Arianespace Ariane 5 Launch This Week

Image credit & copyright: ESA/CNES/Arianespace.

LAUNCH ALERT: (DELAYED; new date and time upcoming) Arianespace will launch their massive heavy lift, Ariane 5 ECA rocket, designated VA242 carrying the trio of Superbird 8/DSN 1 and Hylas 4 communication satellites from Launch Site, Ensemble de Lancement Ariane-3 (ELA-3) at the Arianespace Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

This will be Arianespace’s 3rd launch of 2018, the 98th launch of the Ariane 5 and its 2nd launch in 2018.

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Expedition 55/56 Crew Ready for Launch

Images credit & copyright: Roscosmos/NASA.

Launch Alert! Wednesday, March 21, 2018 at 13:44 EDT (17:44 UTC & 23:44 Baikonur time) a Soyuz-FG rocket; MS-08 (ISS 54S or Soyuz 56) will lift off from Launch Pad 1/Launcher 5 (LC 1/5) at the legendary Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz spacecraft will carry three crew members of Expedition 55/56 on a two-day, 34 orbit trip to the International Space Station (ISS) vs. the now normal six-hour, four-orbit “fast-track” launch to docking.   This will be the 8th flight of the upgraded MS Soyuz which replaced the TMA series.

Soyuz MS-08 will dock to the nadir, (Earth facing) port of the Russian Mini Research Module-2 (MRM-2) Poisk “Search” module where it will remain there for approximately 6 months as a crew escape vehicle should they need it and ultimately a return vehicle.

Want to see the ISS overhead? Here’s everything you need!

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Arianespace Soyuz O3B F4 Launch from Kourou

Images credit & copyright: ESA/Arianespace.

LAUNCH ALERT: Friday, March 9, 2018 at UTC 16:37 (11:37 EST) Arianespace will launch the medium lift Soyuz-2 launch vehicle (VS18) carrying 4 SES made, O3b satellites to Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) from the Soyuz Launch Zone (ZLS) or Ensemble de Lancement Soyuz (ELS) at the Guiana Space Centre or Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG), in Sinnamary, near Kourou, French Guiana.

This will be Arianespace’s 2nd launch of 2018.

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Southern Milky Way above ALMA

Image credit & copyright: European Southern Observatory (ESO)/Babak Tafreshi.

Located 5,058 meters (16,597 ft.) high on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile’s Atacama Desert (The driest desert in the world) sits the most powerful radio telescope as well as the most expensive ground based telescope ever created; the Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub-millimeter Array or “ALMA.” In short, this is an interferometer of 66 massive radio telescopes that work at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths (0.32 to 3.6 mm). The entire array can be configured to operate from 150 meters (216.5 ft.) to a mind blowing 16 km (9.9 mi.) and has a resolving power 5 times finer than Hubble and 10 times finer than the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. It received its 66th antenna on September 30, 2013.

Quickly, just because I know some may not know what interferometry is. In short, interferometry is a collection of different telescopes working together as one massive telescope to attain a higher resolution on a given object in the universe. Also, sub-millimeter astronomy is radio astronomy conducted at wavelengths longer than radio waves or generally put; microwaves.

ALMA is a member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and is a collaboration between Europe, North America and East Asia as well as the Republic of Chile. Its main goal is to peer through material in molecular clouds to study and develop a better understanding of star forming regions to follow stellar evolution (birth through death), planetary systems, galaxies as well as the origins of life itself. It is currently the highest ground based observatory on Earth and its correlator supercomputer is the fastest ever used at an astronomical site. ALMA is also a member of the incredible Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) interferometer, which is a collection of telescopes across the world aimed at making a radio telescope the size of the Earth. Once the data is collected at their individual locations, it must be transported via “sneakernet” to MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts and Bonn Germany’s, Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

On site you will also find the Atacama Compact Array (ACA) which also goes by the name Morita Array. This is a subset of 16 radio telescopes (12-7 meter antennas and 4-12 meter antennas) designed to enhance ALMA’s widefield capability which helps to observe large angular size objects such as closer galaxies and molecular clouds.

ESO page for this image:

Babak Tafreshi:




Babak Tafreshi’s The World At Night (TWAN):

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How Far Away is the Milky Way’s Farthest Star?

Images credit & copyright: Uniview by SCISS Data: SOHO (ESA & NASA), John Bochanski (Haverford College) and Jackie Faherty (American Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Institute’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism).

The Milky Way, our home star city is a large and fascinating island in the vast expanse of the cosmos. Current estimates show that it’s roughly 100,000 light years-ish in diameter with somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-300 billion stars (which means we don’t know). There is also what’s called the “galactic halo” which extends out to roughly 500,000 light years (153.3 kiloparsecs) from the nucleus in each direction.  In this halo is where most of the Milky Way’s 59 known satellite galaxies and all 157 known globular star clusters reside. Satellite galaxies are large groups of stars orbiting and slowly being consumed by the Milky Way such as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Globular clusters are spherical groups of densely packed ancient stars that were formed around the same time as the Milky Way itself.

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ULA Atlas V NASA/NOAA GOES-S Weather Satellite

Images credit & copyright: United Launch Alliance (ULA).

LAUNCH ALERT: Thursday, March 1, 2018 at 17:02 EST (22:02 UTC) a United Launch Alliance (ULA), Atlas V-541 rocket designated (AV-077) will lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Florida carrying the NASA/NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-S or GOES-17) weather satellite.

This will be the ULA’s 3rd launch of 2018, 126th launch since its founding in 2006 and the 76th launch of the Atlas V since its inaugural flight in 2002. Launch window for this attempt will be open for 2 hours.

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Take a Look Around

Image credit & copyright: European Southern Observatory (ESO)/Surge Brunier (links below).

With this post I’d like to address a question that’s been posed to me countless times by friends, family and those here on various social media pages. That question is, “If we reside within the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, how then can we know what the Milky Way actually looks like?” Maybe you’ve never pondered the thought until right now but by no stretch of the imagination is that a silly question and it’s perhaps the fault of television and media for misspeaking or giving an incomplete picture when they address our home star city. So that’s what I want to do with this post and after I hope you have some closure on this question.

Our Current Milky Way Model: Today it’s universally accepted that the Milky Way is an average barred spiral galaxy that stretches approximately 100,000 light years (30 kiloparsecs) in diameter and contains roughly 100-300 billion stars. Yes, that’s an incredible variance but that’s where we stand. The plane of the galaxy is about 1,000 light years (0.3 kiloparsecs) thick and at the nucleus is a central bulge containing a quiet, non-feeding (at this time) supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A (Sgr A*) with a mass of 4.5 million suns.

Credit: Roberto Mura

As with other barred spiral galaxies, the Milky Way has arms; the current number is believed to be four. They are the two major Scutum-Centaurus and Perseus arms as well as the lesser Sagittarius and Outer arms. There are also “spurs” like the Orion spur, which is where the Sun resides, that reach across from one arm to another. The Sun itself is approximately 28,000 light years (8.7 kiloparsecs) from the center of the galaxy and it takes us roughly 250 million years to complete one orbit around the galaxy.

How Do We Know This?: Great question but it mostly comes down to observation, observation, observation. It’s also important to bear in mind that what we know isn’t concrete, it’s what we know so far and many current data points will change as newer and more accurate measurements are conducted. Information like the size, mass and structure (how many arms, etc.) of the galaxy isn’t precise yet as you can see how varied the estimates can be.

The most crucial tool in any astronomer/cosmologists tool kit is observation. I mean think about it; aside from meteors, the geology of our own planet and a few data points from other planets, literally everything we know about the universe has been gleaned through the observation of light (the electromagnetic spectrum) and the interpretation of that light. Every night all around the world we look out into the universe, back into time and see billions upon billions of galaxies; spirals, elliptical, irregular, dwarfs, lenticular etc. and that begs the question, how do we know what type we reside in?

The first step here is to critique the countless images of the plane of our galaxy and by process of elimination; we can pretty quickly remove most of the different types of galaxies out there with rudimentary eyeball observation alone. We’re certainly not in the process of merging with any massive partners. We’re not inside of an elliptical, irregular or dwarf galaxy so already we’ve eliminated most contenders.

Next we can narrow our focus to the billions of spiral galaxies out there. Not only are they extremely common, we see them at every conceivable angle and orientation. With that information in hand, we have a very good idea of what a spiral or barred spiral galaxy looks like on edge and at various stages of evolution. Almost all major galaxies have a supermassive black hole in their nucleus and once again through observational data we’ve (the royal “we” of course, I don’t do anything) determined that the Milky Way does have a supermassive black hole roughly 4.5 times the mass of our Sun. Much of this black hole’s (Sgr A*) data has been obtained by observing 6 stars cataloged as S1, S2, S8, S12, S13 and S14 orbit….nothing at extremely high speeds, especially S2.


I want to emphasize what I stated above about the observation and interpretation of light because although I made it sound simple, it’s very complex. Our eyes only pick up about 0.0035% of the electromagnetic spectrum, this is known as the visible portion of the ES and it ranges from about 390 nm to 70 nm. The ES’s visible spectrum resides roughly in the middle of its known energies. Let’s start at the long end of the ES and travel its length. It goes from radio waves, microwaves, infrared (that can be broken into far and near infrared) and then we find the visible spectrum. Remember your ROY G BIV; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet? So if red is the weakest (longest wavelength) of the visible colors, what’s inferior to red? That’s right, infrared. But we’re going the other way to let’s say we travel the colors down to violet, now what? As we leave the visible light spectrum once again to higher energies (shorter wavelengths), what’s the first wave stronger than violet? Yea, you got it, ultraviolet then X-rays and finally gamma rays. Each one of these requires their own instruments, preferably in space to observe and record everything we see in the universe.

As we can only see about 0.000003% of the galaxy with our eyes and even with the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum at our disposal we still only see about 10% of the mass of our galaxy. The rest at this time remains invisible in the form of dark matter. In the future, new technology will hopefully open this field up to us just as gravitational waves are beginning to reveal themselves to us.

Here’s My Take on This: As I sit here typing (hunting & pecking) at the desk in my living room, let’s assume that I can’t go outside and look at my house. Hell, let’s assume that I can’t even leave my seat but I can still look around from my vantage point and having seen hundreds of thousands of houses in my life I can get a pretty good idea of what my house looks like from outside. I can see my general location very well, living room walls, stairs etc. I can see out the main picture window and smaller side window which tells me that I appear to be on the second floor. I can also see icicles hanging down in front of the window and if it’s a fair assumption that they’re hanging from the roof, I’m probably in a two story or split level house.

Looking out the window also allows me to get a feel for my general location and orientation.  I’m certainly not in a city nor am I in the country. I know its 5:10 pm and I can see the Sun which sets in the West getting lower out my window so I now have my home’s orientation also.  I can look down the hallway and see 5 doors and having seen many houses in the past I can assume at least 3 bedrooms, one maybe a closet and a bathroom. Perhaps there are 4 bedrooms and a bathroom and the rooms all have individual closets, either way I’m pretty close. I can also see where the hallway ends so I know that from the living room to the end of the hallway is somewhat in the neighborhood of how long the house is. I can also slightly see into another room which appears to be the kitchen. I can see a good size wooden table and quite a bit of natural light. Again having seen many houses in the past I can estimate what’s in the kitchen, its approximate size and how far the house goes in that direction.

Now if I had the ability to zoom in very close to anything within my vision I could inspect photos on the walls, calendar etc. and possibly even determine how many people live here, their nationality, what they like to do and the language they speak. I can look back out the window and roughly determine the climate; I inspect the walls, floors etc. and even determine what the house is constructed out of. I could go on and on and honestly it’s a fantastic thought experiment should you put the effort into it. Simply by my observations in visible light only and having seen many houses in the past I can reasonably determine what the house that I’m in looks like though I can’t go outside or even around the inside of the house to inspect further.

This is generally how we know what the Milky May looks like and is structured. So how do we know what the Milky Way looks like if we can’t see it? Well, the answer is that we CAN see it, just from the inside. We can’t move around it and or go outside and view it as a whole but from what we can see and what we have observed in millions of examples, it’s pretty clear.

Milky Way Panorama:

NASA Where are we?:

NASA Charting the Milky Way:

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