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35k!

Wow… look at that… Cumbrian Sky just clocked up its 35,000th view! Thanks to everyone who stops by, it’s much appreciated.

Cassini spots a sweeping shadow…

I noticed the latest batch of raw images sent back by Cassini included half a dozen which showed the shadow of one of its moons moving across the rings… here’s what you get when you put them all together in a little animation… (you have to click on the image to see the shadow moving)

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Bizarre to think that that shadow is probably thousands of miles long…!!

Eddington AS May meeting report

Last night was quite a special night for members of the Eddington Astronomical Society. Not just because we returned “home” to Kendal Museum after our brief – but enjoyable, and very successful – expedition to the Castle Street Community Centre… not just because we had a very special and very welcome guest speaker, Cockermouth AS’s Chris Darwin… but because the 7pm start of our meeting coincided with the planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis! So I thought I’d try something I’d never tried before – show NASA TV coverage live at a meeting, projected onto the screen, so everyone there could watch the shuttle launch as it happened!

Well, that was the plan.

It didn’t start off well. There was a good enough signal on my mobile broadband dongle… thingy… to allow NASA TV to be viewed, but for some reason it just wouldn’t play, and I ended up – somehow, don’t ask me how! – bringing up a Quicktime viewer with NASA TV showing on it! It wasn’t brilliant quality, and there was no audio, but at least it was there, and it was quite thrilling that we could all see the shuttle on the pad, just two minutes away from launch…

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Woo-hoo! This was going to be great! The seconds ticked away… launch minue one minute… minus 40 seconds… Then the pictutre began to break up, and fracture, and fragment… no, no, no… don’t you dare – !!!!!!

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*******!

And THAT was our view at the time scheduled for lift-off. We couldn’t see a ***** thing!!! TYPICAL!!! 😦 😦 😦 Had it launched as planned? Was everything okay? 😦

Seconds ticked by, and finally the screen cleared…

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Yaay! The shuttle was on its way! 🙂 After that we had a great view. We watched the shuttle climb on its twin pillars of fire… watched the solid rocket boosters fall away…

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…and enjoyed the breathtaking view from the shuttle as it climbed high above the atmosphere, courtesy of one of the small “space cams” mounted on the external tank…

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Unfortunately the camera cut out just before the orbiter was due to fly away from the external tank, but it was still an enjoyable experience, and good to watch the launch as a group. I’m pretty sure it was the first time some members had watched NASA TV, so I hope they enjoyed it.

Then it was on with the meeting proper, and after my usual News Round Up and a break for a cup of tea, it was time for Chris Darwin to give his presentation about “Extrasolar Planets”…

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Chris’ talk was absolutely fascinating, and I know EAS members enjoyed hearing the very latest news about the hunt for, and discovery of, planets beyond our solar system. Chris gave us a very thorough introduction to the subject, describing the search techniques and equipment used in this historic quest to find planets – especially Earth-like planets – circling other stars, far out in space.

Chris’ talk went down very well, and he was good enough to take some questions from the floor too, so I’d like to thank him again for taking the time to come down and speak to us for what I think was the third time. You’re always welcome Chris.

Thanks are also due to our Chairman, Ken Hough, for all the work he’s been doing behind the scenes for us recently. Not only has Ken been busy fixing a problem with the Society website, but he’s been working away at securing some items that can be turned into a Society telescope for members to borrow or use. Thanks Ken!

And thanks to all the EAS members who turned out last night. Trust me, it makes a huge difference – it’s always good for a visiting speaker to see lots of faces looking back when they stand up to give their talk.

Spirit is stuck :-(

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I knew it was going too well, I just KNEW it! In the past week or so the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” – which had really been struggling – was given a new lease of life thanks to a amazing “cleaning event”: several strong gusts of wind removed a lot of the martian dust which had been covering its solar panels, thus boosting its power levels to hights unseen for not months but years. That was the cause of great celebrations amongst the MER team and space enthusiasts following the mission – more power meant the rover could basically just DO more.

And then, when it all seemed to be going so well, Spirit got stuck. And it looks like she’s going nowhere for a while.

I’ll copy in the official NASA press release in a moment, but basically what’s happened is that the rover – which is now driving backwards because one of its wheels is not working (it stopped working yonks ago) – found itself trying to drive through some very loose, soft sandy material, and soon it started sinking down into it. Now the rover’s 5 working wheels seem to be half-buried in the loose material, and it will clearly be a struggle getting the rover out again. I’m sure they will – nothing Mars has thrown at the men and women behind the rovers has stopped them in their tracks for too long – but we may be seeing the current view for a while, so get used to it.

What’s SO annoying is that Spirit was making good progress towards her next targets – von Braun and Goddard, which are, literally, just up the road from where she is now. True to her name, Spirit has always had to work for every single meter she’s driven, but the diva rover thinks nothing of throwing a melodramatic swooning strop every now and again, just to keep us on our toes. And here we go again…

The picture above shows roughly where Spirit has become becalmed. See how close von Braun is? Grrrrr. Not fair.

Anyway, in case you haven’t read it yet, here’s the official press release, with some more information…

PASADENA, Calif. — The five wheels that still rotate on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit have been slipping severely in soft soil during recent attempts to drive, sinking the wheels about halfway into the ground.

The rover team of engineers and scientists has suspended driving Spirit temporarily while studying the ground around the rover and planning simulation tests of driving options with a test rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

“Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL’s John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, said Monday. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”

Both Spirit and Opportunity have operated more than five years longer than their originally planned missions of three months on Mars and have driven much farther than designed. The rover team has so far developed ways to cope with various symptoms of aging on both rovers.

Spirit has been driving counterclockwise from north to south around a low plateau called “Home Plate” for two months. The rover progressed 122 meters (400 feet) on that route before reaching its current position.

In the past week, the digging-in of Spirit’s wheels has raised concerns that the rover’s belly pan could now be low enough to contact rocks underneath the chassis, which would make getting out of the situation more difficult. The right-front wheel on Spirit stopped working three years ago. Driving with just five powered wheels while dragging or pushing an immobile wheel adds to the challenge of the situation.

Favorably, three times in the past month, wind has removed some of the dust accumulated on Spirit’s solar panels. This increases the rover’s capability for generating electricity.

“The improved power situation buys us time,” Callas said. “We will use that time to plan the next steps carefully. We know that dust storms could return at any time, although the skies are currently clear.”

Behavioral problems that Spirit exhibited in early April — episodes of amnesia, computer resets and failure to wake for communications sessions — have not recurred in the past three weeks, though investigations have yet to diagnose the root causes.