Astronomy News for the Month of April 2014


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Special Notice to Denver, CO residents and visitors to the area:

The Plains Conservation Center in Aurora hosts Full Moon Walks every month weather permitting on or near the night of the full Moon. Visit The Plains Conservation Center for more information and directions.

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 Excerpts from JPL mission updates are provided as a public service as part
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In this Newsletter...

Background screen credits: NGC5775 - Imaged March 21/22, 2001 using the 16" Kitt Peak Visitors Center telescope as part of the Advanced Observing Program.


The Month At-A-Glance
A calendar displaying the daily astronomical events.


01

The Moon

Phases

Apogee/Perigee

Moon/Planet Pairs

For reference: The Full Moon subtends an angle of 0.5°.

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The Planets & Dwarf Planets

Planetary Reports generated by "TheSky" software. These reports provide predicted data for the planets for the first of each month for the current year. The rise and set times for the Sun and the Moon for each day of the month as well as meteor shower radiants are also included in the reports. These reports have been optimized for the Denver, Colorado location, however, the times will be approximate for other locations on Earth.

(All times are local unless otherwise noted.)

Planetary Highlights for April - "The first of 2014's two total lunar eclipses occurs at the midpoint of this action-packed month. April's other highlights include Mars reaching opposition and shining brighter than at any time in the past eight years, fine views of Jupiter in the evening and Saturn later at night, and Venus sliding past Neptune shortly before dawn." Astronomy Magazine, April 2014, p. 36.
Mercury - Is in superior conjunction with the Sun on the 25th. Mercury is visible, low on the eastern horizon within 30 minutes before sunrise during the first week or so of April. After that, Mercury disappears into the morning twilight glow, returning to the evening sky in early May. Mercury rises about 6:05 a.m. on the 1st and about 6:18 a.m. by month's end. Mercury moves from the constellation of Aquarius into Aries shining at magnitude -0.2 on the 1st.
Venus - Rises at 4:48 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:22 a.m. by month's end. Venus will be easy to spot moving from the constellation Capricornus into Pisces shining at magnitude -4.3 on the 15th.
Earth - N/A.
Mars - Is at opposition on the 8th, rising as the Sun sets. Mars rises at 7:59 p.m. on the 1st and about 5:11 p.m. by month's end. On the 14th, Mars makes its closest approach to the Earth, 57.4 million miles away. Mars is at its best viewing for the year. Check out Mars with binoculars or a telescope. Mars is in the constellation of Virgo this month shining at magnitude -1.5 at opposition.
Jupiter - Sets at 2:38 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:54 a.m. by month's end. Look for Jupiter in the evening and very early morning skies after midnight. Jupiter is in the constellation of Gemini shining at magnitude -2.1.
Saturn - Rises at 10:33 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:26 p.m. by month's end. Saturn steadily brightens as the month progresses as Saturn approaches opposition next month. View Saturn through a telescope to truly appreciate the planet and its ring system. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra shining at magnitude 0.2.
Uranus - Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 2nd. Uranus rises at 6:50 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:56 a.m. by month's end. Uranus returns to the morning sky after the first week of April. Uranus will be difficult to spot until later in the month when it climbs out of the morning twilight glow. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.
Neptune - Rises at 5:24 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:28 a.m. by month's end. Neptune should be easier to spot this month, but you'll have to wait until mid-month to get better views of the planet in darker morning skies. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres - Is at opposition on the 15th, rising as the Sun sets. Ceres rises at 9:12 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:45 p.m. by month's end. Ceres is brighter than Neptune this month and backyard observers may be able to spot it if conditions are good. Ceres is in the constellation of Virgo shining at magnitude 7.0.
Pluto - Is stationary on the 14th. Pluto rises at 2:25 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:27 a.m. by month's end. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.1.

As always, good luck at spotting Neptune, Ceres and Pluto, a large telescope and dark skies will be needed.

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Astronomical Events

Meteor Showers

  • The Lyrids [meteor showers] are typically visible between April 16 and 25. Maximum occurs during April 21-22. Although the maximum rate is about 10, there have been instances during the last 200 years when rates were near or over 100 per hour. The average magnitude of the meteors is near 2.4 and the speed is described as rapid. About 15% of the meteors leave persistent trains.

    For more information about Meteor Showers, visit Gary Kronk's Meteor Showers Online web page.

  • Comets

  • Look for Comet PANSTARRS (C/2012 K1) passing through the constellation of Ursa Major and Boötes this month. Comet PANSTARRS C/2012 K1 shines at 9th magnitude and may be visible through a 3 inch telescope under dark skies. However, viewing this comet through city lights will be a challenge.

    Elements and Ephemeris for Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON)

  • For information, orbital elements and ephemerides on observable comets, visit the Observable Comets page from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    For more information about Comets, visit Gary Kronk's Cometography.com webpage.

  • Eclipses

  • A total lunar eclipse occurs at 3:42 a.m. EDT on the 15th. Viewers in North and South America have front row seats for his lunar eclipse. The Moon dips into Earth's umbra (the darkest part of Earth's shadow) about 1:58 a.m. EDT on the morning of April 15th. Totality peaks at 3:42 a.m. EDT and ends at 4:25 a.m. EDT.

  • An annular solar eclipse occurs at 2:14 a.m. EDT on the 29th. However, this eclipse can only be spotted by observers in Antarctica. Viewers in Australia and Tasmania will only get to see a partial eclipse. No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • View Jupiter shining brilliantly in the evening and very early morning skies.
  • View Mars at opposition on the 8th and throughout the month all evening.
  • Observe Saturn in the evening and after midnight.
  • Catch Mercury in the morning sky early in the month.
  • Observe Venus, in the early morning sky before sunrise.
  • Try to find Uranus and Neptune in the early morning sky during the last half of the month.
  • Try to spot some of the Lyrids streaking through the evening and morning skies during the last half of April.
  • Enjoy the total lunar eclipse on the evening of the 14th/morning of the 15th.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Juno is in conjunction with the Sun on the 11th.
    • Pallus is in the constellation of Hydra.
    • Vesta is at opposition on the 13th in the constellation of Virgo.

    • Information about the Minor Planets can be found at the Minor Planet Observer website.
    Ocultations

    IOTA Logo

  • Information on various occultations can be found by clicking the IOTA logo.
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    Planetary/Lunar Exploration Missions

    (Excerpts from recent JPL mission updates)
    Cassini - March 31, 2014
    Prometheus' Handiwork

    Full-Res: PIA17158

    "Saturn's moon Prometheus orbits near some of its handiwork in the F ring.

    Prometheus (53 miles, or 86 kilometers across) and its partner Pandora gravitationally sculpt and maintain the narrow F ring.

    This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 53 degrees below the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Aug. 24, 2013.

    The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 104 degrees. Image scale is 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel."

    Raw images are available at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/photos/raw/index.cfm.

    Cassini Imaging Team

    For the latest mission status reports, visit Cassini Mission Status web page. The speed and location of the spacecraft along its flight path can be viewed on the Present Position webpage.

    New Horizons - February 27, 2014

    What is Pluto?

    New Horizons Reaches the Final 4 (AU)

    "New Horizons sailed past another milepost today when the NASA spacecraft moved to within four astronomical units (AU) of Pluto - which is less than four times the distance between the Earth and the sun, or about 371 million miles (598 million kilometers).

    "We're as close to the Pluto system now as Earth ever gets to Jupiter, a first for any spacecraft," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. "And hold on to your hat, it just gets more and more exciting from here."

    Since launch on January 19, 2006, New Horizons has covered nearly 2.89 billion miles (4.62 billion kilometers). It makes a temporal connection with one NASA's legendary deep-space explorers this summer when it crosses the orbit of Neptune on Aug. 25 -- exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 made its historic flight past that giant planet. When New Horizons arrives at Pluto on July 14, 2015, it will have traveled farther than any spacecraft ever has to reconnoiter its prime target."

    On Video: How Do We Get to Pluto? Practice, Practice, Practice

    Part I: The Encounter Begins
        - Small mp4 (38 MB, 640x360)
        - Large mp4 (116 MB, 1280x720)

    Part II: Passing Pluto
        - Small mp4 (34 MB, 640x360)
        - Large mp4 (102 MB, 1280x720)"

    LORRI Looks Back

    New Horizons gallery

    Find New Horizons in the iTunes App Store here.

    For more information on the New Horizons mission - the first mission to the ninth planet - visit the New Horizons home page.

    Dawn - March 28, 2014
    Dawn Wins National Air and Space Museum Trophy

    "The team in charge of NASA's Dawn mission, history's first detailed exploration of a celestial body inside the main asteroid belt, received the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's highest group honor at a dinner in Washington on March 26. Dawn, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., received the 2014 Trophy for Current Achievement, which honors outstanding achievements in the fields of aerospace science and technology.

    Having explored the giant asteroid Vesta and on its way to the dwarf planet Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft is designed to conduct an in-depth and up-close study of these two celestial bodies formed early in the history of the solar system. In 50 years of space exploration, no other spacecraft has orbited a distant solar system body, then left to travel to–and eventually orbit–another extraterrestrial body."

    Dawn's Virtual Flight over Vesta

    A gallery of images can be found online.

    For more information on the Dawn mission, visit the Dawn home page.

    MESSENGER - March 17, 2014
    Team Celebrates Orbital Anniversary, Reports on New Findings at Planetary Conference

    "Today, the MESSENGER team celebrates the third anniversary of the probe's Mercury orbit insertion. On March 17, 2011 (Eastern Daylight Time), the spacecraft made history when it became the first probe to orbit the innermost planet. Over the last three years, MESSENGER instruments have fully mapped Mercury's surface and yielded discoveries that have changed views on how the inner planets formed and evolved.

    The latest findings will be described in 25 papers presented this week at the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. Now -- as a key part of MESSENGER's second extended mission -- the team is preparing to embark on a low-altitude imaging campaign that promises to reveal even more information about Mercury.

    The altitude of the spacecraft at closest approach has been slowly decreasing as the Sun's gravity perturbs its orbit around Mercury, and the progressively closer approaches will provide MESSENGER's instruments with an unprecedented opportunity to make high-resolution observations of the planet. For example, the hollows first revealed by the probe's instruments in 2011 are suspected to have formed because volatile elements sublime off the surface, but observations to date could not confirm this hypothesis.

    At spacecraft altitudes below 350 kilometers, the Mercury Dual Imaging Instrument's Narrow Angle Camera will acquire images with pixel scales ranging from 20 meters to as little as 2 meters. Such high-resolution images will reveal small features of the enigmatic hollows for the first time. "We will be seeing features at up to 10 times the resolution of the images acquired so far," noted MESSENGER Co-Investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)."

    The MESSENGER app is available for download from iTunes.

    For more information on the MESSENGER mission, visit the MESSENGER home page.

    Pack Your Backpack

    Calling all explorers! Tour JPL with our new Virtual Field Trip site. Stops include Mission Control and the Rover Lab. Your guided tour starts when you select a "face" that will be yours throughout the visit. Cool space images and souvenirs are all included in your visit.

    Past, Present, Future and Proposed JPL Missions - http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions

    Visit JPL's mission pages for current status.

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    Mars Missions

    Be A Martian

    Mars website mobile version is here!

    Mars on the Go! NASA Be A Martian Mobile App
    If you want the latest news as it happens, try our Be A Martian app.
    Download on Mobile Devices
    Android | iPhone | Windows Phone
    JMARS

    JMARS is an acronym that stands for Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing. It is a geospatial information system (GIS) developed by ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility to provide mission planning and data-analysis tools to NASA's orbiters, instrument team members, students of all ages, and the general public.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - March 24, 2014

    NASA Mars Rover's Next Stop Has Sandstone Variations

    Full image and caption

    "Variations in the stuff that cements grains together in sandstone have shaped the landscape surrounding NASA's Curiosity Mars rover and could be a study topic at the mission's next science waypoint.

    On a journey with many months yet to go toward prime destinations on the lower slope of Mount Sharp, Curiosity is approaching a site called "the Kimberley." Scientists on the team picked this location last year as a likely place to pause for investigation. Its informal name comes from a northwestern Australia region known as the Kimberley. The Martian site's geological appeal, based on images taken from orbit, is that four types of terrain with different rock textures intersect there."

    To follow the Mars Curiosity rover and NASA on Foursquare, visit: http://www.foursquare.com/MarsCuriosity and http://www.foursquare.com/NASA

    For information about NASA's partnership with Foursquare, visit:http://www.nasa.gov/connect/foursquare.html.

      Mars Rover Landing - Free for the Xbox (requires Kinect)

      Visit the Mars Science Laboratory page.

    Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Spirit and Opportunity) - March 19, 2014

    SPIRIT UPDATE: Spirit Remains Silent at Troy - sols 2621-2627, May 18-24, 2011:

    More than 1,300 commands were radiated to Spirit as part of the recovery effort in an attempt to elicit a response from the rover. No communication has been received from Spirit since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010). The project concluded the Spirit recovery efforts on May 25, 2011. The remaining, pre-sequenced ultra-high frequency (UHF) relay passes scheduled for Spirit on board the Odyssey orbiter will complete on June 8, 2011.

    Total odometry is unchanged at 7,730.50 meters (4.80 miles)."

    OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Helpful Wind Cleans Solar Panels - sols 3603-3609, Mar. 13, 2014-Mar. 19, 2014 :

    "Opportunity is exploring 'Murray Ridge' on Solander Point, part of the rim of Endeavour Crater.

    The rover continues to investigate the region called 'Cook Haven.' On Sol 3603 (March 13, 2014), Opportunity completed the in-situ (contact) analysis of a target called 'Augustine' with a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic and a placement of the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on the same. On the next two Sols, the rover conducted remote sensing with the collection of Navigation Camera (Navcam) and Panoramic Camera (Pancam) images and a measurement of atmospheric argon with the APXS. Atmospheric opacity (tau) measurements using the Navcam were performed in support of the InSIght mission. On Sol 3607 (March 17, 2014) a short bump was planned to approach a target rock, called 'Sugarloaf.' However, the drive stopped after just 2.3 meters (7.55 feet) due to the rover sensing higher average current in three of the rover wheels. This was a safety check to detect possible embedding events. Although the rover did experience as much as 50% slip, there was no risk of embedding, just a steep upward climb. Given the difficult terrain, the approach to Sugarloaf would require multiple additional drives to be able to use the robotic arm on the rock surface. So, the science team chose to document Sugarloaf with more color imagery and to drive further south and west to new targets. On Sol 3609 (March 19, 2014), Opportunity drove about 16.35 meters (53.64 feet) to the southwest. The rover experienced a solar panel dust cleaning event between Sols 3605 and 3606 (March 15 and March 16, 2014). This resulted in about a 10% improvement in power production.

    As of Sol 3609, the solar array energy production was 574 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.450 and an improved solar array dust factor of 0.777.

    Total odometry is 24.10 miles (38.79 kilometers)"

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - March 19, 2014
    NASA Orbiter Finds New Gully Channel on Mars

    Full image and caption

    "A comparison of images taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in November 2010 and May 2013 reveal the formation of a new gully channel on a crater-wall slope in the southern highlands of Mars.

    These before-and-after images are available online at http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/new-gully-channel-terra-sirenum-pia17958.

    Gully or ravine landforms are common on Mars, particularly in the southern highlands. This pair of images shows that material flowing down from an alcove at the head of a gully broke out of an older route and eroded a new channel. The dates of the images are more than a full Martian year apart, so the observations did not pin down the Martian season of the activity at this site. Before-and-after HiRISE pairs of similar activity at other sites demonstrate that this type of activity generally occurs in winter, at temperatures so cold that carbon dioxide, rather than water, is likely to play the key role."

    MARS RECONNAISSANCE ORBITER HIRISE IMAGES
    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - February 12, 2014
    NASA Moves Longest-Serving Mars Spacecraft for New Observations

    "NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has tweaked its orbit to help scientists make the first systematic observations of how morning fogs, clouds and surface frost develop in different seasons on the Red Planet.

    The maneuver took place Tuesday, Feb. 11. Odyssey team engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, designed the gentle move to accelerate Odyssey's drift toward a morning-daylight orbit. The desired change will occur gradually until the intended orbit geometry is reached in November 2015 and another maneuver halts the drift.

    The change will enable observation of changing ground temperatures after sunrise and after sunset in thousands of places on Mars. Those observations could yield insight about the composition of the ground and about temperature-driven processes, such as warm-season flows observed on some slopes, and geysers fed by spring thawing of carbon-dioxide ice near Mars' poles.

    "We're teaching an old spacecraft new tricks," said Odyssey Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of JPL. "Odyssey will be in position to see Mars in a different light than ever before."

    Neither Odyssey, nor any other NASA Mars orbiter since the 1970s, has flown an orbital pattern with a view of the ground in morning daylight. Earlier NASA orbiters and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter have provided some tantalizing views of morning mists on Mars, but have concentrated on afternoon observation times when views of the surface are less hazy.

    Odyssey was launched in 2001 and began its science mission 12 years ago this month. It is the longest-working spacecraft ever sent to Mars."

    See the Mars As Art Gallery

    Dulles Airport Full News Release

    Global Martian Map

    "A simulated fly-through using the newly assembled imagery is available online.

    The fly-through plus tools for wandering across and zooming into the large image are at THEMIS."

    Daily Mars Odyssey THEMIS Images
    Can be found at the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) website.

    The Odyssey data are available through a new online access system established by the Planetary Data System.

    Visit the Mars Odyssey Mission page.

    Mars Missions Status

    New Mars missions are being planned to include several new rover and sample collection missions. Check out the Mars Missions web page and the Mars Exploration page.

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    Links and Other Space News

    (If you have a link you would like to recommend to our readers, please feel free to submit it.)

    Green Laser

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    Astronomical Lexicon

    Definitions of astronomical terms. Many of the astronomical terms used in this newsletter are defined here.

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    UT Logo

    Read the Universe Today Newsletter by clicking on the logo.

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    Acknowledgments and References

    Much of the information in this newsletter is from Astronomy® Magazine (Kalmbach Publishing), JPL mission status reports, the Internet, "Meteor Showers - A descriptive Catalog" by Gary W. Kronk, Sky & Telescope web pages, and other astronomical sources that I have stashed on my bookshelves.

    The author will accept any suggestions, constructive criticisms, and corrections. Please feel free to send me any new links or articles to share as well. I will try to accommodate any reasonable requests. Please feel free to send questions, comments, criticisms, or donations to the email address listed below. Enjoy!

    More Acknowledgements and References

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