They’re On Their Way Home!

If the weather down here on Earth cooperates tomorrow, the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft will undock from the International Space Station (ISS) and take its fiery plunge through our atmosphere to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday afternoon.

SpaceX has been sending cargo to and from the ISS since 2012, with over 20 missions successfully completed. However, SpaceX Crew Dragon made history on May 30th of this year when it became the first commercial spacecraft to carry humans to the ISS. During NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s two month stay aboard the ISS, they performed numerous scientific experiments, not the least of which was the successful completion of the first test flight, SpaceX Demo-2, for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Through the CCP initiative, NASA appointed Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to and from the Space Station. SpaceX won this particular space race, developing Crew Dragon in six years.

Successfully launching Crew Dragon into space and docking with the Space Station was just the first phase of the Demo-2 test flight; undocking from the ISS and returning the crew safely back to Earth is the next critical phase of this test mission. But all is expected to go well; Crew Dragon is a new breed of smart spacecraft that is able to operate completely autonomously as well as be manually controlled by its crew. Want to get a sense of what it would be like to manually dock with the ISS? SpaceX has a very entertaining simulator on their website where you can take control of Crew Dragon.

While there are only two astronauts on this Demo-2 flight, the Dragon vehicle is capable of transporting up to seven passengers into and out of Earth orbit. The expectation is that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Dragon spacecraft will carry not only astronauts but private passengers into Earth orbit, with the eventual lofty goal of transporting humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Dream on, Elon!

Transporting passengers into space is not the only line of space travel SpaceX has going on.  Do you have a payload you need delivered into orbit? Then the SpaceX Ride Share program may be for you! Prices start as low as a cool million to propel your payload of up to 200kg into space – such a bargain! You can even make your reservation online on the SpaceX website.

NASA will be providing live coverage of all Demo-2 test flight activities before, during, and after its return from the ISS. Currently the undocking of the Dragon “Endeavor” spacecraft from the ISS is set for 7:34 PM EDT on Saturday, August 1. If this schedule holds, splashdown will be at 2:42 PM EDT on August 2. History will once again be made as the first commercially built spacecraft returns humans from the Space Station to Earth. Please refer to this website for full coverage of the weekend’s events.

For those of us who enjoy “spotting the station”, tonight may well be our last chance to watch the ISS pass overhead with the Dragon Endeavor space vehicle still docked. It just so happens that there is a pass visible tonight at our location at the Etscorn Campus Observatory in Socorro, NM. While it will be a relatively short pass, the pass occurs not too far from Comet NEOWISE, which has all but faded from view. If you are in the local area, you can refer to the charts below for time and location information. If you are located elsewhere, you can visit Heavens Above and enter your location to see if there is a visible pass in your area as well.

Eyes to the skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Big Bright Ball O’Light

As promised, I brushed off my binoculars, charged my camera battery, and spent a couple of hours enjoying the mostly clear starry sky last night. I did find Comet NEOWISE, which continues to get dimmer not only because its tail is getting smaller as it travels farther from the Sun, but because of the brightness of the Moon. At 78% illuminated, it’s one big bright ball o’light that really lights up the night sky! When the sky is so bright, dim objects such as the comet, fade from view; the image below shows the comet in all its fading glory. If there weren’t stars in the sky one would almost think this image was taken in the daytime, with that bright blue sky and puffy white clouds. We can thank the Moon for that!

Tonight the Moon will be 87% illuminated, so will look much like the image below, which was also taken when the Moon was 87% illuminated. I’ve marked several features that will be easy to pick out with binoculars. I’ve marked the Apollo mission landing sites as well, although it might be easier to pinpoint those locations with a telescope rather than binoculars.

As you see in the image, the large dark areas on the surface of the Moon are named mare or seas. This is because the early lunar observers in the 17th century thought that these dark patches really were seas of water. We now know that’s not the case at all; these lowland areas of the Moon are actually volcanic lava flows and appear darker than the highland areas because of their high iron and titanium content.

The other easily distinguishable features on the Moon are craters. Almost all of these are impact craters, formed by the collision of an asteroid or comet with the surface of the Moon. The naming convention of naming craters after dead scientists was established in the 17th century. Since 1919 the job of naming craters belongs to the International Astronomical Union (IAU).  It is estimated that there are more than one million craters larger than a half-mile in diameter on the surface of the Moon.

Last but certainly not least, I want to share one of my favorite apps with you, LunaSolCal. It is available for both Android and iOS devices, and there is a Windows version as well. Along with sunrise/ sunset and moonrise/moonset data, you can find out when the different types of twilight start and end, the azimuth of the rising and setting of the Sun and Moon, maximum altitude for Sun and Moon, and much more, for any location on Earth. I use this app constantly and absolutely love it! It is one of the best observational tools I’ve found. And it’s free!

That’s all for now, folks. If you have a particular topic you’d like to see me write about in the future, I’d love to hear from you! Please post your suggestions in the comment section below or email us.

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Comets and Meteors and Moon, Oh My!

I had intended to talk about Moon features today, but in light of our local weather forecast calling for clear skies, I’m going switch gears. For those of us in the Socorro, NM area it’s time to take advantage of a cloudless night and chase that comet! If we’re lucky, we might catch a meteor or two as well!

Comet NEOWISE is rapidly fading in brightness and will become more and more difficult to see as time passes. When I saw it this past Monday night, its glory had faded dramatically compared to my observation a week earlier, but it was still a beautiful sight to behold! The image below is from Monday night. It was a bit tricky to locate the comet even using long exposure photography; the spotty cloud cover didn’t help. It was not a naked-eye object, or maybe just barely using averted vision. I’ve marked the approximate location of Comet NEOWISE over the next several days. Keep in mind, however, that the Moon is getting brighter as it moves toward its full phase and the comet is getting dimmer, so you’ll likely need some kind of optical aid to see the comet.

On the up side of what looked different about the comet, its coma (the gas rich cloud around its nucleus) was clearly green, much more so than it did on the other times I observed it. This eerie green glow occurs when diatomic carbon in the coma is excited by UV light from the Sun, resulting in the emission of green light. The first image below is what I saw using just a 150mm lens on my camera. The second image is a telescopic view of Comet NEOWISE. While its tail isn’t very impressive any more, that green glow sure is!

Enough about comets, let’s talk about meteors. Did you know that according to the American Meteor Society there are 13 different meteor showers in progress this week? We’re not at the peak of any of them, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see an extra meteor or two in our observation session. You may have seen talk of the Delta Aquariids and Alpha Capricornids in the media lately. While neither of these showers have a high expected rate of meteors per hour (in the single digits), your chance of seeing a meteor is a little greater than usual. The image below taken last week shows two meteors piercing the Big Dipper as I was photographing Comet NEOWISE.

The biggie that we meteor watchers wait for every year is the Perseids; this major meteor shower runs from July 17 to September 1 this year. During its peak on the evening of August 12 to the early morning of August 13, we might see as many as 40 to 50 meteors per hour! We’ll definitely revisit the Perseids when we get closer to their peak.

I don’t know about ya’ll, but for me it’s time to brush off my binoculars, charge my camera battery, and prepare for what will hopefully be a night of mostly cloud-free observing!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

To The Moon!

This past Sunday morning I was listening to The Acoustic Storm, a nationally syndicated radio show that airs on a local station in Albuquerque, NM (shoutout to Coyote 102.5, rock on!). They were playing a set of Moon-themed songs in honor of the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing on July 20, 1969. I was treated to hearing REM’s “Man on the Moon”, the Doors’ “Moonlight Drive”, “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens, and “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young. That set list got me thinking of other songs featuring our Moon; as a musician I’ve sung and played many, from Credence’s Bad Moon Rising to Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to The Moon, and more. I did a Google search a while back and came up with 44 songs with Moon in the title; I’m sure there are more. Expand the search to Moon in the lyrics, and the list grows. Throughout time songwriters have had a fascination with the Moon!

You don’t need to be a songwriter to be fascinated with the Moon. In fact, the next few days will be a good time to observe the Moon for yourself. Tonight at 68% illuminated it is in its waxing gibbous phase. When the Moon appears more than half illuminated it is referred to as being gibbous, and waxing means it’s becoming more illuminated and heading toward being a full Moon, which will occur next Monday, August 3rd. After the full phase, the Moon will appear to us to become less illuminated over time and will be in its waning gibbous phase until it reaches the second quarter phase when it is 50% illuminated, on August 11. As its apparent laminated portion becomes smaller, it is in its waning crescent phase on its way to being a new Moon, when we see no portion of it illuminated, occurring on August 18th.  

In reality the Moon is indeed illuminated even when new, we just don’t see the illuminated portion because the Moon is positioned between the Earth and the Sun. One half of the Moon is always illuminated by the Sun, although we can’t see that from our vantage point on Earth. The continual change of the percent of illumination or lunar phases that we see from Earth occur because the Moon is in orbit around the Earth, completing its orbit and therefore its full cycle of phases every 28 days.

We’ll delve deeper into the lunar phases at another time, but now let’s get back to observing the Moon. Despite what many may think, the full phase is not the best time to observe the Moon. While it is big, bright, and beautiful in its full phase, it’s so bright that the lunar features such as craters, mountains, and valleys appear washed out. To best see the texture of these lunar features we need a combination of light and shadow, which is exactly what we see at the lunar terminator, the division between the illuminated and non-illuminated portion of the Moon. We can see a lot of detail at the terminator when the Moon is between, say, 15% and 85% illuminated. (Is it just me who hears the word “terminator” echoing inside my head spoken with a heavy Austrian accent?)

Last night when the image above was taken, the Moon was 56% illuminated (thank you, MROI staff member Dylan Etscorn for sharing your image!). As I mentioned earlier, tonight it will be 68% illuminated, and tomorrow night 78% illuminated. Break out your binoculars or telescope and explore the terminator, you will be amazed at the surface detail you see! No telescope or binoculars? Check it out anyway, our lovely Luna is always a beautiful sight to behold!

Next time we will continue our discussion of the Moon; we’ll look at some interesting features along the current terminator and pinpoint the location of the Apollo Mission landing sites. I’ll also talk about my favorite phone app that gives information on lunar phases and Moon rise and set times, as well as solar information. Meanwhile, I would love to hear what your favorite Moon themed song is, please tell me in the comments!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Spherical Coordinates

Yesterday we talked about measuring distances in the sky using your hands. In that exercise we measured Comet NEOWISE’s altitude, its distance above the observer’s true horizon, as being about 25°. Today we’re going to take a closer look at the coordinate system we use to locate objects in the sky.

To describe the location of an object in the sky, we use a spherical coordinate system where azimuth (az) is measured clockwise around an observer’s local horizon starting due north, and altitude (alt) is the angular distance of a celestial object above the observer’s true horizon.

The sketch below illustrates the location of Comet NEOWISE on the Celestial Sphere in terms of its azimuth and altitude. The Celestial Sphere is an imaginary sphere of infinite radius concentric to Earth and centered around the observer; objects in the sky are considered to lie on this sphere. Measuring the comet’s altitude is what we did yesterday; it is the number of degrees the object lies above your true horizon, easily measurable with your hands.

With the help of the illustration above let’s look at how to determine the azimuth of an object. We start at 0° North and measure clockwise towards the east, until we reach the point on the horizon above which the object can be found in the sky, in this case measured to be at an azimuth of 305°. The easiest way to measure azimuth is with a compass. If you don’t have a regular analog compass, there are many free compass apps for your smartphone.

No doubt you recognize the compass directions of north (0° az), south (180° az), east (90° az), and west (270° az) on this chart. When describing a location using its azimuth we often use the abbreviation of the nearest compass direction as well to further clarify the azimuth angle. Below you will find a list of the abbreviated common compass directions and their azimuth in degrees:

N (0°), NNE (22.5°), NE (45°)
ENE (67.5°), E (90°), ESE (112.5°)
SE (135°), SSE (157.5°), S (180°), SSW (202.5°)
SW (225°), WSW (247.5°), W (270°)
WNW (292.5°), NW (315°), NNW (337.5°)

That’s it for today, eyes to the skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Measuring Distances in the Sky

While we in the Socorro area welcomed the much-needed rainfall last night, it certainly didn’t allow for any comet viewing! The weather forecast looks about the same for tonight, which is great for our vegetable gardens but not so great for astronomical observing.

If the weather were to cooperate and give us some clear skies to the northwest tonight, Comet NEOWISE will be seen about 25° above the horizon at 9:35 PM MDT, as illustrated in the attached sky chart. Even if the skies are not clear enough to see the comet at this exact time, you may want to check again every so often, because the comet will be above the horizon for another couple of hours. If the clouds are moving about, you just might get a glimpse of the comet.

You’ve probably noticed that when we describe the location of a celestial object in the sky, we often give its distance from another easily recognizable celestial object or its height above the horizon in degrees (its altitude). Trying to figure out angular distances in the sky may sound challenging at first, but it’s quite simple to measure distances using nothing but your hands!

The drawing below illustrates the distances that different parts of your hand can measure. The key is to have your arm fully extended in front of you for these measurements to be most accurate.

The sky chart below is the same location, time and date as the previous one, but in this version we illustrate the hand position you would use to measure the comet at 25° above the horizon.

But wait! That thumb isn’t on the horizon at all, it’s below the horizon, right? Well, yes and no.

If you are measuring a distance above the horizon, you need to measure from where the true horizon would be if there were no obstructions such as structures, trees, or mountains. The true horizon is what your line of sight would be if there were no obstructions between you and the curve of the Earth in the distance, as if you were on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Your visible horizon is the line dividing the sky and the obstructions you see from your viewing position such as houses, hills, trees, etc.

Your visible horizon has a great impact on what celestial objects you can see low in the sky. For example, if you’re in the city of Socorro, like we will be tonight at New Mexico Tech’s Etscorn Campus Observatory, don’t expect to see anything close to the horizon due west thanks to our beloved M Mountain. But the view to the northwest at azimuth 310° should be just fine!

Wait, azimuth 310°, what’s that about? Stay tuned to find out!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

The Wanderers

Ever wonder how many Wanderers you can see in the sky at once? This coming week you may just find out!

Look to the south about an hour before sunrise this week and you may see the Wanderers Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter spread across the sky from the ENE to the WSW. All but Mercury should be visible to the naked-eye; for Mercury you’ll need binoculars or a small telescope. You’ll also need a very clear horizon without obstructions, as Mercury and Jupiter will be quite low in the sky.

Why do we refer to the planets as the Wanderers?  Ancient Greek astronomers were keen observers of the night sky, and noted that there were a handful of celestial objects that moved relative to the background of “fixed” stars. These “planetai”, as they were called, traveled along a fairly narrow band of the sky around the ecliptic, the imaginary line that marks the annual path of the Sun. Planetai is translated as wanderers; the name planet comes from this Greek word.

Starting low in the ENE sky we find Mercury, named after the ancient Roman Mercurius, god of financial gain, commerce, and travelers. Being the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury is quite a speedy traveler, completing its orbit around the Sun in a mere 88 days. Mercury will be less than 5° degrees above the horizon and 15° degrees to the east of Betelgeuse, a bright red giant star in the constellation of Orion the hunter. This is where the trick of using your hand as a measurement tool will come in handy. When you make a fist and extend your arm all the way out, the distance between your pointer and pinky finger knuckles is about 5°. With this in mind, you can expect Mercury to be about a fist above the horizon and three fists to the left of Betelgeuse.

Next in our line of Wanderers is the brilliant planet Venus, goddess of beauty and love in Roman mythology. Venus will be easy to spot not only because it is the brightest object you will see in this part of the sky, but because it lies only 4° away from Aldebaran, a bright red giant star that marks the eye of Taurus the bull.

Taking center stage in our group is the red planet Mars, which can be found 55° degrees above the SSE horizon. In ancient Roman myth, Mars was the god of war; perhaps this planet was associated with war and bloodshed due to its strikingly reddish hue. The red hue of Mars is easily distinguishable now, and will become more so as it approaches opposition, the point in its orbit when the Earth is directly between it and the Sun, on October 13th of this year.

The ringed beauty Saturn is next on our list. Saturn is named after the Roman god Saturnus, god of plenty, agriculture and wealth. One thing Saturn has plenty of is rings – more than 30!   While Saturn is easily seen with the naked-eye, you’ll need a small telescope to make out its ring system, which is made up of billions of small chunks of dusty ice and rock.

Although last in this planetary lineup, Jupiter is hardly last on anyone’s list, especially not the ancient Romans! As the god of sky and thunder, Jupiter was the main deity of ancient Roman religion. With the aid of a small telescope you can spot its four largest satellites Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto, depending upon where they are in their orbit around their parent planet. You may even be able to spot one or two of these Jovian moons with binoculars.  

I hope you’ve enjoyed our promenade through the planets. Whether or not you’re a natural early bird, this planetary quintet is definitely worth waking up early for!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Comet Crazy!

People all over the world have been trying to catch a of glimpse of Comet NEOWISE since news of its viewability hit the media early in the month. We avid sky watchers at New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory caught our first peek in the early morning hours of July 8 and have been looking out for it since.

The image below was taken at 4:40 AM MDT on July 9 by MROI staff members Dylan Etscorn and Colleen Gino in San Antonio, New Mexico. They were using a Nikon D850 on MROI’s Bachman-Challener Outreach Telescope, a 100mm Takahashi Refractor purchased with funds donated to the MRO Outreach Department in 2017.

On the morning of July 10, they traveled to San Marcial. New Mexico, in the wee hours of the morning to photograph Comet NEOWISE from a trestle bridge, seen below.

With several successful comet encounters under their belts, Dylan and Colleen took the trek up to the Magdalena Ridge Observatory on July 11th with hopes of photographing the comet over the city of Socorro 6,000 feet below. Although the skies were pristinely clear that evening, by the early morning when the comet would be visible monsoon clouds had rolled in and almost totally obscured the comet from view. The view you see in the image below was to be the last morning view of Comet NEOWISE for our enthusiastic observers.

Their next observation of the comet was made almost a week later on July 18, this time in the evening at about 10 PM MDT from a neighborhood with many street lights. While not photographically impressive, this view, seen below, gave our astrophotographers the information they needed to know when and where to look for Comet NEOWISE on future observing expeditions.

Now knowing where to look, they immediately packed up their gear and drove to darker site, excited to photograph the first evening apparition of the comet, especially since the ion tail was finally visible. But once again the cloudy monsoon skies prevailed, and by the time they got to their dark sky site a mere 10 minutes after their first sighting under the street lights, Comet NEOWISE was mostly obscured by clouds.

At this point we’re keeping our fingers crossed for some clear moments in our seasonally cloudy skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications