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Mars landing today

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars.

THE GRAVITATIONAL TUG Mars is now pulling NASA’s car-size geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity, in for a suspenseful landing in just hours.

“After flying more than eight months and 367 million kilometres [350 million miles] since launch, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle that is our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere,” said Mission Manager Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The spacecraft is healthy and on course for delivering the mission’s Curiosity rover close to a Martian mountain at 3:31pm Australian Eastern Standard time on Monday, August 6 (10:31pm Sunday, Aug. 5 US PDT, or 1:31am Monday, Aug. 6 US EDT). That’s the time a signal confirming safe landing could reach Earth, give or take about a minute for the spacecraft’s adjustments to sense changeable atmospheric conditions.

The only way a safe-landing confirmation can arrive during that first opportunity is via a relay by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Curiosity will not be communicating directly with Earth as it lands, because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon from Curiosity’s perspective about two minutes before the landing.

“We are expecting Odyssey to relay good news,” said Steve Sell of the JPL engineering team that developed and tested the mission’s complicated “sky crane” landing system. “That moment has been more than eight years in the making.”

WATCH THE LANDING LIVE

The following sites will be streaming live coverage of Curiosity’s landing:

NASA.gov

NASA’s YouTube channel

NASA UStream

All systems go

A dust storm in southern Mars being monitored by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appears to be dissipating. “Mars is cooperating by providing good weather for landing,” said JPL’s Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

Curiosity was approaching Mars at about 12,800 km/h, Saturday morning. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touchdown, gravity will accelerate it to about 21,000 km/h.

NASA plans to use Curiosity to investigate whether the study area has ever offered environmental conditions favourable for microbial life, including chemical ingredients for life.

“In the first few weeks after landing, we will be ramping up science activities gradually as we complete a series of checkouts and we gain practice at operating this complex robot in Martian conditions,” said JPL’s Richard Cook, deputy project manager for Curiosity.

First pictures

The first Mars pictures expected from Curiosity are reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images received either in the first few minutes after touchdown or more than two hours later. Higher resolution and colour images from other cameras could come later in the first week. Plans call for Curiosity to deploy a directional antenna on the first day after landing and raise the camera mast on the second day.

The big hurdle is landing. Under some possible scenarios, Curiosity could land safely, but temporary communication difficulties could delay for hours or even days any confirmation that the rover has survived landing.

The prime mission lasts a full Martian year, which is nearly two Earth years. During that period, researchers plan to drive Curiosity partway up a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. Observations from orbit have identified exposures there of clay and sulphate minerals that formed in wet environments.

Information about the mission and about ways to participate in challenges of the landing, including a new video game:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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The year ahead in space

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars. The craft is due to arrive on Mars on August 6, 2012.

THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE A BIG ONE in terms of space activity, and will include some events you’ll be able to experience firsthand. Let’s count down the top five.

At number five we have NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, carrying the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. Scheduled to arrive on August 6, it will land in Gale Crater (named after a 19th-20th century Australian astronomer, Walter Frederick Gale) and look for signs of organic chemicals. The 900-kilogram, nuclear-powered rover has a primary mission of two years but is expected to last for much longer than that.

At number four we have the total eclipse of the Sun on November 14. The path of totality runs along a narrow west-east strip of far northern Queensland, taking in Cairns and surrounding areas. The thousands of people who are expected to flock to the area will experience two minutes of totality shortly after sunrise—observers elsewhere in Australia will witness a partial eclipse.

After this, the next total solar eclipse to be visible from Australia will be in 2028, when the path of totality will run straight through Sydney.

Transit of Venus

The transit of Venus will be seen on the morning of June 6 in Australia. There won't be another one until the year 2117.

Coming in at number three is an event you won’t want to miss, as you’ll never get a chance to see another one. It’s the transit of Venus, which will happen on the morning of June 6. A transit occurs when one of the inner planets, in this case Venus, moves between Earth and the Sun and we see it as a small black dot slowly crawling across the solar face. It was to observe a transit of Venus that Captain Cook travelled to the South Pacific in the 18th century … and on his way home bumped into a certain large, dry continent, girt by sea.

Transits of Venus are very rare. They happen in pairs eight years apart (so the last one was in 2004), but between pairs there is a gap of over 100 years. So the 20th century totally missed out, and after June there won’t be another one until the year 2117. So don’t miss it!

Number two on our list is the decision on where the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, will be built. The SKA will be an enormous network of radio dishes and antennae spread over an area the size of a continent. It will enable astronomers to look back towards the beginning of time, and study the evolution of stars and galaxies throughout cosmic history.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

In a situation reminiscent of the Olympics, two regions have put in bids to host the facility and are eagerly awaiting the decision of the international panel. A joint bid by Australia and New Zealand is up against a consortium of southern African countries. The decision could be announced next month. If Australasia gets it, the core of the network will be located in a remote region of Western Australia, but with many other dishes spread out across the nation and into New Zealand.

And so after all of these fantastic events, what could we possibly have in the number one spot on our countdown? What will be this year’s biggest cosmic event? Why, the very survival of Planet Earth of course! In case you haven’t heard, a lot of people seem to be very worried about two things—the apparent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar in December (and the implied end of civilisation as we know it), and a collision between Earth and a planet called Nibiru.

Well, as far as the Mayan calendar is concerned, there is no cause for alarm. Like the Gregorian calendar we use every day, it will simply tick over to a new Long Count and we’ll all live happily every after.

That is, unless we get wiped out by that collision with Nibiru. Frightened? Don’t be. For you see, there’s a basic flaw in the Nibiru hypothesis, and it’s simply this … Nibiru doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction invented by some loopy, cosmic conspiracy nutters. There is no evidence for such a planet, and no evidence that Earth is in any danger from a collision with any other planet, known or unknown. Phew!

UPDATE, February 6: BTW, I misspoke on the Today Show this morning, saying that the next total solar eclipse after this year’s one will occur in the year 2128. I should have said 2028 of course.

Story by Jonathan Nally

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VIDEO: The road to Mars

WHAT DOES IT TAKE to get a spacecraft from Earth all the way to Mars? There are a few key things to consider, as explained in this 60-second video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / Caltech.

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VIDEO: Twister on Mars!

AN AFTERNOON WHIRLWIND on Mars lofts a twisting column of dust more 800 metres into the air in this image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

HiRISE captured the image on February 16, 2012, while the orbiter passed over the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars. In the area observed, paths of many previous whirlwinds, or dust devils, are visible as streaks on the dusty surface.

The active dust devil displays a delicate arc produced by a westerly breeze partway up its height. The dust plume is about 30 metres in diameter.

The image was taken during the time of Martian year when that planet is farthest from the Sun. Just as on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. Exposure to the Sun’s rays declines during this season, yet even now, dust devils act relentlessly to clean the surface of freshly deposited dust, a little at a time.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the Sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been examining Mars with six science instruments since 2006. Now in an extended mission, the orbiter continues to provide insights into the planet’s ancient environments and how processes such as wind, meteorite impacts and seasonal frosts continue to affect the Martian surface today. This mission has returned more data about Mars than all other orbital and surface missions combined.

Adapted from information issued by Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Laboratory NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona.

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VIDEO: When worlds (seem to) collide

LAST YEAR, EUROPE’S MARS EXPRESS spacecraft—in orbit around Mars—underwent a special manoeuvre to observe a conjunction between Jupiter and the larger of Mars’ two moons, Phobos. A conjunction is when two unrelated astronomical bodies appear to line up in the sky.

This sequence of images shows Phobos moving from right to left through the camera’s field of view and then disappearing from the field of view. At the moment when Mars Express, Phobos and Jupiter were in a line, Phobos was 11,389 km from the spacecraft, while Jupiter was more than 529,000,000 km away.

Because Jupiter was nearly 50,000 times as far away as Phobos, the largest planet in the Solar System (140,000 km in diameter) appears much smaller than the Martian moon.

While Mars Express and Phobos were both moving through space, the spacecraft’s camera was fixed on Jupiter. The sequence includes a total of 104 individual images that were taken over a span of 68 seconds.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

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What’s up? Night sky for April 2012

Star trails over an observatory

The southern sky is full of wonderful treats for the stargazer. (This star trail photo by Iztok Boncina was made by keeping the camera shutter open.)

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Standard Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere. (If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, please see the video at the bottom of the page for What’s Up in your night sky.)

April 3

The Moon, now just over three-quarters full, will be about 11 Moon widths above and to the left of the bright blue star, Regulus, the brightest star of the constellation Leo. A little further below is what looks like a red star, but is actually the planet Mars. The colours of Regulus and Mars make a nice contrast. About 77.5 light years from Earth, Regulus is not one star but four, grouped into two pairs. Multiple star systems are very common throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

April 4

The Moon is still in the vicinity of Mars tonight, being above and to the right of the planet. Incidentally, when I use a term such as “vicinity”, it is not to be taken as suggesting the two bodies are physically near each other out there in space. Rather, they are simply within similar lines-of-sight from our vantage point on Earth.

April 4 sky view

April 4, 8:00pm. The Moon, Mars and the star Regulus will make an attractive triangle in the northern part of the sky. Note the colour difference between blue Regulus and ruddy Mars.

April 7

Full Moon occurs today at 5:19am Sydney time (19:19 Universal Time on April 6). In a similar fashion to its “encounters” with Regulus and Mars a few days earlier, tonight the Moon will be about six Moon widths to the right of another bright star, Spica, and about 10 Moon widths above the planet Saturn. Spica is the brightest star of the constellation Virgo; it is a blue giant star about 260 light years from Earth. This is a great time to see Saturn (see April 16), so it’s a good idea to use the nearby Moon to identify it.

April 8

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 358,311 kilometres.

April 10

This evening, take a look about 12 Moon widths below the Moon and you’ll see a reddish looking star that looks a bit like Mars. It’s the star Antares, and its name actually “rival of Mars”. Antares is the brightest star of the constellation Scorpius, and is a red supergiant star about 883 times bigger than our Sun!

Saturn

Saturn, as it appears through a backyard telescope. Image by Steve Massey.

April 13

It is Last Quarter Moon tonight at 8:50pm Sydney time (10:10 Universal Time).

April 16

Today the planet Saturn reaches what astronomers call “opposition”. This means that, from an Earthly perspective, it is the opposite direction to the Sun—so if you could look down on the Solar System from above you’d see the Sun, Earth and Saturn (in that order) in a straight line … although Saturn, of course, is much further from us than the Sun. The period around opposition is a considered a great time to view a planet, as it rises in the east around the same time as the Sun sets in the west, and is therefore nice and high in the sky by late evening.

April 19

If you’re an early riser, out to east this morning before sunrise you’ll see the very thin crescent Moon. Above and to its right is a bright looking star. Well that’s not a star; it’s the planet Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun.

April 19 sky view

April 19, 6:30am. The thin crescent Moon and the planet Mercury will be visible together in the eastern sky before sunrise.

April 21

New Moon occurs today at 5:18pm Sydney time (07:18 Universal Time).

April 23

Today the Moon will again reach the farthest point in its orbit, apogee, at a distance from Earth of 406,421 kilometres.

April 24

Today the Moon makes another apparent close approach to a star, this time Aldebaran, the brightest star of the constellation Taurus. The pair will be low in the western sky after sunset. Like Antares, Aldebaran too is a red star, but not a supergiant—it is only about 44 times the size of our Sun. It’s about 65 light years from Earth.

April 25

There’ll be a lovely astronomical pairing in this evening’s sky, with the Moon very close to Venus. The Moon is the second-brightest object in our night sky, and Venus is the third-brightest.

April 25 sky view

April 25, about 7:15pm. The thin crescent Moon and Venus will be close together in the western sky.

April 29

It is First Quarter Moon today at 7:58pm Sydney time (09:58 Universal Time). First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains are throwing nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.

There’s more great night sky viewing information at Melbourne Planetarium’s Skynotes site.

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, here’s a Jet Propulsion Laboratory video that details what you can see this month:

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, we’d be happy to answer them. Please use the Feedback Form below. Happy stargazing!

Images courtesy IAU and Iztok Boncina / ESO.

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What’s up? Night sky for January 2012

Stargazers with telescopes at night

Summer nights are perfect for stargazing.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

January 1

It is First Quarter Moon today at 5:15pm AEDT. First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains  throw nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.

January 3

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit from the Earth, which is called apogee. It’s distance from our planet will be 404,578 kilometres.

While you’re out looking at the Moon, you’ll notice a bright looking star above and to the left. Well, that’s not a star; it’s actually the planet Jupiter. If you have access to a telescope, or even a pair of 7×50 (or better) binoculars, train them on Jupiter and you should see up to four tiny pinpoints of light on either or both sides of the planet—these are the moons Galileo discovered, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. If you take a look again tomorrow night, you’ll see that their positions will have changed as they whiz around the planet.

And in fact, we’re only a few days away from the anniversary of their discovery. On the 7th of this month, it will be 402 years since Galileo spotted them!

January 5

Today the Earth reaches perihelion in its orbit around the Sun. Perihelion is the point in a solar orbit when the body in question (eg. Earth) is at its closest to the Sun. Perihelion occurs today at midday AEDT, at a distance between Earth and Sun of about 147,098,000 kilometres. (The opposite of perihelion is aphelion, which for Earth will occur on July 5, 2012 at a distance of about 152,098,000 kilometres.)

If you have a pair of binoculars, you’ll see a pretty sight tonight, with the soon-to-be-full Moon appearing to sit above a beautiful star cluster called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. When the Moon is not around and the sky is dark, most people can make out 6 to 7 of the Pleiades stars, although eagle-eyed stargazers can see a few more. There are actually hundreds of stars in this beautiful open star cluster, and it is also filled with beautiful whispy gas clouds, although the stars and the gas are not actually related to each other—we just happen to be seeing them at a time when the stars are drifting through the gas.

Diagram of Moon near Pleiades in January 5's night sky

This is the view in the evening of January 5, with the Moon sitting above the beautiful star cluster known as the Pleiades. A pair of binoculars will show the scene well. Tomorrow night the Moon will have shifted east, and will be near to Albebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.

January 6

Tonight you might notice a fairly bright, reddish-looking star just above the Moon. This is Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.

January 9

Full Moon occurs today at 6:30pm AEDT.

January 12

Tonight, the Moon will appear above and to the right of a bright blue star. This is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

January 14

In this morning’s pre-dawn sky out to the east, the Moon will appear above and to the left of the planet Mars, which looks like a ruddy-coloured star. As you gaze at it, spare a thought for the Mars Science Laboratory, which was launched a little under two months ago and which is due to reach the Red Planet on August the 6th this year.

January 16

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 8:08pm AEDT.

January 17

In this morning’s sky, the Moon will be just above and to the right of the planet Saturn, which looks like a bright star. Nearby is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

Diagram showing the Moon near Spica and Saturn in January 17's night sky

The Moon will be near to both the star Spica and the planet Saturn (the bright yellowish "star" below the Moon) on January 17. If you have access to a small telescope, take a look at both the craters and mountains on the Moon and Saturn and its glorious rings.

January 18

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 369,887 kilometres.

January 20

In the early dawn sky, take a look for the Moon and you should see a reddish-looking star just above it. This is Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Compare Antares with Mars—do you think they look similar? The ancients thought so, and in fact the name Antares means “rival of Mars”.

January 23

New Moon occurs today at 8:39pm AEDT.

January 27

Tonight, there’ll be a lovely sight in the evening sky out to the west, with the crescent Moon paired with the bright planet Venus (about 20 Moon widths to its left).

January 30

This evening, the Moon meets up with Jupiter again, appearing below the planet in the northwestern part of the sky.

Also today, the Moon will again reach apogee again, at a distance from Earth of 404,323 kilometres.

Diagram showing the Moon near Jupiter in January 30's night sky

The Moon will sit just below the planet Jupiter in the evening sky of January 30.

January 31

And finally for January, we have a second First Quarter Moon, which occurs today at 3:10pm AEDT.

There’s more great night sky viewing information at Melbourne Planetarium’s Skynotes site.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, we’d be happy to answer them. Please use the Feedback Form below. Happy stargazing!

Main image courtesy IAU.

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Road to Mars – Six minutes of terror!

Artist's impression of Mar Science Laboratory about to enter Mars' atmosphere.

Artist's impression of Mar Science Laboratory about to enter Mars' atmosphere.

THE MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY (MSL) team is calling it the “six minutes of terror”—the time between entering the Red Planet’s atmosphere and landing on its surface.

The NASA probe, carrying the Curiosity rover, will be using a totally new landing technique called the “sky crane”, whereby the six-wheeled vehicle will be lowered by cable down to the surface from an altitude of about 20 metres…courtesy of a rocket powered descent stage.

This graphic shows us the different parts of MSL: the cruise stage (which looks after the whole ensemble on the way to Mars); the backshell (which protects the rover during the cruise to Mars and initial atmosphere entry); the parachute (contained within the backshell); the descent stage (which will handle the final part of the descent); the rover itself; and the heatshield.

Breakout graphic showing the parts of MSL

The Curiosity rover is kept safe by several layers of protection on the cruise to Mars, and during atmospheric entry and landing.

Doing most of the work during the atmospheric entry will be the huge heatshield. At 14 metres wide, it is the largest heatshield ever sent to another planet, and about half a metre wider than that used by the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s and 1970s. It will need to withstand temperatures up to 2,100 degrees Celsius. These couple of photos will give you an idea of the size:

MSL heatshield

The space shuttle aside, Mars Science Laboratory's heatshield is the largest ever to be flown in space.

View of the MSL heatshield

Here's another view, showing the craft upside down in a cradle.

Packed inside the backshell is the parachute, the largest ever sent to another planet. It’s also the largest “disc-cap-band” of any kind ever made. It is 16 metres wide and has 80 suspension lines that are 20 metres long. When deployed during the descent through Mars’ thin air, it will need to withstand a wind speed of Mach 2.2.

Here’s a photo of it, with some people standing nearby to give a sense of scale:

MSL parachute

The huge parachute that Mars Science Laboratory will use to slow its descent through the Martian atmosphere.

And here’s a video of it being tested at AEDC’s National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex 40-metre wind tunnel—the largest in the world—at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in California. The action starts about 53 seconds in:

Quite impressive isn’t it? The parachute will deploy just over four minutes after atmospheric entry, and about two-and-a-half minutes before landing. At this stage the craft will be travelling at about 1,450 kilometres per hour! Twenty-four seconds after the parachute unfurls, with the speed down to about 500 kilometres per hour, the heatshield will drop away.

Another 70 seconds (approximately) and the parachute and backshell will detach, and the descent stage rockets will fire up for the final, powered descent stage.

The following video animation takes us through the interplanetary cruise phase, and the whole entry, descent and landing. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that everyone works as planned on August 6 next year!

Story by Jonathan Nally. Images and videos courtesy NASA.

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What’s up? The night sky for December 2011

Telescope dome at night

Stargazing is great fun, now that the warmer summer weather is here.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Standard Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

December 2

It is First Quarter Moon today at 8:52pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT). First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains  throw nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.

December 6

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit, apogee, at a distance from Earth of 405,412 kilometres. And if you take a look at the Moon this evening, you’ll see a bright ‘star’ above and to its right. That’s not a star—it’s actually the planet Jupiter!

December 9

Take a look at the Moon in this evening’s sky, and you’ll see a brightish star a little way out to its right. And yes, this one really is a star. It’s called Aldebaran, and it’s the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Aldebaran is a red giant star roughly 44 times as big as the Sun, and is about 65 light-years from Earth.

December 10

Full Moon occurs today at 1:36am AEDT, and tonight everyone in Australia and New Zealand will experience a total lunar eclipse. See our separate lunar eclipse story for full details on how, when and where to see it.

Eclipses aside…although it looks very pretty high up there in the sky, astronomers, both amateur and professional, generally hate the full Moon. This is because its light tends to drown out many of the fainter objects they’re interested in seeing. (It does this by actually making the sky glow.) It’s also not a good time to look at the Moon itself through a telescope, as the overhead sunlight (as seen from the perspective of the Moon) doesn’t throw any shadows across the lunar surface—and shadows are what give the craters and mountains their 3D look.

Man looking through a telescope

The Moon looks great through a telescope, but you won't need one to see the total lunar eclipse on December 10, 2011.

December 17

If you’re up early today, look for the Moon and you’ll see that it seems to have two companions. A little way below and to its left is the star Regulus, and below and to its right is the planet Mars. Regulus is actually a quadruple star system, comprised of four stars in two groups of two, gravitationally bound to one another. But the main star is a young, blue star a little over three times the mass of the Sun, and about three to four times as big as the Sun too.

December 18

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 11:48am AEDT. The Moon is still near Mars in the sky, being above and to the right of the planet in the hours before dawn.

December 21

The Moon, a star and a planet make a nice triangle in this morning’s sky. The star is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, and the planet is Saturn. Saturn will be to the left of the Moon, and Spica will be above Saturn. Spica, a blue giant star, is the 15th brightest star in the night sky and is about 260 light-years from Earth.

December 22

There are two items of note for today. First, the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee, which is the opposite of apogee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 364,800 kilometres. And secondly, today marks the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the day of the year when the Sun is highest in the sky.

December 25

New Moon occurs today at 5:06am AEDT.

December 27-28

The Moon is back in the western evening sky. Over these two nights, it’ll be paired up with the planet Venus—the duo will make a very attractive sight in the evening dusk.

There’s more great night sky viewing information at Melbourne Planetarium’s Skynotes site.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, we’d be happy to answer them. Please use the Feedback Form below. Happy stargazing!

Story by Jonathan Nally. Images courtesy IAU.

Get SpaceInfo.com.au daily updates by RSS or email! Click the RSS Feed link at the top right-hand corner of this page, and then save the RSS Feed page to your bookmarks. Or, enter your email address (privacy assured) and we’ll send you daily updates. Or follow us on Twitter, @spaceinfo_oz

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Aussie video shows Curiosity leaving Earth

THIS AMAZING VIDEO was taken by Australian amateur astronomer Duncan Waldron with assistance from Mark Rigby of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane, Australia.

It shows the departing Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which was launched from Cape Canaveral early on Sunday morning, Australian Eastern Daylight time.

The fuzzy triangular shape is likely to be gas venting from the Centaur rocket upper stage which boosted the probe out of Earth orbit.

Plumes that look similar to this one can sometimes be seen by skywatchers if they’re in the right place at the right time to catch a satellite being boosted into its final orbit by what’s called an “apogee kick motor”…and often lead to UFO reports, as the sight is very unusual.

Below is a photograph of the plume (lower left corner) taken by Duncan Waldron from the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium.

Plume from MSL's Centaur as it departed Earth

As NASA's Mars Science Laboratory departed Earth, astronomer Duncan Waldron at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium snapped this photo of what is apparently gas venting from the probe's spent Centaur booster rocket.

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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