Astronomy News for the Month of February 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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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.


02

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 continues to dominate the evening skies this month and is still prominent until the early hours of the morning. Mercury also shines quite nicely in the evening sky during the first part of the month, disappears around mid-month only to reappear in the morning sky late in the month. Mars and Saturn continue to climb higher in the early morning skies after midnight. You can't miss Venus in the east before sunrise, reaching a magnitude -4.9 by mid-month the brightest for this morning apparition.
Mercury - Is stationary on the 6th. Mercury is in inferior conjunction on the 15th. Mercury is visible, low on the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset during the first week of February, disappears into the twilight glow for a couple of weeks, then reappears in the morning sky during the last week of February. Mercury is stationary again on the 27th. Mercury sets about 6:52 p.m. on the 1st. Mercury rises about 5:27 a.m. at month's end. Mercury is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude -0.6 on the 1st.
Venus - Venus rises about 5:01 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:07 a.m. by month's end. Venus shines its brightest for this apparition this month. Venus will be easy to spot among the stars of the constellation Sagittarius shining at magnitude -4.9 on the 15th.
Earth - N/A.
Mars - Rises at 11:01 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:30 p.m. by month's end. Mars has returned to the evening sky this month but is still best viewed in the early morning hours after midnight. Mars is in the constellation of Virgo this month shining at magnitude -0.1.
Jupiter - Still shines brilliantly in the evening sky this month. Jupiter sets at 5:32 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:36 a.m. by month's end. Look for Jupiter in the evening and early morning skies after midnight. Jupiter is in the constellation of Gemini shining at magnitude -2.5.
Saturn - Rises at 1:30 a.m. on the 1st and about 11:39 p.m. by month's end. Look for Saturn in the east soon after midnight. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra shining at magnitude 0.5.
Uranus - Sets at 10:00 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:16 p.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the early evening sky after sunset. Spot Uranus with binoculars or a small telescope. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.
Neptune - Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 23rd. Neptune sets at 7:04 p.m. on the 1st. Neptune is visible during the first week of February, then disappears for the rest of the month, returning to the morning skies in March. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 8.0.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres - Rising at 11:15 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:33 p.m. by month's end. Ceres is in the constellation of Virgo shining at magnitude 8.0.
Pluto - Has returned to the morning sky this month. Pluto rises at 5:13 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:25 a.m. by month's end. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.2.

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

  • 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

  • No Comet activity this month but look for Comet PANSTARRS (C/2012 K1) beginning to make an appearance next month.

    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

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Find Mercury in the evening sky early in the month and in the morning sky at the end of the month.
  • Observe Venus, in the early morning sky before sunrise.
  • Check out Neptune and Uranus in the evening skies.
  • Catch Jupiter at its best in the evening sky.
  • View Mars in the late evening and after midnight.
  • View Saturn before sunrise.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Iris is in the constellation of Pisces.
    • Herculina is in the constellation of Taurus.
    • Melpomene is in the constellation of Cancer.
    • Pallus is at opposition on the 22nd in the constellation of Hydra.
    • Vesta 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 - February 02, 2014
    Titan Flyby (T-98): Radar Looks for Changes

    "During this close flyby of Titan, the Cassini Radar will look for changes to the shoreline of Ontario Lacus when compared to the T-57/58 (June/July 2009) and T-65 (January 2010) fly-bys. The instrument will be used as a synthetic aperture radar, a technique which uses that spacecraft's flight path to simulate a very large radar aperture.

    On both approach and departure, the Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) will map Titan's stratospheric temperatures to monitor seasonal change. The Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) will ride along with CIRS to track clouds. On approach, the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) will ride along to map the lakes and seas of the North Pole; on departure, VIMS will ride along to observe the evolution of the south polar vortex."

    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 06, 2014


    Coming soon to a solar system near you: New Horizons Meets Pluto!

    A Busy Year Begins for New Horizons

    With Pluto encounter operations now just a year away, the New Horizons team has brought the spacecraft out of hibernation for the first of several activities planned for 2014.

    Mission operators at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., "woke" New Horizons on Jan. 5. Over the next two weeks the team will test the spacecraft's antenna and repoint it toward Earth; upload commands into the onboard Guidance and Control and Command and Data Handling systems, including a check on the backup inertial measurement unit and update of the spacecraft's navigational star charts; and conduct some navigational tracking, among other routine maintenance duties."

    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 - January 22, 2014
    Herschel Telescope Detects Water on Dwarf Planet

    Full image and caption

    "Scientists using the Herschel space observatory have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres.

    Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up periodically from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet, a solar system body bigger than an asteroid and smaller than a planet.

    Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with important NASA contributions. "This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere," said Michael K├╝ppers of ESA in Spain, lead author of a paper in the journal Nature.

    The results come at the right time for NASA's Dawn mission, which is on its way to Ceres now after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta. Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in the spring of 2015, where it will take the closest look ever at its surface."

    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 - December 31, 2013
    MESSENGER Team Members Honored for Outstanding Accomplishments in Scientific Research and Education and Public Outreach

    "Three members of the MESSENGER team have been honored this month for their accomplishments in planetary research and education and public outreach. The three honorees are Catherine Johnson from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Planetary Science Institute, Ryan Dewey from the University of Colorado, and Brian Grigsby from Shasta High School in Redding, California.

    Johnson was one of 62 scientists elected this year as a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The designation as Fellow, which recognizes researchers who have made exceptional contributions to Earth and space sciences, is bestowed on not more than 0.1 percent of AGU members in any given year. Johnson and other new Fellows were honored on December 11 at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

    Johnson, a MESSENGER Participating Scientist, was recognized for her studies of planetary magnetism on Earth, Mars, and Mercury, and for her work on the tectonics and gravitational fields of the inner planets. She is a Co-Investigator on NASA's InSight mission that will place a geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior, a Co-Investigator on the OSIRIS REx mission that will map asteroid Bennu, and a Professor of Planetary Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC in Vancouver.

    Dewey, an undergraduate majoring in astronomy and physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a Research Assistant in the university's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, received an Outstanding Student Paper Award from AGU. Those awards are given to promote, recognize, and reward undergraduate, master's, and doctoral students for innovative research in the geophysical sciences. Dewey was recognized for his paper given at the AGU Fall Meeting on "WSA-ENLIL Cone Extension: Improving Solar Wind Forcing Parameter Estimates at Mercury."

    Dewey works with MESSENGER Co-Investigator Daniel Baker on the interactions between Mercury's magnetosphere and its space environment. His award-winning paper focused on improving representations for the local space environment at Mercury. "Mercury has a much weaker intrinsic magnetic field and is much closer to the Sun than Earth, so the space environment plays a larger role in plasma processes in Mercury's magnetosphere," Dewey said. "This space environment includes both the background solar wind and transient solar eruptions. Previous estimates of this environment have combined MESSENGER observations with the WSA-ENLIL model, but this approach included only the background solar wind."

    The Cone extension to WSA-ENLIL simulates transient events, providing a more complete approach, he explained. "My paper compared the results for the WSA-ENLIL model with and without the Cone extension. We found that the Cone extension improves the accuracy of the space environment estimates. More specifically, the Cone extension allows us to better model specific transient events that arrive at Mercury, and it improves 'effectiveness' indicators such as electron event count rates. Our results yield generally valid, continuous inputs of the space environment for studies of Mercury's magnetosphere, exosphere, and surface."

    Grigsby was selected this month by the National Space Club as the 2014 recipient of the National Space Educator Award. His award will be presented on March 7, 2014, at the 57th Annual Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Since 1982, this award has been given annually to secondary school teachers who mentor students in the field of space, science, and technology. Recipients are also given a $1,500 grant and a plaque for their respective school.

    Grigsby is the science department chair at Shasta High School and the coordinator of MESSENGER's Student Planetary Investigator Program. In that program, students -- with the assistance of science mentors -- are given an opportunity to add to the body of data on Mercury by performing research on the planet's anomalous density, its geologic history, its magnetic field, its core, the unusual materials at Mercury's poles, and other volatiles found on the surface.

    Grigsby was previously the director of the Arizona State University (ASU) Mars Education and Outreach Program within the Mars Space Flight Facility at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. While at ASU, he created a new standards-based curriculum that allows educators nationwide to be involved in the exploration of Mars while continuing to meet their educational objectives.

    "It is wonderful that AGU and the National Space Club have recognized the exceptional contributions of Catherine, Ryan, and Brian," said MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon of Columbia University. "All of us on the MESSENGER team are proud to be working with these outstanding colleagues."

    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 - January 31, 2014

    NASA Mars Rover's View of Possible Westward Route

    "NASA's Curiosity Mars rover reached the edge of a dune on Jan. 30 and photographed the valley on the other side, to aid assessment of whether to cross the dune.

    Curiosity is on a southwestward traverse of many months from an area where it found evidence of ancient conditions favorable for microbial life to its long-term science destination on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp. Based on analysis of images taken from orbit by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a location dubbed "Dingo Gap" was assessed as a possible gateway to a favorable route for the next portion of the traverse.

    A dune across Dingo Gap is about 3 feet (1 meter) high, tapered off at both sides of the gap between two low scarps. Curiosity reached the eastern side of the dune on Jan. 30 and returned images that the rover team is using to guide decisions about upcoming drives."

    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 23, 2013

    NASA's Opportunity at 10: New Findings from Old Rover

    "New findings from rock samples collected and examined by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity have confirmed an ancient wet environment that was milder and older than the acidic and oxidizing conditions told by rocks the rover examined previously.

    In the Jan. 24 edition of the journal Science, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, writes in detail about the discoveries made by the rover and how these discoveries have shaped our knowledge of the planet. According to Arvidson and others on the team, the latest evidence from Opportunity is landmark.

    "These rocks are older than any we examined earlier in the mission, and they reveal more favorable conditions for microbial life than any evidence previously examined by investigations with Opportunity," said Arvidson.

    While the Opportunity team celebrates the rover's 10th anniversary on Mars, they also look forward to what discoveries lie ahead and how a better understanding of Mars will help advance plans for human missions to the planet in the 2030s."

    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: Work on Mystery Rock Continues As Rover Marks 10 Years on Mars - sols 3554-3560, Jan. 22, 2014-Jan. 28, 2014 :

    "Opportunity is up on 'Solander Point' at the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover is continuing to investigate this curious surface rock, called 'Pinnacle Island' that apparently was kicked up by the rover during a recent traverse.

    Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 PST (Jan. 25, 2004 UTC) on what was to be a three-month mission, but instead the rover has lived beyond its prime mission and roved the planet for nearly 10 years. Mission highlights, including a gallery of selected images from both rovers is at http://mars.nasa.gov/mer10/.

    On Sol 3554 (Jan. 22, 2014), with a difficult robotic arm wrist motion preventing a simple target offset, Opportunity instead lifted the robotic arm out of the way for a 13-filter Panoramic Camera (Pancam) image of the target Pinnacle Island, then placed the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) back down on the same location.

    On Sol 3555 (Jan. 23, 2014), the rover attempted a very small turn-in-place of only 1.4 degrees to reach a new location on the target. The initial wheel motion achieved sufficient turn magnitude, but the wheel straightening undid that motion so the target position was not reached. This was not surprising since very small motions are very difficult to achieve with the rover. On Sol 3557 (Jan. 25 2014), this motion was attempted again, but this time a 'tank turn' was used and achieved the necessary result. The rover continued with 13-filter Pancam imagery and an APXS atmospheric argon measurement. On Sol 3560 (Jan. 28, 2014), the robotic arm collected a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic of the new location on Pinnacle Island, followed by the placement of the APXS on the same.

    As of Sol 3560 (Jan. 28, 2014), the solar array energy production was 361 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.572 and a solar array dust factor of 0.590.

    Total odometry is 24.07 miles (38.73 kilometers)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - January 09, 2014
    Mars Orbiter Images Rover and Tracks in Gale Crater

    "NASA's Curiosity Mars rover and its recent tracks from driving in Gale Crater appear in an image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Dec. 11, 2013.

    Excerpts from the large HiRISE observation are at: http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/mro/curiosity-tracks-pia17755, showing the rover, and http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/mro/curiosity-tracks-pia17754, showing tracks across a landscape in enhanced color. The tracks show where the rover has zigzagged around obstacles on its route toward the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, its next major destination. HiRISE first imaged the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft while it was descending on a parachute to place Curiosity on Mars 17 months ago. Since then, it has provided updated views of the rover's traverse, as seen from orbit."

    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 - January 28, 2014
    NASA Preparing for 2014 Comet Watch at Mars

    "This spring, NASA will be paying cautious attention to a comet that could put on a barnstorming show at Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. On that date, comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will buzz Mars about 10 times closer than any identified comet has ever flown past Earth.

    Spacecraft at Mars might get a good look at the nucleus of comet Siding Spring as it heads toward the closest approach, roughly 86,000 miles (138,000 kilometers) from the planet, give or take a few percent. On the other hand, dust particles that the comet nucleus sheds this spring could threaten orbiting spacecraft at Mars in October.

    The level of risk won't be known for months, but NASA is already evaluating possible precautionary measures as it prepares for studying the comet.

    "Our plans for using spacecraft at Mars to observe comet Siding Spring will be coordinated with plans for how the orbiters will duck and cover, if we need to do that," said Rich Zurek, Mars Exploration Program chief scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif."

    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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