Apollo 13 in SciDome

Apollo 13 in SciDome

50 years ago this evening, the Apollo 13 spacecraft had its great “Houston, we’ve had a problem” moment. Apollo 13 is rendered in SciDome Preview Suite, with models representing the spacecraft both before and after panel #4 on the service module was blown off by the exploding oxygen tank.

Apollo 13 has been well-documented in several different media, and you may already have recommended your regular audience should check out the ‘Apollo 13’ movie, which we all love despite a few times it took dramatic license and presented a story that was a little more dramatic than the real thing. The most accurate representation of Apollo 13 now is the website www.apolloinrealtime.org, which is presenting a stereo mix of the astronauts’ and mission control’s audio loops, with scripts, images, movie clips and diagrams in real time.

The simplest way of looking at Apollo 13 in Preview Suite is to click on the hamburger icon on the leftmost pane and select ‘SkyGuide’. SkyGuide is a simple set of automations that presents an a la carte set of scenes, with descriptive text on the Preflight side. There is a ‘Space Missions’ button on the SkyGuide pane, with Apollo 13 as an option inside. The available Apollo 13 scenes are as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Launch into Earth Orbit
  • Trans-lunar injection – on the way to the Moon
  • View of the Earth
  • The accident
  • Around the Moon
  • Looking back at the Moon
  • The Service Module
  • The Lunar Module
  • Lessons learned

When you load one of these scenes, you may notice that they are zoomed in more than usual. This whole series was ported over from a different version of Starry Night, and may not be presented with the standard planetarium hemispherical view. At upper right are magnification controls, and you can use these to zoom out to the full field of view. You can also use “+” and “-” keystrokes to zoom in and out. The maximum field of view is the best dome view.

A few minutes before the oxygen tank explosion, which happened 50 years ago tonight at 10:07 PM EST (because they didn’t have daylight saving time until after the last Sunday in April at that time), just at the top of the hour, the astronauts were discussing orienting the spacecraft so that they could observe Comet Bennett, which was the 2nd-brightest comet visible in the 1970s, and just past its peak brightness at that time. Comet Bennett is not loaded in Preview Suite, but you can add it using the same guidelines I included in the most recent comet e-mail. Comet Bennett’s orbital elements can be entered into Starry Night as follows, with data from the JPL website:

Name: Bennett (C/1969 Y1)

The Odyssey command module which brought the three Apollo 13 astronauts back to Earth safely is on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS.

Venus and the Pleiades April 3

Venus and the Pleiades April 3

There is an upcoming event in the evening sky that is worth notifying your colleagues about on social media this week. Venus is going to pass in front of the Pleiades star cluster on Friday, April 3rd. The neat thing about it is that this happens every 8 years, to the day. You can simulate it on SciDome in Starry Night.

Venus is the brightest object in the evening sky other than the Moon this month, and it is provoking lots of UFO reports. Venus is also getting closer to Earth, so its apparent size is growing. Venus is also starting to turn into a crescent as it gets between the Earth and the Sun. It is a fascinating object to observe through small binoculars, especially when the Pleiades are also visible in the same binocular field of view.

Venus orbits the Sun every 225 days, but the Earth orbits the Sun as well, and it takes more than a year for Venus to catch up to the Earth and pass us. Venus returns to the same position with respect to the Earth every 8/5ths (or 1.6) of a year, or 584 days. Because it’s not equal to a year, when Venus returns after 584 days, it’s not in position against the same background stars. However, the lowest integer multiple of 1.6 is 8, so Venus does appear against the same background stars on the date when it passes the Earth every 8 years (although a backwards drift of 2 days per 8 years accumulates.)

We’re familiar with the analemma, the figure-8 pattern the Sun draws on the sky if you animate Starry Night forward in steps of 1 day at noon. Venus also has an analemma, but it’s a spirograph pattern instead of a figure-8 because its Synodic period repeats five times over the course of those 8 years. This spirograph pattern of Venus’s Local Path at 1-day intervals in Starry Night is really cool.

The Synodic Period of Venus is covered in depth in David Bradstreet’s Fulldome Curriculum Vol. 3 minilesson “Synodic Period of Venus”.

The Pleiades is the brightest star cluster that happens to be on the Ecliptic plane, so it can periodically be occulted by the Moon, and the planets sometimes pass through it. Venus passes by the Pleiades every 8/5ths of a year too, although sometimes it passes by when the Pleiades is near the Sun in May, and sometimes when the Pleiades is in the predawn sky in late summer, and sometimes it passes by the Pleiades twice because it has a retrograde loop. The accumulating 2-day error also means that Venus’s path through the Pleiades is never quite the same with each 8-year interval, and the event is a coincidence that doesn’t look so perfect if you dial it back way into the past, or well into the future. But different dates become prominent for Venus meeting the Pleiades instead.

Venus’s greatest meeting in the sky is the Transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, which is very rare, and the Transit of Venus is also affected by that accumulating drift. Venus was in front of the Sun on June 8th, 2004 and again on June 6th, 2012, but another Transit will not happen again on June 4th, 2020 (but it will be close!) The next Transit of Venus will be on December 10th, 2117.

The first time I observed Venus in the Pleiades was on April 3rd, 1996, and I recommend you look up that date in Starry Night especially. Also on that date in the evening there was a total lunar eclipse in the eastern sky, and also the bright Comet Hyakutake was in the western sky just a few degrees away from the Pleiades.

So please make your community aware of the coincidence of Venus and the Pleiades this week, so they can look up again on April 3rd of 2028 and remember what they were doing 8 years earlier.

Simulating Starlink Satellite Constellation in SciDome

Simulating Starlink Satellite Constellation in SciDome

I hope you’ve heard about the Starlink constellation of satellites that is being put into orbit this year by SpaceX. Starlink is a global network that will provide satellite internet services with better speed and lower latency than current satellite internet. The difference is that instead of being located in the geosynchronous satellite belt 36,000 km above the Equator, the first wave of Starlink satellites orbit 550 km above Earth’s surface in a web of inclined planes.

362 Starlink satellites have been put into orbit so far, and SpaceX plans to continue to launch more, in batches of 60, until a complete “shell” of almost 1600 satellites is up there. Secondary constellations of thousands of Starlink satellites at different altitudes may follow. Starlink is not the only satellite internet provider that is planning a constellation like this: a company called Oneweb plans to launch a 650-unit constellation. SpaceX’s advantage over other providers is that they also own the rockets they are using to loft Starlink, and they can re-use those rockets several times.

In this case, the rocket scientists and the astronomers do not always get along. Thousands of extra satellites in low Earth orbit represent interference for optical astronomy, especially during local summer when satellites are in daylight for longer periods of night at Earth’s surface. These spacecraft could cause a wave of UFO reports. Some of us remember the beginning of the Iridium satellites and their bright “flares”, and comparable concerns we had for their effect on astronomy. Iridium has now gone away, but Starlink may produce more interference. SpaceX has demonstrated techniques to make the satellites dimmer and to minimize interference with astronomers in future.

Various K-band radio communications used by Starlink could also cause interference for radio astronomy. Also, the sheer number of new satellites poses a problem for orbital debris collisions, and SpaceX is implementing some new kind of collision avoidance scheme to avoid the possibility of a “Kessler Syndrome“, in which a chain reaction of collisions between satellites could make low Earth orbit unusable.

Although most of the Starlink constellation hasn’t been put into orbit yet, we know that the 1,584 satellites that are going up will be split into 72 different planes of 22 spacecraft each. I did a little extrapolation from the spacecraft already in orbit and generated a satellites file that Starry Night can use that simulates what these spacecraft will look like in the planetarium sky once they are all in orbit.

These Starlinks have imaginary names using a system “STARLINK AAAA, AAAB, AAAC…” This file doesn’t represent real satellites, and the method I used to make it requires replacing the satellites file already used by Starry Night. It is not hard to locate the files to be replaced and rename them for a while as we test out this file consisting of only Starlink satellites, so the generally useful data can be preserved. But if you are used to using views of the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope in your Starry Night shows, that can’t be done at the same time as testing out this Starlink simulation.

The attached two files, Satellites.txt and SatelliteMagnitudes.txt, are text-parsable and represent the orbital elements of the satellites, and some data about how bright they are. The orbital elements are in the standard format used by NORAD, the US Air Force, etc., for this kind of data, known as Two Line Elements.

For the time being, let’s assume we are testing this on SciDome Preview Suite. Go to the following folder location on your Preview Suite computer:

C:\ProgramData\Simulation Curriculum\Starry Night Prefs\Sky Data

If you can’t see the ProgramData folder, the only problem is the ability to see hidden folders. Please contact me for advice. The Sky Data folder should already include, among other things, an original Satellites.txt and SatelliteMagnitudes.txt. Rename these files by adding a single character like a % or ^, and Starry Night won’t recognize them. Copy the two new files into this folder, and the next time Preview Suite boots up, it will load with the Starlink satellites instead of the usual ones. These satellites can be highlighted on the Preflight side and should become visible on the Renderbox side of Preview Suite at the same time.

In these images, don’t think of the blue lines as real. They are just Starlinks with the orbit lines turned on. Think of each blue line segment as the path of each Starlink over the course of about 30 seconds, each blue diamond representing four of them.

New Horizons and Ultima Thule

New Horizons and Ultima Thule

Just after midnight on January 1st, the New Horizons spacecraft will have its close encounter with the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, also known as (486958) 2014 MU69. Since New Horizons flew by Pluto in July 2015 it has been preparing for this moment. Ultima Thule wasn’t even targeted until after the Pluto encounter was over, and it was only discovered in 2014. 

New Horizons spacecraft

Of course, the next thing is simulating the encounter in Starry Night. The first problem here is that the mission path provided for New Horizons in Starry Night doesn’t extend to the present day. However, the JPL HORIZONS service can provide updated state vectors, which I have put into the attached file New Horizons.xyz.

To get the updated mission path of New Horizons into your SciDome, download this zip, open it, and copy “New Horizons.xyz” into this folder on your Preflight computer running SciDome Version 7:

C:\ProgramData\Simulation Curriculum\Starry Night Prefs\Sky Data\Space Missions

This is a networked folder that exists on both Preflight and Renderbox computers, so the file only needs to be in one place in order to be accessible in both computers. If there is no “Space Missions” subfolder of this SkyData folder, you may have to create it. Although there will then be more than one version of the New Horizons file on your system, this one will take precedence.

Ultima Thule imagery captured by New Horizons

Next, we have to add Ultima Thule to Starry Night. I find the best way to do this is to right-click on the Sun and in the details window that pops up, select ‘New Asteroid…’ In the ‘Asteroid: Untitled’ window that pops up, enter the following data, which comes from the Minor Planet Center at Harvard:

Name: Ultima Thule
Mean Distance: 44.581400  
Eccentricity: 0.041725   
Inclination: 2.4512  
Ascending Node: 158.9977  
Arg of Pericentre: 174.4177  
Mean Anomaly: 316.5508  
Epoch: 2458600.5

Exit this window and answer the prompt, ‘Do you want to save changes…?’ with yes. The next time you quit Starry Night, this new object will be saved into a file called “User Planets.ssd” that lives on your Preflight computer, but is not automatically networked to the Renderbox. In order to get it to live on the Renderbox, you have to find “User Planets.ssd” and copy it into part of the Sky Data folder we looked at above.

Locate ‘User Planets.ssd’ in the following folder:

C:\Users\SPITZ\AppData\Local\Simulation Curriculum\Starry Night Prefs\Preflight\

Verify that this file was last modified on the date you are doing this work. 

The destination the file should be copied to is:

C:\ProgramData\Simulation Curriculum\Starry Night Prefs\Sky Data\

If there is an older version of ‘User Planets.ssd’ in the destination, better save it to a safe location, just in case.

The Ultima Thule encounter could be a strange one. Pluto is about as big as the United States, from the 49th parallel to the Rio Grande, but Ultima Thule is only about as big as Nantucket Sound. Its shape has been worked out from occultations, and it looks elongated, not round. You can get more data about the mission to share from this blog entry from Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society.

You can run a simulation of the encounter on your phone with the free Pluto Safari app from Simulation Curriculum, our partners in developing Starry Night Dome and The Layered Earth Dome for SciDome planetariums.

Simulating Apollo 8 on SciDome

Simulating Apollo 8 on SciDome

Tomorrow, Friday, will be the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 8, the first crewed space flight to orbit the Moon. You can simulate Apollo 8, and the other eight Apollo missions that went to the Moon, on your SciDome.

Apollo 8 mission patch, showing the “figure 8” path the spacecraft travelled from the Earth to the Moon

First, make sure that ‘Space Missions’ are checked to be visible in your View Options pane. If you type in ‘Apollo’ in the Starry Night search engine pane, each mission will come up, and you can break each one down by “Mission Path segments” that each describe a phase of flight, and look at the Command Module and Lunar Module separately at relevant points.

These missions can only be seen when Starry Night is displaying the right time between 1968 and 1972, which you can get by right-clicking on the mission you want and selecting “Set Time to Mission Event…” and picking “Launch”, for example. The best way to see the mission path of Apollo is to be looking at it from well above the Earth’s surface, with ‘Hover as Earth Rotates’ set so that the Earth’s surface can rotate underneath you and the fixed stars stay fixed on the dome.

Apollo 8 follows a curving path out from the Earth to the Moon, orbits around the Moon ten times, and then returns to the Earth. The different mission path segments are different colors. 

You can see that the spacecraft orbits around the Moon from lunar west to lunar east. However, when we look up at Apollo’s path around the Moon it appears to be opposite the path that spacecraft orbit the Earth, even though everything launched from Cape Canaveral also goes towards the east. The Apollo spacecraft were launched into a figure-eight trajectory, so the “patching of conics” that reverses the frame of reference is like when two people shake hands on their right side. From one person’s point of view the other person is shaking their left hand, even though both participants are using their right.

The Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn V rocket are rendered in 3D in Starry Night if you go to them and look at them up close. The Apollo 8 spacecraft is pointed at the Earth by default.

Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo

The famous “Earthrise” photo was taken at the beginning of the fourth orbit, on December 24th, 1968, at about 16:25 Universal Time, as shown in SciDome. There is some question of which of the three astronauts – Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, or “Lunar Module” Pilot Bill Anders – took the photo, and the question was resolved by Apollo historian Andrew Chaikin, who recounts his investigations in Smithsonian Magazine.

In Starry Night Preflight’s ‘SkyGuide’ pane there is a section on the Apollo missions, and Apollo 8 has 13 sub-headings that go into phases of flight like the Earthrise photo in some detail. Each subheading calls up a Starry Night application favourite scene that describes that phase of flight, with some text and images that appear in the SkyGuide pane.