Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

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2015 March 23 19:00 PDT

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What's New?
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FEB 3 Delta II/SMAP radio news story posted
MAR 23 Vandenberg AFB Launch Schedule updated

Next Vandenberg Launch
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As of March 23

The next announced Vandenberg AFB missile rocket is a Delta IV on June 6. The vehicle will carry the NROL-45 payload into orbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office..

For a complete listing of all recent and past Vandenberg launches, go to Vandenberg AFB Launch History. To access launch photos, videos, and audio reports, visit the Vandenberg Rocket and Missile Launch Multimedia library.

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F. E. Warren Conducts Minuteman III Missile Test Launch from Vandenberg

(MAR 23) VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – A team of Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a test reentry vehicle today at 3:36 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Every test launch verifies the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system, providing valuable data to ensure a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. The launch team, under the direction of the 576th Flight Test Squadron, Vandenberg AFB, included Airmen from the 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyoming.

"A lot of work and preparation goes in to an operational test launch from the teams on both bases," said Lt. Col Tytonia Moore, 90th MW, Task Force commander. "With these launches, we not only verify our processes and the ICBM weapon system, we provide a visual to the world that the Minuteman III is capable of striking pretty much anywhere with extreme precision."

"The role we play here is vital to the testing and evaluation of the Minuteman III program," said Col. Kelvin Townsend, 576th Flight Test Squadron commander. "We ensure the facilities and framework are in place to conduct operational test launches in a safe and secure manner with multiple team players contributing to the reliability of the test."

F. E. Warren AFB is one of three missile bases with crew members standing alert 24-7 year round, overseeing the nation's 450 ICBM alert forces.

The ICBM community, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and U.S. Strategic Command will use the data collected from this mission for continuing force development evaluation.

The ICBM test launch program demonstrates the operational credibility of the Minuteman III and ensures the United States' ability to maintain a strong, credible nuclear deterrent as a key element of U.S. national security and the security of U.S. allies and partners.

Air Force Global Strike Command

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Extends to New Realms

(MAR 19) Astronomers have expanded the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light. More

Booster Test

STS Booster Test

The booster for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket fires for a two minute test on March 11 at the Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah. The booster was the largest, most powerful rocket booster ever built and produced about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The test was one of two that will qualify the booster for use with NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS will send the Orion spacecraft to deep space destinations, including an asteroid and Mars. Image: NASA

Astronomy in the Fast Lane: New System Watches for Things that Go Bump in the Night

(MAR 12) Imagine taking the world's most powerful radio telescope, used by scientists around the globe, and piping a nearly continuous data stream into your research laboratory. More

Utah Booster Test

(MAR 4) The largest, most powerful booster ever built for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), will fire up for a ground test at 11:30 a.m. EDT (9:30 a.m. MDT) Wednesday, March 11, at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems’ test facilities in Promontory, Utah.

The two-minute static test is a significant milestone for the SLS as part of NASA’s journey to Mars, and follows years of development. It is one of two ground tests to qualify the booster for flight. A second test is planned for early 2016. Once qualification is complete, the hardware will be ready to help send the rocket, along with NASA’s Orion spacecraft, on its first flight test.

A public viewing area is available along State Road 83 North approximately 20 miles west of Corinne, Utah. The gate to the public viewing area opens at 7 a.m. MDT Wednesday. Overflow parking is available, if needed.

For NASA TV streaming video, downlink and schedule information, visit:


Bangkok Oasis

Bangkok Oasis

Bang Kachao, an area that escaped development forms a green oasis amid the urban sprawl of Bankok, Thailand. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat-8 recorded this natural-color view of Bang Kachao during a recent daylight pass over the region. The OLI instrument was built by Colorado-based Ball Aerospace and Technologies. Landsat-8 was launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. in early 2013. Image courtesy of NASA and USGS

Launch Creates Light Show

(MAR 1) Observers across a wide area of the Southwest were treated to an unusual light show last Wednesday morning thanks to an Air Force experiment launched from White Sands, NM.

A Terrier-Black Brant sounding rocket lifted off from White Sands Missile Range at 5:26 a.m. Mountain Standard Time and released small amounts of samarium vapor in near-Earth space to create clouds of plasma, or ionized gas. The purpose of the Air Force Research Laboratory experiment was to study the processes responsible for formation of the Earth’s ionosphere.

According to media reports, the experiment produced a purple steak or pink cloud that was seen in Arizona and New Mexico.

Brian Webb

Jupiter Jumps into View this Month at Westmont

(FEB 17) SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The gas giant Jupiter will be the star attraction at this month’s free public viewing on Friday, Feb. 20, beginning at 6:30 p.m. and lasting several hours at the Westmont Observatory. In case of inclement or overcast weather, please call the Telescope Viewing Hotline at (805) 565 -6272 and check the Westmont website to see if the viewing has been canceled.

Rising in Leo, Jupiter will be in good position for viewing in the early evening. “Since Jupiter has passed through opposition recently — and now rising just before the sun sets — we may be lucky enough to see a shadow cast onto its surface by one of its large moons,” says Thomas Whittemore, Westmont physics instructor.

The viewing may also feature the Orion Nebula, M42. “Orion is high in the sky by 8 p.m.,” Whittemore says. “If the seeing is good this evening, we may be able to see six of the Trapezium stars in the heart of the nebula with Westmont’s 24-inch reflector telescope.”

The Milky Way, which contains a number of open clusters, is high in the winter sky and a popular viewing subject. “One of my favorites, M35 in Gemini, is a chain of stars with all sorts of subtle color variations,” he says. “This particular object will be best viewed in Westmont’s 8-inch refractor.”

Mars and Venus are putting on quite a show in the west, although their alignment will make them unobservable with Westmont’s telescopes. “By Friday evening, they will be about a degree or so apart in this chance alignment,” he says. “The proximity of the creamy-colored (and bright) Venus with the fiery-red (and much dimmer than Venus) Mars yields a wonderful color contrast between the two objects. The public will be able to see this pairing early in the evening and with their bare eyes, but by 8 p.m. both objects will have set in the southwest.”

The observatory opens its doors to the public every third Friday of the month in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, whose members bring their own telescopes to Westmont for the public to gaze through. The Keck Telescope is housed in the observatory between Russell Carr Field and the track and field/soccer complex. Free parking is available near the baseball field.

Westmont College

Tea Cup Galaxy

Teacup Galaxy

The Teacup Galaxy reveals otherwise hidden detail in this composite image created from radio observations by the Very Large Array radio observatory near Socorro, N.M. and optical images. Green colors show the starlight, blue colors show the gas, and the red/yellow colors show the radio emissions. The bright yellow blobs in the center of the image show where the radio “jets,” launched by the black hole, are driving into the gas and accelerating it to 200,000 miles per hour (1,000 kilometers per second. The giant bubbles also are being inflated by a central black hole. This demonstrates that the central black hole is having a catastrophic effect on the galaxy. Credit: C. Harrison, A. Thomson; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF; NASA

Virgin Galactic Opens Launch Vehicle Facility

(FEB 12) LONG BEACH, Calif. – Virgin Galactic, the privately-funded space company owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, is pleased to announce it has leased a new 150,000 square foot facility that will house design and manufacturing of the company’s small satellite launch vehicle, LauncherOne.

LauncherOne is a new two-stage orbital launch vehicle being designed by Virgin Galactic specifically to launch commercial or governmental satellites that weigh 500 pounds (225 kilograms) or less. Much like SpaceShipTwo, the company’s reusable vehicle for space tourism, LauncherOne is designed to be launched from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, giving customers the ability to avoid crowded and expensive launch ranges while also picking the launch location best suited for their mission. Located at the Long Beach Airport, this new facility will allow easy transportation of rockets and of customers’ satellites using WhiteKnightTwo.

With a launch price aimed to be the lowest in the nation or perhaps the world, LauncherOne has already attracted the interest of numerous small satellite manufacturers and operators. Among them is the recently announced OneWeb project designed to deliver broadband services to areas of the world not currently served by terrestrial networks. This and other ambitious projects are expected keep the Long Beach facility busy for many years to come.

Virgin Galactic

NMSU Astronomers Contribute to Massive Star Database

(FEB 2) LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Scientists in January announced a final data release for the third phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that includes information to allow researchers to construct a three-dimensional chemical map of the Milky Way galaxy. More

ULA Launches Earth Science Mission

Delta II/SMAP Launch

A Delta II rocket carrying NASA's SMAP satellite and several smaller spacecraft climbs into orbit following liftoff from Vandenberg AFB on Saturday, January 31. The dawn event was visible to the unaided eye over a wide area. The Webmaster recorded this view of the launch from Ventura County, some 100 miles east-southeast of the launch site. Copyright 2015, Brian Webb

(JAN 31) Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. - A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket carrying the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) payload for NASA lifted off from Space Launch Complex-2 at 6:22 a.m. PST today. This launch marks ULA's second launch of 13 planned for 2015, and the 93rd successful mission since the company was formed.

"Congratulations to the NASA Launch Services Program team, JPL and all of our mission partners on today's successful launch of the SMAP satellite," said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. "It is our honor to launch this important Earth science mission to help scientists observe and predict natural hazards, and improve our understanding of Earth's water, energy and carbon cycles."

The SMAP mission was launched aboard a Delta II 7320 configuration vehicle featuring a ULA first stage booster powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-27A main engine and three Alliant Techsystems (ATK) strap-on solid rocket motors. An Aerojet Rockedyne AJ10-118K engine powered the second stage. The payload was encased by a 10-foot-diameter composite payload fairing.

The SMAP mission is NASA's first Earth-observing satellite mission designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture and its freeze/thaw state, data that have broad applications for science and society.

United Launch Alliance

Delta II Launch Scheduled

(JAN 22) VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Team Vandenberg is scheduled to launch a NASA satellite on a United Launch Alliance rocket from Space Launch Complex-2 here Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6:20 a.m. PDT.

The Delta II rocket will carry NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive; the first Earth-observing satellite.

Col. Shane Clark, 30th Space Wing vice commander, will be the Launch Decision Authority.

"We are excited to take on our first launch of 2015," said Clark. "Every launch takes dedication and teamwork. I am extremely proud of the team and our strong partnership with NASA. Everyone involved has been working tirelessly to ensure this is a safe and successful launch."

SMAP is designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture and its freeze/thaw state. High resolution space-based measurements of soil moisture and whether the soil is frozen or thawed will give scientists a new capability to observe and predict natural hazards of extreme weather, climate change, floods and droughts, and will help reduce uncertainties in the understanding of Earth's water and carbon cycles.

Vandenberg AFB

Drill Test

Curiosity Mars Rover

The drill on NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover rests in position for a drill test in this image taken on January 13. The test was used to assess whether a rock target called "Mojave" was appropriate for full-depth drilling to collect a sample. A key appeal of this target is an abundance of crystal-shaped features. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. manages the Curiosity mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. JPL also designed and built the Curiosity rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Three Nearly Earth-Size Planets Found Orbiting Nearby Star

(JAN 16) TUCSON, Ariz. - NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, despite being hobbled by the loss of critical guidance systems, has discovered a star with three planets only slightly larger than Earth. More

Observatory to Zoom in on Comet Lovejoy

(JAN 8) SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The Comet Lovejoy will tantalize stargazers at this month's free public viewing of the stars with Westmont's powerful Keck Telescope on Friday, Jan. 16, beginning at 6:30 p.m. and lasting several hours at the Westmont Observatory. In case of inclement or overcast weather, please call the Telescope Viewing Hotline at (805) 565-6272 and check the Westmont website to see if the viewing has been canceled.

The Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, is making its closest approach to earth, 44 million miles away. "I've been watching it from our back yard for the last week and it's a bright one," says Thomas Whittemore, Westmont physics instructor. "It's almost a naked-eye object at this point, and at the public viewing, there will be no moon to interfere with the comet's brightness. I have yet to see a tail on Lovejoy, but maybe we will get lucky with Westmont's 8-inch refractor telescope."

Whittemore says he will use the Keck Telescope, a 24-inch reflector, to zoom in on the Orion Nebula. "This 1,400 light-year-distant stellar nursery is always a wintertime treat," he says.

Weather permitting, the viewing may also include the Crab Nebula in Taurus. "Viewed across the world in 1054, there are many records of this supernova explosion," Whittemore says. "Today we see the remnants of the exploded star as Messier 1, the Crab Nebula. To me, even through a moderate-sized telescope, the nebula's structure looks like a splash of milk."

The observatory opens its doors to the public every third Friday of the month in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, whose members bring their own telescopes to Westmont for the public to gaze through. The Keck Telescope is housed in the observatory between Russell Carr Field and the track and field/soccer complex. Free parking is available near the baseball field.

Westmont College

Yucatan Coast

Landsat-8 image

The 4-mile (6.5 kilometer) El Progreso pier in Mexico's Yucatan and considerable offshore detail are visible in this recently released view from Landsat-8's Operational Land Imager. Built over a wide and shallow continental shelf, the pier's length is necessary to allow docking by larger ships. Landsat-8 was launched in 2013 from Vandenberg AFB. Image credit: NASA/U.S. Geological Survey

Mercury Visible at Dusk

(JAN 4) Sky watchers have a good opportunity to see the elusive planet Mercury at dusk this month. Since Mercury's orbit is so close to the Sun, the planet never strays far from the Sun's glare as seen from Earth, making Mercury difficult to find and identify.

However, this month, Mercury climbs out of the Sun's glare and is easy to spot and identify thanks to a bright celestial landmark. From January 2 to 16, Mercury lies within 5 degrees of the much brighter planet Venus.

To find Mercury, look low in the west-southwest 30 to 50 minutes after sunset. Locate silvery-white Venus. Then look below and to the right of Venus for Mercury, which resembles a much fainter, star-like object.

The pairing of the two planets is most impressive on the evening of January 10 when Venus and Mercury are separated by slightly more than 1/2 of a degree.

Although Mercury and Venus appear to be close to one another this month, their apparent proximity is an illusion. The two planets are lined up in such a way that they happen occupy the same part of the sky as seen from Earth. In reality, the planets are separated by many millions of miles.

Brian Webb

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