Skies of the West

Image credit & copyright: Tracy Lee.

Milky Way season is back! Well, it has been for about a month now in the early morning hours before sunrise and this image by Tracy Lee shows you what can be accomplished with a sense of adventure, knowledge, planning, patience and some good company.

In this image, the Earth had just begun to roll our home galaxy into view, taking its position on the distant sky as a perfect backdrop to the California desert and the illuminated arch in the foreground. For whatever reason, the Southwest desert always feels like home when I see it.

Personally, I haven’t been able to escape this season just yet and like anything else in this hobby/profession, many things have to line up in order to pull off a worthwhile shot. Skies willing, that will change soon! Have a great weekend everyone and be sure to check out more of Tracy’s work if for some strange reason you haven’t already.





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SpaceX CRS-17 Space Station Resupply from Cape Canaveral

Images credit & copyright: NASA & SpaceX.

LAUNCH ALERT! Saturday, May 4, 2019 at 02:48 EDT (06:48 UTC) SpaceX Falcon 9 (core: currently unknown) will be launching from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) as part of Commercial Resupply Service 17 (CRS-17 or SPX-17) to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Dragon (C113.2 & D1-19) will be captured and berthed to the nadir (Earth facing) side of Station’s Harmony module (Node-2) where it will remain for approximately one month before returning to Earth. Also, as SpaceX had reused Dragon capsules they’ve been adding blue sortie stickers to designate past missions so keep an eye out for this one when it’s berthed to Station. The Dragon image that I’ve shown below displays one of these stickers so have a look.

Stats: This will be SpaceX’s 5th launch of 2019 and the 77th SpaceX flight overall (5 Falcon 1, 70 Falcon 9, 2 Falcon Heavy). The parameters of this mission will ask that SpaceX attempt a booster landing on their East Coast Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY). This will bring to total successful landings to 39; 23 on drone ships and 16 on land.

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SpaceX Block 5 Falcon Heavy Coming Up!

Images credit & copyright: SpaceX & Elon Musk.

Launch Alert!: Thursday, April 11, 2019, at 18:35 EDT (15:35 PDT & 22:35 UTC) SpaceX will be launching their massive Falcon Heavy (F9H) from Kennedy Space Center, Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) carrying the Arabsat 6A communication satellite for Arabsat of Saudi Arabia.

This will be the second launch of the Falcon Heavy and the first flight of their Block 5 iteration. This flight will use three new unflown block 5 boosters. The center booster will be core (B1055.1) the port (left) booster is (B1052.1) and the starboard (right) booster is (B1053.1).

With 22,819 kN (5.1 million lb.) of thrust at liftoff, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V. With no “asparagus staging” propellant crossfeeding, instead the core booster will throttle down to preserve fuel while the port and starboard boosters do most of the initial lifting. After separation, the core booster will throttle back up for completion of its mission.

Stats: This will be SpaceX’s 4th launch of 2019 and the 76th SpaceX flight overall (5 Falcon 1, 69 Falcon 9, 2 Falcon Heavy). Mission parameters will allow for two boosters (port and starboard) to return to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1 & former SLC-13) at Cape Canaveral while the core booster touched down on SpaceX’s East Coast Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) “Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY)” which will bring to total successful landings to 38; 23 on drone ships and 15 on land.

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Globular Star Cluster 47 Tuc

Images credit: 1st image; NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. 2nd image; ESA Gaia data.

The southern globular star cluster 47 Tuc has been labeled as the “Jewel of the Southern Sky” and for good reason. With an apparent magnitude of 4.9 this cluster is easily visible without visual aid and is second only to the great Omega Centauri in size and brightness. In dark skies this 120 light year diameter mass of a few million stars can be as large as the full moon on the night sky.

Radiation detection data rendering of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) and 47 Tuc by ESA’s incredible Gaia spacecraft.

47 Tuc is visually positioned alongside one of the Milky Way’s two major satellite galaxies, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). The SMC, at a distance of 210,000 light years is much further away than 47 Tuc though it helps make for an incredible view.  In total, the Milky Way boasts somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple hundred globular star clusters, almost all of which reside in the halo above and below the galactic plane but if you expand this image and look beyond 47 Tuc, you can see that the SMC has numerous globular and open star clusters of its own.

What Are Globular Star Clusters?

Globular star clusters get their names from their characteristics as nearly spherical groups of stars. They’re masses of a few hundred thousand to a few million mainly ancient stars that live almost exclusively above and below the plane of the Milky Way. They’re not confined to the Milky Way however because both of the Milky Way’s major satellite galaxies, the Large & Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC & SMC) are littered with them and we can also see them in other galaxies such as M31 the Andromeda Galaxy as well, so they appear to be pretty common in the universe.

Generally speaking, globular clusters are extremely old with the youngest in the Milky Way being about 10 billion years old and it’s believed that they formed at roughly the same time as the Milky Way and in close proximity to one another which is what caused them to gravitationally attract and form the tight masses that we admire nightly. Like planets and major solar system bodies once the mass becomes large enough, it just pulls itself up into an almost sphere-like shape though hydrostatic equilibrium.  Also like the material of major solar system bodies, there’s a sorting mechanism (gravity) at work here.  The most-dense stars migrate inward to live in the core while the lower mass inhabitants sort accordingly from downtown to the rural outer reaches.

Because of their age, stars within globulars are very metal poor and there are many examples of exotic stars such as neutron stars and pulsars of different classifications in globular clusters they seem to lack planets. As we search our neighborhood we see planets everywhere but that hasn’t been the case for globulars in the few times that we’ve searched.   Perhaps they are there but due to the fact that they are so far away we’re not able to effectively detect them yet.  Or perhaps it’s because stars living in globulars lack heavy elements making planet formation less likely to occur to begin with.  To date, only a few planets have been found in a globular star cluster.  PSR B1620-26b is a 13 billion year-old 2.5 Jupiter mass planet in the closest globular star cluster to Earth, M4 in Scorpius and it orbits a binary white dwarf and neutron star.  If you allow your imagination to run wild a little here, can you imagine what a nearly 13 billion year old life form would be like?!  Our entire solar system is only about 13.4 billion years old.

Though the globular kings, Omega Centauri and 47 Tuc reside in the Southern Hemisphere there are still many remarkable ones to observe in the Northern Hemisphere as well such as M13 in Hercules which is where the famous Arecibo Message was beamed toward on November 16, 1974. Some other Northern Hemisphere greats are M3 in Canes Venatici, M5 in Serpens and M92 in Hercules.  Wherever you are, go give them a look.

NAME: 47 Tucanae, 47 Tuc, NGC 104.

WHAT IS IT?: Globular star cluster.

HOW FAR AWAY IS IT?: 13,000 light years.

HOW BIG IS IT?: 120 light years in diameter, containing millions of stars.

APPARENT MAGNITUDE: 4.9 and the second brightest globular cluster after Omega Centauri.

WHERE IS IT? (General): Constellation Tucana.

WHERE IS IT? (Exact RA/Dec J2000): RA 00h 24m 05.67s / Dec –72° 04′ 52.6″.

ESA Hubble page for the lead image:

ESA Gaia page for the data rendering of the SMC & 47 TUC:

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Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 3344

Image credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Located 22.5 million light years away in the constellation of Leo Minor is this beautiful barred spiral galaxy cataloged as NGC 3344. Hubble has done a terrific job as usual, capturing the fine details in this beautiful structure. As we view this galaxy face-on we can tease out many of its various qualities such as the relatively small bar in its nucleus. Within its long, thin spiral arms are the telltale signs of young, hot blue stars as well as the pink/red star forming regions where stellar birth is still taking place. Laced within it all we find the dark bands of interstellar gas and dust that can be used as fuel to create future stars. Looking almost like supernovae are two bright stars on the left hand side of the image. These are actually stars within our own Milky Way as we are immersed within our home star city we must peer through billions and billions of stars in order to observe what lies beyond.

Name: NGC 3344

What is it?: Weakly barred spiral galaxy

How big is it?: Roughly 50,000 light years in diameter or about half the size of the Milky Way

How far away is it?: 22.5 million light years

Apparent magnitude: 10.5

Where is it (general)?: Constellation Leo Minor

Where is it (exact RA/Dec J2000): RA 10h 43m 31.150s / DEC +24° 55′ 19.99″

ESA Hubble page for this image:

ESA Hubble page and description for this image:

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ULA Delta 4 Ready to Serve

Images credit & copyright: United Launch Alliance (ULA).

LAUNCH ALERT: Friday, March 15, 2019 at 18:56 EDT (22:56 UTC) the United Launch Alliance (ULA), will be launching a Delta IV rocket in its Medium + (5,4) configuration carrying the 10th Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS 10) spacecraft (formerly the Wideband Gapfiller Satellite) for the U.S. military.

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Expedition 59/60 Crew Ready for Flight!

Soyuz MS-10 in flight. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Images credit & copyright: Roscosmos/NASA.

Launch Alert: Thursday, March 14, 2019 at 15:14 EDT (19:14 UTC) a Soyuz-FG rocket; MS-12 (ISS 58S or Soyuz 60) will lift off from Launch Pad 1/Launcher 5 (LC 1/5) at the legendary Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz spacecraft will carry three crew members of Expedition 59/60 on a four-orbit, six-hour “fast track” trip to the International Space Station (ISS). This will be the 12th flight of the upgraded MS Soyuz which replaced the TMA version and the 2nd flight since the failed launch of MS-10.

Soyuz MS-12 will dock to the nadir, (Earth facing) port of the Russian, Mini Research Module-1 (MRM-1) Rassvet “Dawn” module where it will remain there for approximately 6 months as a crew escape vehicle should they need it and ultimately a return vehicle.

NOTE: NASA Astronaut, Nick Hague will be on this flight just 5 months after flying on the failed MS-10 mission that disintegrated in flight.

Want to see the ISS overhead? Here’s everything you need!

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