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The Urban Astronomer January 11, 2010

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, News.
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The more observant among you may have noticed a very recent addition to my blogroll, of The Urban Astronomer, the recently birthed brainchild of Allen, my older brother.

For as long as I can remember, Allen has been passionate about everything in the night sky (except perhaps clouds), and his enthusiasm certainly rubbed off over his younger two brothers. But now, he finds himself in deepest, brightest suburbia, with little time for astronomy… But he says:

How to keep the passion alive in a suburban backyard, with no telescope, trees blotting out most of the sky, and bright security lights drowning out the stars?  Check my updates regularly and find out how I do it!

Now I know I may be biased, but I have to say, I’ve found the site and its articles very interesting, as well as quick and easy to read (perfect for at-your-desk browsing). It is one of the most consistent and engaging sites on the topic I have seen, and it is written in a manner that is completely non-threatening to the amateur or aspiring astronomer, no matter how “un-scientific” they may feel. And yet, (and this is my favourite part) you’ll be hard-pressed to find any bias, nor any irresponsible over-simplification and outdated information that most sites (and even a few books) are just too lazy to explain properly, verify, or update with new theories or research.

But seriously, take a look at it, bookmark it, whatever, if you’re even the least interested in science, astronomy, or the universe.

Spectacular Meteor November 25, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, News, VOTD.
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Wow. It really takes a spectacular cosmic event to get me to blog….. Luckily for me, last Saturday, 21 Nov, there was a very bright meteor seen streaking across the skies of northern South Africa. I first was made aware of it by my brother Allen (who is “into all that stuff”), when he started trying to collect eyewitness accounts on Facebook. He had written

A spectacular Fireball over South Africa, visible from Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumulanga lit up the sky like daylight for a few seconds on Saturday night. Anybody who saw this, please message me with details? We’re trying to gather as much information as possible. I need to know time, your location, and what you saw. If you saw the actual fireball then I’m especially interested!To learn more, check http://www.planetarium.co.za

Naturally, my curiosity was aroused. Friends started responding, and most recently Allen has pointed us to this site here, which gives several excellent descriptions of people’s experiences of the phenomenon. I highly recommend you check out that site, which is where I found this video, taken from a security camera in Midrand:


Discovery and ISS Docking Visible this Weekend August 28, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, News.
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nasa-discovery-launchThanks to Allen for sending me an excerpt from the JHB Planetarium newsletter, telling us about the docking of the space shuttle Discovery, to the International Space Station, on Sunday. And, it should be visible from South Africa.

The International Space Station (ISS) passes directly over South Africa on Sunday evening (Aug 30th) – possibly accompanied by the shuttle Discovery!  Discovery is scheduled to launch Friday evening (SA time) to deliver crew and equipment to the orbiting station, but has been delayed twice this week due to a technical problem.
The orbit of the ISS takes it over southern Africa a few times each month.  On Sunday, it passes directly over Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Gauteng, moving towards Zimbabwe.  Start looking for it at about 6:48pm if you’re near Cape Town, 6:51pm for  Gauteng. Look towards the south-west, for a very bright “star” that is moving slowly up over your head, if you are under the path of the ISS. If you’re to the north of the path, the ISS will appear in the south-south-west, and will move upwards across the sky to your left. If you’re to the south of the path, the ISS will appear in the west-south-west, and will move upwards across the sky to your right.

Below is an image from the Planetarium website, showing the path of the ISS (click the image to see the full version):


Moon Rock – Who Wood a Guessed? August 28, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, News.
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A piece of moon rock held by the Dutch National Museum has recently been found out to be nothing more than a lump of petrified wood. (See News24 article here)

The rock was originally, and supposedly, given by the 3 astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission to the then Dutch prime minister, Willem Drees, in 1969. After the PM’s death in 1988, the rock was then donated to the museum. The rock, not on permanent display, was seen in 2006 by a “space expert” (who knows….) who immediately pointed out the unlikelihood of it’s authenticity. Researchers from Amsterdam’s Free University quickly confirmed the rock as a fake.

AP: "Moon rock", with note to PM

AP: "Moon rock", with note to PM

So what does this mean? Did the yanks hand over a fake as part of some twisted cosmic-frat-boy prank? Is this finally proof that the moon-landings were faked, and a piece of petrified-wood was the best they could come up with for a cheesy (pun-unintentional) “moon-rock” gift, on short notice? Or does it prove my long-held theory that there have long since been trees growing on the Moon?

Either way, the good news is that the Dutch museum will be keeping the piece, as a curiosity.

Aphelion – July 4th July 3, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy.
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Tomorrow, July 4th, the Earth will be at it’s furthest point from the Sun, in it’s eliptical orbit. This is known as “Aphelion” (with the closest point known as the Perihelion).

Orbits of the Inner Planets

Orbits of the Inner Planets

The effect? Well, contrary to what you may think, this does not really effect our seasons in any meaningfull way. The seasons are, of course, created by the tilt of the Earth on it’s axis, in relation to the Sun. However, the Sun will appear slightly smaller in the sky, by roughly 3% (No, you won’t notice that)

This happens once a year, at more or less the same time, and the following table gives the date and time (GMT) of each aphelion. (Table from wikipedia page here)

Year Perihelion Aphelion
Date Hour Date Hour
2007 January 3 2000 July 7 0000
2008 January 3 0000 July 4 0800
2009 January 4 1500 July 4 0200
2010 January 3 0000 July 6 1100
2011 January 3 1900 July 4 1500
2012 January 5 0000 July 5 0300
2013 January 2 0500 July 5 1500
2014 January 4 1200 July 4 0000
2015 January 4 0700 July 6 1900
2016 January 2 2300 July 4 1600
2017 January 4 1400 July 3 2000
2018 January 3 0600 July 6 1700
2019 January 3 0500 July 4 2200
2020 January 5 0800 July 4 1200

You can see a good representation of the difference in the apparent size of the Sun, in the form of a composite image (from 2 photos, one at Aphelion, one at Perihelion), on the NASA site over here.

Haynes Owners’ Manual for Apollo 11 June 11, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, General.
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Yup, you read that right. Haynes, that faithful bunch who have been publishing workshop manuals since 1960 or so, on hundreds of makes and models of cars (and other things such as appliances, model railways, and women), have released a commemorative edition Owners’ Workshop Manual, for the Apollo 11 moon lander (amongst other related hardware).


Specifically, it is commemorative of the upcoming 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s famous moon walk. The product blurb from the site:

On 20 July 1969, US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. This is the story of the Apollo 11 mission and the ‘space hardware’ that made it all possible. This manual looks at the evolution and design of the mighty Saturn V rocket, the Command and Service Modules, and the Lunar Module. It describes the space suits worn by the crew and their special life support and communications systems. We learn about how the Apollo 11 mission was flown – from launch procedures to ‘flying’ the Saturn V and the ‘LEM’, and from moon walking to the earth re-entry procedure.

Isn’t that so cool?

And yes, the moon landing really did take place. Otherwise, how could they publish a manual about it? Huh? Got you now, you annoying little conspiracy theorists! Hah!!

NASA rejects Colbert April 16, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, News.
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Some time ago, comedian Stephen Colbert began a campaign to garner as many votes as possible, to win the NASA online contest to find a name for a new room, or “node”, in the international space station. You can read about it at my earlier post here.

The great news is that he won, with a whopping 230,539 votes! The not-so-great news is that NASA have ignored the vote (which, to be fair, they warned us they might do…), and instead named the new module “Tranquility”, which interestingly was only the 8th most popular name, according to the online poll.



However, Stephen can rest easy knowing that he hasn’t been totally rejected: NASA has agreed on the name “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill” (cute eh?) And at least the treadmill is an important piece of equipment on a space station, and one that will see frequent use. I guess Colbert may have won the race, but still didn’t get anywhere….

It could have been worse, thats for sure. Just imagine, the “Communal Operational Large Bulk Excrement Removal Toilet”…

NASA Space Station Module Name March 11, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, News.
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I just found this article and thought I’d share the love…

NASA will be soon adding an extra room or module to the International Space Station. The new module is planned to be delivered in December to the space station, via the shuttle Endeavour. In an effort to raise public awareness and excitement on the mission, NASA decided to open a public poll on the name for the module. Current space station module names include Unity, Harmony, and Destiny. In the same vein, NASA’s suggestions for the new module name are Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise or Venture.

However, commedian Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central has urged his fans to add his name (“Colbert”) to the list and vote! (Colbert is well known for his mock presidential campaign, amongst other things)


Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

And the best part: currently, “Colbert” is topping the lists as most popular suggestion. And what’s more, voting ends 20th March! NASA of course reserves the right to ignore the results, but it sure will be interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks.

You can read about the module and the vote on NASA’s page here.

Also, check out Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Nation.

Pluto the Red-headed Dwarf Planet March 9, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, News.
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Many of you will remember the debacle in 2006 about the (finally) successful attempt at reclassifying Pluto, “demoting” it as it were, from a planet to, well, not a planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted* to reclassify Pluto, originally the ninth planet in our solar system, relegating it to a “Dwarf Planet”. (I’m not even sure that term is politically correct, but moving on)

* Voted in “majority”, though many felt the vote, which was delayed until the last day of the 2006 conference when most visiting astronomers were not present, was more an ambush – only 4% were present for the proposal, by arrangement, some theorise, and no absentee votes were allowed

The US state of Illinois, however, has declared March 13 as “Pluto Day”, and officially declared Pluto as a planet. They have decided to simply disregard the IAU’s decision (read about it here). It turns out the guy who first discovered Pluto, one Clyde Tombaugh, was in fact born in Illinois….

I’ll keep my opinions on the classification to myself, but one thing I will say is that the reactions, justifications, and general politicking of many of the involved scientists seems rather, well, un-academic (for want of a better word). I’m well aware that scientists are also (mostly) human, and as such are susceptible to passions, pride, the need for job security (and of course funding), and the general arrogance that so often accompanies intellectuals, and indeed I feel that some scandal in these circles is probably a good thing (every so often, as history will agree), but it really is a little disconcerting when they let it all hang out like this.

Although this is just a nomenclature issue, it still reminds me to be extra wary (more so than before) of what “science” cries, especially when so loudly. It reminds me just how fluid the views of “fact” are in science (perhaps not without good reason).
I guess sometimes the “bosses of science” need to just make a decision, name something a something, call a half-truth a truth, name a theory without a better alternative as fact, all in the interests of Joe Public’s understanding.

Asteroid to swing by today! March 2, 2009

Posted by baldricman in astronomy, General, News.
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I just found this great piece of news (actually, its pretty boring if you know about this stuff, but heck, I thought I’d sensationalise it a bit, eh wot?), so I thought I’d share it with you.

At 13:44 UTC 2nd March (that’s today), a small asteroid designated 2009 DD45 (small, but still bigger than its bra-size namesake) will buzz by at a mere 0.00047 AU’s (astronomical unit) from us. That is, about 63500 kms or so. Now that may seem quite far (and it certainly isn’t anything to worry about), but what I thought was extra cool, was that that is well within our moon’s orbit! As another reference, that is roughly twice the altitude of most communication satellites. Or, about 5 Earth’s next to each other (if my dubious arithmetic holds)

Its certainly not the closest shave we’ve had (the closest recorded “buzz” I could find was about 6600 kms or so). However, more importantly, its worth noting/remembering that Earth gets hit by these things all the time. Just last October, a little beastie “no bigger than a car” landed gracefully somewhere in Sudan… read about it here.

Apparently it would be visible through a semi-decent backyard telescope, but its brightest point (magnitude 10.5) is somewhere over the Pacific, making it tougher for most of us. (That, and you’ve got to know where to look – due to it’s close proximity to earth and the resulting error of parallax, this is quite specific)

All in all, I’m a little disappointed that I’ve had to step in here, as the media in general has this time, for some reason, not decided to cause widespread panic about it. Oh well, better luck next time….