”). A planet, according to the IAU, is “a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet”; plutons, meanwhile, are planets with “highly inclined orbits with large eccentricities and orbital periods in excess of 200 years.”

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Heaven’s own laser show

Skygeeks across the land are are always fired up for the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks this weekend. With a bombardment rate of 60-100 visible rocks and rocklets per hour, this is often the most striking among the recognized annual meteor showers, and probably the most venerated. Unfortunately, this year a waning gibbous moon is just about perfectly positioned to cramp everyone’s viewing style, as its bright reflected light will drown out a fair number of shooting stars. But it’s still worth a look, and viewing should be optimal late tonight, or to be precise, between midnight and dawn Saturday morning. Find a spot far removed from ambient light, slather on some bug repellent and point your face toward the northeastern sky, which will keep the moon more or less behind you as the earth spins its way toward sunrise.
This meteor shower is so named because the bulk of the activity appears to emanate from the contellation Perseus. For those of you who have forgotten your Greek mythology, Perseus was the dude who slew Medusa, the foul gorgon with snakes for hair and whose modern-day incarnation is probably Phyllis Schlafly. Perseus includes a star famed in astronomy circles, Algol (“The Ghoul” in Arabic), a so-called variable star with an apparent brightness continually cycling through a wide range in a period of only 2.9 days. This is because Algol is part of what is termed an eclipsing binary system; from a distance of 93 million light years the system obviously appears to us as a single star.
One thing I enjoy about celestial events like the Perseids is that they take me back close to 25 years, when I was a full-blown astronomy buff who was repeatedly stricken with innocent wonder over the marvelousness and vastness of it all. Such a nerd was I that I would be willing to posit I was the only 11-year-old in the state of New Hampshire who recognized what this letter sequence depicts:
O B A F G K M

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