Behind the Scenes Team of a Web Chat

Ever wonder what it takes to pull together our web chat series? The chats usually consist of two components, live streaming and web chats.

The Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory, or ALaMO, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is where the live streaming component of “Watch the Skies” begins.

The ALaMO consists of two observatory domes, a 15 meter (50 ft.) tower with a roll-off roof, and an operations center with laboratory space. Inside the tower and one of the domes are 14′ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes equipped with focal reducers and astronomical video cameras. Once the roof rolls back or the dome opens up, the telescopes have easy access to the day and night skies.

The moment the telescopes or wide field astronomical video cameras are pointed, a fiber optic cable line is connected to the camera in order to send real time images to Marshall television.

Besides capturing footage and images for the web chats, the Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes are used to observe the moon for lunar impact flashes. You can check out the current happenings about the lunar meteoroid impact monitoring at 

Inside of Marshall’s NASA TV, our audio visual experts go to work uploading the live streaming to our online community group. With the click of a mouse users are able to see the live feed from the ALaMO.

Simultaneously, online users and NASA experts are tuned in with our online user community late nights to watch the skies together, via web chats. The Marshall public and employee communication team develops the information to promote the chat via and through social media. Additionally the communication team transcribes our expert’s answers to the chat room and moderates the chat.

Whether it is Venus in transit, meteor showers, or observing planets our NASA expert’s role is to answer questions from the public.  

Besides the web chats and contributing to the Watch the Skies blog series, the Meteoroid Environment Office’s daily work includes modeling meteor showers, analyzing lunar meteoroid impact data, and examining meteor observations.
For more insight into work done here at Marshall Space Flight Center’s Meteoroid Environment Office visit

The Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory, or ALaMO, consists of two observatory domes, a 15 meter (50 ft) tower with a roll-off roof, and an operations center with laboratory space. (NASA)

Dr. Robert Suggs, manager of the ALaMO, checks one of the telescopes located in the observatory dome at the Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory. The telescope is equipped with a focal reducer and astronomical video cameras. (NASA)


Will We See A New Meteor Shower?

Some computer models indicate that the Earth may pass near decades old debris left behind by Comet Wirtanen in mid December, creating a new meteor shower. In the most optimistic scenario, viewers could see as many as 10-30 meteors per hour radiating from a point in the constellation Pisces in the early evenings, sometime between December 10 and 15. This time period also includes the peak of the strong annual Geminid meteor shower, so skywatchers have a chance of a “meteor night” after sunset on December 13; meteors from the new shower (if any) will be visible in the early evening, with the Geminids making their appearance later on and lasting until dawn.

Comet Wirtanen was discovered in 1948, just after World War II, and takes 5.4 years to orbit the Sun. It is a Jupiter family comet, with a perihelion (closest point to the Sun) just outside Earth’s orbit.

This graphic depicts the position of the constellation Pisces in the southwestern sky at 8 PM local time. The red dot shows the location of the radiant of the possible new meteor shower.

(Image credit: Bill Cooke/MSFC/MEO)

The Worm Moon?

The next full Moon is on Thursday, March 8, 2012.  The Moon will be 180 degrees away from the Sun in Earth-based longitude at 4:40 am EST, and will appear full for about three days around this time, from Tuesday evening through Friday morning.

The full Moon in March is known by many names: the Worm Moon, Sap Moon, Crow Moon, Crust Moon, Sugar Moon, and Lenten Moon.  According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the native tribes of what is now the northern and eastern U.S. named this the Worm Moon after the earthworm casts that appear as the ground thaws.  The more northern tribes knew this as the Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter.  Other northern names are the Crust Moon, because the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night, or the Sap Moon as this is the time for tapping maple trees.  Europeans called this the Lenten Moon.

As to other celestial events between now and the full Moon after next:

In early March, Mercury is visible in the evening sky, reaching its greatest elongation on Monday, March 5, 2012.  In early March, Jupiter and Venus appear to move closer together, reaching their closest (called conjunction) on Tuesday, March 13, 2012, after which they will appear to move apart again.  Mars continues to ride high in the sky, rising around sunset and setting around sunrise, having been opposite the Sun (as seen from the Earth, called “opposition”) on Saturday, March 3, 2012.  Saturn rises later in the evening (around the time Venus and Jupiter set) and rides high in the early morning sky.  Saturn will be at opposition on Sunday, April 15, 2012.

Here are more specific dates and events:

On Monday, March 5, 2012, Mercury will be at its greatest elongation, and this will be the most favorable opportunity to look for Mercury in 2012 (for the northern hemisphere, at least).  Look for it about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset (around 6:45 to 7 pm in the Washington, DC area) very low on the western horizon.  Venus and Jupiter will appear close together higher in the sky.

Also on Monday, March 5, 2012, Mars will be at its closest to the Earth for this cycle.  Because the orbits of both Mars and the Earth are not perfect circles, there is a slight offset from when Mars is opposite the Sun on March 3rd and when it is closest to the Earth on March 5th.

On Saturday night/Sunday morning, March 10 to 11, 2012, the waning (i.e.,past full) gibbous (i.e., but still more than half full) Moon will form a triangle with the planet Saturn and the bright star Spica.  For the Washington, DC area, the Moon will rise at about 9:23 pm EST on Saturday and reach its highest point in the sky at 3:40 am EDT on Sunday (note the one hour shift to Daylight Savings Time).

We “spring forward” into daylight savings time on Sunday, March 11, 2012, giving us an “extra” hour of sunlight in the evening but shifting the time of sunrise back to within a few minutes of when sunrise was in late Decemberand early January.  These are not the latest sunrises of the year.  The latest sunrises will come in late October and early November, just before we “fall back” to standard time.

On Tuesday, March 13, 2012, Venus and Jupiter appear closest to each other in the evening sky (called conjunction), about 3 degrees apart.

The Vernal Equinox on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 marks the beginning of spring. The equinox is at 1:14 am EDT, so for those in MDT and time zones further west the first day of spring is on Monday, March 19, 2012.

On Sunday evening, March 25, 2012, look for the crescent Moon in the western sky after sunset.  Jupiter will be about 3 degrees below the Moon and Venus will appear about 8 degrees to the upper left.  For the Washington, DC area,sunset is at 7:25 pm EDT and moonset is at 10:32 pm EDT.

On Monday, Mar 26, 2012, the Moon will have shifted to about 4 degrees left of Venus, with Jupiter about 11 degrees to the lower right from Venus. Venus is bright enough to be seen in broad daylight if you can find it.  Using the Moon as a guide, you should be able to find Venus before sunset. For the Washington, DC area, sunset is at 7:26 pm EDT and moonset is at 11:27 pm EDT.

On Tuesday, March 27, 2012, Venus reaches its greatest elongation, setting as long after sunset as it will for this appearance.  Since Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth does, we always see it either as the Evening Star or as the Morning Star.

On Tuesday evening, April 3, 2012, Venus will appear to the left of the Pleiades star cluster.  Especially with binoculars or a small telescope, this bright plant should appear swimming in a sea of stars.

The full Moon after next will be on Friday, April 6, 2012.


73X Faster Than a Speeding Bullet!

On the night of Nov. 17, 2011, NASA cameras captured two super-fast views of Leonid meteors. The first video below shows a Leonid from a NASA camera operated in Tullahoma, Tenn. Moving 73 times faster than a bullet fired from an M-16 rifle, the three-quarter inch meteor first started to burn up 71 miles above the town of Nolensville, Tenn., and was totally vaporized over Franklin, Tenn., at an altitude of 54 miles. The fireball — which was slightly brighter than the planet Venus — was recorded not only by the Tullahoma camera, but also by NASA cameras at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Chickamauga, Ga., and Cartersville, Ga.

The second video below shows the same meteor as captured by the wide field meteor camera located at the Marshall Center. Note how quickly it streaks across the 25-degree field of view – a mere bullet would never keep up with this Leonid!

It's Been Worth the Wait!

As a 30 year-old research assistant at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I have a unique perspective of the Apollo missions. I was not alive when humans last walked on the moon; the Apollo missions were part of my parents’ generation. With live televised coverage from the lunar surface and glossy photo spreads in magazines, places like Tranquility Base, the Descartes Highlands, and Fra Mauro became familiar during the Apollo program. However after the final Apollo mission left the moon, many forgot these significant lunar landmarks. That changes today. With the amazing images of the Apollo landing sites taken through NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the Apollo landing sites are once again significant for today’s generation.

These images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), released July 17, show
five of the six Apollo landing sites with arrows pointing out the lunar descent
module visible resting on the lunar surface. (NASA/GSFC/ASU)
View other images of the moon in our blog’s Flickr gallery.

The Apollo landing sites are no longer simply historic sites revealed through 40 year-old images taken by the Apollo astronauts.  Instead, they are dynamic landscapes that can be seen in a new light through LRO. These special areas on the moon now have a new life, with the help of a reminder that 40 years ago humans spent days exploring the surface of our neighbor in space.

For me, these photos have an additional dimension as they remind me of why I’ve always been interested in the moon. In the mid 1960s my father worked on the Apollo program, building parts for the astronauts’ backpacks, known as the Portable Life Support Systems (PLSS).  At the end of each lunar landing mission, in order to reduce the mass launched into lunar orbit, the astronauts would toss the PLSS’ onto the lunar surface; they were left behind and quickly forgotten. However, those who built the PLSS did not forget them. Before the packs were finished and shipped off, the engineers would etch their signatures on parts of the PLSS frame. So when the packs were left on the moon, the signatures also remained as a permanent monument to their achievements. So now when I look at these amazing photos, I can’t see those backpacks in these images, future images of the sites may show them, but I do see places where my dad’s name will be found forever.

This photo from the Apollo 17 mission shows the Portable Life Support Systems
backpack that Noah’s father worked on in the foreground. (NASA

LRO is an important mission for lunar scientists for many reasons. For me one of the most important reasons is that we’ll address many science questions that we’ve come up with in the 40 years since Apollo 11. How many craters have formed on the moon in the last 40 years? How deep are all those craters? LRO data will also help us plan for sending humans back to the moon, we’ll be able to find the safe and scientifically interesting places where humans can explore. So for the next decade or so, we will turn to data from LRO to select the places we want to send astronauts to for long periods of time. If I can’t be one of those astronauts, hopefully I’ll be able use the data from LRO to help train the astronauts that will go there. While the Apollo missions might have been for my parents’ generation, LRO is also for my generation, and for the generations that will follow. And maybe, one day, I’ll be able to get my name onto the lunar surface too!

Noah Petro, lunar geologist

New NASA Missions Rendezvous With Moon

The LCROSS spacecraft has successfully completed its swing-by of the moon and is settling into a normal cruise mode. During the fly-by, LCROSS beamed spectacular first-light images of the moon back to Earth via streaming video.

The maneuver provides LCROSS with a gravity assist to help with cruise orbit. The LCROSS spacecraft will be “up close and personal” again with the moon on Oct. 9 — the day of impact.

LRO has also met a significant milestone after a four and a half day journey from Earth —  the orbiter is now successfully orbiting the moon.  Over the course of the next four days, LRO will perform four engine burns that will put the satellite into its commissioning phase orbit. The commissioning phase is where each of LRO’s seven instruments get checked out and turned on. After commissioning is complete (about 60 days after launch), the spacecraft is expected to be fully operational and the one year exploration phase of the mission will begin.

Both missions are one step closer to exploring our closest celestial neighbor.

Lunar Missions Start Their Roll Toward the Moon

Even though it was a scorching 90 degrees at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA’s two lunar missions, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, made their roll to launch complex 41 looking sharp. Compared to the space shuttle, the roll was quick and took only about 35 minutes..not bad at all.

Watch the rollout (MP4, 14 MB)

An United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellites (LRO/LCROSS) rolls out from
its Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41, Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station, Fla. Image credit: United Launch Alliance/Pat Corkery

The two missions are scheduled to launch together tomorrow (Thursday June 18) and have three launch opportunities, starting at 5:12 p.m., 5:22 p.m. and 5:32 p.m. EDT.

To the moon or bust!