Reliving Apollo


When I first walked into this exhibit hall at the Kennedy Space Centre, I was floored. This image only shows part of the vast Saturn V rocket lying on its side, surrounded by artifacts and memorabilia from the glory days of the Apollo moon landing program, including an actual lunar module (at upper right), though one that never flew — if it had, it wouldn’t be here to be on display. The immensity of the Saturn V rocket is overwhelming. I regret never having seen one go up.

The actual Command Module from Apollo 14 is here, as well as the Saturn launch control room faithfully recreated from the original consoles, and brought to life in a multi-media show.

It is a stunning exhibit, and a space enthusiast’s dream, located at the site of the VIP launch viewing area. Across the water are the launch pads and Vertical Assembly Building still used, though not for long, by the Space Shuttle.

On the day we were there, March 5, by good fortune we did manage to see a launch, of an Atlas V rocket carrying the secret X37B spaceplane into orbit. That was pretty neat, though seeing a Shuttle go up would be even better. Only two more chances for that!

And then, I hope, those amazing Shuttles will find retirement homes in exhibit complexes as fine as this one at KSC. The last 30 years of Shuttle missions have provided some of the most memorable moments in space exploration, both highs and lows, and they deserve to be commemorated in suitable fashion in impressive exhibits. It would be a pity if, after spending billions and billions on the Shuttle program, no one can come up with ~ $100 million to house and display at least one of the retired orbiters properly.

– Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Looking Up at Arecibo


Visiting one of the world’s great observatories is always a highlight for any astronomy enthusiast. Most of us “collect” observatories, and try to get to as many as possible in our lifetime of travels and explorations. This last week provided me an opportunity to visit a place of legendary status in astronomy, the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. This is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and consists of a 1000-foot metal dish suspended in a natural bowl in the island landscape.

In this shot, our tour group, part of the “Cosmic Trails” Caribbean cruise I was on that week, is standing underneath the metal mesh dish, looking up toward the antennas suspended high above the dish. This is a rare and privileged place to stand — driving down into and under the dish isn’t on the usual tourist tour. Had they been beaming powerful radar signals out to some solar system target that afternoon we would not have been able to stand here. As it was, they were listing to signals from pulsars. We also got into the main control room to talk to the observers and technicians at work that afternoon.

I won’t provide all the background about this remarkable observatory (you can read about it yourself at Wikipedia or visit the telescope’s webpage). However, movie fans will know this location from its appearance in the movie Contact and in the James Bond film Goldeneye. And it is well-known for its role in broadcasting signals to potential aliens and for listing to signals from extraterrestrials. However, one of its main roles these days is bouncing radar signals off passing near-Earth asteroids, and producing radar “images” of those asteroids. Arecibo also discovered, back in the 1960s, the true rotation rate of Mercury, now visible at its best in the evening sky.

– Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Sailin’ Toward the Moon


For the past week I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, on a “cruise and learn” voyage, serving as one of the guest speakers to a group of astronomy enthusiasts who wanted an immersive vacation learning about the latest in astronomy research and, in my presentations, about the hobby side: choosing a telescope and doing astrophotography. The cruise was organized by Insight Cruises and by Sky and Telescope magazine.

The trip went great, with fabulous weather all along, and a welcome break to an awful winter in the north. However, a cruise ship is not the best place to actually do astrophotography!

This is a shot taken on Friday, March 11, from the upper deck and bow of the ship, the Holland America Line’s “Nieuw Amsterdam,” as we sailed on a northwest course back to Fort Lauderdale from our most southerly port of call in St. Maartens in the eastern Caribbean. The Moon is overexposed at right, and is directly ahead of us, making it look like we were sailing toward the Moon. At left is Orion and Canis Major, tipped over on their sides compared to our northerly view. This was from a latitude of about 20° North.

To keep the stars looking like stars (and not seagulls) and freeze the rolling of the ship, I had to bump the camera up to ISO 6400 and use a 5 second exposure at f/2.8 (wide open) with the 16-35mm lens. Not the best combination of settings, but it’s what it took to capture the “seascape” night scene.

— Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer