Chang’e-5-T1, which is a lunar swingby mission that looks very much like a dry-run for a manned mission as it uses a return capsule based on the Shenzhou descent module (only smaller), blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center today. The mission profile is strongly reminiscent of the Zond lunar swingby missions of the late 1960s, where the Soviets lobbed modified Soyuz descent modules around the Moon in the run-up to a manned mission. Unfortunately, their larger rocket (necessary for the heavier crewed flight) never entered service, and the capsules found it trickier than expected to nail the double-skip reentry; only one made a survivable entry, and because it was off-target, the tracking ships transmitted a self-destruct signal to prevent capture by hostile nations. China is likely preparing to do what the USSR was trying to do, and become the second nation to send humans to the Moon.
You may have noticed there was no Chang’e 4; this is because Chang’e 4 was a backup for Chang’e 3. Since that mission achieved its objectives of landing on the Moon, the spare was not required. Chang’e 5-T1, meanwhile, is actually a test vehicle in preparation for the real Chang’e 5, which will fly in 2017 and will include a robotic lander and sample return system.
Meanwhile, hitchhiking on the rocket was the 4M spacecraft. Strapped to the Long March 3C/G2 rocket’s upper stage, the 4M spacecraft is the first commercial mission sent into deep space, built by European company LuxSpace. It will send human-readable messages on amateur radio frequencies for the duration of its mission, as the upper stage flies past the Moon and into heliocentric orbit. In addition, it carries an instrument for measuring radiation. It is not really intended as a scientific instrument, though, but rather as a curiosity to encourage amateurs and students around the world to become involved in spaceflight as the industry becomes more accessible and the projects more achievable by the amateur.
This was the first flight of the Long March 3C/G2 vehicle. I’ll post a launch video if/when one becomes available. ;-)
Active Region 2192 isn’t the biggest sunspot ever, but it’s definitely worth taking note of. It could swallow the Earth, quite easily. Heck, it could swallow Jupiter. SDO got this amazing video of it growing as the Sun’s rotation pulls it around to the front. It’ll be facing us in a couple of days.
Thursday, October 23 there will be a deep partial solar eclipse favoring viewers in North America, Kamchatka, easternmost Siberia, and portions of the northeast Pacific. The Sun will rise partially eclipsed in Kamchatka, and then the eclipse will progress eastward as the Moon’s penumbra slips over the Earth, hitting Alaska and then moving into Canada and the contiguous United States. Most of the United States will get to see it, although Hawaii misses out entirely, and the circumstances get worst the further east you go. Here in the Twin Cities, the Sun will set about forty-five minutes after maximum eclipse, but before the eclipse is over. East of a line running right down the lower peninsula of Michigan, the Sun will set before maximum eclipse. Most of New England will miss out entirely, as the Moon’s shadow slips off the limb of the Earth here.
Remember: don’t stare at the eclipse unprotected for any serious length of time. You can damage your retina in this way. Eclipses cut down on the amount of heat energy coming out, enough that you will not feel pain as quickly, but you’ll still be getting enough UV radiation to be harmful. Use a properly filtered telescope, a solar telescope, cheap binoculars and a sheet of cardboard for a projection setup, a pinhole camera, welding glass (NASA recommends #14 or better), or some other form of protection. Eclipses are well worth watching, but your vision is more important.
Tomorrow’s viewing should be especially good since there will be sunspots, with gargantuan sunspot group 2192 (you’ll know it when you see it) rolling around towards the center of the solar disk right now.
This is debris from Comet Halley, the most famous of all short-period comets. Dawn this morning was actually the best time to look, but it’s a fairly drawn-out shower, so tomorrow morning should be worth a look-see as well, if your weather is cooperating — though bear in mind that it’s not one of the heavier showers. You might see a handful in a hour, or 25 if you’re very lucky and in a very nice dark sky location. The radiant point of this shower is in the constellation Orion, which is one of the easiest to recognize in the night sky. If you are looking at Orion, and his belt is in the middle with Betelgeuse (the reddish one) to the upper left, the radiant will be up and to the left of there.
It doesn’t look like much, but here, taken by the venerable Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s Panoramic Camera is Comet Siding Spring. The speckles you see throughout the image are not stars; they’re just noise. But the stars are there, as streaks. PanCam isn’t really optimized for night viewing. It appears the mission team programmed it to track the comet’s predicted motion, because you can see star trails. The comet itself, meanwhile, is a distinct smudge in the middle of the image. There’s also what might be a meteor towards the bottom of the image, though it could also be noise as well. Still, meteors were expected to be likely during the comet encounter, because its dusty coma was expected to brush the planet’s atmosphere.
It might not look like much (there are better comet images from Earth), but as far as I know it’s the first image of a comet from the surface of another world.