Babe Among The Stars: The Space Shuttle

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

The Space Shuttle Programme

Shuttles have been working in space since 1981, providing scientists with valuable knowledge and information. The very last trip for the 25-year-old shuttle Atlantis launched on 14 May for a 12-day mission in space. British astronaut Piers Sellers (born 1955) was on board the Atlantis which took off without incident. Before it docked with the ISS, a photographer on Earth using multiple filters captured the shuttle and the ISS silhouetted against the backdrop of the Sun. Thanks to Moonhogg for alerting me to the original photo. On 23 May the transit photo appeared on the Astronomy Picture Of the Day website, with the two man-made vehicles looking like extraordinarily-shaped sunspots. The Sun, remarkably, is displaying no sunspots whatsoever.

The six shuttle astronauts delivered the Russian-built Mini Research Module (MRM1) to the space station, as well as batteries, a communications antenna and fresh supplies for the ISS personnel. Sellers took along a wood sample from the apple tree believed to have inspired Sir Isaac Newton's theory of gravity, so that it would symbolically experience weightlessness. The wood sample was lent by the Royal Society who also provided a picture of Newton: these will be returned to the Royal Society upon completion of the mission for an exhibition planned for later this year. Atlantis  landed safely and on schedule at the Kennedy Space Centre on Wednesday 26 May.

There will be two more shuttle flights before the fleet, of which only three craft remain, is mothballed. The final flight for the Discovery is scheduled for September, with Endeavour due to bring an end to the shuttle programme in November. We should honour the memory of the astronauts who lost their lives when two shuttles were destroyed — the crew of the Columbia on re-entry in February 2003, and the loss of the Challenger contingent during take-off in 1986, which included civilian 'Teacher in Space' Christa McAuliffe.

June Diary Dates

All this month, watch out for Comet McNaught (2009 R1) around midnight. It should develop a tail the closer it gets to the Sun, but it's not possible to predict. On 9 June the comet will be close to M34, a magnitude +5.5 open star cluster in Perseus the hero. By 21 June the comet will appear to be close to Capella, the very distinctive alpha star of Auriga the charioteer. Please do let me know if you view the comet, include date, time and location for an honourable mention next time. Comet McNaught will reach perihelion (closest point) with the Sun on 2 July which I'll discuss more in my BATS of July.

If you head out skywatching any time during June make sure you do so on the 6th. Around 11pm there will be a close alignment of Mars and Regulus in Leo the lion, and close by in Gemini the twins, Venus will form a triangle with Castor and Pollux. Saturn (in Virgo the maiden) will also be in the same region, it's always worth a look.

  • Chat about your celestial observances at the H2G2 Astronomy Society. Comment on anything in this edition of Babe Among the Stars by starting a new conversation below.

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