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

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