Discovery is Go!

May 31, 2008

Precisely as scheduled, the space shuttle Discovery launched from Cape Canaveral this afternoon on the mission to the International Space Station. With it’s 5.02pm EDT launch, Discovery is bringing the Kibo module to add to the ISS, which will be the largest module that will be attached to the station,  thus continuing effort to complete the ISS in the next few years.

The Kibo module is from JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will use the station’s remote arm to remove the Kibo module from the shuttle’s payload pay and attached it to the station.

Discovery is also bringing up some last minute components for ISS, as their waste disposal facility failed a few days ago. So in addition to adding the new module, swapping out tanks, and normal mission objectives, they will help the Expedition 17 crew fix the toilet. 🙂

Until docking with the station on Monday, Discovery will be visible in the evening skies tonight and tomorrow night, playing catch up to ISS. Check out the link int he right-hand menu for updated listings on when the shuttle and space station will be visible in your area.


Amazing Images from Mars

May 30, 2008

Well, everyone in the astronomical community has been following the amazing images and data coming down from Mars since Phoenix landed last Sunday. So in case you missed it, here are some of the most amazing images you will see.

The first image is taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the HiRISE camera. It shows Phoenix as it is descending beneath its parachute!

Click for a larger image

The second image was taken as Phoenix descended, but from a different point of view. The crater is referred to as “Heimdall” and the lander is descending not into the crater, but past it. The POV can fool you.

Click for larger image

This third image shows the Phoenix lander sitting on the surface of Mars, and you can also see where the heat shield, parachute, and backshell have landed as well.

Click for larger image

Aren’t those images amazing? The image of Phoenix descending past the crater is something never before seen in the decades of space travel and missions to other worlds. It is truly a one-of-a-kind shot.

And if these weren’t enough, how about some sound? Yes, you read correctly!! The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter was monitoring the landers’ radio transmissions as it approached the Martian surface, and you can actually hear this audio for yourselves.

Pretty cool, eh?

We hope you will continue to follow the mission (as all of us are) and be amazed and transfixed by the science coming to us from millions of miles away in space.

Links to Image Pages

Phoenix and Parachute
Phoenix and Crater
Phoenix Lands
Phoenix Sounds

Don’t Forget to Look Up This Week

May 26, 2008

With the great, excellent news about the successful landing of Phoenix on Mars last evening, and the cool images and news coming from that mission, it’s easy to forget there are things going on quite a bit closer to home this week.

The International Space Station (ISS) is continuing its series daily (evening) multiple flyovers. Using the link on the right-hand menu for Heavens Above Grand Rapids predictions, you can see that each night has 2-4 visible passes by the station, each one brighter than most of the stars in the night sky. All you need is clear skies (and we all know who to blame if there aren’t clear skies, right?), and the predictions to see it. And if you want to see it really bright, like last week Friday, make sure you watch on June 4th, 6th, and 8th, as the station will outshine every object in the night sky as it passes over. Plus, by then the space shuttle Discovery will have arrived, adding to the brightness.

Speaking of the shuttle, it’s scheduled to launch on Saturday the 31st at 5.02pm EDT. Discovery will be heading to the ISS to deliver the largest payload to date, the Kibo module.

Stay tuned right here for the latest on the Phoenix mission, the space station, the shuttle, and other things of interest in the night sky and space. We’ll have the latest, most accurate, and up-to-date information available, which you won’t get anywhere else.

Just another word about the Heavens Above site. If you’re not in Grand Rapids, or want to get a more specific location for your area, you can do that on the site as well. you just need your latitude and longitude. We have predictions for the Veen Observatory, and the author even has predictions for his front yard.

So go and and enjoy the night sky.

First Images from Phoenix

May 25, 2008

Straight from Mars, via JPL…

This is an image of one of the unfurled solar arrays on the lander, with a patch of Martian ground beyond. This is just one of several images to come down, with the promise of more (and color ones) to come in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

You saw it here first. Not even the local media have these images.

Everything is going fine with the craft, and more images are coming down. You can find the latest images at the Phoenix mission site.

Phoenix Arrives at Mars

May 25, 2008

Update @ 7.54pm!!!
Phoenix has successfully landed on Mars!!!!!

Later Sunday evening, the Phoenix mission will arrive at Mars, entering the atmosphere for a scheduled landing near the north pole of the Red Planet.

The Phoenix mission launched from Cape Canaveral last August. It’s mission is the search for water ice under the surface of Mars, and to study the geology of the polar regions. All of this will be of great assistance in understanding the makeup of the Martian environment, as a prelude to eventual manned missions to Mars.

Mission managers call the EDL phase (Entry, Decent and Landing) the “Seven Minutes of Terror” as they wait for the signals announcing the successful landing on the surface. So many things have to go right for the craft to land: thrusters have to finre on time, parachutes must deploy correctly, etc. Any one thing going wrong will spell disaster which, unfortunately, has happened in the past. Of all the missions to Mars, 55% of them have ended in failure. But hopefully Phoenix will succeed, where some of its predecessors have failed.

Here are some times of interest on Landing Day (all times Eastern)…

Entry into Martian atmosphere: 7.46pm
Parachute Deploy: 7.50pm (legs 40 seconds later)
Touchdown: 7.53pm (40 seconds after thrusters fire)

Unfortunately we will not get confirmation for a while afterwards, which includes the first images. Spacecraft orbiting Mars, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey will all be sending their own data back to Earth about the landing, including possible images.

The first images from Phoenix will be nearly two hours later. These first views will be of the solar arrays, to assure proper deployment. Then, if all reads well, the mission will begin.

You can find out more about Phoenix at several sites, including the University of Arizona, where the mission is being led from, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

You can watch the landing events unfold on NASA television. Locally NASA TV is on Comcast Channel 24 (Livewire), but unfortunately will not be available during landing due to previous other transmission commitments. However, NASA TV is available online.

Space Station Flyovers

May 24, 2008

Has anyone been out in the evening to watch the International Space Station fly overhead? If not, you still have a chance. In fact, several each night for the next few weeks.

The reason is that, due to the station’s orbit around the Earth, and Earth’s orbit around the sun, the station is almost in constant sunlight at this time. So the normal morning or evening visible passes are doubled, or even tripled, in some instances.

As was written back in August of last year, there are reasons why the station varies in brightness, and also where you see it in the sky. An excellent place to find out when it will be visible is, were all you have to do is input your location (you can do it via city, or latitude and longitude) and the site will generate predictions for your location (it also shows when other satellites, and the space shuttle – when flying – are visible). As a courtesy, we have included a link for Grand Rapids predictions in the right sidebar.

Friday evening’s flyover was extremely bright. The only objects in the night sky brighter than ISS are the moon and the planet Venus.

In the photograph above (click on the pic for a larger version), the space station is shown flying over the James C. Veen Observatory on the evening of May 23rd. The station is approximately 200 miles above the Earth, orbiting at just over 17,000 miles per hour. In the image, the station traveled almost 100 miles in the short time it took to make the exposure.

The predicted passes for the next week do not have the space station as bright, but it will still be unmistakable in the evening (and nighttime) skies. And as an added bonus, the flyovers at the beginning of June will also feature the space shuttle Discovery, which lifts off May 31 on a mission to deliver a new module to the space station.

So if you have clear skies, go out some evening and look up to see the space station fly over your town. Wave if you wish – the astronauts can’t see you, but they will appreciate the support. And make sure you get your kids to see this.

May’s Full Moon

May 19, 2008

The third Monday in May brings the full moon for the month. This time the moon will attain “full” phase at 10.11pm Eastern Time on the 19th. May’s full moon is called the “Full Flower Moon” and you can readily see that by the number of flowers blooming in yards and gardens everywhere.

This month’s event will have even more significance, due to the position of the moon in its orbit around the Earth. When it is full, the moon will be just under twelve hours from its apogee (furthest from the earth) and will appear smaller in the sky. It will be the “smallest” full moon of the year, over 12% smaller visually than the full moon of December, which will be near perigee (closest to the Earth).

You will also notice that the moon is lower on the horizon than previous months. That is due to many factors, some of which include the moon’s orbit around the Earth, and Earth’s orbit around the Sun. More on this next month for the June Full Moon report.