Watching the Shuttle Launch

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 26, 2011 – 12:02 am -


Discovery launches into orbit one last time. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Andrew Fazekas

After more than 25 years of trying to see an actual shuttle launch I finally fulfilled my dream yesterday with the picture perfect blastoff of Discovery on STS-133 mission- it’s last one ever.

Staying in southern Florida I had a 3 hour drive north to the launch site and got there at noon – nearly 5 hours before liftoff.  I wanted to experience the launch as the general public gets to see it – the closest possible free access. After some research on the Net before hopping in the car, the choice was obvious – the town of Titusville 12 miles from the launch pad. It had a totally clear view of the launch pad.

Good thing I got there when I did because the town was brimming with excited shuttle viewers flocking in from all over the US and Canada – BTW NASA says there were over 40,000 people packed in a 10 mile long stretch long the shores surrounding Titusville. This apparently is a record number!


Me with my gear nervously waiting for launch of STS-133

I set up camp with the help of Canadian friend along for the thrill, on the back lawn of an old Apollo-era motel with my still and video cameras and small refractor telescope for close-up views of the shuttle on the launchpad. I wasn’t disappointed.  I had a beautifully clear view of the entire Kennedy Space Centre complex with the shuttle launchpad in plain view only 12 miles away.  Once settled in it was just a matter of waiting and hoping nothing goes wrong during the final countdown.

The sky was mostly clear blue and the temps were hovering just under 30 degrees Celcius with very light winds. I could tell the weather was not going to scrub the mission! But like any good story there had to be some tense moments, and indeed that came in the last hour of the countdown when there was a computer display glitch at mission control. It literally went down to the wire with a green light for the launch only given with 2 minutes left in the launch window.  I have to  say I was thinking up until the official ‘go for launch’  was given that my quarter century curse was destined to continue – but I guess the space gods gave the thumbs up!


A fiery blastoff for Discovery space shuttle. What an awesome view! Click image to enlarge. Credit: Andrew Fazekas

The launch was everything I expected…a complete light and sound show. A column of smoke blew out on either side of the shuttle in the first moments after the engines were fired up and then within seconds the shuttle slowly cleared the tower. I could clearly see the orange light from the fires from the shuttle booster rockets as it quickly sped up to 5 miles per second climbing ever quickly up the sky.


Last moments of my launch experience. Discovery's contrail cuts across the blue sky. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Andrew Fazekas

Then before I knew it – probably only 3 minutes or so…all that was left visible was a long winding exhaust contrail.

But before Discovery disappeared into the deep blue sky above Florida’s Space Coast the most memorable view for me was when all that was left visible of the spaceship was just a quickly fading orange star in the daytime sky as it climbed into orbit.

It is an experience that I will never forget and I can highly recommend to any space buff the trek to see a rocket launch.  Sadly there are only 2 remaining shuttle flights left before the fleet is retired to museums so don’t waste any time if you want to see one of the last remaining flights before they become history.

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Massive Solar Eruption Coming Our Way

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 13, 2011 – 11:47 pm -

UPDATE Feb.15,8 pm: Early Tuesday morning a second much more massive solar eruption occurred on the Sun and it appears the resulting charged cloud is heading towards Earth. Arrival time is estimated to occur lat Wednesday to Thursday. The flare , which is the largest seen in 4 years, was categorized as X-2 which is very strong and has the ability to cause planet-wide radio blackouts and bright auroras down to mid-latitudes.  Look towards the northern horizon around local midnight for possible northern lights the next couple of nights… Stay tuned for more info…

It appears that the Sun has belched a supercharged cloud of particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME) that may have Earth in its crosshairs. Tip of the hat to for breaking this story.
The solar eruption happened on Sunday morning around a newly formed group of sunspots, and indications are that it should slam into Earth’s magnetic field around Feb.15th – Tuesday.

Flash seen near center of Sun on Sunday- start of solar eruption

What really has made experts perk up is that its pretty much one of the largest eruptions that have been directed towards Earth in quite a while. The Sunspots group associated with it consists of ten Earth-sized spots – wow! The group is still growing in size – already more than 100,000 km in diameter.  And expectations are that more eruptions may be on their way.

It looks like it was a medium sized eruption on the solar flare ‘richter’ scale – M class – and might cause some colourful auroras so folks living in high-latitude areas – like Canada should be on alert. At this point experts are waiting for more data to come in from Sun watching satellites about the blast itself to know exactly if it will hit Earth directly or will it be just a glancing blow.

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Latest Night Sky Episode

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 12, 2011 – 12:54 pm -

This week’s episode highlights the awesome new NASA satellite images of our Sun and gives stargazers a heads up on two lunar sky shows involving star clusters.

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Moon Joins Jupiter in Sky Show

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 5, 2011 – 7:20 pm -

Both Sunday and Monday nights will see the thin crescent Moon glide past the brightest planet in the evening sky. Face the southwestern horizon about a half hour after local sunset and you can see the Moon next to star-like Jupiter – all with the naked eye. Of course if you have binoculars or a small telescope you can also track down the seventh planet in the solar system – Uranus- by using Jupiter as a guidepost.  Uranus is just barely visible to the unaided eye from a dark location at about 5.5 magnitude but it is only 4 degrees below Jupiter making it an easier catch this month with a little optical aid. The gap between the two planets will continue to increase the coming weeks and months so try your hand at finding this green gas giant while it is conveniently underneath Jupiter.


Three solar system members in a cosmic huddle Sunday night. Click image to enlarge.

By the way the planetary pair are in the zodiac constellation Pisces. It is interesting to note that the brightness difference between these to giant planets is because of both a size and distance difference. While Jupiter is about 300 times more massive than Earth and is 750 million km away, Uranus is 13.5 times the mass of our planet an sits at a stately 3 billion km from us!


THe waxing crescent Moon will have risen higher into the SW sky and will be looking down on Jupiter by Monday evening. Click image to enlarge.

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Possible Earth-sized Exoplanets Found

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 2, 2011 – 2:51 pm -

NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Five of the potential planets are near Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of smaller, cooler stars than our Sun.

Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets. Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a Sun-like star, Kepler-11. This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside our solar system.

“In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA’s science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos.”

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

The discoveries are part of several hundred new planet candidates identified in new Kepler mission science data, released on Tuesday, Feb. 1. The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter.  Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized. The remaining 49 habitable zone candidates range from super-Earth size — up to twice the size of Earth — to larger than Jupiter.

The findings are based on the results of observations conducted May 12 to Sept. 17, 2009, of more than 156,000 stars in Kepler’s field of view, which covers approximately 1/400 of the sky.

“The fact that we’ve found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting Sun-like stars in our galaxy,” said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the mission’s science principal investigator. “We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone, some of which could have moons with liquid water.”

Among the stars with planetary candidates, 170 show evidence of multiple planetary candidates. Kepler-11, located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth, is the most tightly packed planetary system yet discovered. All six of its confirmed planets have orbits smaller than Venus, and five of the six have orbits smaller than Mercury’s.

The only other star with more than one confirmed transiting planet is Kepler-9, which has three. The Kepler-11 findings will be published in the Feb. 3 issue of the journal Nature.

his artist’s conception shows the Kepler-11 planetary system and our solar system from a tilted perspective to demonstrate that the orbits of each lie on similar planes. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

“Kepler-11 is a remarkable system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation,” said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and Kepler science team member at Ames. “These six planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets’ mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume. By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we determined they are among the lowest mass confirmed planets beyond our solar system.”

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11 are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun. Moving outward, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is half as far from its star as Earth is from the Sun.

The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which indicates that they formed within a few million years of the system’s formation.

“The historic milestones Kepler makes with each new discovery will determine the course of every exoplanet mission to follow,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Kepler, a space telescope, looks for planet signatures by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars caused by planets crossing in front of them. This is known as a transit.

Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take three years to locate and verify Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars.

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest the spacecraft finds.

The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

More information about the Kepler mission:

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Hubble Spies Most Distant Galaxies Ever Seen

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 1, 2011 – 6:59 pm -

In this NASA documentary take a look at some of the most distant galaxies Hubble has ever seen, and find out why, when we look at the most distant objects in the universe, we are also seeing the cosmos’ earliest objects.

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