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Mars mission on its way!

A HISTORIC VOYAGE to Mars has begun with the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity.

The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.

During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

The Atlas V rocket initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the vehicle’s upper stage, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 567-million-kilometre journey to Mars.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Mars rover to launch this week

NASA’S MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY mission, carrying the car-sized Curiosity rover, is only days away from launch. The video above explains what scientists hope to achieve with the mission.

The ambitious mission will see the nuclear-powered rover spend at least two years investigating the geology of Gale Crater, a 154-kilometre-wide crater just south of Mars crater.

Gale is named after Walter Frederick Gale, an Australian astronomer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mars Science Laboratory is set for lift-off at 2:02am, Sydney time, on Sunday, November 27.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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What’s up? Night sky for November 2011

People looking at the evening sky

Late spring nights and mornings are ideal for stargazing, and there are some interesting things to see this month.

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.

November 3

It is First Quarter Moon today at 3:38am Australian Eastern Daylight 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.

November 9

Take a look in the evening sky and you’ll see the Moon with what looks like a bright star above and to its right. Well, that’s not a star, it’s the planet Jupiter. Also today, the Moon will reach the farthest point from Earth in its orbit, apogee, at a distance from Earth of 406,176 kilometres.

November 10

Take a look at the western horizon after sunset and you’ll see a pretty group comprising Venus, Mercury and the star Antares.

Looking at the Moon with a telescope

The Moon teams up with several planets during November

November 11

Full Moon occurs today at 7:16am Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

November 11-12

Out to the east in the early morning sky (pre-dawn) you’ll find a pair of celestial orbs that contrast each other nicely in colour. Ruddy coloured Mars will appear very close to Regulus, a blue giant star that is the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

November 19

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 2:09am Australian Eastern Daylight Time. If you’re up before dawn, take a look out to the eastern sky and you’ll see the Moon with the star Regulus close by, and the planet Mars about 4 degrees away as well.

November 23

Another attractive grouping, but quite low in the eastern sky before dawn (so you’ll need a clear horizon). There’ll be the Moon, plus the star Spica (the brightest star in the constellation Virgo) and the planet Saturn as well.

November 24

Today the Moon will be at the closest point to Earth in its orbit, called perigee, which is the opposite of apogee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 359,691 kilometres.

November 25

New Moon occurs today at 5:10pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

November 27

Take a look out to the west just after sunset, and you might see the very thin crescent Moon below and to the right of the planet Venus.

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 / TWAN / Babak /A. Tafreshi.

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Rover’s eye view of Mars

WHILE NASA’S MARS EXPLORATION ROVER Opportunity was travelling from Victoria crater to Endeavour crater, between September 2008 and August 2011, the rover team took an end-of-drive image on each Martian day that included a drive.

A new video compiles these 309 images, providing an historic record of the three-year trek that totalled about 21 kilometres across a Martian plain pocked with small craters.

The video shows the rim of Endeavour becoming visible on the horizon partway through the journey and growing larger as Opportunity neared that goal. The drive included detours, as Opportunity went around large expanses of treacherous terrain along the way.

The rover team also produced a sound track for the video, using each drive day’s data from Opportunity’s accelerometers. The low-frequency data has been sped up 1,000 times to yield audible frequencies.

“The sound represents the vibrations of the rover while moving on the surface of Mars,” said Paolo Bellutta, a rover planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who has plotted many of Opportunity’s drives and coordinated production of the video.

“When the sound is louder, the rover was moving on bedrock. When the sound is softer, the rover was moving on sand.”

Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for years of bonus, extended missions. Both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favourable for supporting microbial life.

Spirit stopped communicating in 2010. Opportunity continues its work at Endeavour. NASA will launch the next-generation Mars rover, car-size Curiosity, next month for arrival at Mars’ Gale crater in August 2012.

Here’s a video that explains the huge trek Opportunity made to reach Endeavour crater.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / Caltech.

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Mars rover moving closer to launch

NASA’S NEXT MARS ROVER will land at the foot of a layered mountain inside the planet’s Gale Crater. The car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is scheduled to launch between mid-November and mid-December this year and land in August 2012.

The target crater spans 154 kilometres in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Layering in the region suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of geological deposits.

During a prime mission lasting one Martian year—nearly two Earth years—researchers will use the rover’s tools to study whether the landing region had favourable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

The video above provides a snapshot of work to get the rover ready for launch at the Kennedy Space Centre. The video below talks about Gale Crater and what scientists hope to find.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.

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Red Planet goes with the flow

Dark flows on Mars

Dark streaks that come and go on some Martian slopes, could be evidence for flows of salty water.

  • Dark, narrow features seen on Martian slopes
  • They come and go with the seasons
  • Could be caused by flows of salty water

DARK, FINGER-LIKE FEATURES that appear and extend down some Martian slopes during the warmest months of the Mars year may show activity of salty water on Mars. They fade in winter, then recur the next spring.

Repeated observations by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have tracked seasonal changes in these recurring features on several steep slopes in middle latitudes of Mars’ southern hemisphere.

Some aspects of the observations still puzzle researchers.

“The best explanation we have for these observations so far is flow of briny water, although this study does not prove that,” said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

McEwen is the principal investigator for the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and the lead author of a report about the recurring flows published on August 5 by the journal Science.

Other explanations remain possible, but flows of liquid brine fit the features’ characteristics better than alternative hypotheses.

More than 1,000 flows seen

Saltiness lowers the temperature at which water freezes. Some sites with the dark flows get warm enough to keep water liquid if it is about as salty as Earth’s oceans, but temperatures in those areas would not melt pure water ice.

Sites with liquid brines could be important to future studies of whether life exists on Marsand to understanding the history of water.

Dark flows on Mars

Dark streaks change with the seasons on Mars.

The features are only about 0.5 to 5 metres wide, with lengths up to hundreds of metres. That’s much narrower than previously reported gullies on Martian slopes.

They have been seen in only about one percent as many locations as larger Mars gullies, but some of those locations display more than 1,000 individual flows. Also, while gullies are abundant on cold, pole-facing slopes, these dark flows are not.

Highly seasonal

The team first discovered the strange features after University of Arizona student Lujendra Ojha, at the time a junior majoring in geophysics, used a change detection algorithm capable of identifying subtle changes occurring on the Martian surface over time in image pairs during an independent study project.

“I was baffled when I first saw those features in the images after I had run them through my algorithm,” said Ojha, who is a co-author on the Science publication. “We soon realised they were different from slope streaks that had been observed before.

“These are highly seasonal, and we observed some of them had grown by more than 200 metres in a matter of just two Earth months.”

“By comparison with Earth, it’s hard to imagine they are formed by anything other than fluid seeping down slopes,” said Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project Scientist Richard Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The question is whether this is happening on Mars and, if so, why just in these particular places.”

More clues

Other clues help, too. The flows lengthen and darken on rocky equator-facing slopes from late spring to early autumn. Favouring warm areas and times suggests a ‘volatile’ material is involved, but which volatile? The settings are too warm for carbon-dioxide frost and, at some sites, too cold for pure water.

This suggests the action of brines with their lower freezing points. Salt deposits indicate brines have been abundant in Mars’ past. These recent observations suggest they may form near the surface today in rare times and places.

Artist's impression of MRO

The streaks were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft (artist's impression).

Still a mystery

However, when researchers checked some flow-marked slopes with the orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), no sign of water appeared. The features may quickly dry on the surface, or be mainly shallow subsurface flows.

“The flows are not dark because of being wet,” McEwen said.

A flow initiated by briny water could rearrange grains or change surface roughness in a way that darkens the appearance. How the features brighten again when temperatures drop is harder to explain.

“It’s a mystery now, but I think it’s a solvable mystery with further observations and experiments,” he said.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Arizona. Images courtesy NASA / JPL / University of Arizona.

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What’s up? Night sky for August 2011

Stargazers with telescopes

This month, Saturn will be the planet to watch in the western part of the sky after sunset.

FOUR PLANETS ARE VISIBLE THIS MONTH, although you’ll have to be quick to spot Mercury, as it starts the month low on the western horizon after sunset and within about a week will have become lost in the Sun’s glare.

Slightly higher in the western sky after sunset is Saturn, shining brightly and visited by the Moon on the 4th.

Jupiter and Mars are still the luminaries of the morning sky—Jupiter high in the north, and Mars low in the north-east. Their brighter sibling, Venus, will not be visible this month, as it is on the opposite side of the Sun from us.

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.

August 1

Look for the very thin crescent Moon low in the west after sunset. The planet Mercury will be about seven Moon widths above and to the right. Mercury is becoming much harder to see now, and over the next week will sink lower and lower toward the horizon and become lost in the Sun’s glare. The innermost planet will reappear in our morning sky out to the east next month.

August 3

Today the Moon will be at the closest point to Earth in its orbit, called perigee, at 7:00am. The distance between the two bodies will be 365,755 kilometres.

August 4

Look for the Moon and Saturn close together in the west in the early evening sky.

August 5

The Moon and the star Spica—the brightest star in the constellation Virgo—will appear close together tonight. The Moon will be about six Moon widths above the star.

August 6

It is First Quarter Moon today at 9:08pm. 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.

August 8

Now almost three-quarters full, the Moon will be near the star Antares—the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Antares has a reddish colour, and to the naked eye it looks a bit like the planet Mars. In fact, its name means ‘rival of Mars’.

Stargazers

Make the most of the late-winter nights by doing some stargazing.

August 14

Full Moon will occur today at 4:58am.

August 16

If you’ve been wondering why Venus doesn’t appear to be in our evening or morning skies, it’s because it is lost in the glare of the Sun. Today marks its ‘superior conjunction’, which means that it is on the exact opposite side of the Sun from us.

August 17

Mercury, which has been lost in the glare of the setting Sun for a while now, today reaches ‘inferior conjunction’, which means that it is exactly between us and the Sun. Mercury will reappear low in the east in the morning sky next month.

August 19

Today the Moon will be at the farthest point from Earth in its orbit, called apogee, at 2:24am. The distance between the two bodies will be 405,159 kilometres.

August 21

Look out to the east this morning, and you’ll see the Moon and what looks like a very bright star above and to its left. That’s not a star; it’s the planet Jupiter. Even if you don’t have a telescope, a normal pair of binoculars should reveal up to four of Jupiter’s largest moons, looking like small pinpricks of light to one or both sides of the planets.

August 22

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 9:55pm.

August 26

If you’re an early riser, take a look out to the east and you’ll see the Moon very close to the planet Mars.

August 29

New Moon occurs today at 1:04pm.

August 31

Today the Moon will again be at the closest point to Earth in its orbit, perigee, this time at 3:36am. The distance between the two bodies will be 360,857 kilometres.

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.

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The spiders of Mars!

 

Spider patterns on Mars

Spidery patterns in the terrain near Mars' south pole, caused by carbon dioxide frost sublimating (going straight from a solid to a gas).

NO, THEY’RE NOT SOME KIND OF fearsome alien creature come to destroy the Earth. These spiders are intriguing erosional features formed by seasonal frost near the poles of Mars.

The images above and below—taken with the HiRISE instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft—show the erosional features in fine detail.

During the Martian winter, high latitudes (near the pole) build up deposits of carbon dioxide frost that can be a metre thick.

In the spring these sublimate and turn back into gas. The gas sublimating at the bottom of the frost can move the underlying dust and even erode channels in it.

These channels form a variety of structures—examples like those at this site have been nicknamed “spiders” because many channels converge, giving a many-armed, spidery appearance.

Spider patterns on Mars

Another view of the "spiders" on Mars.

Adapted from information issued by Colin Dundas, HiRISE / MRO / University of Arizona.

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What’s up? Night sky for July 2011

Telescope inside a dome at night

Stargazing during winter is chilly, but the nights can often be crisp and clear. And there's plenty to see this month!

THE INNERMOST PLANET, Mercury, has delighted us in the morning sky for the past couple of months, but this month it makes a reappearance in our evening skies, in the west after sunset. It’ll be quite easy to see, above the horizon for around 100 minutes after the Sun sets at the beginning of the month, increasing to almost two-and-a-half hours after the Sun sets by the end of the month.

Also in the evening sky, to the north-west, is Saturn. The famous ringed planet will be on show during the first half of the night, setting around 11:00pm by the end of the month.

In the morning sky to the east, Jupiter and Mars are still putting on a show before sunrise.

Venus is too close to the Sun to be seen this month.

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.

July 1

There will be a partial eclipse of the Sun today, but you’ll have to be an albatross or maybe a seal in order to see it. That’s because the Sun’s shadow will fall across a remote area of ocean between South Africa and Antarctica. Unless there are some fishing boats or a scientific expedition in the area, it’s entirely possible that no one will witness this eclipse which, at its maximum, will see less than 10% of the Sun’s disc covered by the Moon. And speaking of the Moon, New Moon occurs today at 6:54pm Sydney time (08:54 Universal Time).

 

View of the night sky for July 3, 2011

July 3, 2011, 5:15pm: The thin crescent Moon will sit just above the planet Mercury in the western sky after sunset.

 

July 3

Take a look out to the west after sunset, and you should see the planet Mercury above the horizon, and above it will be the thin crescent Moon.

July 5

Earth reaches aphelion today (or July 4 in the western hemisphere), which is the farthest point from the Sun in our orbit. The distance between Earth and Sun will be 152.1 million kilometres.

There’ll be an interesting sight out to the east in the morning sky today. The planet Mars will appear close to the star Aldebaran. Both are of similar brightness, and both have similar colouring—a sort of orangey-red.

In this evening’s sky, the Moon will sit above the bright star Regulus. Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation Leo. The amazing thing about Regulus is that, although to the naked eye it appears to be one star, in reality it is composed of four stars grouped into two pairs, all gravitationally bound to each other! This sort of thing is not too uncommon—many other stars are members of double, triple or quadruple systems too.

Position of the Moon, Spica and Saturn on July 8, 2011

July 8, 2011, 7:15pm: The Moon will be bracketed by the planet Saturn and the star Spica, in the north-western sky.

 

 

July 8

It is First Quarter Moon today at 4:29pm Sydney time (06:29 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 throw nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect. Also today, the Moon will be at the closest point to Earth in its orbit, called perigee, at 12:05am (14:05 on July 7, Universal Time). The distance between the two bodies will be 369,565 kilometres. And finally, tonight the Moon will appear reasonably near the planet Saturn.

July 9

A little more than half full, the Moon will appear quite close to the star Spica tonight. Spica, a blue giant star, is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo and the 15th-brightest star in our night sky.

Position of the Moon and Antares on July 12, 2011

July 12, 2011, 8:00pm: High in the northern sky, the Moon and the star Antares (the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius) will appear close together.

 

 

July 12

The now almost-full Moon will appear quite close to the star Antares tonight. Antares means “the rival of Mars’, and it’s not hard to see why, as it’s ruddy colour makes it look just like the fourth planet from the Sun. Antares is a red supergiant star, 800 times bigger than the Sun!

Today, the eighth planet from the Sun, Neptune, has completed one full orbit of the Sun since its discovery in 1846. Neptune takes almost 165 years to complete one circuit of the Sun. Neptune is too faint to be seen with the naked eye, but it is within the range of medium-and-larger backyard telescopes, if you know exactly where to look. This chart, provided by the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, will help you to find it.

July 15

Full Moon occurs today at 4:40pm Sydney time (06:40 Universal Time).

July 20

Mercury reaches its greatest angle from the Sun today, so if you have a clear evening sky, why not take the opportunity to go out and spot it in the west after sunset?

Position of Mercury on July 20, 2011

July 20, 2011, 5:20pm: Mercury will be at its greatest angle from the Sun today, and visible in the west after sunset.

July 22

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth, called apogee, at a distance of 404,356 kilometres at 8:48am Sydney time (22:48 on July 21, Universal Time).

July 23

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 3:02pm Sydney time (05:02 Universal Time).

July 24

Slightly less than half full, the Moon will appear close to the planet Jupiter in this morning’s sky. Jupiter will be about 12 Moon widths above the Moon. Look a little further east and you’ll see Mars too. In between will be the beautiful star cluster called the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. Use binoculars or a small telescope and you’ll be delighted with the view.

Position of the Moon, Jupiter and Mars on July 24, 2011

July 24, 2011, 6:20am: The Moon and two planets—Jupiter and Mars—will be visible in the north-eastern sky before sunrise. See if you can spot the Pleiades star cluster as well.

July 25-28

In the western sky after sunset, the planet Mercury will appear close to the star Regulus (see July 5 for more information on this star).

July 28

The crescent Moon will appear very close to the planet Mars in this morning’s sky. They’ll be separated by only three Moon widths.

July 31

New Moon occurs today at 4:40am Sydney time (18:40 on July 30, Universal Time).

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.

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Mars mission launch gets closer

NASA’S MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY will leave Earth later this year, on target for a landing on Mars in August 2012. This new animation details some of the dramatic events we can expect from the mission, including the spacecraft separating from its launch vehicle near Earth and the mission’s rover, Curiosity, zapping rocks with a laser and examining samples of powdered rock on Mars.

Curiosity’s landing will use a different method than any previous Mars landing, with the rover suspended on tethers from a rocket-powered “sky crane.”

Here’s a shorter, narrated version of the video:

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.

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