December 2009 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
First, some quick updates on some probes you may have been following: The Lunar
Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) was successful, though disappointing
to many amateurs who stayed up hoping for a big show. Data from its impact near
the lunar south pole confirm the presence of water ice in substantial quantities.
NASA’s Dawn probe (it’s not an acronym) will arrive at its first rendezvous target,
the asteroid Vesta, in about 20 months. Vesta is the second largest of the known
asteroids Its trajectory has now carried it into the asteroid belt, though we should
not imagine densely jumbled and tumbling rocks a la Star Wars. Rather, many thousands
of asteroids are scattered through many millions of cubic miles between the orbits
of Mars and Jupiter. It will also visit Ceres, the first discovered and largest
of the asteroids.
Lastly, initial attempts have been made to extract Spirit from its Martian sand
trap. The first try aborted, but on the second try they were able to move it a few
millimeters. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is farther than it has moved in
over a year!
“The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.
It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated
As we noted last month, these are the opening words of the so-called Augustine Committee
report, more formally titled “Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great
Nation.” We’re taking a few months in this column to explore the report and its
findings and recommendations.
We can consider the beginnings of the space program as part of the 1957-58 International
Geophysical Year. As part of that multinational scientific effort, both the United
States and the Soviet Union had programs underway to launch an artificial satellite
into Earth orbit. And the Soviets were the first. For a while, the United States
seemed to be playing catch up, with the Soviets putting up more and heavier satellites.
Since we knew they were planning to launch humans into space (indeed, their second
satellite carried a dog into orbit!) we started our own “manned” space program.
They beat us to that, too.
President Kennedy, in a bold initiative, announced that it would be the goal of
the United States to send humans to the Moon and safely return them by the end of
the decade of the 1960s, which led to the Apollo program and American success in
1969. After the end of Apollo, our attention turned to low Earth orbit and a succession
of “space lab” missions, followed by the Space Shuttle and the International Space
Station. After the Columbia tragedy, President Bush announced a new initiative to
retire the Shuttle, develop a new “constellation” of spacecraft and launch vehicles,
and return to the Moon by 2020.
The Augustine Committee critiques this approach as one of having destinations rather
than goals, and strongly suggests that we reverse the order. Only once we identify
the goals should we be picking a destination.
“Human spaceflight produces important tangible benefits to society. Human spaceflight
is a technologically intensive activity, and during its execution new technologies
are derived that have benefit to other government and commercial users of space,
and to products that touch Americans daily. Access to and development of space is
critical to our national welfare, and a well-crafted human exploration program can
help to develop competitive commercial industries and important national capabilities.
We explore our first destinations in part to learn how better to explore more challenging
sites in the future. Human and robotic explorations both contribute to the expansion
of scientific knowledge. Human explorers are most effective when exploring complex
destinations, and particularly in endeavors such as field geology.
Human exploration also addresses larger goals. We live in an increasingly multi-polar
world, and human space exploration is one domain in which the United States is still
the acknowledged leader. Human exploration provides an opportunity to demonstrate
space leadership while deeply engaging international partners.
Human exploration of space can engage the public in new ways, inspiring the next
generation of scientists and engineers, and contributing to the development of the
future workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). By
viewing other planets as well as our own from deep space, exploration helps to shape
human perceptions of our place in the universe.
There was a strong consensus within the Committee that human exploration also should
advance us as a civilization towards our ultimate goal: charting a path for human
expansion into the solar system. It is too early to know how and when humans will
first learn to live on another planet, but we should be guided by that long-term
goal.” (Augustine Committee Report, page 33)
We see embedded in these brief paragraphs a broad vision of space exploration which
sees both tangible results from that exploration and economic and social benefits
here at home. When asked “Why are spending that money in space?” the correct reply
is that the money is spent here, producing jobs and technology and fostering
international cooperation in the sciences. Next month, we’ll explore some of the
possible destinations and means to get there.
Lunar phases for December: (All times are Eastern Standard) Full Moon on
the 2nd at 2:30 am; Last Quarter on the 8th, at 7:13 pm; New
Moon on the 16th, at 7:02 am; First Quarter on the 24th, at
12:36 pm, and a second Full Moon (sometimes known as a Blue Moon) on the 31st
Planet watchers can choose either pre-dawn or evening viewing times, as there is
something to see in either case. Early in the month, Venus is low on the east-southeast
horizon at dawn, bright but probably lost in horizon clutter. But, Saturn is high
(about 53 degrees above the horizon) to the south, having risen just after 1:00
am. To the west-southwest, Mars is at similar altitude and obvious because of its
reddish hue. Later in the month, Venus will be completely lost in the Sun’s glare
as it makes its move around the other side of the Sun, eventually to reappear in
the evening sky. At this time, Saturn is rising around 11:30 pm, so it will be southwest
at dawn, about 45 degrees above the horizon. Mars is to the west, having risen at
Evening planet watchers may be able to find Mercury low to the southwest at the
beginning of the month, but it will stay close to the Sun all through December,
so it’s probably lost in horizon clutter and haze. Jupiter begins the month in evening
twilight at about 37 degrees altitude, approximately due south, setting about 5
hours later to the west-southwest. By the end of the month it moves to the southwest
at twilight and sets about 4 hours later. If you have a small telescope, around
the 19th you may see Neptune within about .5 degrees, above and to the
right of Jupiter. This is about the width of a full moon.
Our mid-month overhead view, about 3 hours after sunset, finds Andromeda at zenith.
The Milky Way spans west to east, arching north of zenith. Toward the west-northwest
we find the “northern cross” of Cygnus leaning a bit to the right, with bright Deneb
at the top. Below and to the right you’ll find Vega, though the constellation Lyra
is probably too close to the horizon to find the Ring Nebula easily. We’ll be saying
farewell to this constellation until next fall. Following the line of Cygnus to
the north brings us to the familiar crooked M of Cassiopeia, about 70 degrees above
the northern horizon. Look east to see Orion rising, with the expected shape lying
on its “back.” First to rise is the star Bellatrix, then bright red Betelgeuse and
blue Rigel at about the same time. Naming the stars in the belt from the highest
to the horizon we see Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak. (Can you tell that many star
names are from the Arabic?) Above Orion we find Aldebaran in the Constellation Taurus,
and above that bright star we find the Pleiades cluster, looking like the grill
ornament on a Subaru – which is the Japanese name for this cluster.