Archive for the ‘History’ Category

12/24/2019 – Ephemeris – Was this the star of Bethlehem?

December 24, 2019 Comments off

Ephemeris for Christmas Eve, Tuesday, December 24th. Today the Sun will be up for 8 hours and 48 minutes, setting at 5:06, and it will rise tomorrow at 8:18. The Moon, 2 days before new, will rise at 7:41 tomorrow morning.

Many writers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD place Jesus’ birth around 2 BC, which had to be before Herod the Great’s death, which I suggest was in 1 BC marked by to a total lunar eclipse. So the Star of Bethlehem could appear several years later than the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC that’s been popular. In 3 and again in 2 BC there were star-like conjunctions or apparent joinings of the planets Jupiter and Venus against the backdrop of constellation of Leo the Lion. A lion is related to Judah, son of Jacob by a blessing the latter gave his 12 sons in Genesis. The first conjunction occurred in August of 3 BC in the morning sky. In June the next year the two planets got together again, this time in the evening sky, a month or more after Jesus would have been born in the lambing season of spring.

The times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


August 12, 3 BC conjunction

Here is an animation created using Stellarium of Jupiter and Venus, the brighter of the two seeming to coalesce on August 12, 3 BC in the early morning twilight. Created using Stellarium and GIMP.

The second appearance of the "Star"

On June 16th 2 BC, this time in the evening, Venus and Jupiter seem to coalesce as one, at least to the naked eye.  The first few frames contain the Sickle asterism of Leo the lion’s head and mane. Created using Stellarium and GIMP.

I have much more information on this topic in my December 2, 2016 posting:

06/17/2019 – Ephemeris – President Kennedy wanted to get us to the Moon… But how?

June 17, 2019 Comments off

Ephemeris for Monday, June 17th. Today the Sun will be up for 15 hours and 34 minutes, setting at 9:30, and it will rise tomorrow at 5:56. The Moon, at full today, will rise at 9:56 this evening.

President Kennedy’s Challenge to land “a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” came only 20 days after Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight and 45 days after Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight. To the NASA designers the question was how! Three scenarios were studied. The Moon direct approach where the spacecraft would be sent intact to the Moon and back which would take a really gigantic rocket. The Earth rendezvous where the spacecraft would be assembled in Earth orbit and then sent to the Moon. And the lunar orbit rendezvous where only part of the craft would be sent down to the lunar surface, while the main craft stayed in orbit of the Moon. After a lot of study the third option was accepted. It was up to project Gemini to develop the skills necessary to rendezvous and dock two spacecraft in orbit.

The times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


How will we get to the Moon

Three flight techniques to land on the Moon. John Houbolt, who came up with the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous went through a lot of grief before his method was accepted in 1962. Credit: NASA.

Categories: Ephemeris Program, History, NASA Tags:

06/13/2019 – Ephemeris – Project Mercury

June 13, 2019 Comments off

Ephemeris for Thursday, June 13th. Today the Sun will be up for 15 hours and 32 minutes, setting at 9:29, and it will rise tomorrow at 5:56. The Moon, 3 days past first quarter, will set at 4:23 tomorrow morning.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon we’ll look at the first human space mission program, Mercury. It was taken over from the Air Force by the newly organized NASA space agency in 1958. It’s mission to launch a man in orbit, having him survive for at least a day and return him to the Earth. Alan Shepard crewed the first Mercury launch on a suborbital hop on May 5th, 1961, 25 days after the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin on a single orbit of the Earth. On the third Mercury Launch John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in his Friendship 7 capsule. In all there were 6 flights in the Mercury program. Of the seven Mercury astronauts, only Deke Slayton never flew on Mercury for medical reasons buy flew in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

The times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


The 7 Mercury Astronauts

The seven Mercury astronauts were (from left) Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper and Scott Carpenter. Credits: NASA

The Mercury Capsule

The Mercury Capsule diagram. Not shown is the Retropack on the back of the heat shield held on by straps.  The Retropack contained solid rockets to slow the capsule so it can descend from orbit. Credit: NASA.

10/09/2018 – Ephemeris – Ada Lovelace Day

October 9, 2018 Comments off

Ephemeris for Ada Lovelace Day, Tuesday, October 9th. The Sun will rise at 7:50. It’ll be up for 11 hours and 17 minutes, setting at 7:08. The Moon, 1 day past new, will set at 7:53 this evening.

Ada Lovelace Day is dedicated to Lord Byron’s daughter as the first computer programmer more than a century before the computer as we know it was invented. She worked with Charles Babbage as he designed his Analytical Engine, which would have been the world’s first truly general purpose computer, mechanical though it was.  The day is also dedicated to women in the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Two days from now, the 11th will be the International Day of the Girl, promoting the education and possibilities of 52% of the population that aren’t male. Some of the female astronomers I follow on Twitter are astrophysicist Dr. Katherine Mack as @AstroKatie, planetary radar astronomer Alessondra Springmann as @sondy, planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, @carolynporco. These are a few, and in my field of computer programming, I celebrate the late Admiral Grace Hopper.

The times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


Ada Lovelace
Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) considered the first computer programmer, even though the machine she wrote code for was never completed. Credit: Science & Society Picture Library
Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Charles Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum (London). By Bruno Barral (ByB), CC BY-SA 2.5.

The analytic Engine was designed to be programed with punch cards.

12/04/2015 – Ephemeris – Yours truly will survey ancient and pre-scientific cosmologies tonight

December 4, 2015 Comments off

Ephemeris for Friday, December 4th.  The Sun will rise at 8:02.  It’ll be up for 8 hours and 59 minutes, setting at 5:02.   The Moon, 1 day past last quarter, will rise at 2:09 tomorrow morning.

This evening’s meeting of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society starting at 8 p.m. at Northwestern Michigan College’s Rogers Observatory will be a traditional December program.  This program alternates with a program on the Star of Bethlehem which will be revamped for next year.  This year I’m presenting Ancient Cosmologies, a look at the cosmologies or world views of many mostly pre-scientific cultures, including how the Biblical world view was influenced by one of them.  Then we’ll see the beginnings of Greek scientific thought that codified by Ptolemy in the second century AD, held sway for 1,500 years.   Also I’ll look at Monday’s occultation of Venus and Comet Catalina.  At 9 p.m. there will be a star party at the observatory with another program.  All are welcome.
I’ll post more on the Occultation of Venus on the blog tomorrow and Monday

Times are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.

12/05/2014 – Ephemeris – Search for the Star of Bethlehem will be presented tonight

December 5, 2014 Comments off

Ephemeris for Friday, December 5th.  The sun will rise at 8:03.  It’ll be up for 8 hours and 59 minutes, setting at 5:02.   The moon, 1 day before full, will set at 7:51 tomorrow morning.

The program In Search for the Star of Bethlehem, will be presented by yours truly at this evening’s meeting of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society at Northwestern Michigan College’s Rogers Observatory starting at 8 p.m.  This is a scientific rather than a religious quest, however the only clues to the star’s existence are found in Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  400 years ago Johannes Kepler’s discovery of a special conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that would have occurred about that time started the search.  Ancient Chinese records and ancient writers all contribute to the evidence.  The program will be followed at 9 p.m. by the last star party of the year.  The observatory’s located south of Traverse City on Birmley Road.

Times are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan.  They may be different for your location.

11/27/2014 – Ephemeris – The voyage of the Mayflower

November 27, 2014 Comments off

Ephemeris for Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 27th.  The sun will rise at 7:54.  It’ll be up for 9 hours and 10 minutes, setting at 5:05.   The moon, 2 days before first quarter, will set at 10:51 this evening.

We are regaled with stories of the first Thanksgiving dinner between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims.  The Mayflower was headed for the Virginia Colony but were diverted by a storm.  Their first landfall in the New World was Newfoundland, where they picked up supplies.  Fulling intending to head south to Virginia, the passage became too hazardous, so they put into Cape Cod and there they stayed.  Back in those days the ship’s position was determined rather crudely.  Latitude was measured by the height of the north star and the sun at noon.  Distance and speed were measured with a log thrown overboard with a rope with knots in it.  The knots counted over a period of time gave the ship’s speed.

Times are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan.  They may be different for your location.



Credit: Scholastic

11/22/2013 – Ephemeris – President Kennedy and the quest for the Moon plus Comet ISON finder charts

November 21, 2013 1 comment

Ephemeris for Friday, November 22nd.  The sun will rise at 7:48.  It’ll be up for 9 hours and 19 minutes, setting at 5:08.   The moon, 3 days before last quarter, will rise at 9:43 this evening.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Yes I remember where I was when I heard the news.  Being a program about astronomy and space I’d like to think about the challenge he laid down “to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade”.  This was in the midst of the Cold War in response to the Soviet’s triumph in sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit.  It was made almost a sacred vow due to Kennedy’s assassination.  No NASA program since was funded to the extent that the Gemini and Apollo programs were, so that on July 20, 1969 that promise was fulfilled.  All of money spent in NASA’s 55 years is actually less than that of the recent bank bailout.

Times are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan.  They may be different for your location.

Comet ISON

Finder charts for Comet ISON for this morning, Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings.


Chart for finding Comet ISON this morning (November 22, 2013 at 6:30 a.m.). Chart created using Cartes du Ciel.


Chart for finding Comet ISON Saturday morning (November 23, 2013 at 7:00 a.m.). Chart created using Cartes du Ciel.


Chart for finding Comet ISON Sunday morning (November 24, 2013 at 7:00 a.m.). Chart created using Cartes du Ciel.


Chart for finding Comet ISON Monday morning (November 25, 2013 at 7:15 a.m.). Chart created using Cartes du Ciel.

Our Past and Future in Space – A Personal View

December 30, 2012 Comments off

This is a piece I wrote for the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society’s Stellar Sentinel in the January

I’ve witnessed the space program since before Sputnik. I watched the United States Vanguard program from its inception to attempt the launch the first satellite. It turns out that the Russians and the US Army beat Vanguard for the first successful US satellite. The three and a quarter pound satellite Vanguard 1 launched in 1958, with the first solar cell power is the only satellite from the early days still in orbit. Though silent it is still being tracked.

Back to Sputnik. It was a real surprise one October evening, while watching TV a news flash came over the TV announcing that the USSR (Russians for you younger folk) had launched a satellite. They showed a dot crossing the screen and the beep beep beep it emitted as if to say: “We’re in orbit and you’re not!” It turned out that it’s not nice to mess with America’s pride. We beefed up our science teaching, and math. I was old enough to miss most of the new math. Now helping my youngest granddaughter with her 4th grade math homework I’m learning a newer math, and as an old computer programmer I’m seeing how they now break problems into manageable bits, just like I do now, but wasn’t taught to me in school.

Back to the past. The 1960s were a heady time for space buffs. The manned Mercury, Gemini programs leading to the magnificent Apollo lunar landings. Along the way we sent spacecraft beyond the moon to Venus and then to Mars. After the Apollo 11 landing the will to proceed with the last three Apollo landing died in Congress, and the general public had the “been there done that” attitude, while scientists and we astronomers amateur and otherwise though it was just getting interesting. The first and last geologist who went to the moon did so on the last flight.

The next big NASA project was the Space Shuttle, which was supposed to save money and make access to space routine. Unfortunately it was built on a starvation budget which ultimately drew out its development time and weakened the spacecraft due to the shortcuts that were taken to keep it almost within budget. It was built to hopefully make trips to a space station that it didn’t begin to construct until the latter third of its lifetime. After the fiery demise of the second shuttle with its seven person crew it was finally determined that the shuttle was indeed too fragile to fly, and the program was abandoned after the International Space Station (ISS) was completed.

Without the space shuttle we have to bum rides to the ISS from the Russians whose 1960’s technology Soyuz space capsules are still perfectly capable vehicles. The Soyuz capsules also serve as life boats for the ISS. Maybe in a few years one of the commercial space companies will have a manned spacecraft ready to go. The three contenders that have received NASA grants are SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada. NASA’s working on the Orion Capsule, to take astronauts past the moon, to the asteroids and to Mars.

Whatever we send to these destinations the Orion capsule will not be the living quarters. It’s for launch and reentry. The rest of the spacecraft will most likely be much larger with a rotating component to provide artificial gravity. The actual manned mission would be preceded by cargo missions to establish a habitat and a martian launch vehicle. It’s possible that the martian moon Phobos would be a staging area for a possible martian landing. This seems to be the thinking of the Russians who have sent, or tried to send spacecraft to Phobos, including the failed Phobos Grunt (Soil) mission of a year ago. The Russians found out that you can’t do this stuff on the cheap. That and that fact that Russia has had miserable luck with Mars.

The current guesstimate on the time of a manned landing on Mars is the 2030s. Back in the late 90’s after the successful Mars Pathfinder mission, I answered a Planetary Society member questionnaire as to my opinion as to when a manned landing on Mars would happen. I guessed 2030. It may be optimistic by a decade or two. The first man or woman to set foot on Mars is probably in grade school right now.

A good dress rehearsal for landing on Phobos or Mars would be a trip to a near earth asteroid. These will be a shorter trip than to Mars. As it happens one docks with an asteroid rather than lands on it. Other than that, we must learn a lot more about asteroids if we are able to defend the earth from them. So asteroid missions are not only good practice, but vital in learning how to defend ourselves from one on an intercept course.

The current China’s Chang’e 2 mission started as a photo mission to the moon, It was then sent to the earth-sun Lagrangian 2 or L2 location, One million miles directly opposite the sun from the earth. From there it was sent to fly by the asteroid Toutatis, which it did in December 2012. Maybe the Chinese have something. Maybe L2 might be a place to hold in reserve asteroid defense rockets. They’re outside the gravity well of the earth, so can be pre-positioned to launch to intercept an asteroid.

To practice living off the land on Mars, a lunar mission to the poles of the moon may be necessary. The moon’s low angular tilt means that lunar craters at the poles contain water ice and other frozen volatile compounds. South polar permanently shadowed craters are known to contain water ice. Also with permanent sunlight at the crater rims, solar power can be readily available. Problem is the lunar poles are part of the lunar highlands, some very rugged terrain. It makes landing there way more than exciting.

Mars has water, lots of it, either at the polar caps, and/or located as permafrost below the surface and possible methane good for rocket fuel. If water in sufficient quantities is found, then hydrogen and oxygen can be made for breathable oxygen and again rocket fuel. A manned martian population will have to be much more self-sufficient than a lunar one. Care packages to Mars can only be sent at 26 month intervals, while the moon is only 3 days away by rocket.

One of the big questions with space exploration is manned versus robotic missions. Actually I’m in favor of both. First must come the robotic missions to survey the lay of the land, the atmosphere and determine the feasibility of even sending astronauts. That’s what we’re doing to Mars. We will have to determine what life Mars has or had before we send people who will bring their own biological contamination. Even the Curiosity rover may have brought organic contamination to Mars. It may have been sterile but it came from a planet loaded with the stuff.

Robots can go to places humans can never go: Deep inside the radiation fields of Jupiter, onto the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. Suicide plunges into the atmosphere’s of the gas giant planets. Other than that they don’t need the care and feeding of humans, and are much cheaper than a human mission, humans are much more adaptable, able to thing on the spot. Of course the humans that operate the robots are pretty good at improvising with their charges too.

Currently NASA is doing all its current and future missions with one half of one percent of the federal budget. Recent events in the Congress of the United Stated don’t give me much hope that that will improve. Congress is still starving NASA. They want all these great things, like the Space Launch System, but won’t finance it well enough to do it right. I fear the cutting of corners and eliminating science programs to finance their big rocket that currently has no manifest.

The climate scientists are quite positive that the climate is warming and 90% sure that humans are causing it. The last and next chairmen of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee are climate change deniers. What’s the chance of anything positive coming out of that committee?

Categories: History, NASA, Opinion, Space exploration Tags: