Tomorrow’s Transit Will be the First Photographed From Space

[/caption]

ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers captured this stunning image of Earth’s limb with Venus shining brightly above on the morning of June 4, 2012. While it’s a fantastic shot in its own right, it’s just a warm-up for tomorrow’s big transit event, which will be watched by millions of people all over the world — as well as a select few aboard the ISS!

While many people will be taking advantage of this last opportunity to see Venus pass across the face of the Sun — a relatively rare event that’s only happened six times since the invention of the telescope, and won’t occur again until 2117 — the crew of the International Space Station is preparing to become the first astronaut to photograph it from space!

Transit of Venus by NASA's TRACE spacecraft Image credit: NASA/LMSAL
Transit of Venus in 2004 by NASA's TRACE spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/LMSAL

Expedition 31 flight engineer Don Pettit knew he’d be up in orbit when this transit takes place, and he went prepared.

“I’ve been planning this for a while,” says Pettit. “I knew the Transit of Venus would occur during my rotation, so I brought a solar filter with me when my expedition left for the ISS in December 2011.”

(See more of Don Pettit’s in-orbit photography: Timelapse of a Moonrise Seen From The ISS)

Even though the 2004 transit happened while the ISS was manned, the crew then didn’t have filters through with to safely view it.

Pettit will be shooting the transit through the windows of the cupola. He’ll even be removing a scratch-resistant layer first, in order to get the sharpest, clearest images possible — only the third time that’s ever been done.

Don’s images should be — no pun intended — brilliant.

“I’ll be using a high-end Nikon D2Xs camera and an 800mm lens with a full-aperture white light solar filter,” he says.

And if you want to follow along with the transit as it’s seen from down here on Earth, be sure to tune in to Universe Today’s live broadcast on Tuesday, June 5 at 5 p.m. EDT where Fraser Cain will be hosting a marathon event along with guests Pamela Gay, Phil Plait (a.k.a. the Bad Astronomer) and more as live views are shared from around the world.

Unless you plan on being around in 2117, this will be your last chance to witness a transit of Venus!

Read more about Don Pettit’s photo op on NASA Science News here.

Timelapse of a Moonrise as Seen from the ISS

Astronaut Don Pettit continues to ‘wow’ us all with his photographic exploits. In this great timelapse video, not only does Pettit capture a stunning Moonrise over Earth, but he had the presence of mind to set up his video camera in such way that he could also show himself opening the shutters in the space station’s Cupola observation windows just in time to watch all the action. The time-lapse scene was photographed from the airlock of the ISS’s Russian segment.

Incredible Dragon Approach and Berthing – Image Gallery from Andre Kuipers aboard ISS

[/caption]

On Friday, May 25, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) made space history when they deftly reached out with the stations robotic arm and grabbed the approaching SpaceX Dragon resupply carrier and then parked the first ever commercial cargo craft at an open port on the massive lab complex while orbiting some 407 kilometers (253 miles) above Earth – check out the gallery here !

Working in tandem, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers snared the Dragon craft as it was drifting in free space about 10 m (32 ft) away with the 18 m (58 ft) long Canadian robot arm at 9:56 a.m. EDT and connected the first privately built capsule to a parking spot on the Earth-facing side of the Harmony Node 2 module on the ISS at 12:02 p.m. EDT on May 25.

Dragon over the Rocky Mountains. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA

Here’s a gallery of images from Andre Kuipers showing the Dragon’s rendezvous, grappling and docking at the million pound Earth orbiting space station currently inhabited by a crew of 6 astronauts and cosmonauts working as a united team from the US, Russia and the Netherlands and representing humanities tenuous foothold at the High Frontier.

All these photos were taken on May 25, 2012 using a Nikon D2Xs.

The crew ‘Entered the Dragon’ for the first time on Saturday, May 26.

Over the next few days, the crew will unload the living provisions, supplies and equipment loaded aboard the Dragon capsule and then refill it with science samples and trash for the return trip to Earth.

Dragon will undock from the ISS on May 31 and splash down hours later off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean.

And through May 31, you can spot and photograph the Dragon/ISS combo orbiting overhead – read my article here for further details.

Approach to 10 metres. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Manoeuvring Dragon to the docking port. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Like this it looks a bit like a model from a 70's sci-fi film. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Dragon and Earth. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Teamwork in the Cupola during Dragon approach - Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers. Credit: ESA/NASA

Dragon is the world’s first commercial resupply vehicle. It was launched flawlessly atop a SpaceX built Falcon 9 booster on May 22 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Ken Kremer

See Soundwaves in Space

What fun! The science officer aboard the International Space Station, Don Pettit, does some simple but amazing science in his series, Science Off the Sphere. In his latest video, Pettit allows us to ‘see’ sound waves in space.

“I’m amazed at how much fun you can with something as simple as a set of speakers from your laptop computer and a splash of water,” said Pettit who added that he wanted to see how sound waves would affect water droplets “without the complications of gravity.”

Make sure you watch to the very end to rock out with Pettit and see the variations between the woofer and tweeter on the speaker and how the different sounds affect the water drops.

‘Seeing’ Cosmic Rays in Space

[/caption]

Astronauts have long reported the experience of seeing flashes while they are in space, even when their eyes are closed. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin both reported these flashes during the Apollo 11 mission, and similar reports during the Apollo 12 and 13 missions led to subsequent Apollo missions including experiments specifically looking at this strange phenomenon. These experiments involved blindfolding crewmembers and recording their comments during designated observation sessions, and later missions had a special device, the Apollo Light Flash Moving Emulsion Detector (ALFMED), which was worn by the astronauts during dark periods to record of incidents of cosmic ray hits.

It was determined the astronauts were ‘seeing’ cosmic rays zipping through their eyeballs. Cosmic rays are high-energy charged subatomic particles whose origins are not yet known. Fortunately, cosmic rays passing through Earth are usually absorbed by our atmosphere. But astronauts outside the atmosphere can find themselves “seeing things that aren’t there,” wrote current International Space Station astronaut Don Pettit, who told about his experience of seeing these flashes on his blog:

“In space I see things that are not there. Flashes in my eyes, like luminous dancing fairies, give a subtle display of light that is easy to overlook when I’m consumed by normal tasks. But in the dark confines of my sleep station, with the droopy eyelids of pending sleep, I see the flashing fairies. As I drift off, I wonder how many can dance on the head of an orbital pin.”

In a report on the Apollo experiment, astronauts described the types of flashes they saw in three ways: the ‘spot’, the ‘streak’, and the ‘cloud’; and all but one described the flashes as ‘white’ or ‘colorless.’ One crewmember, Apollo 15 Commander David Scott, described one flash as “blue with a white cast, like a blue diamond.”

Pettit described the physics/biology of what takes place:

“When a cosmic ray happens to pass through the retina it causes the rods and cones to fire, and you perceive a flash of light that is really not there. The triggered cells are localized around the spot where the cosmic ray passes, so the flash has some structure. A perpendicular ray appears as a fuzzy dot. A ray at an angle appears as a segmented line. Sometimes the tracks have side branches, giving the impression of an electric spark. The retina functions as a miniature Wilson cloud chamber where the recording of a cosmic ray is displayed by a trail left in its wake.”

Pettit said that the rate or frequency at which these flashes are seen varies with orbital position.

“There is a radiation hot spot in orbit, a place where the flux of cosmic rays is 10 to 100 times greater than the rest of the orbital path. Situated southeast of Argentina, this region (called the South Atlantic Anomaly) extends about halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. As we pass through this region, eye flashes will increase from one or two every 10 minutes to several per minute.

A cosmic ray hit on a camera appears as a segmented line in the image. Credit: NASA/Don Pettit..

During the Apollo missions, astronauts saw these flashes after their eyes had become dark-adapted. When it was dark, they reported a flash every 2.9 minutes on average. Only one Apollo crewmember involved in the experiments did not report seeing the phenomenon, Apollo 16’s Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly, who stated that he had poor night vision.

These cosmic rays don’t just hit people, but things in space, too, and sometimes cause problems. Pettit wrote:

“Free from the protection offered by the atmosphere, cosmic rays bombard us within Space Station, penetrating the hull almost as if it was not there. They zap everything inside, causing such mischief as locking up our laptop computers and knocking pixels out of whack in our cameras. The computers recover with a reboot; the cameras suffer permanent damage. After about a year, the images they produce look like they are covered with electronic snow. Cosmic rays contribute most of the radiation dose received by Space Station crews. We have defined lifetime limits, after which you fly a desk for the rest of your career. No one has reached that dose level yet.”

The Phantom Torso experiment, AKA, Fred. Credit: NASA

There are experiments on board the ISS to monitor how much radiation the crew is receiving. One experiment is the Phantom Torso, a mummy-looking mock-up of the human body which determines the distribution of radiation doses inside the human body at various tissues and organs.

There’s also the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment, a particle physics experiment module that is mounted on the ISS. It is designed to search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays, and hopefully will also tell us more about the origins of both those crazy flashes seen in space, and also the origins of the Universe.

A tall order!

How to Capture a Dragon in Space

[/caption]

With the upcoming historic launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, astronauts in orbit have been getting ready for the first commercial spacecraft that will bring supplies to the station. Astronauts Don Pettit and André Kuipers will be manually capturing and berthing the Dragon capsule, using the ISS’s Canadarm2. Originally, current station commander Dan Burbank was to be the main arm operator, but with the delay in Dragon’s launch (it was originally scheduled for February 2012), Burbank will already be back on Earth by the time Dragon reaches the station, currently scheduled for May 3. So now, Pettit and Kuipers have had to take over the duties and learn their new jobs while in space. Without the high-tech simulators that NASA has at Johnson Space Center, how do the astronauts prepare and practice for this important event?

“We have a really neat capability here on Station,” Pettit said during a press conference last week. “I have it set up all the time, so I wake up in the morning and have a bag of coffee in my mouth and a cinnamon scone in one hand and flying the simulator with the other.”

The crew actually has two ways to practice for Dragon’s arrival.

“One is actually flying (practicing with) the Canadarm, which is the world’s best trainer,” Pettit said, “and then on station we have two space station computers which double as an Arm simulator, and it has a full set of the Arm hand controllers – the setup, which we call Robot allows us to fly track and capture trajectories just as if we were in the simulators in Houston.”

Initially Burbank would have been the main arm officer, with Pettit and Kuipers assisting. Now, Pettit and Kuipers will have to complete the task themselves, with the two of them doing all the things that the three of them were originally trained to do.

For the capture and berthing, Pettit and Kuipers will be in the Cupola, with Pettit as prime operator and Kuipers as second arm operator. “We will have arm operation in the (Destiny) lab as a ‘hot backup’ just in case of contingencies, and we can activate it there if needed.”

The two astronauts will use the Station’s Canadarm2 to first grab the spacecraft and then maneuver it into place to mate with the Harmony module’s Earth-facing docking port.

Pettit said the on-orbit training has been invaluable. “It is really good to have that type of capability,” he said.

The following animation from the Canadian Space Agency shows just how complex it is to capture a Dragon in space.

SpaceX’s launch and Dragon’s arrival will be the premiere test flight in NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative. Even though it is technically a est flight, NASA isn’t about to pass up an opportunity to send supplies to the station. Dragon will carry about nearly 521 kg (1,150 pounds) of cargo, mainly food and some spare parts for the ISS. When Dragon departs, the station crew will load nearly 680 kg (1,500 pounds) of cargo to be sent back to Earth, since the Dragon capsule won’t burn up in the atmosphere like other supply ships — it will be recovered in the ocean.

Poetry from the Space Station

[/caption]

Astronaut Don Pettit is not only a scientist and on-orbit fix-it guy extraordinaire, but he is also a poet. Who knew? Since April is National Poetry Month, Pettit has written a couple of poems while on his tour of duty on the International Space Station. “By venturing into unknown territory, discoveries will be made that tickle our imagination and enrich our minds,” he says. “On the frontier, you can once again see the world through the eyes of a child.”

Read two of his recent poems, below:

I Wonder Why

I wonder why the sky is up, and why the stars abound?
And why the Sun comes up each morn, and why the Earth goes ’round?
I wonder what the Sun on Mars, would bring at dusk and dawn?
I wonder what two moons would say, from Earth lit sky when Sun is gone
I wonder if Mars mountain crags would be a sight to hold?
I wonder if I’d dare to climb, how could I be so bold!
I wonder when Man’s mind will grow, and cease to be so small
I wonder when we’ll venture forth, I hope before we fall
I wonder if we’ll never dare, to reach up through the sky
Forever doomed to live on Earth, and this, I wonder why?

Space is My Mistress

Space is my Mistress,
and she beckons my return.
Since our departure I think of you
and yearn to fly across the heavens arm in arm.
I marvel at your figure,
defined by the edges of continents.
You gaze at me with turquoise eyes,
perhaps mistaken for ocean atolls.
You tease me to fall into your bosom,
sculptured by tectonic rifts,
only to move away as if playing some tantalizing game.
Time and time we turn together,
through day, and night, and day,
repeating encounters every 90 minutes with a freshness,
as if we have never seen our faces before.
We stroll outside together,
enveloped by naked cosmos,
filled with desire to be one.
So close,
you sense my every breath,
which masks your stare through visor haze.
We dance on the swirls of cloud tops,
while skirting the islands of blue.
You know my heart beats fast for you.
Oh, Space is my mistress,
and when our orbits coincide,
we will once again make streaks of aurora across the sky.

See more of Pettit’s musings at his NASA blog.

Playing With Water… in Space!

Expedition 30 astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit continues his ongoing “Science off the Sphere” series with this latest installment, in which he demonstrates some of the peculiar behaviors of thin sheets of water in microgravity. Check it out — you might be surprised how water behaves when freed from the bounds of gravity (and put under the command of a cosmic chemist!)

See more Science off the Sphere episodes here.

Photo: The Space Station Turns on its Afterburners…Or Not?

[/caption]

Astronaut Don Pettit posted this beautiful image on his Google+ page showing a view from the space station reminiscent of science-fiction. Of course, that’s the constellation Orion off in the distance, but there’s a bit of a debate going on at Pettit’s post whether the diffusion of light seen emanating from the ISS is just light from inside the space station windows (it appears to be the Cupola) spreading out into total darkness, or if the effect is actually from a reboost of the ISS for a Debris Avoidance Maneuver that was performed around the time this image was taken.

The only clue Pettit provided is the title he gave the image, “Orion in the headlights,” which would point to the effect coming from the light shining from the Cupola windows. But the The DAM took place at 10.12 GMT (5:12 a.m. EST) on February 29, 2012 and as commenter Peter Caltner points out, “the scenic lighting effect ends exactly in [the series of images that Pettit took] at the end of the 76 seconds of the burn duration.”

The original can be found here on the NASA Gateway to Astronaut Photography website, and here’s another image in the sequence.

OK, all you imaging experts out there: until Pettit gives us the real scoop, what are your thoughts?

Thanks to Elyse David for the heads up!

Amateur Astronomers Flash the Space Station

[/caption]

We’ve seen lots of images and videos of city lights on Earth as seen from the International Space Station. But if you were down on Earth, flashing a light at the astronauts on the ISS – would they see you? The answer is now definitively, yes. Flashing the space station with beams of light as it passes overhead had never been successfully done—until this past weekend. Astronomers with the San Antonio Astronomy Association (SAAA) and the Austin Astronomy Society combined forces to flash enough light at the ISS from a dark location, as to appear greater than 0 magnitude to astronaut Don Pettit, on board the station. It turns out, they probably didn’t need the two 800 million lumen searchlights they used, but they sure put on a great show.

“It was amazing,” said Keith Little, from the SAAA. “It was almost like the space station lit up when we shined the lights on it. We had no idea it was going to be that bright.”

Image taken by Don Pettit on the ISS of lights flashing from Texas by the San Antonio Astronomy Association and the Austin Astronomy Society. Credit: Don Pettit, image couresty the SAAA

In a highly coordinated and engineered event, the astronomers flashed the two huge searchlights along with shining a one-watt blue laser at the ISS. Pettit explained some of the preparations in his blog on Fragile Oasis: “This took a number of engineering calculations, Pettit wrote. “Projected beam diameters (assuming the propagation of a Gaussian wave for the laser) and intensity at the target had to be calculated. Tracking space station’s path as it streaked across the sky was another challenge.”

Due to lags in communications to and from the ISS (“on space station we receive email drops two to three times a day,” Pettit said), the whole event took weeks to plan.

The SAAA had an “in” with Pettit, as he is friends with one of their members, astrophotographer and author Robert Reeves, and the idea for doing this was actually hatched before Pettit left for space back in November, 2011.

On March 4, about 65 amateur astronomers were in position at the Lazano Observatory in Springbranch Texas. They turned on the searchlights and waited as the ISS was set to make an appearance in the sky. At the precise time, they began flashing the two searchlights at a rate of two seconds on, then two seconds off, in a very non-technical, but effective manner.

“We had two people manually aiming the lights and two people holding plywood up over the lights, and they were manually tracking the space station,” Little told Universe Today.

Pettit, meanwhile, had no trouble seeing the flashes.

“Don sent us an email the next day,” Little said, “and he told us how bright it was, and how he could see the lights even before we started the flash system. He saw it from 10 degrees above from the west to 10 degrees from the Northeast.”

To everyone’s surprise, Pettit could also see the blue laser. “When the spotlights were off, he said he could still see the blue laser, which was shone steadily,” Little said. “I was pretty surprised that the laser light was that visible from space.”

Little ran the laser and he had three people aiding him by watching for aircraft, “It is an FAA offense to shoot an airplane with a laser, so we took all the safety precautions so that we wouldn’t take that chance,” he said.

But if you see the ISS passing overhead, don’t expect that you can flash a light and they will see it. For one thing, they probably won’t be looking for your light. But additionally, Pettit explained in a previous blog post how when we see the ISS best here on Earth, they can’t see much below.

Ironically, when earthlings can see us, we cannot see them. The glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors that return our own ghostly reflection. This often plays out when friends want to flash space station from the ground as it travels overhead. They shine green lasers, xenon strobes, and halogen spotlights at us as we sprint across the sky. These well-wishers don’t know that we cannot see a thing during this time. The best time to try this is during a dark pass when orbital calculations show that we are passing overhead. This becomes complicated when highly collimated light from lasers are used, since the beam diameter at our orbital distance is about one kilometer, and this spot has to be tracking us while in the dark. And of course we have to be looking. As often happens, technical details complicate what seems like a simple observation. So far, all attempts at flashing the space station have failed.

But of course, now there has been a success.

Little said the two astronomy clubs put in 3 months of planning with several meetings, and thanks do the donation of the spotlights from SkyView Searchlights, the costs to do the experiment were minimal. “We had lots of volunteers who wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

Is there any science in this, beyond knowing that under the right conditions the ISS astronauts could see lights from people on Earth?

“Well, if the ISS were to somehow lose all communication, which I would find hard to believe, we just showed that we could spot the station and possibly send them messages through Morse code,” Little said.

But Little said the main thrust of the whole event was the novelty of trying to be the first to successfully shine a light at the ISS that the crew could see, as well as trying to bring astronomy to the attention of the general public.