Starry Night: Late June 2012 — A new space race

Posted Wednesday, June 20, 2012 in Features

Starry Night: Late June 2012 — A new space race

Ring Nebula in Lyra.  Photo credit: Jerry Lodriguss,

by Tristan Radtke

At the end of May, the SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed back into the sea on its historic return from the International Space Station. The Dragon capsule had carried cargo for the ISS, which it had successfully linked with in orbit and dropped off its cargo, proving that private industry can maintain the Space Station, its cargo and its crew in its bid to replace the present Russian Soyuz rocket replenishment. You can read all about this trip in this article from Business Week on May 31.

It turns out that May and June were historic months for the Chinese space program as well. The Chinese announced that a three-person crew had made it to the Tiangong-1 space laboratory aboard a Long March/Shenzhou Capsule package. One member of that crew was China’s first woman in space. This mission was yet another proof-of-concept, this time for the Chinese program, which has a ways to go in order to catch up to the European, American and Russian programs. You can read about this mission in this article that came out June 18 in the Wall Street Journal.

This was an important step forward for the Chinese program, which continues forward with the goal of a manned space station active by 2020, a manned moon and Mars mission, and other lofty goals which have as yet gone unfulfilled or ignored for a long time by Western and Russian programs. As those programs begin to slow and outsource their work to private industry, the Chinese and private Western investors seem primed to vie for a much larger market share of the commercial space industry, leading to the first time since the Cold War that a space race is in the cards for the future.


The Stars

Late June is, in many ways, a good time to stargaze, but the night is as short as it's going to be, so waiting for twilight to end can take a long time. However, if you're patient, the summer sky reveals some amazing things, especially later in the night. In Lyra, if you have a good telescope, you can easily spot the Ring Nebula. There are other nebulae visible in the summer triangle, too: the North American and Pelican nebulae in Cygnus, and the Veil, a remnant of an ancient supernova, also in Cygnus. 

The Planets

• Mercury: On June 15, Mercury began moving quickly away from the sun into the early evening sky, setting at about 9:30 p.m. On June 30, Mercury will set just behind the sunset at around 10 p.m.

• Venus: On June 15, Venus moved toward the morning sky, rising just before sunrise at around 4:15 a.m. By June 30, Venus will rise at about 3:20 a.m.

• Mars: Mars set around 12:30 a.m. on June 15. By June 30, it will set at just about midnight.

• Jupiter: Around the middle of the month, Jupiter was rising around 3:30 a.m. By the end of the month it will rise at around 3 a.m., just before Venus, both of which will be bright morning stars this month.

• Saturn: On June 15, Saturn set around 2 a.m. On June 30, Saturn will set at 1:15 a.m.

• Uranus: On June 15, Uranus rose at around 1:20 a.m. On June 30, Uranus will rise almost at midnight.

• Neptune: Neptune rose at around midnight on June 15. Neptune will rise at 11 p.m. on June 30.

• Pluto: On June 15 Pluto rose at just about 9 p.m., just after sunset. By the end of the month, it will have moved very slightly, rising at 8 p.m.


The Moon

On June 4, the moon  reached its full phase. It waned to third quarter by June 11, and reached new phase on June 19. It will wax into the month of July, passing its first-quarter phase on June 27.

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