January 2010 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
We have been looking at the “Augustine Commission” report, which seeks to lay out
a broad plan for the future of human spaceflight for the United States. We saw last
month that they suggested that such a program should be goal driven, rather than
destination driven. Recall that the Space Shuttle is scheduled for retirement after
this year, and that we don’t yet have a replacement crew transport available. And,
that the commission report says that the intended replacement vehicle and launch
system cannot be built and tested on schedule with the current budget resources
allocated. What that means is that for the next five years or so, if an American
is to launch into space, it will be as a passenger on a Russian Soyuz.
Historically, we’ve tried to get somewhere. The Apollo program of the 1960s was
designed to get us to the Moon. Once we got there, the general response was “OK,
we’ve done that. What’s next?” Since then the destination has been low orbit, with
shuttle as our primary launch tool but with little to do once we got there. The
International Space Station will never live up to its promise to be a scientific
research outpost, and it’s scheduled for retirement (and de-orbit!) only a few years
after we complete its construction. President George W. Bush proposed returning
to the Moon by 2020 as an interim destination, with Mars the long-term goal. But,
neither he (nor the current administration) nor Congress have provided the budgetary
resources to make that happen.
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:
To state the obvious, landings are more expensive than flying by or orbiting. (Landing
is actually not so hard, but it’s costly to take off again. The “flexible path”
postpones the development of landing technology, providing more up-front resources
for space operations, but punting on the question of when we’ll actually do the
thing they claim we really want to do, which is land and explore on Mars.
Next month we’ll look at how these options might play out, and what vehicles (both
crew and launch systems) might be needed to make them work.
Lunar phases for January: Last Quarter on the 7th, at 5:39 am;
New Moon on the 16th, at 2:11 am (this is accompanied by an annular solar
eclipse – but you obviously won’t see it here!); First Quarter on the 23rd,
at 5:53 am; Full Moon on the 30th at 1:18 am.
Predawn planet watchers will find Saturn high to the southwest before sunrise –
look for a bright “star” about 45 degrees above the horizon. Binoculars or a small
telescope should reveal the rings, but they will be faint since they are nearly
edge-on at this point in Saturn’s orbit. By the end of January, Saturn will be lower
and a bit more to the west. Mars is that bright reddish planet about 30 degrees
above the western horizon.
At sunset look for Jupiter toward the southwest, about 35 degrees above the horizon.
Mercury will be too close to the Sun’s glare to see it early in the month. Mars
rises east-northeast about 3 hours after sunset, Saturn rises about midnight. By
the end of the month Venus returns to the evening sky, but will still be too low
to pick out from horizon clutter. Jupiter is lower to the west-southwest, about
20 degrees off the horizon. Mars will be at opposition on the 29th, rising
just around sunset, and giving us our best view in the current orbital cycle.
At mid-month, about 3 hours after sunset we will see the Milky Way stretching from
southeast to northwest, neatly dividing the sky. Starting at the southeast we find
the brightest star visible in our night sky, Sirius in Canis Major (the “big dog”).
Tracing along the Milky Way we find ourselves at Orion. The bright red star on the
upper left of Hunter is Betelgeuse, a red giant which would easily envelop the inner
solar system out to Mars. Bellatrix is the upper right star, and Rigel the lower
right. Midway we find the familiar three stars of Orion’s “belt” – from left to
right they are Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. These are all Arabic names, meaning
respectively “girdle,” “belt of pearls,” and “belt!” That bright star above Orion
is Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus, and above Aldebaran we find the familiar
asterism of the Pleiades. Above and a bit left of Taurus lies the constellation
Auriga (the Charioteer – though modern eyes might find the purported shape hard
to make out), whose two brightest stars are Elnath and Capella. Directly overhead
is the constellation Perseus, with bright Mirfak just north of zenith. Cassiopeia
is below and to the northwest, looking here like a crooked Greek sigma. Cepheus
is below and a bit to the right, with five stars marking what might be the corners
of a child’s drawing of a crooked house. Cygnus is setting to the northwest, looking
like the top part of a cross, hence it’s alternate name: the Northern Cross.