Welcome Home Taikonauts!

China has made another great leap forward in their space program. At 2:05 GMT today, the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft landed safely in Inner Mongolia.

The capsule contained three Chinese taikonauts (astronauts), including Major Liu Yang, China’s first female taikonaut to go on a mission. The state press has nicknamed Major Liu Yang the “little Flying Knight,” which seems a wee bit condescending for such a brave pioneer.

The crew had been in space for 13 days and had docked with the Tiangong-1 space platform, the nucleus of what will become China’s space station by 2020. Above is a Wikimedia Commons diagram of Shenzhou-9 (right) docked with Tiangong-1 (left). The landing was broadcast live on state television.

As Chinese space missions become more common, the question becomes what to call their crews. The Chinese government doesn’t seem to be able to decide. Depending on the source and the language of the official statement, they’re variously referred to as astronauts, cosmonauts, “tàikōng rén” (“spacemen”) or taikonauts, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a hybrid of the Chinese term taikong (space) and the Greek naut (sailor).” Personally I think taikonaut sounds the coolest.

Want to learn more? Check out the Go Taikonauts! fan page.

Explore The Night Skies In Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Parks kicks of their 2012 Night Explorers SeriesIn its 2011 “A Call To Action” plan the National Park Service outlined a host of initiatives that it wished to pursue as the organization prepared to enter its second century. One of those was preserving the night skies so that visitors to the parks could continue to enjoy amazing views of the stars, the Milky Way and other celestial bodies. Dubbed the “Starry, Starry Night” plan, this initiative will actually be put into action this weekend in Voyageurs National Park.

Located in northern Minnesota, not far from the border between the U.S. and Canada, Voyageurs National Park is a remote and wild place. The park incorporates a series of interconnected waterways and dense Boreal forests that are home to moose, wolves, deer and even black bear. Located far from the lights of any town or city, visitors can get an unfettered view of the night sky, which is often clear and bright.

Tomorrow night members of Duluth’s Arrowhead Astronomical Society will gather inside the park where they will train their high-powered telescopes on the heavens. The event kicks off with a presentation inside the Rainy Lake Visitor Center where visitors are encouraged to gather at 8 p.m. Once that presentation is complete, the group will then head outside to observe the night sky starting at about a half-hour after sunset.

The event marks the start of the park’s Night Explorer Series, which includes a host of other stargazing activities throughout the summer. No fees or registration is required and a “Dark Ranger” will always be on hand to help facilitate the programs. The full schedule of those events can be found by clicking here.

Happy Birthday, Hubble Space Telescope!

Hubble Space Telescope, NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit for 22 years today, and to celebrate, NASA has released this awesome image of the Tarantula Nebula, also known by its less romantic scientific name of 30 Doradus.

A nebula is a massive cloud of gas and dust in which some areas are coalescing and igniting into stars. The Tarantula Nebula is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy orbiting our own Milky Way galaxy. The light comes from thousands of stars in its center that illuminate the clouds and filaments around them.

In addition to being one of the most groundbreaking scientific instruments of the late twentieth century, Hubble is a team player. This image is a composite from the Hubble and two other space telescopes: Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared instrument my super-cool astronomer wife uses. NASA says:

“The Hubble data in the composite image, colored green, reveals the light from these massive stars along with different stages of star birth, including embryonic stars a few thousand years old still wrapped in cocoons of dark gas. Infrared emission data from Spitzer, seen in red, shows cooler gas and dust that have giant bubbles carved into them. These bubbles are sculpted by the same searing radiation and strong winds that comes from the massive stars at the center of 30 Doradus.”

Happy Birthday, Hubble!

Photo courtesy NASA. To see the image in its full 3000-pixel glory, click here.

5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

milky wayIf you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%alto atacama observatoryExmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.
mauna kea
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.
aurora borealis
Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

Photo Of The Day: Venus And Jupiter At Sunset

photo of the day - Jupiter and Venus at sunset

This week, millions looked to the sky at sunset (or sunrise, depending on your location) to see the Transit of Venus. This now once-in-a-lifetime event – the last time Venus was visible crossing the sun’s path was 2004 – won’t happen again until 2117. Today’s Photo of the Day is from a more frequent event: sunset. Taken by Flickr user woofboy111 in Deltona, Florida, in November 2008, the planets Venus and Jupiter appear as specks over the setting sun. Even if you missed Venus’ voyage this week, you can still see several other planets visible after dusk this month.

We’d love to see your favorite sky photos in the Gadling Flickr pool to be featured as a future Photo of the Day.