November 2009 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
“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
Thus begins the so-called Augustine Committee report, more formally titled “Seeking
a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation.” The committee’s full name
was the “Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee.” This month we’ll look at
some of the background for the report, then we will spend several months exploring
the report and what it means.
In 2005, after the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, President George W.
Bush issued an executive order changing the direction of the US space program. The
shuttle was to be retired in 2010, after the completion of the International Space
Station. A new crew vehicle was to be operational by 2012, with heavy lift capacity
to follow, culminating in a 2020 return to the Moon and eventual human exploration
of Mars. All of this was to be paid for by reallocating Shuttle operations funds
after 2010, and dropping ISS into the ocean in 2015, thus freeing up those operating
costs. (Note that any such “savings” were to come after Mr. Bush had anything to
say about the budget.)
Work has begun but, as with all large technical undertakings, it’s taking longer
and costing more than anticipated. The new crew vehicle, called Orion, is behind
schedule. The new launch vehicle family, dubbed Ares, is behind schedule. (As this
was written, the first sub-orbital prototype, Ares 1-X sat on a launch pad in Florida.
The test flight was an apparent success, but there may or may not be any further
development of the system.) A planned heavy-lift vehicle, Ares V, is yet to be fully
designed. Orion will not likely fly before 2015 or later, leaving the United States
with no way to put crews in orbit or send them to the Space Station, other than
renting space on Russia’s Soyuz. The next humans on the Moon could very well
be Chinese or Indian.
The report was commissioned by President Obama, who charged the committee to evaluate
the current program within budget constraints, and to make recommendations for the
ultimate future of US human exploration of space. As you can read in the opening
sentences, the current path is not viable. They considered a range of destinations,
including the Moon, Mars, and near Earth asteroids. They suggest that a real plan
must first decide the national objectives for space exploration, then decide on
destination and means. More next month.
Lunar phases for November: (All times are Eastern Standard) Full Moon on
the 2nd at 2:14 pm; Last Quarter on the 9th, at 10:56 am;
New Moon on the 16th, at 2:14 pm; First Quarter on the 24th,
at 4:39 pm.
Planets this month: Mercury is lost in the Sun’s glare, so we’ll wait for its return
to evening twilight in December. Venus is low and bright in the predawn twilight
above the east-southeast horizon early in the month. It will join Mercury in the
Sun’s glare later this month, rising less than an hour before sunrise and likely
too low on the horizon for a good view. Mars rises to the east-northeast around
10:00 pm, climbing high to the south before dawn. By month’s end it will drift to
the southwest. Saturn is a late night target, rising about 2:00 am to the east,
still visible south-southeast just before sunrise. Jupiter is an evening target,
visible to the south after sunset, but setting west-southwest by 11:00 pm.
Our mid-month view about two hours after sunset finds the constellation Andromeda
directly overhead. While not impressive in itself, the constellation is “home” to
the most distant object visible to the naked eye – the Andromeda Galaxy. Look for
a faint patch of light about the size of a crescent moon just to the east of zenith.
You may find averted vision an easier way to find it, then turn your binoculars
on target. The light you are seeing comes from about 200 billion stars in a galaxy
much like our own Milky Way, and left there over 2 million years ago! It’s also
one of the few galaxies actually approaching us, and will collide with the Milky
Way in about 5 billion years.
Just north of zenith is the familiar shape of Cassiopeia, looking like a crooked
M with the northern horizon below, or a W if you’re tipping your head back from
a southern perspective. The Great Square of Pegasus lies to the south of zenith.
This is a direction out of our Galaxy, so there are few bright stars, but all the
ones you see are close by, within a hundred light years or so. Turning to the west,
it’s easy to see why Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross. Below and to the
right, bright Vega marks the constellation Lyra. Now turn to the east, and watch
Orion rise … Winter is coming!