SATELLITE FLYBYS APP: Turn your iPhone or iPod into a field-tested satellite tracker! Spaceweather.com presents the Satellite Flybys app.
| || |
KEPLER'S NEW EXOPLANETS: NASA's Kepler space telescope, designed to find Earth-like planets around distant stars, has found its first five exoplanets. Get the full story from Science@NASA.
SATELLITE FLARE: Europe's Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer ("GOCE" for short) is an extraordinary spacecraft. It circles the planet at a perilously low altitude using fins to cut through the wisps of Earth's outermost atmosphere. GOCE's sophisticated ion engine constantly adjusts its thrust between 1 and 20 millinewtons (mN) to counteract even the slightest hint of atmospheric drag. Such perfection is necessary to make the finest-ever maps of Earth's gravitational field.
All that--and it's fun to look at, too. On Jan. 3rd, Marco Langbroek watched the satellite pass over his backyard observatory in the Netherlands. "It flared almost like a meteor," he says.
"This was latest of several flares by GOCE I have observed. It passed almost directly overhead, zipping close to M31 (the Andromeda galaxy) at magnitude +4 to +5, and then flaring briefly to mag. +2 (about as bright as stars in the Big Dipper). It was nice to watch."
"GOCE is in a very low orbit and moves very fast, so the flares resemble meteors," he adds. "In fact, they are caused by sunlight glinting from the spacecraft's solar panels."
Ready to see one of the coolest satellites in Earth orbit? Check the Simple Satellite Tracker for GOCE flybys.
EASY COME, EASY GO: Sunspot 1039 is about to disappear over the sun's western limb, but the sun won't remain blank for long. Another active region is approaching from the east, shown here in a Jan. 5th image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory:
The approaching region is old sunspot 1035. It has been transiting the far side of the sun since Dec. 20th. After all this time, is it still a dark-cored behemoth or just a decaying tangle of magnetic fields? Monitoring is encouraged: solar telescopes.
December Northern Lights Gallery
[previous Decembers: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2001, 2000]
Explore the Sunspot Cycle