Ceres | My First Views

Update: Second date of views (4 Jan 2019) is at the bottom of this post.

The largest asteroid Ceres has been orbited by the ion-engine powered DAWN spacecraft since early 2015. DAWN ran out of fuel to maneuver in October 2018 and will remain silent in orbit at Ceres for decades. Previous to Ceres, it visited the second largest asteroid Vesta. This fly-over video gives a close view of Ceres.

The asteroid is far away and quite small and dim. It is not something most people have ever seen with the naked eye or in a telescope. I’ve been tracking Ceres with desktop planetarium software with hopes to see it. I am happy to report success.

Show me more…


New Horizons | Ultima Thule Flyby | 31 Dec 2018

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in January 2006. It coasted by Pluto 14 July 2015 giving us our first close views of the dwarf planet and its moons. Previous posts highlighting events of the mission are found here.

After that flyby of Pluto, the mission gained a new challenge. It is headed for a flyby of a Kuiper Belt object called Ultima Thule. The flyby occurs late on New Year’s Eve about 11:30 pm CST. The closest approach distance will be about 2200 mi (3540 km) which is 1/3 the distance it was in the flyby of Pluto. I invite you to read remarks by Principal Investigator Alan Stern as New Horizons makes its final approach. Quoting Stern:

“What will Ultima reveal? No one knows. To me, that is what’s most exciting—this is pure exploration and fundamental science!”

From the New Horizons web site:

We will only know what Ultima Thule’s surface looks like once New Horizons has sent back the first pictures after it has flown by, although based on observations of similar-sized Solar System objects, it will almost certainly display impact craters. The lighting environment at its surface is very dim, as it receives only about 0.05% of the light from the Sun that Earth does. We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish color, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years. The flyby will also reveal whether it has any moons, or even a ring system. Ultima Thule belongs to a class of Kuiper belt objects called the “cold classicals”, which have nearly circular orbits with low inclinations to the solar plane, and which have not been perturbed since their formation perhaps 4.6 billion years ago. Ultima Thule will therefore be the most primitive planetary object yet explored, and will reveal to us what conditions were like in this distant part of the Solar System as it condensed from the solar nebula.

I will be monitoring the progress of New Horizons at this site for the latest update news and images.

Christmas Morning | ISS Lunar Transit

Passes of the International Space Station are very predictable. There are internet sites that will email you notification of a coming pass. This one by NASA is easy to use. I use a site called CalSky which also notifies me if the ISS is going to pass in front of the Sun or Moon for my location. These transits are brief lasting barely more than a second. I’ve written about seeing several transits of the Sun in these posts.

Transits of the Moon are more difficult to see. The CalSky site has notified me fewer times about lunar transits. When they do occur for my location, the weather is sometimes a problem. This Christmas morning a transit was to occur but the forecast called for very cloudy skies. I woke not expecting to see it. When I looked out the window, the Moon was shining brightly in a clear patch of sky. I got my camera ready and hoped it would stay clear. It did just barely long enough. Here are three frame-grabs from the video showing the ISS just before, during, and after the transit.

This is the video slowed down to 50% speed. It is best viewed on a large screen with quality set to HD. It is not likely visible on a phone or tablet screen. The transit begins at the 7 o’clock position and ends at the 2 o’clock position of the Moon’s face. It lasts only 2.5 sec on this video, only 1.24 sec in real time.

I’ve waited a long time to see this. It was great to have it occur on Christmas morning. What a nice present.

I Made It to Mars

UPDATE: InSight landed successfully on Mars on 26 Nov 2018. The microchip with my name and 2.4 million others is now resting on Mars attached to the spacecraft.

6 Nov 2017: My bags are packed. I am ready to join 2.4 million other passengers as we begin our journey to Mars in May 2018 aboard the INSIGHT spacecraft. The trip will take about 7 months. It is a one-way journey.

Click to read the fine print. My flight miles award will be enormous.

INSIGHT is the acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. NASA loves acronyms. Previous Mars missions have studied intensively the surface and atmosphere of the planet. This spacecraft is the first designed to study the interior in hopes of finding clues to the formation of the rocky inner planets. The spacecraft will use seismology, heat flow equipment, and very precise tracking to probe the planet below ground.

DAWN Spacecraft | End of Mission

NASA’s DAWN spacecraft ran out of fuel used to point its antenna toward Earth. Communications failed on 31 Oct and 1 Nov 2018. It was launched in 2007 to study minor-planets Vesta and Ceres, the two largest asteroid bodies in our solar system. It achieved the mission goals which I have highlighted in several previous posts. NASA issued this press release about the DAWN mission which I encourage you to read.

DAWN was the first spacecraft to fly to a body of the solar system, descend into orbit, conduct science, ascend from orbit, travel to a second body, descend into orbit, conduct science, and all under the propulsive power of an ion engine instead of a chemical rocket engine.

Chief Engineer and Mission Director Mark Rayman reflects on the mission in this video.


Eye of Michael | GOES View | 10 Oct 2018

This is the best view I’ve ever seen of the dynamics of the eye and wall of a powerful hurricane. Michael was recorded by the GOES-16 weather satellite on 10 Oct 2018 as it made landfall in Florida with 150 mph winds. Notice how the eye lost shape as it went inland.

Click on the image to be taken to the University of Wisconsin Department of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. There you can watch the video.

U of Wisconsin | Dept of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences