Back to the Moon: The Google Lunar XPrize


This year we will return to the moon.  I’m not talking about a new NASA mission or something coming out of Russia’s Roscosmos or the European Space Agency.  I’m talking about private enterprise.  I’m talking about a competition first launched 10 years ago, and we are in the final stretch.  I’m talking about the Google Lunar X Prize.

First, the rules.  You must launch a rocket toward the moon and travel the 380,000 kilometer distance.  One false calculation and you could miss the moon entirely.  Once you arrive close to the moon, you must slow down, which is harder than it sounds.  Don’t do that right, and you could end up with what is called a “hard landing”, otherwise known as a crash.  Then you have to find a place to land, probably someplace that’s smooth and flat.  If you land successfully, you must then somehow move your craft 500 meters.  This is can be done by rover, another rocket, or some other design.  Finally you have to send pictures and a message back to Earth from the lunar surface.  Do that, and you win the Google Lunar X Prize and the $20 million dollar prize money!  But, there is one final catch.  A minimum of 90% of your budget must come from private donors; no governments allowed.  The idea there is to keep costs down and be as innovative as possible.

When the contest first began, there were over 30 competitive teams.  Overtime the field has dwindled as various checkpoints past.  Now only 5 teams remain.  Each team has a different story and come from all over the world.  From the U.S. there is Moon Express.  Japan has Team Hakuto.  From Israel there is Team SpaceIL and from India, Team Indus.  Rounding out the field is an international group with members from over 15 nations called Synergy Moon.  Each team has secured a separate launch date and launch vehicle/rocket, except for Team Indus and Team Hakuto.  They will share the same rocket ride aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket.  A true space race!  

A few weeks ago we lost the life of American astronaut Eugene Cernan.  Gene was the last man to walk on the moon, over 40 years ago.  That’s a long time, so long that to many people the Apollo missions seem to be a mere story, something strange from a bygone era.  Others think it never even happened.  I was born a few months after the Apollo 17 mission, so I just missed the best part of the space race of the 1960’s.  Fortunately, there is a new race, and a new generation to get the ball rolling again.  I can’t wait to get back to the moon!

Astronomy Word of the Day:  Cyanogen.  Cyanogen is a chemical compound (CN)2 very commonly found in comets.  Toxic to humans, it is one of the reasons comets tend to appear green as they approach the sun.  Cyanogen was first noticed in comets around 1910 when scientists analyzed the composition of Halley’s Comet.  That particular apparition of Halley’s Comet was very close, with the Earth passing through its tail.  Many feared that the poisons in the tail would kill us, but the tail of a comet is so diffuse that there was nothing to fear.

Cetus and Mira

It would seem that the skies have really opened up over the last few days, inundating our rivers and lakes with much needed water. Were this ancient times we might attribute the recent flooding to the constellations now coming overhead rather than El Nino or low pressure systems. In the late fall we experience a change of seasons in the sky as well as on the ground. The bright, star filled summer constellations come to rest and the dimmer but often larger constellations of the Great Sea come to dominate the sky. The many creatures of the sea, no longer content to rest and play below the waves, ride high in the sky these evenings, and with them comes some often much needed stellar delights for our telescopes.

The Great Sea has many water based constellations: Pisces the Fish, Pisces Austrinus, the southern fish, Capricorn the Sea Goat (that’s right, sea goat…half fish, half goat) Aquarius the Water Bearer, Delphinus the Dolphin, and finally the denizen of the deep, Cetus the Whale. Most of these constellations are relatively easy to spot, but it is the whale that proves the most challenging, and arguably the most rewarding.

Cetus represents the so called “Kraken” the sea monster tasked with killing and eating Princess Andromeda. Being a whale, it is quite large and most of its stars are about 4th magnitude. Like Moby Dick to Captain Ahab, you often don’t see the whale until it is too late. When you do see it, the whale shape is fairly easy to pick out, rising out of the depths as Pegasus and it’s Great Square flies almost directly overhead. It contains a handful of nice deep sky object including 1 Messier object, M77. M77 is a nice, large face-on spiral galaxy about 47 million light years away. Cetus is also home to a nice planetary nebula, NGC 246, the Cetus Ring, also called the Skull Nebula due to its resemblance to a skull.

Perhaps the most interesting object to observe in Cetus is one of its stars, Omicron Ceti or Mira the Wonderful. This star varies in brightness over a period of about 300 days, ranging from naked eye visibility of around 3rd magnitude and then fading to as faint as 9th magnitude, about 250 times fainter. The change occurs because Mira is about die and is fluctuating and pulsating in size and energy output. Soon it will die and become a planetary nebula. Recently it was discovered to have sort of a tail of material streaming behind it about 13 light years long because of its extremely high speed motion through an interstellar cloud of gas at 290,000 mph. Recent observations place it at 9th magnitude, so now might be a good time to begin looking for the whale. You may need a telescope to see the star now, but in a few short months you may notice a star about halfway up the neck of the beast brightening slowly from night to night in a wonderful rhythm. All you need is a little patience.

Upcoming Astronomy Events:

  • Venus, Mars, and Jupiter make a nice triangle in the eastern sky shortly before dawn. The Waning Crescent moon joins the show on November 7th.
  • November 9th Iridium Flare at 4:16 a.m. at magnitude -4.7, 45° altitude in the NE.
  • November 12th New Moon
  • November 13th Free Public Planetarium Show featuring “Exploding Universe” in the at the SHSU Planetarium in the Farrington Building Room 102. Admission is free.
  • November 12th Meteor Shower, the Northern Taurids at about 15 per hour.

Astronomy Word of the Day: Exoplanet. Exoplanet are planets that orbit stars other than the sun. Over 1900 have been detected so far with more on the way each day. The first one was only discovered about 20 years ago. It is truly amazing what has been learned about the universe in such a short time. Imagine what we will know tomorrow.

Have questions about astronomy? Send them to I will attempt to address some of them in future editions. Also, for more information, check out my website at or follow me on Twitter @shsuobservatory. Until next time, Clear Skies!



Ultraviolet mosaic of Mira’s bow shock and tail obtained using NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX).

Other Webcams

I thought I would share some other live webcams of some of the places I visited in Chile.  The first is of CTIO, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, particularly the Blanco Telescope.

And this is outside the SOAR telescope that shares the same mountain peak as Gemini South and the future LSST.  Cerro Pachon.





“Life begins on the edge of your comfort zone” -Neale Donald Walsch


The OSF (Operations Support Facility) for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array sits at about 3,000 meters above sea level.  The humble sized but very active town of San Pedro thrives only 50 kilometers away.  The facility itself has a fully operational cafeteria, plenty of housing, and offices that could just as easily be in Silicon Valley.  If you have properly acclimated yourself to the altitude it is easy to forget the warnings that this environment can rapidly become very hostile.  Your first indication that things may not be as safe as they appear is this:

Image taken by Brian Koberlein

Image taken by Brian Koberlein

The sun here can be brutal.  It is cold.  But being so high you are above much of the protective layer of the atmosphere, so burning is easy.  Most days, by the time the sun reaches maximum altitude, that little light is in the purple.  Danger setting of 11 on a scale of 1-10.  Use of sunblock often, wear a hat, and UV protected sunglasses is a must.

Got my sunblock on                  ALMA-0

Assuming you have been granted permission to ascend to the high site, you must first pass a basic physical exam.  Your blood pressure and oxygen saturation level is checked.  Blood pressure naturally elevates with increased altitude since there is less pressure on your body pushing inward.  And since there is less oxygen, your blood must be as efficient as possible.  Altitude sickness is a funny thing.  A seemingly healthy person who eats properly, regularly works out and normally displays no health problems can have trouble or even be denied access while others who you would think would be a guaranteed “no” exhibit little or no problems at all.  Initially, my heart rate was too high, something I attribute to merely being overly excited.  A few deep breaths and a moment of concentrated relaxation and my blood pressure machine finally took my reading.  147/96.  I was good to go.  Not all of us were so lucky.

Once the health checks were over, we loaded up into two large trucks and headed up to the plateau…5000 meters above sea level.  That altitude is only 400 feet below the altitude of the north base camp for Mt. Everest.  The air is so thin and dry there is only .5 mm of water above your head.  Any ice on the plateau doesn’t melt when the temperatures are warm enough.  It sublimates, turning straight into a gas like dry ice.  Visitors are only allowed to stay about 2 hours.  Regular employees are limited to 6 hours before being to required to come down to the OSF.  As you drive up, the vegetation changes.  Half way there, a strange, different type of cactus becomes the dominant plant, resembling the towering socorro cactus found in Arizona.  Then, they stop.  All vegetation stops.  Here you have reached a point where most life forms found are mere visitors, only able to stay for short periods before succumbing to the effects of the altitude.

We arrive at the high site.  Just like that it feels like you are on another planet.  Strange, alien.  The 66 antennae off in the distance, each one weighing 100 tons, mark time, slowly and steadily turning in one direction, then another.  We step out of our vehicles with excitement but are advised not to overexert ourselves.  Even the act of touching your toes and standing back up can cause dizziness.  Our blood pressure and oxygen levels are checked again inside the control room 3 times.  One of us is given an oxygen tank and breathing tubes, a couple more have to sit for a bit and catch their breath.  After a tour of the servers and control rooms, we head out to the dishes.  We practice our breathing techniques, exhaling with our lips pursed together as if we are about to whistle to apply pressure to our lungs and exhale fully.  Symptoms of high altitude include dizziness, nausea, headaches, confusion, irritability, blurred vision, and irregular heart rates, all of which can lead to swelling of the brain or fluid buildup in the lungs.  This is as close to the edge as I have ever been.  But the sight of those antennae clicking away doing science, the thought of all the manpower and cooperation between the various countries involved in this edge of the world venture keep us going.  We hardly notice the ambulance dutifully following close behind us just in case.  When it comes time for us to leave, those of us who have enough breath left let out a collective sigh of disappointment.


I am no adrenaline junky.  But if anyone ever asks me, what is the edge of my comfort zone, I can tell them it lies on the 5,000 meter Chajnantor Plateau.  It lies at ALMA.  I can’t wait to go back.

A little astrophotography

So here is a small sample of some images taken over the last two nights at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.  My personal favorite is seeing the ISS from the southern hemisphere.  That small smudge beneath the streak is Small Magellanic Cloud.


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The image dome in all the shots is that of the Blanco 4 Meter Telescope.  It is a very active scientific instrument, as you can see from the motion in one of the images.  In the other image, you can see the Southern Cross, the Coalsack nebula, and many other objects.  More to come later.


Gemini South and SOAR

Visited Gemini South and SOAR…behind the scenes.  I will add many more pictures at a later time.  For now, here is a taste.  The pictures that look circular were shot with a macro fisheye lens with the intent of showing on a planetarium dome.  The final picture is looking back at Gemini South from outside the SOAR telescope.  The wonderful young woman in the picture is fellow ACEAP ambassador Vivian White.

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Observatorio Astronomica Andino

Haven’t been able to blog for a while.  Here is a brief update on things in Chile.  Visited a wonderful place called Observatorio Astronomica Andino.  Amateur astronomers take note!  This is a first class observatory.  First class gear!  First class accommodations!  First Class Food!  And First Class hosts!  (Any astronomy TA’s for SHSU, we need to talk)  Regrettably it was cloudy this night, so no observing.  I’ll tell you this much…for being only 30 minutes from a city of 7 million people, the light pollution was virtually non-existent.  And quiet.  Every telescope had either a Nagler lens ready to go or something similar.  Easy on the eyes lighting, lots of it, but it doesn’t really effect your night vision at all.  It was chilly, so the outside stoves were lit.  Ponchos were offered to those who needed.  Empenadas.  Wine.  (good wine too…nothing from CVS or Walmart here!)  The two young ladies who hosted, Francisca and Jacqueline, were wonderful.  Francisca did most of the tour and talk.  She is an upcoming astronomer.  Jacqueline is a software engineer.

From here, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Other side of the world

So, took this image on my phone after sunset from Chile.  Moon, Jupiter, and Venus.  (Venus is the brightest of the two dots.)  Notice anything different from your skies (U. S. people)?  The angle they make points to the left rather than the right…Venus is left of Jupiter for me, right of Jupiter for you.  Also, the crescent moon is different…also leaning toward the left rather than right.  This is due to locations on the Earth.  The sky is reversed for the southern hemisphere.