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Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory at UPR Arecibo, NASA, EUMETSAT, NERC Satellite Receiving Station, University of Dundee.

As you probably already know, there was an annular solar eclipse that was visible to parts of the Pacific rim last night/this morning. Because of the international dateline, I had the days mixed up and thought it was happening today (Monday May 21st) for the western U.S., when in fact for us it was at sunset last night. But it was Monday May 21st when it began for areas like Japan, because for them it happened early in the morning. Confusing right? It’s like the eclipse time-traveled. Anyway, the above photograph gives you a different perspective on it. The dark dot over the northern Pacific Ocean is the shadow of the moon! (Photo via Universe Today)

In other space-related news: SpaceX scrubbed the launch of their Falcon 9 rocket early Saturday morning due to a faulty check valve in one of the nine Merlin main engines. Their system has a computer that runs a full diagnostic check on everything right as the engines fire, and if even the slightest problem is detected the system shuts off everything immediately. Engineers are working diligently to get the valve replaced and run diagnostics with the rocket still on the launch pad. The new target launch date is May 22nd at 3:44am Eastern Daylight Time. I hope this all works out- I’m a fan of commercial spaceflight and feel that it is essential that NASA be able to rely on private companies to handle all their low-Earth orbit operations so that it can focus its main efforts on exploring asteroids and Mars. For more info see SpaceX’s website, and NASA.

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Friends/readers- my apologies for being a bit behind on the blog this week. I’m juggling a lot this week and have been stretched pretty thin. But here are a couple of tidbits I’ve rounded up that piqued my interest.

Credit: SpaceX

The current leader in the commercial spaceflight race for ferrying NASA’s astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They decided to combine the next two missions into one sometime last year, but the combined mission has faced several delays recently. Originally scheduled to launch late last year, this mission will be the first commercial mission to launch and dock with the ISS. That’s why this flight is so important and why they are double and triple checking to make sure they’ve dotted all their i’s and crossed all their t’s. If all goes well the Falcon 9 rocket will blast off from Cape Canaveral at 4:55 AM EDT Saturday morning. For more visit NASA or Bad Astronomy.

In other space-related news, NASA’s Messenger mission has been busy orbiting and making detailed maps of planet Mercury. Having no atmosphere, Mercury’s blistering surface is nothing but craters, and thus the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has been busy naming those craters. Andy Warhol was the latest celeb to get a crater named after him, and to celebrate, the mission managers created this image of the Warhol crater in the style of the pop art screen prints he’s famous for:

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Image credit: Dr. Phil Plait/Bad Astronomy Blog

Rant warning: I’m about to go on a major rant. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There’s simply no way else to put it, science classrooms in Tennessee’s public schools are fucked. It’s clear that our Republican Governor Bill Haslam didn’t actually like the so-called “monkey bill” that will allow teachers in TN public schools to teach creationism and climate change denialism under the guise of “scientific weaknesses,” but unfortunately he proved to be a coward by finding the political equivalent of “having your cake and eating it too”- allowing it to pass without his signature. The bill is nothing more than Bible-thumping socially conservative legislators trying to create a seemingly politically correct path for religious-based ideas to be taught alongside thoroughly proven scientific principles in our public schools. Honestly the state Board of Education is who should be making decisions like this, not state lawmakers. The separation of church and state is made crystal clear by the US Constitution, and teaching pseudoscience that is solely based on religion- creationism and intelligent design- should never EVER be allowed in public schools. Climate change denialism, while not religiously motivated per se, is very politically motivated and not supported by scientific evidence. Both evolution and climate change are overwhelmingly supported by rock-solid scientific evidence. Both are large and complex topics, the minor details of which are constantly going to be debated/improved/clarified, but the overall facts of both are very certain. They are not “scientifically controversial,” they are only politically controversial. It’s times like these that I’m quite ashamed of my home state. Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy Blog has much better and more professional commentary on this than I, so I suggest reading his blog post about it.

However, things like this Elon Musk interview from last night’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart bring me right back up when I’m down. Watch part 1 here and part 2 here, because you can’t embed Comedy Central videos on a wordpress hosted blog. 😦 It’s awesome and inspirational to see people like him be successful. People who have both the money and the vision to do great things and push the boundaries of mankind’s knowledge and capabilities. Elon Musk is one of many who are pushing the human race forward. The religious right pandering morons in the TN legislature and our coward of a Governor are among those pulling the human race backward.

End of rant.

This morning Space X launched the first full version of their Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The company’s rocket underwent a successful test launch back in July, and this launch successfully put their Dragon capsule into orbit. The capsule orbited earth for about 3 1/2 hours, then re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be recovered later this afternoon. This was the first successful commercial spaceflight involving re-entry and recovery. The Dragon capsule is under contract to NASA to carry cargo to the International Space Station. Space X is in a battle to also win a contract from NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS once the Space Shuttle is retired next year. A slightly different version of the Dragon capsule would be used for this, atop the same Falcon 9 rocket. This test’s success puts Elon Musk’s Space X much closer to that goal.

I am quite confident that Space X, or whatever other commercial spaceflight company that wins the NASA contract, will be able to cheaply and safely get our astronauts to and from the ISS. There is absolutely no reason NASA should devote more than basic oversight and money to this task. What NASA needs to focus its efforts on now is going beyond the ISS- to asteroids, to Mars, and even farther than that.

In other news, Mozilla has adopted two Red Pandas (aka firefoxes) and is streaming their activities live at http://firefoxlive.mozilla.org. What’s most awesome about this is that they’re being kept at the Knoxville Zoo, right here in Tennessee. I DARE you to watch the videos of them and not smile. (Via Candice Burnside)

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