A History of the Magellanic Clouds and How They Got Their Names

The Magellanic Clouds are a pair of dwarf galaxies that are bound to the Milky Way. The Milky Way is slowly consuming them in Borg-like fashion, starting with the gas halo that surrounds both Clouds. They’re visible in the southern sky, and for centuries people have gazed up at them. They’re named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in our current times.

But they weren’t always called that.

Continue reading “A History of the Magellanic Clouds and How They Got Their Names”

Astronomy Cast Ep. 414: Navigating Far

In our last episode, we talked about what it’ll take to navigate across the Solar System. In this episode we scale things up and speculate how future civilizations will navigate to other stars and even other galaxies.

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We record Astronomy Cast as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Monday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch here on Universe Today or from the Astronomy Cast Google+ page.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 413: Navigating Near

It’s hard enough finding your way around planet Earth, but what do you do when you’re trying to find your way around the Solar System? Today we’ll talk about how spacecraft navigate from world to world.

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We record Astronomy Cast as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Monday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch here on Universe Today or from the Astronomy Cast Google+ page.

Astronomy Cast 319: The Zodiac

Although the Zodiac is best known for astrology nonsense, it has a purpose in astronomy too. The constellations of the Zodiac define the plane of the ecliptic: the region where the Sun, Moon and planets appear to travel through the sky. What are the constellations of the Zodiac, and how do astronomers use them as way points?

We record Astronomy Cast as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Monday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch here on Universe Today or from the Astronomy Cast Google+ page.

Navigating the Cosmos by Quasar

50 million light-years away a quasar resides in the hub of galaxy NGC 4438, an incredibly bright source of light and radiation that’s the result of a supermassive black hole actively feeding on nearby gas and dust (and pretty much anything else that ventures too closely.) Shining with the energy of 1,000 Milky Ways, this quasar — and others like it — are the brightest objects in the visible Universe… so bright, in fact, that they are used as beacons for interplanetary navigation by various exploration spacecraft.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
– John Masefield, “Sea Fever”

Deep-space missions require precise navigation, especially when approaching bodies such as Mars, Venus, or comets. It’s often necessary to pinpoint a spacecraft traveling 100 million km from Earth to within just 1 km. To achieve this level of accuracy, experts use quasars – the most luminous objects known in the Universe – as beacons in a technique known as Delta-Differential One-Way Ranging, or delta-DOR.

How delta-DOR works (ESA)
How delta-DOR works (ESA)

Delta-DOR uses two antennas in distant locations on Earth (such as Goldstone in California and Canberra in Australia) to simultaneously track a transmitting spacecraft in order to measure the time difference (delay) between signals arriving at the two stations.

Unfortunately the delay can be affected by several sources of error, such as the radio waves traveling through the troposphere, ionosphere, and solar plasma, as well as clock instabilities at the ground stations.

Delta-DOR corrects these errors by tracking a quasar that is located near the spacecraft for calibration — usually within ten degrees. The chosen quasar’s direction is already known extremely well through astronomical measurements, typically to closer than 50 billionths of a degree (one nanoradian, or 0.208533 milliarcsecond). The delay time of the quasar is subtracted from that of the spacecraft’s, providing the delta-DOR measurement and allowing for amazingly high-precision navigation across long distances.

“Quasar locations define a reference system. They enable engineers to improve the precision of the measurements taken by ground stations and improve the accuracy of the direction to the spacecraft to an order of a millionth of a degree.”

– Frank Budnik, ESA flight dynamics expert

So even though the quasar in NGC 4438 is located 50 million light-years from Earth, it can help engineers position a spacecraft located 100 million kilometers away to an accuracy of several hundred meters. Now that’s a star to steer her by!

Read more about Delta-DOR here and here.

Source: ESA Operations

Liftoff! Delta IV Launches Next Generation GPS Satellite

A Delta IV rocket launched from Florida today, sending a next-generation Global Positioning System satellite into orbit. The rocket lifted off at 12:10 UTC with the GPS IIF-3 satellite that will be part of the GPS system that is used by both civilians and the military. The new satellite will replace a 19-year-old navigation satellite in the global system that includes 31 operational satellites on-orbit which broadcast position, navigation and timing information to people around the world.

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV stands ready for launch at Space Launch complex 37 with the GPS IIF-3 satellite. Credit: ULA

The satellite, built by Boeing, is the third of 12 planned launches to provide improved GPS signals, featuring improved anti-jam technology, more precise atomic clocks, an upgraded civilian channel for commercial aviation and on-board processors that can be reprogrammed in flight, according to CBS News.

The new satellite should be operational by November.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 212: GPS Navigation

Handheld GPS Navigation Device

The in previous podcast, we talked about the old way navigators used to find their way around the planet; by looking at objects in the sky, and doing some tricky math. The new navigation system, of course, is the Global Positioning System, and it helps you find your spot on the planet with amazing accuracy. Let’s see where the system came from, and how it works.

Click here to download the episode.

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GPS Navigation shownotes and transcript.

How Does a Compass Work

How Does a Compass Work


Compasses are some of the oldest navigational tools in history. Since Mankind started to understand more about Navigation they have been crucial to major feats of navigation such as the first transoceanic voyages and the circumnavigation of the globe. None of this would be possible without the aid of the compass in performing navigation calculations over long distances. Early explorers had to use local landmarks and the stars to navigate. This made it very difficult to travel to far or unknown destinations. Compasses were one of the key breakthroughs that made such voyages a reality. So how does a compass work?

A compass works by detecting the Earth’s natural magnetic fields. The Earth has an iron core that is part liquid and part solid crystal due to gravitational pressure. It is believed that movement in the liquid outer core is what produces the Earth’s magnetic field. Like all magnetic fields the Earth’s magnetic field has two main poles, a north and south pole. These magnetic poles are slightly off from the Earth’s axis rotation which is used as the basis of the geographic poles, but they are close enough that the general directions with adjustments for the polar difference, called a declination, can be used for navigation.

Essentially a compass is a light weight magnet, generally a magnetized needle, on a free rotating pivot. This allows the needle to better react to nearby magnetic fields. Since opposites attract the southern pole of the needle is attracted to the Earth’s natural magnetic north pole. This is how navigators are able to discern north. The Earliest compasses were water compasses invented by the Chinese during the Song dynasty. These were a magnetized piece of metal floating in a bowl of water. The water provides the first frictionless pivot needed for making a working compass.

The compass later came into common use in the west during the 14th century AD. This led to what is now known as the Age of Exploration where major European powers started further exploration of the World including North and South America. While the compass was just one of the devices that brought about this golden age of exploration it played an important part in bring it to pass. Even now modern navigation to some point still relies on compasses and the more accurate maps they helped to develop.

We have written many articles about the compass for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the inventions of Galileo, and here’s an article about bar magnets.

If you’d like info on Earth’s magnetic field, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Magnetism. Listen here, Episode 42: Magnetism Everywhere.

How Stuff Works

13 Things That Saved Apollo 13, Part 6: Navigating By Earth’s Terminator


Note: To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, for 13 days, Universe Today will feature “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13,” discussing different turning points of the mission with NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill.

The rupture and explosion of Apollo 13’s oxygen tank crippled the spacecraft, endangering the lives of the crew and making a Moon landing not an option. But more problems arose as the perilous flight progressed. Keeping the spacecraft on the right trajectory was a huge challenge for Mission Control, and especially for the crew. Normally, the ship’s computers allowed for much of the navigation, but due to the loss of the Service Module as an electrical power source, even backup navigation and targeting functions were unavailable. The Lander’s limited battery power required the shutting down of its guidance computer. The astronauts also needed to use an on-board sextant to confirm their location by sighting-in the stars, similar to how ancient sailors navigated. “There are thirty-seven stars – and one is the sun,” said Apollo engineer Jerry Woodfill, “that provided an accurate way of aligning the spacecraft’s computer platform to allow the astronauts to steer their way through the heavens.”

But the explosion of the tank had enshrouded the Apollo 13 spacecraft with debris. Commander Jim Lovell and his crew couldn’t discern the stars from the particles that glimmered in the sunlight. “The situation was, without the ability to see the stars, you couldn’t navigate,” Woodfill said.

But NASA had a backup navigation plan, thanks to an insightful NASA contractor employee. This novel way of navigating had only been tried once before in space. And coincidentally, the astronaut who used it was Jim Lovell, during his previous flight — Apollo 8 — which orbited the Moon in December of 1968.

An employee of TRW – which was the contractor for many of the navigational systems and procedures for NASA — thought of an unusual backup navigation plan one day. “This fellow is a friend and neighbor of mine,” said Woodfill, “and by his account of the story to me, he said that a thought came to him one day about Apollo astronauts using stars to navigate. What if the stars couldn’t be seen? Now, that was highly unlikely, as there are no clouds, fog, or smoke to conceal stars from viewing by astronauts. But, nevertheless, the thought simply wouldn’t cease. Soon a follow-up idea came to mind. Why not use the Earth’s terminator?”

The nominal flight plan for a mission to the Moon. Credit: Apollo 13 report.

The terminator is the line which delineates between night and day on Earth; where the Sun is shining and where it is dark.

Woodfill’s friend figured out the geometry and wrote a computer program to validate the idea. He submitted the proposal to the navigation board, which approved the technique so that it was entered into the computers in the Mission Control Center.

Through unusual, and what could be called happenstance circumstances, Lovell experimented with the backup plan during Apollo 8.

Lovell served as navigator for the first manned mission to orbit the Moon. He made a star sighting in preparation for the return to Earth, and entered the coordinates into the Apollo spacecraft’s primitive computer using the “DSKY” (display and keyboard). Instead of pressing the ENTR (enter) key, he inadvertently pressed the adjacent CLR (clear) key erasing the entire navigational alignment.

“Lovell consulted with Mission Control whether to repeat the sextant star sighting,” Woodfill said, “and someone realized this would be an opportunity to test the backup ‘seat of the pants’ means of navigating using the Earth’s terminator. And it worked! But then everyone forgot about it, until…guess when?”

Apollo 13's view of the Moon. Credit: NASA

Initially, the Apollo 13 crew was able to use the Sun as a “marker” to help in guiding the spacecraft to confirm they were on the right path, and were able to fire the LM engines for course corrections using the transferred guidance platform from the Command Module.

But as Apollo 13 headed back to Earth, the Reentry (RETRO) and Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) officers looking at the trajectory analysis noticed the spacecraft was coming in too “shallow,” that is, Apollo 13 was headed to skip off the atmosphere and out into space forever. Something seemed to be “blowing” the spacecraft off course. Later, it was discovered that cooling vapor from the lander was responsible. Since no lander had been present for previous missions on a return trip from the Moon, such a mysterious “wind” had never been encountered prior to Earth re-entry.

Another burn was needed, but no help from the guidance system would be available, as powering the lander’s guidance system, its gyros, the computer, etc. would use too much electrical power.

Here’s where the backup navigation approach that Lovell experimented with on Apollo 8 came to the rescue.

“If a ‘dead-reckoning’ approach could be used, no electricity would be needed,” said Woodfill. “Simply point the vehicle correctly, start the engine and stop it based on Mission Control’s prescribed time for its operation.” Lovell eyed up the Earth’s terminator line and controlled the “yaw” of the spacecraft, Haise controlled the “pitch” and Swigert timed it with his accurate Omega Speedmaster watch.

Graphics from the Apollo 13 report on using Earth's terminator for navigation.

The Navigation report for Apollo 13 describes it this way:

“The cusps of the Earth terminator were placed on the Y axis of the COAS. The illuminated part of the Earth was placed at the top of the reticle. Pitch attitude was achieved by placing the Sun in the upper portion of the AOT (see below). This procedure aimed the LM +Z axis at the Earth and aligned the LM +X axis retrograde along the local horizontal. An AGS body axis alignment was performed, followed by transitioning the AGS to the automatic attitude hold mode. A maneuver to burn attitude was performed, followed by another body axis alignment.”

Navigation graphics from the Apollo 13 report.

Woodfill said he enjoyed Hollywood’s re-enactment of the procedure in the “Apollo 13” movie. Though the spacecraft gyrations about the heavens are wholly exaggerated, the scene where Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon set-up and execute the terminator burn is generally accurate.

Suffice to say, the procedure worked for Hollywood dramatics, but more importantly, it worked to save the lives of Lovell, Haise and Swigert.

Tomorrow, Part 6: Fire

Other articles from the “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13” series:


Part 1: Timing

Part 2: The Hatch That Wouldn’t Close

Part 3: Charlie Duke’s Measles

Part 4: Using the LM for Propulsion

Part 5: Unexplained Shutdown of the Saturn V Center Engine

Part 6: Navigating by Earth’s Terminator

Part 7: The Apollo 1 Fire

Part 8: The Command Module Wasn’t Severed

Part 9: Position of the Tanks

Part 10: Duct Tape

Part 11: A Hollywood Movie

Part 12: Lunar Orbit Rendezvous

Part 13: The Mission Operations Team


Your Questions about Apollo 13 Answered by Jerry Woodfill (Part 1)

More Reader Questions about Apollo 13 Answered by Jerry Woodfill (part 2)

Final Round of Apollo 13 Questions Answered by Jerry Woodfill (part 3)

Never Before Published Images of Apollo 13’s Recovery

Listen to an interview of Jerry Woodfill on the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.