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With its most ambitious manned launch to date, China sent the countries first female taikonaut (astronaut) into space. Major Liu Yang, 33, is now a national hero after she won the race to become the nations first female space traveller, following the successful launch of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft at 10:37:24 UT on June 16, 2012.
Also on board the three person spacecraft were male companions Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang. Haipeng also made history as the first and only Chinese taikonaut to have flown on two missions, Shenzhou-7 and Shenzhou-9.
At 9 a.m. PDT (noon EDT) on June 13, NASA launched its Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) X-ray telescope into space. Of course, NASA has been launching satellites, space probes and manned missions for many years now, but what makes this launch a bit different is that the rocket was fired from an airborne plane and not from the ground, as is usually the case.
The carrier aircraft took off from the remote horseshoe-shaped Pacific Ocean island of Kwajalein Atoll. After reaching cruising altitude and once the all clear was given the rocket was released from the aircraft, the engine was then fired launching the telescope towards space. Exactly as planned the telescope then separated from the rocket and unfurled its solar panels as it orbited 350 miles (563 kilometers) above the Earth.
NASA decision to air-launch the mission is down to cost; it is cheaper than blasting off from a launch pad.
The June 5/6 transit of Venus captured the imagination as many thousands of people worldwide turned skywards to view the Sun. Motivated no doubt by the fact that this is the last time in a lifetime to view this rare event – the next opportunity is December 2117 - many amateur astronomers took the opportunity to record the phenomena…and record it they did as hundreds of excellent images were posted online during and after the event.
Some of the best images were obtained by orbiting spacecraft. One such spacecraft is NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which captured many images of the transit including this spectacular one showing Venus as it nears the disk of the Sun.
There are many predictable events in astronomy. The time of sunrise, the monthly appearance of the full Moon and the return of Halley's comet once every 76 years or so are a few examples that spring to mind. One such occasion, that takes place this year on June 5/6, is among the rarest of all predictable events. In fact it is so uncommon that since it was first observed way back in 1639, it has only taken place a further five times since then. The event in question is none other than "the transit of Venus".
In astronomical language, a transit is an event that occurs when one celestial body appears to move across the face of another celestial body as viewed from a particular position. If the first celestial body covers all of most of the second celestial body, then it is an occultation rather than a transit. Position is the key; for a transit or occultation to occur there has to be a high degree of alignment between the observer and the other two celestial bodies. In this case, the Sun, Venus and the Earth are aligned and with Venus stuck in the middle it will appear as a small black disk crossing the Sun's disk when viewed from Earth.
The full Moon will duck into the Earths shadow on June 4 in a partial lunar eclipse visible over Australia, Asia and the Americas. At maximum eclipse the Moon will be about one third covered by the Earths umbral shadow, which promises to bath part of the Moon in a spectacular deep reddish hue.
Eclipses of the Sun and Moon occur in pairs. When a solar eclipse occurs, a lunar eclipse takes place either two weeks before or after. This time the lunar eclipse follows last months annular solar eclipse and like the solar version it is the same regions of the Earth that have the best seat in the house to enjoy this lunar spectacle.
Mercury was well placed for early birds in the tropics and southern hemisphere during the first half of last month before been lost to the Suns glare as it headed towards superior conjunction. Moving into June, Mercury is now past superior conjunction and reappears later this month in the evening sky.
Once again, it is southern hemisphere and tropics observers who have all the luck. From Sydney, Australia (35S), Mercury is visible for a few weeks from the middle of June. At its highest, Mercury will be more than 10 degrees above the horizon at the end of June / beginning of July. Unfortunately, as the planet moves higher in the sky it also dims in brightness, fading from mag. –1.8 to 0.4 as the month goes by. For northern hemisphere observers the planet is visible for a shorter time and located much lower in the sky; at best only 5 degrees or so north of the horizon when seen from London, England (51.5N).
Easily the celestial highlight of the month or even the year takes place on June 5/6 when Venus reaches inferior conjunction and transits the Sun. This extremely rare, only twice in a lifetime event, occur in pairs of 8 years with a gap of more than 100 years between them. For the current cycle, first performance took place on June 8, 2004 when the entire transit was visible from Europe, most of Asia, and almost all of Africa. The second show is on June 5/6 with the complete transit or at least part of it visible from most of the world including Europe, Asia, North America, Central America and Australasia. Missing that, you will have to wait until 2117 to catch this spectacle once more!! The diagram below shows the path of Venus as it moves across the Suns disk.
The Sun will turn into a spectacular ring of fire and light up the sky on May 20th when an annular solar eclipse is visible over the Pacific Ocean, China, southern Japan, and western US.
This type of eclipse – the first one in the US for almost 18 years – occurs when the lunar disk is not quite large enough to fully cover the Sun. At the time of maximum eclipse, the Moon forms a black hole in the centre of the Sun surrounded by a sensational bright ring - the ring of fire.
The latest data obtained from NASA's DAWN spacecraft - currently orbiting Vesta - suggests that the asteroid closely resembles a small planet or the moon rather than other asteroids. Results published in the journal Science on Thursday May 13, 2012 reveal that the 4.56 billion year old asteroid is believed to be a remnant intact proto-planet from the earliest time of solar system formation. This is based on an assessment of data obtained from DAWN during the 10 months in which it has been orbiting the giant asteroid.
From the information obtained, scientists confirmed Vesta has a metal-rich core, just like rocky planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The core has been calculated to be about 220 kilometres (135 miles) across, equivalent to approx. 40% of the radius of Vesta, or roughly 18% of its total mass.
Mercury remains well placed in the morning sky during the first half of May for observers in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere. It is visible towards the east-north-east just before sunrise. The planet increases in brightness from mag. 0.0 on May 1st to mag. –1.0 on May 17th as it moves closer to the Sun in the sky.
For Northern Hemisphere observers, Mercury is poorly positioned in May. Despite a reasonable separation from the Sun at the start of the month, it rises only about half an hour before the Sun from London, England. For the remainder of the month, it remains close to the Sun and difficult to observe.
The planet reaches superior conjunction on May 27th and perihelion on May 29th. At perihelion it is located only 0.307495 AU (approx. 46 million km or 28.6 million miles) from the Sun.
Venus begins the month as a brilliant evening star, shining at mag. –4.7, setting four hours after the Sun in Northern temperate latitudes and nearly 2 hours for observers in the tropics and the Southern Hemisphere. On May 6th, a nice conjunction occurs when Venus passes only 49 arcminutes from mag. 1.7 star Elnath (beta Tauri). With a mag. difference of about 6, Venus appears more than 250 times brighter than Elnath!
The planet then draws rapidly towards the Sun as the month progresses and by the last week of May will be difficult to pick out against the bright evening twilight.
Mars has now completed its latest retrograde motion and is now moving direct in Leo. It is visible as soon as night falls and sets in the early hours of the morning. The planet has been moving back and forth in Leo for some time, but now its again moving eastwards the motion of the Red planet against the background stars is noticeably quick. At the beginning of the month Mars is only a few degrees from Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, by the end of the month the distance has more than doubled.