RSSArchive for November, 2011

What’s up? The night sky for December 2011

Telescope dome at night

Stargazing is great fun, now that the warmer summer weather is here.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Standard Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

December 2

It is First Quarter Moon today at 8:52pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT). First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains  throw nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.

December 6

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit, apogee, at a distance from Earth of 405,412 kilometres. And if you take a look at the Moon this evening, you’ll see a bright ‘star’ above and to its right. That’s not a star—it’s actually the planet Jupiter!

December 9

Take a look at the Moon in this evening’s sky, and you’ll see a brightish star a little way out to its right. And yes, this one really is a star. It’s called Aldebaran, and it’s the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Aldebaran is a red giant star roughly 44 times as big as the Sun, and is about 65 light-years from Earth.

December 10

Full Moon occurs today at 1:36am AEDT, and tonight everyone in Australia and New Zealand will experience a total lunar eclipse. See our separate lunar eclipse story for full details on how, when and where to see it.

Eclipses aside…although it looks very pretty high up there in the sky, astronomers, both amateur and professional, generally hate the full Moon. This is because its light tends to drown out many of the fainter objects they’re interested in seeing. (It does this by actually making the sky glow.) It’s also not a good time to look at the Moon itself through a telescope, as the overhead sunlight (as seen from the perspective of the Moon) doesn’t throw any shadows across the lunar surface—and shadows are what give the craters and mountains their 3D look.

Man looking through a telescope

The Moon looks great through a telescope, but you won't need one to see the total lunar eclipse on December 10, 2011.

December 17

If you’re up early today, look for the Moon and you’ll see that it seems to have two companions. A little way below and to its left is the star Regulus, and below and to its right is the planet Mars. Regulus is actually a quadruple star system, comprised of four stars in two groups of two, gravitationally bound to one another. But the main star is a young, blue star a little over three times the mass of the Sun, and about three to four times as big as the Sun too.

December 18

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 11:48am AEDT. The Moon is still near Mars in the sky, being above and to the right of the planet in the hours before dawn.

December 21

The Moon, a star and a planet make a nice triangle in this morning’s sky. The star is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, and the planet is Saturn. Saturn will be to the left of the Moon, and Spica will be above Saturn. Spica, a blue giant star, is the 15th brightest star in the night sky and is about 260 light-years from Earth.

December 22

There are two items of note for today. First, the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee, which is the opposite of apogee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 364,800 kilometres. And secondly, today marks the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the day of the year when the Sun is highest in the sky.

December 25

New Moon occurs today at 5:06am AEDT.

December 27-28

The Moon is back in the western evening sky. Over these two nights, it’ll be paired up with the planet Venus—the duo will make a very attractive sight in the evening dusk.

There’s more great night sky viewing information at Melbourne Planetarium’s Skynotes site.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, we’d be happy to answer them. Please use the Feedback Form below. Happy stargazing!

Story by Jonathan Nally. Images courtesy IAU.

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Aussie video shows Curiosity leaving Earth

THIS AMAZING VIDEO was taken by Australian amateur astronomer Duncan Waldron with assistance from Mark Rigby of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane, Australia.

It shows the departing Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which was launched from Cape Canaveral early on Sunday morning, Australian Eastern Daylight time.

The fuzzy triangular shape is likely to be gas venting from the Centaur rocket upper stage which boosted the probe out of Earth orbit.

Plumes that look similar to this one can sometimes be seen by skywatchers if they’re in the right place at the right time to catch a satellite being boosted into its final orbit by what’s called an “apogee kick motor”…and often lead to UFO reports, as the sight is very unusual.

Below is a photograph of the plume (lower left corner) taken by Duncan Waldron from the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium.

Plume from MSL's Centaur as it departed Earth

As NASA's Mars Science Laboratory departed Earth, astronomer Duncan Waldron at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium snapped this photo of what is apparently gas venting from the probe's spent Centaur booster rocket.

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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Gallery – Geyser moon seen in silhouette

Saturn's moon Enceladus

Saturn's moon Enceladus appears in silhouette in this image taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The bulk of Saturn is in the background, the planet's rings seen edge-on appear as the dark horizontal line.

NASA’S CASSINI SPACECRAFT took this image of Saturn’s moon Enceladus on October 19, 2011. As the spacecraft passed Enceladus, its infrared instruments, cameras and other instruments monitored activity on the moon, in particular the famed jets erupting from the its south pole. The orbiter flew within about 1,230 kilometres of Enceladus’ surface.

Although it appears dark in the silhouetted view, Enceladus, 504 kilometres wide, is actually one of the most reflective bodies in the Solar System because it is constantly coated by fresh, white particles of ice.

Also visible are Saturn’s rings, seen edge on.

More information:

Enceladus – Saturn’s shiny moon

The eruptions of Enceladus

Adapted from information issued by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

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Mars mission on its way!

A HISTORIC VOYAGE to Mars has begun with the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity.

The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.

During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

The Atlas V rocket initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the vehicle’s upper stage, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 567-million-kilometre journey to Mars.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Australia’s night sky – amazing time-lapse film

A NEW TIME-LAPSE VIDEO has captured the beauty of the night sky above the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in eastern Australia.

It was made by astronomy research fellow Dr Ángel López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory and Macquarie University).

“I made the video by combining about 3,800 frames, each of which I had processed individually,” said Dr López-Sánchez. “Each second in the video corresponds to 12 minutes in real time.”

Dr López-Sánchez took the images between June and September this year, at times when he was working as a duty astronomer at the Anglo-Australian Telescope, using a Canon EOS 600D camera.

He had to contend with bad weather, wind knocking the camera over, and, on one occasion, stubborn kangaroos that blocked his access to the camera. But after a few months he had the material.

Dr López-Sánchez has been a keen photographer since he was twelve but this is his first time-lapse project. He now has another project under way that will give a “behind the scenes” look at the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

Adapted from information issued by AAO / Dr Ángel López-Sánchez.

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Relive the Soyuz landing

THE EXPEDITION 29 CREW from the International Space Station returned to Earth today, having spent five-and-a-half months in orbit.

Sergei Volkov, Satoshi Furukawa and Mike Fossum rode the Soyuz TMA-02M capsule back to Earth, landing on the icy cold steppes of Kazakhstan.

This video shows remarkable footage of the re-entry, taken from the Space Station, plus post-landing activities as the astron/cosmonauts were removed from the capsule.

Towards the end of the video we get a good view of just how small the Soyuz is. With three people crammed inside, there’s almost no room to move.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Earth from Space – Crepuscular rays

Crepuscular rays seen from space

Rays of light and dark appear to emanate from clouds in this image taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. They are called crepuscular rays.

CREPUSCULAR RAYS OVER THE OCEAN near India are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 29 crewmember on the International Space Station.

The sight of shafts of light, beaming down from the heavens through a layer of clouds, has provided many an artist, scientist, and philosopher with inspiration throughout the centuries.

Atmospheric scientists refer to this phenomenon as “crepuscular rays“, referring to the typical observation times of either sunrise or sunset.

Shadowed areas bounding the rays are formed by obstructions in the solar (or lunar) illumination pathway such as clouds or mountaintops; however this alone is not sufficient to create the phenomenon. The light must also be scattered—by airborne dust, aerosols, water droplets, or molecules of the air itself—to provide the visible contrast between the shadowed and illuminated parts of the sky.

Crepuscular rays seen from the ground.

A ground-based image of crepuscular rays shows them appear to radiate from a central point, a perspective effect. The orbital image above shows them in fact to be parallel.

When observed from the ground, crepuscular rays appear to radiate outwards from the source of illumination due to the effects of distance and perspective; however the rays are actually parallel.

This photograph from the Space Station provides an unusual viewing perspective from above the rays. The sun was setting to the west on the Indian subcontinent at the time the image was taken, and cumulonimbus cloud towers provide the shadowing obstructions.

The rays are being projected onto a layer of haze below the cloud towers. The image clearly illustrates the true parallel nature of the crepuscular rays.

See the full-size image here.

Orbital image courtesy NASA. Ground-based image of crepuscular rays from Wikipedia, courtesy Chevy111, posted under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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Mars rover to launch this week

NASA’S MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY mission, carrying the car-sized Curiosity rover, is only days away from launch. The video above explains what scientists hope to achieve with the mission.

The ambitious mission will see the nuclear-powered rover spend at least two years investigating the geology of Gale Crater, a 154-kilometre-wide crater just south of Mars crater.

Gale is named after Walter Frederick Gale, an Australian astronomer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mars Science Laboratory is set for lift-off at 2:02am, Sydney time, on Sunday, November 27.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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NASA launch tower goes for a ride

THE MOBILE LAUNCHER that will host NASA’s Space Launch System and new Orion spacecraft was moved to Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to begin two weeks of structural and systems tests.

This is the first time the mobile launcher has moved that far. The 3,000-tonne structure rode to the pad atop one of the crawler-transporters that carried the space shuttles and Saturn V rockets to the launch pads.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / Kim Shiflett.

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Earth from Space – Rowley Shoals

ISS photo of Rowley Shoals

Rowley Shoals in the Timor Sea, as photographed by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

THIS PHOTOGRAPH—taken by an Expedition 29 crewmember on the International Space Station—highlights the trio of coral reef atolls known as Rowley Shoals, located in the southwestern Timor Sea.

Three reef areas make up the shoals—extending approximately 100 kilometres from northeast to southwest, they are Mermaid Reef, Clerke Reef, and Imperieuse Reef.

Only Clerke Reef and Imperieuse Reef have white sandy islets (or cays) that remain above water. Imperieuse Reef also has the only permanent man-made structure–a lighthouse located on Cunningham Islet, a cay at the northern end of the reef.

Thin patchy cloud cover also is visible.

Close-up of Imperieuse Reef

Close-up of Imperieuse Reef

Rowley Shoals is located off the northwestern Australia coastline, approximately 300 kilometres west of the city of Broome. Since the late 1970s, fishing and diving expeditions—based in Broome—have frequented the atolls of the Shoals.

Clerke and Imperieuse Reefs are part of the Rowley Shoals Marine Park established in 1990. Mermaid Reef is also managed as the Mermaid Reef Marine National Nature Reserve (established in 1991).

The biodiversity of the atolls is impressive, with 233 coral species and 688 fish species more typical of Southeast Asia than other Western Australian reef ecosystems. Species include staghorn coral, giant clams, giant potato cod, maori wrasse, mackerel and tuna.

In addition, Bedwell Island (a cay in Clerke Reef) hosts a colony of red-tailed tropicbirds as well as species of shearwaters, sea-eagles, terns, plovers and egrets.

See the full-size image here.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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