ISS Hooks Up with Commercial Space Craft – making history!

Around 400 kilometres above northwest Australia the International Space Station Expedition 31 crew successfully captured the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the station’s robotic arm just before midnight AEST. The feat came 3 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 23 seconds after the mission’s launch.

When the crew of the ISS reached out today with the Canada robotic arm to grab SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule and bring it in for the Space Station’s first-ever hook-up with a commercial spaceship, history was made.

It marks the first contact with a U.S.-made spacecraft at the station since last year’s retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, and potentially opens the way for dozens of orbital cargo shipments. If the long-range plan unfolds as NASA hopes, U.S. astronauts could be shuttled back and forth on the Dragon or similar spacecraft within just a few years.

The hook-up follows from Tuesday’s successful launch of the Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket, and represents the culmination of years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars of spending by NASA and California-based SpaceX, known more formally as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

Now if all goes to plan, berthing should be finished by 7am AEST and later on in the day the hatch to the Dragon would be opened and the six astronauts on board the ISS will unload about 460 kilograms of cargo, including food, clothes, batteries and a laptop as well as 15 student-designed experiments. Then they will load the ship up with approximately 660 kilograms of Earth-bound cargo, including personal items from the crew as well as completed experiments and old equipment.

On May 31, the capsule would be detached from the station and sent back down toward a Pacific Ocean splashdown and recovery off the coast of Southern California, which would mark the first-ever return of a commercial spacecraft from the space station. Russia’s Soyuz capsule is the only other existing space vehicle capable of returning space station payloads.

If today’s operation doesn’t work out, NASA and SpaceX could make another attempt at a berthing and if that failed, another demonstration mission would have to be mounted. But once SpaceX proves that its system works reliably, the company could proceed with cargo resupply missions in earnest. It already has a $US1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 Dragon shipments through 2016.

It is anticipated that if all goes ahead then the first astronaut flights could take place as early as 2017. Until then, NASA will have to depend on the Russians to transport U.S. astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of more than $60 million a seat. SpaceX and other players in the commercial space race say they can meet or beat that price.

Another interesting piece of cargo on board the second stage of the rocket were the ashes of 308 hard-core space fans finally making it to  “Space – the Final Frontier”.  Each set of remains was in a lipstick sized container and included the ashes of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, who died in 2004, and actor James Doohan, who portrayed chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott on the original Star Trek television series and who died in 2005.

Falcon’s second stage separated from the Dragon less than 10 minutes after lift-off and went into its own orbit. The stage should spend the next year or so circling Earth as an orbital space memorial before it is pulled back into the atmosphere and incinerated. In case you are interested costs for these Earth Orbiting memorials is about $US3,000.

World’s Largest Telescope To be shared between Australia/New Zealand and South Africa

Friday night, Australian time, came the decision that many expected. The battle for the world’s largest radio telescope ended in a draw – with no golden point time!

The site will be spilt between both Australia/New Zealand and South Africa. The Board met in the Netherlands on Friday and announced at a Press Conference at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam that the decision had been made to go with a dual site approach. This decision has been expected by many since the board met earlier this month and put together a working group to consider the option of a dual site solution.

Factors taken into account during the site selection process included levels of radio frequency interference, the long term sustainability of a radio quiet zone, the physical characteristics of the site, long distance data network connectivity, the operating and infrastructure costs as well as the political and working environment.

This agreement was reached by the Members of the SKA Organisation who were not a part of the two bidding consortia. (Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom)

Construction will begin in 2016, and when it is completed around 2024, it is believed that the telescope will be able to image the early universe at the time when the first stars and galaxies began to form. It will be 50 times more sensitive than current radio telescopes and will be able to shed light on fundamental questions about the Universe including how it began, why it is expanding at the rate it is, what is dark matter and whether there is life beyond our planet.

Splitting the site may be politically expedient, but was certainly not the cheapest or easiest solution. Each of SKA’s thousands of elements will send 160 gigabytes of data per second. Even though that data will be further processed to reduce the bandwidth, both of the remote sites will need high-speed networking and powerful supercomputers, along with all the necessary infrastructure that goes along with it. These costs will increase the cost of the project significantly.

But it isn’t over yet – the member countries – Australia, New Zealand, Republic of South Africa, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, China, Canada and Italy still have to raise the financing for this major project. India is an Associate member of the SKA Organisation as well.

In the decision, it was announced that the ASKAP and MeerKat dishes will be incorporated into Phase I of the SKA. These alone will deliver more science for the radio astronomy community than we can now do.

It was announced that the majority of SKA dishes in Phase 1 will be built in South Africa, combined with MeerKAT, while further SKA dishes will be added to the ASKAP array in Australia. All the dishes and the mid frequency aperture arrays for Phase II of the SKA will be built in Southern Africa while the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will be built in Australia. The decision means that they can now get on with the job of building this – the world’s largest telescope.

The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be about one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. Thousands of receptors will extend out to 3, 000 km from the centre of the telescope.

2012 Earth and Sky Photo Contest Announced

The winners of the 2012 Earth and Sky Photo Contest are now announced: http://twanight.org/contest   (see the video as well, a new element for TWAN contest announcements. Direct link to the video: https://vimeo.com/41781867).

There was an interesting increase in the participants this year, over 600 images from about 50 countries, which made the judging process complicated and made the contest coordination work much more than last year.

“SuperMoon” this Sunday

The biggest and brightest full moon of the year arrives tomorrow as our largest natural or otherwise satellite comes a little closer than normal. It will, at least from our perspective on Earth appear a bit bigger – a good experiment – take a photo tonight and take one next full moon in the same place and see if it is true.

The term ‘Supermoon’ is a nickname for a perigee full moon, this is the when the Moon is  closer to the Earth than usual in its orbit. Apogee and perigee refer to the distance from the Earth to the moon. Apogee is the furthest point from the earth while Perigee is the closest point to the earth and it is in this stage that the moon appears larger. Looking at the moon in the sky without anything to compare it to, you wouldn’t notice any size difference. But the difference in size can in fact be quite significant.

full moon at apogee and perigee

If you were to take a picture when the Moon is at perigee and again at apogee using the same camera and lens you would notice the difference.

The full Moon occurs at 1:35pm (AEST) Sunday May 6th in Australia. It is predicted that the moon will about 14 per cent brighter than usual.

Sunday’s event is a “supermoon,” the closest and the biggest and brightest full moon of the year. At 1.35 p.m., the moon will be about 356,956 km from Earth. That’s about 24,653 km closer than it is on average.

That proximity will make the moon appear about 14 percent bigger than it would if the moon were at its farthest distance, however, the difference in appearance is so small that you will find it hard pick it with your unaided eye.

The moon’s distance from Earth varies because it follows an elliptical orbit not a circular one.

Like any full moon, tomorrow’s moon will look bigger when it’s on or near the horizon rather than higher in the sky, thanks to an optical illusion. The full moon appears on the horizon at sunset. On the East coast, for example, that will be a at 5.07pm.

The last “supermoon” on March 20, last year was about 380 km closer than this year’s will be. Next year’s will be even a bit farther away than this year’s. Each year there is a perigee and an apogee Moon and the distances vary.

One effect that can be noticed doesn’t affect me where I live, but coastal folks are very familiar with the tides and how their height varies over the course of a month, again, due to the Moon not always being the same distance from the Earth. As the Moon’s orbit brings it in closer proximity to our planet, its gravitational forces can increase by almost 50%, and this stronger force leads to high tides. Likewise, when the Moon is farther away from the Earth the tides are far less spectacular.

The Moon’s influence can also be balanced out by the position of the Sun – if the Sun and the Moon find themselves 90 degrees apart in relation to an observer on the Earth, then high tides are not as high as they normally would be. This is because despite its greater distance from the planet, the Sun’s mass allows it to exert enough gravitational force on the oceans that it can negate some of the effects of the Moon’s pull. This phenomenon of lower high tides is called a neap tide. In the same way, when the Sun lines up with the Moon and the Earth, as during a Full Moon, then the Sun can act to amplify the tidal forces, drawing even higher tides. These are known as spring tides, named not for the season, but for the fact that the water “springs” higher than normal. The variance in the height of the world’s tides also depends on the local geography of the coastline and the topography of the ocean floor.

Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower May 5/6 2012

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is the first of two showers that occur each year as a result of Earth passing through dust released by Halley’s Comet, with the second being the Orionids.  The point from where the Eta Aquarid meteors appear to radiate is located within the constellation Aquarius. This shower definitely favours the Southern Hemisphere observer as they

Created in Stellarium - finder for the eta aquarids

are usually a lightish meteor shower producing about 10 meteors per hour at their peak in the Northern Hemisphere but can peak at around 40-50 per hour here in the Southern hemisphere in a dark sky. The shower’s peak usually occurs on May 5 & 6, however this shower tends to have a broad maximum so viewing should be good on any morning from May 4 – 7.

The full moon which occurs on May 6th will probably ruin the show this year, washing out all but the brightest meteors with its glare.

But still worth having a look if you are up, to see how many Eta Aquarids can be seen in the moonlit sky. For the most part, this is a pre dawn shower. The radiant for this shower appears in the east-south-east at about 4 a.m. local time (wherever you are) and the hour or two before dawn usually offers the most meteors.