Two Great Starry Luminaries

Skywatchers this month have an ideal opportunity to see the two brightest of all the stars of the northern heavens at the same time. Not only are they brilliant and unmistakable—but they also display a truly striking color contrast between them sure to surprise anyone who thinks that stars are all just plain white!
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The Solar System’s Famous Threesome

Ask someone to name the best-known planets and invariably Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be the response. Indeed, the last two are the biggest such bodies in our solar system, while Mars—despite its diminutive size—is perhaps the most famous of all such worlds due to its long association with life elsewhere in the public mind. May evenings offer an opportunity to see all three at once. Continue reading

Total Eclipse of the Moon

Mark your calendar for April 15th and set your alarm clock to get you up just before 2:00 a.m. that morning.  A spectacular lunar eclipse will occur beginning then and be widely visible from all of North America.  (It’s actually the first of two such events this year, the second one happening in October, so you’ll have another chance to experience an eclipse should this one happen to be clouded out!)
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A Disappearing Star!

A spectacular and rare celestial occultation is scheduled to happen on the late night of March 20th for selected readers of this column.  It’s nothing less than the brief disappearance of the well-known first-magnitude star Regulus in Leo, the Lion—and with it, disruption of its well-known “sickle” asterism marking the head of the Lion!

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California of the Skies

Due to its great brilliancy and richness, the great French astronomy popularizer Camille Flammarion was fond of calling the winter constellation Orion the "California of the Sky." Aside from the Big Dipper itself, perhaps no other star grouping in the entire heavens is as well known. And it’s at its glorious best on February evenings.

As the brightest of the 88 constellations in the sky, Orion is unmistakable. Simply going outside on a clear winter’s night and looking up, your gaze is immediately riveted on its display of colorful bright stars. The first thing you’ll notice are its two brightest luminaries, Betelgeuse and Rigel. If you think stars don’t have color, think again! The former is a red giant super sun and glows a distinct deep orange in hue. The latter is a blue giant and sparkles like a brilliant celestial diamond.

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Who Invented the Telescope?

Nothing gets the attention of a stargazer like hearing the word "telescope" mentioned. This wonderful device makes it possible to journey through space and time without ever leaving home. And as several of the astronauts themselves have said, looking through one is the next best thing to actually being out there! But where did it come from?
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Comet ISON’s Dawn Spectacle – Part II

UPDATE: Comet ISON, a "shining green candle in the solar wind," is no longer with us, NASA declared Monday morning December 3 in a tribute to what many hoped would be "the comet of the century."

We continue our coverage from last month’s installment of what’s being heralded as the "Comet of the Century." Here’s what you can hopefully expect to see during this month:
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Comet ISON’s Dawn Spectacle – Part I

A bright new comet is on its way to gracing the pre-dawn morning sky toward the end of November and promises to put on quite a show during the first few weeks of December.  Due to the time frame involved—and its potential for becoming the “Comet of the Century” as it’s being widely heralded—we’re devoting the Sky Talk columns both this month and next to its coverage.
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Coming of the Martians!

Orson Welles
Image courtesy of

October for most of us means the real beginning of the fall season, with its lower humidity, cooler temperatures, lovely turning of the leaves, and beautifully clear nights for stargazing. It’s also the month of Halloween. For me, mention of October and this popular holiday mean something else as well—it takes me back to the night that Mars invaded the Earth!
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Return Flight from the Moon

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 reached the Moon. Millions watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the surface. The United States had reached the Moon before the Soviet Union, and the first part of President Kennedy’s objective to the nation, of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” had been fulfilled.

Now the three-man crew needed to get home.

Image courtesy of

After jettisoning the Lunar Module Eagle shortly before leaving lunar orbit and intentionally breaking off from the Service Module during the beginning of reentry, all that remained of the Apollo 11 craft was the Command Module Columbia, a truncated cone shorter than 11 feet in height (the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo 11 into space was over 300 feet tall).  Columbia served as the crew quarters for the entire flight and housed most of the spacecraft systems, including the Earth Landing System. Michael Collins had stayed aboard Columbia in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin used Eagle to explore the Moon’s surface.

Columbia would have to put up with great temperature change during the mission; from the heat of launching from the earth’s surface to the cold of space, to taking on the direct heat of the sun, as well as the extreme heat of reentry. The temperatures would range between 280 degrees below zero and 5000 degrees above. To combat the temperature extremes, an ablative heat shield was used around the entire command module. The heat shield was designed to melt and erode away with the rising temperatures, taking the heat with it.

This heat shield was also covered with Kapton tape for added insulation. Developed by DuPont, Kapton is a polyimide film that is capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and hold up in these conditions. Kapton material was also used on the lunar module, as well as the astronauts’ spacesuits. Kapton is still used today for microelectronics, including flexible electronics and smartphones.

The chemical structure of Kapton. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Columbia reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, it would appear on the outside as if the module was in a ball of flame, but on the inside, the astronauts were safely protected from the heat as it was repelled away with the melting shield. Columbia dropped into the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, just before dawn local time. All three astronauts returned safely to the Earth.

While a lot of the heat shield and Kapton material burned up, a fair amount of it did survive reentry. Limited quantities of Kapton foil from the lunar missions have been known to go on sale. Interested buyers are always encouraged to make sure such items include certificates of authenticity when looking to own a little piece of history. It’s a marvel of technological advancement that such a thin reflective foil could make the difference between life and death for these intrepid explorers.

A collectible remnant of the Kapton foil from the Apollo 11 Command Module, which includes Certificate of Authenticity. Available for a limited time at Edmund Scientifics.