Watch HTV-5 Chase the International Space Station From Your Backyard

It’s away… and the hunt is on. The Japanese Space Agency’s H-II Transfer Vehicle Kounotori automated cargo spacecraft rocketed out of the Tanegashima Space Center today, headed for the ISS.

Loaded with over 6,000 kilograms of experiments and supplies, HTV-5 is on a five day odyssey that you can follow from your backyard, starting tonight. Kounotori stands for ‘white stork,’ or the purveyor of joyful things in Japanese, and in this instance, the name is appropriate, as the HTV-5 is delivering much needed supplies to the International Space Station.

HTV-5 during encapsulation. Credit: JAXA

Launch occurred this morning at 11:50 UT/7:50 AM EDT, hitting an instantaneous window to chase after the International Space Station for grapple and berthing on Monday.

Unlike the Progress and Soyuz spacecraft, which have the capability to rendezvous and dock with the ISS, the HTV-5 and Dragon spacecraft are grappled with the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm 2,  and stowed or ‘berthed’ in place.

Grapple with berthing to the nadir node of the Harmony module is set for Monday, August 24th, at 11:54 UT/7:54 AM EDT.

Unlike other vehicles that periodically visit the International Space Station, the HTV does not incorporate deployable solar panels, but instead, has panels wrapped around its body. This can also lend itself to some pretty bright flares as it passes overhead.

Grapple of HTV-4 by the Canadarm 2. Image credit: NASA/JAXA
Grapple of HTV-4 by the Canadarm 2. Image credit: NASA/JAXA

The H-IIB is a two stage rocket, and ground observers should keep an eye out for the second stage booster during ISS passes as well. Debris was also jettisoned during last weeks’ spacewalk, and there’s no word as of yet if this has reentered as well, though ground-spotters have yet to report any sightings. This is a typical EVA maneuver, and cosmonauts conducted the release in such a fashion as to pose no danger to the ISS or HTV. Debris jettisoned from the ISS typically reenters the Earth’s atmosphere after about a week or so.

Prospects for Seeing HTV-5 this Weekend

Grapple of the HTV-5 will occur Monday over central Asia. Keep in mind, the HTV-5 will have to perform several burns to reach the elevation of the ISS: this means its orbit will evolve daily. Heavens-Above and NASA’s Spot the Station tracker typically publish sighting predictions for cargo vehicles such as the HTV-5 along with ISS sighting opportunities online.

And we’ll be posting daily updates and maps as @Astroguyz on Twitter. We see the best prospects for spotting the ISS and HTV5 over the next few days leading up to Monday’s berthing are for latitudes 25-45 north (dusk) and latitudes 30-50 south (dawn). That covers a wide range of observers in Europe, North America, South Africa and Australia/New Zealand.

A capture of the passage of HTV-4. Image credit and copyright: Fred Locklear
A capture of the passage of HTV-4. Image credit and copyright: Fred Locklear

We’ve caught sight of JAXA’s HTV on previous missions, and contest to it being a conspicuous object.

Pro-tip: the trick to a successful sighting is to start watching early. The HTV-5 will be fainter than the brilliant ISS, but still visible to the naked eye at about magnitude +1 to +2 or so when directly overhead. The HTV-5 will follow the same orbital trace as the station. Spot the ISS and still don’t see HTV-5? Linger for a bit and keep watching after the ISS has passed, as the HTV might follow shortly. And the darker the skies you can find to carry out your HTV-5 vigil under, the better!

Aug 19
Initial estimations for the passage of the HTV-5 about 10 minutes ahead of the ISS on Wednesday, August 19th. Image credit: Orbitron

Here’s a sampling of ISS passes for Washington D.C. for the next few days:

Wednesday, August 19th: 8:46 PM EDT (Elevation 65 degrees NE)

Thursday, August 20th: 9:29 PM EDT (Elevation 23 degrees SW)

Friday, August 21st: 8:35 PM EDT (Elevation 48 degrees SW)

Clouded out? You can still watch the grapple and berthing action online courtesy of NASA TV.

Want more? Other orbital alumni that have placed a port of call at humanity’s orbital outpost include: SpaceX’s Dragon, the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet (excepting the Columbia orbiter), Progress, ATV, HTV, Soyuz, and Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft. And while the shuttle and the European Space Agency’s ATV fleet are retired, you can follow the next launch of a crewed Soyuz (TMA-18M) on September 2nd from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a four-orbit fast-track docking.

JAXA plans to launch one HTV a year, out to HTV-9 in 2019.

Good luck, and good sat-spotting… next time we park the Jeep Liberty in the garage, we’re going to refer to it as a ‘grapple and berthing…’ it just sounds cool.

Got a picture of the International Space Station and friends? Be sure to send ‘em in to Universe Today.

Revealed: Mars to Appear Larger Than a Full Moon!

We can finally reveal the truth.

A massive conspiracy, spanning over a decade, has been revealed at last by basement bloggers, YouTubers and Facebook users everywhere, implicating ‘big-NASA’ and the powers that be in a massive cover-up.

Yes, it’s the month of August once again, and the Red Planet Mars is set to appear ‘larger than a Full Moon’ over the skies of Earth, as it apparently does now… every year.

Um, no. Stop. Just… stop.

Sure, by now, you’ve had the hoax forwarded to you by that certain well-meaning, but astronomically uninformed family member/co-worker/anonymous person on Facebook.

What’s new under the Sun concerning the August Mars Hoax? To see where the hoax was born, we have to journey all the way back to the close opposition of Mars on August 27th, 2003. Hey, we actually took two weeks leave in the Fall of 2003 just to sketch and image Mars each night from our backyard lair in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson, Arizona from the then known Very Small Optical Observatory. Those were the days. We measured dial-up internet speeds in kbit/s, ‘burned CDs,’ and Facebook and Twitter were still some years away. Even spam e-mail was still sorta hip.

Two years later in 2005, we were all amused, as the ‘August Mars Hoax’ chain email made its first post-2003 appearance in our collective inboxes. Heck, we were even eager in those halcyon days to take to the nascent web, and do that new hipster thing known as ‘blogging’ to explain just exactly why this couldn’t be so to the masses.

Later in 2006, 2007, and 2008, it wasn’t so funny.

The Mars Hoax just wouldn’t die. “One more unto the breach,” the collective astro-blogging community sighed, as we all dusted off last year’s post explaining how the Red Planet could never approach our own fair world so closely.

It. Just. Couldn’t. Because orbital mechanics. Because physics.

Even the advent of social media couldn’t kill in annual onslaught of the Mars Hoax, and over a Spiderman movie reboot later, we’re now seeing it shared across Facebook, Twitter and more.

Sure, the Mars Hoax is as fake as Donald Trump’s hair. If there’s any true science lesson to learn here, it’s perhaps the mildly interesting social science study of just how the Mars hoax weathers the lean months of winter, to reemerge every August.

Here’s the skinny (again!) on just why Mars can’t appear as large as the Full Moon:

-The Moon is 3,474 kilometers in diameter, and orbits the Earth at an average distance of just under 400,000 kilometers.

-At this distance, the Moon can only appear about 30’ (half a degree) across.

-Think that’s a lot? Well, you could ring the 360 degree circle of the local horizon with 720 Full Moons.

-Mars, like the Earth, orbits the Sun. Even with Earth at aphelion (its most distant point) and Mars at perihelion, we’re still 206.7 – 151.9 = 54.8 million km apart. Sure, aphelion and perihelion of our respective worlds don’t quite line up in our current epochs, but we’ll indulge imagination and fudge things a bit.

-Though Mars is just over 2x times larger in diameter than the Moon, it’s also more than 143 times farther away, even at its said hypothetical closest.

Credit Dave Dickinson
Mars vs Earth; oppositions from 2003 to 2018, including perihelion and aphelion positions. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

-Still want to see Mars as big as a Full Moon? Perhaps one day, astronauts will, though they’ll have to be orbiting just over a 800,000 km from the Red Planet to do it.

If we sound a little pessimistic in our characterizing the Mars Hoax as a recurring non-story, it’s because we see many truly fantastic things in space news that get far from their far shake. Real stories, of collapsing stars, rogue exoplanets, and intrepid rovers exploring distant worlds. Tales of humanoids, exploring space and doing the very best and noble things humanoids as a species can do.

Want to trace the history the Mars Hoax?

Here’s the saga of Universe Today’s coverage of all things ‘Mars Hoax’ since those olden days of the early web:

2005- No, Mars Won’t Look as Big as the Moon

2006- No, Mars Won’t Look as Big as the Moon in August

2007- Will Mars Look as Big as the Moon on August 27? Nope

2008- Please (Again) – Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon

2009- Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon… But You Can Watch it Get Closer

2010- Tonight’s the Night Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon

2011- Is the Moon Mars Myth Over?

2013- The Cyber Myth that Just Won’t Die

2016- ????

Hey, it looks like the hoax did take a break in 2012 and 2014, so that’s encouraging at least…

The great Mars opposition of 2003. image credit: Dave Dickinson
The great Mars opposition of 2003. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Now, I’m going to do my best to truly terrify all of science blogger-dom, and leave you with one final thought to consider. Mars reaches opposition (otherwise known in astronomical circles as ‘when it’s really nearest to the Earth’) once roughly every 26 months. All oppositions of Mars are not created equal, owing mostly to the eccentric orbit of the Red Planet. We have another fine opposition of Mars coming right up next year on May 22nd, 2016, followed by one that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic 2003 opposition in 2018, falling juuuuust shy of August on July 28th of that year…

Will the Mars Hoax meme find a new unwitting audience, and with it, new life?

Sleep tight…. we’ll be covering real science stories in the meantime, ’til we’re called to do battle with the Mars Hoax once again.

Red-faced Pluto Full of Surprises

Hey, Mars, you’ve got company. Looks like there’s a second “red planet” in the Solar System — Pluto. Color images returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, now just 10 days from its encounter with the dwarf planet, show a distinctly ruddy surface with patchy markings that strongly resemble Mars’ appearance in a small telescope.

Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:
Animation of Pluto’s rotation from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. What are those four nearly parallel dark streaks? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

On Mars, iron oxide or rust colors the planet’s soil, while Pluto’s coloration is likely caused by hydrocarbon molecules called tholins that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface. Airborne tholins fall out of the atmosphere and coat the surface with a reddish gunk.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Hörst Laboratory have produced complex chemical compounds called tholins, which may give Pluto its reddish hue. Credits: Chao He, Xinting Yu, Sydney Riemer, and Sarah Hörst, Johns Hopkins University
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Hörst Laboratory have produced complex chemical compounds called tholins, which may give Pluto its reddish hue.
Credits: Chao He, Xinting Yu, Sydney Riemer, and Sarah Hörst, Johns Hopkins University

A particular color or wavelength of UV light called Lyman-alpha is most effective at stimulating the chemical reactions that build hydrocarbons at Pluto. Recent measurements with New Horizons’ Alice instrument reveal the diffuse glow of Lyman-alpha light all around the dwarf planet coming from all directions of space, not just the Sun.

Since one of the main sources of Lyman-alpha light besides the Sun are regions of vigorous star formation in young galaxies, Pluto’s cosmetic rouge may originate in events happening millions of light years away.

Triton's pink too! Montage of Neptune's largest moon, Triton (1,683 miles in diameter) and the planet Neptune showing the moon's sublimating south polar cap (bottom) and enigmatic "cantaloupe terrain". Credit: NASA
Triton’s pink too! Montage of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton (1,683 miles in diameter) and the planet Neptune showing the moon’s sublimating south polar cap (bottom) and enigmatic “cantaloupe terrain”. Photo taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA

“Pluto’s reddish color has been known for decades, but New Horizons is now allowing us to correlate the color of different places on the surface with their geology and soon, with their compositions,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

Tholins have been found on other bodies in the outer Solar System, including Titan and Triton, the largest moons of Saturn and Neptune, respectively, and made in laboratory experiments that simulate the atmospheres of those bodies.

True color photos showing the two hemispheres of Pluto. At right, you can clearly see the four streaks in a row. New Horizons will approach fly by the hemisphere on the left side.
True color photos showing the two hemispheres of Pluto photographed on June 27, 2015. At left, a large, dark red patch is visible. The four streaks in a row are seen at right. New Horizons will fly by the hemisphere in the left image. Credit:  NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

As you study the photos and animation, you’ll notice that Pluto’s largest dark spot is redder than the most of the surface; you also can’ help but wonder what’s going on with those four evenly-spaced dark streaks in the equatorial zone. When I first saw them, my reaction was “no way!” They look so neatly lined up I assumed it was an image artifact, but after seeing the rotating movie, maybe not. It’s more likely that low resolution enhances the appearance of alignment.

Dark streaks on Triton formed by deposits from ice or cryovolcanos. Credit: NASA
Dark streaks on Triton deposited downwind from ice or cryovolcanos. Credit: NASA

But what are they? Located as they are on the Charon-facing side of Pluto, they may be related to long-ago tidal stresses induced by each body on the other as they slowly settled into their current tidally-locked embrace or something as current as seasonal change.

Voyager 2 photographed cyrovolcanos at Triton during its 1989 flyby of the Neptune system. Nitrogen geysers and plumes of gas and ice as high as 5 miles (8 km) were seen erupting from active volcanoes, leaving dark streaks on its icy surface.

Images showing the increase in detail from late June through July 1 as New Horizons homes in on Pluto. Credit:
Images showing the increase in detail from late June through July 1 as New Horizons homes in on Pluto. That possible big crater (seen in bottom middle photo) now looks more like a large, dark patch, BUT we still don’t know for sure what it is. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Björn Jónsson
It's instructive to compare these images based on observations with the Hubble Space Telescope made well before New Horizons's arrival. They appear to record the large dark spot and possible the multiple streaks. Credit: NASA/ESA
It’s instructive to compare these images, based on observations with the Hubble Space Telescope made well before New Horizons’s arrival, with current photos. They appear to record the large dark spot and possibly the multiple streaks. Credit: NASA/ESA

Seasonal heating from the Sun is the most likely cause for Triton’s eruptions; Pluto’s dark streaks may have a similar origin.

Animation of Pluto and Charon from images taken between June 23 and June 29. Credit:
Animation of Pluto and Charon from images taken between June 23 and June 29. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWR
To give you a better picture in your head how big these small bodies are, Pluto and Charon would both fit within the United States with room to spare. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)
To better picture in your head how big these small bodies really are, Pluto and Charon would both fit within the United States with room to spare. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)

Today, New Horizons lies just 7.4 million miles (11.9 million km) from its target. Sharpness and detail visible will rapidly improve in just a few days.

“Even at this resolution, Pluto looks like no other world in our Solar System,” said mission scientist Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder in a recent press release.


Leonard Nimoy’s Legacy Lives On in the Asteroid Belt

“Fascinating, Captain.” If he were alive today, Leonard Nimoy, who played the half Vulcan-half human Mr. Spock in the Star Trek TV and movies series, would undoubtedly have raised an eyebrow and uttered a signature “fascinating” at the news this week that an asteroid now bears his name.

4864 Nimoy, a mountain-sized rock roughly 6 miles (10 km) across, orbits the Sun once every 3.9 years within the inner part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Vulcan, er Jupiter. 

Here’s the announcement from the Minor Planet Center made on June 2:

Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Credit: CBS Television
Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Credit: CBS Television

(4864) Nimoy = 1988 RA5
Discovered 1988 Sept. 2 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory.
Leonard Nimoy (1931–2015) was an American actor, film director and poet. Best known for his portrayal of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer Spock in the original “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent movies, Nimoy wrote two autobiographies:
I Am Not Spock (1975) and I Am Spock (1995).
M.P.C. 94384

4864 Nimoy was discovered by Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne on September 2, 1988 and given the provisional designation 1988 RA5. This month, Spock’s “star” doesn’t get any brighter than 16th magnitude as it slowly tracks from Capricornus into Sagittarius in the late night sky. Come mid-July, amateurs with 14-inch or larger telescopes might glimpse it when it brightens to magnitude 15.

Spock – Fascinating!

Though portrayed as logical to a fault, Spock’s chilly exterior hid a heart as big as Jupiter. He was the hero of every nerd, and the perfect foil to Shatner’s Captain Kirk’s emotional excesses. Nimoy’s character showed that command of the facts and rational thinking made one very useful in dangerous and difficult situations. And great to poke fun at.

A few “Best of Spock” moments

While Leonard Nimoy’s name will forever tumble about the asteroid belt, his fictional character got there before him. Or did it? 2309 Mr. Spock (former 1971 QX1) was discovered by James Gibson on August 16, 1971. An outer main belt asteroid about 13 miles (21 km) across and orbiting the Sun every 5.23 years, it’s actually not named for the Star Trek character. Nope. Gibson named it for his cat.

The sky facing southeast around 2 a.m. in early June. Leonard Nimoy's asteroid is currently in Capricornus near its border with Sagittarius. Source: Stellarium
The sky facing southeast around 2 a.m. in early June. Leonard Nimoy’s asteroid is currently in Capricornus where it borders with Sagittarius. Source: Stellarium

The act prompted the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1985 to ban the use of pet names for asteroids. Aw, come on IAU, where’s your sense of humor? Then again, Nimoy’s Spock might have considered the new rule quite logical.

New Geek Destination: Klingon Cave Tours

Since “Star Trek: The Experience” is no longer open, here’s the next best thing. A company is getting ready to provide self-guided tours of the Jenolan Caves west of Sydney, Australia, and one of the languages soon available for the tours is Klingon. Yes, it is a fictional, completely fabricated Star Trek language, but I’m guessing there will be some takers on this. Why Klingon?

Well, if you have watched Star Trek you may recognize the name Jenolan as one of the ships featured in the episode of The Next Generation where Scotty (from the original series) appeared. The only Klingon in that episode was Worf, and Scotty stayed pretty clear of him (still jumpy from that Tribble incident, no doubt). So there’s not a clear Klingon connection, but obviously there’s some fan love involved.

Australia’s ABC reports that earlier this month two Klingon scholars (yes, really!) from the United States flew to Australia to tour the caves and finalize the translation of a self-guided tour. They have recorded it at a Sydney studio and the commentary will be available sometime in August on a digital audio device.

Map showing the location of the Jenolan Caves in western Australia. Credit: ABC

The Jenolan Caves are the world’s oldest dated limestone cave system. And if you aren’t fluent in Klingon, the tours will also be available in 10 other more commonly-spoken languages.

And can anyone read the Klingon words in the top image?

Shape Shifting Robot Can Reassemble After Crashing Apart

It’s fairly certain that the Mars Polar Lander and the Beagle lander crash landed on Mars, never to be heard from again. Well, what if crash landing was no problem? What if a robotic spacecraft could just reassemble and fix itself if there was a mishap on the way to another planet’s surface? That type of science fiction is getting closer to reality. A group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have developed a robot made of separate modules that can recognize each other and reassemble itself if they crash or get kicked apart. Maybe this could solve the problems of landing on Mars!
Except we haven’t figured out how to reassemble people, yet.

Take a look a the video. It’s pretty remarkable, although I have to admit, I had visions of the Terminator after watching it….

Original News Source: New Scientist