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What’s up? Night sky for February 2014

WHEN STARTING OUT IN STARGAZING, most people are particularly keen to spot the planets. The problem is, that, to the novice, planets and stars look pretty much alike. The best way to identify planets is to determine their locations in relation to nearby bright stars or the Moon, and then see how watch as they change their positions slightly as each night passes. The information below will help you spot planets using this method.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. Dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Summer Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer at mid latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere.

7 Feb

It is First Quarter Moon today at 6:22am Sydney 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.

8 Feb

The just-past-half Moon is the north-western sky this evening, and just above it is a group of stars called the Hyades. See if you can spot them – they’re in a triangular formation. The Hyades is an ‘open star cluster’ about 153 light years from Earth, making it the closest such cluster to our Solar System. Although you’ll probably only be able to see a handful of stars with the naked eye (assuming, of course, that you’re not standing under a streetlight), a pair of binoculars will show many more – and long-exposure photographs reveal hundreds.

Just above and to the right of the Moon is a bright orange-coloured star called Aldebaran, although astronomers classify it as a red giant. It is roughly 44 times as big as the Sun and located about 65 light-years from Earth. Think about that – if Aldebaran were at the same distance from us as the Sun, it would appear 44 times as big in the sky. Just as well it’s a long way away!

View showing where the Moon is on the night of 8 February 2014

The Moon (shown bigger than it really is) will be near the star Aldebaran and the star cluster the Hyades on the evening of 8 February. Another star cluster, the Pleiades, is lower in the sky.

11 Feb

By tonight, you’ll see that Moon has moved a fair distance to the right (or east) of the Hyades, as a result of its slow orbit around the Earth. You won’t be able to miss what looks to be a bright star just below the Moon – this is the planet Jupiter. Grab a pair of binoculars and see if you can make out some tiny pinpricks of light on either side of the planet – these are the moons discovered by Galileo; Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto. Try to see all four – you might find there are two on each side of Jupiter, or one and three, or all four on one side – depending on where they are in their orbits around the planet. You might find that one or more are missing – this’ll be because that moon or moons is currently hidden behind Jupiter, or in the glare in front of the planet.

View showing the position of the Moon on 11 Feb

On the evening of 10 February, the Moon (not shown to scale) will be just above the planet Jupiter.

12 Feb

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit around Earth, apogee, at a distance of 406,231 kilometres.

15 Feb

Full Moon occurs today at 10:53am Sydney time. If you’re out stargazing tonight and look just above (or north of) the Moon, you’ll see a bright blue star. This is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Located about 77.5 light years from Earth, Regulus is not one star but four, grouped into two pairs – with the naked eye we see only the brightest of the four. Multiple star systems are very common throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

20 Feb

Take a look around midnight tonight and you’ll see the Moon just below what appears to be a brightish red star. This is not actually a star but the planet Mars. A small planet, it doesn’t give away much detail even when viewed through a telescope.

Just below the Moon is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Like Regulus, Spica is a member of a multiple star system, in this case a binary (or two) star system. The two stars orbit each other so close together that not even a telescope can show them separated. In fact, so close are they that their mutual gravitational pull distorts each of them from a round shape into an egg shape. The Spica system is about 260 light years from Earth.

View showing the position of the Moon on 20 February

If you’re up after midnight on 20 February, you’ll be greeted by the sight of the Moon with the star Spica above and the planet Mars below.

22 Feb

Tonight it’s Saturn‘s turn, with the ringed planet appearing just below and to the right of the Moon. If you have access to even a small telescope, take a look at Saturn’s amazing rings.

23 Feb

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 4:15am Sydney time. In the early hours of this morning you’ll find the star Antares above and to the right of the Moon. Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Like Mars, it is a red colour too – in fact, the name Antares means ‘rival of Mars’. Because they’re both in the same part of the sky, this is a good time to compare the two.

26 Feb

If you’re up before dawn, take a look out to the east and you’ll see the thin crescent Moon just above a bright ‘star’ – this is actually the planet Venus, which, aside from the Sun and the Moon, is the brightest object in the sky. Because it is in our morning sky at present, it is called the ‘morning star’. Later in the year it will be visible to west in the evening sky, and will be known as the ‘evening star’.

View showing the position of the Moon on 26 February

This shows the view out to the east less than an hour before sunrise on 26 February. The thin crescent Moon is just above the planet Venus. Very low down on the horizon, and difficult to see, is the planet Mercury. The Moon will be just to the left of Mercury on 28 February.

28 Feb

Today 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 360,438 kilometres. If you’re up and about before dawn, and you have an unobstructed (by buildings, trees, hills etc) view of the eastern horizon, see if you can spot the planet Mercury just to right of the very thin crescent Moon. It won’t be easy to see either Mercury or the Moon, but give it a try.

Here are some more great sources of southern stargazing information:

Melbourne Planetarium

Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand

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.

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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Weekly space gallery for January 18, 2014

WELCOME TO THE FIRST of our weekly collections of the best astronomy and space exploration images taken by observatories around the world and in space. Each week we’ll bring you a selection of our favourite recent images – if you like them (and we hope you do), please share them with your friends. And don’t forget you can elect to have this and other stories emailed direct to your inbox, just by signing up to our free email service – see the Subscribe box in the column at right.

So, let’s get started on this week’s images.

1. The Orion Nebula

Orion Nebula

An infrared view of the Orion Nebula.

One of the most famous sights in the sky, the Orion Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust about 1,500 light-years from Earth. Astronomers call it a ‘stellar nursery’ because many stars have been born, or are in the process of being born, out of all that gas and dust. See all the tiny red dots? Those are newly born stars. This false-colour image was taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which views the universe at infrared wavelengths. Courtesy NASA.

2. The Coma Cluster

Coma Cluster

The Coma Cluster of galaxies.

Galaxies tend to clump together in groups, or clusters. Some clusters comprise only a handful of galaxies, others have more than a thousand. The Coma Cluster – so-called because it is seen in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, which means ‘Berenice’s Hair’ (named after an ancient Egyptian queen) – is located about 350 million light years from Earth. Most of its 1,000-plus galaxies are elliptical (one of the two main galaxy shapes, the other being spiral). Pretty much all of the dots and blobs of light you can see in this Hubble Space Telescope image are galaxies; the three main ones are called IC 4041 (left), IC 4042 (middle) and GP 236 (right). The Coma Cluster is itself part of a larger grouping that also contains the Leo Cluster, and is called the Coma Supercluster. Courtesy ESA / Hubble & NASA; D. Carter (LJMU).

3. The Topsy Turvy galaxy

Topsy Turvy galaxy

The Topsy Turvy galaxy, with X-ray emission from regions surrounding two black holes shown in purple.

The Topsy Turvy galaxy (also known by its catalogue number, NGC 1313) is located about 13 million light years from Earth. Hidden within it are two black holes, whose presence is given away – where the purple patches are (false colour) – by energetic X-rays coming from gas being siphoned from companion stars. The X-ray data comes from NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope, while the background image is from the Digitised Sky Survey (made from pictures taken by ground-based telescopes). Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / IRAP.

4. Planets in the dust

Dust ring around the star HD 142527

Dust around the star HD 142527 could be giving birth to planets.

Japanese astronomers have been studying a star called HD 142527, about 450 light years Earth. HD 142527 is a young star, surrounded by a huge, slightly lop-sided ring of gas and dust. The astronomers say that a dense spot in the ring is where planets could be forming. (Due to the wavelength used, the star is not visible in this image.) Courtesy ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NAOJ.

5. The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring galaxy to our Milky Way. This Hubble Space Telescope infrared view shows cloudy whisps and many thousands of sparkling stars. Just to the left of centre is a tight group of stars known as R136. In early photographs, R136 seemed to be a single, giant star, and no one could work out how a star could grow to be so big. But eventually better imaging revealed it to be a cluster of stars – so many and so bright, that the light the emit is the main reason why the Tarantula’s gas and dust is all lit up. Courtesy NASA, ESA, E. Sabbi (STScI).

6. Looking down on Venus

South pole view of Venus.

The view looking down on Venus’ southern polar regions.

This black and white image of Venus was taken by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since April 2006. The viewpoint is looking down on the south pole from an altitude of 50,000 kilometres. Venus is perpetually covered by thick clouds, but Venus Express’ instruments can pick out bands within those clouds, which are being blown by the prevailing winds from east to west (the opposite to winds here on Earth). The small black blobs are not real; they are artefacts of the imaging equipment. Courtesy ESA / MPS / DLR / IDA.

7. Rima Marius

Rima Marius

Rima Marius stretches 280 kilometres across the Moon.

Rima Marius is a lunar ‘rille’ or channel. Such channels are thought to form when a tunnel through which lava once flowed, collapses in on itself. Rima Marius is 280 kilometres long, winding its way across a flat plain known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms. This image was taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Courtesy NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University.

8. Tracks on Mars

Orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover

An orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the martian surface on December 11, 2013. It clearly shows the tracks left by the Curiosity rover as it slowly makes it way across the floor of Gale Crater (the rover itself is out of frame). The rover has six wheels, three on each side; the distance between left and right wheels is about 3 metres. See if you can follow the tracks all the way from top right to bottom left. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

9. Shadows on Saturn

Saturn

The shadows of Saturn’s rings cast upon the planet’s cloud tops.

Shadows cast by Saturn’s rings make the planet look like it has been painted with Indian ink while spinning on a potter’s wheel. The rings themselves are out of view in this image, taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.

10. Docking at the Station

Cgynus craft docked at the International Space Station

Cgynus cargo craft docked at the International Space Station

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus commercial cargo spacecraft is seen docked to the Harmony module of the International Space Station. Attached is the Station’s robot arm, called Canadarm2 (being the second generation of robot arm supplied by Canada). The Cygnus craft was launched aboard an Antares rocket on January 9. Courtesy NASA.

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What’s up? The night sky for January 2014

WHEN STARTING OUT IN STARGAZING, most people are particularly keen to spot the planets, five of which are visible to the naked eye – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The problem is that, to the novice, planets and stars look pretty much alike. An easy way to identify planets is to find them in relation to nearby bright stars or the Moon, and then watch as they change their positions slightly as each night passes. The information below will help you spot planets using this method.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. Dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Summer Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer at mid latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere.

People stargazing using a telescope

There’s plenty to see in the night sky during January 2014.

Jan 1

The Moon is in its ‘new’ phase (the opposite of ‘full’) tonight at 10:14pm. This means that, seen from Earth, it is in the same direction as the Sun, and therefore won’t be seen all night – which is good for stargazing, as the absence of its light will make fainter objects easier to see.

Jan 2

Today at 8:01am, the Moon will be at the closest point – called perigee – in its elliptical orbit around the Earth. The distance between the centres of the two bodies will be 356,921 kilometres.

Jan 4

Today the Earth reaches perihelion, which is the point at which our planet is closest to the Sun during its orbit. The distance separating the two bodies is 147,089,638 kilometres. Note the similarity between the words perigee and perihelion – perigee is used for anything orbiting the Earth (‘peri’ coming from the Greek for ‘around’, while the ‘gee’ part derives from gaia, the Greek word for Earth), while perihelion is used for anything orbiting the Sun (the ‘helion’ part coming from ‘Helios’, the ancient Greek god of the Sun).

There’s a common misconception that the Earth’s changing distance from the Sun (it varies from about 147 million to roughly 152 million kilometres over the course of the year) is responsible for giving us our summers and winters. This is wrong, and a few moments thought shows why. Taking perihelion as an example, the misconception says that with the Earth being at its closest point to the Sun, our planet should experience summer. Well, it’s certainly true that perihelion occurs when it is summertime in the Southern Hemisphere… but what season is it in the Northern Hemisphere? It’s winter. And why is it winter and not summer? Because perihelion has nothing to do with our seasons. The seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation, which sees the Southern Hemisphere tilted toward the Sun at the end of the calendar year, and the Northern Hemisphere tilted away. Six months later it’s the other way around – the north is tilted toward the Sun (and thus the northern summer and southern winter are in the middle of the calendar year) and the south is tilted away.

Jan 8

It is first quarter Moon today at 2:39pm. A few days either side of 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.

Jan 12

Tonight, the almost-full Moon will be just below the star Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Aldebaran is a red giant star roughly 44 times as big as the Sun, located about 65 light-years from Earth. Have a look to the left of Aldebaran and you’ll see a beautiful, broad group of stars in a V-shape. These are the Hyades. If you have a pair of binoculars, take a look; you’ll be amazed by the beautiful sight of these sparkling stars! (A little further to the left, or west, is an even more beautiful cluster of stars – the Pleiades. See the diagram for its location.)

Diagram of the night sky for January 12

The Moon will be near the star Aldebaran on the evening of January 12. Just above and to the left of Aldebaran is a group of stars called the Hyades – take a look with a pair of binoculars; it’s a beautiful sight. An even better cluster of stars, the Pleiades, is a little further to the left (or west). Below and to the right in this view is the planet Jupiter – the Moon will be close to it on January 15.

Jan 15

Tonight the almost-full Moon will be just above and to the right of what looks like a very bright star, but is in fact the planet Jupiter – the largest planet in our Solar System. If you have a decent pair of binoculars (ie. anything bigger than opera glasses), train them on Jupiter and you should be able to see its shape and perhaps even some of the ‘banding’ of the atmosphere (the planet’s different weather zones). You should also be able to see up to four tiny, bright pinpricks of light – these are the famous moons discovered by Galileo. You might see one or two on one side of Jupiter, and the others on the other side. (If you take a look in the late evening on January 18, you’ll see them all on the same side.)

Jan 16

Full Moon occurs today at 3:52pm. When the Moon is full, it rises in the east around the same time as the Sun is setting in the west, which means it will be visible all night long. This is great for finding your way around in the dark, but the Moon’s glare is generally not welcomed by stargazers as it makes fainter objects harder or impossible to see.

Still on the subject of the Moon, today at 12:54pm it will reach apogee (the opposite of perigee), which is the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance separating the centres of the two bodies will be 406,536 kilometres.

Jan 23

If you’re awake around midnight, look out to the east and you’ll see the Moon with a reddish star just below it. That ‘star’ is actually the planet Mars. Mars is a small planet, so you need at least a medium-sized backyard telescope to get any decent sort of view of it. But even as you gaze at it with the naked eye, stop and think for a moment – right now there are two missions on their way to Mars (NASA’s MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter), plus there are three orbiters and two operational rovers already working at or on the Red Planet. When the two new spacecraft reach their destination in September 2014, Mars is going to become a busy place!

Diagram of the evening sky for January 23

The Moon and Mars will be near each other in the sky in the early hours of January 23.

Jan 24

It is last quarter Moon today at 4:19pm. When you take a look tonight, you’ll notice that Moon has moved a bit since last night (as a result of its slow crawl around its orbit), and Mars is now above and to its left. But directly above the Moon is a bright star called Spica, which is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Spica is a blue giant star located about 260 light-years from Earth.

Jan 26

If you’re awake in the early hours after midnight, you’ll be rewarded with the view of the just-less-than-half Moon down near the eastern horizon, with a brightish ‘star’ just above it. That’s not a star, it’s the planet Saturn. If you have access to a small telescope, train it on Saturn and you’ll its magnificent system of rings.

Jan 29

If you’re up before the sunrise today, look out to the east and you’ll see a very thin crescent Moon. Just below it is what looks to be a very bright star, but is in fact the planet Venus. After the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the sky.

Diagram of the morning sky for January 29

The thin crescent Moon will be near Venus in the morning sky on January 29. (Venus is not shown to scale in this diagram.)

Jan 30

The Moon reaches perigee today, with the distance between the centres of the Earth and Moon being 357,079 kilometres.

Jan 31

New Moon occurs for the second time this month, at 8:39am

Here are some more great sources of southern stargazing information:

Melbourne Planetarium

Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand

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.

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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NASA Mars mission set for launch

A SPACECRAFT that will examine the upper atmosphere of Mars in unprecedented detail is undergoing final preparations for a scheduled launch at 5:28am Sydney time (1:28 p.m. EST Monday, Nov. 18 in the USA) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission will examine specific processes on Mars that led to the loss of much of its atmosphere. Data and analysis could tell planetary scientists the history of climate change on the Red Planet and provide further information on the history of planetary habitability.

“The MAVEN mission is a significant step toward unravelling the planetary puzzle about Mars’ past and present environments,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The knowledge we gain will build on past and current missions examining Mars and will help inform future missions to send humans to Mars.”

Artist's concept of MAVEN

MAVEN (artist’s concept) will arrive at Mars in September 2014 to begin a detailed study of the planet’s atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind. Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.

2.5-tonne spacecraft will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket on a 10-month journey to Mars. After arriving in September 2014, MAVEN will settle into its elliptical science orbit.

Over the course of its one-Earth-year primary mission, MAVEN will observe all of Mars’ latitudes. Orbital altitudes will range from 150 kilometres to more than 6,100 kilometres. During the primary mission, MAVEN will execute five deep dip manoeuvres, descending to an altitude of 125 kilometres, which marks the lower boundary of the planet’s upper atmosphere.

MAVEN will carry three instrument suites. The Particles and Fields Package contains six instruments to characterise the solar wind and the ionosphere of Mars. The Remote Sensing Package will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. And the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer will measure the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere.

More information: MAVEN mission

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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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Mars: sharp image of Mount Sharp

MSL image of Mount Sharp

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced colour adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting.

RISING ABOVE THE PRESENT location of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, higher than any mountain in the 48 contiguous states of the United States, Mount Sharp is featured in new imagery from the rover.

A pair of mosaics assembled from dozens of telephoto images shows Mount Sharp in dramatic detail. The component images were taken by the 100-millimetre-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of Curiosity’s remote sensing mast, during the 45th Martian day of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 20, 2012).

The image above is only a small part of the whole panorama – you can see the full panorama here.

This layered mound, also called Aeolis Mons, in the centre of Gale Crater rises more than five kilometres above the crater floor location of Curiosity. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp remain a destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called ‘Yellowknife Bay,’ where it has found evidence of a past environment favourable for microbial life.

A version of the mosaic that has been white-balanced to show the terrain as if under Earthlike lighting, which makes the sky look overly blue, can be seen here.

White-balanced versions help scientists recognise rock materials based on their terrestrial experience. The Martian sky would look like more of a butterscotch colour to the human eye. A version of the mosaic with raw colour, as a typical smart-phone camera would show the scene, is here.

In both versions, the sky has been filled out by extrapolating colour and brightness information from the portions of the sky that were captured in images of the terrain.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project is using Curiosity and the rover’s 10 science instruments to investigate environmental history within Gale Crater, a location where the project has found that conditions were long ago favourable for microbial life.

More information:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory page

JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory page

Curiosity’s Twitter page

Adapted from information issued by JPL.

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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What’s up? Night sky for February 2013

Night sky on February 3, 2013

Saturn and the Moon will appear near each other on February 3, 2013.

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.

Feb 3

If you’re a night owl, look out to the east after midnight and you’ll see the Moon near the horizon. Below and to its right is what seems to be a bright star. It’s actually the planet Saturn. If you have access to even a small telescope, take a look. Its rings never fail to entrance. The gas giant planet has 62 confirmed natural satellites (ie. moons), and one artificial satellite – the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft, which has been exploring the Saturnian system since 2004. Saturn is presently about 1,455 million kilometres from Earth.

Feb 4

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 12:56am Australian Eastern Daylight Time (Feb 3, 13:56 Universal Time).

Feb 5

This evening, the Moon will appear close to the star Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Antares is a red supergiant star, about 880 times bigger and 10,000 times brighter than our Sun! It is about 550 light-years from Earth.

Feb 7

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit around Earth, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies will be 365,318 kilometres.

Feb 10

New Moon occurs today at 6:20pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (07:20 Universal Time).

Feb 12

Just after sunset this evening, you might be able to see a very thin crescent Moon low on the horizon due west. To its left will be a brightish-looking ‘star’; it’s actually the planet Mercury. And just to Mercury’s left will be the ruddy-coloured planet Mars. Today Mercury is about 161 million kilometres from Earth, while Mars is about 348 million kilometres away.

Diagram showing the Moon and Jupiter

For stargazers in southern Australia, the Moon will pass in front of Jupiter on February 18, 2013.

Feb 18

There will be a major sky event this evening for those in the southern half of Australia! – the Moon will appear to move in front of the planet Jupiter. This is called an occultation (where ‘to occult’ means to ‘make go dark’). You’ll see the Moon slowly approaching Jupiter (which, to the naked eye, just looks like a bright star). Then, all of a sudden, as the Moon’s edge ‘reaches’ the planet, Jupiter will wink out. A short while later, after the Moon has moved on a bit (you’re actually watching it trundle along in its orbit), Jupiter will reappear on the other side.

Timings for the beginning of the event, in Standard (that is, non-Daylight Saving time – please adjust for your location if necessary) for capital cities are:

Adelaide: 10:00pm

Hobart: 10:22pm

Melbourne 10:33pm

Perth: 7:39pm

Unfortunately, the other capital cities will miss out.

Incidentally, it is First Quarter Moon this morning at 7:31am Australian Eastern Daylight Time (Feb 27, 20:31 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.

Feb 19

In tonight’s evening sky, to the northwest you’ll see the Moon, and to it’s left will be a bright star. And it really is a star this time, not a planet. It’s Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Just to Aldebaran’s left, you might be able to see a wide grouping of stars (binoculars will help). This is called the Hyades star cluster.

And today the Moon is at the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth, called apogee, at a distance of 404,472 kilometres.

Feb 25

Just near the Moon in this evening’s sky, will be the star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

Feb 26

Full Moon occurs today at 7:26am Australian Eastern Daylight Time (Feb 25, 20:26 Universal Time).

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!

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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Surveyor 7: Setting the scene for Apollo

PRIOR TO THE SUCCESSFUL Apollo lunar landings, NASA sent a series of uncrewed probes to the Moon to learn more about the lunar surface. The last of these, Surveyor 7, was launched 45 years ago today.

A model of the Surveyor 7 spacecraft

A model of the Surveyor 7 spacecraft

Surveyor 7 was the last of the original series of Surveyor moon landers of the late 1960s and was dedicated primarily to scientific investigations. By 1968, the spacecraft’s predecessors had already performed much of the investigative work into the feasibility of a future human mission to the moon.

Surveyor 7’s mission was decidedly unique – it was the only spacecraft of the series to land in the lunar highland region. And it had the most extensive set of instruments, with which it conducted a number of scientific experiments on the lunar soil. Findings from Surveyor 7 were fairly consistent with earlier missions except that chemical analysis of the highland crust showed it to have less iron than samples from the lunar maria.

More information: Surveyor 7

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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What’s up? Night sky for January 2013

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 2

If you’re an early riser, take a look out to the north-west and high up you’ll see a bright star near the Moon. This is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Actually, Regulus is not one star but four, grouped into two pairs. Multiple star systems are very common throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

The Moon will appear near the bright star Regulus on January 2.

The Moon will appear near the bright star Regulus on January 2.

And 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 147,098,089 kilometres. (The opposite of perihelion is aphelion, which for Earth will occur on July 5, 2012 at a distance of about 152,097,351 kilometres.)

January 5

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 2:58pm Sydney time (03:58 Universal Time).

January 6

If you’re up very early this morning (from 2:00am onwards), you’ll see a bright star appearing to almost touch the Moon. This Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo; it is a blue giant star about 260 light-years from Earth. And don’t miss tomorrow’s morning sight…

January 7

This morning, the Moon has moved along a bit in its orbit, and no longer appears to be near Spica. Instead, it appears to hover just above what appears to be another bright star, but which is instead the planet Saturn. If you have a small telescope, or can borrow someone else’s, take a look at Saturn – you’ll see the huge rings tilted nicely to our line of sight, and – depending on the power of your telescope – you might also be able to make out a couple of the planet’s moons, although they’ll only look like bright pinpricks of light.

January 7: If you're an early riser, take a look at the Moon and you'll see what appears to be bright star just below it. Well, that's actually not a star but the ringed planet Saturn.

January 7: If you’re an early riser, take a look at the Moon and you’ll see what appears to be bright star just below it. Well, that’s actually not a star but the ringed planet Saturn.

January 9

Again, the Moon has moved along in its orbit, and is now quite distant from both Spica and Saturn. This morning it appears near the red star Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Antares is a red supergiant star about 883 times bigger than our Sun, located about 470 light-years from us.

January 10

This morning the Moon, now a thin crescent, can be seen above what looks like a very bright star. Actually, it’s the planet Venus, low on the horizon. Venus will remain low in the east before dawn until the middle of February, when it will have moved too close to the Sun to be visible.

The Moon today will be at the closest point to Earth in its orbit, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 360,046 kilometres.

January 12

New Moon occurs today at 6:44am Sydney time (19:44 Universal Time on January 11).

January 14-27

If you have dark skies and are a little bit lucky, you might spot a few meteors between these dates, emanating from the southern sky. The Eta Carinid meteor shower occurs at this same time every year, but it’s not a very good one compared with others – you might be lucky to see a few meteors per hour, between midnight and dawn.

January 19

It is First Quarter Moon today at 10:45am Sydney time (23:45 Universal Time on January 18). 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.

January 21: The Moon, Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster will all be close together in the evening sky.

January 21: The Moon, Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster will all be close together in the evening sky.

January 21

In tonight’s evening sky, the Moon will be situated quite near a famous cluster of stars, 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. With the Moon tonight being more than half full, it might be a little harder to see them. But if you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, take a look and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely sight – there are actually hundreds of stars (only some of them are visible through small optical instruments) 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.

And what’s that bright object just to the right (east) of both the Moon and the Pleiades? That’s actually the planet Jupiter.

January 22

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point from Earth in its orbit, apogee, at a distance of 405,312 kilometres. Take a look at it, and you’ll see what looks like a bright star just above it – it’s actually the planet Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System. Even a pair of binoculars will begin to show its size and shape, as well as up to four of its moons. A small telescope will reveal the different cloud bands that colour its upper atmosphere.

January 27

Full Moon occurs today at 3:38pm Sydney time (04:38 Universal Time).

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!

Images courtesy IAU.

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Curiosity spotted from above

Curiosity Spotted on Parachute by Orbiter

NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface.

AN IMAGE FROM THE High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter (MRO) captured the Curiosity rover still connected to its almost 16-metre-wide parachute as it descended towards its landing site at Gale Crater.

“If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“When you consider that we have been working on this sequence since March and had to upload commands to the spacecraft about 72 hours prior to the image being taken, you begin to realise how challenging this picture was to obtain.”

The image was taken while MRO was 340 kilometres away from the parachuting rover. Curiosity and its rocket-propelled backpack, contained within the conical-shaped back shell, had yet to be deployed. At the time, Curiosity was about three kilometres above the Martian surface.

“Guess you could consider us the closest thing to paparazzi on Mars,” said Milkovich. “We definitely caught NASA’s newest celebrity in the act.”

Map showing Curiosity's landing site

The green diamond shows approximately where NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, a region about 2 kilometres northeast of its target in the centre of the estimated landing region (blue ellipse).

Curiosity’s parachute performed perfectly

HiRISE captured the image while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from the rover. Curiosity and its parachute are in the centre of the white box; the inset image is an enlargement, adjusted to avoid brightness saturation.

The rover was seen descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe “Mt. Sharp”. From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity were flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover.

The parachute appeared fully inflated and performing perfectly. Details in the parachute, such as the band gap at the edges and the central hole, are clearly seen. The cords connecting the parachute to the back shell cannot be seen. The bright spot on the back shell containing Curiosity might be a specular reflection off of a shiny area. Curiosity was released from the back shell sometime after this image was acquired.

Rover’s second day on Mars

In other Curiosity news, one part of the rover team at the JPL continues to analyse the data from yesterday’s landing while another continues to prepare the one-tonne mobile laboratory for its future explorations of Gale Crater.

One key assignment given to Curiosity for its first full day on Mars is to raise its high-gain antenna. Using this antenna will increase the data rate at which the rover can communicate directly with Earth. The mission will use relays to orbiters as the primary method for sending data home, because that method is much more energy-efficient for the rover.

Image from one of Curiosity's Hazcams

A better version of yesterday's image taken by a rear Hazard-Avoidance camera on NASA's Curiosity rover. The image shows part of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (the rover's power source), the rear left wheel and a spring that released the dust cover on the Hazard-Avoidance camera. Part of the rim of Gale Crater, which is a feature the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, can be seen at the upper right of the image.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

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Curiosity rover lands on Mars

NASA’S MOST ADVANCED Mars rover, Curiosity, has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars on August 6 (Australian time) to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.

Another image of Mars from Curiosity

A Hazcam image of Mars from Curiosity, showing the shadow of the rover.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway manoeuvre of the rocket backpack.

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars.  Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030’s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.”

Rover’s landing a triumph

Curiosity landed at 3:32pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (1:32am US EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain 5.5 kilometres tall and 154 kilometres in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life.

“The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. “My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission’s team.”

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms.

Confirmation of Curiosity’s successful landing came in communications relayed by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and received by the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Image of Mars from the Curiosity rover

This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. It was taken through a "fish-eye" wide-angle lens on the left "eye" of a stereo pair of Hazard-Avoidance cameras on the left-rear side of the rover. The image is one-half of full resolution. The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing has been sprung open. Part of the spring that released the dust cover can be seen at the bottom right, near the rover's wheel. On the top left, part of the rover's power supply is visible. Some dust appears on the lens even with the dust cover off. The cameras are looking directly into the sun, so the top of the image is saturated. Looking straight into the sun does not harm the cameras. The lines across the top are an artifact called "blooming" that occurs in the camera's detector because of the saturation.

First images from Mars

About two hours after landing on Mars and beaming back its first image, NASA’s Curiosity rover transmitted a higher-resolution image (top of this page) of its new Martian home, Gale Crater. Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, received the image, taken by one of the vehicle’s lower-fidelity, black-and-white Hazard Avoidance Cameras – or Hazcams.

“Curiosity’s landing site is beginning to come into focus,” said John Grotzinger, project manager of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “In the image, we are looking to the northwest. What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater. In the foreground, you can see a gravel field. The question is, where does this gravel come from?  It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars.”

While the image is twice as big in pixel size as the first images beamed down from the rover, they are only half the size of full-resolution Hazcam images. During future mission operations, these images will be used by the mission’s navigators and rover drivers to help plan the vehicle’s next drive. Other cameras aboard Curiosity, with colour capability and much higher resolution, are expected to be sent back to Earth over the next several days.

Curiosity’s mission begins in earnest

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulphate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history

For more information on the mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

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

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity

http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

Adapted from information issued by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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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