That's the external fuel tank from a 1989 space shuttle mission, a picture my brother-in-law Dan happened across while we were discussing shuttle history (and he was correcting my memory on a couple of fine points, such as the fact the first during the first four missions, the shuttle was equipped with ejection seats). The subject came up while we were remembering the Challenger disaster in 1986 (a subject another friend brought up on Facebook).
Anyway, I'm always a sucker for a good space program picture, and this is one. Not to over-romanticize, you could look at this and say it's simply part of a wasteful industrial process (the external tank is jettisoned and partially disintegrates as it falls through the atmosphere into the Atlantic). There's more to it, for me: a picture from an untamed place that holds unlimited promise, a picture of our civilization reaching to extend its understanding and its capabilities.
Sure, we have lots of problems here at home (that blue background–what a beautiful place). It's always seemed to me we ought to be able to extend our reach out there and do the work we need to do down here, too.
(End of the foregoing.)
We’ve been having a string of clear evenings in the Bay Area, perfect for watching the nightly fly-by of the International Space Station and the shuttle Atlantis. When the shuttle and the station are docked, they appear as a single, bright star moving from (roughly) west to east. The Atlantis undocked early this morning and rapidly moved away from the station. This evening one of the ships appeared in the northwest, then the other–the space station trailed by the shuttle, I think. From San Francisco, they seemed to move nearly straight overhead, then rapidly vanished into the Earth’s shadow when they were still high above the horizon.
It always surprises me a little not to see others out staring at these objects as they pass over, or that passers-by don’t ask what I’m looking at. A big-city rule, I guess: avoid the harmless-looking guy staring into the sky just in case he’s a lunatic. One time, a co-worker happened upon me watching the space station go over a nearby park. “What happened?” she asked. “Did a bird shit on you?” I told her about the space station and pointed at it. She glanced toward the sky, gave me a look that said she didn’t quite believe anything like that was up there at the moment, and moved on.
Tonight in Berkeley, meantime: Kate knew the twin apparitions of space station and shuttle would become visible at 6:22. She called several neighbors to alert them. While I watched from the lower western edge of Potrero Hill, she had nearly a dozen people out in the street here in our neighborhood for the three-minute show. That’s just one of the things I love about this block: that people will come out to see a night-time sky display–lunar eclipses, comets, meteor showers, whatever’s on tap–and just hang out for a few minutes.
There’s another double-viewing Thanksgiving night. Check your local listings on NASA’s Satellite Sightings Information page.
I always have a little pang of loss when we turn the clocks back. The days have been getting shorter for months, of course; it’s dark in the morning; but for me, the fact we’re moving into the dark part of the year finally hits home these first few days after changing the clocks. The light at dusk is just as pretty; but the night starts that much earlier. The good news: the current daylight saving law, under which we go to standard tiime (maybe it should be called winter time) the first Sunday in November and then “spring ahead” the second Sunday in March, means that we’ve only got four months to go before we move the clocks ahead again. (Yes, I concede: if I were a morning person, I’d absolutely love setting the clocks back.)
In the meantime, here’s something to do with the early dark: Go out and look for Comet Holmes. I didn’t hear about it until yesterday, when I saw an item from a space-launch email list to which I subscribe that describes a comet that has suddenly become visible to the unaided (a.k.a. naked) eye. The Sky and Telescope site has an excellent guide on the comet and how to find it (if we were in the back yard together I could show you: “You see Cassiopeia up there, sort of in the northeast? That sort of ‘W’ shape. Good. OK — now go down and a little toward the horizon to that next group of stars; not down to the brightest star — that’s Capella in Auriga; just between the W and that bright one. Look up there by that little group of stars and you’ll see this fuzzy little Q-tip thing that you’re not really sure is there, but it is. Here — look through the binoculars. See? Isn’t that amazing?”) The comet actually has a pretty interesting story. Seen from Earth, it’s usually quite dim, even when its at its closest approach to the sun (that point, called the perihelion, is about twice as far away from the sun as we are). But for some reason, it has a history of “outbursts” — episodes during which it brightens suddenly (not unlike me when I find my lottery ticket has a matching number). Go out and see it.
And if you’re looking for another sky sighting, and you are a morning person, I note that the International Space Station/space shuttle tandem will make five-minute passes over New York City at 5:52 a.m. ET and (two orbits later) over the San Francisco Bay Area at 5:54 a.m. The New York appearance will occur shortly after the vehicles have undocked.
[Comet Holmes update: It looks even brighter tonight. Yesterday, the Boston Globe ran a nice piece on our overnight sensation.]
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In six minutes — no, five! four! — something will click into place somewhere out there in the big celestial machine and we in the Northern Hemisphere will be at summer solstice. Get out and enjoy that daylight, everyone. …
(Official solstice time: 11:06 a.m. PDT.)
And then later: The space station and space shuttle went overheard at quarter to 10 tonight, with the solstice twilight still bright. This (below) is the shuttle, which trailed the space station by about a minute (at least 300 miles, I figure). Both flew right through the Big Dipper. Great Bear Transit.
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As I just wrote to my brother John;
“… I wasn’t so lucky with the pictures last night. It
started clouding up about an hour before sunset, and
the space station and ISS were crossing well to the
north (maximum elevation was about 27 degrees). So it
was doubtful they’d be as bright even if they were
visible. At the scheduled time — the shuttle was
supposed to appear at 6:03, the ISS at 6:04 — I
couldn’t see anything, but I released the shutter
anyway. After about 30 seconds, I could see something
moving dimly above the clouds in the northwest. After
the first 60-second shot, I reaimed the camera further
east, and realized there were two objects moving by; I
had missed the first, the shuttle, but both were
clearly visible as they crossed through the north to
the northeast. I tried another 60-second shot and got
both of them, though they don’t look nearly as bright
as they did just looking at them. Looking at the shots
now, there was so much ambient light that the sky
became very washed out, and a shorter exposure might
have shown them better Something to remember for next
“Still — pretty amazing stuff. I was seeing them about
four hours after they had separated; if you assume
they were exactly a minute apart, that means the
distance between them was just under 300 miles (the
distance they travel in 60 seconds at 17,500 mph).
Looks like it will be too cloudy here to see the
shuttle again before it lands.”
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The International Space Station and space shuttle (docked) passing nearly overhead 5:42 p.m. this evening; they moved from southwest (bottom right) to northeast (top left). Forty second time exposure; pretty sure the brighter stars just to the left of the vehicles’ path are part of the great square of Pegasus.
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