An Enlightening Mosaic: Sunsets in 2011

Sunsets, June-December 2011 in Italy. Credit: Gruppo Astronomico Tradatese


You’ve likely heard the phrase “axial tilt is the reason for the seasons” and here’s a great depiction of that axial axiom. A group of Italian amateur astronomers, the Gruppo Astronomico Tradatese (GAT), have been trying for a couple of years to take images of the Sun setting from the same location on the 21st of the month for several months in a row to show the link between the changing seasons and the movement of the Sun in our sky. The group specializes in outreach to schools and had a goal creating a mosaic of sunsets in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy. However, due to cloudy skies, they weren’t able to successfully obtain the sunset images until the second half of 2011.

“The availability of clear sky for seven dates around the 20-22 of each month starting from June was a crucial necessity,” Cesare Guaita, GAT President wrote to Universe Today. “Starting from 2009, we had to wait up to the second half of year 2011 for the right situation.”

These images of the Italian horizon at approximately 45°42’44” latitude and 8°55’52” longitude shows an Alpine mountain (Monte Rosa, 4634 m high) and trees changing in appearance with the changes of the season.

“As you can see, the sunset is located far away on the right of Rosa Mount at the summer solstice and far away on the left of the Rosa Mount at the winter solstice,” Guaita noted.

Each single picture is a mosaic of 2-3 frames, with the last picture (shown on top) taken on Dec 21, 2011 at 16:30 local time.

This would be a great project for any astronomy group or class. Congratulazioni to the members of the GAT, and we thank them for sharing their mosaic with Universe Today!

Holiday Greetings from an Alien Snowman on Vesta

Holiday Greetings from an Alien Snowman on Vesta - to all inhabitants of the Galaxy


Celebrate the winter holiday season in the company of an ‘Alien Snowman’ on the asteroid Vesta, someone we didn’t even have a clue about until six months ago.

Vesta and the Snowman have been transformed into the beautiful banner above – sent to me courtesy of the Dawn mission team to share with the readers of Universe Today.

Now you can be a creative artist and use the striking new images of Vesta to fashion your own greeting cards (see below) and send seasonal tidings of winter holiday cheer not possible before – all thanks to the remarkably insightful discoveries of Dawn’s international science team.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Joe W - From Dawn website

The Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta is one of NASA’s crowning scientific accomplishments of 2011 because it’s cameras and spectrometers have unveiled a mysteriously diverse world that has no match elsewhere in our solar system.

The more we explore the unknown the more we are enlightened as to just how limited our view of the Universe is from within the narrow confines of our miniscule abode.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Judy C - From Dawn website
Hey, Let's go skiing at the South Pole !

The Kepler Space Telescopes latest discoveries of Earth-sized worlds are just the latest examples guiding us to a clearer understanding of our place in the Universe.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Jillian S - From Dawn website

Here are just a few of the Vestan images you can masterfully decorate – the Snowman, The Mount Everest of Vesta and the cataclysmically bombarded South Pole.

Alien Snowman on Vesta
An impact structure on asteroid Vesta resembling a snowman. Credit: NASA

So, let you imaginations run wild with wintery scenes to match the majesty of this matchless world. The Dawn Education and Public Outreach (EPO) team has created several templates which you can access here

Of course you can also use any of the images posted at the Dawn mission website.

The Mount Everest of Vesta
Image of asteroid Vesta calculated from a shape model, showing a tilted view of the topography of the south polar region. This perspective shows the topography, but removes the overall curvature of Vesta, as if the giant asteroid were flat and not rounded. Credit: NASA
Shattered South Pole of Vesta
This Dawn framing camera image shows scarps, hummocky (eg. wavy/ undulating) terrain and impacts in Vesta's south polar region. Credit: NASA

And feel free to post your inspired creations here at Universe Today.

Vesta is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn arrived in orbit at Vesta in July 2011 for the first ever close up studies of the shattered celestial body. Dawn will spend a year investigating Vesta before spiraling out towards Ceres, the largest asteroid.

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
Dawn swoops to lowest orbit around Vesta – Unveiling Spectacular Alien World
Rainbow of Colors Reveal Asteroid Vesta as More Like a Planet
Vrooming over Vivid Vestan Vistas in Vibrant 3 D – Video
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Dawn Discovers Surprise 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin

A Refreshing Idea! Vote for Enabling City Kids to See Starry Skies

Now here’s a refreshing idea: create a “dark sky oasis” in suburban locations where city-dwellers can gather to see the stars and learn about the night sky. The International Dark-Sky Association has proposed a project to bring access to the starry night to urban areas through the creation of Suburban Outreach Sites. To make this project a reality, the IDA needs your help, and all it takes is a click of your mouse. Every year the Pepsi Refresh project gives away tens of thousands of dollars in grants to improve communities. The IDA is competing for one of these grants and needs your vote!

A Suburban Outreach Site could be built right in your community. These will be safe, public places where people can gather to enjoy the night sky. Scott Kardel, the Public Affairs Director for the IDA told Universe Today that Suburban Outreach Sites will be easily accessible from US cities.

“They will offer a good place to stargaze (relative to the area) and will hold free events to bring celestial wonders to the young and old,” Kardel said. “Suburban Outreach Sites will educate the next generation of astronomers to keep looking up, and inspire them to use better lighting to save energy, conserve natural resources, and help wildlife.”

These sites will be created through a partnership between IDA and local astronomy clubs.

If funded the Pepsi Refresh grant will help IDA designate Suburban Outreach Sites around the USA.

“IDA will coordinate action with our Chapters and astronomy clubs to select a safe place with a beautiful nighttime atmosphere,” Kardel said. “IDA will create ‘fresh’ programming ideas and event coordination, and even offer free materials on how to dim city lights and bring back the stars.”

Projects are chosen by popular vote and people can vote every day in the month of December to help IDA bring the night sky.

You can support the IDA by voting here:

Incredible ‘Space-O-Lanterns’

Will Gater's full Moon Jack-O-Lantern.


When it comes to Halloween, there are some very creative people out there. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them, but I’ve been enjoying some incredible space-themed Jack-O-Lanterns that people on Twitter have been sharing. Above is an amazing re-creation of the Moon by astronomer and science writer Will Gater (@willgater) which shows the maria, craters and the rays from Tycho crater.

Below, a group of Space Tweeps got together and had a “Space-o-lantern” carving party: take a look!

'Gargarkin': Yuri Gargarin in Jack-o-lantern form by Rachel Hobson

Here’s Yuri Gagarin in intricate detail in the “Gargarkin” created by Rachel Hobson, @avgjanecrafter on Twitter. See more at Rachel’s blog, Average Jane Crafter

The STS-130 mission patch as a Jack-O-Lantern by Liz Warren.

Liz Warren (@spasmunkey) specializes in space-o-lanterns of various space shuttle mission patches. Above in the STS-130 patch and below is STS-120.

STS-120 Space-O-Lantern, carved by Liz Warren.
Saturn Space-O-Lantern by Jen Scheer.

And here’s a planetary pumpkin from Jen Scheer (@flyingjenny).

These creative Space Tweeps declared the First Ever World-Wide Space-O-Lantern Carving Day on October 28, 2011, and you can see more at their Flickr page. Create your own Space-O-Lanterns and upload to the group!

World Space Week ( Oct 4th – 10th ) — Join the Fun!

World Space Week - October 4th - 10th, 2011. Image Credit: World Space Week Association


What is World Space Week?

Founded in 1981, World Space Week Association is one of the world’s oldest space education organizations. As a partner of the United Nations in the global coordination of World Space Week, WSWA recruits and supports a worldwide network of coordinators and participants. WSWA is a non-government, nonprofit, international organization, based in the United States.

World Space Week is an international celebration of science and technology, and how each benefits the human condition. In 1999 The United Nations General Assembly declared that World Space Week will be held each year from October 4-10, commemorating two notable space-related events:

The annual kick-off date of October 4th corresponds with the October 4th 1957 launch of the first human-made Earth satellite, Sputnik 1.

The end date of October 10th corresponds with the October 10th 1967 signing of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activites of States in the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Here’s some information from their F.A.Q on how you can participate in World Space Week, either by volunteering or by attending an event.

Where and how is World Space Week celebrated?

World Space Week is open to everyone – government agencies, industry, non-profit organizations, teachers, or even individuals can organize events to celebrate space. WSW is coordinated by the United Nations with the support of WSWA and local coordinators in many countries.

What are the benefits of World Space Week?

WSW educates people around the world about the benefits they receive from space and encourages greater use of space for sustainable economic development. WSW also demonstrates public support for space programs and excites children about learning and their future.
Some of the other benefits include promoting institutions around the world that are involved in space and fostering a sense of international cooperation in space outreach and education.

How can schools participate?

This event is ideal for teachers to promote student interest in science and math. To encourage participation, World Space Week Association gives various educational awards each year.

Sign at NASA's Johnson Space Center announcing World Space Week. Photo Credit: NASA/WSWA

What can I do for World Space Week?

If you’d like to become involved with WSW you can:

  • Volunteer for World Space Week Association
  • Organize an event directly
  • Help expand and coordinate World Space Week
  • Encourage teachers and students to do space-related activities
  • Become a Volunteer
  • Hold an Event During World Space Week
  • If you hold an event, be sure to add your event to the World Space Week calendar and tell the media and your regional WSW coordinator about your planned event. You can also order World Space Week posters and display them in your community.

    If you’d like to find a World Space Week event in your area, visit:

    You can learn more about World Space Week at:

    Source: World Space Week Association

    Student Alert: GRAIL Naming Contest – Essay Deadline November 11

    NASA announces student Essay Naming Contest for the twin GRAIL Lunar spaceships. The essay writing contest is open to students in Grades K - 12 at schools in the United States. Submission Deadline is November 11, 2011. GRAIL A & B are twin science robots that will explore the gravity field of the moon like never before.


    Student Alert ! – Here’s your once in a lifetime chance to name Two NASA robots speeding at this moment to the Moon on a super science mission to map the lunar gravity field. They were successfully launched from the Earth to the Moon on September 10, 2011. Right now the robots are called GRAIL A and GRAIL B. But, they need real names that inspire. And they need those names real soon. The goal is to “capture the spirit and excitement of lunar exploration”, says NASA – the US Space Agency.

    NASA needs your help and has just announced an essay writing contest open to students in Grades K – 12 at schools in the United States. The deadline to submit your essay is November 11, 2011. GRAIL stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory.”

    The rules state you need to pick two names and explain your choices in 500 words or less in English. Your essay can be any length up to 500 words – even as short as a paragraph. But, DO NOT write more than 500 words or your entry will be automatically disqualified.

    Learn more about the GRAIL Essay Naming Contest here:

    Read all the Official Contest Rules here:

    Download the Naming Contest Submission Form here:

    Students: NASA Wants You to Name that GRAIL !
    Write an Essay and name these twin Lunar mapping satellites. NASA’s twin GRAIL A & B science probes are now streaking to the Moon and arrive on New Year’s Day 2012. This picture shows how they looked, mounted side by side, during launch preparations prior to blasting off for the Moon on Sept. 10, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

    The GRAIL A and B lunar spaceships are twins – just like those other awe inspiring robots “Spirit” and “Opportunity” , which were named by a 10 year old girl student and quickly became famous worldwide and forever because of their exciting science missions of Exploration and Discovery.They arrive in Lunar Orbit on New Year’s Day 2012.

    Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer

    And there is another way that students can get involved in NASA’s GRAIL mission.

    GRAIL A & B are both equipped with four student-run MoonKAM cameras. Students can suggest targets for the cameras. Then the cameras will take close-up views of the lunar surface, taking tens of thousands of images and sending them back to Earth.

    “Over 1100 middle schools have signed up to participate in the MoonKAM education and public outreach program to take images and engage in exploration,” said Prof. Maria Zuber of MIT.

    Prof. Zuber is the top scientist on the mission and she was very excited to announce the GRAIL Essay Naming contest right after the twin spaceships blasted off to the Moon on Sep 10, 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

    What is the purpose of GRAIL ?

    “GRAIL simply put, is a ‘Journey to the Center of the Moon’,” says Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.

    “It will probe the interior of the moon and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. We will learn more about the interior of the moon with GRAIL than all previous lunar missions combined. Precisely knowing what the gravity fields are will be critical in helping to land future human and robotic spacecraft. The moon is not very uniform. So it’s a dicey thing to fly orbits around the moon.”

    “There have been many missions that have gone to the moon, orbited the moon, landed on the moon, brought back samples of the moon,” said Zuber. “But the missing piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the moon is what the deep interior is like.”

    So, what are you waiting for.

    Start thinking and writing. Students – You can be space explorers too !

    Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
    GRAIL Lunar Blastoff Gallery
    GRAIL Twins Awesome Launch Videos – A Journey to the Center of the Moon
    NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core
    GRAIL Unveiled for Lunar Science Trek — Launch Reset to Sept. 10
    Last Delta II Rocket to Launch Extraordinary Journey to the Center of the Moon on Sept. 8
    NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff
    GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
    GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery

    The Mission to Find the Missing Lunar Module

    Apollo LM orbiting the sun, Credit: Adrian West


    Where is the Apollo 10 Lunar lander module? It’s somewhere out there — orbiting the Sun — and there’s a new initiative to try and find it!

    The Apollo 10 mission launched on May 18, 1968 and was a manned “dry run” for its successor Apollo 11, testing all of the procedures and components of a Moon landing without actually landing on the Moon itself.

    After carrying out a successful lunar orbit and docking procedure, the Lunar Module (called “Snoopy”) was jettisoned and sent into an orbit around the Sun.

    After 42 years, it’s believed to still be in a heliocentric orbit and a team of UK and international astronomers working with schools are going to try and find it.

    The idea is the brainchild of British amateur astronomer Nick Howes who helped coordinate a very successful asteroid and comet project with schools and Faulkes Telescope during this past summer.

    After consulting with people from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other orbital dynamics experts, the Howes has assembled a team of facilities and experts, including the Faulkes Telescope, Space Exploration Engineering Corp, astronomers from the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy and schools across the UK.

    They know they have a massive undertaking ahead of them to find Snoopy.

    “The key problem which we are taking on is a lack of solid orbital data since 1969,” Howes told Universe Today. “We’ve enlisted the help of the Space Exploration Engineering Corp who have calculated orbits for Apollo 10 and working closely with people who were on the Apollo mission team in the era will help us identify search coordinate regions.”

    “We’re expecting a search arc anywhere up to 135 million kilometres in size which is a huge amount of space to look at, ” Howes continued. “We’re aware of the scale and magnitude of this challenge but to have the twin Faulkes scopes assist the hunt, along with schools, plus the fact that we’ll doubtless turn up many new finds such as comets and asteroids makes this a great science project too. We’re also encouraging anyone to have a go as we’ll be posting the coordinates on to the Faulkes Telescope website starting in a few days”

    While the challenge ahead of Howes and the team is enormous, and the chances of the team finding Snoopy are very small, the team are enthusing thousands of people with their own “Apollo Mission” – the mission to find the missing Apollo Lunar module.

    Credit: Faulkes Telescope

    Back to School Inspiration: Be That Light

    Are you an educator, heading back to another year of teaching and need a little inspiration? — or do you know a teacher that is back in the classroom after summer break? Then this awesome little video is for you. It’s the latest from “Symphony of Science” and it features our friend Dr. Jeff Goldstein and a speech he made at the National Science Teachers Association Conference this year, “Science – It’s Not a Book of Knowledge … It’s a Journey.” Dr. Jeff is a science educator and planetary scientist and is the Director of National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. He is passionate about teaching and is admittedly “emotional about science,” as we all should be.

    Here’s why he helped make this video: “Right now, in this very moment, we wanted to poetically and passionately reaffirm to teachers why they went into teaching, and for the millions of teachers across America, recognize their selfless and noble dedication to lighting the way. This is a heartfelt thank you to teachers for their unwavering dedication to the next generation.”

    If you need more inspiration, see Dr. Jeff’s Blog on the Universe

    New Opportunity for Students to Reach for the Stars and Send an Experiment to the Space Station

    A new opportunity is available to students to have their experiments flown to the ISS. Credit: NAS


    A new opportunity is available for students and teachers to be part of history and fly the very first Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) mission to the International Space Station. This program is open to students from any country that is part of the ISS partnership, in grades 5-12 as well as colleges and universities.

    This opportunity offers real research done on orbit, with students designing and proposing the experiments to fly to the space station.

    “Science is not something that can only be carried out by an elite community of researchers,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, the Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education told Universe Today. “It’s really just organized curiosity, and can be undertaken by anyone. So to inspire our next generation of scientists and engineers, we thought we’d give students an opportunity to do real scientific research on America’s newest National Laboratory – the International Space Station.”

    SSEP is a program that launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC, a company that is working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

    Two previous SSEP missions flew on the final shuttle flights, but this is the first to be part of the ISS science program.

    NanoRacks hopes to stimulate space station research by providing a very low-cost 1 kilogram platform and other hardware that puts micro-gravity projects within the reach of universities and small companies, as well as elementary and secondary schools through SSEP. So, this is actually a commercial space program and not a NASA program.

    On the previous SSEP missions with the space shuttles, 1,027 student team proposals were submitted with 27 experiments selected to fly, representing the 27 communities.

    “We know even 5th graders can rise to this challenge and amaze us all,” Goldstein said, “and they already proved it on the final two flights of the Space Shuttle.”

    The countries that can participate are the US, Canada, Japan and the European nations that are partners in the ISS program.

    SSEP Mission 1 to ISS is now open for registration, with participating communities selected no later than September 30, 2012, so this is time critical.

    Goldstein noted there are a significant number of resources that make this process straight-forward, including an instructionally designed recipe allowing teachers to easily facilitate the introduction of the program in the classroom, conduct experiment design, and do the proposal writing.

    There are five categories of participation:

    Pre-College (the core focus for SSEP) in the U.S., (grades 5-12), with a participating school district—even an individual school—providing stunning, real, on-orbit RESEARCH opportunities to their upper elementary, middle, and high school students

    2-Year Community Colleges in the U.S., (grades 13-14), where the student body is typically from the local community, providing wonderful pathways for community-wide engagement

    4-Year Colleges and Universities in the U.S., (grades 13-16), with an emphasis on Minority-Serving Institutions, where the program fosters interdisciplinary collaboration across schools and departments, and an opportunity for formal workforce development for science majors

    Communities in the U.S. led by Informal Education or Out-of-School Organizations, (e.g., a museum or science center, a homeschool network, a boy scout troop), because high caliber STEM education programs must be accessible to organizations that promote effective learning beyond the traditional classroom

    Communities in ISS Partner Nations: EU nations, Canada, and Japan with participation through NCESSE’s Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education.

    Goldstein said the program is a U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives up to 3,200 students across a community—middle and high school students (grades 5-12), and/or undergraduates the ability to fly their own experiments in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station.

    For more information see the SSEP website

    Read about the experience of previous SSEP program schools on the space shuttle

    Watch a video of Dr. Jeff Goldstein talking about SSEP.

    Cast Your Vote for Student “Spirit of Innovation” Awards

    The Spirit of Innovation Award honors the memory of Pete Conrad


    The Spirit of Innovation Awards is a wonderful competition that challenges teams of high school students to create innovative products using science, technology, and entrepreneurship to solve 21st century, real-world problems. Right now, the student teams are battling for top pick this week as public voting opens in the Conrad Foundation (named in memory of Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad)Spirit of Innovation People’s Choice Awards, so check out the various teams and cast your vote. But do it now: public voting is runs only through April 17.

    “Science and technology studies improve life around the globe, and expand our reach off of it,” said Pete Worden, Director of NASA Ames Research Center. “The People’s Choice Awards is an opportunity for the public to engage with student innovators demonstrating fresh and exciting developments in these fields. It gives everybody the chance to participate in a program that benefits our future.”

    Conrad was commander of Apollo 12 and the third man to walk on the Moon. He had a learning disability, but went on to earn a scholarship to Princeton and lead a mission to the Moon.

    This year’s People’s Choice champion will be announced Sunday, May 1 during the closing ceremonies of the 2011 Innovation Summit at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The Summit, April 28 – May 1st, is the culmination of the Spirit of Innovation Awards as the student teams present their products to entrepreneurs, scientists, and industry professionals, and compete for $5,000 Next Step Grants. The People’s Choice votes will be incorporated as 10 percent of the final judging score for these scholarships.

    Last year, Team AM Rocks and its Solar Flare Nutrition Bar took home the People’s Choice Award winning title. This year the teams that garner the most People’s Choice votes in each of the challenge
    categories -aerospace exploration, clean energy and cyber security -will be awarded $250. Meet this year’s teams, explore the innovations, and cast your vote for favorite, at this link.

    Find out more about the Conrad Foundation here.