Unidentified flying objects in night sky? What were these?

Click for full-sized image.

April 26th, 2020, 9:10 p.m. local time

Tonight I saw something truly bizarre.  On this clear Spring night, I took my camera out to take pictures of the Moon and Venus together, around 9 p.m. local time.  I started with a wide lens to get both objects together, then quickly switched to my long 300mm lens for a closeup of the Moon in its early Crescent phase.

I had planned to take a number of image sets while refining the focus.  In the middle of this exercise, above the Moon and Venus, and still higher than Castor and Pollux of Gemini above them, I saw appear a trail of light points moving from W-NW to SW, right to left from my vantage and on a gradual incline towards the South.  They were in perfect unison motion and if I had to guess, there were about 30 of them.  They were in no uniform pattern, with some bunched and others alone.  They moved at about the speed of a typical visible satellite, stretching and moving from above Gemini and then disappearing somewhere past Regulus.

I knew I had to act quickly to photograph them, as they were moving fast and I didn’t know how long they would be visible or if more were coming.  Unfortunately, I had my long lens on the camera, so the field of view was far too narrow to appreciate the size and spectacle of this train of moving light points.

If I had had my wider lens on from just a few minutes prior, I know I would have easily gotten a much better perspective shot.  Instead, my best snap of about five is show here, with the light points artificially enhanced so you can see the line.  It’s important to note that this grouping is just a small fraction of the entire visible line I saw high above.

I have no idea what these were.  My first thought was drones, but they were obviously far too high and their motion was akin to any random satellite, except of course that there were dozens of them, moving in a line.  My only other idea was some sort of debris just above the atmosphere that was in perfect position to reflect the light of the Sun (which had set over an hour prior).

The only event I can remotely compare this to was when I saw the ISS and a Space Shuttle, some 15-20 years ago, fly over in perfect unison.  But they were only two points of light, and if I remember, they were more side-by-side, whereas these lights tonight were in a straight line.

Do you have any idea what these light points could have been?  Have you ever seen anything similar?

Edit: It appears I saw the SpaceX satellites.  See this post and its accompanying video:

How To See A ‘Starlink Train’ From Your Home This Week As SpaceX Satellites Swarm The Night Sky

Follower Celebration – Have a Reading List!

Previously unpublished image from February 11th, 2020.

Recently, my blog crossed 250 followers.  So to everyone that has followed, thanks for being here!

I know of those 250+, you’re all here for different reasons.  So I’d like to break down my thanks by area:

  • To those that followed for the astronomy photographs and images, I hope you continue to like them.  I know my posting schedule can be erratic.  Sometimes I post multiple times a week, and then I go on a month hiatus.  It’s largely due to the weather and other factors which can make astrophotography difficult.  “Planet season” is coming up this year, so I’m looking forward to a nice stint of observing and photographing Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as they return to the evening sky.
  • If you accidentally clicked the Follow button, I am still glad you are here, and hope you found a post or two interesting.
  • If you are a bot, спасибо, тоже.
  • If you followed for the Star Wars posts, I’m sorry but I have nothing else to say about it.

So are you at home right now and looking for things to do?  Here is a montage of my past posts on some of my main and not-so main topics.  Hope you enjoy them!

Thanks again for reading my blog, and clear skies!

The Orion Nebula via DSLR Camera

The Orion Nebula, M42, plus surrounding stars. Click for full-sized image.

April 5th, 2020, 8:40 p.m. local time

On Sunday night, in addition to imaging Venus, the Pleiades, and the Moon, I also pointed the camera towards the Orion Nebula.  This was mostly an experiment, as I had never imaged M42 without the aid of a telescope.

As this time of year, the Orion Constellation is falling into the West after Dusk.  So the nebula, along with the surrounding stars that make up Orion’s sword, are at an angle towards your right.  This is in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, I assume the configuration is “upside down” and would be angled towards your left.

I took a number of images of the nebula, playing around with the exposure and ISO settings.  The image included with this post is the best in my opinion, with only some minor post-processing touchups in an attempt to remove background noise.

I would like to do long-exposure stacking of deep sky objects again, but my “new” DSLR camera only outputs raw images in a format (CR3) that my software programs cannot handle.  The old standard was CR2.  I haven’t checked recently if any programs like DeepSkyStacker now support CR3, but I should.

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 2 sec exposure
  • ISO 3200
  • 260mm lens length
  • Minor post-processing in PaintShop Pro

Venus and the Pleiades in April 2020

Click for full-sized image.

April 5th, 2020, 8:30 p.m. local time

Inspired by other blogs such as Heads UP! taking cool pictures of Venus near the Pleiades, I knew I had to get in on the action myself.

On Sunday night, aside from imaging the Moon, plus another target (stay tuned), the bright planet and star cluster were my primary objective.  Venus is now “above” the Pleiades in our perspective from Earth, but they were still very close to each other as of Sunday.

Observing the Pleiades has been a hobby of mine ever since I built my Dobsonian in late 2016, though I don’t think I have mentioned it directly on this blog.  Even in my light polluted environment, that big scope has the power to illuminate some of the faintest stars in the cluster.  They are all a beautiful blue.

For comparison, here is a previously unpublished sketch of the Pleiades I drew a few years ago.  I have flipped it upside down so it aligns with the photo I took on Sunday (Newtonian reflectors like my Dob invert the image).

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 1/2 sec exposure
  • ISO 3200
  • 140mm lens
  • Minor post-processing in PaintShop Pro

Moon on April 5th, 2020

Click for full-sized image.

April 5th, 2020, 8:25 p.m. local time

A comparatively cold but nonetheless pleasant Spring evening tonight made for the ideal conditions to take some pictures of the sky.  First up, the Moon, as it was still rising in the East.

The Moon was not my only target.  Stay tuned in the coming days for more images from tonight’s session.

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 1/500 sec exposure
  • ISO 100
  • 300mm lens
  • Minor post-processing in PaintShop Pro

Astropolitics and the “Lost Focus” of The Hubble Space Telescope

 

Our personal worldviews are shaped early in life, and can be solidified in education.  While an undergraduate studying computer engineering 24 years ago, I read a book that molded my own perspective on science, scientists, and politics.  It created a philosophical foundation in me that remains today.

As part of my needed “humanities” credits, I took a class called Politics of Science.  An assignment was to find, read, and report on a book that discussed some topic concerning politics in science.  Perusing my local library, I found The Hubble Wars by Eric Chaisson.  Hubble was still a hot topic in 1996, and with my lifelong interest in astronomy, it seemed like an easy fit for the school assignment.

The most profound lesson I took from reading the book?  Scientists are human.  They can be mad, jealous, even threaten others to defend their territory.  This never occurred to me, even though I was nearing the end of an engineering program, which was effectively all calculus and physics and C++, aside from the humanities classes, of course.  Learning equations and the names of those who discovered them were “book smarts”.  Up to that point in my life, I never really thought about science as a profession, how it generally operates as an internal structure, and how it, and specifically individual scientists, interacts with the world at large.

The Hubble Wars helped shape my worldview.  One of my philosophical pillars is that when politics and science mix, it all becomes politics, and politics is driven by money. Like how astrology is anathema to astronomy, politics in an ideal world would stay as far away from science as possible.  But politics is that necessary evil which can enable scientific advancement, even though the actual political intentions are never altruistic. This is the lens that I see everything through when politicians invoke science to justify their political agendas.  I question everything, and never assume what is presented at face value.  I wish more people would do the same, but the opposite seems to be the norm.

There isn’t much available online that I can see by way of discussion and rebuttal to this book.  The topic might as well be ancient history here in 2020.  Still, it is not hard to imagine that Dr. Chaisson’s account of events was not well-received, and indeed perhaps career inhibiting with regards to NASA and related agencies.  The book is still available for purchase on Amazon, and the scant reviews make reference to this, but no sources are cited.  Neither Dr. Chaisson‘s Wikipedia page nor Harvard profile mention his Hubble account.

Below is the report I wrote on The Hubble Wars in 1996.  It is largely intact outside a variety of minor edits that present-day me did to clean up past-me’s writing, plus a small edit to clarify which President Bush is being referenced, though that is implied by the date of the report.


Hubble Space Telescope Project’s Lack Of Focus

May 9th, 1996

The Space Telescope Project was an initiative started by NASA approximately 20 years ago. The origins of the project may be traced back to 1974, when the National Academy of Sciences recommended the creation of the Space Telescope Science Institute. Simply, the project’s goal was to put a telescope in orbit around the Earth.

There is one primary reason for having a telescope in space: the atmosphere. From thousands of years ago through Galileo’s time and up to the late 1980’s, astronomers had been confined by the layers of gases surrounding the Earth. Further, the atmosphere does not allow ultraviolet light from the universe to reach the ground. Ultraviolet light is crucial to understanding many objects in the Cosmos. In fact, Eric Chaisson, author of The Hubble Wars and member of the Space Telescope Science Institute in the 1980’s and early 90’s, claims there have been only two major advances in telescope astronomy. The first was Galileo’s initial discoveries, and the second was the Hubble telescope.1 With the Hubble Space Telescope, the barrier of the atmosphere has been broken. Astronomers are able to observe the universe with more clarity than ever before.

Aside from the scientific importance of the Space Telescope Project, the political story surrounding Hubble has had a significant impact on large-scale scientific projects in the United States. The first prominent aspect of the Space Telescope Project (also known as the Hubble Project) is its size. Throughout the 20 years of the project, it has employed tens of thousands of workers, had numerous organizations, committees, contractors, and government intervention. All of this has been headed by a weakly-managed and disorganized NASA. The result was many people with many personalities and many agendas, and not much coordination or management, which ultimately hurt the project when it ran into trouble.2

Perhaps not surprisingly, the federal bureaucrats responsible for managing Hubble seemed unconcerned. NASA officials stressed to the workers being part of the “Hubble team”, not realizing that the agency’s version of total quality management damps innovation while promoting mediocrity.3 NASA’s inability to effectively manage the HST Project often made problems worse, while creating disasters with the media.

In the most general scheme of the Hubble Project, three agencies are involved: the Goddard Institute, and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and NASA. The Goddard Institute is the center for Hubble‘s engineers, as well as the location of Hubble Control. The Space Telescope Science Institute, located on the campus of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is responsible for scheduling Hubble‘s activities. The high-level management belongs to NASA, which also controls the Hubble Project’s funding and media relations.

In terms of scientific advice to government, this report considers the Space Telescope Science Institute’s advice to NASA. However, the advice given to government by the Hubble Project as a whole shall be examined first. Why should the government fund such a project? First, there is the previously mentioned reason about scientific research above our atmosphere, but are there any benefits besides this? Clearly, the Hubble Project will not give society a better toaster, or create a new washing machine. Instead, it shall repay the American public with something far more valuable: a renewed interest in science.

Our society is prevalently illiterate of science. To use astronomy as an example, a government-sponsored survey found that nearly one-third of the U.S. adult population thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth, and an additional 28 percentage do not know it takes a year for our planet to revolve around the Sun.4 While there are many such ‘eye-opening’ statistics like this, they do not help to solve the problem.

Eric Chaisson was the head of the Science Institute’s educational-outreach programs in 1990, when Hubble was launched by Shuttle Discovery. Their target group was, and still is, precollege students. Hopefully, by sharing the rewards of Hubble with students, many will become interested in science, and even enter careers in science or engineering. Obviously, these rewards would be far greater than any single commercial project alone. Shortly before launch of Hubble, a U.S. Senator asked Chaisson what will be the benefits of the Hubble Project, and he gave this fore-mentioned answer. She, and many others, came to believe in this reasoning for the support of Hubble.

To turn this report from the benefits of Hubble, it is important to understand why Chaisson’s book is entitled “The Hubble Wars”. In summary, the relations between NASA and the Science Institute were in a state of chaos in the months following the deployment of Hubble. Before the late-April launch of Hubble in 1990, NASA had over-hyped the Space Telescope Project by claiming things that the telescope could never do. For example, at one NASA press conference they stated that Hubble would be able to see 10 times farther into the universe than from the ground.5 This is false, writes Chaisson, since Hubble cannot see much farther than conventional telescopes. Hubble‘s power lies in its superior resolution and sharpness of images.

In the weeks and months following the launch, the Space Telescope ran into one setback after another. Its initial commissioning period, which was supposed to last only a few weeks, was dragging on into months. From spacecraft jitters to entry into ‘safemode’ (where the spacecraft essentially shuts itself down to some degree), the problems and frustration of Hubble‘s operators steadily grew. This primarily meant the engineers at Goddard, who had to continually uplink software patches to fix problems. NASA didn’t help much with its media relations either. They would always say the telescope was fine, or that they were experiencing only minor problems.6

During this period, the Science Institute continually advised NASA to be truthful about the problems of Hubble. If NASA had been honest with the press by stating that projects of Hubble‘s size were bound to have difficulties during their commissioning period, then perhaps the media would have been more forgiving.7 However, this advice went ignored by NASA. The press knew that NASA was either not being truthful or didn’t know the full situation themselves.

It is interesting to note why the Science Institute did not talk to the press directly. This is because NASA wanted all media relations to go through them. To note one item in particular, whenever an image from Hubble was released to the public, NASA wanted only their logo on it, despite the contributions of Goddard, the Science Institute, and even the European Space Agency, which built several major components of the Space Telescope.8 These actions never faired well with the other agencies.

Tensions came to a climax when NASA had to tell the world that Hubble’s primary mirror was suffering from a spherical aberration, the worst type of optimal defect. The problem was discovered by one of the ESA scientists who specialized in optical physics. From the first pictures taken by Hubble, he calculated that the primary was not the correct shape by 2 microns, or one one-ten-thousandth of an inch. While that does not seem like a large defect, such an error is almost unthinkable in the world the high-precision optics. It would like be making a door that is an inch too wide.

How was such an error overlooked? Quite simply, nobody ever checked the mirror’s dimensions. It was built in 1981 by the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, and remained in an air-tight room for several years before assembly. Through lack of management, it was assumed that the mirror must be the correct size.9

When NASA finally conveyed the news, public opinion of the project worsened considerably. Hubble became the subject of political cartoons, and jokes on late-night television. At this time it was mid-summer, and there was worry that Congress would terminate the project when they reconvened in September. Something had to be done in order to save Hubble.

Chaisson realized that Congress may decide to ‘pull the plug’, and so he wrote a rather stern email letter to everyone at Goddard, the Science Institute, and officials at NASA, pleading that someone take charge of the project. Despite Hubble‘s aberration, many productive pictures could still be taken by Space Telescope with the aid of computer image-cleaning. On this fact, Chaisson recommended that the Early Release Object program (ERO) be reinstated immediately. ERO was meant to have Hubble take several pictures which would be released to the public to show the benefits of the telescope. However, this project was terminated before launch due to the objections of many professional astronomers who didn’t want ‘their’ photos to be seen by ‘street people’.10 Basically, the Universe had been divided by professional astronomers for viewing with Hubble. Each astronomer would have exclusive rights to their pictures for one year, after which they would become public domain. However, given the desperate situation, ERO had to be revived.

A few high-ranking officials took Chaisson’s letter seriously, and ERO was reinstated. Essentially, during August and September of 1990, the Science Institute ignored NASA’s directives and took control of Hubble themselves. They were able to take many pictures which proved that Hubble was not ‘broken’. While several disgruntled astronomers publicly denounced the EROs as a publicity stunt11, the imaging campaign did to some extent restore public support for Hubble, as President (H.W.) Bush showed off a stunning picture of Saturn at the White House. More important, the project was not terminated by Congress in the fall.

Today, several years after the December 1993 Hubble repair mission, public opinion has almost completely reversed. Hubble is now fulfilling its original expectations by unlocking many secrets of the Universe. You can hardly see an astronomy magazine which doesn’t talk about Hubble or show its findings.12 However, the Hubble Project’s downside is that Congress has been much more skeptical about funding large science projects. Projects such as the Mars Exploration and U.S. Space Station (not the international station) have been cancelled13, and non-space related projects such as the Superconducting SuperCollider can trace their termination, at least in part, to Hubble. Despite these setbacks, Hubble is alive and well, and should continue to yield many more fascinating discoveries for well over a decade.


1 “The Hubble Wars”, p25

2 IBID, p30

3 IBID

4 IBID, p31

5 IBID, p352

6 IBID, p116

7 IBID, p169

8 At one point, NASA mailed Chaisson their 12-page booklet containing the official NASA regulations for display of their logo!

9 IBID, p186

10 IBID, p200

11 IBID, p268

12 For an example, see the May 1996 edition on Sky and Telescope.

13 IBID, p350

Bibliography

  1. Chaisson, Eric J. “The Hubble Wars”, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 1994
  2. Sky & Telescope Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, MA, May 1996

Sun in April, 2020

Click for full-sized image.

April 2nd, 2020, 12:50 p.m. local time

It has been a while since I looked at the Sun through a telescope.  This mildly-warm Spring day with few clouds seemed like the perfect opportunity to see what the fireball in the sky was up to.

This was a somewhat rush job, as technically I needed to get back to my job.  But all in all in turned out ok, I think.  I could see two extremely small sunspots together in the upper quadrant.  If you look at the full-sized image, you may be able to find them as a small black smudge.

Equipment Used:

  • 254mm Mak-Cass telescope
  • 23mm eyepiece
  • Orange eyepiece filter
  • Solar filter for telescope lens
  • iPhone XS
  • Smartphone telescope eyepiece adapter
  • Nightcap app on iPhone with settings:
    • f/1.8
    • 1/300 s exposure
    • ISO 24
    • 4 mm focal length