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Night Sky

February Night Sky

February 2010 Night Sky

—Charlie Christmann, Signpost

Exploring the God of War

Step outside this month a couple of hours after sunset and look in the southeastern sky. There, shining brightly with a reddish twinkle, is Mars. On January 29, Mars was at opposition, exactly opposite the sun as seen from Earth. Consequently, it was also closest to Earth in its orbit. For the rest of this month, Mars will be in retrograde motion, apparently moving across the sky east to west. This apparent motion is an illusion caused because we were catching up with Mars last month and have now passed it in our orbit.

Early Missions

It was early in the Space Age that humans started sending unmanned probes to Mars. In 1964, the U.S. shot Mariner 4 past the planet for only a quick passing glance. In 1971, the U.S. was able to orbit Mariner 9 around the planet with crude cameras photographing the surface. The Soviet Union landed two probes on the surface in 1972, but lost contact with both almost immediately. NASA successfully landed the two Viking landers on Mars in 1976. Viking 1 sent back data for six years; Viking 2 for three years.

Both the Soviets in 1988 and the U.S. in 1992 had failed missions: Phobos 1 and 2 and the Mars Observer. The Mars Global Surveyor was launched in 1996 and returned data for ten years. Mars Pathfinder, carrying the first mobile robotic exploration vehicle, Sojourner, arrived on Mars in 1977. With the success of these missions, NASA has been sending craft back regularly since 2000. With our sights set on placing a human on the red planet this century, there is much to learn about our neighbor.

Current Missions

Today, there is a handful of robotic craft both orbiting the planet and exploring its surface. So what have they discovered and what are they doing today? In 2001, NASA sent the Mars Odyssey to orbit the planet. Its mission was to hunt for evidence of past or present water and volcanic activity. By 2004, the orbiter had successfully completed its primary mission, finding many minerals needed by life as we know it, including an abundance of hydrogen, most likely in the form of water. Today, it acts as a communications relay for the two active Mars rovers on the surface and the Phoenix lander at the Martian North Pole.

NASA landed two tough robotic rovers on the surface of Mars in 2004. Five years later, both rovers are still working with only a few glitches. Thanks to these devices, we have confirmed that there was once liquid water on the surface of Mars. One surprising discovery was so-called “blueberries.” Opportunity found these spherical hematite nodules at Meridiani Planum. Several geologic processes could account for the blueberries, including the presence of liquid water.

Since landing, the rover Spirit has traveled 4.8 miles. As of January, this robot is bogged down in a place called “Troy” on the west side of Home Plate and is having trouble digging itself out of the sand. Two of its wheels are now nonfunctional. By contrast, Opportunity is still going strong after more than eleven total miles traveled. In late January, the rover was heading toward a relatively new crater named Conception. The next objective is the Endeavour Crater. Both robots are well past their design lifetimes.

The Phoenix lander set down near the North Pole in May 2008. It was here that actual water ice was found as the lander’s scoop dug into the Martian soil. In November 2008, the mission was terminated, as the sun was too low in the Martian winter sky to power the lander’s solar panels. The winters are cold on Mars, colder than -230°F. At this temperature, the Phoenix is likely covered in inches of dry ice and will most likely not survive. But, on the outside chance it does, NASA’s Odyssey orbiter will listen from January through March for any signs of life as it passes overhead. Perhaps this Phoenix will rise not from ashes of fire but from a carbon dioxide deep freeze.

The Planets and the Moon

Don’t look for Mercury as it hides in the glare of the Sun this month.

Look for Venus low in the west the latter half of this month at sunset. Starting on the 14th, watch Venus and Jupiter slowly close the gap between them. On the 16th, Jupiter will be just a half of a degree above and to the right of Venus.

Mars is halfway up in the eastern sky after sunset. The Moon joins Mars for a conjunction on the 25th.

Jupiter can be found in the west-southwest shortly after sunset closely following the sun below the horizon.

Saturn is rising in the east about 9:30 p.m. early in the month and rising about 7:50 p.m. by the end of the month. Look for a Moon-Saturn conjunction on Groundhog Day (the 2nd). You can see the planet located 10° to the upper right of the Moon ninety minutes before sunrise.

The Moon will be new on the 13th. On the 12th, the Sun will have pulled the Moon to its greatest apogee of the year, more than fourteen lunar diameters farther from Earth that the Moon was on January 30th. The Full Moon occurs on the 28th.

 

     

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