We all know about the International Space Station (ISS). Many people have watched as it flies overhead as a brilliant point of light moving across the sky.
But now it is no longer the only space station in the sky. On 29 September 2011 China launched its own space station known as Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”). It’s not as bright as the ISS and thus less noticeable to most observers.
Then, on 01 November 2011, China launched the Shenzhou-8, an unmanned spacecraft designed to dock with Tiangong. And early on the morning of 02 November 2011, both spacecraft passed overhead cutting through the constellation Orion. Just a few hours later, Shenzou-8 successfully docked with Tiangong.
There are hundreds of operational satellites and thousands of unused satellites and satellite fragments orbiting the Earth. A few of these are quite bright and easy to see as they traverse the sky. Most are dim and generally not easily visible. And others are usually dim but briefly flare much brighter.
Satellite flare is caused by the reflective surfaces on satellites reflecting sunlight directly onto the Earth below and appearing as a brief, bright “flare.” The Iridium satellite series is especially conducive to reflecting light back to the earth and these flares can be exceptionally bright.
Here is an example of the Iridium 91 satellite as it traversed the northern Arizona sky and quickly brightened to a magnitude of -7.0 . Only the Moon (-13) and the Sun (-27) have brighter magnitudes.
Knowing when and where to look for Iridium flares is easy as there are many web sites that provide this information. My favorites are Heavens-Above.com and CalSky.com. Happy satellite viewing!
In late June we packed our bikes and camping gear and headed to the Kaibab Plateau so we could mountain bike on the Rainbow Rim Trail. We’ve done this trail before but it’s such a great ride with amazing views that it’s always worth the long drive.
It takes about four hours to get to the trail head from Flagstaff. The last hour of driving is on Forest Service gravel roads through the aspen, pine, spruce, and fir forests of the high plateau of the Kaibab. We went to the south end of the trail at Timp Point and set up camp on the edge of the rim overlooking the Grand Canyon. After a quick lunch we were on the trail heading north.
The Rainbow Rim Trail (RRT) is about 18 miles from end to end with five points along the trail. From south to north they are Timp Point, North Timp Point, Locust Point, Fence Point, and Parissawampitts Point.
Each point delivers you a stunning view of the Grand Canyon. Between the points the trail heads in a generally eastward direction as it contours around side canyons. And it is these side canyons that are the most interesting. Because they are oriented east-west there is substantial shade in the canyons resulting in a cooler micro-climate. The south and shady sides of these canyons are filled with aspen groves as well as spruce and fir trees while the sunnier north sides have ponderosa pine and even juniper and pinyon trees. We even found some wild strawberry plants.
There are no large cities near the Kaibab Plateau hence there are no city lights. The nights are exceptionally dark and the stars are brilliant. Take some time to just lie back and stare up at the sky. It’s good for your soul.
The Arizona Trail (AZT) also traverses the Kaibab Plateau. Whereas the RRT is along the west edge of the Plateau the AZT is closer to the east edge but only overlooks the edge of the canyon in one location. In that regard, the RRT trumps the AZT.
The Jacob Lake District of the Kaibab National Forest has an informational page about this trail including access points, maps, and mileage.
As the Endeavour (STS-134) mission comes to an end NASA is one step closer to the final chapter of the Space Shuttle program. The Discovery has already flown its final mission. The upcoming flight of Atlantis will be the final and last shuttle mission.
Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) at 8:55 pm MST 29 May 2011 (0355 UTC 30 May 2011) and began a slow separation from the ISS in preparation for its landing on Wednesday. The double flyby of the ISS and the STS-134 Endeavour over northern Arizona early this morning resulted in this spectacular image as the two spacecraft emerged from Earth’s shadow. In preparation for its return to Earth Endeavour had vented its tanks creating an ice cloud in space that was moving along with the two craft.
This is a composite of eight images of 15 seconds duration. There is a small gap between each image as the camera shutter briefly closed. Also visible in this image in the upper right is the faint track of another earth orbiting satellite — most likely COSMOS 2228 Nova 1.
Edit: Received information that the satellite is Nova1.
In late April and continuing through much of May there will be four planets visible in the morning sky. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all appear near each other although they will shift their relative positions a bit each day. An animation showing the daily changes can be viewed at the Sky and Telescope web site.
Because of the volcanic cinder hills that are prevalent in this part of northern Arizona it was necessary to wait until the lowest planet rose above the hills. By this time, however, the sky was already brightening substantially.
Later this month when the moon wanes and becomes a slim crescent it will join the four planets making a truly remarkable sight.