In case you missed this story from earlier this week, I wanted to point out an interesting historical event.
For years, people have wondered if the astronauts aboard the International Space Station could see a flashlight, or perhaps laser pointer, pointed at it from the Earth’s surface. While it was theoretically possible and tried a number of times, it had never been done successfully… until March 4, 2012.
Texan amateur astronomers of the San Antonio Astronomy Association and the Austin Astronomy Society put together a plan to prove the possibility. On March 4, these amateur astronomers implemented their experiment. They left the urban lights for dark skies (and as importantly, a dark ground from the vantage point of the ISS) at the Lozano Observatory. There, they set up a one-watt blue laser and a pair of bright spotlights, complete with a simple, yet effective, system to strobe the spotlights: people holding wooden boards. Timing had to be calculated precisely for a couple of reasons. Not only did the ISS have to pass their dark location overhead at night, but it had to be such that the ISS had a view of the Earth without the Sun blinding their view; after all, it is the bright sunlight reflecting off of the ISS that makes is so bright and visible to us on Earth.
Their timing, and a few months of planning, paid off. As the ISS came overhead of the anxious amateur astronomers, they flipped on the laser and began alternating the spotlights on-and-off in two-second intervals. ISS Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, Don Pettit, had been involved in the planning of the experiment and had been communicating with the group in the days leading up to the attempt. At the time that the ground crew began their attempts to flash the space station, Pettit was situated in the ISS Cupola, eyes peeled with his camera snapping pictures. The ISS pass was complete within a few minutes, and the group had to anxiously await feedback from Pettit. The next day, their confirmation came.
(Click image for larger size / Image Credit: Don Pettit/Fragile Oasis)
Success! According to Keith Little, Marketing Director of the San Antonio Astronomical Association, Don Pettit told him that not only could he see the spotlights, but easily saw the laser by itself!
It’s wonderful when astronauts orbiting the Earth can work together with amateur astronomers to collaborate on experiments such as this, and its icing on the cake when they make history in the process.
Have you seen the wondrous show that’s been taking place in the night sky recently? Maybe you noticed what appeared to be some especially bright stars, glittering near a crescent Moon. Perhaps you haven’t been looking up at the night sky lately (shame on you) or conditions have been too cloudy to give it a look (I live in a coastal city in Alaska, I feel your pain). Whether you’re looking or not, there’s a fantastic conjunction taking place, starring (pardon the pun!) the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus.
I took the following photo shortly after sunset on February 28, 2012, from within Joshua Tree National Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lens to give me a wider field of view, but the top of a Yucca Plant provides a nice touch.
[Click image for larger and unlabeled version / Credit: Ryan Marquis/46BLYZ]
This cosmic spectacle will continue over the next few days, so get out and enjoy it while you can.
Also in the night sky this month:
While the Moon will have moved away from the planets, Venus and Jupiter will be within three degrees of each other on March 12. That’s approximately the same “width” as three fingertips held at arm’s length… The planets will appear quite close to one another!
Mars also refuses to be left out of this month’s planetary attention. Look for the red planet in the Eastern sky, just a few hours after the sun sets.
Astronomer, Lucianne Walkowicz, gives an impassioned talk about preserving our night skies and citizen science projects.
[Video Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center]
This video was taken by the crew of Expedition 29 on board the International Space Station. The sequence of shots was taken October 18, 2011 from 07:09:06 to 07:27:42 GMT[.]
This video compacts about 18-and-a-half minutes of ISS travel into about 30 seconds.
What I particularly enjoy about this video is that it starts looking directly to the area of the planet I occupy. Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is easily distinguishable, especially due to the city lights of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, and Seward. South of that you can see Kodiak Island. Immediately north of the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage is brightly lit; Fairbanks can be seen even further to the north. The video travels east across the United States, as you find yourself struggling to decide on whether you should watch the aurora borealis (northern lights) to the north, or try to guess all of the cities you can see due to the concentrated man-made light. Clouds obscure much of the view between Alaska and the Rockies, but they break in time to offer great Canadian views of Calgary and Edmonton.
Following that, Minneapolis/St.Paul stand out, just before Chicago takes center-stage at around 24 seconds in, brilliantly lit, just south of Lake Michigan. You can catch the flashes of a lightning storm as we continue east towards the East Coast of the United States. You might notice how populated and electrified the East Coast is, compared to the Mid-West and the central United States. The video ends just after our view heads east over the coast of Florida, and above the shallow waters of the Bahamas.
Northern Hemisphere observers are in for a treat if they stay up real late on January 3rd (or wake up real early on the 4th). That’s your opportunity to view the Quadrantids meteor shower will occur. Unlike other meteor showers that might be visible over the course of a few nights, the Quadrantids have only a very narrow window of time to be seen; however, the shower is a very active one that you’ll want to make an effort to catch.
So, where to look? Like other meteor showers, the Quandrantids take their name from the constellation they appear to radiate out of (Leonids via Leo, Geminids via Gemini, etc.). What’s that? You aren’t familiar with a “Quadrant” constellation? That’s because this meteor shower was named after a constellation that is no longer recognized as such (Quadrans Muralis). Constellation or not, the Quadrantids exist and can be found radiating out of the constellation Boötes. To find Boötes, look left of the handle of the Big Dipper and before the head of Draco. You’ll easily be able to identify Boötes by the very bright star, Arcturus.
(Source: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg) via Wikipedia)
But remember one of the most important tips for viewing meteor showers: Looking at the radiant point isn’t the best place to stare. In fact, you’ll miss quite a few and probably catch a few more only through your peripheral vision. While if you imagined charting every meteor and extending their lines across the sky, the majority will intersect at the radiant point; however, they often don’t “light up” until they’re way away from the radiant point. You might look towards, say Polaris, which is a great star to look at if you’re going to spend a few hours looking up — there’s just something spending a night watching everything rotate around the North Star.
There will be a waxing gibbous Moon to contend with, but for most in the United States it will set near 3am. Up as far North as I am, it won’t be setting until closer to 5am. That said, don’t let the Moon intimidate you; the Quadrantids are a very active shower — up to between 100 – 200 per hour! — and the Moon, if it is still up when you’re observing, should be outside of your field of view while spotting meteors.