Viewing highlights for May

As we are not yet allowed to gather in groups, here are some relatively easy sky sights to view on your own over the next two weeks. Most of these are visual or binocular events that can be seen with a relatively low open horizon view. Use SkySafari, Heavens Above or any sky app you have to assist. Enjoy the challenge!!

Visible right now:
  • Venus and Mercury are visibly in the early even sky, low in the west. A clear horizon view is best, and binoculars may be helpful.
  • The Eta Aquariid meteors still visible in morning sky with radiant near Jupiter.
  • Jupiter and Saturn are visible in the morning sky
  • The Virgo cluster of galaxies are great if you have access to a telescope and dark skies.
From May 12-16: The new crescent moon meets each evening planet.
  • Venus on May 12
  • Mercury on May 13
  • Mars on May 15
  • On May 16, the moon occults (hides) the bright star k-Gem/Al Kirkab in Gemini for about an hour. Start watching early so you don't miss it blink out at 21:26 EDT. It will appear aroud 22:31 (in Owen Sound).

Highlighting Canadians who are part of the Mars Perseverance mission: Farah Alibay

Many Canadians have been directly involved with the Mars Perseverance project which launched on July 30/2020 and landed February 18/2021, but perhaps none more so than Farah Alibaby. Farah is a systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. While there, she has been part of three Mars missions: the InSight lander, its associated MarCO CubeSats, and the more recent Perseverance rover.

Born in Montreal, Farah is the French-speaking daughter of two Malagasy immigrant who met after they moved to Canada. Her father's work took Farah and her family to the UK when she was a teenager; there she attended high school and then the University of Cambridge where she earned both undergraduate and master's degrees in Aerospace Engineering. From there, she completed a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); during this time, she completed three NASA internships which included two at the JPL. It was her internships at the JPL that inspired her to accept a permanent placement there following completion of her PhD.

If you were to ask Farah where her drive to pursue a career in the aerospace industry came from, she would give a couple different reasons. The first is how seeing the movie Apollo 13 when she was eight made her absolutely fall in love with space. In particular she was fascinated by the teams of engineers that came together to solve seemingly impossible problems. Watching these scientists imbued her with the drive to employ her knowledge and creative thinking in a teamwork settings to advance space exploration.

Farah's second great influence came from a well-known French Canadian engineer, scientist, former astronaut and former Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette. Coming from a similar upbringing as Farah, Payette's success in her field showed Farah that opportunities really were available to women like her and they were achievable.

Farah has a couple different jobs when it pertains to Perseverance. As part of the mobility team, she is responsible for making sure the rover doesn't get lost as it navigates Mars. She tests and operates the rover attitude, pointing and positioning systems that allow Perseverance to know how to "call home" (based on Earth's location relative to Mars). As part of surface operations, she is responsible for helping a team put together a list of tasks the rover will complete daily; this list is then communicated to the rover. This involves interfacing with several different science teams to determine priorities, making sure the proposed plan can be completed with available resources, and testing the plan prior to sending it to make sure everything will work. Finally, she is one of the main interfaces between the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity, the technological flight demonstration on Mars. In this role, she is responsible for performing testing on Earth as well as guiding the rover activities to give Ingenuity the best chance of success in its experiments.

Ignoring her contributions to NASA's projects for a moment, Farah is also incredibly active in outreach activities. She regularly gives talks, mentors students, and teaches at space camps, providing a tangible example to young girls of what goals they can achieve if they have the drive. She cites Julie Payette as one of her reasons for doing so; Payette inspired her, and she hopes to do the same for other young people. In addition to all of the above, Farah still finds time to volunteer as a Big Sister through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization. All this and she is still in her early 30s! Incredible seems like far too weak a word when describing Dr. Farah Alibay.

SpaceX launch of crew to the ISS on April 23/2021

SpaceX and NASA are targeting Friday, April 23 for Falcon 9’s launch of Dragon’s second six-month operational crew mission (Crew-2) to the International Space Station from historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The instantaneous launch window opens at 5:49 a.m. EDT, 9:49 UTC, with a backup opportunity available on Monday, April 26 at 4:38 a.m. EDT, 8:38 UTC.

Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage will land on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship, which will be stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. On Saturday, April 24, at approximately 5:10 a.m. EDT, 9:10 UTC, Dragon is expected to autonomously dock with the International Space Station.

This is the first human spaceflight mission to fly astronauts on a flight-proven Falcon 9 and Dragon. The Falcon 9 first stage supporting this mission previously launched the Crew-1 mission in November 2020 and the Dragon spacecraft previously flew Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to and from the International Space Station during SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission in 2020.

Read more about it here. Also tune into this Youtube link for a live feed beginning at 01:30 April 23.

Northeast Astronomy Forum and Space Expo - online and free April 10/2021

Normally requiring a trip to the USA, the 2021 NEAF expo is being offered virtually this year. See the image below for a summary of the event. Additional details can be found at NEAF Expo.

New nova discovered in Cassiopeia - March 20/2021

On March 18, a nova (Latin for new) was discovered by Yuji Nakamura of Japan in the constellation Cassiopeia; this nova is known as Nova Cas 2021. Initially its magnitude was about 9.6, and as of March 19 it had brightened to magnitude 7.5. Once discovered, astronomers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan started to analyze the nova and determined it is of the classical variety.

Classical novae are thought to be created in a close binary star system consisting of a white dwarf and a main companion star. When the orbital period falls in the range of several days to one day, the white dwarf is close enough to its companion star to start drawing accreted matter onto the surface of the white dwarf, creating a dense but shallow atmosphere. This atmosphere, mostly consisting of hydrogen, is thermally heated by the hot white dwarf and eventually reaches a critical temperature causing ignition of rapid runaway fusion. The sudden increase in energy expels the atmosphere into interstellar space creating the envelope seen as visible light during the nova event and in past centuries was mistaken as a new star.

Novae are unpredictable in terms of how long they will be visible, so try to get out with a pair of binoculars or a lower power telescope to see this one while you still can; the following picture from Astronomy Now shows where you can find it.

For more reading see this link.

March Messier marathon - March 17/2021

March is a great month to hunt for Messier objects. It is common to challenge oneself with a Messier marathon on any moon-free night in March. From our mid-northern latitude, it is the only time when it is possible to view all 110 Messier objects in a single night; another option is to split it up into a few nights. You will need a dark location with few obstructions on the horizon. The idea is to start with the brightest objects in order to gauge visibility in the darkening sky (items 1-11). M77 and M74 are very challenging dusk objects. You will need to work from west to east, since objects setting in the west will disappear/set first. Over the course of the night, new stars will rise. By early morning you can attempt to view the final objects on the list. Dusk and dawn objects are the most challenging ones since the sky is not truly dark. Included here is a list that was designed specifically for our club. Binoculars are great for many of the objects, while others are only visible with a telescope. Enjoy the challenge!!

Lunar X and V visible on the moon - March 14/2021

Two visual phenomena will begin to be visible on the moon on March 20 at about 18:03 EDT (in Kincardine). These are the lunar X and V, two Clair-Obscur visuals that are created due to the interplay of light and shadow on the moon. These shapes are visible generally a few hours before the first quarter moon which hits us on March 21. There is an oppportunity to see these every month depending on Earth's location using a low power telescope or set of binoculars. The X is caused by light illuminating the rims of three craters, Blanchinus, La Caille and Purbach, and can be seen slightly below the lunar terminator; the V is caused the light illuminating the crater Ukert along with several lesser craters. The following image from Optics Central shows what to look at on the moon.

This article by David Chapman gives more details on the lunar X phenomena for those interested. Some future dates where the lunar X may be visible in our area as calculated using the Lunar Terminator Visualization Tool (LTVT) are April 19 07:09 EDT, May 18 19:35 EDT, June 17 07:27 EDT. Note that these dates roughly correspond to that of a first quarter moon. One could also expect the lunar X and V to be visible several hours after a last quarter moon.

Also on this day is the spring equinox (in the northern hemisphere at least). In its apparent motion on the equinox, the sun crosses Earth's horizon directly at the east when the sun rises and at the west when it sets; there is an approximately equal amount of day time and darkness. This day also marks the first official day of spring.

New moon - March 14/2021

In her most recent minutes, Lorraine challenged us all to find the new crescent moon on March 14/2021. The opportunity was small with the sun setting at 19:30 and the mooon setting at 20:50 and especially with the extreme wind of the day. I went down to the beach in Kincardine and managed to capture this snapshot with my phone of the moon about a half hour before it set.

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