Russian Crowdfunded Satellite May Soon Become Brightest “Star” in the Sky

Artist’s view of the proposed Mayak (Beacon) satellite fully unfurled and orbiting Earth. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

We may soon look up and see a satellite brighter than the space station and even Venus gliding across the night sky if a Russian crowdfunding effort succeeds. An enthusiastic team of students from Moscow University of Mechanical Engineering are using Boomstarter, the Russian equivalent of Kickstarter, to raise the money needed to build and launch a pyramid-shaped satellite made of highly reflective material they’re calling Mayak, Russian for “Beacon”.


Young engineers at Moscow University explain the Mayak Project

To date they’ve collected more than $23,000 or 1.7 million rubles. Judging from the video, the team has built the canister that would hold the satellite (folded up inside) and performed a high-altitude test using a balloon. If funding is secured, Beacon is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the second quarter of this year.

Illustration of the “Beacon” unfurling from its canister when it reaches orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Illustration of the “Beacon” inflating from its canister after reaching orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once in orbit, Beacon will inflate into a pyramid with a surface area of 172 square feet (16 square meters). Made of reflective metallized film 20 times thinner than a human hair, the satellite is expected to become the brightest man-made object in orbit ever. That title is currently held by the International Space Station which can shine as brightly as magnitude -3 or about three times fainter than Venus. The brightest satellites, the Iridiums, can flare to magnitude -8 (as bright as the crescent moon) but only for a few seconds before fading back to invisibility. They form a “constellation” of  some 66 satellites that provide data and voice communications.

A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective "Beacon" satellite. Credit:
A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective “Beacon” satellite. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

A concurrently-developed mobile app would allow users to know when Beacon would pass over a particular location. The students hope to achieve more than just track a bright, moving light across the sky. According to their website, the goal of the project is the “popularization of astronautics and space research in Russia, as well as improving the attractiveness of science and technology education among young people.” They want to show that almost anyone can build and send a spacecraft into orbit, not just corporations and governments.

Further, the students hope to test aerodynamic braking in the atmosphere and find out more about the density of air at orbital altitudes. Interested donors can give anywhere from 300 rubles (about $5) up 300,000 ($4,000). The more money, the more access you’ll have to the group and news of the satellite’s progress; the top donor will get invited to watch the launch on-site.

Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Liftoff! Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once finished with the Mayak Project, the team wants to built another version that uses that atmosphere for braking its speed and returning it — and future satellites — safely back to Earth without the need for retro-rockets.

I think all these goals are worthy, and I admire the students’ enthusiasm. I only hope that satellite launching doesn’t become so cheap and popular that we end up lighting up the night sky even further. What do you think?

J.J. Abrams Heading To The Moon With Google Lunar X-Prize

As the director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and “Star Trek Into Darkness”, J.J. Abrams is no stranger to space narratives. But now he’s leaving behind light saber battles and warp drive chase sequences to tackle something a little more realistic.

Abrams’ newest project is a 9 part documentary series, called “Moon Shot,” that showcases 16 different teams of people competing for Google’s Lunar X-Prize. The teams of entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors will have to engineer a spacecraft, have it land a rover on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and then transmit HD video and images back to Earth. And they have to have their launch contract verified by the end of 2017. This is a daunting task.

Though the Moon might appear rather placid, and even safe compared to some of the hostile environments Earthlings and their spacecraft have ventured to, it’s not an easy place to do business in. We’re getting used to seeing rovers and landers and orbiters visit the Moon in what seems like a work-a-day process. But the Moon is still a hostile place.

The temperature on the Moon fluctuates wildly. At its coldest, the temperature drops to a frigid -246 C (-412 F.) At its hottest, the temperature jumps to a scorching  100 C (212F.) A 350 C swing in temperatures is hard on equipment and requires robust designing and engineering.

Temperature fluctuation aside, there is also the increased radiation to contend with. The Moon lacks the magnetosphere and atmosphere that protects Earth from the full onslaught of the Sun, so sensitive electronics have to contend with that. And then there’s the dust, which can also be hard on equipment. Remember, the Google Lunar X-Prize is a competition to land a privately-funded robot on the Moon.  Dealing with these formidable challenges as a small team is much harder, considering that the teams don’t have the resources that NASA and other groups have. But with $30 million in prize money at stake, we can expect to see some highly-motivated people competing.

Competitors include a German team backed by Audi (teams have to prove that they are 90% funded by private money,) a father and son working from a bedroom in Vancouver, a team of IT specialists from India, and a Japanese team from the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Tohoku University.

Though the science aspect of the series will no doubt be fascinating—the Japanese team has revealed that they will use VR to control their innovative camera system—it’s the stories of the people trying to win the prize that should be even more gripping. Who are these people? What drives these people to do such a thing?

The series will be available for viewing on YouTube on March 17, 2016, and on Google Play on March 15, 2016. Can’t wait to check it out.

 

Adventures With Starblinker

Observational astronomy is a study in patience. Since the introduction of the telescope over four centuries ago, steely-eyed observers have watched the skies for star-like or fuzzy points of light that appear to move. Astronomers of yore discovered asteroids, comets and even the occasional planet this way. Today, swiftly moving satellites have joined the fray. Still other ‘new stars’ turn out to be variables or novae.

Now, a new and exciting tool named Starblinker promises to place the prospect of discovery in the hands of the backyard observer.

Image credit:
Tombaugh’s mechanical ‘steampunk starblinker’ on display at the Lowell observatory. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The advent of photography in the late 19th century upped the game… you’ll recall that Clyde Tombaugh used a blink comparator to discover Pluto from the Lowell Observatory in 1930. Clyde’s mechanical shutter device looked at glass plates in quick sequence. Starblinker takes this idea a step further, allowing astro-imagers to compare two images in rapid sequence in a similar ‘blink comparator’ fashion. You can even quickly compare an image against one online from, say, the SDSS catalog or Wikipedia or an old archival image. Starblinker even automatically orients and aligns the image for you. Heck, this would’ve been handy during a certain Virtual Star Party early last year hosted by Universe Today, making the tale of the ‘supernova in M82 that got away’ turn out very differently…

Often times, a great new program arises simply because astrophotographers find a need where no commercial offering exists. K3CCD Tools, Registax, Orbitron and Deep Sky Stacker are all great examples of DIY programs that filled a critical astronomy need which skilled users built themselves.

Image credit
M81 via Starblinker. Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“I started to code the software after the mid of last month,” Starblinker creator Marco Lorrai told Universe Today. “I knew there was a plugin for MaximDL to do this job, but nothing for people like me that make photos just with a DSLR… I own a 250mm telescope, and my images go easily down to magnitude +18 so it is not impossible to find something interesting…”

Starblinker is a free application, and features a simple interface. Advanced observers have designed other programs to sift through video and stacks of images in the past, but we have yet to see one with such a straight-forward user interface with an eye toward quick and simple  use in the field.

Image credit:
Starblinker screenshot.  Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“The idea came to me taking my astrophotos: many images are so rich with stars, why not analyze (them) to check if something has changed?” Lorrai said. “I started to do this check manually, but the task was very thorny, because of differences in scale and rotation between the two images. Also, the ‘blinking’ was done loading two alternating windows containing two different images… not the best! This task could be simplified if someone already has a large set of images for comparison with one old image (taken) with the same instrument… a better method is needed to do this check, and then I started to code Starblinker.”

Why Starblinker

I can see a few immediate applications for Starblinker: possible capture of comets, asteroids, and novae or extragalactic supernovae, to name a few. You can also note the variability of stars in subsequent images. Take images over the span of years, and you might even be able to tease out the proper motion of nearby fast movers such as 61 Cygni, Kapteyn’s or even Barnard’s Star, or the orbits of double stars.  Or how about capturing lunar impacts on the dark limb of the Moon? It may sound strange, but it has been done before… and hey, there’s a lunar eclipse coming right up on the night of September 27/28th. Just be careful to watch for cosmic ray hits, hot pixels, satellite and meteor photobombs, all of which can foil a true discovery.

Image credit:
The Dumbell Nebula (M27). Note the (possible) variable star (marked). Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“A nice feature to add could be the support for FITS images and I think it could be very nice that… the program could retrieve automatically a comparison image, to help amateurs that are just starting (DSLR imaging).” Lorrai said.

And here is our challenge to you, the skilled observing public. What can YOU do with Starblinker? Surprise us… as is often the case with any hot new tech, ya just never know what weird and wonderful things folks will do with it once it’s released in the wild. Hey, discover a comet, and you could be immortalized with a celestial namesake… we promise that any future ‘Comet Dickinson’ will not be an extinction level event, just a good show…

Image credit:
Not Starblinker… but it could be. Do you see the dwarf planet Makemake? Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory

Download Starblinker here.

Think you’ve discovered a comet? Nova? A new asteroid? Inbound alien invasion fleet? OK, that last one might be tweet worthy, otherwise, here’s a handy list of sites to get you started, with the checklist of protocols to report a discovery used by the pros:

How to Report New Variable Star Discoveries  to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

-The Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams (they take emails, too!)

How to Report a Comet by veteran comet hunter David Levy

How to Report a Discovery via the International Astronomical Union

-And be sure to send in those Starblinker captures to Universe Today.

Challenge Yourself! See an Astronomical Event that Only Happens Once Every 26 Years

Update: It’s off. This past weekend, the AAVSO issued Special Notice #395 calling off the campaign to observe Alpha Comae Berenices this month due to “position measurements published a century ago (which) contained errors that affected the predictions for the time of eclipse…”

And the mystery of Alpha Comae Berenices continues. Oh well. Such is the wiles and whims of the universe, and the exciting field of variable star observing!

A truly fascinating event may be in the offing this month.

Picture two distant burning embers (candles, light bulbs, LEDs, what have you) circling each other in the distance. From our far-flung vantage point, the two points of light are too faint to resolve individually, but as they pass in front of each other, a telltale dip in combined brightness occurs as one blocks out the other.

Welcome to the fascinating world of eclipsing binary stars. This week, we’d like to turn our attention towards a special star in the constellation of Coma Berenices which may — or may not — put on such a dimming act later this month.

Starry Night
An Alpha Comae Berenices (Diadem) finder chart, with comparison stars and magnitudes, decimals omitted. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

The brightest star in the constellation Coma Berenices, Alpha (sometimes referred to as Diadem, or the ‘crown’ of Queen Berenice) shines at an apparent magnitude of +4.3. Located 63 light years distant, the system consists of two +5th magnitude F-type stars each about 3 times more luminous than our Sun locked in a 26 year orbital embrace. The physical separation of the pair is about 10 astronomical units: place Alpha Comae Berenices in our solar system, and the pair would fit nicely between the Sun and Saturn.

The orbital plane of the pair is inclined nearly along our line of sight as seen from the Earth, and it’s long been thought that catching a grazing or central eclipse of the pair might just be possible. No eclipse was recorded last time ‘round back in February 1989, but times have changed lots in observational astronomy. Today, there are enough backyard observers armed with dedicated observatories and rigs that’d be the envy of a small university that documenting such an eclipse might just be possible. In fact, a central eclipse might just dim the star by 0.8 magnitudes, and should be noticeable to the naked eye.

The binary nature of Alpha Comae Berenices was first noted by F. G. W. Struve in 1827, and the split is a challenging one during the best of years with a maximum angular separation of just 0.7 arc seconds. The pair also has a third faint +10th magnitude companion located about 89 arc seconds away.

Simplified
A simplified diagram depicting an eclipsing binary event along our line of sight. Created by the author.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) has an Alert Notice calling for sky watchers worldwide to monitor the star. We also understand the orbit of Alpha Comae Berenices much better in 2015 than back in 1989, and the suspected eclipse should occur somewhere between January 22nd and January 28th and may last anywhere from 28 to 45 hours. This lingering ambiguity means that having a dedicated team of observers worldwide may well be key to nabbing this eclipse.

Bootes-Labeled
Alpha Comae Berenices rising. Photo by the author.

The Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI) has already begun refining measurements of the brightness of the star last month, and professional facilities, to include the Fairborn Observatory atop Mt Hopkins in Arizona and the CHARA (the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy) Array at Mount Wilson Observatory in southern California will also be monitoring the event.

Sky and Telescope magazine also has an excellent article in their January 2015 issue on the prospects for catching this eclipse.

Stellarium
Looking eastward past local midnight. Credit: Stellarium.

In late January, the constellation of Coma Berenices rises high to the northeast just after local midnight.  It’s worth noting that, if the eclipsing binary nature of Alpha Comae Berenices is confirmed, it would be the longest period known, beating out 14.6 year Gamma Persei discovered in 1990 by more than a decade. A system with as wide a separation as Alpha Comae Berenices would have about a 1 in 1,200 chance in eclipsing along our line of sight due to random chance.

Note: Epsilon Aurigae does have a comparable 27 year period involving a debris disk surrounding its host star. Thanks to sharp-eyed reader Dr. John Barentine for pointing this out!

Of course, the universe does provide us with lots of near misses, allowing for an ‘occasional Diadem’ to indeed occur. Most famous eclipsing variables, such as Algol or Beta Lyrae have periods measured over the span of days or hours. Incidentally, these also make great ‘practice stars’ to test your skills as a visual athlete leading up to the big event next week. A skilled visual observer can note a change as slight as a 0.1 of a magnitude, and it’s a good idea to begin familiarizing yourself with the environs of the star now. The Coma Cluster of galaxies, the globular cluster M53, and the galactic plane crossing intruder Arcturus all lie nearby.

Credit: NASA/Spitzer.
The Coma Cluster as seen by Spitzer Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: NASA/Spitzer.

Why study eclipsing binaries? Well, said fleeting mutual events when coupled with spectroscopic measurements and determinations of parallax can tell us a good deal about the astrophysical nature of the stars involved. Eclipsing binary stars have even been used to back up standard candle measurements over extragalactic distances. And of course, orbiting observatories such as Kepler and TESS (to be launched in 2017) look for transiting exoplanets using virtually the same method.

Credit: Brad Timerson.
Have a scope+DSLR? Then you can make refined measurements of eclipsing variable stars. Credit: Brad Timerson/IOTA.

But beyond its practical application, we just think that it’s plain cool that you can actually see something out beyond our solar system changing in the span of just a few days or hours.

Observers also still carry out visual observations of variable stars, just like those pipe-smoking, pocket watch carrying astronomers of yore. This involves merely comparing the target star to nearby stars of the same brightness. If you have a DSLR or a CCD rig plus a telescope, the AAVSO also has instructions for how to monitor a star’s brightness as well. No pocket watch required.

A homemade interferometer used to measure the separation of close double stars.
A homemade ‘card interferometer’ used to measure the separation of close double stars. Photo by author.

Unless, of course, you want to carry a pocket watch just for good luck. Don’t let the cold January winters keep you from joining the hunt. Let’s make some astrophysical history!

 

 

Student Scientists Get Second Chance to Fly Experiments to ISS Aboard Falcon 9 After Antares Loss

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops – Will Refly on SpaceX CRS 5
Science experiments from these students representing 18 school communities across America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS and which were lost when the rocket exploded uexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). The students pose here with SSEP program director Dr. Jeff Goldstein prior to Antares launch. The experiments will be re-flown aboard SpaceX CRS-5. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com[/caption]

When it comes to science and space exploration, you have to get accustomed to a mix of success and failure.

If you’re wise you learn from failure and turn adversity around into a future success.

Such is the case for the resilient student scientists who learned a hard lesson of life at a young age when the space science experiments they poured their hearts and souls into for the chance of a lifetime to launch research investigations aboard the Antares rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on the Orb-3 mission, incomprehensibly exploded in flames before their eyes on Oct. 28, 2014.

Those student researchers from across America are being given a second chance and will have their reconstituted experiments re-flown on the impending SpaceX CRS-5 mission launch, thanks to the tireless efforts of NASA, NanoRacks, CASIS, SpaceX and the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) which runs the program.

The SpaceX CRS-5 launch to the ISS on the Falcon 9 rocket planned for this morning, Jan. 6, was scrubbed with a minute to go for technical reasons and has been reset to no earlier than Jan. 9.

SSEP Director Dr. Jeff Goldstein shows a NanoRacks Mix-Stix tube used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/Student Spaceflight Experiments Program -Yankee Clipper mission during presentation at NASA Wallops prior to Oct. 28 Antares launch failure.  17 of 18 experiments will re-fly on SpaceX CRS-5 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
SSEP Director Dr. Jeff Goldstein shows a NanoRacks Mix-Stix tube used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/Student Spaceflight Experiments Program -Yankee Clipper mission during presentation at NASA Wallops prior to Oct. 28 Antares launch failure. 17 of 18 experiments will re-fly on SpaceX CRS-5 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The experiments are known collectively as the ‘Yankee Clipper’ mission.

Antares Orb-3 was destroyed shortly after the exhilarating blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia shore.

Everything aboard the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and ‘the SS Deke Slayton’ Cygnus cargo freighter was lost, including all the NASA supplies and research as well as the student investigations.

First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“The student program represents 18 experiments flying as the Yankee Clipper,” said Dr. Jeff Goldstein, in an interview with Universe Today at NASA Wallops prior to the Antares launch. Goldstein is director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which oversees SSEP in partnership with NanoRacks LLC.

“Altogether 8 communities sent delegations. 41 student researchers were at NASA Wallops for the launch and SSEP media briefing.”

“The 18 experiments flying as the SSEP Yankee Clipper payload reflect the 18 communities participating in Mission 6 to ISS.”

“The communities represent grade 5 to 16 schools from all across America including Washington, DC; Kalamazoo, MI; Berkeley Heights and Ocean City, NJ; Colleton County and North Charleston, SC, and Knox County and Somerville, TN.”

Goldstein explains that within days of the launch failure, efforts were in progress to re-fly the experiments.

“Failure happens in science and what we do in the face of that failure defines who we are,” said Goldstein, “NASA and NanoRacks moved mountains to get us on the next launch, SpaceX CRS-5. We faced an insanely tight turnaround, but all the student teams stepped up to the plate.”

Even the NASA Administrator Charles Bolden lauded the students efforts and perseverance!

“I try to teach students, when I speak to them, not to be afraid of failure. An elementary school student once told me, when I asked for a definition of success, that ‘success is taking failure and turning it inside out.’ It is important that we rebound, learn from these events and try again — and that’s a great lesson for students,” said NASA Administrator Bolden.

“I am delighted that most of the students will get to see their investigations re-flown on the SpaceX mission. Perseverance is a critical skill in science and the space business.”

Virtually all of the experiments have been reconstituted to fly on the CRS-5 mission, also known as SpaceX-5.

“17 of the 18 student experiments lost on Orb-3 on October 28 are re-flying on SpaceX-5. These experiments comprise the reconstituted Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Yankee Clipper II payload for SSEP Mission 6 to ISS,” noted Goldstein.

“This shows the resilience of the federal-private partnership in commercial space, and of the commitment by our next generation of scientists and engineers.”

The wide range of experiments include microgravity investigations on how fluids act and form into crystals in the absence of gravity crystal growth, mosquito larvae development, milk expiration, baby bloodsuckers, development of Chrysanthemum and soybean seeds and Chia plants, effect of yeast cell division and implications for human cancer cells, and an examination of hydroponics.

Student experiments are aboard. Bearing the CRS-5 Dragon cargo craft within its nose, the Falcon 9 v1.1 stands patiently to execute the United States’ first mission of 2015. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace
Student experiments are aboard. Bearing the CRS-5 Dragon cargo craft within its nose, the Falcon 9 v1.1 stands patiently to execute the United States’ first mission of 2015. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

That dark day in October witnessed by the students, Goldstein, myself as a fellow scientist, and others is something we will never forget. We all chose to learn from the failure and move forward to greater accomplishments.

Don’t surrender to failure. And don’t give in to the ‘Do Nothing – Can’t Do’ crowd so prevalent today.

Remember what President Kennedy said during his address at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NanoRacks Mix-Stix, which are used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/National Center for Earth and Space Science Education -Yankee Clipper.   Credit: Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NanoRacks Mix-Stix, which are used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/National Center for Earth and Space Science Education -Yankee Clipper. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Hearing the Early Universe’s Scream: Sloan Survey Announces New Findings

Imagine a single mission that would allow you to explore the Milky Way and beyond, investigating cosmic chemistry, hunting planets, mapping galactic structure, probing dark energy and analyzing the expansion of the wider Universe. Enter the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a massive scientific collaboration that enables one thousand astronomers from 51 institutions around the world to do just that.

At Tuesday’s AAS briefing in Seattle, researchers announced the public release of data collected by the project’s latest incarnation, SDSS-III. This data release, termed “DR12,” represents the survey’s largest and most detailed collection of measurements yet: 2,000 nights’ worth of brand-new information about nearly 500 million stars and galaxies.

One component of SDSS is exploring dark energy by “listening” for acoustic oscillation signals from the the acceleration of the early Universe, and the team also shared a new animated “fly-through” of the Universe that was created using SDSS data.

The SDSS-III collaboration is based at the powerful 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The project itself consists of four component surveys: BOSS, APOGEE, MARVELS, and SEGUE. Each of these surveys applies different trappings to the parent telescope in order to accomplish its own, unique goal.

BOSS (the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey) visualizes the way that sound waves produced by interacting matter in the early Universe are reflected in the large-scale structure of our cosmos. These ancient imprints, which date back to the first 500,000 years after the Big Bang, are especially evident in high-redshift objects like luminous-red galaxies and quasars. Three-dimensional models created from BOSS observations will allow astronomers to track the expansion of the Universe over a span of 9 billion years, a feat that, later this year, will pave the way for rigorous assessment of current theories regarding dark energy.

At the press briefing, Daniel Eistenstein from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained how BOSS requires huge volumes of data and that so far 1.4 million galaxies have been mapped. He indicated the data analyzed so far strongly confirm dark energy’s existence.

This tweet from the SDSS twitter account uses a bit of humor to explain how BOSS works:

APOGEE (the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) employs a sophisticated, near-infrared spectrograph to pierce through thick dust and gather light from 100,000 distant red giants. By analyzing the spectral lines that appear in this light, scientists can identify the signatures of 15 different chemical elements that make up the faraway stars – observations that will help researchers piece together the stellar history of our galaxy.

MARVELS (the Multi-Object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-Area Survey) identifies minuscule wobbles in the orbits of stars, movements that betray the gravitational influence of orbiting planets. The technology itself is unprecedented. “MARVELS is the first large-scale survey to measure these tiny motions for dozens of stars simultaneously,” explained the project’s principal investigator Jian Ge, “which means we can probe and characterize the full population of giant planets in ways that weren’t possible before.”

At the press briefing, Ge said that MARVELS observed 5,500 stars repeatedly, looking for giant exoplanets around these stars. So far, the data has revealed 51 giant planet candidates as well as 38 brown dwarf candidates. Ge added that more will be found with better data processing.

A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS -- just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.
A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS — just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

SEGUE (the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration) rounds out the quartet by analyzing visible light from 250,000 stars in the outer reaches of our galaxy. Coincidentally, this survey’s observations “segue” nicely into work being done by other projects within SDSS-III. Constance Rockosi, leader of the SDSS-III domain of SEGUE, recaps the importance of her project’s observations of our outer galaxy: “In combination with the much more detailed view of the inner galaxy from APOGEE, we’re getting a truly holistic picture of the Milky Way.”

One of the most exceptional attributes of SDSS-III is its universality; that is, every byte of juicy information contained in DR12 will be made freely available to professionals, amateurs, and lay public alike. This philosophy enables interested parties from all walks of life to contribute to the advancement of astronomy in whatever capacity they are able.

As momentous as the release of DR12 is for today’s astronomers, however, there is still much more work to be done. “Crossing the DR12 finish line is a huge accomplishment by hundreds of people,” said Daniel Eisenstein, director of the SDSS-III collaboration, “But it’s a big universe out there, so there is plenty more to observe.”

DR12 includes observations made by SDSS-III between July 2008 and June 2014. The project’s successor, SDSS-IV, began its run in July 2014 and will continue observing for six more years.

Here is the video animation of the fly-through of the Universe:

Calling All Volunteers to Help Digitize Astronomical History

An old brick building on Harvard’s Observatory Hill is overflowing with rows of dark green cabinets — each one filled to the brim with hundreds of astronomical glass plates in paper sleeves: old-fashioned photographic negatives of the night sky.

All in all there are more than 500,000 plates preserving roughly a century of information about faint happenings across the celestial sphere. But they’re gathering dust. So the Harvard College Observatory is digitizing its famed collection of glass plates. One by one, each plate is placed on a scanner capable of measuring the position of each tiny speck to within 11 microns. The finished produce will lead to one million gigabytes of data.

But each plate must be linked to a telescope logbook — handwritten entries recording details like the date, time, exposure length, and location in the sky. Now, Harvard is seeking your help to transcribe these logbooks.

The initial project is called Digital Access to a Sky Century at Harvard (DASCH). Although it has been hard at work scanning roughly 400 plates per day, without the logbook entries to accompany each digitized plate, information about the brightness and position of each object would be lost. Whereas with that information it will be possible to see a 100-year light curve of any bright object within 15 degrees of the north galactic pole.

The century of data allows astronomers to detect slow variations over decades, something otherwise impossible in today’s recent digital era.

Assistant Curator David Sliski is especially excited about the potential overlap in our hunt for exoplanets. “It covers the Kepler field beautifully,” Sliski told Universe Today. It should also be completed by the time next-generation exoplanet missions (such as TESS, PLATO, and Kepler 2) come online — allowing astronomers to look for long-term variability in a host star that may potentially affect an exoplanet’s habitability.

There are more than 100 logbooks containing about 100,000 pages of text. Volunteers will type in a few numbers per line of text onto web-based forms. It’s a task impossible for any scanner since optical character recognition doesn’t work on these hand-written entries.

Harvard is partnering with the Smithsonian Transcription Center to recruit digital volunteers. The two will then be able to bring the historic documents to a new, global audience via the web. To participate in this new initiative, visit Smithsonian’s transcription site here.

ISEE-3 Completes Lunar Flyby, Begins a Citizen Science Program

The journey began on August 12, 1978 from Cape Canaveral on a Delta II launch vehicle. Now after 36 years and 30 billions miles of travel around the Sun — as well as a crowd-funded reboot of the spacecraft and a foiled attempt to put it into Earth orbit — the ISEE-3 has completed a return visit to the Earth-Moon system.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to the Earth on August 9 and flyby of the Moon, August 10, 2014. Closest approach was 15,600 km (9693 miles) from the Moon’s surface. With the lunar flyby, Skycorp, Inc. of Mountain View, California, with help from Google Creative Labs, has announced a revised mission for ISEE-3 to deliver science to the public domain.

ISEE-3 has marked several important milestones and achievements for NASA over the five decades in which it has traveled and monitored the particles and fields between the Earth and the Sun. Its latest milestone – returning to Earth, was planned and refined over 30 years ago. However, with NASA no longer interested in recovering the spacecraft because of the limitations of its present budgets, its impending return would be with no fanfare, no commanding, no recovery into Earth orbit and no new mission. With the news that NASA could not afford a recovery, space enthusiasts began to talk. Retired and active aerospace engineers began to exchange ideas with avid HAM radio operators around the World.  Finally, one group took charge. They revived the vintage spacecraft and has now designed a new mission for the it.

NASA illustration of the ISEE-3 swing by the Moon, 1982. On August 10, 2014, ISEE-3 will fly within 15,600 km (9693 miles) from the Moon's surface.
NASA illustration of the ISEE-3 fly by the Moon, 1982. On August 10, 2014, ISEE-3 will fly within 15,600 km (9693 miles) above the Moon’s surface.

Enter Dennis Wingo and Austin Epps of Skycorp, Inc. Residing in an abandoned McDonald’s drive-thru on Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, they began a journey in March to recover the spacecraft. First off, before any recovery attempt could be undertaken, it required original documentation, so Dennis with assistance from Keith Cowing began contacting original ISEE-3 engineers, calling, knocking on NASA doors and finally began signing NASA space act agreements to have the documents released into their possession. And what fascinating documents they were.

Written long before the internet, before the first personal computers and when computer punch cards and main frames were the means to program and command spacecraft, most of the ISEE-3 documents resided as printed documents only, on none other than paper, yellowing and old, doomed to eventually rot away in modest storage rooms. Some had been converted to the modern archive format, Adobe’s PDF file format. This was the beginning of revival of a working knowledge to command the spacecraft. It was very sketchy but in about 90 days, documents appeared, documents were scanned to PDFs, searched and the team prepared for the recovery attempt.

Key Personnel of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project. From left, Casey Harper, Cameron Woodman, Austin Epps, Jacob Gold, Balint Seeber, Keith Cowing, Denis Wingo, Marco Colleluori and Ken Zin.
Key personnel of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project. From left, Casey Harper, Cameron Woodman, Austin Epps, Jacob Gold, Balint Seeber, Keith Cowing, Dennis Wingo, Marco Colleluori and Ken Zin. (Photo credit, Google Creative Labs)

The team grew rapidly and as the Beatles song goes, Skycorp got by with a little help from their friends. Actually, a lot of help from their friends. First, there was a crowd funding effort. Thousands of individuals from around the globe contributed to a final crowd funding purse of about $160,000. This is in contrast to the $100 million or much more that is required to reach just the launch date of a NASA mission.

Next, the people that had been exchanging comments on blogs (e.g. Planetary blog post on ISEE-3) began making themselves available, no charge, providing decades of accrued experience in spacecraft design and operation and other very relevant expertise. There were original NASA engineers, Robert Farquhar and David Dunham, Warren Martin, Bobby Williams, and Craig Roberts. HAM radio operators appeared or were contacted from as far as England (AMSAT-UK), Germany(Bochum Obs.) and as nearby as the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. All this expertise, working knowledge and capable hardware had to converge very rapidly. By the latter half of May, they were ready.

The operators of the venerable Arecibo Radio Telescope offered their expertise and its 1000 foot radio dish for communication purposes. And an absolutely critical solution was found to replace the lack of any existing transmitter that could communicate with the old 40 year old technology. NASA had retired and scrapped the original Deep Space Network equipment. So technology developed by Ettus Research Corp. of Santa Clara, California was identified as a possible replacement for the non-existent transmitter. Ettus proposed a combination of open source software called Gnu Radio configured to work with Ettus developed Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP) platforms as the solution. With the Skycorp team constructing the command sequences, Ettus engineers Balint Seeber and a former engineer John Marlsbury rigged the critical substitute for a hardware transmitter and with the expertise to modulate and demodulate a radio signal, a trip to Puerto Rico and the Arecibo dish was undertaken in May.

After two weeks of some waiting on hardware and trial and error, there was success. Two-way communication was achieved and ISEE-3 truly became ISEE-3 Reboot. Further hiccups unfolded by trial and error, learning to command and receive with still less than complete working knowledge. More NASA space act agreements were necessary to permit the access to achieve success. Finally, NASA provided time on the Deep Space Network, the famous Goldstone radio dish and others in the network, famous for communicating with Apollo missions and Voyagers at the edge of the Solar System. This provided further attempts at communication that helped to resolve and understand issues. Furthermore, a Bell Labs engineer, Phil Karn Jr. (KA9Q) volunteered his expertise in late night work sessions, to demodulate and decode the incoming radio signal, to convert analog signal into 1’s and 0’s. Phil provided crucial input and energy to the ISEE-3 Reboot at a key juncture.

The ultimate goal could now be attempted – command the spacecraft to fire its rocket engines to change its trajectory and become captured by the Earth’s gravitational field. Mike Loucks of Space Exploration Engineering and engineers of Applied Defense Solutions, Inc. worked quickly to provide trajectory information and revisions. Finally, commanding ISEE-3 to fire its rockets was attempted and then attempted again and again. Skycorp concluded that father time was what was truly in command of ISEE-3’s destiny. Thirty-six years in space had taken its toll and Skycorp engineers realized that the fuel tanks had lost pressure. They could command it in all necessary ways but the spacecraft could not squeeze the fuel out of the tanks.

Recovering from this disappointment, Skycorp has arrived at today with the help of the original engineers lead by Robert Farquhar of Goddard Space Flight Center, along with the thousands through crowd funding contributions and an incredible group of volunteers. And along the way, Google Creative Labs documented the adventure and created the compendium which was delivered to the public domain last week, A Spacecraft for All. This web site provides a graphic illustration of both the ISEE-3 timeline as well as its incredible journey to explore the Sun-Earth relationship, study two comets and then undertake a 30 year journey to return to Earth on August 10, 2014.

Using the radio telescope at Morehead State University, they will continue receiving the commanded telemetry stream from the remaining viable science instruments, process the data and present it to the public and to professional researchers alike for analysis. While ISEE-3 could not be recovered into an Earth orbit as Farquhar had hoped decades ago, it will continue its journey around the Sun and return to the vicinity of the Earth in 2029. How long telemetry from ISEE-3 can be received as it travels away from the Earth remains to be seen, and keeping in contact with it will be a challenge for its new operators in the months ahead.

Watch the video below about the project:

Contact With 36-Year Old Spacecraft Results in Dancing, Hugs. Now Comes Even Bigger Challenge

What is it like to make contact with a 36-year old dormant spacecraft?

“The intellectual side of you systematically goes through all the procedures but you really end up doing a happy dance when it actually works,” Keith Cowing told Universe Today. Cowing, most notably from NASA Watch.com, and businessman Dennis Wingo are leading a group of volunteer engineers that are attempting to reboot the International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) spacecraft after it has traveled 25 billion kilometers around the Solar System the past 30 years.

Its initial mission launched in 1978 to study Earth’s magnetosphere, and the spacecraft was later repurposed to study two comets. Now, on its final leg of a 30-plus year journey and heading back to the vicinity of Earth, the crowdfunding effort ISEE-3 Reboot has been working to reactivate the hibernating spacecraft since NASA wasn’t able to provide any funds to do so.

More Details: No turning back, NASA ISEE-3 Spacecraft Returning to Earth after a 36 Year Journey

The team awakened the spacecraft by communicating from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, using a donated transmitter. While most of the team has been in Puerto Rico, Cowing is back at home in the US manning the surge of media attention this unusual mission has brought.

Those at Arecibo are now methodically going through all the systems, figuring out what the spacecraft can and can’t do.

“We did determine the spin rate of spacecraft is slightly below what it should be,” Cowing said, “but the point there is that we’re now understanding the telemetry that we’re getting and its coming back crystal clear.”

For you tech-minded folks, the team determined the spacecraft is spinning at 19.16 rpm. “The mission specification is 19.75 +/- 0.2 rpm. We have also learned that the spacecraft’s attitude relative to the ecliptic is 90.71 degrees – the specification is 90 +/- 1.5 degrees. In addition, we are now receiving information from the spacecraft’s magnetometer,” Cowing wrote in an update on the website.

The next task will be looking at the propulsion system and making sure they can actually fire the engines for a trajectory correction maneuver (TCM), currently targeted for June 17.

One thing this TCM will do is to make sure the spacecraft doesn’t hit the Moon. Initial interactions with the ISEE-3 from Arecibo showed the spacecraft was not where the JPL ephemeris predicted it was going to be.

“That’s a bit troublesome because if you look at the error bars, it could hit Moon, or even the Earth, which is not good,” Cowing said, adding that they’ve since been able to refine the trajectory and found the ephemeris was not off as much as initially thought, and so such an impact is quite unlikely.

“However, it’s not been totally ruled out, — as NASA would say it’s a not a non-zero chance,” Cowing said. “The fact that it was not where it was supposed to be shows there were changes in its position. But assuming we can fire the engines when we want to, it shouldn’t be a problem. As it stands now, if we didn’t do anything, the chance of it hitting the Moon is not zero. But it’s not that likely.”

But the fact that the predicted location of the spacecraft is only off by less than 30,000 km is actually pretty amazing.

Dennis Wingo wrote this on the team’s website:

Consider this, the spacecraft has completed almost 27 orbits of the sun since the last trajectory maneuver. That is 24.87 billion kilometers. They are off course by less than 30,000 km. I can’t even come up with an analogy to how darn good that is!! That is almost 1 part in ten million accuracy! We need to confirm this with a DSN ranging, but if this holds, the fuel needed to accomplish the trajectory change is only about 5.8 meters/sec, or less than 10% of what we thought last week!

We truly stand on the shoulders of steely eyed missile men giants..

Dennis Wingo and ISEE-3 Reboot engineers at Arecibo. Image courtesy ISEE-3 Reboot.
Dennis Wingo and ISEE-3 Reboot engineers at Arecibo. Image courtesy ISEE-3 Reboot.

In 1982, NASA engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center, led by Robert Farquhar devised the maneuvers needed to send the spacecraft ISEE-3 out of the Earth-Moon system. It was renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) to rendezvous with two comets – Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and Comet Halley in 1986.

“Bob Farquhar and his team initially did it with pencils on the back of envelopes,” Cowing said, “so it is pretty amazing. And we’re really happy with the trajectory because we’ll need less fuel – we have 150 meters per second of fuel available, and we’ll only need about 6 meters per second of maneuvering, so that will give us a lot of margin to do the other things in terms of the final orbit, so we’re happy with that. But we have to fire the engines first before we pat ourselves on the back.”

And that’s where the biggest challenge of this amateur endeavor lies.

ISEE-3 Reboot Project mission patch. Image courtesy ISEE-3 Reboot.
ISEE-3 Reboot Project mission patch. Image courtesy ISEE-3 Reboot.

“The biggest challenge will be getting the engines to fire,” Cowing said. “The party’s over if we can’t get it to do that. The rest will be gravy. So that’s what we’re focusing on now.”

After the June 17 TCM, the next big date is August 10, when the team will attempt to put the spacecraft in Earth orbit and then resume its original mission that began back in 1978 – all made possible by volunteers and crowdfunding.

We’ll keep you posted on this effort, but follow the ISEE-3 Reboot Twitter feed, which is updated frequently and immediately after anything happens with the spacecraft. Also, for more detailed updates, check out the SpaceCollege website.

Want to Measure the Distance to the Moon Yourself? Now You Can!

Astronomy is a discipline pursued at a distance. And yet, actually measuring that last word — distance — can be incredibly tricky, even if we set our sights as nearby as the Moon.

But now astronomers from the University of Antioquia, Colombia, have devised a clever method that allows citizen scientists to measure the Moon’s distance with only their digital camera and smartphone.

“Today a plethora of advanced and accessible technological devices such as smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and precise clocks, is opening a new door to the realm of ‘do-it-yourself-science’ and from there to the possibility of measuring the local Universe by oneself,” writes lead author Jorge Zuluaga in his recently submitted paper.

While ancient astronomers devised clever methods to measure the local Universe, it took nearly two millennia before we finally perfected the distance to the Moon. Now, we can bounce powerful lasers off the mirrors placed on the Lunar surface by the Apollo Astronauts. The amount of time it takes for the laser beam to return to Earth gives an incredibly precise measurement of the Moon’s distance, within a few centimeters.

But this modern technique is “far from the realm and technological capacities of amateur astronomers and nonscientist citizens,” writes Zuluaga. In order to bring the local Universe into the hands of citizen scientists, Zuluaga and colleagues have devised an easy method to measure the distance to the Moon.

The trick is in observing how the apparent size of the Moon changes with time.

As the moon rises its distance to an observer on the surface of the Earth is slightly reduced.  Image Credit: Zuluaga et al.
As the moon rises its distance to an observer on the surface of the Earth is slightly reduced.
Image Credit: Zuluaga et al.

While the Moon might seem larger, and therefore closer, when it’s on the horizon than when it’s in the sky — it’s actually the opposite. The distance from the Moon to any observer on Earth decreases as the Moon rises in the sky. It’s more distant when it’s on the horizon than when it’s at the Zenith. Note: the Moon’s distance to the center of the Earth remains approximately constant throughout the night.

The direct consequence of this is that the angular size of the moon is larger — by as much as 1.7 percent — when it’s at the Zenith than when it’s on the horizon. While this change is far too small for our eyes to detect, most modern personal cameras have now reached the resolution capable of capturing the difference.

So with a good camera, a smart phone and a little trig you can measure the distance to the Moon yourself. Here’s how:

1.) Step outside on a clear night when there’s a full Moon. Set your camera up on a tripod, pointing at the Moon.

2.) With every image of the Moon you’ll need to know the Moon’s approximate elevation. Most smartphones have various apps that allow you to measure the camera’s angle based on the tilt of the phone. By aligning the phone with the camera you can measure the elevation of the Moon accurately.

3.) For every image you’ll need to measure the apparent diameter of the Moon in pixels, seeing an increase as the Moon rises higher in the sky.

4.) Lastly, the Moon’s distance can be measured from only two images (of course the more images the better you beat down any error) using this relatively simple equation:

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.47.25 AM

where d(t) is the distance from the Moon to your location on Earth, RE is the radius of the Earth, ht(t) is the elevation of the Moon for your second image, α(t)
is the relative apparent size of the Moon, or the apparent size of the Moon in your second image divided by the initial apparent size of the Moon in your first image and ht,0 is the initial elevation of the Moon for your first image.

So with a few pictures and a little math, you can measure the distance to the Moon.

“Our aim here is not to provide an improved measurement of a well-known astronomical quantity, but rather to demonstrate how the public could be engaged in scientific endeavors and how using simple instrumentation and readily available technological devices such as smartphones and digital cameras, any person can measure the local Universe as ancient astronomers did,” writes Zuluaga.

The paper has been submitted to the American Journal of Physics and is available for download here.