WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Triangle dominates the night sky

Posted May 24, 2012

With the clouds finally breaking across the Triangle and beyond, some interesting triangles are being revealed in our night sky this weekend.

Look to the west-southwest after dark tonight (and for the next several nights) for Mars. The red planet forms a triangle with the stars Regulus (down and to the right, 77 light years away) and Algieba (up and to the right, 130 light years from Earth). Both stars are in the constellation Leo and make up the backwards question mark that forms the lion’s head and front paws. The trio forms a nearly perfect right triangle that only gets more perfect as the red planet retreats to the left toward the constellation Virgo.

Another interesting triangle forms below with the crescent moon (on the bottom) along with the stars Pollux and Castor on top. That star pair form the heads of the constellation Gemini 30 and 50 light years from Earth respectively. If your skies are dark enough and the clouds cooperate, you should be able to make out the stick figure bodies of the twins. Look again Friday night and the moon will line up just
below Pollux and Castor before moonset just before 11 p.m.

If you have a telescope or even a good pair of binoculars and something to steady them on, Venus is a wonderful sight around sunset. It also appears as a crescent shape to us with only about 5 percent of the surface lit. By this time next week, only 1 percent will be lit as Venus prepares for its big day passing in front of the Sun from our perspective here on Earth. More on that next week.

SpaceX update

SpaceX successfully launched their Dragon capsule atop the Falcon 9 rocket after the first attempt ended in an automated shutdown due to faulty engine valve at T-00:00:00.5. So far the mission is going as planned and SpaceX is checking off tasks, such as successfully extending the solar arrays as well as setting up communications and GPS systems and running in preparation for docking with the ISS.

Weather permitting, the Dragon capsule should be visible in portions of the viewing area with darker skies, skimming above the horizon for about 2 minutes from the NW to the NE beginning at 4:04 a.m. A few seconds later, the much brighter ISS should appear along the same path.

Tomorrow morning, around 5 a.m. Eastern, NASA will make the go/no-go decision and Dragon will hopefully move to within 250 meters directly below the station. After a series of maneuvers to prove systems are operating as expected and the spacecraft is safe to approach, the capsule will rise up to the station’s level where astronauts will grapple Dragon with the station’s robotic arm and attach it to the
station.

If all goes well, the crew will have the hatch open by around 7 a.m. Saturday and begin the multi-day process of unloading cargo. Not only will this be the station’s first breath of Florida air since the last
shuttle undocked last July, rumor in the space community is that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk included another surprise for the ISS crew.

During the COTS1 mission in December 2010, the secret payload was a large wheel of cheese, a reference to a Monty Python “Cheese Shop” skit. That bit of fun isn’t surprising coming from a company that named its Dragon spacecraft after “Puff the Magic Dragon” and the Falcon vehicles after Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon.

Approach, docking, and hatch opening will be televised on {{a href=”external_link-1”}}NASA TV.{{/a}}


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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