Everybody said that Comet ISON, or more exactly C/2012 S1, would be either the comet of the century or a complete dud after it would swing around the sun. The comet had even reached naked-eye visibility in the last two weeks and there were a lot of amazing photos taken by astrophotographers around the world, but then came the initial disappointment: yesterday the comet reached perihelion, the closest approach to the sun at about 18:45 UTC and at first it seemed like it had not survived its first and perhaps only trip around it.
NASA had broadcast a two-and-a-half hour hangout during the event, because thanks to the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, the Solar Dynamics Observatory and STEREO satellites it was possible to monitor the comet’s approach and departure practically in real-time – and very soon it seemed like the comet was simply going to fizzle out. Even before it had reached the sun, the tip became smaller and smaller, like the nucleus had already broken up. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, who participated in NASA’s webcast, was the first one who reluctantly and sadly agreed that Comet ISON had probably disintegrated and when the webcast ended after nothing had emerged on the images from the satellites, everyone thought it was the end of ISON and went to their Thanksgiving dinners.
But then something amazing happened: the comet made a reappearance, as you can see on the image above – at first everybody thought it was only the remnants of its enormeous tail, but then the comet, or what was left of it, suddenly brightened more and more. For the full scoop, I can recommend Elizabeth Howell’s Article on Universe Today called Zombie ISON ‘Behaving Like A Comet, Stunned Astronomers Say’ which sums up the current situation very well. Phil Plait also has a great post on his blog up and Emily Lakdawalla has even more animations and images in her article! The bottom line is that nobody really knows yet what Comet ISON is up to and it may even be possible that it will be visible in the skies in December after all. All that remains at the moment is to wait, to gather data and to figure out what is going to happen to ISON. And this is the part scientists especially love: ISON is a great challenge, sporting a behaviour that has not been seen before. [Update 4.12.: Well, it seems ISON has fizzled after all, but it had put up one hell of a fight – it’s still to early to say if the remnants will be visible at all, but it doesn’t look too good.]
While Comet ISON has after all not turned out to be a turkey, the second launch attempt of the SpaceX next-generation Falcon 9 rocket to transport a communications satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit at 80000 kilometers from from Earth, certainly has. The first attempt on Monday had already been scrubbed because of technical problems and the Thanksgiving launch had an even more spectacular abort: the engines had already fired when the launch sequence was automatically aborted because the system had detected not enough thrust buildup. A second attempt was also scrubbed because the engineers did not have enough time in the launch window, after that it was decided to bring the whole rocket down to inspect the engines. But this is not a catastrophy, quite the contrary: SpaceX is being deliberately careful and this shows the company’s competence. This is rocket science, and it’s not easy. As Elon Musk said in his tweet shortly after the abort – better to be paranoid and wrong! [Update 4.12.: The caution has paid off, yesterday SpaceX launched the rocket successfully and put the satellite on board into the required geosynchronous orbit without problems!]
Everybody is writing about the fifteenth birthday of the International Space Station today and I don’t really think I can add to all of it except say Happy Birthday, too! I’d just like to link to a wonderful article on Universe Today about the very first day on the ISS back on December 10, 1998 when the Russian Zarya and US Unity modules were joined together for the first time. And there’s also this video not from NASA, but the Canadian Space Agency, which brilliantly expresses what the Space Station is all about.
Each year I completely forget about Carl Sagan Day and I get reminded by the internet about it. But this year, the reminder is something special: Mad Art Lab’s Ryan Consell has created a crowdsourced reading of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, which is absolutely wonderous and beautiful. Even better, as I’m writing this, I’m watching two russian Astronauts perform a spacewalk on the ISS and the Pale Blue Dot keeps rolling the background. You can’t help but feel really, really small, but in an absolutely wonderful and awe-inspiring way. H/T to Nicole Gugliucci of CosmoQuest, on whose stream I’ve seen the video first!
The International Space Station, currently the only human outpost in space, is going to be as busy as a railway station this week – it has happened before, but at the same time it is highly unusual to have more than six astronauts at the same time there. This is going to happen on Thursday, when a Soyuz spaceship launching in the night before brings up another three crew members, causing a rare overlap between the expeditions. There have already been some preparations as the Soyuz which will carry three astronauts back to earth on Sunday has been moved to another docking port, but the real busyness will only start later this week.
So, who is up there, who is coming back, and most importantly, who is keeping contact not only with Houston and Baikonur, but also with us ground-dwellers via social networks? Unfortunately all of the Russian astronauts are not in the loop (yet?), but almost everbody from the USA, Europe and Japan is.
Coming back to earth on Sunday are Karen Nyberg, Luca Parmitano and Fyodor Yurchikhin. Parmitano has been walking firmly in the footsteps of Chris Hadfield and while there has not been much singing or guitar-slinging this time, the italian ESA astronaut has been keeping in touch with his own blog and on Google+, Facebook and Twitter, where he has been posted amazing photos from space and the station almost daily and written amazing articles. His colleague Karen Nyberg from NASA has limited herself to her Twitter-Account at @AstroKarenN, but she also posts regularly.
Staying until March of 2014 are Mike Hopkins from the USA and the Russians Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazansky. Hopkins is also a regular on Twitter as @AstroIllini and always posts interesting photos and short status updates, but like Karen Nyberg he has no official accounts on either Google+ or Facebook.
The newcomers arriving on Thursday are Richard Mastracchio from the USA, Koichi Wakata from Japan and Mikhail Tyurin from Russia, all seasoned astronauts who have been in space multiple times. Both Mastracchio and Wakata have already been busily tweeting their preparations for their coming launch as @AstroRM and @Astro_Wakata and I’m sure they will continue once they have reached the station.
This unfortunately means that there will be no astronauts in space on Google+ for a while, but with the changeover from expedition 37 to 38 there will still be three active Twitter users in low earth orbit. Many of the coming ISS crew members are also on Twitter and sometimes even on other social networks – most notably italian ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who is currently writing a logbook about her experiences in preparing for her November 2014 launch on her Google+ account – she’s also on Twitter as @AstroSamantha. Other soon-to-launch astronauts on Twitter are Reid Wiseman (@Astro_Reid) and Alexander Gerst (@Astro_Alex), who are right now also tweeting from the launch preparations in Baikonur.
I am sure I have missed mentioning some of the astronauts in this article, but I have also made my Twitter Astronaut List public if anybody wants to follow just about everyone who is, was and is going to be in space. I may be updating this list semi-frequently, I’m sure I haven’t found all tweeting astronauts yet! With this list, you can follow all the action over the course of the week, but there’s also NASA TV, its Youtube Channel and ReelNASA with great excerpts and summaries.
I’m not sure if Meri Amber really needs another introduction at this point. I have shared a lot of her videos and songs before and the best way to describe her is that she’s not you average Youtube girl with a guitar at all – she’s actually a very accomplished songwriter and musician with a lot of creativity and humour. She had published her first full album in mid-September, which she calls a Mini-P, but I think she is a bit too modest since Wandering actually contains ten songs with half of them new and the other half older ones in remixed versions.
I originally wanted to write a full in-depth review and I may still do it at some point, but for time reasons I’ll just say for now that all of the songs are absolutely wonderful and the album is really worth listening to and even buying. You can listen to the album for free on her website via Spotify, but you can also get it as a digital download in every major online music store including Amazon.de. The higher bitrates really make the songs sound much better than the comparatively low-fidelity streaming versions and I can really recommend getting the download version – it’s worth every cent!