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NIGHT SKIES

Stargazing planned at Coronado State Monument

The Lodestar Astronomy Center and the Museum of New Mexico Natural History Museum will present stargazing activities at Coronado State Monument on Saturday, March 13, from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. Children are invited to make a mobile of the planets while enjoying an astronomy exhibit and planet display. For further information, call 867-5351.

 

March night sky

Charlie Christmann

    A comet double-header

A newly discovered comet, named C/2002 T7 (LINEAR), may outshine most stars in the sky by May. The comet was discovered in October 2002 by project LINEAR. Currently at a magnitude of about seven, under dark skies, the comet can now be seen using binoculars and small telescopes. (Note: the larger the magnitude number, the dimmer the object appears.) Some reports indicate the comet already has a visible tail nearly the length of a full Moon. The latest orbit suggests that it will come closest to the Sun on April 23, at a distance of about fifty-seven million miles.

Another comet, C/2001 Q4 (NEAT) discovered in August 2001, may also reach naked-eye visibility at nearly the same time. At the time of its discovery, the comet was nearly a billion miles from the Sun. Shining at magnitude twenty, or more than 398,000 times dimmer than the faintest star visible to the unaided eye, most comets would be completely invisible at such a tremendous distance, even to the telescope that found it, so the implication is that Comet NEAT C/2001 Q4 may be an unusually large and active object. New Mexico should be treated to a magnitude-two sight in mid-May evenings.

Comet T7 appears on track to take it through the constellations toward Canis Major. This would be too low in the sky, and too close to the Sun, for North American observers during May. March is the best time for New Mexicans to look for the comet using binoculars. Find brilliant Venus in the evening sky. Search to the right for a fuzzy puff in the constellation Pegasus.

Should either comet evolve into a bright first-magnitude object, as some forecasts suggest, either or both could end up becoming striking sights one year from now, with NEAT adorning our evening sky soon after sunset and LINEAR appearing first in the morning and then later in the evening. But if either or both turn out to be duds, they will appear as nothing more than fuzz balls in small telescopes.

Hopefully, April and May of 2004 will be two of the busiest bright-comet months in centuries.

    Hubble

NASA announced in January that the Hubble Space Telescope would not be serviced as planned in 2006, signaling the slow, eventual end of its life in orbit. Though there are private and governmental groups attempting to save the telescope, chances are small that it can be saved without a large outpouring of public support and money.

Hubble was launched in 1990. It was originally designed to last fifteen years. Eventually that was extended to twenty years, with a projected end date of 2010. With the cancellation of the 2006 servicing mission, Hubble will probably not last until 2010. Scientists and engineers are looking at ways to stretch Hubble's life out as long as possible, but the telescope's gyroscopes and batteries are the two main areas of concern.

Hubble depends on gyroscopes to point the telescope and keep it stable. If too many gyroscopes fail, Hubble becomes unusable. Hubble has six gyroscopes: two are broken and would have been replaced on the next servicing mission; three of the gyroscopes are working and used every day; one is on standby as a backup gyroscope. The gyroscopes have been replaced repeatedly throughout its life.

Today, it takes three gyroscopes to point the telescope, but scientists are developing software and techniques that would allow Hubble to operate using just two gyroscopes. Based on previous history, Hubble will probably be down to two gyroscopes around 2006 and one gyroscope in 2007.

Hubble has its original batteries, which means they date back to 1990. We don't know how long they will last, but their performance is starting to deteriorate. The batteries Hubble uses are not unlike the rechargeable batteries around your own home. As they age, their charge runs down more quickly. Once the batteries are unable to hold a charge, the telescope becomes inoperable. Engineers are continuously monitoring batteries and developing techniques to minimize the effects of aging.

Hubble will continue to orbit the Earth until a method is devised to bring the telescope safely out of orbit. The current plan is to build and launch an unmanned robotic device that will rendezvous with Hubble and attach a rocket to it. The rocket will fire in a controlled manner and alter its orbit to intersect the Earth’s atmosphere. The telescope will fall to Earth and crash into the ocean, safely away from populated areas and shipping lanes. That will be a sad end for a great machine that has brought us stunning pictures of our universe.

    Where are the Moon and Planets?

Mercury reaches its highest position above the horizon on March 29. The best time to look is about fifty minutes after sunset low in the west.

Venus is still bright in the evening above the western horizon. Your best chance of see Venus in the daylight will be on March 24. Use binoculars to find the crescent moon high in the southern sky around mid-afternoon. About three degrees above the moon will be Venus. After sunset, the Moon and Venus will be side by side.

Mars will be easy to spot next to the moon one hour after sunset on March 25.

One hour before sunrise on March 6, look for Jupiter about four degrees to the left of the Moon.

Saturn can be spotted on March 28th hanging 6 degrees below the Moon three hours after sunset.

All five of these planets will be visible at the same time in the night sky the last half of March.

The Moon is full on March 6th, and new on the 20th.

The Vernal equinox signals the starting of spring at 11:49 p.m. MST on the March 19. This also marks the start of six months of continuous daylight at the North Pole.

 

 

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