Sunday, May 20, 2012

Space and astronomy stories for the week of the annular eclipse

After two Space and astronomy stories entries were so popular that I decided to post another. Besides, the headline story is about an event that happens today. I know from previous experience that posting breaking news about natural events can generate lots of page views. On that note, here are the space and astronomy stories from last night's Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Annular Eclipse edition) on Daily Kos.

This week's featured story comes from Accuweather and io9.

Solar Eclipse This Month!
May 6, 2012

On May 20th, an annular solar eclipse will take place. Andrew Baglini has the details.
Everything you need to know to catch Sunday’s rare "ring of fire" eclipse
By Robert T. Gonzalez
May 18, 2012 1:25 PM
This weekend, the Moon will pass between Earth and the Sun, giving rise to what sky-watchers call an annular eclipse. Also known as a "ring of fire" eclipse (for reasons that the top image should make clear), it's the first annular eclipse to be visible from the continental U.S. in close to 20 years. Here's what you need to know to catch a glimpse.

What is an "annular" eclipse?

Remember the supermoon from a couple weeks back? If you do, you might recall reading that one of the things that made the Moon "super" that night was its proximity to Earth. Because the Moon's orbit is elliptical, there are times throughout the month when it is closer to our planet than others. Two weeks ago, the Moon was at perigee, putting it closer to us than any other point in the month. In contrast, Sunday's Moon will be close to apogee, the point in its orbit at which it is furthest from our planet.

The Moon's distance from us means that its apparent diameter in the sky will be at its smallest for the entire month, so when it passes between the Sun and the Earth on Sunday night, it won't be able to cover the whole sun. As a result, some parts of the country will be able to witness a ring of sunlight like the one pictured up top, a defining characteristic of annular eclipses.
Not all parts of North America will see this event or even most of it. Here in Michigan, the maximum coverage of the sun will happen after sunset. It's almost as bad in Nebraska, as the following press release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln explains.

Partial solar eclipse and transit of Venus for Lincoln, Nebraska
May 18th, 2012
Lincoln, Neb., — Of two significant astronomical events occurring in the next few weeks, only one will be visible from Lincoln, according to Jack Dunn, coordinator of Mueller Planetarium at the University of Nebraska State Museum.

Lincoln will experience a partial eclipse of the sun on May 20, but the Sun will only be 2 degrees above the horizon when the largest area of the Sun will be covered by the Moon -- which means that most people won't be able to see it. Due to the low probability of seeing anything of the eclipse, Hyde Memorial Observatory in Holmes Park will not open for a viewing of the partial eclipse.

On June 5, however, there will be an opportunity in Lincoln to observe the transit of Venus. When the planet Venus moves across the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, we experience a fairly rare phenomenon. These transits come in pairs, and there was one in 2004. This will be the last transit of Venus to be seen this century. Historically, astronomers used transits to help determine distances to the Sun and the planet. Today, the transit technique is used to discover extra-solar planets--planets around other stars.
Ah, yes, the transit of Venus. I have a video for that, too.

NASA Television: ScienceCasts: The 2012 Transit of Venus
May 17, 2012

It won't happen again until December 2117. On June 5th, 2012, Venus will transit the face of the sun in an event of both historical and observational importance. The best places to watch are in the south Pacific, but travel is not required. The event will also be visible around sunset from the USA.
Those two events weren't the only space news this past week. Join me over the fold for the aborted launch of SpaceX's Falcon/Dragon combination and other news from NASA.

NASA Television: Dragon's Demo on This Week @NASA
May 19, 2012

The scheduled May 19th launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft on the first commercial venture to the International Space Station was aborted with t-minus zero-point-five seconds left in the countdown. Early data shows that high chamber pressure in Engine #5 caused a cutoff of all nine engines at T- 0.5 seconds. SpaceX will continue to look at the data and inspect the engine before setting a new launch date. The next possible opportunity is May 22 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Meanwhile, the three newest residents of the International Space Station were greeted by their Expedition 31 crewmates after their Soyuz capsule docked safely with the orbiting laboratory following its two day-plus journey from Kazakhstan. Soyuz commander Gennady Padalka, NASA flight engineer Joe Acaba, and Russian flight engineer Sergei Revin are slated to spend the next five months on the station. Expedition 31 will conclude, and 32 will begin, when Oleg Kononenko, Andre Kuipers, and Don Pettit return to Earth on July first after spending more than six months aboard the ISS. Also, Extreme Temperature Heat Shield, More Tests for Orion's Launch System Component, The State of Alabama celebrates NASA and more.
io9: SpaceX’s first bid at cab service to ISS is a bust
By Robert T. Gonzalez
May 19, 2012 11:30 AM
The first attempt to send a commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station was aborted less than a second before liftoff this morning, after an onboard computer detected a problem in one of its launch vehicle's nine engines.

It was anticlimactic to see the engines of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket ignite, rumble, and belch out billowing plumes of smoke in the final seconds of this morning's countdown, only to hear their booming cut short and watch the engine exhaust evanesce over the Cape Canaveral launchpad; but in a NASA press conference held about an hour after the unsuccessful attempt, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell insisted that deciding to scrub the launch was intentional, and for the best.

SpaceX's first bid at cab service to ISS is a bust. "This is not a failure," she explained. "We aborted with purpose. It would be a failure if we were to have lifted off with an engine trending in this direction."

Daily Kos had two dairies yesterday that mentioned the SpaceX launch. This week in science: Turtles all the way down by DarkSyde provided a brief overview of it, along with other science and space stories, but the big story was in The Rebirth of America's Dreams in Space: Step 1 TONIGHT (Knock on Wood) (Liveblog - Updated) by Troubadour. I'm with Troubadour on this story; it's the rebirth of America's dreams in space. As I've explained before, I consider loss of space flight to be the classic story of civilizational decline from science fiction. I'd think that reversing that would be almost invariably a good thing.


  1. Narb very much enjoyed watching the annular eclipse on Sunday from the comfort of the reserved level at Dodger Stadium. He had lots of fun making pinholes in cardboard and showing kids in the stands how to safely view the event. However, Narb is unsure if the optics in his cell phone camera will ever work properly again.

    Narb is not interested in the Transit of Venus. He has already transited Venus and found the atmosphere unpleasant.

    1. LOL. Damn, I had forgotten about this comment after seven years. I wish I had responded to it then. Come back, Narb! I miss you!