New stars just overhead


Following last week’s disclosure that Leonardo DiCaprio is signed up to take an out-of-this-world trip on Virgin Galactic, now Justin Bieber, Angelina Jolie and Ashton Kutcher say they, too will go aloft. Space Exploration on the world stage: Shenzhou10 due to liftoff mid-June for China’s 5th manned space mission. Tonight look for a thin crescent moon in the west 40 minutes after sunset, then look for tiny Mercury and bright Venus in the same region. All set by 10 p.m. Saturn is halfway up in the south at 9:30.

June 10, 2013

[Dave Heller] Near outerspace will soon be populated by more and more stars. Joining us with an explanation is Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. Derrick, these stars have names that are familiar to listeners with even the most rudimentary knowledge of astronomy.

[Derrick Pitts] Yeah, in actuality they are more Hollywood stars than are galactic stars. And the ones we’re talking about in particular Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio (who I think we spoke about last week) and now Justin Bieber has signed on to be one of the folks travelling to low-Earth orbit. Not even orbit, just lower-space on Virgin Galactic trips that are planned to begin next year.

Gosh, at this rate these flights are going to be sold out soon.

If these people start signing on that will be the case. But I think when we really look at this, we’re seeing people’s names who will enhance the attractiveness of such a trip. You could argue easily that this is a tremendous marketing plan by Virgin Galactic to sell these trips and we can certainly understand that because they have a big investment here; they need to recoup some of that money and they need to sell tickets. These are expensive tickets, upwards of $200,000-plus right now, so this means that they need to sell some tickets to recoup some of the millions of dollars they put into this effort. And of course, having Hollywood celebrities sign on encourages other people to sign on, too.

  • Celebrities in space

    (AP Photo/ Virgin Galactic, File)

Is there a larger mission going on as well?

I think there is a larger mission here. I think the larger mission is to make personal space travel much more appealing to people. You know, $200,000 is a lot of money, there’s no question about it. There’s a narrow portion of the population that can afford this, but, I think what Virgin Galactic is seeing is that there is much greater market penetration capability if they can encourage more people who have that kind of money, who have those kind of resources, to sign on for tickets. Currently about 500 people have signed up for tickets, and I think Richard Branson understands that there are many more people with the resources to make this trip. And hopefully engaging the services, if you will, of people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber will encourage others to purchase tickets as well.

Less name recognition are the three taikonauts going aloft later this month.

Whose names we don’t even know at this point. Yes, China is preparing for its fifth mission, its fifth manned-mission. This one will extend what was done was done on the most recent mission last June in which three astronauts go up to dock with Tiangong 1, which is the Chinese version of Space Station. It’s a much smaller version of International Space Station. But the endeavor here is to build up their chops, develop their skills necessary for astronauts to begin constructing and working on living on a Chinese space station that’s due to be in orbit somewhere around 2020. So if China’s going to make a big splash, or get started here in the space business with a space station, this is one of those missions that will help them to develop their skills.

The original space race spoke to the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Is there that competitive sense here, or not so much?

Not so much. It’s less of a competition on our part. International Space Station provided an open opportunity for countries around the world to participate in this effort, but in the case of China, their effort is to establish themselves on the world stage both economically, which they have certainly done, but also technologically which they are well on their way to doing. So space exploration being one of those hallmarks of a country’s economic success, China is trying to show just how successful economically and technologically it has grown to and how much further it plans to go in the future.

  • China in space: Shenzhou10

    China’s astronauts from left, Wang Yaping, Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang wave from behind glass enclosure as they arrive to meet the press at the Jiuquan satellite launch center near Jiuquan in western China’s Gansu province, Monday, June 10, 2013. Three Chinese astronauts will take flight this week, on Tuesday if weather permits, aboard a Shenzhou spacecraft to the dock with China’s Tiangong 1 space lab. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

  • China in space: Shenzhou10

    In this June 9, 2013 photo, the assembly of the Long March 2F rocket and the Shenzhou 10 planned manned spaceflight is seen at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwest China’s Gansu Province. China’s astronauts have braved the tension of docking with a space station and performed delicate tasks outside their orbiting capsule, but now face a more down-to-Earth job that is perhaps equally challenging: Talking to young people about science. Coming on the heels of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s wildly popular YouTube videos from the International Space Station, the three astronauts aboard China’s latest mission, expected to launch early June 2013, plan to deliver a series of talks to students from aboard China’s Tiangong 1 space lab. (AP Photo)

Derrick, finally on upcoming nights when the clouds part, what’s available to be seen in the night sky this week?

Well over on the western side of the sky tonight, if we look just to the west just after sunset — that’ll be about 9:00 tonight — we’ll be able to see a very thin crescent moon. The moon was new on Saturday, just a couple of days ago, so we’re seeing what is essentially a two-and-a-half, three-day moon this evening as I say just around 9 p.m. But also over on that side of the sky at 9 p.m. you’ll be able to see bright Venus low on the western horizon and a pinprick of bright light that will be the planet Mercury.

We do have Saturn in the evening sky as well, relatively easy to find. It’s not the brightest object but we can use one of the bright objects to find it. As you’re standing at 9:00, 9:30 in the evening, if you’re facing south and look directly overhead you’ll see a bright star. That star is Arcturus. If you drop a line from Arcturus down toward the southern horizon, the next object you come to will be Saturn. So you can see that without any difficulty at all. You can check and make sure — just draw a line from Saturn over to the right and the next bright object you come to will be the star Spica. So you’ll have an L in the evening sky created with Saturn at the vertex of the angle, Arcturus at the top, and Spica over to the right.

Though too early still in the summer season to spot a Bieber, Jolie or Kutcher.

Unfortunately, yes. We’ll have to wait a little while for that.

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