Cloud research rocket launch scares everyone – as usual!

A series of spooky lights above parts of the northeastern United States Saturday sparked a flurry of phone calls to authorities and television news stations…

CNN affiliate stations from New Jersey to Massachusetts heard from dozens of callers who reported that the lights appeared as a cone shape shining down from the sky.

However, the lights were the result of an experimental rocket launch by NASA from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, a spokesman told CNN.

Keith Koehler said the Black Brant XII Suborbital Sounding Rocket was launched to study the Earth’s highest clouds. The light came from an artificial noctilucent cloud formed by the exhaust particles of the rocket’s fourth stage about 173 miles high…

Normally, noctilucent clouds are not visible to the naked eye and can only be seen when illuminated by sunlight below the horizon. The launch took place at 7:46 p.m. Saturday, just as the sun was setting for the day.

Observation stations on the ground and in satellites will track the artificial noctilucent clouds created by the rocket for months, NASA said.

And we will track the fear and trepidation of ill-educated superstitious people fearful of signs and portents in the heavens.

I think the researchers at the Wallops Facility must run a pool on how many panic-stricken calls come in from across the East Coast when they plan one of these experiments. They should time the next one to coincide with some auspicious Christian date and really scare the crap out of everyone.

Alternative Energy helps government do a better, quieter job of surveillance

Nearly undetectable from the ground, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are widely used by the military to scan terrain for possible threats and intelligence. Now, fuel cell powered UAVs are taking flight as an Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored program to help tactical decision-makers gather critical information more efficiently… and more quietly…

In particular, the Ion Tiger UAV tests a hydrogen-powered fuel cell design, which can travel farther and carry heavier payloads than earlier battery-powered designs. Ion Tiger employs stealthy characteristics due to its small size, reduced noise, low heat signature and zero emissions…

Fuel cells create an electrical current when they convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and are pollution-free. A fuel cell propulsion system can also deliver potentially twice the efficiency of an internal combustion engine – while running more quietly and with greater endurance…

This spring, Ion Tiger’s flight trial is expected to exceed the duration of previous flights seven-fold.

The inevitable question returns: how well will oversight govern use of devices like this for domestic spying?

Do you think Cheney moles in the NSA and elsewhere won’t be tracking the Big Brother potential?

Doorstep Astronomy: Mercury in the Morning

During these next three weeks we will be presented with an excellent opportunity to view Mercury in the early morning dawn sky. Mercury is called an “inferior planet” because its orbit is nearer to the sun than the Earth’s. Therefore, it always appears from our vantage point to be in the same general direction as the sun…

In the pre-Christian era, this planet actually had two names, as it was not realized it could alternately appear on one side of the sun and then the other. Mercury was called Mercury when in the evening sky, but was known as Apollo when it appeared in the morning. It is said that Pythagoras, about the fifth century B.C., pointed out that they were one and the same.

Mercury rises before the sun all of this month and is surprisingly easy to see from now through Nov. 5. All you have to do is just look low above the eastern horizon during morning twilight, from about 30 to 45 minutes before sunrise for a bright yellowish-orange “star.”

Mercury will be at its greatest western elongation, 18 degrees to the west of the sun, on Oct. 22, rising as dawn breaks, and making this Mercury’s best morning apparition of 2004. Mercury, like Venus, appears to go through phases like the moon. Shortly after passing inferior conjunction on Oct. 6, Mercury was just a slender crescent. Currently, it appears about one-third illuminated, but the amount of its surface illuminated by the sun will continue to increase in the days to come. So although it will begin to turn back toward the sun’s vicinity after Oct. 22, it will continue to brighten steadily, which should help keep it in easy view over the following couple of weeks.

Helping to aid in identifying Mercury will be a lovely crescent moon. Early on the morning of Oct. 26, at about an hour before sunrise, you’ll find the moon low in the east-southeast sky and Mercury will appear as a bright star-like object well below and to the moon’s left.

The article has plenty of detail, history, science and common sense suggestions for watching. Enjoy this special opportunity to see one of our downhill neighbors.

Police say UFO was just the Moon

A recording of this emergency call has been released as part of a police campaign asking people to use 999 appropriately:

Control Room: “South Wales Police, what’s your emergency?”
Caller: “It’s not really. I just need to inform you that across the mountain there’s a bright stationary object.”
Control room: “Right.”
Caller: “If you’ve got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is? It’s been there at least half an hour and it’s still there.”
Control: “It’s been there for half an hour. Right. Is it actually on the mountain or in the sky?”
Caller: “It’s in the air.”
Control: “I will send someone up there now to check it out.”
Caller: “OK.”

The mystery was soon solved, as the exchange between control and an officer at the scene, makes clear:

Control: “Alpha Zulu 20, this object in the sky, did anyone have a look at it?”
Officer: “Yes, it’s the moon. Over.”

I would never survive a gig like emergency despatch. Too willing to tell people the truth, too likely to respond by pointing out they just may be a stupid git!

The new stars of Provence

Astronomer Olly Penrice is getting excited. “Don’t look, don’t look! In a minute you will see it and be much amazed…”

I put my eye to the telescope, a fat barrel of a thing fixed on a tripod embedded in concrete, and suddenly I’m floating above the craters and plains of our nearest neighbour. It feels like flying over the surface at 20 miles high. The view is too big to fit in the eyepiece in one go, so Olly hands me a gently glowing remote control and instructs me to look north, south, east and west.

I press north and the telescope whirs gently up the way, revealing jagged-edge craters and flat, silvery volcanic plains. I explore, whirring left, right, up and down, before handing on the remote control and eyepiece to the person waiting next to me. He too gazes in wonder, and then quietly says, “It looks like it’s made of cheese, Gromit.”

Another lovely piece in the Guardian – making me want to take my wife to Provence. Show her all the lovely parts of the countryside which look very much like where we live outside of Santa Fe.

And to see the night sky from another special vantage point.