Astronomy News for the Month of February 2015

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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.


The Moon



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 February

Begin your evening viewing this month, looking west to spot Venus and Mars. Very soon after sunset, try to spot Neptune just to the right of Venus on the 1st. The highlight for February though is our largest planet, Jupiter. Jupiter reaches opposition and shines its brightest this month and provides spectacular views through even a small backyard telescope. Saturn is visible before sunrise for early morning observers. Catch Mercury early in the morning just before sunrise before it disappears from view after mid-month. Comet Lovejoy remains easy to spot with binoculars in the evening sky. If you are up very early in the morning before sunrise you may be treated to a fireball or a bolide streaking through the skies even though this month is not a big month for meteors.


Is stationary on the 11th. Mercury is at greatest western elongation (27° above the eastern horizon) on the 24th. Look for Mercury low to the southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise during the month. Mercury rises at 6:39 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:28 a.m. by month's end. Mercury is in the constellation of Capricornus shining at magnitude 0.3 in the 15th.


Sets at 7:17 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:20 p.m. by month's end. Look for Venus low near the western horizon soon after sunset. On the evening of the 20th, look for Venus, Mars and a crescent Moon close to each other. Venus moves from the constellation Aquarius into Pisces shining at magnitude -3.9.




Sets at 8:05 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:03 p.m. by month's end. Mars can be spotted above the southwest horizon about an hour after sunset. Mars moves from the constellation of Aquarius into Cetus this month shining at magnitude 1.2.


Is at opposition on the 6th, rising as the Sun sets. Jupiter is at its best for this year. Jupiter rises at 5:38 p.m. on the 1st and about 3:29 p.m. by month's end. Jupiter is in the constellation of Cancer shining at magnitude -2.6.


Rises at 2:25 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:41 a.m. by month's end. Look for Saturn to the south in the early morning hours well before sunrise. Saturn is in the constellation of Scorpius shining at magnitude 0.5.


Sets at 10:20 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:36 p.m. by month's end. Look to the southwest to spot Uranus in the early evening sky after sunset. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.


Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 25th. Neptune sets at 7:16 p.m. on the 1st and about 5:31 p.m. by month's end. On February 1st, you may be able to see Neptune about 1° to the right of Venus, though it will be difficult to spot. Look for Neptune to the west low in the evening sky very early in the month as Neptune quickly disappears into the dusky haze of sunset. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 8.0.

Dwarf Planets


Rises at 5:20 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:14 a.m. by month's end. Ceres will be difficult to spot to the southeast before sunrise. Ceres is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 9.1.


Rises at 5:23 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:36 a.m. by month's end. Pluto is still relatively low to the eastern horizon early in the month. 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. However, there's a possibility that observers may see a fireball or a bolide in the early hours before sunrise associated with the Beta Herculids or Delta Serpentids minor meteor showers.

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

  • Comets

  • Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is well placed in the February sky for evening viewing. Comet Lovejoy can be easily spotted with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope or under dark skies by naked eye shining around magnitude 4.5. Look for Comet Lovejoy traveling between the constellations of Andromeda and Perseus.

  • 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 webpage.

  • Lunar Eclipse

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Look for Venus, Mars and Neptune to the west soon after sunset.
  • Look for Uranus to the southwest in the evening sky.
  • Observe Jupiter all night long this month.
  • Observe Saturn and Mercury in the early morning sky before sunrise.
  • With luck, try to spot a fireball or bolide .
  • Try to spot Comet Lovejoy with a small telescope or binoculars.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Hebe is in the constellation of Taurus.
    • Juno is in the constellation of Hydra.
    • Flora is at opposition on the 15th in the constellation of Leo.
    • Iris is in the constellation of Leo.
    • Nysa is in the constellation of Virgo.
    • Pallas is in the constellation of Ophiuchus.

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

    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, 2015
    Cassini Catches Titan Naked in the Solar Wind

    Full-Res: PIA19055

    "Researchers studying data from NASA's Cassini mission have observed that Saturn's largest moon, Titan, behaves much like Venus, Mars or a comet when exposed to the raw power of the solar wind. The observations suggest that unmagnetized bodies like Titan might interact with the solar wind in the same basic ways, regardless of their nature or distance from the sun.

    Titan is large enough that it could be considered a planet if it orbited the sun on its own, and a flyby of the giant moon in Dec. 2013 simulated that scenario, from Cassini's vantage point. The encounter was unique within Cassini's mission, as it was the only time the spacecraft has observed Titan in a pristine state, outside the region of space dominated by Saturn's magnetic field, called its magnetosphere.

    "We observed that Titan interacts with the solar wind very much like Mars, if you moved it to the distance of Saturn," said Cesar Bertucci of the Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics in Buenos Aires, who led the research with colleagues from the Cassini mission. "We thought Titan in this state would look different. We certainly were surprised," he said."

    The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. More information about Cassini is available at the following sites: "

    Raw images are available at

    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 23, 2015
    Something Special in the Air

    "The earliest stages of our Pluto encounter have begun, and New Horizons remains healthy and on course.

    Already, the SWAP, PEPSSI and SDC instruments are taking daily science data - measuring the charged particle and dust environment of the space near Pluto's orbit. Next week, on Jan. 25, the sensitive LORRI long focal length camera aboard New Horizons will begin imaging the Pluto system for navigation purposes. This will yield dozens of images that our navigation teams will analyze for positional information about Pluto and Charon against star fields, allowing us to home in more accurately than by radio navigation from Earth alone."

    What is Pluto?

    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 27, 2015
    NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Captures Best-Ever View of Dwarf Planet

    animation of the dwarf planet Ceres was made by combining images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Jan. 25. The spacecraft's framing camera took these images, at a distance of about 147,000 miles (237,000 kilometers) from Ceres, and they represent the highest-resolution views to date of the dwarf planet.
    Image Credit: NASA/JPL

    "NASA's Dawn spacecraft has returned the sharpest images ever seen of the dwarf planet Ceres. The images were taken 147,000 miles (237,000 kilometers) from Ceres on Jan. 25, and represent a new milestone for a spacecraft that soon will become the first human-made probe to visit a dwarf planet.

    "We know so little about our vast solar system, but thanks to economical missions like Dawn, those mysteries are being solved," said Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

    At 43 pixels wide, the new images are more than 30 percent higher in resolution than those taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004 at a distance of over 150 million miles. The resolution is higher because Dawn is traveling through the solar system to Ceres, while Hubble remains fixed in Earth orbit. The new Dawn images come on the heels of initial navigation images taken Jan. 13 that reveal a white spot on the dwarf planet and the suggestion of craters. Hubble images also had glimpsed a white spot on the dwarf planet, but its nature is still unknown."

    Ion propulsion isn't something found only in science fiction. Ion engines are a real deal and drive NASA's Dawn spacecraft, en route to dwarf planet Ceres. Big things do come in small packages.

    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 21, 2015
    MESSENGER Mission News
    Maneuver Successfully Delays MESSENGER's Impact, Extends Orbital Operations

    "MESSENGER mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., successfully conducted a maneuver today designed to raise the spacecraft's minimum altitude sufficiently to extend orbital operations and delay the probe's inevitable impact onto Mercury's surface until early next spring.

    The immediately previous maneuver, completed on October 24, 2014, raised MESSENGER to an altitude at closest approach from 25.4 kilometers (15.8 miles) to 184.4 kilometers (114.6 miles) above the planet's surface. Because of progressive changes to the orbit over time, the spacecraft's minimum altitude continued to decrease.

    At the time of this most recent maneuver, MESSENGER was in an orbit with a closest approach of 25.7 kilometers (16.0 miles) above the surface of Mercury. With a velocity change of 9.67 meters per second (21.62 miles per hour), the spacecraft's four largest monopropellant thrusters (with a small contribution from four of the 12 smallest monopropellant thrusters) nudged the spacecraft to an orbit with a closest approach altitude of 105.1 km (65.3 miles)."

    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 -

    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 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.


    Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

    "The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) began in 1948, a decade before NASA. We are the world's only research institute to have sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto. LASP is an affiliate of CU-Boulder AeroSpace Ventures, a collaboration among aerospace-related departments, institutes, centers, government labs, and industry partners."

    MAVEN Status Update: December 3, 2014

    "David F. Mitchell, MAVEN Project Manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center"

    "MAVEN is now fully into its Science Phase at Mars and the scientists have been releasing exciting results, not the least of which were recent findings from the Comet Siding Spring encounter. The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer was able to observe intense emissions from magnesium and iron ions in the atmosphere in the aftermath of the comet encounter. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer directly sampled and determined the composition of comet dust in Mars' atmosphere, something that has never been done before. Our Solar Energetic Particle instrument observed significant solar activity both in the form of flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun to Mars. We also generated a map of Mars' ozone layer in the lower atmosphere. Finally, we've been able to provide a view of the escaping atmosphere of Mars showing the loss of atomic oxygen, atomic carbon, and atomic hydrogen. Great science with much more to come!"

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - January 30, 2015

    Sol 884: Sample Transfer to CheMin

    "By Lauren Edgar"

    "After successfully drilling the target "Mojave2" on Sol 882, the next step is to deliver the sample to CheMin for analysis. We acquired some great Mastcam and MAHLI images of the drill hole and mini drill hole, and we're looking forward to learning more about the composition of this sample.

    The main activities in today's plan are to transfer, sieve, and drop-off the sample to CheMin, and also to acquire APXS on the drill tailings. The plan also includes a few additional frames to fill in the MAHLI self portrait.

    And even though today is a Friday and we would normally be planning 3 sols to cover the weekend, the team has decided to take advantage of some Saturday operations to maximize our number of planning days. A big thanks to those team members who volunteered to work tomorrow! The rest of us will be traveling to Pasadena this weekend for our team meeting next week. I'm sure there will be a lot of new data to discuss!

    --Lauren is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of MSL science team."

    To follow the Mars Curiosity rover and NASA on Foursquare, visit: and

    For information about NASA's partnership with Foursquare, visit:

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

      Visit the Mars Science Laboratory page.

    Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Spirit and Opportunity) - January 27, 2015

    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)."

    OPPURTUNITY UPDATE: Several Drives This Week Put Opportunity Near Marathon Distance - sols 3909-3914, January 22, 2015-January 27, 2015: :

    "Opportunity is on the west rim of Endeavour Crater heading towards "Marathon Valley," a putative location for abundant clay minerals now about 984 feet (300 meters) away.

    The project is operating the rover without using the Flash storage system to avoid reset problems and is using instead random access memory (RAM) for temporary storage of telemetry. The project is preparing to mask off the troubled sector of Flash and resume using the remainder of the Flash file system in normal operations.

    Opportunity drove on Sols 3909, 3911 and 3914 (Jan. 22, Jan. 24 and Jan. 27, 2015), totaling almost 279 feet (85 meters). On the evening of Sol 3912 (Jan. 25, 2015), an atmospheric argon measurement was collected with the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer. Targeted color imagery is being collected as the rover makes progress towards the "Spirit of St. Louis" crater and Marathon Valley.

    As of Sol 3914 (Jan. 27, 2015), the estimated solar array energy production was 534 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.891 and an inferred solar array dust factor of 0.636.

    Total odometry is 26.02 miles (41.88 kilometers)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - December 12, 2014
    Signs of Ancient Mars Lakes and Quakes Seen in New Map

    Full image and caption

    Simulated Flyover of Mars Canyon Map

    This animation simulates a flyover of a portion of a Martian canyon detailed in a geological map produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and based on observations by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The landforms include a series of hills called Candor Colles.

    "Long ago, in the largest canyon system in our solar system, vibrations from "marsquakes" shook soft sediments that had accumulated in Martian lakes.

    The shaken sediments formed features that now appear as a series of low hills apparent in a geological map based on NASA images. The map was released today by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

    This map of the western Candor Chasma canyon within Mars' Valles Marineris is the highest-resolution Martian geological map ever relased by USGS. It is derived from images taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reveal details smaller than a desk. The map is available for download at:"

    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - December 02, 2014
    NASA's Journey to Mars

    "NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s - goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.

    Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet's history and future. Mars had conditionssuitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?

    While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA's path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory are helping us prove many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The space station also advances our understanding of how the body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health.

    Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we'll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in FY 2018, NASA's powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable these "proving ground" missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown."

    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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    Astronomy 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

    Colorado Astronomy Links

    Other Astronomy Links

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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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