We live in interesting times…….

The Summer of 2015.

Not much to write home about weather wise in my neck of the woods (south Wales in the UK), but during the next few weeks there’s a veritable smorgasbord of space events to get our temperatures rising…….

They include:

  • The ESA probe Philae wakes up after a 7 month hibernation as Comet 67P nears the Sun


  • NASA probe Dawn orbits Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt and spots fascinating ‘bright spots’ on the surface.

Ceres has its 'bright spots'

  • NASA’s New Horizon probe, and its close fly by of the (minor) planet Pluto



and of course, not forgetting:

  • The return of the crew of Exhibition 43 aboard the space station, including our very own ESA astronaut  Samantha Cristoforetti


  • By financial ‘gutting’,to the tune of $330 million, of a plan to allow NASA to send its own astronauts into space aboard their OWN rockets


All these stories, and much more besides will be reported on these pages… STAY TUNED, its going to be one HECK of a ride

More astronomy without a telescope

Well, January is well amoung us, and here in Wales, January is something of a double edged sword.
Yes,the sun sets comparatively early here, at around 4pm, but along with the early sunset, comes clouds, LOTS of clouds. Now if these clouds were beautifully dainty wispy affairs then this wouldn’t effect my erstwhile hobby of astrophotography. But no, these are grey, heavy thugs, choked FULL of moisture. Added to that, after a long trip across the Atlantic Ocean, these clouds see the lush greenery of the Welsh coast, like a driver sees a rest room after a 300 mile drive.

Suffice to say, there aren’t that many clear evening in Wales that are worth getting my camera out for. But yesterday was one of those evenings.

I own a Nikon D90 with 2 lenses. The standard 18-105mm lens and the slightly more powerful 70-300mm. I used the 18-105mm lens, when I want to take pictures of ‘regions of sky’ or constellations. The other one is employed when I want to take images of specific objects. I’d call myself an enthusiastic, ‘but poorly executing’ amateur…

Yesterday evening, Jupiter lay low in the eastern sky, by far the brightest ‘star’ currently in the night sky. With a suitable exposure, as well as capturing Jupiter you can also capture its larger satellites (moons), the ones Galileo spotted when he looked through the ‘first’ telescope in early 17th Century. Nice to see, that I’m on a technical par with a genius from 400 years ago!! :-)

Manual focus is a MUST as the sensor in my camera spends an inordinate length of time trying and failing to focus on virtually nothing. Open the lens as wide as it will go, (F number as low as it will go) and “up” the ISO, so it captures more photons of light.

Your rig (camera and tripod) must also be stable. Any wobble or vibration will ruin the picture, so a timer delay or remote control to activate the shutter is a MUST. I normally employ the timer delay.

Jupiter plus Moons

This is what I captured. Even with a 2 second exposure, you can see the items in the image are already starting to trail. The solution, to decrease the exposure time, and “up” the ISO again.

Long exposures are a slightly more complicated due mainly to 2 unrelated, but equally annoying things.

The first, and easier issue to deal with is ‘star trail’ Any exposure of longer than around 20 seconds starts to show ‘star trail’. This is where the stars in the image no longer appear as point of light, but as ‘trails’. This is fine when you want to capture star trails, but somewhat inconvenient when you don’t. This ‘trailing’ is caused by the Earth rotating on its axis, which is a good thing, as it helped make life of this planet possible, and is an aftermath of the formation of the Solar System. But no worries, there’s a way around it. To maintain stars as ‘points of light’, means taking shorter exposures, and ‘upping’ the ISO, or tracking the object. This is a simple rig, so i’ll start by trying the first option.

‘Upping’ the ISO means making the sensor inside the camera more sensitive to light, so you need a less time to capture the same amount of light. Unfortunately, this is where another problem comes in. Light Pollution! This is the ‘glow’ you see from a city. Unwanted light, streaming upwards into the night sky, rather than downwards towards the ground, where (council) planners intended. Its the scourge of astronomers and wastes millions of pounds a year.

Orion and Taurus and light pollution
Orion and Taurus and light pollution

With a bit of suitable adjustment, you can remove ‘some’ of the light pollution. Here are pictures of Orion and Taurus, and if you know where you’re looking you’ll see a faint fussy blob that is Comet Lovejoy.

NightSky with Lovejoy

For those that can’t spot it, i’ve shown its location and its (very rough) track for the next few days in the picture below.

Nighsky with Lovejoy circled

International Space Station passes over UK

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest man-made structure in space. The size of a football field, it circles the Earth every 90 minutes, at an altitude of around 230 miles (370 km) and is currently visible in the UK around sunset. It appears, normally from the West, moving towards the East, as a bright, slow moving star (normally the brightest) in the sky. Passes can vary from a few seconds, to around 6 minutes.

International Space Station
The International Space Station in May 2010.

The international Space Station project is an collaboration between the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. It’s current price tag stands at an enormous $100 BILLION.
It is permanently manned usually by between 3 and 6 occupants. To find out who’s aboard the ISS, visit Who’s in space?

I used to take many photographs of the Space Station, as it past, even had one published, but haven’t taken an image of an ISS flyby for MONTHS. Here are my latest attempts, as it passed overhead on Saturday June 14th 2014.

Most of these images are multiple exposures, each around 10 seconds long and stitched together using Photoshop.

International Space Station pass over UK 140614

The ISS passing over Pontypridd.

ISS pass over UK 2

International Space Station pass over UK 3

International Space Station pass over UK 4

International Space Station pass over UK 5

To find out when the International Space Station passes over your area, consult Heavens above, NASA Spot the Station, or type ‘iss flyover’ into google.

Sounds that RELAX!!!!!!

Those regular readers of my blog will notice, that things have been,how shall I say,somwhat ‘quiet’ on the article front of late. This is due to a personal matter, that for a while had a real effect on my life. I couldn’t do anything that involved any kind of effort, and while I LOVED creating articles, even that was just FAR too much effort.

Even this 1st post back is somewhat of a departure from my normal articles about space news and rocket launches? WHY?

Because I’d like to ask YOU a question

What are the sounds that relax you?
What are the sounds that, when you hear them, gives you a feeling of relaxtion and wellbeing?
After a hard day at work, what are the sounds, that when you hear them, make the tension simply ‘wash away’?

Over the last few months,sounds that helped me relax have included:

– Birds chirpping in a forest
– The sound of the sea lapping against the beach
– Wind in the trees
– Water in a stream

Relaxtion has had a very important part to play in the life recently, and I’m interested in what sounds make YOU relax; feel in control.

Join the discussion below….

Many Thanks,


Atlas V rocket configurations

The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket (AV023) carrying the NROL-38 classified military satellite will launch tomorrow (20th June 2012) in the 401 configuration. Sounds impressively scientific, but what EXACTLY does that mean?

The First digit indicates the diameter (in metres) of the payload fairing, and always has a value of either 4 or 5. For the NROL-38 mission the payload fairing is 4 metres in diameter.

The second digit indicates the number of solid rocket boosters attached to the base of the rocket, and can range from 0 through 3 for the 4 metre fairing, and 0 through 5 with the larger 5-metre fairing. The Atlas V carrying NROL-38 mission has no additional solid rocket boosters.

The third digit represents the number of engines on the Centaur upper stage. This can be either 1 or 2. This particular Atlas 5 has 1 Centaur upper stage engine.

Atlas 5 400 series
Atlas 5 400 series

The Atlas 5 rocket is a very capable and reliable rocket, having had 29 successes of its 30 flights so far. Atlas first stage propulsion is provided by an RD-180 engine. This engine provides a single engine with 2 thrust chambers. It burns RP1 (Rocket Propellant 1 – highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and provides 3,827 kN (Kilonewtons) of thrust at sea-level.

The Atlas 5 rocket is capable of carrying between 9 and almost 15 tonnes into low Earth orbit, and between 4 1/2 and 7 1/2 tonnes into a geosynchronous transfer orbit (dependent on exactly which configuration is used). It’s two designated launch facilities are at Launch Complex 41 (LC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Recent missions that have used an Atlas 5 rocket include, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Solar Dynamics Observatory, Boeing X-37B, Juno,

The Atlas V has cleared the tower

Atlas V during planned 10 minutes hold

and the Mars Science Laboratory

Atlas V carrying Mars Science Laboratory
Atlas V carrying Mars Science Laboratory

Shenzhou 9 launched successfully from Jiuquan launch facility

China yesterday launched its latest manned mission into space yesterday carrying 3 astronauts to their orbiting space laboratory, Tiangong-1.

The crew, two men and a woman, were lofted aboard a Long March 2F rocket today (Saturday 16th June) on schedule at 18:37 Beijing time (10:37 GMT, 11:37 BST).

The 3 crew members consist of:

Jing Haipeng Shenzhou 9 Commander
Shenzhou 9 Commander

Jing Haipeng, born in 1966 and Shenzhou-9´s commander.
Prior to becoming an astronaut, he was a fighter pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force for 8 years.

Lui Wang
Lui Wang – Astronaut aboard Shenzhou-9

Liu Wang, 42, served in the PLA for 6 years. With 1,000 hours of flying time.

Liu Yang- China's first female astronaut
Liu Yang- China’s first female astronaut

Liu Yang, born in October 1978, China´s first female astronaut .
She has served in the PLA for 9 years, with 1,680 hours of flying time.
In 2010, she became a member of the second generation of Chinese astronauts.

The successful launch of Shenzhou-9 continues the incremental achievements China has made since the launch of the first Chinese astronaut into space in October 2003.

The Beijing command and control centre, over 1,600 km from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre, monitored the closing stages of the pre-flight and launch. The launch appeared to go flawlessly.

The Shenzhou-9 and its Long March 2F rocket were mated on the 7th June, and the final transfer to the launch pad occurred on 9th June.

Prior to launch, the Long March 2F is completely cocooned by its launch gantry. Around 45 minutes prior to launch the launch gantry was slowly removed from the lower section of the rocket, and then as the countdown nears completion, is retracted from the manned capsule segment.

The internal capsule view is very reminiscient of a Soyuz, with the 3 astronauts strapped into fairly cramped quarters. As the astronauts sit quite a way from the control panel, the Chinese have employed a similar mechanism to the Russians, with the introduction of a large metal pole that allows the pilot to press the appropriate button.

shenzhou-9 crew training
shenzhou-9 crew training

The Long March 2F rocket launched on time at 18:37 Beijing time and climbed effortlessly into a clear blue Chinese sky.

Long March 2F carrying Shenzhou-9
Long March 2F carrying Shenzhou-9

Apart from the initial launch fumes at the pad, which appeared a muddy brown, there was no characteristic launch plume showing its journey towards the heavens.

The Tiangong-1 laboratory is currently orbiting 343 km above the Earth in a circular orbit inclined at around 42 degrees.

Docking of the Shenzhou 9 capsule carrying the 3 Chinese astronauts, to the Tiangong-1 orbital laboratory is scheduled to occur at 15:00 Beijing time (07:00 GMT/UTC, 08:00 BST) on Monday 17th June.

SES-5 launch on Proton rocket postponed

The launch of an ILS Proton launch vehicle with the SES-5 satellite was postponed today (19th June 2012) due to technical reasons with the launch vehicle.

Proton rocket to carry SES-5
Proton rocket to carry SES-5

On June 18th, Khrunichev engineers at the launch site received an out of tolerance telemetry reading on a first stage subsystem during pre-flight testing. However, based on additional pre-flight testing performed on June 19, it was determined that further investigation is necessary, requiring the launch vehicle be returned to the processing hall for additional testing.

It has been emphasised that the vehicle and satellite remain in a safe configuration at the launch site.

SES-5 satellite
SES-5 satellite

The launch date will be determined at a later time.

X37-B lands after monumental stay in space

Perhaps taking some of the shine off the Chinese launch today, the X37-B launch vehicle landed today (Saturday 16th June) at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California at 09:48 EDT after nearly 469 days (15 months) in orbit.

This was only the second flight of the military launch vehicle and smashes the previous test flight record (225 days) of the inaugural flight of the X37-B back in 2010. It was launched, in a mission designated USA-226, aboard an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on 5th March 2011. The mission was classified and described by the U.S. military as an effort to test new space technologies. In late November 2011, the U S Air Force announced that it would extend the second mission of the X37-B beyond its 270-day duration.

OTV-2 launch (Atlas V carrying X37-B)
OTV-2 launch (Atlas V carrying X37-B)

Total mission elasped time at “wheel stop” was 468 days, 13 hours and 2 minutes. The craft orbited the Earth more than 7,000 times.
X37-B after touchdown
X37-B after touchdown

X37-B soon after landing
X37-B soon after landing

The X37-B craft is loosely based on the larger American Space Shuttle, carries no crew, and is a fully autonomous vehicle, capable of landing itself with no human intervention. Being almost 30 ft (9 metres) long, it is sent into orbit on top of an Atlas V rocket

X-37B inside payload fairing of Atlas V before launch
X-37B inside payload fairing of Atlas V before launch

The project was initially conceived by NASA,in conjunction with the US Air force, but due to budgetary contraints and other factors the project became the sole responsibility of the Department of Defence in September 2004. The nature of the mission was highly classified, with very few details being made available to the public.

This week in space – 20th – 26th February 2012

In the almost endless cycle of new extra-solar planetary systems being discovered, this weeks discovery may lead scientists to re-appraise their theories of planetary formation.

The exoctically named GJ 1214b lies ‘just’ 40 light years from our solar system, orbiting a cool red dwarf star. The planet is said to be around 3 times the Earth’s diameter, but analysis by the Hubble space Telescope suggests a large percentage of its weight is water.

Added to the fact the planet orbits its parent star at a distance of only 2 million kilometeres, this makes GJ 1214b a VERY strange place indeed.

Questions scientists are asking include:

– How can water still be on the planet?
– Why was the planet not incinerated when the parent star turned into a red giant
– What form does water exist on a planet where temperatures reach in excess of 200 degrees centigrade?

I personally am looking forward to the answers.


On Friday 17th China launched another of its Beidou-2 navigation satellites. Launched from the Xichang space base in southwest China’s Sichuan province, the Long March 3C rocket lifted off at 16:12 GMT/UTC.

China Beidou launch
China Beidou launch

Beidou-2, which this satellite launch formed part, is the Chinese equivalent of the US global positioning system (GPS) system. It is hoped that by the time the system is fully operational, in around 2020, it will consist of around 35 satellites. Currently there are 11 satellites in the fleet.

Also on Friday, the MUOS satellite was lauched from launch complex 41 Cape Canaveral Air force Base. The Atlas V carrying the first MUOS (Mobile User Objective system) satellite for the American Navy lifted off at 22:15 GMT/UTC after a week of weather related delays.

Launch of Atlas V MUOS
Launch of Atlas V MUOS satellite

MUOS is a narrowband satellite system that will provide the US military and its allies simultaneous voice, video and data capability by using advanced 3G mobile communications technology. Available 24/7,it greatly enhances the current capability by more than 10 times.

The complete MUOS system, once fully deployed, in around 2015, will be a four satellite system, with an in-orbit spare.

ESA contract signed

On Febraury 24th The European Space Agency (ESA), signed the biggest satellite construction contract in its history, a $1.8 billion, six-satellite deal with Thales Alenia Space to provide meteorological services from geostationary orbit for 20 years starting in 2017.

The first two satellites will be launched in 2017 and 2019, and will offer an all new infrared sounding capability and imaging of global lightning that will provide early warning of severe storms.

In a typically European decision, that was almost derailed by wranglings between Germany and France, many European Aerospace companies will see parts of the satellite contracts come to their countries.

This week in space 13th – 19th February 2012

This week marked as exciting week in space launches with 2 successful launches, a twice aborted launch, a 6 hour spacewalk and a postponed launch. Along with that was the initial submission by NASA of its suggested 2013 budget

The first launch of the week came from the European space Agency (ESA), and marked the inaugrial launch of the new small payload rocket VEGA. This took place on Monday 13th February. The launch took place from the ESA facility in Kourou and VEGA launched successfully at 10:00 GMT.

VEGA at launch from Kourou
VEGA at launch from Kourou

The rocket, mainly developed by the Italians has been in development since 1998. As this was the 1st qualification flight of the rocket, dubbed VV01, ESA offered the payloads, which included 7 pico (or cube) satellites from European universities, LARES (a Laser Relativity Satellite to test various aspects of general relativity) and ALMASat-1. a free ride. The mission performed flawlessly. The VEGA rocket is 30 metres tall, and weighs 137 tonnes at lift off, which is 1/6 the weight of a fully loaded Ariane 5 rocket.

ESA hope that VEGA will allow smaller payloads to be launched into orbit at a greatly reduced cost. Time alone will tell, if this turns out to be the case.


This week saw the launch, at the third attempt, of the SES-4 communications satellite. Originally delayed since late December 2011, this finally launched on 14th February at 19:36 GMT/UTC from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The SES-4 satellite was carried on top of a Proton-M rocket standing 58 metres in height, weighing 705,000 Kg at lift off. The upper stage of the rocket was a Breeze-M upper stage.

Proton-M carrying SES4
Proton-M carrying SES4

Manufactured by Space Systems Loral, the SES-4 satellite is a hybrid satellite featuring both C and Ku-band payloads and provides enhanced coverage and capacity across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Western Africa and Latin America. The satellites estimated lifespan is expected to be around 15 years.

First spacewalk of 2012

Cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov spent 6 hours in the first spacewalk of 2012. They exited the PIRS module at 14:15 GMT/UTC on February. Wearing the Russian Orlan spacesuits, the cosmonauts had issues getting out of the hatch and were 20 minutes late starting their work. The main task was moving the Strela-1 crane from the PIRS module to the POISK module. The crane needs to be relocated so that the new Russian module, Nauka, can be installed by the Russians later in 2012.

Work undertaken by first spacewalk of 2012
Work undertaken by first spacewalk of 2012

They also installed a material experiment on the exterior of the station, and took samples from the station’s insulation to access its quality in protecting the station and also to assess the damage it has sustained so far. Due to the earlier tasks over-running the cosmonauts did not have the opportunity to install new debris shields on the Zvezda module.

Cosmonauts spacewalking outside the ISS
Cosmonauts spacewalking outside the ISS

Launch delay

The launch of a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, carrying the Sirus FM-6 satellite that was supposed to launch in early March 2012, has been delayed for several months. It has been reported that technicians found problems with the solar panels attached to the satellite and that the satellite has now been returned to the manufacturer; Space Systems Loral.

The launch of the US Navy’s Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-1 (Mobile User Objective System) was twice postponed last week. On Thursday 16th February, the pre-planned 10 minute hold that occurs at T-minus 4 minuites was held at 5 minute intervals throughout the 45 minute launch window. This was to process high level wind data being sent by high altitude weather balloons that was preventing launch.

Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 awaits launch
Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 awaits launch

A final poll of the launch engineers gave a “GO” for launch, and the countdown proceeded at 23:25 GMT, until 1 minute and 14 seconds prior to launch an abort was signalled, again due to high level winds. As the abort came so close to the end of the launch window, the launch was immediately scrubbed for the day.

Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 from across Cape Canaveral
Atlas V carrying MUOS-1 from across Cape Canaveral

The following day the launch was also scrubbed; this time due to clouds and high level winds.

Atlas V as the sun sets
Atlas V as the sun sets

Launch engineers have now scheduled the launch of the MUOS-1 satellite to occur on the 24th February at 22:15 GMT/UTC. The launch window closes 44 minutes later at 22:59.

NASA Budget 2013

NASA announced on Monday 13th February a $17.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013. The budget includes $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for exploration activities in the Human Exploration Operations mission directorate, including final close-out of the Space Shuttle Program, and funding for the International Space Station. $4.9 billion is allocated for science, $669 million for space technology and $552 million for aeronautics research.

What the figures don’t really show is that certain NASA budgets have been massively cut in order to continue funding the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Expenditure on the JWST, which has been plagued by cost overruns almost since the inception of the project, is set to increase to almost $700 million in 2014. To continue to fund the JWST, some projects, namely the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, in collaboration with the European Space Agency will now not go ahead.

The budget will inevitably be trimmed by Congress, and in future years NASA sees its budget staying fairly flat in monetary terms.