astronomy

On Station

Right now, two hundred miles above your head, five men and one woman are falling freely through space, probably enjoying a healthy lunch and doing a little email. They are the crew of the International Space Station (just ‘Station’ for short, as there is only one, and likely we will not be able to afford another).

You can see them tonight, or most nights, if you pop outside at the right time and look up. Station is so big it’s clearly visible to the naked eye, crossing the sky like a lazy meteor, or a 17,000mph spacecraft, which is what it is. HeavensAbove.com will give you Station’s ephemeris (not an unsightly skin disease, but just the times when you can see things in the sky).

Skywatching is quite fun even if you do not have a telescope or binoculars, as the Mark I eyeball is quite a sensitive optical instrument and you can use it to detect Station, meteors, satellites, and even quite a few things that do not exist (at least according to the US Government).

Space is closer than you might think, only 60 miles or so away. You could drive there in an hour, assuming your car went straight up, which some cheaper models do not. The odd thing is that just getting to space does not mean getting away from the Earth. What goes up must come down, as Newton pointed out, and the only exceptions to this rule are objects travelling faster than about seven miles a second. Probably Newton could not throw an apple this fast, so we should let him off.

Why doesn’t Station come down, you inquire, worriedly. It does, but the Earth keeps moving out of the way. Imagine a bullet. The faster you fire it, the further it goes before it falls to Earth. If you fired it fast enough, it would make it all the way round the world before coming down. This is exactly what Station does - and it sinks a little bit on every orbit, like a slowly settling blancmange. If it did not get a regular boost from Shuttle or other visitors, it would fairly soon become a meteor itself and we would be treated to a very expensive firework show in the upper atmosphere.

It is worth remembering that in all the astonishing æons of life on Earth, or the tiny recent sliver of time that is human history, we are the first to cross that sixty-mile gap to reach space, and there are plenty of people alive today who were born before the Space Age. In the brief time since, we have visited the Moon and played golf there, sent robot explorers to Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the outer planets, and established a permanent human colony in Earth orbit. Have a look at it some night.

(See also keithlard’s guide to alco-stronomy.)

keithlard news

I had a super week on holiday at my Dad’s with Susan, becoming a smug Mac user. I also drank some wine and ate crisps, although I did lose weight due to doing a lot of walking. It rained incessantly, which I cannot understand as when I looked at the new Clouds layer in Google Earth, there did not seem to be any clouds about. I can only think it is a special type of magic rain.

I also learned a lot of German from my Michel Thomas German audio course, which is very good if you are walking, especially in the country. I could be speaking out loud quite unselfconsciously and stomping along muttering, “Warum können Sie nicht es mir bringen? Ich brauche es jetzt! Das ist ganz unmöglich weil ich heute sehr beschäftigt sein werde!” without being arrested as some type of spy. Michel Thomas was a counter-intelligence officer and interrogator during World War II which explains some of his teaching manner, and the fact that I cannot ask for a pint of lager in German, but I can get someone to confess where they have hidden the secret microfilm.

In all seriousness Michel Thomas courses are terrific, and if you have struggled with foreign langwidges that is the one to get. Forget Ecoutez et repetez as you will be speaking quite complicated things in German, Italian, French or Spanish in no time. I think I need to get Michel Thomas English in fact.

This week’s star news: Mars is very bright and prominent at the moment, I know it is a planet not a star tecknically so do not write in. Look high in the southeast in the evening, or if you know how to find Orion, look to the left and a bit up from there. It is the brightest thing in the sky at the moment as there is no Moon, and quite noticeably a sort of yellowy-orange. It is exciting to think that you are looking at another world, and one quite close by in cosmick terms. If the Earth is Finchley, then Mars is like Golders Green, only probably with less tasty kosher delis.

Intresting facts about Mars: eight Mars would fit inside the Earth, although that might create more problems than it solved. The average temperature is about -60°C so remember to wrap up warm. Also there is very little atmosphere, effectively none, which makes it a hard pitch for any estate agent, but there is tremendous potential for DIY enthusiasts and it is very close to local amenities such as the asteroid belt. No chain.

In conclusion, then, Mars!

Do you want to see the space station

Not everyone knows that you can see the International Space Station if you just know when to look. You do not need a telescope either. Although the station is about 200 miles up, it is quite easy to see because firstly it is enormous, and secondly it has lots of reflective solar panels. It will be a very bright point crossing the sky in a matter of a couple of minutes; you might mistake it for an aircraft except that it does not flash.

You can get predictions for bright ISS passes over the next few days from the heavens-above.com ISS prediction page (you will need to put in your own location if you are not near London). There is a nice pass tonight if you are intrested, go outside at about five past nine this evening (BST) and look southwest. Look for planet Jupiter which will be the brightest star in the sky; at 21:09 ISS will appear in the west and pass fairly near to Jupiter and disappear to the south at 21:14. You will need to check your watch so as to get the time right! This actually is rocket science.

It might look a bit like this (picture from APOD):

You will need the following essential astronomical equipmint:

  • A jumper. Mine is a nice soft woolly brown one. Yours should be similar to this except for the colour, do not copy or try to imitate keithlard. He is indestructible.
  • Some beer. Bottled beers are best as it is not so easy to spill them by mistake as you crane your neck looking at stars.
  • At least one eye. Obviously two are best, especially for not tripping over or bumping into things in the car park, but I do not want to discriminate against people with only one eye, or pirates. It is still possible to enjoy alco-stronomy.
  • (Optional) a monocle. This is a badge of recognition which means you are a serious scientist and not just someone hanging about furtively in the car park outside my flat.

It is extra exciting at the moment as shuttle Endeavour is docked with ISS, on a mission to bring the space station crew vital supplies of biscuits and fizzy pop, and if you have got really good eyesight you may see the space shuttle getting a ticket from an over enthusiastic space traffic warden. Having said that it is forecast to be cloudy tonight so you might see nothing at all. In this eventuality you should drink the beer and return to your homes in an orderly fashion, tutting about the British weather.