Planet Hunter enters Hibernation

NASA has put its planet hunting  Kepler space telescope  into hibernation because it is running low on fuel. Kepler has discovered over 2,500 exoplanets by monitoring more than 150,000 stars for slight dips in brightness that might be caused by an exoplanet passing in front of the star.

Artistic rendition of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2.

NASA made the move to ensure that Kepler has enough fuel left to beam its latest data haul to its handlers early next month. Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign since May 2018. It has been pointing at a patch of sky towards the constellation of Cancer that it previously studied in 2015. This second look will provide data that helps astronomers  confirm previous exoplanet candidates. Returning the data back to Earth is the highest priority for the remaining fuel. On August 2, the team will command the spacecraft to awaken from its hibernation state, maneuver the spacecraft to point its large antenna back toward earth, and transmit the data over the Deep Space Network.

The Kepler mission launched in March 2009, with the goal of helping astronomers determine just how common Earth-like planets are throughout the Milky Way galaxy. Kepler has been tremendously successful by any measure. A key finding from he spacecraft’s observations suggest that about 20 percent of sunlike stars host a roughly Earth-size planet in the habitable zone (where liquid water could exist on a world’s surface).

Kepler’s primary mission  ran through May 2013, when the second of the spacecraft’s four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed. The K2 mission  was developed  in the months following the failure with the novel concept of using sunlight pressure to help stabilize the spacecraft. K2 became fully operational in May 2014 allowing Kepler to  continue making scientific observations.

The transit method of detecting exoplanets looks for slight dips in the brightness of a star when a planet passes in front of a it as viewed from Earth. We can observe an occasional transit of Venus or Mercury when they pass in front of the Sun and appear as a small black dot creeping across the Sun’s surface as seen from Earth.

Kepler Habitable-zone exoplanet hall of fame

After  several transits are detected, the planet’s orbital radius can be calculated from the period (how long it takes the planet to orbit once around the star) and the mass of the star. The size of the planet is found from the depth of the transit (how much the brightness of the star drops) and the size of the star. From the orbital size and the temperature of the star, the planet’s characteristic temperature can be calculated. From this the question of whether or not the planet is habitable (not necessarily inhabited) can be answered.

Nanaimo Worms Launched in SpaceX Cargo Ship

The SpaceX CRS-15 Mission to the International Space Station launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida at 2:42 am PDT this morning. In attendance were three students from the Nanaimo District Secondary School to witness a space mission that they have been working on since September.

The mission involves sending planarian flatworms into orbit to test the effects of micro-gravity and the supplement L-carnitine on muscle loss. A  group of worms still in Nanaimo, and not sent into space, serve as a control group. Astronauts in space experience muscle mass loss and the experiment may yield insights that will help astronauts on extended missions.

The  CRS-15 mission marked SpaceX’s fastest re-flight of a booster. The same booster launched the planet-hunting Tess satellite in April. The booster was topped with  a used Dragon cargo spacecraft with 2,700 kilograms of supplies and science gear for the International Space Station. The  cargo includes the spherical AI bot named Cimon, genetically identical mice, super-caffeinated coffee and the Nanaimo worms.


Vancouver Illuminated Event

Vancouver Illuminated Image

RASC Vancouver is participating at  Vancouver Illuminated on Saturday, June 2nd, 2018.  The City of Vancouver and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre have teamed up to present an evening of discovery about Vancouver’s night sky  and an opportunity to engage residents about the City’s Outdoor Lighting Strategy.  Drop by our table to chat with our LPA Chair, Pascal Pillot-Bruhat, and find out more about Light Pollution Abatement.

While you’re at it, enjoy a Planetarium show at 7:30pm and 9:00pm for just $5 – register to secure your seat.


Sat June 2nd, 2018 – 6:30pm to 10:00pm
H.R. MacMillan Space Centre
1100 Chestnut Street
Vancouver, BC V6J 3J9
View Map

  • Chat with City staff about Outdoor Lighting Strategy
  • Take a free walk through the Space Centre’s Cosmic Courtyard
  • Learn what animals depend on natural darkness through Stanley Park Ecology Society’s Interactive dark exhibit
  • Find out what organizations like the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada are doing about light pollution
  • Test your knowledge about outdoor light pollution and you could win a $50 gift card to Dark Table!

7:30 – Planetarium Show: ‘Asteroid Mission Extreme’

9:00 – Planetarium Show: ‘Phantom of the Universe’

To provide feedback on the City’s Outdoor Lighting Strategy, read the consultation paper and send in your feedback no later than June 12. Visit to learn more.


Discovery Challenge for Astronomy Day 2018

Congratulations to Carl Bandura who correctly identified the galaxy as NGC  4564 – an 11th magnitude elliptical galaxy located about 57 million light-years away. NGC 4564 crossed the meridian at 22:25 PDT on May 12th but it is still a bit light then at this time of year so waiting another hour is a better time to observe it.
Dicovery Challenge Image with Labels
Image from the Discovery Challenge with labels on the brighter galaxies.

Our Observing Director, Robert Conrad,  and I have teamed up to bring you an observing challenge in preparation for Astronomy Day. You can win a prize too and if you need hints,  we will provide a hint each day for the next few days. See all the details below. Good luck!
Checkout the latest hints – all the hints have now been provided!  
Remember to send your answers  to [email protected]m or [email protected]com before 2pm tomorrow (Saturday May 12th) to be eligible to win a special edition of “Atlas of the Stars”. We will be having a draw following Robert’s 2-3pm presentation in Simon Fraser University’s Academic Quadrangle room AQ3150 during Astronomy Day/Science Rendezvous – we hope to see you there.
Discovery Challenge
Here is new challenge for you that will test your Stellarium charting abilities and ties in with Astronomy Day and Science Rendezvous at SFU on May 12th, 2018 (more info at
The image below includes at least  15 galaxies but can you identify the galaxy in the yellow circle and when would be an good time observe it on Astronomy Day (May 12th, 2018)?
You can get help in tackling this challenge by attending Robert’s presentation on using using Stellarium and locating objects at Astronomy Day. Additional clues will follow in the next few days.  Send your answers to [email protected]com or [email protected]  Participants who correctly identify the the galaxy will be eligible to win a special edition of “Atlas of the Stars”, published every 10 years, in a draw following Robert’s 2-3pm presentation on Astronomy Day.

Hints (two more coming in the next few days)
  1. The field of view in the image is approximately 3.4 by 2.3 degrees and the same field is visible during most of the night on May 12th from Vancouver. That is not much to go on but look for further hints over the next few days.
  2. Asteroid Kalliope (magnitude 11) passes through the bottom left hand side of this field from May 3rd to May 12th, 2018.
  3. The image includes parts of the Virgo Galaxy cluster.
  4. The final hint is that the image contains several Messier objects including M58, M59, M60, M87, M89.


Science Rendezvous and Astronomy Day 2018

Science Rendezvous and Astronomy Day is today at Simon Fraser Univerity’s Burnaby campus from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Take advantage of the the clear skies to have a look through our solar  scopes or to see stars in the daylight at the Trottier Observatory. Kids can enter a draw for binoculars provided by Markarian Fine Optics. Lots of other astronomy and science activities and parking is free!

Join us for Simon Fraser University’s Science Rendezvous and International Astronomy Day 2018. An exciting day full of interesting things to see and do, artistic performances and educational demonstrations and explorations at SFU’s Burnaby Mountain campus on Saturday, May 12, 2018, from 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., rain or shine.

RASC activities include an Apollo Rockets and Mission display, guest speakers, a solar telescope display and observing (weather permitting), and numerous craft and activity tables for children.

Guest speakers and presentations in the Academic Quadrangle room #AQ3150:

  • 11:00 – 12:00, Robert Conrad: The use of Stellarium (free & easy to use astronomy software) to scan the skies.
  • 12:15 – 12:45, Ted Stroman: The Moon 101 (Facts about our closest neighbour).
  • 1:00 – 1:30, Ken Lui: The Global Space Community.
  • 2:00 – 3:00, Robert Conrad : How to locate deep sky objects and ‘doomsday’ asteroids.

More details are available from the RASC Vancouver meetup post or Simon Fraser University’s event page.

* Free admission to all shows, activities, talks and tours *

* Complimentary parking offered in East Parking lot *

* Open to participants of all ages *

Chinese Space Station Heading Back To Earth

The Chinese space station,  TIANGONG-1 or “Heavenly Palace” is headed back to earth with re-entry likely happening tomorrow afternoon.

Its re-entry, unlike most, is uncontrolled as the space station became unresponsive in March, 2016. The latest forecasts remain highly variable but are centred in a window around 16:25 PDT on April 1st. This is later than originally predicted with the delay attributed to low solar activity, which has allowed Earth’s upper atmosphere to cool and shrink away from Tiangong-1 – less air  means less aerodynamic friction and a slower decay. Check here for updates.

Most of the 8.5 tonne spacecraft will burn up in the atmosphere with 1.5 to 3.5 tonnes expected to impact the earth. The impact zone is from 43° North latitude to 43° south latitude and it is likely come down in an ocean rather than over land. So that excludes BC and most of Canada. Impact debris is typically heat resistant metal objects such as fuel tanks.

TIANGONG-1 is about the size of bus. It is much smaller than the 74 tonne Skylab space station that had an uncontrolled re-entry in 1979. Still, it would be a spectacular sight if you happen to be in the right place at the right time to see it. It will be visible even in daylight and will appear as a slow moving shooting star or fireball,  a smoke trail might even be visible.


Space Talk with Scott – Feb 24th, 2018

RASC’s Scott McGillivray talks about viewing the Humanity Star – the “disco mirror ball” that is currently in orbit; and his favourite upcoming space mission.