Category Archives: Astronomy

An Astronomical Linguistics Lesson

Randy Alfred relates the fascinating history of Halley’s Comet, including why Edmond Halley’s name came to be attached to it.

But the best part of the story is how to pronounce the guy’s name. It’s not Hailey, nor does it rhyme with valley. Rather, it’s pronounced Hawley, which rhymes with folly.

Now you know!


Last Hurrah for Hubble

The Hubble Telescope will receive its final upgrade from the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis, which lifts off this month. Hopefully these repairs will keep the orbiting telescope functioning for a few more years, when it will be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope. But the JWST is an infared telescope only, so we will no longer be treated to the stunningly beautiful visual images of deep space that Hubble provided us. That’s sad.

The U. S. space program is struggling. The shuttle program will soon be retired, and its replacement will not be ready until 2015. In the meantime, American space travelers will have to hitch rides on Russian launch vehicles. JFK would be so disappointed to see his vision of space exploration come to this.

NASA’s Most Embarrassing Mistakes

Here is a gallery of NASA’s most embarrassing — and in some cases, spectacular — mishaps. And this gallery does not include the fatal disasters (Challenger, Columbia, etc.)

Given the role that human error played in many of these fiascoes, if I were an astronaut in training for a Mars mission, I think I’d be a little nervous.

An Interplanetary First

What do you see in this picture?

No, it’s not a diamond ring sticking up out of the sand. It’s a picture of the Phoenix Mars Lander and its parachute, during its descent to the Martian surface on Sunday evening. The shot was taken by a high resolution camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, orbiting high above Mars.

The image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter marks the first time ever one spacecraft has photographed another one in the act of landing on Mars.

This technology is so cool — when it works. When it doesn’t, we get some pretty embarrassing failures, like these.

(On a personal note: One of my sons is a system administrator for the web hosting service that hosts the web site, including pictures like the one above.)

The Phoenix Has Landed

Cool! So when do we start digging?

Follow the latest updates from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, which successfully landed yesterday near the Martian north pole, where it will dig for evidence of sub-surface water.

From the site’s picture gallery:

This image shows a polygonal pattern in the ground near NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, similar in appearance to icy ground in the arctic regions of Earth.


Additional information from

Now on the surface, the Phoenix must work quickly. Martian winter begins in three months. The sun will drop below the horizon, and a thick ice of water and carbon dioxide will coat the lander’s solar panels, ending its life.

Mars Rovers Hobble On

The rovers Opportunity and Spirit were designed to function for only 90 days when they landed on Mars four years ago. They are still creaking along, but just barely. Engineers are using the space age version of baling wire and bubble gum to keep the little rovers functioning.

Both rovers have at least one defective wheel, which limits their maneuverability. Scientists have Spirit moving in reverse, dragging its useless wheel behind it. Both have problems with their robotic arms, and the two grinding tools still work only because of software patches and shortcuts implemented by the creative teams who maintain them.

I fully appreciate what the NASA scientists are having to do to keep their babies going. Over the years, I’ve had to perform similar gymnastics to keep my old cars running.  Just a few more miles, a few more . . . . .

Google Outer Space

Okay, it’s not Google, but it’s still pretty cool.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a nifty visual simulator that displays the location of any object in the solar system–including planets, moons, and spacecraft–from the perspective of any other object.

For a really interesting space lesson, do the following search: “Show me Voyager 1 spacecraft as seen from below.” The result shows how far away the Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and Pioneer 11 spacecraft are from our solar system.

UPDATE: Wouldn’t ya know it — Google really does have a space search feature. The first reviews are somewhat harsh, but give ’em time. They’ll have photos of our solar system as seen from Andromeda before you know it.