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Aug 02

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – August, 2020

Even Minor Observations are Important

As I often do when starting a column, I reviewed the last four years of the “This Month in History” section at the end of each article. In doing so this month I noticed that in three out of the last four years, that section of the column included an entry about the “first televised liftoff of lunar module” and I thought, “Oh, really?” Liftoff from where? and weren’t Apollo 11 through 14 “televised”? And, wait – ah-h LUNAR module, that’s the thing Neil Armstrong referred to when he “step(ped) off the LEM now”. So, wait a minute, don’t you have to have a camera outside the spacecraft to televise its launch from the lunar surface?

The answer is, “yes”. but not only that, you have to be able to control that camera from the ground – as in Earth. No big deal, right? Wrong! You see, the problem is that when you video the launch of a spacecraft, you want to follow it along as it climbs further and further in the sky, so you have to be able to tilt the camera just right in order to follow the trajectory of your subject. Photographers call that “panning”. So now you not only have to “pan” the camera just right so it follows the LEM’s ascent, but you also have to compensate for the time delay between when your commands were sent and when they were received.

The first two attempts to track the departing spacecraft used a preprogrammed tilting mechanism to follow the ship’s progress, but it failed completely on Apollo 15 and was parked too close to the departing ship to follow it accurately on Apollo 16.

Bring in Ed Fendell, NASA scientist and imaging specialist. He manually sent the commands to the camera on the Moon three seconds early to compensate for the delay and the move worked perfectly. If you watch it on YouTube, keep in mind the effort involved in predicting and following the ship’s path and consider the fact that, no matter how minor or unimportant a particular event seemed to be, dedicated individuals give it their best shot and sometimes it turns out really well.

You can give observing your best shot this month, and chances are your efforts will be rewarded. There are great things to see in all directions, even with Comet NEOWISE now on its way out.

Start on the southern horizon and locate Sagittarius (look for the “Teapot”) and Scorpius. To the left (east) of the Teapot you will notice two very bright objects, the planets Jupiter, right, and Saturn, left. Explore these worlds with anything from a small telescope to sophisticated imaging technology.

Next, look overhead and see the Summer Triangle. Look it up before you venture out and see if you can pick out Vega, Deneb, and Altair and name their constellations. If you are in a dark location, see if you can imagine the Swan and the Eagle flying along the celestial river called the Milky Way.

Now face due north and enjoy the sight of both the Big and Little Dippers. Find Polaris, the North Star. Look down toward the NE horizon and find the W-shaped constellation, Cassiopeia.
This is what I consider to be the start of observing season – pretty good weather, time available, and great things to see up in the sky.

This month in history:
August 1: Production of Saturn V rocket ends – 1968
August 2: First televised liftoff of lunar module – Apollo 15’s “Falcon” – 1971
August 3: First in-flight space shuttle repair – 2005
August 6: Curiosity rover lands on Mars – 2012
August 18: Helium discovered in the Sun – 1868
August 25: Spitzer Space Telescope launched – 2003
August 28: William Herschel discovers Enceladus, a moon of Saturn – 1789