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NASA is Back in the Game – A New Era in Space Exploration

Today was a historic day for American spaceflight.  After more than forty years America finally has a launch vehicle to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.  It’s not as if we’ve wasted our time hanging out in LEO since 1972, we’ve learned some truly amazing things about space as an environment since then.  After the Apollo program ended we built Skylab where humans had their first extended stays in space and began the study of the effect of micro gravity on the human body, animals, and plants.  Skylab led to Mir, the Russian space station, we sent up the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, performed many incredible experiments with the space shuttle, built the International Space Station and much more up until now.  Now we have turned the page on all that we’ve accomplished since Gene Cernan climbed back into the LEM a final time in 1972.  We’re not leaving all those accomplishments behind, we’re simply moving forward, and upward.

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit:  CNN)

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit: CNN)

Today was the first test flight of the Orion Crew Module (OCM) on board a Delta IV Heavy Rocket.  The whole unit together comprises the Space Launch System (SLS).  Today’s test flight was unmanned so instead of astronauts the OCM was packed with sensors to monitor the performance of the capsule’s performance during every second of the 4 hour flight.  The SLS looks very similar to the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets.  While not quite as tall it is certainly more powerful than the rockets that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.  SLS features three separate booster engines compared to the Saturn V’s three engines in one block.  The goal is more usable fuel to go deeper into space.

No human has left low-Earth orbit in over forty years but today’s test flight took us one step closer to that achievement.  The OCM was blasted 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface.  For reference the Hubble telescope which was at the upper limit of the space shuttle’s range orbits at 347 miles.  At an altitude of 3,600 miles you could see most of the Earth out the window.  The photo below was taken from the OCM and is probably very familiar if you’re old enough to remember the days of the Apollo missions when we first left the Earth behind.  Now four decades removed from those heady days an entire generation has grown up without seeing these kind of images shown on the news.  It’s my hope that as the SLS-Orion program moves forward the American public will rediscover a love for space exploration that its parents and grandparents had which made our country great.

An image we haven't seen live for over 40 years.  (Credit NASA)

An image we haven’t seen live for over 40 years. (Credit NASA)

The seeds of success have been sown by hard work, determination, and talent from all the people who have thus far worked on the SLS-Orion program.  Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13 wrote in his book Lost Moon, “I look up at the moon and wonder when we’ll be going back and who that will be?”  We’ve yet to answer that question but right now we can at least say, “Soon.”

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“Redneck” Astrophotography

Redneck Astrophotography:  I’m not sure how this term came to be but somehow it seems a bit contradictory.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

Anyways, I don’t own any fancy equipment for taking long-exposure shots of the night sky on an expensive EQ mount.  I do however have an iPhone which has an app for taking long-er exposure pics but with no tracking system I’m not sure how it will turn out.  It’ll probably have star trails if anything shows up at all.  I did also just download an app called “Snapseed” which is an image editing app for the iPhone.  I managed to get it for free which is huge because it’s usually $9.99.  I took several shots of the moon the other day when it was just before full.  I have to use both my 25% and 13% transmission filters to get the image dim enough for the camera to take in.  The result is 7% light transmission which is a perfect amount for my phone’s camera to handle.  After using Snapseed to sharpen it up and play with the contrast I managed to produce a pretty striking image of the moon with good contrast between the mare and the higher elevations.

The second image is one of M42, the Great Orion Nebula, that a member of the Harford County Astronomical Society took.  I just recently joined HCAS and they sent this picture out in an email.  After sprucing it up a bit I got much more detail out of the nebula than is at first visible (it looks a bit grainy but still not bad).  I’m quite pleased with Snapseed so far and if you’re like me and can’t afford fancy equipment to do real astrophotography then this is a great option!  Especially if you purchase an eyepiece mount for your phone like this one from Orion.

I hope you enjoy the pictures!

M42 Orion Nebula Credit: Harford County Astronomical Society

Refurbished moon

Goodbye Mr. Moon

Last week NASA announced that it expects to concede lunar exploration to its oldest rivals Russia and perhaps soon China.  Well they didn’t actually say that.  But it can certainly be implied quite easily.

NASA has released its expectations for its 2013 budget, which will be about $59 million smaller than the current fiscal year.  The proposed FY 2013 budget, which runs from October 2012-September 2013, will be NASA’s lowest level of funding in four years and will leave the agency rather flat-looking in 2013.  While the proposed budget totals at $17.7 billion, a large amount of funds are likely to be shifted to suit the Obama administrations desires.  Programs such as research for human spaceflight and commercial spaceflight are getting a 22% bump over the 2012 budget while only $1.5 billion will be allocated to the planetary sciences budget, which represents a 15% decrease from 2012.  Planetary sciences is the mastermind behind planning for robotic missions to Mars such as the coveted sample-return mission to search for advance the search for signs of life on the red planet.

Funding for the next-gen manned spaceflight vehicles, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, is due to receive $2.9 billion, 3% less than 2012.  The Obama administration has expressed its desire for NASA to devote itself to research for landing astronauts on an asteroid and eventually Mars.  While this is quite a lofty and admirable goal it completely leaves our closest neighbor out of the equation…the Moon.

The entire government seemingly doesn’t care that 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the last manned moon mission.  In fact, no human has left low-earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission on December 7th, 1972.  The furthest distance from Earth traveled by humans is still the Apollo 13 flight that took the craft to the lunar far side in an effort to save the ship and the crew after the crippling explosion on the service module.  Since the  first lunar landing in 1969 humans have only spent a mere couple of days in total elapsed time exploring the surface of the moon.  All the moon landings have been American in case you work for the government and have forgotten.

JFK "We choose to go to the moon"

With the Obama administration’s direction of the budget for 2013, it seems that the moon will play little or no part in the goals of the agency.  Ever since the cancellation of the Constellation program in Obama’s first year manned lunar exploration has been on the back burner.  Instead we are focusing on sending humans deeper into space than ever before, to Mars and beyond.  While that’s not a bad thing it seems strange that we would so easily neglect our closest neighbor in space.  Despite its proximity to our home we know so little about the moon.  I find it sad that we’re overlooking the moon in favor of landing on an asteroid.  Last September famous moon-lander Neil Armstrong and three other space experts including Apollo 17 moon lander Eugene Cernan told Congress that they were embarrassing the United States by cutting funding of lunar missions.  I would have to agree.  America once held an inspiring dominance on spaceflight and lunar capability but now that dominance is all but lost.  We won the space race, we completed the challenge of President Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely.  Now we’ve completely forgot about what that feels like.  In my lifetime I’ve never seen a human stand of the surface of another world, and I’m not likely to for at least another 13 years.

Did You Catch the Super Orange Moon?

Full Moon Rises Over Albert Bridge in London Credit: Getty Images

Did you catch the glorious (but somewhat ominous looking) moon last night??  If you stayed inside or worked late then you probably missed one of the coolest moon events of the year!  We had two lunar phenomenon occur at once last night.  The lunar disk was orange and it was very large.  I left work around 5:40 and noticed it almost as soon as I got onto the road.  Hanging low over the horizon was the massively enlarged orange glowing disk of the moon right in front of me!  It made me think of the people in the cars around me who have probably never paid much attention to the moon before and how last night it was practically screaming for their attention.  I imagined them seeing it and then texting someone and saying “what the hell’s wrong with the moon tonight?”  Nothing was wrong with the moon, the question should be more along the lines of “what’s wrong with our atmosphere?”

There are two separate parts to the equation that makes our moon appear so huge and orange at the same time.  One of them, the color, we can say with confidence that we understand why it happens.  The part about its apparent size is still a mystery to us.  From what we know about sunlight and our atmosphere we can say with relative confidence that we know why it appears orange, or even yellow, or red.  The strange color happens when the moon is low over the horizon when it is further away from the Earth.  The light that is being reflected off the lunar surface has to travel through more of the Earth’s atmosphere at this distance.  Combine this with any irregularity in our atmosphere caused by pollution or the amount or dust or haze in our atmosphere and the light that we see gets distorted by the particles in the atmosphere.  Usually the light we see reflected off the moon is white which is the combination of all the colors in the visible spectrum.  Under last nights atmospheric conditions however, the light is diffused and only the particles with longer wavelengths are able to make it through to our eyes.  Those longer wavelength colors are the reds, yellows, and oranges.  As the evening progresses and the moon treks higher and higher into the sky the distance the light travels decreases so the light eventually reaches our eyes as the normal white we’re used to.  If you were to watch the moon climb higher every hour you would see it gradually become more whitish as it rises and gets closer and closer to Earth.

As for the part about what makes it seem so huge at the horizon, that’s still not understood by humans.  There are several different theories out there that date back to the days of Aristotle and Ptolemy but none of them have ever proven to be true.  They vary from psychological factors and personal experience to more atmospheric theories about warped and distorted images that frankly go over my head so I won’t waste your time trying to explain them.

Theories and causes aside, the large orange full moon makes for quite a sight in the evening sky!  Coming up next month on March 19th is what astronomers call a “super” full moon where the moon will be full at perigee (closest point in its elliptical orbit to Earth) which will make it about 14% larger than a non-perigee full moon.  This is a pretty rare occurrence that hasn’t happened since 1993 so get your telescopes and filter screens ready to view that blindingly bright full moon!

Great Night for Stargazing

If you live in Maryland and are looking to do some stargazing tonight is a GREAT night for it!  We’re looking at an overnight low of 40° which is extraordinarily mild for this time of year!  On top of that it’s a clear night.  The only draw back is that the moon is almost full tonight, but you’ll get some incredible views of the moon if you have a nice pair of binoculars!  Jupiter is still high in the sky along with the Crab Nebula to the lower right of the moon.  Those three objects are all relatively close to one another and should provide some excellent viewing.  As always during the winter the Orion constellation and its brilliant nebula are visible until a couple hours before dawn.  This will be, hands down, a great night for some Ball So Hard stargazing!  To God be the glory!

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