Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Solar Minimum (Heavy on the Minumum)

What is the Solar minimum? What we are talking about are sunspots or the lack of sunspots. This has been a very boring last couple of years. The sun has many cycles. The Schwabe cycle lasts about 11 years normally. This cycle tracks sunspots from maxima to minima. Just like everything else in this world there are quirks to this Cycle. We are in a very deep minimum right now,13 years and going... It is the deepest in fifty years! one of the deepest since 1913.Take a look at this graph, Credit: David Hathaway, NASA/MSFC. There were 0 observations of sunspots for 266 of 366 days in 2008. That's 73% my friends. In those 100 days of spots there were only 30 sunspots produced. 60 t0 150 spot are the norms for most Cycles. So far this year we are at 10 sunspots since June. So far this July we have had some activity and there are rumblings in the Helio community this might be the end of Cycle 23 (Schwabe). We shall see on that one...Cycles... speaking of Cycles,there have also been detected a 22 year Hale, 80 year Gleissberg, 200 year Suess, and 2,300 year Halstatt cycle of solar activity.

We need to explore a little to get a good p
icture of why this could be a big deal. There is strong evidence to support a correlation between sunspot cycles and climate change. I always tend to cast doubt on number crunching as you can pretty much prove your point or disprove your point using the same data in most cases. I know this summer has been a mild one to be sure. Is this due to a minimum of sunspots? Not only has there been a lack of sunspot activity but also in other areas of Solar behavior. The luminosity of the Sun has dimmed a bit. Measurements by several NASA spacecraft show that the sun's brightness has dropped by 0.02% at visible wavelengths and 6% at extreme UV wavelengths since the solar minimum of 1996. That is a 12 year low. We are at a 50 year low in solar wind pressure which is a big deal if you are an Astronaut . Solar wind tends to keep the cosmic radiation down around the inner planets. That also means less geomagnetic storms too. I miss a good Auroral display. To Ham radio operators the skip just ain't what it used to be. The ionosphere (a reflective layer for radio waves) has not been as ionized so less reflective. Radio emissions by the sun are also at a 55 year low which means at least it is quieter.

To look at so
me of this evidence for the correlation, we have to set the Way On Back Machine to between 1645 and 1715. This was the Maunder Minimum, a 70 year period characterized by a nearly complete absence of sunspots which coincided with the “Little Ice Age” in Europe, a time of especially long and cold winters. There was actually a year without a summer. Writings of the time indicate this. Proof can also be seen in ancient trees as growth rings showed problems during this time. This is the extreme. The 200 year Suess cycle is expected to reach minimum around 2040. There have been predictions of a long lasting and gradual decrease in global temperatures over the next century. (Note to Global warmers) regardless of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In 1991 Danish meteorologists Eigil Friis-Christensen and Knud Lassen published a paper titled “Length of the Solar Cycle: An Indicator of Solar Activity Closely Associated with Climate.” They pointed out the length of the Schwabe solar cycle and global mean temperatures were related. They noted that longer cycles of 12-14 years produced cooler global temperatures and short 9-10 year cycles led to warmer climates. Lots of scientists made note of that.

For me as an Astronomer this means one very important thing... The Sun is a very boring piece of work right now. Take a look at this picture from today! I just bought this Sun filter for my 8" Celestron. Not one of those expensive 1000 dollar filters ,but a modest Baader solar film white light filter It lets me see Sunspots, and Faculae.These are features associated with solar activity. Faculae are bright patches of magnetic activity. in times of solar maximum they can increase the brightness (visual) of the Sun by 0.1 percent. I can also see Granules. They are rice kernel looking features that cover the entire sun. Granules are the tops of convection cells where liquid is pushed to the surface of the sun where it cools and is continually replaced by newer cells coming to the surface. I did catch a Sunspot on Friday a few weeks ago but they have been far and few between

Someone on Facebook asked me what a sunspot was. The short version is It is a magnetic eruption in the solar disk. You will usually see two groups at a time. One being magnetically opposite to the other, like the two ends of a bar magnet. The center, called the umbra is much cooler (relatively) 3700 K as opposed to 5700K for the rest of the surface of the sun. It will still give you a hot foot! Look at the center of this sunpot in the picture, this is where the strongest area of magnetismis located. The outer greyish areas are called the penumbra This is where you see some very cool looking prominences. A prominence is a loop of material transferred from one spot to the other via the magnetic field.

So is it all connected ? Maybe maybe not. Time will tell as it always does. In the mean time I will continue to go out side set my scope up take a look at the sun and say Rats! No spots again. I will say this about the present minimum The good folks out in Arizona have detected a jetstream inside the sun and have been tracking this thing. When this jet stream reaches the 22 degree lattitude sunspot activity increases. I have my Filter at the ready until then. For right now, the forecast for Sunspot activity is kind of spotty at best. (Sorry could not resist )

Clear skies and Great seeing too

Steve T

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Houston This is Tranquility Base The Eagle Has Landed

Wow ... 40 years and I can still remember the whole thing happening like it was yesterday. I was just past my ninth birthday and my world was filled with the Space Race. All the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo 1-10 missions had brought us to this perfect point in time. It was the defining moment of Man, to set foot upon another world. The date was July 20th 1969. It was a Sunday. The television was non stop Apollo as Walter Cronkite (God rest his soul) reported the progress of these fine astronauts as they pressed on to be the first men to set foot on the Moon. But let's back up a bit and talk about the mission of Apollo 11. 9:30 AM, July 16th saw a flawless operation as the Saturn V rocket clawed its way through the atmosphere reaching nearly mach 1 in less than one minute. Astronauts Neil Armstrong commander, Michael Collins Command Module pilot, and Edwin E. Aldrin as Lunar Module pilot were on their way. All systems were go as they made there way through the booster stage. 1 and 1/2 orbits around good ole mother earth and it was time to say farewell to Earth's confines and on to seek the attention of our Moon. The LM extraction went without a hitch. So far so good as the crew raced on towards that final goal set forth by JFK in 1961.The crew was excited and loose. They would say things to Houston commenting that Aldrin had eaten 19 bowls of oatmeal already! I am guessing that “Buzz” Aldrin was trying to finagle an endorsement deal out of Quaker Oats. I was glued to the TV whenever the TV Guide said Apollo coverage. This was the coolest thing my little life had seen or would ever see for that matter.

July 19th saw the Command Module, Columbia with the Lunar Modu
le, Eagle firmly attached fired its main engine to put the spacecraft into lunar orbit. The spacecraft orbited for 30 passes taking pictures of the landing site and getting ready for the duty of a lifetime. Funny about what you remember or what strikes you as memorable about an event. We had a black and white Curtis Mathis TV it was a good size one for the day. I remember the Neighbor lady next door she was so nice to us kids. She had been over to our apartment a time or two and knew we were watching the goings on of Apollo she asked us if we would like to watch it on color TV. How could we say no. I had watched Apollo everything in black and white. This is where fate is a bit cruel ... The camera inside the Command Module was in color so the crew did their shenanigans for the evening news in color which I got to see on Saturday the 19th when the 20th arrived the pictures were in B&W because they used a slow scan TV. Now here is some technology for you, the slow scan could not go over the regular air waves so at the screen of the receiving dish antennae in what ended up being Australia. A TV camera took shots of the low scan TV screen then broadcast it worldwide. Talk about LOW TECH!!! So the one evening of watching Astronauts do their thing on color TV was as good as it got for this poor southern boy. You remember me telling you about Apollo being everywhere in a previous post? My Aunt Sally had found a recipe from somewhere for Man on the Moon Cake with Lunar landing icing. Google it! It was sort of a spice cake with real apples in the cake and cream cheese icing. Well you know I had to have a piece or three of that! I digress a bit.

The 20th arrived with Armstrong and Aldrin climbing into the LM and making all the
last calculations and checking off the lists of stuff to do before the moment of truth.It was afternoon by the time the LM crew separated from the Command Module Columbia. The Eagle spun slowly around so Michael Collins could examine the craft to check for any damage. The Eagle looked good and it was on to the Moon. For those that do not remember or were not born yet ,The following description of what happened could not have been scripted any better by Steven Spielberg. Please keep in mind that 600 million people were watching or listening to this event all over the world. Everyone was glued to the TV or listening to their radio. This was an epic event. The Eagle's decent was a little hot by 4 seconds which meant they would over shoot the landing area by a few miles. As they neared the the surface, Neil Armstrong noticed that the Nav Computer was going to set the Eagle down into a boulder field. He quickly grabbed the controls and guided the craft to safer soil. Two things occurred at this point. Two obscure alarms went off code 1201 and code 1202. The Astronauts had no idea what they were and radioed Houston in a panic as to what they were. Do they need to abort? Time was critical... Oh Crap the low fuel light came on the control panel. If the fuel ran out before they were on the ground it would be an uncontrolled landing which means in layman's terms : They gonna crash! Quickly an engineer at Houston's mission control came up with the code source. The problem was the computer could not process all the information in real time. The astronauts had been trained to turn on the radar to locate Columbia if they had to abort the mission in a hurry so this and the landing radar going were too much for the nav computer to handle all at once so it was telling the crew some data would be processed later. Whew! the alarm was no huge deal and the landing was a go assuming the fuel held out. The world held their breath as Armstrong found a spot and set the craft down at 4:17 PM on July the 20th, 1969. The craft had about 25 seconds left of fuel. Here is an interesting bit of trivia. Aldrin was the first to broadcast from the moon not Armstrong. He said to Houston / Armstrong ,"Contact light! OK, engine off. The world and Mission control could breath. The world lit up as the crowds celebrated the first Men to reach the Moon.

I can tell you whe
re I ate my dinner that night. I was sitting in front of the TV with a TV dinner in front of me. I always got the beans and franks. I sat and listened to the recount of the landing and drank it all in. I felt as though I was with them every step of the way. 6 and a half hours later the event that blew away the world happened. Neil Armstrong exited the LM and stepped into history. He uttered the most familiar phrase of the era," One small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind " Notice the "a man" part? That is what Neil actually said but was slightly garbled and the "a" kind of got lost in the broadcast. He always stated he did say," a man". It was not until recently, sound techs discovered the missing "a" in the transmission. They picked through the sound bite after bite and yep, Houston we have an "a". Neil you are vindicated! I knew He did not lie about it. He was an Eagle scout for crying out loud!!! Neil went about the business at hand of getting equipment out TV cameras set taking picture of the LM oh and one very important item the contingency plan! plan "B" was scooping up some soil and rocks from the surface of the moon and putting them in a pocket on his space suit . that way if something were to happen and they had to abort quickly at least they would have a handful of dirt from the moon to experiment with.
Hey the folks of NASA were some purty smart fellars.
.. Luckily the contingency plan was not needed as Buzz came down the ladder and remarked, " Magnificent desolation". That phrase summed up the Moon. Now there were some stolen moments by each and every astronaut that has ever been on the moon. The realization that holy crapola there is the earth right there and I am on the Moon! The freaking Moon!!! You can bet Neil and Buzz had them! They were to have 34 minutes to do their experiments collect rocks etc before getting back inside. Neil was getting his metabolic rate up a tad and was told to slow down a bit he did and the crew was granted 15 additional minutes of walking around time to complete all the work that was to be done.

The work was complete, the 160 or so pictures taken, the bag of essentials dropped, (in the bag was a Gold Olive branch a Apollo 1 mission patch and a silicon data disk containing all the names of congress NASA etc that ever had anything to do with the space mission as well as many leaders names from many different countries and two medals from Russia commemorating two of Russia's cosmonauts). So if you are ever up there on the moon you know what to look for. I am sure you could put it up on EBay for a pretty penny. The drama is hardly over. There was one more OH Crap! moment. When the two astronauts were lightening the load of
the return vehicle Buzz accidentally broke the main breaker that operated the launch engine.I hope the mic was off when that happened. But the inventive and problem solving bunch rigged a felt tipped pen cap to take care of the breaker and all could relax and take a nap for about 7 hours till it was time to get back to Columbia. Yeah Right like those two could sleep. Neil did not sleep a wink as his resting place was on top of the engine. Buzz must have gotten dibs as his spot was on the floor. Alas Buzz managed just a couple of nodding events but that was it.The LM had alarms and voice going off at every moment. This was not a great environment to be sleeping in, plus they were on the Moon! who wants to sleep though that?

Ah yes of Michael Collins... His memories were of solitude not loneline
ss. When the Eagle had come back to the shore of Columbia (docked) he was a bit disappointed the moment of contemplated bliss was over. The flight back went with out a hitch as Apollo returned with it's 47lb cache of lunar rocks and soil for scientists to pour over for years to come. They did have to stay in an airstream trailer for three weeks as scientists sorted out whether or not pathogens might have been brought back to earth. After three weeks they were pronounced fit for duty and they left the trailer to a deafening applause. These three astronauts were as famous as you could be. You could have been in the dense jungle of New Guinea and ask the local head hunters who Neil Armstrong was and you might just get "Why he was the first man on the moon!" as an answer. Parades were everywhere. A 25 country tour ensued with heads of state coming to call on the astronauts that had done the impossible,touch the face of the moon and come back to tell about it. I hope you have enjoyed this series on Apollo. I hope you will take some time and share your recollections of these events with your children It was a great time to be living in and a great moment for Mankind.

Clear skies and great seeing too
Steve T

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Apollo 9 and10 The Wait is Almost Over!!!

Apollo is back on schedule. I can hear Steve Martin running down the hallways at NASA yelling, The new LMs are here! The new LMs are here!!! Grumman did come through better late than never. Now was the time to get to the business at hand of making sure the new LM(landing Module) was mission capable for landing on the moon. This is where Apollo 9 came in. Their goal was to test out as many LM systems as possible, practice docking with the Command Module, crew transfer (internal) and maneuvering the LM it self.This mission was done at the relatively safe confines of low earth orbit. Uh yeah there is certainly nothing that safe about low earth orbit. it is not like NASA could run right up the block and pick you up in case of an emergency. Can you picture yourself being asked to fly a contraption built with early 1960's technology for the first time knowing full well it was built by the lowest bid contractor! Oh yeah these guys were brave alright. Keep in mind Grumman was being rushed also so the old saying haste makes waste or in this case mistakes looms great. The crew of Apollo 9 was headed up by James McDivitt as commander of the mission with David Scott as the Command Module pilot and Russell (Rusty) Schweickart as the Lunar Module pilot. Experience was aboard with McDivitt and Scott having taken a Gemini ride earlier in the decade.The lift off used the Saturn V Rocket. There were plans using the Saturn 1B rocket to haul up the Command module and an additional Saturn 1B to bring the LM up to practice orbital rendezvous. That all was scrapped when Grumman was late producing a working model of the Lunar Module.The ride up through the atmosphere went like clock work and the retrieval of the LM from inside the S-IV-B was completely without incident. Things were shaping up for the ultimate mission: The landing on the Moon.

This mission lasted for ten days and in this time, some notable firsts were attained. (when you are doing cutting edge stuff there will always be firsts) I would say the biggest first would be using the new self contained space suit. This was a vast improvement over the umbilical hose method used in previous missions. This new suit was critical if man was going to go for a stroll on the landscape of the moon. Another essential first was letting the crew name their ships. I know essential? Well yeah in the fact that it made great copy and the public was soaking the whole Apollo experience up like a sponge. I remember Apollo 9 call signs as I thought they fit very well indeed. The Command module was dubbed Gumdrop and the Lunar Module was aptly named Spider. The entire Apollo spacecraft was assembled in space for the very first time. All three elements the CM the LM consisting of the descent stage and the assent stage performed wonderfully and quickly made a hole for the Apollo 10 crew to rocket through The Apollo 9 did its thing on March 3rd and lasted til March 13th of 1969 the Apollo 10 took flight on May 18th of the same year. You know there was a lot of data crunching going on during those two months so Apollo 10 could get the most bang for the buck.

Full speed ahead looked to be the go phrase for the Apollo 10 crew. This crew sported an all experienced crew consisting of Commander Thomas Stafford, Command Module pilot John Young and Lunar Module pilot Eugene Cernan. Stafford and Young had been up two additional times Stafford worked on Gemini 6 and 9 Young,Gemini 3 and10 and Cernan Gemini 9. This was some serious stuff going on and lots of work needed to be done for this mission to be a success. If this one did not go well, it probably would have been Apollo 12 that would have been the first Moon landing. Very few problems occurred for this mission. There was a small problem with stability of the LM as it maneuvered but the cause was a switch problem and was corrected quickly.The rocket doing the heavy lifting was the Saturn V . This rocket was starting to be a very steady performer and was a relief to all concerned. Lift off was a breeze as people watched from their homes on TV. I remember Walter Cronkite describing the whole process on just about every mission. I had a few late nights waiting up and watching the telecasts from space. Speaking of that, Apollo 10 was the first to send back color TV signals. How cool was that ? For those born in the early sixties late fifties that was a very big deal. For those born in the late sixties and on it seems a bit like no big deal. I still saw the transmissions in black and white as we did not get a color TV until the early 70's. I know, how did I ever survive???

This was a very cool mission for a lot of reasons and put Apollo on the map of history to stay. Why is that? because a master cartoonist joined forces with NASA. Charles Schultz did a tribute to Apollo 10 and later 11. The crew of Apollo 10 named their Command Module Charlie Brown and their Lunar Module Snoopy. I am sure the men that made big decisions upstairs were very happy. Schultz ran with it and Apollo made the funny papers. Heck Apollo was every where. You could not eat cereal without Apollo or games or toys. It was the rage and every kid (like me) had to have the next big thing when it came to space. The Charlie Brown thing was icing on the cake and put the crews of Apollo into the immortal class as far as kids were concerned. It was about this time I got a present. It was a GI Joe Mercury space capsule. It had a Giant window which closed! The Mercury crew had to lobby hard for a port hole! Now that was a cool toy.

Firsts for the Apollo 10 mission? How about the first men to travel at 24,791 MPH !!! That was a world record that has not been topped yet. Cernan flew the LM as close as 8.4 nautical miles from the surface of the moon. The flight was perfectly done and except for the no landing part, the same that would be done on Apollo 11. They did take some pictures of the Sea of Tranquility to check on the landing site for Apollo 11. this was accomplished in 8 days.This was the last chance for the Apollo teams to get there ducks in a row for the lunar landing. 1970 was on the horizon and President Kennedy had promised to have an American standing on the moon by the end of the decade. These were very exciting time to live in. I hope you like the retelling of the Apollo endeavor. It was a great time for America. Next week is Apollo 11 the Eagle has Landed! then it will be on to The Solar Minimum has ended! Leave me a comment on your recollections of these great days gone by

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Apollo 7,8 : Rising From the Ashes

Apollo 7 had to be perfect in every way to keep the dream alive. This was a must win for NASA or funding could be yanked. NASA knew this and went with the most experienced commander available. His name was Wally Schirra. With rides on Mercury and Gemini already under his belt, Wally was destined to be the only Astronaut to catch rides on all three programs. This was only one of the firsts for Apollo7 the accolades include the first three man US crew in space, first live American TV broadcast and the first manned launch of the Saturn 1B Launch vehicle (Rocket). The Command module was extensively reworked and a lot of new gear was added or improved upon all wire was covered now with heavy insulation. Apollo 7 had one thing to prove and that was the space-worthiness of this design.

The launch on October 11th 1968 was uneventful which is always a good thing when it comes to space ships. Schirra was a tad upset that the escape procedure was not well worked out for the assent part of the mission but NASA pressed on and the launch took place anyway. High stakes gambling to be sure was going on in some respects of this mission. This shakedown mission lasted for 11 days. Were there problems well yes always but most were a crew thing. The crew hated the food Wally got a head cold which kind of made him edgy. The cramped quarters albeit in a "spacious" Apollo capsule made for friction between the crew and Capcom. This was the last ride for all of the crew and the friction and Static given Command control was the main reason. I can see the director getting out his eraser and the future crew list as the war of words continued between the two factions. The crew even felt a bit of motion sickness. Things were not Rosy for Apollo 7 but did their job very well and all systems on the craft performed so well that Apollo 8 was given the green light. Just as a side note Can you put a rating on the pucker factor for this mission? These three Men, Walter Schirra, Don Eisele, and Walter Cunningham were the next guys to enter into an Apollo space craft after the deaths of their fellow Astronauts and friends to boot. Schirra wanted to call sign Apollo7 Phoenix after the mythical bird that is reborn from its ashes It was a tribute to the Apollo 1 crew that had lost its life in 1967. the folks that make the decisions disagreed and so the Phoenix call sign never made it over the air but it was carried with every man as they climbed into the azure sky and into history.

All systems are go for Apollo 8 and go they did! This is arguably the most historic flight by man in all of history. Wow now there is a bold statement but with good reason. They were the first men to break free of the Earths gravity, set a speed record, fly to another celestrial body and orbit it then break that orbit only to fly back and land safely on earth! wow ! The Apollo 8 mission was to be a low orbit mission using the Lunar Module and working the connection etc. with the LM/CM but when the people of Grumman could not deliver a mission ready LM the mission was changed to a lunar orbiting mission. The crew of Apollo 8 were the first men to see the dark side of the Moon with their own eyes.There were a few glitches but for the most part things went well if you count erasing some data from the nav computer so it does not know where it is bad . Yes Jim Lovell did just that but recovered by getting the positions logged back into the computer. Whew!!! Frank Borman had his own issues as he tried to go to sleep by taking a secanol (sleeping pill). It did not work very well and Frank became sick at both ends so to speak. We now believe this was space adaptation syndrome. It happens to about 1/3 of all astronauts. it takes a bit of time for the body to adjust to space and the result was a mess in the cockpit as the crew tried to clean up both varieties of mess left by Borman. Astronauts are human too!!!This shot of earthrise was one of Life magazines 100 pictures that changed history I would say number one with a bullet and so did Life with 1968 being a down year for the world in general. Apollo saved the day.They made 20 orbits around the Moon and on the ninth which was on Christmas eve the crew quoted the first ten versus in Genesis . On Christmas the crew found themselves eating turkey and stuffing 70 miles above the Moon. What no Pumpkin Pie? This was a humdinger in the world of big stuff. The director of the Soviet Space Agency said this was an outstanding accomplishment for America and its space program. Now That is Huge! Next week gets us a little closer as Apollo 9 hits the stage!!!

Clear skies and great seeing too

Steve T