Monday, February 1, 2016

The February Sky

With new month of February upon us, we quickly hit the mid point of astronomical winter on the 2nd and the lengthening of the days will be noticeable at the start and plainly obvious by month's end as we get closer and closer to the equinox, which will come on March 20. Besides the rapidly lengthening days (and thus, shortening nights), February marks the last full Month of Standard Time, with DST returning the first Sunday of next month. All in all, there should be a sense of urgency to get out and see the winter sky, especially considering the often still lousy weather in much of the country.

Cool Constellations
By nightfall in February the fall constellations are all extremely low in the Western sky. Hint: don't dilly dally when it comes to viewing them, they'll be gone by month's end. In the Northwest, ‘W’-shaped Cassiopeia is still high up, house-like Cepheus is low, and the mythological hero Perseus Is still reasonably well-placed for early evening viewing. Moving away from the past and into the present celestial landmarks for this time of year, the Big Dipper is perpendicular to the horizon by the time the sky gets dark and things will only be getting better for Dipper fans as the next few months go along. Almost at zenith is the bright Capella, alpha Auriga. The cloudy patch that is the Pleiades is also very high come nightfall this time of year, as is the V-shaped Hyades cluster. Looking in the South, you'll see all the winter favorites like unmistakable Orion, which also serves as a winter signpost to the stars. From Orion, follow a line from his belt down to blazing blue Sirius, alpha Canis Major. Following that line up will bring one to Aldebaran, alpha Taurus the bull. Aldebaran is also right in the midst of the Hyades. Imagining a line starting at bright blue Rigel (Orion's left foot) through red Betelgeuse (Orion's right shoulder) will bring you to Castor and Pollux, alpha and beta Gemini. Other winter favorites to look for include Canis Minor, Cancer, and even Leo if you wait into the night a little longer. Early birds? Well, getting up just before the Sun will bring a spring preview in the form of Virgo, Bootes, Corona, Hercules, Corvus, and even the Summer Triangle along with the front half of Scorpius, highlighted by fiery red Antares, the rival of Mars.

Planetary Perceptions
On the planet front, you'll need to be an early bird to catch 4 of the 5 naked eye planets. The one exception: Jupiter, which is up just about all night as it nears opposition, which is set to take place n March 8. Moving into the night, Mars is next to break the horizon, albeit in middle of the night, followed by Saturn roughly 2 hours later. Moving to the immediate predawn sky, the two inferior planets, Venus and Mercury, finally make their appearances, the former lingering low in the predawn sky all month and the latter making an appearance for the first half of the month before dropping out of visibility on the road to becoming an evening object early next month. Tip: since they're close, use the brighter, higher Venus to spot the far dimmer, lower Mercury. For even better news, a pair of 7x50 binoculars should fit them in the same field (or be very close to doing so).


Tonight's Sky for February 1: Columbia Disaster

It was on this date in 2003 that the space shuttle Columbia, first of the shuttle fleet, disintegrated upon reentry, killing the crew of 7 astronauts.

At the time of the Columbia's flight, there was a growing chorus of whispers suggesting that the space shuttles were ending their useful lives and needed to be retired. When development began in the early 1970s parallel with Skylab, the space shuttles were (and arguably still are) the most complex machines ever built. Shoved to the back burner to focus on Skylab, the shuttles became top priority in the late 1970s and early 80s. Finally, in 1981, Columbia made the first orbital flight. In the following years NASA would add 4 more shuttles. Aside from the Challenger disaster in 1986 (which could have been avoided if NASA management had listened to the engineers' warnings about launching in cold temperatures), the shuttles performed flawlessly, which is how Columbia's final mission went until the crucial re-entry phase, during which the shuttle disintegrated, killing the crew, and scattering thousands of pieces of debris across a stretch of the American South hundreds of miles long. After a months-long investigation, it was determined that a piece of insulating foam had broken away from the main fuel tank, impacted Columbia's wing, and dislodged some of the thermal tiles used to protect the shuttle from the extreme heat of reentry. The result: the heat caused by friction of the Earth's atmosphere at the high speed of atmospheric reentry caused the shuttle's wind to melt off, sending the Shuttle out of control. End result: total disintegration.

Following the Columbia disaster, the whispers about retiring the shuttle turned to shouts. The following year, President Bush called for the creation of the Constellation Program and a return to the Moon. The chosen craft for Constellation: rockets, which are nowhere near as complex as the shuttles. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the shuttles would be retired. Finally, on July 26, 2005, Discovery made the first post-Columbia flight (Discovery also made the return flight after Challenger). For these final missions, post-launch inspections of the shuttles' underbellies and heat tiles were mandatory. Still, old as they were, the shuttle fleet continued to perform admirably, so much so that there was an intense lobbying effort to keep them flying until a replacement craft for manned spaceflight became operable.

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