Celebrate NASA’s Orion Launch

Orion, nasa

NASA’s newest spacecraft, Orion, will be launching into space for the first time this Thursday, December 4th, on a flight that will take it further than any spacecraft built to carry humans has gone in more than 40 years and through temperatures twice as hot as molten lava to put its critical systems to the test.
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Partial Solar Eclipse This Thursday

Partial solar eclipse

In the evening hours of this Thursday October 23, 2014 a partial solar eclipse will be visible here in Baton Rouge, weather permitting.  A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly between the Earth and Sun, thereby totally or partly obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth.  On Thursday, the center of the Moon’s shadow will miss the Earth, but a partial eclipse will be visible before sunset across most of North America.  If you want to see a total eclipse you’ll have to wait a few more years.

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Total Lunar Eclipse – April 15

Take a late night break from doing your taxes!


View an eclipse of the moon on April 15!

April 15 – 2 am. Central Time

In the morning of Tuesday, April 15, the full moon will pass through earth’s shadow producing a total lunar eclipse visible across North America.  Lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to view, and an exciting family event.

The total lunar eclipse phase begins at 02.06 am when the edge of the moon first enters the darkest part of earth’s shadow.  The moon will be completely within the shadow for 78 minutes, ending at 3.34 am.

For people in the United States, this eclipse is the first in an extraordinary series of lunar eclipses in what astronomers call a lunar eclipse tetrad—a series of four consecutive total eclipses occurring at approximately six month intervals. The total eclipse of April 15 will be followed by another on Oct. 8, 2014, and another on April 4, 2015, and another on Sept. 28 2015. All four total eclipses will be visible over most of the U.S.  Although lunar eclipse tetrads are rare, they have frequently occurred in the past and there are nine sets of tetrads occurring during the 21st century.

On average, lunar eclipses occur about twice a year, but not all of them are total. There are three types:

A penumbral eclipse is when the moon passes through the pale outskirts of earth’s shadow. It’s so subtle that sky watchers often don’t notice an eclipse is underway.

A partial eclipse is more dramatic. The moon dips into the core of earth’s shadow, but not all the way, so only a fraction of moon is darkened.

A total eclipse, when the entire moon is shadowed, is best of all. The face of the moon turns sunset-red for up to an hour or more as the eclipse slowly unfolds.

Usually, lunar eclipses come in no particular order. A partial can be followed by a total, followed by a penumbral, and so on. Anything goes. Occasionally, though, the sequence is more orderly. When four consecutive lunar eclipses are all total, the series is called a tetrad.

Weather permitting; this Tuesday’s total eclipse will turn the moon red. Why red?

Total lunar eclipses occur only when the moon passes completely through the shadow of the earth, and if you imagined yourself standing on the dusty lunar surface during just an eclipse and looking up at the sky, the shadow of the earth would completely block out the sun.  You might expect earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it’s not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around earth’s circumference, you’re seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once. This incredible light beams into the heart of earth’s shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the moon into a great red orb.

Mark your calendar for April 15th and let the tetrad begin.

The Big Bang Makes Waves

Astronomers announced Monday that they had discovered what may be one of the greatest triumphs in modern day observational astronomy – ripples in the fabric of space-time that are echoes of the massive expansion of the universe that took place just after the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago.  Predicted by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago, the discovery of ripples, called gravitational waves, would provide evidence how the universe began and evolved into the countless galaxies and stars, dust, and vast stretches of empty space that make up the known universe.

bangMonday’s announcement was also to confirm the more recent theory of cosmic inflation – that when the universe was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old, the infant cosmos expanded exponentially, inflating in size by 100 trillion times.  This made the cosmos remarkably uniform across vast expanses of space and also energized tiny fluctuations in gravity, producing gravitational waves, undiscovered until now.  The discovery was made by telescopes at the South Pole under the direction of John M. Kovac and a team of astronomers of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Confirming inflation would mean that the universe we see, extending 14 billion light-years in space with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal patch in a larger cosmos whose extent, architecture and fate are unknowable. Moreover, beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity, like a pot of pasta water boiling over.

New Neighbors in Space

multi_transits_many_full_0[1]…715 new planets… orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems much
like our own solar system. Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than
Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. …To verify this bounty
of planets, a research team co-led by Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at
NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif…used a technique called
verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability.
…Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates.
Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified.
This method can be likened to the behavior we know of lions and lionesses. In
our imaginary savannah, the lions are the Kepler stars and the lionesses are the
planet candidates. The lionesses would sometimes be observed grouped together
whereas lions tend to roam on their own. If you see two lions it could be a lion
and a lioness or it could be two lions. But if more than two large felines are
gathered, then it is very likely to be a lion and his pride. Thus, through
multiplicity the lioness can be reliably identified in much the same way
multiple planet candidates can be found around the same star.

“Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then
thousands, of planet candidates –but they were only candidate worlds,” said
Lissauer. “We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in
bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable
bonanza of new worlds.”

…Four of these new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit in their

sun’s habitable zone, defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface

temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for life-giving liquid water.

…This latest discovery brings the confirmed count of planets outside our solar system to
nearly 1,700. As we continue to reach toward the stars, each discovery brings us
one step closer to a more accurate understanding of our place in the galaxy.

The findings papers will be published March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal

and are available for download at:


Send your name to an asteroid!

NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be etched on a microchip aboard a spacecraft headed to the asteroid Bennu in 2016. The “Messages to Bennu!” microchip will travel to the asteroid aboard NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft. The robotic mission will spend more than two years at the 1,760-foot (500-meter)-wide asteroid. The spacecraft will collect a sample of Bennu’s surface and return it to Earth in a sample return capsule.

NASA is proposing this project as a great opportunity for people to get engaged with the mission. Those wishing to participate in “Messages to Bennu!” should submit their name online no later than 30 September, 2014 at: http://planetary.org/bennu

After a person submits their name, they will be able to download and print a certificate documenting their participation in the OSIRIS-REx mission. So, be part of humankind’s exploration of the solar system –How cool is that?

Participants who “follow” or “like” the mission on Facebook will receive updates on the location of their name in space from launch time until the asteroid samples return to Earth in 2023. Facebook fans also will be kept apprised of mission progress and late-breaking news through regular status updates.

The OSIRIS-REx mission goal is to address basic questions about the composition of the very early solar system, the source of organic materials and water that made life possible on Earth, and to better predict the orbits of asteroids that represent collision threats to the Earth. It will collect a minimum of 2 ounces (60 grams) of surface material. Once the sample return capsule deploys, the spacecraft will be placed into a long-term solar orbit around the sun, along with the microchip and every name on it.

For more information about the OSIRIS-REx mission, visit:


As Cold as on Mars

Burrr… Feeling the chill of this week’s arctic blast?  Much of the country is expecting historic, record breaking low temperatures.

These temperatures, unusual for us here on Earth, are normal for daytime on the planet Mars: minus 13-degrees Fahrenheit (-25 in Celsius). If you think that’s chilly, the Martian nighttime temperature drops precipitously to a minus 125-degrees F.


Image captured by Viking 2 of frost on the Martian surface.

Baton Rouge is expecting a balmy 15 degree Fahrenheit for a low, so enjoy while it lasts.

Sun vs. ISON

Tomorrow, Thursday the 28th, as we prepare for Thanksgiving (and Hanukkah) a cosmic drama is set to unfold. For months, astronomers have been observing Comet ISON approach the sun, now estimated to be less than a mile wide, wondering whether the comet will survive its close encounter and re-emerge from behind the sun to become visible to the naked eye through December. You can follow this drama on line. Between 12noon and 2.30 pm (CST) tomorrow, NASA will host a Google Hangout while all eyes on the sun will watch Comet ISON make its plunge, passing perilously close (within 730,000 miles) above the sun’s surface and accelerating to 150,000 mph. Will it survive? Break up? Evaporate? Join the Google hangout to keep track of ISON’s progress!

There is already one recent video posted of ISON coming into view of one of the extended-corona imagers from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, seen on the STEREO website.
Discernible for most of November in binoculars, ISON is probably the most scrutinized comet ever by NASA, but from the beginning of its discovery it’s also been one of the most confusing, frustrating and unpredictable objects to observe over time. I’m still betting on ISON becoming the comet of a lifetime.

This Morning’s Comet

For the first time in nearly a week, this morning’s pre-dawn sky was clear and so I stepped outside, away from street lights and spotted Comet ISON.  I used a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars, but there it was – a faint, diffused comet with a stubbly tail just above the eastern horizon tree line.  The bright gibbous moon overhead didn’t help with observing, but it was still worth getting up for.  And since I was already outside, I turned my binoculars on Jupiter and Mars, then the Orion Nebula, the Hyades star cluster and again back to Comet ISON just before dawn was braking. 

There’s been a lot of mixed reviews recently about Comet ISON; how it was becoming a naked-eye object and then how it might not survive intact after its closest approach to the sun, or perihelion, on the 28th (Thanksgiving).  If the comet breaks up as some predict it will, then this weekend, which is suppose to be clear, might be your last chance to see the comet.  But then again, it still could become the comet of the decade late December.  Fingers crossed.