Space Station Back At Dusk / See Orion’s Curlicue and Five Dawn Planets

I hadn’t been paying attention, so I was pleasantly surprised two nights ago to see the International Space Station (ISS) made a bright pass in the southwestern sky. A quick check revealed that another round of evening passes had begun for locations across the central and northern U.S., Canada and Europe.  I like the evening ones because they’re so much convenient to view than those that occur at dawn. You can find out when the space station passes over your house at NASA’s Spot the Station site or Heavens Above.

The six-member Expedition 46 crew are wrapping up their work week on different types of research including botany, bone loss and pilot testing. Plants are being grown on the International Space Station so future crews can learn to become self-sustainable as they go farther out in space. While they work their jobs speeding at more than 17,000 mph overhead, we carry on here on the surface of the blue planet.

Edgar Mitchell stands by the U.S. flag he and fellow astronaut Alan Shepard planted on the Fra Mauro region of the moon back in February 1971. Credit: NASA
Edgar Mitchell stands by the U.S. flag he and fellow astronaut Alan Shepard planted on the Fra Mauro region of the moon back in February 1971. Credit: NASA

U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly regularly tweets photos from the station and recently noted the passing of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who died Thursday at age 85 on the eve of the 45th anniversary of his lunar landing on February 5, 1971. Mitchell was one of only 12 people to walk on the moon and described the experience to the UK Telegraph in 2014:


Relive the Mitchell’s Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 9 minutes and 57 seconds

“Looking at Earth from space and seeing it was a planet in isolation … that was an experience of ecstasy, realizing that every molecule in our bodies is a system of matter created from a star hanging in space. The experience I had was called Samadhi in the ancient Sanskrit, a feeling of overwhelming joy at seeing the Earth from that perspective.”

A pair of binoculars will make the "Curlicue" pop in Orion's Belt. Although the stars aren't related, they form a delightfully curvy line-of-sight pattern. Credit: Bob King
A pair of binoculars will make the “Curlicue” pop in Orion’s Belt. Although the stars aren’t related, they form a delightfully curvy line-of-sight pattern. Credit: Bob King

Only a human could stand in so barren and forbidding a place and experience such profound joy. You don’t have to go to the moon to be moved by sights in the night. Just step outside and watch the ISS glide by or grab a pair of binoculars and aim them at Orion’s Belt. Orion stands due south around 8 o’clock in in mid-February practically shouting to be looked at.

A pair of binoculars will make the "Curlicue" pop in Orion's Belt. Although the stars aren't related, they form a delightfully curvy line-of-sight pattern. Credit: Bob King
This wider view shows the Belt, Curlicue and the Orion Nebula just to the south — all excellent objects for binocular study. Stellarium

The Belt is lovely enough, but its surroundings glitter with stars just below the naked eye limit, in particular a little curlicue or “S” between Alnilam and Mintaka composed of 6th and 7th magnitude stars. Look for it in any pair of binoculars and don’t stop there. Take a few minutes to sweep the area and enjoy the starry goodness about then drop a field of view south for a look at the Orion Nebula. Inside this fuzzy spot 10 light years across and 1,350 light years away, hundreds of new stars are incubating, waiting for the day they can blaze forth like their compadres that make up the rest of Orion.

A thin crescent moon visited Venus and fainter Mercury this morning Feb. 6th at dawn over Rome, Italy. Credit: Gianluca Masi
A thin crescent moon visited Venus and fainter Mercury this morning Feb. 6th at dawn over Rome, Italy. Credit: Gianluca Masi

After touting the advantages of evening sky watching, forgive me if I also direct you to the morning sky and potential sleep loss. Although the waning crescent moon has now departed the scene, the wonderful alignment of Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter remains visible in the coming week even as Mercury slowly sinks back toward the eastern horizon. If you haven’t seen this “gang of 5”, set your alarm for a look starting about an hour before sunrise.

This map shows the entire southern sky around 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise Sunday morning Feb. 7. The ecliptic is the plane of Earth's orbit projected into space and the "highway" taken by the sun, Moon and planets as they orbit the sun. Although Mercury is lowest, it's only about 4.5 degrees from Venus and easy to find. Stellarium
This map shows the entire southern sky around 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise Sunday morning Feb. 7. The ecliptic is the plane of Earth’s orbit projected into space and the “highway” taken by the sun, Moon and planets as they orbit the sun. Although Mercury is lowest, it’s only about 4.5 degrees from Venus and easy to find. Stellarium

Find a location with as wide open a view as possible of the southeastern horizon. Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are plenty high up at that time and easy to spot, but Venus and Mercury hover only 5°-10° high. Both will pose no problem if you can get the trees and buildings out of the way! By the end of the coming week, Mercury will become challenging and then slip away.

Clear skies!

Book Review and Giveaway: Earthrise: My Adventures As An Apollo 14 Astronaut by Edgar Mitchell

Book review by David Freiberg: Universe Today Book Reviewer

Most of us get up in the morning, shower, eat breakfast and sleepily make our way to work. Whether we work in an office, outdoors, with the public or in any number of exciting Earth-based careers, our daily commute can hardly compare to that of a moon astronaut! In Earthrise: My Adventures As An Apollo 14 Astronaut, Edgar Mitchell shares his personal story of how he came to share a career with a scarce 11 other people in history.

This new book tells the story Mitchell’s life; he started out as a farm boy from a small town in New Mexico who grew up in a normal family and lived a normal life but he worked hard enough and got lucky enough to go to the Moon. He wasn’t born into it, and he wasn’t so supremely gifted that he aced everything he tried in his life. He had the willpower to work through years of training, and he had the courage to get into a gigantic rocket that would launch him a quarter of a million miles through space, even though the last people who had tried to go to the Moon were lucky to get back alive.

And, being a real person doing an extraordinary thing, he came back changed by the experience.

Despite the trials and tribulations of training, of flying there, of a close call with a malfunctioning “abort” button, and of the moonwalk itself, Edgar details how the ride home was the most life-changing part of the entire journey. As he saw the Earth shining in front of him, he described a sensation he called metanoia that was to shape the rest of his life. He’d explored as much of outer space as current technology would allow: now he wanted to do the opposite and explore the mind. Though he’d always been interested in topics like ESP (he even conducted his own ESP experiment with a few doctors on Earth during the mission), it was easy to see how it changed his perspective on everything. And, from his descriptions, he’s not the only Apollo astronaut to have a different perspective on life after the mission: they were real people, after all, and if you went to the Moon, you’d probably be changed as well.

That’s where “Earthrise” really shines: you get the idea that you too could do the same thing if you were willing to work for it. This book is strongly recommended for all children who are interested in space; as Edgar Mitchell was inspired by stories of Roswell and of Buck Rogers when he was young, perhaps a child who reads this very book will someday fly around the Moon and watch the Earth come up.

About the authors: Dr. Edgar Mitchell was a pilot in the historic 1971 Apollo 14 mission and the sixth man to ever walk on the Moon. He is the author of “Paradigm Shift,” “The Space Less Traveled,” and “The Way of the Explorer,” and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, three NASA Group Achievement Awards and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. He is the founder of the renowned Institute of Noetic Sciences and lives in Lake Worth, Florida. Ellen Mahoney has worked for Walt Disney Imagineering and produced radio features for the BBC Science in Action show. She is an instructor of journalism at Metro State University of Denver and lives in Boulder, Colorado. Dr. Brian Cox is a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester School of Physics and Astronomy, Manchester, England. He presents space and science programs on BBC radio and television, including “Wonders of the Universe.”

Universe Today and Chicago Review Press are pleased to be able to offer three free copies of “Earthrise: My Adventures as An Apollo 14 Astronaut” to our readers. This contest is open to US and Canadian residents only. In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Wednesday, April 30, 2014. If this is the first time you’re registering for a giveaway, you’ll receive a confirmation email immediately where you’ll need to click a link to be entered into the drawing. For those who have registered previously, you’ll receive an email later where you can enter this drawing.

If you are not lucky enough to win one of our three free copies, or if you don’t want to wait, you can purchase the book from Amazon.com.