Starry Night: Earlier evenings, planets, and concerns about human spaceflight

Posted Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in Features

Starry Night: Earlier evenings, planets, and concerns about human spaceflight

The gas giant Jupiter, here seen with its tiny moon Io, will be rising earlier and earlier all month, making it a good time to try to see the largest planet in our solar system. (courtesy NASA)

by Tristan Radtke

Entering the month of September, the night sky becomes more prevalent as summer, and hours of sunlight, both begin to dwindle. The excitement of the Perseids has passed and no major meteor showers are expected until late October. The stars and planets are ripe for viewing this month, as the stars begin to move towards their winter perches or away from our view, and with more night hours in which to view them but without the bitter chill of the mid-winter, early September is a perfect time to catch a glimpse of our night sky.

Not everything in our night sky this month seems quite so optimistic, however. With the shuttering of the Space Shuttle program, the International Space Station has become dependent on Roscosmos, the Russian equivalent of NASA, and their Soyuz rockets to resupply and replace personnel. On August 24, a Soyuz-U rocket carrying a Progress unmanned space freighter, a design based on the Soyuz capsule used to launch replacement crews to the ISS, failed to separate from the third stage of the rocket, exploding over the Altai Republic in Russian Siberia.

While the food and other supplies onboard the Progress freighter were not an immediate concern for ISS crew, a much more pressing concern arose – the Soyuz-U has now been grounded as the Russian space agency seeks the cause of the failed launch, expected now to have been an explosion during the third stage ignition.

This has left the ISS in limbo for an indeterminate amount of time, and has sparked doom and gloom, particularly amongst American and European space scientists, like NASA's International Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffred, who was quoted by USA Today's Florida Today publication on August 30 as saying that the ISS would likely have to be evacuated by November if the Soyuz program was not restarted by then. NASA estimates have shown that an unmanned ISS would have a 10 percent chance of catastrophic failure within six months, and 50 percent if left uncrewed for a full year.

While Russian statements on the issue have not been quite as apocalyptic, the failure of the Soyuz-U came at a particularly poor time for Roscosmos, still reeling from the loss of a Proton-M rocket and its telecommunications satellite payload in early August and on the heels of the loss of three GLONASS global positioning satellites during the failure of a Proton-M in December of 2010 that led to the sacking of two high-ranking Roscosmos officials and the public reprimand of the agency's head.

Although the main concern is for the ISS and resupply of the station, another troubling fact remains that the Soyuz-U and Progress freighter are nearly identical in size and design to the Soyuz-U and Soyuz capsule design that has been used to bring humans into space by the Russian and Soviet programs – marking a new uncertainty with regards to the safety of human spaceflight aboard the Soyuz-U rocket.

With the American program's end and the loss of the Russian counterpart, the pressure is on for independent companies who sought to fill the gap, namely SpaceX and their FalconX rocket, to produce an economical solution to the problem in a much shorter timeframe, but the company is unlikely to be able to produce a viable launch program by November, leaving American and Russian officials searching for a short-term solution to bridge this gap.

**The Stars**

Autumn is sometimes called the ocean of night, because there are fewer bright constellations than either the summer or the winter, but also because many of the constellations have something to do with water.  Along the ecliptic, look for Aquarius, the water-bearer, Capricornus, the Sea Goat, and the two fishy constellations, Pisces and, if you are high up or reading this south of Maine, Pisces Austrinus, along the horizon.  Most of these are visible in the early part of the evening in the eastern sky, while the western sky continues to feature our summer friends, the Summer Triangle and Sagittarius, and the brilliant crown of night, Corona Borealis.


** The Planets **
• Mercury: Mercury begins the month of September rising around 4:30 a.m., and by the middle of the month it will rise around 5:15 a.m.
• Venus: Venus will be lost in the glare of the Sun for most of early September, but may peek out just before sunset by mid-month.
• Mars: Mars will remain fairly stationary in the first half of the month of September, rising around 1:30 a.m.
• Jupiter: Jupiter begins the month of September rising around 9:30 p.m. By September 15, it will rise at 8:45 p.m.
• Saturn: Saturn will begin September setting at around 8:30 p.m., and will move nearer to the Sun all month, setting around 7:30 p.m. by September 15.
• Uranus: Uranus will rise at 8 p.m. on September 1, and a bit earlier, around 7 p.m., by September 15.
• Neptune: Neptune will rise around sunset all month, which on September 1 will be around 6:45 p.m., and by September 15 will be around 5:45 p.m.
• Pluto: Pluto continues to move earlier into the evening, setting around 12:45 a.m. on September 1 and around midnight on September 15.


** The Moon **
The Moon enters September waxing, reaching its first quarter on September 4. By September 12 it will be full, beginning to wane through the middle of the month.

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