astronomy

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.

Area man discovers satellites, meteors, beer

I conduckted some astronomical observations last night eg sitting in my back yard with a dunkel weissbier (that is posh beer if you do not know) and looking at Perseus. I thought it might be quite a while before I saw any meteors as I was out on Saturday night looking and did not see anything, but then it was only for about ten minutes. However it was only a minute or two before a vivid, unmistakable streak flashed over my head and I went ‘Oooooh!’

Then there were streaks in all directions, one about every two or three minutes, of different lengths and speeds, most of them radiating from Perseus but one or two going almost backwards! One went quite slowly from south or north burning fiercely and then winked out somewhere near Polaris. Just when I’d start getting a crick in the neck and thinking it was time for me to go in, there would be a fierce streak like the trail of a firework rocket and I would be all ‘Aaaaah!’ again and stay a bit longer.

It is amazing to think that each of those flashes is a tiny grain of dust hitting the atmosphere and flashing into vapour about 50 miles up, roughly the orbit of the Space Shuttle. To be so bright from the ground they must be bright indeed from orbit. They may only be tiny left over bits of comet, but they are travelling at around 30 miles a second, or faster than a Vauxhall Vectra. To be more precise, the dust grains are virtually stationary; we are hitting them at 30 miles a second, which is a sobering thought. This is why you need beer.

I also saw a couple of satellites, one very bright and arcing lazily through Cassiopæia towards Pegasus. I thought it would be intresting to look it up on heavens-above.com which will identify or predict any satellite for you, even the secret ones. It turned out I saw Lacrosse 4, a US spy satellite! The American governmint probably has my DNA or something now. I am expecting a knock at the door any minute and Tommy Lee Jones will flash a special torch in my eyes and I will…

That’s funny. What was I saying?

Moon and planets

On the night of May 19th the Moon appeared to pass very close to Venus, it was a beautiful sight just after sunset. Unfortunately as the Moon was fairly new, it necessarily set not long after the Sun, and seen from the UK had not reached its closest approach before setting. This picture is from earlier on in the evening. The Moon is sneaking up on Venus, in preparation for giving it a wedgie.

Closer shot of the crescent Moon. Note how the low-angled morning light shows craters in deep shadow along the terminator. That is just an astronomickal term, there is not a killer robot from the future living on the Moon. Or at any rate if there is, it is not visible in this photo.

Jupiter is high and bright in the south at the moment, and I got this nice picture from my cosy living room with just the 200mm telephoto. It is no trick to be able to see Jupiter, as it is genuinely awesome in size, bigger than all the other planets put together, twice, and a bit more, but I was pleased to be able to see the four principal moons as well: from left to right, Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa.

If you looked at the Solar System from far away, you would conclude there was one main planet, Jupiter, plus some annoying specks. Jupiter has more moons than the Sun has planets (over 60 at last count), but then it acts like a giant Dyson, vacuuming up any asteroids and comets that wander too close, with no loss of suction! In 1994 the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet hit Jupiter, creating an explosion about the size of the Earth, and seriously denting its no-claims bonus.

If you expose for its moons, Jupiter is just a bright blob, so here is a picture attempting to show detail of the planet itself. You can see its coloured bands and stripes, especially the large white equatorial zone. It is sometimes said that Jupiter is a failed star, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010 it is turned into a star by some helpful people from a black monolith. This would be convenient for us here on Earth as it would provide valuable light to see by at night, and deter burglars. In reality though that would not happen, as Jupiter is a long way short of enough mass to kick-start nuclear fusion, but on the other hand if you have a giant black monolith you can do basically anything.

Venus

This is my best picture of Venus which is not that good, but let’s see you do better. Venus is top of the bill in the evening sky at the moment, if you look roughly due west. Basically if you see a blazing bright white light in the sky, that is Venus, except if it is a plane of course.

Venus is completely white and featureless in visible light due to a permanent blanket of thick cloud. However it does show phases, even to the naked eye; in the picture above you can see that it is not quite a circle. Look out on May 19th because Venus will be passing very close to the Moon. All the planets (as well as the Sun and Moon) appear to follow the same line in the sky, called the ecliptic. The signs of the zodiac are those constellations which lie closest to the ecliptic, because you can see where a particular planet is in its orbit by looking at what constellation it is in. For example Venus is currently passing from Taurus to Gemini.

Venus is a very strange place, a world of acid rain and metal snow, racked by continual lightning storms and hot enough to melt lead. Atmospheric pressure at the surface is the same as the bottom of Earth’s oceans. Venus is covered in volcanoes, but due to the high pressure, they do not form mountain peaks; instead the lava spreads out to form thick goopy puddles, like hot cheese oozing from an overloaded toasted sandwich maker. If anyone lives there it is a safe bet that they’re looking to move, ideally to somewhere with a better climate and more local amenities.

Moon

This is my favourite world, our Moon. It is about four and a half billion years old, yet always looks nice and shiny, despite being a bit awkward to clean. It would still be part of the Earth if it were not for a giant impact, from a planet about the size of Mars. The explosion threw so much debris into orbit that it eventually condensed to form the Moon. But for a while there would have been beautiful rings around the Earth, a bit like Saturn’s.

This photo, filtered for blue light, clearly shows the large dark areas on the Moon’s face. They are called in Latin maria (seas) although in fact they are flat lava plains. There are hardly any on the far side of the Moon, which is weird. It is like someone has arranged the Moon to give us the best view.

This picture is adjusted for high contrast to show the enormous Tycho crater, left of bottom centre and surrounded by bright rays of material ejected by a meteoroid impact. The Moon is covered in craters as it is constantly bombarded with comets, asteroids and other space junk. If you go to the Moon please be aware that it is a hard hat area.

It is amazing what you can see on the Moon with even a small pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens. The three round dark areas right of centre, like bits of pepperoni, are (left to right) the Sea of Serenity, the Sea of Tranquility, and the Sea of Fertility. The small pepperoni to the right of them is the Sea of Crises. The big white spot left of centre is the crater Copernicus, which is about half the size of Scotland, if not quite as nice for a holiday. The small bright dot at ten o’clock is crater Aristarchus, named after the Greek astronomer who first calculated the distance to the Moon. He got it wrong, but that was only due to the poor tape measures available at the time.