Rocket Science

SpaceX Satellite Launch

SpaceX Satellite Launch

As Damsel and I were relaxing last evening, we were startled by a knocking at the back porch. It was the UPS delivery guy with a package we ordered from Amazon. But the package drop-off wasn’t the end of it. The driver said “Come out here and look at this!”

We walked down the driveway looking west and we pretty much saw the image depicted above, although we’re in a darker location than the Phoenix area where the photo was taken.

The phenomenon was attributed to a SpaceX Iridium Satellite launch:

At 5:30 pm on Dec. 22nd, SpaceX launched a 2-stage rocket from Vandenburg Air Force Base near the California coast.

The rocket launched 10 communications satellites to low-Earth orbit, adding to the growing Iridium NEXT constellation. This is the fourth such mission that SpaceX has flown for Iridium. Moreover, the rocket used for this mission had been used before. The Falcon 9 previously flew in June for the second Iridium mission.

It was quite spectacular as we watched the rocket move across the sky with its trail of gas lit up by sunlight high in the atmosphere. We’re glad that the UPS guy alerted us to this unusual event.

Cassini: The Grand Finalé

Cassini Spacecraft

Early yesterday, I awoke to news that the 20-plus year mission of the Cassini Saturn-probe spacecraft has come to an end. The durable spacecraft, launched in 1997, had more than tripled its four-year scientific mission’s original timeline plan. Early on September 15, 2017, the spacecraft executed it last command to dive into the atmosphere of Saturn and disintegrate.

Since Cassini arrived on station thirteen years ago, we watched the marvelous discoveries and monitored the experiments performed with eager anticipation to see what new facts about the Saturnian system of moons, rings and the planet itself might be revealed. We were not disappointed.

So, adios to Cassini. We look forward to seeing the next explorations planned not only by NASA/JPL, but also by other commercial space exploration entities.

There is considerable information about the now completed mission at the Cassini Grand Finalé toolkit page.

ISS and SpaceX Dragon Sighting

SpaceX Dragon

One of our regular activities in retirement in our desert place is to watch for overflights of The International Space Station when they are visible. Tonight’s flyover was the last in the current series of visible passes in our area and included a special treat of which we were unaware until after the pass.

As the ISS soared across the sky, Damsel noticed a fainter speck of light following in trail of the brighter space station. We both saw it and wondered what it could be. I suggested that it might be a cargo resupply or something of the sort. We continued to watch the pair as they swooped out of sight towards the southern horizon.

I came back in the house and got on the computer to see if I could find out what we were seeing. It turns out that the fainter dot of light was a SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply ship with 6400 pounds of “stuff” on board to deliver to the ISS on Wednesday morning.

This is from the NASA blog about the SpaceX Dragon Launch:

Crew members aboard the International Space Station can expect a special delivery Wednesday morning. A SpaceX Dragon spacecraft loaded with more than 6,400 pounds of supplies, equipment and science materials is heading their way after the successful liftoff of SpaceX CRS-12 at 12:31 p.m. EDT from NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.

The on-time liftoff marked a spectacular conclusion to a countdown that proceeded like clockwork throughout the morning, aided by cooperative weather conditions across the launch site. With a sonic boom sounding across Florida’s Space Coast, the first stage returned to SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station while the rocket’s second stage finished the task of propelling Dragon to orbit.

Read more at the link above the quote. Damsel and I feel very fortunate to have witnessed this extraordinary extra-terrestrial event.

Damsel remarked earlier this evening regarding that she’s glad to see SpaceX, rather than Russians, supplying the ISS these days. I wholeheartedly agree with that.

May 9, 2016 Transit of Mercury

My efforts to photograph the Mercurial transit of the sun today were less than optimum; the diminutive disk of the small planet did not resolve well with my Canon SL1, 300mm lens and a $10 solar filter. Moreover, looking at the sun through Eclipse Shades was a bust; you couldn’t resolve the planet at all.

But, all was not lost – thanks to the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s images on the internet, I captured several screen shots to combine into the animation below. The sequence starts when Mercury is almost at mid-transit (I did not want to get up at 4 AM) and continues to the point where the shadow is barely touching the east limb of the sun. I find it very interesting that the sunspots at and above the equator move to indicate the solar rotation over the few hours it took for the transit.

Mars Human Exploration and Habitat Visualization

I was poking around on the NASA website looking for something entirely different (Pictures of Pluto and Charon), when I stumbled across a page entitled Where on Mars Might Humans First Land? The very detailed and impressive video above is also embedded in that page which describes potential areas of human exploration of the red planet.

The NASA webpage referenced above describes how Exploration Zones (EZ) will be selected and implemented on Mars:

While it is too early to identify where the first humans will land exactly, they will land in a pre-designated EZ, and begin building the infrastructure to support human life on Mars. New orbital and surface data from the Red Planet, contributions from our partners and advances in space exploration capabilities over the next several years will ultimately determine the exact configuration of the first human landing site(s).

Based on current studies in hardware and operations necessary for a sustainable human presence on Mars, the animation [above] represents work of the Human Spaceflight Architecture Team’s Evolvable Mars Campaign. It illustrates just one of many potential concepts for how an EZ might evolve over the course of multiple human and automated cargo missions spanning upwards of two decades.

The video above has no oral narration, but animated graphics appear designating the various features of an EZ. It is worth your time to watch the under-seven-minute video if you’re a space exploration junkie like me.

As an aside, I have bookmarked another Mars exploration site, Explore Mars Now, which features an interactive exploration habitat a bit different than in the video. Both are well-done.

I hope that I live long enough to see the first stages of human exploration of the Martian surface, but as the article describes the timeframe, it will be decades before anything comes to fruition.

First Color Image of the Pluto/Charon System


NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto released this image yesterday of planet Pluto and it’s satellite Charon. The distance between the imaging spacecraft and the two objects was about 71 million miles when this photo was taken.

At first glance, the colors appear to be quite close to those depicted in space artist Dan Durda’s 2001 illustration (commissioned by NASA) of the planetary system panorama seen here. The reddish color of Pluto is brighter than its grayish companion. Click on the image to enlarge.

New Horizons at Pluto

NASA Press Release:

First Pluto-Charon Color Image from New Horizons

This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on April 9 and downlinked to Earth the following day. It is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach. The image is a preliminary reconstruction, which will be refined later by the New Horizons science team. Clearly visible are both Pluto and the Texas-sized Charon. The image was made from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers)—roughly the distance from the Sun to Venus. At this distance, neither Pluto nor Charon is well resolved by the color imager, but their distinctly different appearances can be seen. As New Horizons approaches its flyby of Pluto on July 14, it will deliver color images that eventually show surface features as small as a few miles across.

Some of us have been waiting for fifteen years to see the images from New Horizons. We’re looking forward to seeing more as the spacecraft looms closer.

Observing ISS Passes Overhead


For the last couple of days, we have been getting overhead passes of the International Space Station suitable for observing at dusk or a little after. The satellite tracker from allows us to input a zip code and it will return a listing of satellite passes observable from the location selected. The tracker has the option of selecting a subset of satellites and in our case, we selected passes from the ISS since they are usually more dramatic and bright as compared to most other orbiting objects.

Last night and tonight, we had very good passes and, weather permitting, we should have two more, tomorrow and Monday evening observable overflights. In the image above, I halfheartedly snapped a photo of Friday night’s pass of the ISS and damned if it didn’t show up when I downloaded it to the computer. Click on the image to enlarge.

UPDATE (08/24/2014): Damsel and I went out again this evening to see the overflight of the ISS. We saw it, alright, but the display of stars and the Milky Way dominated the night sky. As the ISS flew from west-northwest toward the southeast, it encountered Arcturus, the constellation Scorpio and then winked out across the terminator as it entered the Milky Way. What a spectacle! We love our dark desert skies!