February 2010 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
This will be our final look at the “Augustine Commission” report, which seeks to
lay out a broad plan for the future of human spaceflight for the United States.
We have seen that they suggested that such a program should be goal driven, rather
than destination driven.
With primary goals of developing capabilities for long term space flight while fostering
advanced technology and international cooperation, the Augustine Commission considered
three possible long-term scenarios, all of which seem to place Mars exploration
as the ultimate goal:
And, they were emphatic that neither current nor projected budgets for NASA made
possible accomplishing any of these on schedule. An additional $3 billion annually
would be needed. The current NASA budget includes the $3.5 billion Constellation
program, intended to replace the Shuttle with a crew vehicle called Orion, and a
pair of launchers collectively called Ares. Ares I is intended to ferry astronauts
to and from low Earth orbit, e.g. to the Space Station. Ares V is a “heavy lift”
booster able to send large payloads to orbit and beyond, say to the Moon or Mars.
Ares I is behind schedule and over budget, largely because of technical problems.
Work on Ares V is in very preliminary design.
The decision appears to have been made by President Obama to follow the Flexible
Path. Work on Ares I would be stopped to begin seriously designing and building
a heavy lift vehicle, which could be ready to launch by 2018. Partnerships with
Europe, Japan, and Canada would be asked to work on a lunar lander and modules for
moon base – relieving NASA of the need to find those billions of dollars. Commercial
companies would be asked to take over the task of getting humans and supplies to
Note: the above paragraphs were written before the February 1 announcement of the
President's plan for moving forward. So, what did the President decide? His budget
calls for dramatic changes in mission and priorities for NASA, going beyond even
the Augustine committee's recommendations. If approved by Congress (not likely,
given the political realities) the agency will no longer operate its own spacecraft,
but will contract with commercially operated launch providers. He recommends cancelling
not just Ares I, but the entire Constellation program, including both the Ares V
and the Orion crew vehicle. He seeks to cancel the program of return to the Moon
and would seek international cooperation and financing for future deep space missions.
Stay tuned ... this proposal will garner much opposition, especially from members
of Congress in whose districts the cancelled programs provide substantial employment.
Lunar phases for February: Last Quarter on the 5th,
at 6:48 pm; New Moon on the 13th, at 9:51 pm; First Quarter on the 21st,
at 7:42 pm; Full Moon on the 28th at 11:38 am.
Saturn and mercury are visible in the predawn twilight early in the month. Look
for Mercury low to the southeast, about 13 degrees above the horizon. It rises to
the east about an hour before sunrise. Saturn is still bright to the west-southwest,
about 30 degrees off the horizon. Later in February, Mercury will disappear into
the Sun’s glare, returning next month to the evening skies. Saturn will drift to
the west relative to the horizon, appearing low in the west by month’s end as the
Sun rises to the east.
This is the best time to observe Mars – it’s just past opposition, so it rises at
sunset and stays visible all night. It’s at its closest approach to Earth in its
regular cycle of about two years. Jupiter is low at sunset, just west of the southwest
point on the horizon. Venus is technically visible, but it will be very low to the
west at sunset. Later in the month it will be higher, perhaps 10 degrees above the
horizon as the Sun sets, and bright enough to pick out of the early twilight. By
month’s end look for Mars about 40 degrees above the eastern horizon, eventually
setting about two hours before sunrise.
Our overhead view in the middle of February, about two hours after sunset, finds
the constellation Auriga (the Charioteer) at zenith. Its brightest star, Capella,
lies about 10 degrees north of zenith. The bright star at 10 degrees south of zenith
is Elnath, which is in the constellation Taurus. Facing east and casting our vision
down from zenith, we encounter the bright pair of Castor and Pollux in Gemini, about
60 degrees above the horizon. Mars is 10 degrees lower, in the constellation Cancer,
close to the Beehive Cluster. This makes a nice target for binoculars. Leo is rising,
and you’ll see bright Regulus about 20 degrees above the horizon. Unmistakable to
the south is the familiar and magnificent Orion. That bright blue star to the left
of Orion is Sirius, the “dog star” and the brightest star visible other than the
Sun. Turning to the northwest we see the familiar shape of Cassiopeia, here tipped
to look like an upper case Greek letter sigma. With binoculars, if you follow the
imaginary line through the upper pair of stars back toward the west, you should
find the Andromeda galaxy, the nearest large spiral to our own home Galaxy, the