Astronomy News for the Month of February 2013


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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.


06

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 are also included in the reports.

(All times are local unless otherwise noted.)

Planetary Highlights for February - Jupiter dominates the evening sky. Mars is still low in the western sky after the Sun sets and is joined by Mercury. Uranus provides nice binocular views in the early evening as well. Saturn is prominent in the morning sky after midnight. Venus is all but lost in the twilight glow before sunrise the first few days of the month. This is your last chance to spot Venus before it disappears for few months, returning to the evening sky sometime in May.
Mercury - Is at greatest eastern elongation (18° above the western horizon) on the 16th. Mercury is at its best in the evening sky for the year. Look for Mercury low on the western horizon soon after sunset all month. Mercury sets at 6:08 p.m. on the 1st , about 7 p.m. around mid-month and about 6:21 p.m. by month's end. Mercury is in the constellation of Capricornus shining at magnitude -0.8 on the 15th.
Venus - Say good bye to Venus this month. Venus is visible in the early morning sky before sunrise during the first few days of February. Venus then disappears in the twilight glow and will return to the evening sky sometime in May. Venus rises at 6:29 a.m. on the 1st. Venus is in the constellation of Capricornus shining at magnitude -3.9 on the 1st.
Earth - NA.
Mars - Sets at 6:41 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:42 p.m. by month's end. Look to the west to spot the Red Planet setting soon after the Sun sets during the first 2 weeks of February. Mars is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 1.2.
Jupiter -

Sets at 2:48 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:05 a.m. by month's end. Jupiter dominates the evening sky and early morning sky after midnight this month. Jupiter is in the constellation of Taurus shining at magnitude -2.4.

Saturn - Is stationary on the 19th. Saturn rises at 12:32 a.m. on the 1st and about 10:39 p.m. by month's end. Look for Saturn in the east before sunrise. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra shining at magnitude 0.6.
Uranus - Sets at 9:40 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:56 p.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the southwest soon after the Sun sets. Uranus moves from the constellation of Pisces into Cetus shining at magnitude 5.9.
Neptune - Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 21st. Neptune is lost in the evening twilight glow and is not visible this month. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres - Is stationary on the 4th. Ceres sets at 6:19 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:52 a.m. by month's end. Look for Ceres in the east in the evening soon after the Sun sets trailing Jupiter by a couple of hours. Ceres is in the constellation of Taurus shining at magnitude 8.1.
Pluto - Has returned to the morning sky this month but is still lost in the twilight glow for the first half of the month. Pluto rises at 5:02 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:14 a.m. by month's end. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.1.

As always, good luck at spotting these two, a large telescope and dark skies will be needed.

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Astronomical Events

Meteor Showers

  • There are a few minor meteor showers this month but none that produce rates much higher than 2-5 per hour at their peaks.

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

  • Comets

  • Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS is making an appearance for southern hemisphere observers this month, brightening from 6th to 2nd magnitude. This comet passes from Sagittarius, through Grus, into Piscis Austrinus passing near the star Fomalhaut near the end of the month. Northern observers will have to wait until March to see this comet.

  • 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

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Jupiter dominates the evening sky all month.
  • Saturn are prominent in the morning sky before sunrise.
  • Mars and Mercury can be spotted in the west after sunset.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Pallus is in the constellation of Cetus.
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Taurus.
    • Metis is in the constellation of Gemini.
    • Eunomia in in the constellation of Crater.
    • Amphitrite is in the constellation of Virgo.
    • Irene is 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 - January 28, 2013
    Senkyo and Vortex

    Full-Res: PIA14645

    "The Cassini spacecraft simultaneously peers through the haze in Titan's equatorial region down to its surface and captures the vortex of clouds hovering over its south pole just to the right of the terminator on the moon's dark side.

    The dark region near Titan's equator is Senkyo. See Details of Dark Senkyo for a closer view of Senkyo and to learn more. For a color image of the south polar vortex on Titan, see Titan's Colorful South Polar Vortex. For a movie of the vortex, see Titan's South Polar Vortex in Motion.

    Lit terrain seen here is on the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Titan (3,200 miles, or 5,150 kilometers across). North on Titan is up and rotated 11 degrees to the left. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 20, 2012 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 938 nanometers. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo."

    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 - January 18, 2013
    The PI's Perspective: The Seven-Year Itch

    "New Horizons launched seven years ago - on Jan. 19, 2006 - on what we think is the most audacious space exploration mission of all time!

    It's been seven years since New Horizons' launch on Jan. 19, 2006, and our spacecraft remains healthy and on course.

    We're more than halfway between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. In fact, we're so far along the journey that we'll cross the orbit of Neptune and enter "Pluto space" in August of next year!

    After seven years in flight -- longer than many science missions operate -- it's fair to say the project team can feel that the Pluto encounter is almost around the corner. After all, 2015 is just the year after next! There's an increased pace of activity, a sense of anticipation, and a palpable thirst for the images and other data we'll soon have as our reward for hard work on a project with roots going back to 1989. I call this new phenomenon our "seven-year itch." And it's a good itch!

    Anniversaries and anticipations aside, let me turn to project news.

    This month's spacecraft wakeup -- we were in hibernation from July 6, 2012, until Jan. 6 -- is proceeding, with various maintenance and checkout activities, spacecraft tracking work, and a new software load (to squash a pesky bug) all going well. We'll keep the spacecraft active until Jan. 30, then we'll put her back into hibernation until May 21, when we wake up for a very busy summer of checkouts and encounter rehearsal activities.

    Also this summer, the New Horizons project will be hosting a major conference for the planetary science community. At this conference, which will be held in late July near our mission control center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, planetary scientists from around the world will gather to review everything we know about the Pluto system. They'll plan ground-based and space-based Pluto system observations to take place in concert with the New Horizons encounter, make scientific predictions about what we will learn from New Horizons, and learn about the spacecraft and payload's capabilities so they can prepare -- as we are -- to analyze data from the long flyby.

    In July 2014, a similar meeting will be held for the public and educators. That meeting will be broadly webcast, so that thousands or tens of thousands or even more interested people can follow and learn.

    Before I close this brief update, I do want to answer a question I get a lot: After all this work, why isn't New Horizons going into orbit around Pluto?

    The reason is actually pretty simple: getting into orbit isn't practical because of our speed. Remember, New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched. Even after climbing uphill against the Sun's gravity for nine years, when we reach Pluto we'll still be going 30,000-plus miles per hour -- very roughly twice the speed of a space shuttle or satellite in Earth orbit. To enter orbit around Pluto we'd need to bleed almost all of that speed off with rockets. And that would require very large rocket engines and a lot of fuel, given our fast trajectory."

    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 - January 03, 2013
    Picture This: Vesta's Dark Materials in Dawn's View
    Full image and caption

    "A new study of images from NASA's Dawn mission examines remarkable, dark-as-coal material that speckles the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. Scientists are using the images, taken by Dawn's framing camera, to understand the impact environment early in Vesta's evolution. In the most comprehensive analysis of the dark material to date, Dawn scientists describe how this carbon-rich material tends to appear around the edges of two giant impact basins in Vesta's southern hemisphere. The analysis suggests that the dark material was most likely delivered by the object that created the older of the two basins, known as Veneneia, about 2 to 3 billion years ago. Some of those materials were later covered up by the impact that created the younger basin, Rheasilvia."

    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 - January 04, 2013
    MESSENGER's Discoveries Tapped as among Top Space Stories of 2012

    "In 2012, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury completed its primary mission, embarked on an extended mission, saw its images and maps featured on a highly rated television show, sponsored the release of a dedicated app, and celebrated the 8th anniversary of its launch, all the while continuing to produce new findings about the planet closest to the Sun.

    These accomplishments captured the attention of many media outlets, several of which designated MESSENGER's endeavors as a "top story" of 2012.

    "In late November, scientists discovered water on a planet beginning with the letter M -- just not the one we were expecting," wrote Eric Olson of Scientific American, which listed MESSENGER as one of the top 5 space stories of 2012. "As the data keeps pouring in we can probably expect more news on Mercury in 2013," he predicted.

    MESSENGER's confirmation of ice at Mercury's poles also prompted editors at The Huffington Post to include the mission in its Year in Science: Inspiring Discoveries & Important Events.

    The International Business Times -- referring to the spacecraft as "plucky" -- deemed MESSENGER's confirmation of ice on Mercury one of the biggest space stories of 2012.NASA SpaceFlight.com offered a yearlong review of MESSENGER's accomplishments, declaring that it "offered one of the most exciting missions of the 2012 year."

    "We learned a great deal about Mercury over the past year," adds MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "The team published three dozen scientific and technical papers and delivered more than 150 presentations at national and international meetings. New measurements continue to stream back from our spacecraft, and we can look forward with excitement to many additional discoveries in 2013."

    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

    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 - January 28, 2013
    Curiosity Maneuver Prepares for Drilling

    "PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has placed its drill onto a series of four locations on a Martian rock and pressed down on it with the rover's arm, in preparation for using the drill in coming days.

    The rover carried out this "pre-load" testing on Mars yesterday (Jan. 27). The tests enable engineers to check whether the amount of force applied to the hardware matches predictions for what would result from the commanded motions.

    The next step is an overnight pre-load test, to gain assurance that the large temperature change from day to night at the rover's location does not add excessively to stress on the arm while it is pressing on the drill. At Curiosity's work site in Gale Crater, air temperature plunges from about 32 degrees Fahrenheit (zero degrees Celsius) in the afternoon to minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 65 degrees Celsius) overnight. Over this temperature swing, this large rover's arm, chassis and mobility system grow and shrink by about a tenth of an inch (about 2.4 millimeters), a little more than the thickness of a U.S. quarter-dollar coin."

    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) - January 22, 2013

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

    "No communication has been received from Spirit since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010).

    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: Opportunity At Work At 'Whitewater Lake' - sols Jan. 17, 2013-Jan. 22, 2013 :

    "Opportunity is on the inboard edge of "Cape York" on the rim of Endeavour Crater, performing an in-situ (contact) science investigation of veins in the light-toned outcrop "Whitewater Lake."

    On Sol 3194 (Jan. 17, 2013), the rover collected a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic of the target "Ortiz3," then placed the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on the target for an overnight integration. On Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013), during an attempt to brush the vein surface target with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), a stall in Joint 2 (shoulder elevation) of the robotic arm occurred. The stall occurred during a very slow upward movement of the arm. This kind of stall has been experienced before by the rover. The leading theory is that with such slow motion of the arm against gravity, the joint motor does not have sufficient momentum to overcome the magnetic detents within the joint actuator. Initial assessment indicates no degradation in the joint, but the project is continuing to investigate this. No "amnesia" events with the Flash file system have occurred since Sol 3183 (Jan. 6, 2013), and the rover is otherwise in good health. On Sol 3195 (Jan. 18, 2013), a small dust-clearing event occurred, improving solar array energy production slightly.

    As of Sol 3199 (Jan. 22, 2013), the solar array energy production was 540 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 1.11 and an improved solar array dust factor of 0.651.

    Total odometry is 22.03 miles (35455.34 meters)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - January 24, 2013
    Orbiter Spies Where Rover's Cruise Stage Hit Mars
    Full image and caption

    "PASADENA, Calif. -- Researchers using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter see seasonal changes on far-northern Martian sand dunes caused by warming of a winter blanket of frozen carbon dioxide.

    Earth has no naturally frozen carbon dioxide, though pieces of manufactured carbon-dioxide ice, called "dry ice," sublime directly from solid to gas on Earth, just as the vast blankets of dry ice do on Mars. A driving factor in the springtime changes where seasonal coverings of dry ice form on Mars is that thawing occurs at the underside of the ice sheet, where it is in contact with dark ground being warmed by early-spring sunshine through translucent ice. The trapped gas builds up pressure and breaks out in various ways.

    Transient grooves form on dunes when gas trapped under the ice blanket finds an escape point and whooshes out, carrying out sand with it. The expelled sand forms dark fans or streaks on top of the ice layer at first, but this evidence disappears with the seasonal ice, and summer winds erase most of the grooves in the dunes before the next winter. The grooves are smaller features than the gullies that earlier research linked to carbon-dioxide sublimation on steeper dune slopes.

    Similar activity has been documented and explained previously where seasonal sheets of frozen carbon dioxide form and thaw near Mars' south pole. Details of the different northern seasonal changes are newly reported in a set of three papers for the journal Icarus. A video showing some of the changes is online at http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=158896871 .

    The findings reinforce growing appreciation that Mars today, however different from its former self, is still a dynamic world, and however similar to Earth in some respects, displays some quite unearthly processes."

    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 - December 04, 2012
    NASA Announces Robust Multi-Year Mars Program; New Rover To Close Out Decade Of New Missions

    "WASHINGTON -- Building on the success of Curiosity's Red Planet landing, NASA has announced plans for a robust multi-year Mars program, including a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020. This announcement affirms the agency's commitment to a bold exploration program that meets our nation's scientific and human exploration objectives.

    "The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "With this next mission, we're ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s."

    The planned portfolio includes the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers; two NASA spacecraft and contributions to one European spacecraft currently orbiting Mars; the 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere; the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars; and participation in ESA's 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 mission and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

    The plan to design and build a new Mars robotic science rover with a launch in 2020 comes only months after the agency announced InSight, which will launch in 2016, bringing a total of seven NASA missions operating or being planned to study and explore our Earth-like neighbor.

    The 2020 mission will constitute another step toward being responsive to high-priority science goals and the president's challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s.

    The future rover development and design will be based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) architecture that successfully carried the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface this summer. This will ensure mission costs and risks are as low as possible, while still delivering a highly capable rover with a proven landing system. The mission will constitute a vital component of a broad portfolio of Mars exploration missions in development for the coming decade."

    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.)

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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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    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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