Friday, July 27th marked the longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century, which was visible from southern Africa, Australia, and Madagascar, Europe, South Asia and South America. Although many of us in the UK largely (and typically!) missed out, as the summer heat wave gave way to rain and clouds, a bit of a double blow, given we were just outside the reach of totality.
For about half the world, the Moon was partly or fully in Earth’s shadow from 17:14 to 23:28 GMT; six hours and 14 minutes in all, with the period of totality – when the Moon lies entirely within the Earth’s shadow, and so is at its darkest – lasting from 19:30 to 21:13 GMT.
In a special treat, Mars, which is currently at opposition, sitting on the same side of the Sun as Earth, and thus at its closest to Earth (roughly 92 million km / 57 million mi), was visible just below the eclipsed Moon, appearing as a bright “star”. Those blessed with clear skies also had the treat of Saturn, Jupiter and Venus being visible in the sky as well.
The reason the eclipse lasted so long was that the alignment between Sun, Earth and Moon meant that the Moon was passing right across the middle of the disc of shadow cast by the the Earth. This also meant this eclipse created a particularly strong blood Moon. This is a phenomena caused by the lensing effect of the Earth’s atmosphere scatters blue light from the Sun outwards, whilst refracting red light inwards, so the Moon appears rusted as seen from Earth.
Virgin Galactic Reach Mesosphere for the 1st Time
VSS Unity took to the skies on July 26th, 2018, and reached its highest altitude yet: 52,000 metres (170,800 ft), the highest any Virgin Galactic vehicle has thus far reached.
VMS (Virgin Mother Ship) Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, took off from the Mojave Spaceport at 15:45 GMT and climbed to an altitude of 14,000 metres (46,500 ft), prior to releasing Unity, which dropped clear prior to its single rocket motor being ignited. The engine burned for some 42 seconds, powering the vehicle into a near vertical ascent and a speed that reached Mach 2.47.
This was enough to propel Unity on a parabolic flight that topped-out at 52,000 m, inside the mesosphere, which spans heights from approximately 10 km (33,000 ft; 6.2 mi) to 100 km (62 mi; 330,000 ft), representing the heights to which Virgin Galactic flights will typically carry fare-paying passengers so they can enjoy around 5 minutes of weightlessness.
It was a thrill from start to finish. Unity’s rocket motor performed magnificently again, and Sooch [co-pilot Mike Masucci] pulled off a smooth landing. This was a new altitude record for both of us in the cockpit, not to mention our mannequin in the back, and the views of Earth from the black sky were magnificent.
– Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, Dave Mackay
The mesosphere is sometimes referred to the “ignorosphere”, as it sits above the range of instrument carrying balloons, but well below the height from which it can be studied from space, and so remains one of the least-studied parts of the atmosphere. As well as carrying passengers aboard their vehicles, Virgin Galactic plan to change this by also flying experiments up to the mesosphere that might be used to probe it.
As with previous flights, today’s test flight was designed in part to gather additional data about conditions in the cabin during flight, but it also marks a significant step closer to the company starting commercial tourist flights, which are currently earmarked to commence in 2019, or possibly the end of 2018. Before that, however, the company will make at least one flight with Unity’s motor fuelled for a full duration burn of 60 seconds. When that might be, and whether it might follow directly on from this flight (which represented an 11 second longer engine burn than previous flights) or be worked up to, has yet to be stated.
When operational, VSS Unity will be joined by at least two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles, and – at some point in the next couple of years – an additional WhiteKnightTwo carrier vehicle, given the company are looking to operate flights out of Italy as well.