The Night Sky May 2017.

nightsky may17

The sky at midnight on the 16th. May 2017. All times GMT.

New moon: 25th Full moon: 10th.

The light evenings of mid-spring present a challenge to Astronomers; fewer dark hours at less convenient times means making the most of the sky when we can.

Look towards the south-west at sunset and you will see the brilliant Jupiter. Over the month it fades slightly from magnitude -2.4 to -2.3 but remains a very noticeable object. It lies in Virgo, Jupiter is above the star Spica which is a first magnitude object, yet compared to Jupiter it does not seem so bright. The moon will pass north of Jupiter on the 8th. and will be a lovely sight. Binoculars or a small telescope will show the four Galilean moons and possibly the cloud belts. Your writer had a look at Jupiter through a three inch telescope a few nights ago and was able to make out the equatorial cloud belts with their distinctive ruddy colour and the moons. SO give it a go!

Rising at 23:30 mid-month and by 22:30 at the end of the month Saturn brightens from magnitude 0.3 to 0.1 over the month. It is to be found in Sagittarius and so will be low in the sky. The moon passes just below Saturn on the 14th. Saturn is a beautiful sight and is always worth a look.

Although there are only two planets (which are fantastic objects to observe) there are other things to look at. If you find Leo, the star to the left is called Denebola, to the left of there lies the Virgo cluster. This is a rich area of galaxies which form part of the ‘Local Cluster’ of galaxies to which our Milky Way belongs. There are over 2000 galaxies in the Virgo cluster, many of which can be seen by amateurs – they will appear as fuzzy blobs, but don’t let hat put you off. The light you see form them has be travelling to your eye for millions of years!

On this Day…

90 Years Ago – May 20th.-21st. 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Lucky Lindy’s single-seat, single engine aeroplane was called the Spirit of St. Louis. It began the flight from Roosevelt Field in New York and landed at Le Bourget Air Field just outside Paris.

45 Years Ago – May 24th. 1972: U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and USSR Premier Aleksey N. Kosygin signed an agreement for cooperation in the exploration of outer space for peaceful purposes which included the docking in space of US/USSR spacecraft in 1975. It was signed in Moscow.

5 Years Ago – May 22nd. 2012: Dragon C2/C3 was launched from Cape Canaveral by a Falcon 9 rocket. The spacecraft was the first fully functional Dragon spacecraft on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) C2+ Demonstration Mission for NASA. It successfully docked with the ISS and was later recovered.

Published in: on May 2, 2017 at 11:32  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Fancy a Trip to The Moon?

Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, a private rocket company, announced on the 27th. February that they will be sending two private citizens on a round the moon trip late in 2018.

SpaceX is probably the most successful private company launching into space, and has sent re-supply vessels (called Dragon) to the International Space Station, a feat it first performed on the May 2012. It began regular re-supply flight the following October. It has also launched satellites successfully into orbit.


The SpaceX Dragon.

The beauty about the Dragon is that it has been designed to carry not only cargo but people as well. It has yet to carry anyone but with NASA’s blessing they are now readying for the craft to start that part of its mission. The first test flight of the crew-ready version, the Dragon Version 2 will be un-manned and is currently slated for 2018 forming part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It will be launched to the International Space Station. Later in the year a subsequent mission with crew is expected to fly. SpaceX is currently contracted to perform an average of four Dragon 2 missions to the ISS per year, three carrying cargo and one carrying crew

SpaceX haven’t been without problems though; on the 1st. September 2016 the rocket exploded on the launch pad during a pre-launch test of the engines. The previous June,       SpaceX experienced a major failure with one of its rockets when a Falcon 9 disintegrated en route to the ISS.

The rocket SpaceX use is called Falcon and unlike the rockets that sent man to the moon it is partly re-usable; the first stage returns to Earth landing vertically – almost like it was in reverse from take off. The rocket has completed this a number of times on a floating platform at sea and once on land returning to the launch site at Cape Canaveral. Where the rocket lands depends on the weight of the cargo that was launched, a sea landing is made after launching heavier items than a ground landing.

           falcon9-return  Falcon 9 returning to Earth.

SpaceX are working to a very tight deadline; to get the craft safe to launch people and then get them around the moon in the same year is going to big a big task. It took NASA 7 years, the loss of three crew mates ( a fire aboard the oxygen saturated cabin of Apollo 1 during a launch rehearsal in January 1967 led to the deaths of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee)  and the development of new technology to send astronauts around the Moon on the Apollo 8 mission of 1968. It was not until 1969 and Apollo 11 that man first stood on the moon.


‘Earth Rise.’ Photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronauts.

If successful the two un-named astronauts will become the first ‘deep space’ travellers since the Apollo 11 crew. Their flight will take about a week, skimming the moon’s surface before flying past it and returning to Earth. The astronauts are funding themselves (estimates are that the cost of the moon flight will about $135 million dollars each) and will be given all necessary training before lift-off. Notwithstanding that, to learn all the systems, how to combat failures and how to react to emergencies in little over a year is going to be a massive task for them to undertake.

Despite the best training possible it cannot be overstated that this will be a risky venture. Once the craft is on its way to the Moon there can be no stopping and coming home if there is a problem. Whatever happens the crew will have to travel over 250,000,000 miles there and another quarter of a million miles back again. The reason for this is simple; the amount of energy needed to get to the moon, go round and return are huge, once the craft has the momentum it will not have enough fuel to slow it and change course for an early return to Earth. That burn is called TLI or Trans-Lunar Injection and is the point where they can’t change their minds!


The path to the Moon. (Image from Wikipedia)

The Dragon mission will not stop at the moon but fly around using what is known as a  circumlunar trajectory or lunar free return flight. It uses gravity at the moon to cause the craft to return to the Earth. (See picture above.) The Apollo missions followed this sort of flight until Lunar Insertion orbit: achieved using rocket engines. Apollo used this trajectory in case of a major failure so that a stricken craft could return home without the need for extra engine firings.

Remember the problems that Apollo 13 encountered? There was an explosion of one of the oxygen tanks just two days after launch. They had to continue their journey but the lunar landing was scrubbed. They had to make repairs a carbon dioxide scrubbing machine so that the air they had could be re-cycled and re-used. On top of which they suffered from heat loss, limited power and a shortage of drinkable water. The astronauts got back by the skin of their teeth and required the ingenuity of ground crew, themselves and having material they could cannibalise to keep the life support systems going.

One notable achievement and a record which still stands – but could fall after the Dragon flight – was that the Apollo 13 crew travelled the farthest from Earth reaching a grand distance of 400,171 km  or 248,655 miles.

However Elon Musk has stated that the two adventurers are well aware of the risks and are happy to take them.

Despite the risks, who wouldn’t want to be one of those astronauts on an adventure back to the Moon?

Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 17:05  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

February’s Night Sky.


Sky at midnight on 22nd. February.

(Sky map generated from

Full Moon; 11th. February. New Moon; 26th. February.

Venus dominates the early evening sky: it is visible from sunset until around 21:15 shining at a magnificent -4.4. have a look at it with binoculars and see if you can make out its shape; it should look like a half-moon. This shape is known properly as ‘Dichotomy.’

Diagonally up to the left from Venus you will find Mars. It is a lot feinter than Venus shining at magnitude 1.1 it fades slightly over the month to 1.3 by the 28th. it sets at 21h50 by the month’s end. Even through a telescope not much detail will be seen as it is a very small object. It is still worth having a look at all the same. On the 1st Mars lies in-between Venus and the Moon.

Rising at 23:30 at the start of the month and at 21:40 by the end is the mighty planet Jupiter. It shines at a bright magnitude of -2.0 brightening to -2.2 by the 28th. Lying in the constellation Virgo, Jupiter can be found just to the north of the bright star Spica. Jupiter is always worth observing; look out for the four main moons of the planet; they are called the Galilean satellites as they were first observed by Galileo in 1610. Over a few nights you will be able to see them change position as they move around the planet. Through binoculars or a telescope they look like stars but you will know they are moons by the speed they change position. The moon passes just above Jupiter on the 15th and 16th.

If you want to see the ringed planet Saturn you’ll need to get up early. It rises around 5:10 in the morning at the start of February and at 3:30 by the end of the month. Although it is not too bright at magnitude 1.4 it lies in the unremarkable and feint constellation of Ophiuchus, the thirteenth sign of the zodiac. The moon passes by Saturn over the nights of the 20th. and 21st. to help you find it.

On This Day…

111 Years Ago – February 7th. 1906: Birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of planet Pluto.

87 Years AgoFebruary 18th. 1930: Pluto was discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh of the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff Arizona.

72 Years AgoFebruary 1945: Arthur C. Clarke wrote a letter to the editor of Wireless World describing geostationary communication satellites.

26 Years AgoFebruary 7th. 1991: the Soviet space station Salyut 7 re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 04:00 UTC.


A comparison of the sizes of space stations and the Shuttle.

From top left; Salyut 1 and Skylab. Below them Mir. On right at top Salyut 7, at bottom the Shuttle and the big structure is the International Space Station.

Published in: on January 24, 2017 at 14:11  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,