9 April 2016

Launch Alert - SpaceX taking Bigelow testbed to ISS

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module


Only a few minutes until #SpaceX launch their next Dragon 9 rocket to the International Space Station #ISS, with the launch scheduled for 1643 Miami time, or 2043 UTC, 0643 AEST.

Watch live on http://www.spacex.com/webcast.
Alternative: www.nasa.gov/ntv

This launch is particularly interesting for two reasons:

File photo of SpaceX's rocket landing platform. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX robotic landing barge
1/ SpaceX will attempt another landing of the reusable first stage on their robotic landing barge. They've successfully landed a first stage on solid ground, back at the launch pad it took off from. But so far success has eluded them for barge landings. The barge is important because it doesn't require the first stage to essentially turn around and double back to the landing pad - something that requires a lot more fuel.

3 November 2015

What auroras really look like

When you look through a telescope at a nebula, you could be disappointed for feeling a little disappointed. You're used to seeing those amazing Hubble pictures, or even ones by local astrophotographers. But instead what you are looking at could usually best be described as…well…a bit of fog or smoke. Maybe the barest hint of colour.

Yet a photo of the same subject, even one just a few seconds long, can have beautiful reds, greens, blues.

So what gives? Essentially your eyes are viewing in real time, while your camera can take in orders of magnitude more light. And then we photographers go and enhance the effect inside Photoshop. Not changing the shot, mind you—just enhancing what is already there.

Knowing this, I've often wondered what viewing auroras would be like 'in the flesh'. Timelapses of writing curtains of vivid greens, reds, purples and pinks look fantanstic, but what would I actually see if I saved some (many many) pennies to travel chasing auroras?

22 July 2015

The Moon/Venus/Jupiter conjunction as no-one on Earth saw it

Recently there was a conjunction of the crescent Moon, Venus (also in crescent phase) and Jupiter.

It was captured by US Astronaut Scott Kelly, currently Commander of the International Space Station, with another planet added in—Earth!

It's rare for photos from the ISS to also feature the starfield background. There is just so much ambient light from Earth that it drowns out the fainter stars for photos. Unless you take one photo exposed for the Earth and another exposed for the stars, and combine them in Photoshop. But even then it's very hard not to have the Earth blowing out the stars where they are very close to each other.

NASA has been know to add in the relevant starfield from a completely different shot. And there's nothing wrong with that—our eyes see a much broader range of light than a camera can capture in one shot. So it's just using tools available to more closely represent what the astronauts themselves are actually seeing.

Which all makes the timing on this shot all the more wonderful to have achieved. But then, he is orbiting Earth every 79 minutes, so he probably had a few chances to get it right!

Kelly is well worth following on Twitter—he posts some great material from his unique perspective. Such as:

17 July 2015

A great "maiden speech" that would ring just as true in the Australian Parliament right now

Mhairi Black, at just 20 years of age, is the youngest person to enter the UK Parliament.

Her maiden speech is going viral and for good reason. She nails the Conservatives to the wall. And she calls out her own Labor Party. And it would be completely in place in our own Parliament...

For me, the hallmark of the speech was about the difference between weathervanes and signposts.

It's where Kevin Rudd fell down, most certainly where Julia Gillard fell, along with so many of her poll-obsessed colleagues, many of whom are still there, still behaving the same.

Tony Abbott is a signpost though, of that there is no doubt. I just hope that Australian voters are starting to realise that the Australia he is pointing to—pursuing—is a dire place, an insular, hateful, vindictive and self-obsessed society, surviving in an environment we will be mortified to admit we handed to our children.

29 June 2015

SpaceX Falcon/Dragon launch explodes right before Stage 2 ignition

It seemed like another perfect launch for SpaceX.

They had not had any launch failures since their development stage. 18 successful commercial launches.

(Failures to land the Falcon first stage back on their remotely-controlled landing barge of course don't count, as they are highly experimental phases, and the primary roles of the launches did not depend on them.)

But just moments before MECO—Main Engine Cut-Off—and firing of the second stage, the craft exploded. Exploded so comprehensively that there seemed virtually nothing left to fall into the Atlantic Ocean.

Watch the launch, and at 3:15 the failure:

Another angle, with the "anomaly" occurring at 2:45:

28 June 2015

SpaceX to have another go at landing Falcon rocket today

SpaceX is launching another Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station later today.

And they will be having another go at landing the first stage Falcon rocket booster on their remotely-controlled floating platform barge. (Check SpaceX owner Elon Musk's little 'in joke' written under the platform target.)

Launch times:

My time, AEST
12:21AM 12, May Tue 2015

24 June 2015

Must read: the truth on Zaky Mallah

Even if you wouldn't dare send one cent in Rupert Murdoch's direction for the tripe that his company calls news, you'd be hard pressed to have missed these obscene covers from his stable of tabloid second-hand toilet papers.

And the behaviour of numerous Australian Government Members and Ministers, led by Tony Abbott himself, has been nothing short of the old Aussie schoolboy tradition of 'stacks on'.

You could be excusing for thinking perhaps there is something to their concerns, and that the speed with which ABC's Managing Director Mark Scott went into damage control was warranted.

If so, then you need to read this analysis by Jonathan Holmes, in the Fairfax press.

22 June 2015

Significant chance of auroras tonight through mid-latitudes

Spaceweather.tv aurora projection

The wonderful Dr Tamitha Skov of Spaceweather.tv is reporting that we have good chances of visible auroras in the mid latitudes from tonight and through the next couple of nights.

For Australia, this means as far north as Sydney.

Click on this picture to click through to Dr Skow's full video report:

Of course you will want to try to capture such a rare event on camera. You'll need to get away from city light pollution, somewhere high with an unobstructed view to the south.

Set your camera on a fixed tripod. Put the camera in Live View mode and zoom right in on a bright object. At the moment, Venus, Jupiter and the crescent moon are all very bright in the early evening to the north-west. Set your camera focus to manual and get these targets as sharp as you possibly can. Then zoom right back out, being very careful not to touch the camera focus ring.

18 June 2015

New Star Wars game looks like Battlefield 4 goes to space. Can't wait!

A scene from Star Wars Battlefront amid the battle for Hoth
Years ago (like back in 1994), I used to be pretty good at a PC game called X-Wing. It was about the only computer game I ever played then, and I haven't played anything else since. (Except for Ingress, but that's a completely different kettle of fish. Make sure you join the green team!)

X-Wing: cutting edge gameplay circa 1994
Last Christmas, that changed with a gift of the PC game Battlefield 4. Crikey, computer games sure have come a long way! I've sunk almost 400 hours into that game since, and progressed to Level 58 so far. But the reality is I'm not that fast anymore and my kill/death ratio is still pretty sad.

I'm better at the reconnaissance strategy and long long distance sniping than the frantic running around everywhere mode that seems to be the MO of most good players.

When a friend posted a link for a teaser video of the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront game, I could tell immediately it was by EA and DICE—the makers of Battlefield. It looked so much like BF4, but with different uniforms. And ray guns. And jet packs. And space. See for yourself:

12 June 2015

Take a tour of dwarf planet Ceres

Enigmatic bright spots within a crater on Ceres. Photo by NASA JPL on 6 June 2015 at 4400 kilometres altitude,
Resolution 410 metres per pixel.

NASA's Dawn robot entered orbit around dwarf planet Ceres on 6 March 2015.

It's the first spacecraft to visit two distinct interplanetary bodies, after first spending 14 months studying the smaller dwarf planet Vesta in 2011 and 2012.

The Dawn mission team are currently performing mapping orbits at around 13,600 kilometres out and navigational imaging about 5100 kilometres out. Once complete, Dawn will start edging into closer orbits.

NASA has combined images from these orbits to date into this wonderful flyover video released on 8 June:

At 15 seconds in, you'll see the mysterious bright spots (see photo above) in the base of a medium-sized crater that have so intrigued people the world over since they were first imaged months ago as Dawn approached Ceres. Nasa scientists are wondering if it could be a volcano, a geyser or cryo-volcano, shiny rock (as in glassy like molten from an impact), ice or salt.