Amazing Stargazing Sights This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 10, 2014 – 3:31 pm -

Credit: Spaceweather.com

Credit: Spaceweather.com

On this very special week we celebrate Valentine’s Day the sky is full of romance too with the moon pointing to a giant  lion’s heart and the mythical goddess of love shining at its most brilliant.

Over the course of the next few days there is a whole line-up of stargazing targets for both the unaided eyes to backyard telescopes.

The brightest planets in the sky remain both Jupiter and Venus. Meanwhile you can still catch Mercury as it is fading fast low in the evening twilight in the southwest horizon.  Your best chance to see the innermost planet now is with binoculars.

Mars aficionados will have to wait until near midnight for it to rise in the east and will be at its highest in the south in the pre-dawn hours. If you have good atmospheric conditions a telescope will show off some of its largest surface features. Best views of the Red Planet though will be in April when its apparent diameter will be 50% wider.

Finally Saturn rises around local 1 am  and climbs to its highest point in the southern sky by dawn.  You can get a two-for-one deal since Mars will be its far right.

Get all your observing details for these and other sky events this week at my weekly skywatching column at National Geographic News.

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Amazing Stargazing Sights This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 27, 2014 – 9:10 pm -

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Sitting more than 2,100 light years from Earth, the Little Beehive Cluster shines bright in the evening sky this week. Credit: NOAO

As we head towards the final days of January, the night sky is filled with cosmic wonders, from a supernova explosion, Mercury at its best, and Martian close encounters.

For the naked-eye observers nothing beat the moon gliding past bright planets – and this week Luna’s close encounter with Venus will be a beauty. For binocular observers – the forth brightest asteroid is fairly easy to hunt down in Pisces constellation in the evenings, while a stunning open star cluster hits prime-time  in backyard telescope with scores of diamond-like stars huddling together.

Get all your observing details for these and other sky events this week at my weekly skywatching column at National Geographic News.


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Soviet Mars Lander Found Thanks to Crowdsourcing

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 11, 2013 – 7:31 pm -

Another amazing example of the power of the internet and citizen science came to light this week when NASA announced that an online community of space geeks from Russia may have found the Soviet Mars 3 probe – which has been sitting silent on the surface of the Red Planet since 1971. Thanks to the super high resolution imagery from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, tantalizing new evidence of the old spacecraft’s hardware is clearly visible.

Read the rest of my story on this amazing discovery  at National Geographic News


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Comet May Collide with Mars in 2014

Written by The Night Sky Guy on March 10, 2013 – 10:30 am -

Mars may have a really bad day next year on October 19th.    That’s when there is a very slight chance a newly discovered comet may impact our neighboring planet, says NASA.

Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) was discovered by Australian Robert H. McNaught, a prolific comet and asteroid hunter just two months ago and NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory , in Pasadena, Calif., has been constantly refining the comet’s exact trajectory ever since.

Read the rest of my Mars comet story at National Geographic News


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Evidence of Past Mars Life? Not so much

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 3, 2012 – 4:49 pm -

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This is a view of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by the 4-cm-wide scoop on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in October 2012.credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

After nearly two weeks of the blogosphere and media in general wildly speculating as to what the NASA Mars rover announcement will be, the day finally arrived. This morning the lead NASA researchers involved in analyzing the soil samples scooped up by the rover’s robotic arm held a press conference revealing their findings.  Scientists explained that they had the rover’s suite of scientific instruments run through its first soil samples of the mission by heating the soil in a tiny on-board oven, and sniffing out the various trace gases released.

Most of the rumors surrounded the idea that complex organic compounds had been detected, but that is not the case.  What they did tentatively find are traces of perchlorate – an oxygen and chlorine based molecules that has also been found in the soil by the late Pheonix lander in the high north arctic region of the Red Planet a few years back. Further heating, NASA says, formed reactions with carbon, produced methane -based compounds.  This has left scientists stumped.  NASA is not sure where the carbon comes from – Earth contamination maybe? Further analysis will tell the story.

While many are disappointment that no proof of Martian life materialized, the mission team members are stoked because now they  know their science instruments are working like a charm. Only four months into a 2 year mission, the best is yet to come and I think lots of exciting results are in store in the coming months. But as one of the Mars scientists pointed out  – patience is part of the process.

“We’re doing science at the speed of science in a world that goes at the speed of Instagrams.” said Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech in Pasadena.

Read all the details and check out more photos released to today at the press conference on NASA website.


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Mars Pic: Target Looms Ahead for Curiosity

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 7, 2012 – 8:01 pm -

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This photo is simply awesome and I think gets all Mars buffs really excited. That’s because we not only see the rover’s own shadow on the pebbly ground, but can also spy in the distance the main science target of the 1 – ton curiosity rover a day after it touched down inside the 150 km wide Gale crater. Even though this is only the first b/w, low-res image of Mount Sharp – a central peak in the crater rising more than 6.5 km in height – we can tell that its going to be an exciting and challenging destination.

NASA hopes to drive the rover to the mountain – which sits about 10 km away from the landing site -  eventually up its slopes, to study its lower layers. To astro-geologists they look like sedimentary rocks, which they are betting may shed some light on past environmental change - ie. water drenched the area. This image was captured by the rover’s front left Hazard-Avoidance camera at full resolution shortly after it landed.  Can’t wait to see full resolution colour panoramic shots in the next week….


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Night Sky Hits for August 2012

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 4, 2012 – 2:17 pm -

For skywatchers August will be a busy month with a meteor shower and multiple planetary close encounters!

For early bird skywatchers the goddess of love, Venus dominates the dawn skies in the east perched firmly in the constellation of Gemini, the twins. The great white beacon rises nearly 3 and half hours before the sun every morning and through a small telescope appears like a miniature version of a quarter moon.

Look below Venus for its fainter companion Jupiter – the largest planet in the solar system – sits below nestled between the horns of Taurus the bull constellation. On August 11th the moon will form a celestial triangle with the jovian giant and the eye of the bull – the star Aldebaran. Two mdays later a razor thin crescent moon will park itself to the upper right of Venus.

Watch these two worlds closely and you will notice that while they have been hanging around each other for the past couple of months, the much speedier Venus will quickly increase the gap with Jupiter so that by the end of the month there will be 40 degrees apart.

On August 13 for those with telescopes, Venus will do a disappearing act as it slips behind the very upper portion of the crescent Moon during the daytime. Known as an occultation, this dramatic event however will be a real challenge to catch because it will be occurring in the late afternoon while luna sinks quickly in the low western horizon sky. The first hint of Venus creeping behind the moon will begin at 4:36pm and will take about 25 seconds to completely disappear. Since the moon will be only a few degrees in altitude (eastern N. America)  your best bet to catch this event is to find a location that has a clear line of sight right down to the western horizon – like highway overpasses, hilltops and lakesides. Check out a listing of occulation times here.

Moon joins Mars Triangle.  Credit: Stary Night Software

Moon joins Mars Triangle. Credit: Starry Night Software

But there is even more cosmic action in the evening skies. Look towards the west at nightfall for an impressive stellar grouping of the planets Mars, Saturn and the star Spica, in the constellation Virgo. Take note of the diverse colours of these three objects, with orange-hued Mars, yellowish Saturn and brilliant blue-white Spica.  The most  eye-catching aspect of this stellar trio will be watching them play musical chairs in the sky as they shift positions over the course of the month as they move along in their respective orbits around the Sun.

Then at dusk on August 21th the three objects form an equatorial triangle with the waxing crescent Moon just below.

Shooting Stars Galore

Persieds peak Aug11/12.   credit: Sky & Telescope

Persieds peak Aug11/12. credit: Sky & Telescope

The big astronomical crowd pleaser this month however has to be the famous Perseid meteor shower. Peaking on the night of August 11th and into the early morning hours of August 12th, conditions promise to be good this year because there will only be a crescent moon rising after 1 am so minimal interference from its light is expected. You can expect up to 20 to 30 meteors per hour visible from suburbs and up to 60 from a dark sky.

You can expect about half that many the night before (Aug.10) and after (Aug.13). Best way to see the shower is to lie back on the ground or on reclining lawn chair facing the northeast sky with your naked-eyes. Most of these meteors  are the size of a grain of sand and are travelling at about 150,000 km per hour,  burning up at about 100 km above your head.

The Perseids get their name from the constellation Perseus – where the shooting stars seem to radiate from in the sky.  The meteor shower originates from a cloud of particles in space that was shed by a comet that orbits the Sun. Every year at the same time of year, Earth slams into this cloud of debris, creating a cosmic shower in the heavens above.

BTW if the skies are clear and you are in Montreal area on August 11th, join me and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for a free Perseids star party at the Morgan Arboretum in Ste. Anne De Bellevue starting at 8pm with a lecture- rain/cloudy date is August 12th.

Don’t forget you can always get late-breaking, instant stargazing news anytime by joining my fanpage on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or get email alerts sent directly to your inbox


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Catch Mars Triangle in the Sky this Weekend

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 4, 2012 – 12:15 pm -

Space buffs and skywatchers are gearing up for ‘Mars Day’ on Sunday, August 5th as a striking sky show coincides with the daring landing of NASA Mars rover!

Only a hours before Curiosity touches down, Mars, along with ringed Saturn and one of the brightest stars in the heavens, Spica, will form an eye catching grouping as they huddle together in the southwest evening sky. To the naked eye they will appear to be in a equilateral triangle, separated by only 5 degrees on each side – equal to the width of a fist at an outstretched arms length.

Get my complete viewer’s guide at National Geographic News.


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NASA Nervous about Mars Landing

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 2, 2012 – 3:37 pm -

The NASA team behind the Mars rover scheduled to touchdown this weekend held a news conference today, August 2nd, offering some of the latest details about their hopes and fears surrounding the mission and current status of the rover. Everything is a go for a landing in the early morning hours this Monday.  The spacecraft is healthy as is the metric ton sized rover tucked inside. But the entire team is on pins and needles about the landing, and crossing fingers that all goes as planned. Out of the entire Sunday evening’s hair-raising events leading up to a touchdown,  the parachute and sky crane maneuvers are what “what keeps the team up at night”‘, says lead mission engineer  Adam Steltzner.

Another worry has nothing to do with man-made technology working properly – it’s what the weather will be like on Mars when we get there. There is currently a large dust storm kicking up about 1000 km from the landing site according to the latest imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the worry is that it could either “drift over the landing site or stir up dust that moves as haze over the site,”.

This close-up image of a similar dust storm on Mars that might cause trouble for Curiosity was acquired by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter back on Nov. 7, 2007

While they are waiting with nervous anticipation, the big take home message the engineers and scientists made sure to get across to reporters was that Mars Science Laboratory mission is a bridge between past and future missions that not only builds on lessons learned from Mars probes gone by but also leverages the current assets that are still functioning at Mars. They also outlined how some of the data that will be returned from the entry, decent and landing will be critical in designing future human missions to the Red Planet.

Here is the official word from NASA today…

“NASA’s newest Mars mission, landing in three days, will draw on support from missions sent to Mars years ago and will contribute to missions envisioned for future decades.

“Curiosity is a bold step forward in learning about our neighboring planet, but this mission does not stand alone. It is part of a sustained, coordinated program of Mars exploration,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This mission transitions the program’s science emphasis from the planet’s water history to its potential for past or present life.”

As the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft places the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars next week, NASA will be using the Mars Odyssey orbiter, in service since 2001, as a relay for rapidly confirming the landing to Curiosity’s flight team and the rest of the world. Earth will be below the Mars horizon from Curiosity’s perspective, so the new rover will not be in direct radio contact with Earth. Two newer orbiters also will be recording Curiosity’s transmissions, but that data will not be available on Earth until hours later.

When Curiosity lands beside a mountain inside a crater at about 1:31 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5), the 1-ton rover’s two-year prime mission on the surface of Mars will begin. However, one of the rover’s 10 science instruments, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), already has logged 221 days collecting data since the spacecraft was launched on its trip to Mars on Nov. 26, 2011.

“Our observations already are being used in planning for human missions,” said Don Hassler of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., principal investigator for Curiosity’s RAD.

The instrument recorded radiation spikes from five solar flare events spewing energetic particles from the Sun into interplanetary space. Radiation from galactic cosmic rays, originating from supernova explosions and other extremely distant events, accounted for more of the total radiation experienced on the trip than the amount from solar particle events. Inside the spacecraft, despite shielding roughly equivalent to what surrounds astronauts on the International Space Station, RAD recorded radiation amounting to a significant contribution to a NASA astronaut’s career-limit radiation dose.

Curiosity’s main assignment is to investigate whether its study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. To do that, it packs a science payload weighing 15 times as much as the science instruments on previous Mars rovers. The landing target, an area about 12 miles by 4 miles (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers), sits in a safely flat area between less-safe slopes of the rim of Gale Crater and the crater’s central peak, informally called Mount Sharp. The target was plotted to be within driving distance of layers on Mount Sharp, where minerals that formed in water have been seen from orbit.

“Some deposits right inside the landing area look as though they were deposited by water, too,” said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, project scientist for Curiosity. “We have a great landing site that was a strong science contender for earlier missions, but was not permitted for engineering constraints because no earlier landing could be targeted precisely enough to hit a safe area inside Gale Crater. The science team feels very optimistic about exploration of Mount Sharp and the surrounding region that includes the landing ellipse.”

Mission engineers designed a sky crane maneuver, lowering Curiosity on nylon cords from a rocket backpack because the rover is too heavy to use the airbag system developed for earlier rovers. “We know it looks crazy,” said Adam Steltzner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, leader of the team that developed the system. “It really is the result of careful choices.” By designing the aeroshell enclosing Curiosity to create lift and be steerable, engineers were able to build a system that lands much more precisely instead of dropping like a rock.”


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Preview of Upcoming Mars Rover Landing

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 16, 2012 – 3:53 pm -

With only 20 days to go until NASA’s car-sized rover touches down on the surface of Mars, scientists and engineers working on the mission held a news conference today laying out some of the details on why this is the most challenging and exciting mission to the Red Planet yet!   Here is the official NASA story on what all the buzz was about…

“NASA’s most advanced planetary rover is on a precise course for an early August landing beside a Martian mountain to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work. However, getting the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars will not be easy.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “While the challenge is great, the team’s skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing.”

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is a precursor for future human missions to Mars. President Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s. To achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. To land the 1-ton rover, an airbag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed a “sky crane” method for the final several seconds of the flight. A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.

During a critical period lasting only about seven minutes, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second). Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6).

“Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission,” said Pete Theisinger, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We’ve done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real.”

During the initial weeks after the actual landing, JPL mission controllers will put the rover through a series of checkouts and activities to characterize its performance on Mars, while gradually ramping up scientific investigations. Curiosity then will begin investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars’ Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

“Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Program at NASA Headquarters. “Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars.”

Curiosity will use tools on a robotic arm to deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can reveal chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark’s spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target. Other instruments on the car-sized rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.

“For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. “During the descent through the atmosphere, the mission will rely on bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and a heavier robot on the ground than were possible for any previous Mars mission. Those techniques also advance us toward human-crew Mars missions, which will need even more precise targeting and heavier landers.”

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

The chosen landing site is beside a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. The mission’s prime destination lies on the slope of the mountain. Driving there from the landing site may take many months.

“Be patient about the drive. It will be well worth the wait and we are apt to find some targets of interest on the way,” said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“When we get to the lower layers in Mount Sharp, we’ll read them like chapters in a book about changing environmental conditions when Mars was wetter than it is today.”

Scene from Xbox Mars landing game

In collaboration with Microsoft Corp., a new outreach game was unveiled Monday to give the public a sense of the challenge and adventure of landing in a precise location on the surface. Called “Mars Rover Landing,” the game is an immersive experience for the Xbox 360 home entertainment console that allows users to take control of their own spacecraft and face the extreme challenges of landing a rover on Mars.

“Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as it never has before,” said Michelle Viotti, JPL’s Mars public engagement manager. “Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible.”  -

Adapted from NASA news Statement


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