Astronomy News for the Month of February 2016


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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.


17 day moon

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 February

Five visible planets grace the morning sky before dawn: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury span about two thirds of the sky. Jupiter is the first to rise in the evening and Mercury is the last, rising just before dawn. Uranus is visible in he early evening. Ceres and Neptune may be too close to the Sun and lost in the evening twilight glow. Pluto has returned to the morning sky but it too is a bit to close to the Sun to be spotted easily.

Mercury

Is at greatest western elongation (26° above the eastern horizon) on the 6th. Mercury rises at 5:39 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:58 a.m. by month's end. Look for Mercury low above the eastern horizon before sunrise. Mercury moves from the constellation of Sagittarius into Capricornus shining at magnitude 0.0 on the 1st.

Venus

Rises at 5:17 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:31 a.m. by month's end. Look for Venus in the early morning skies before sunrise. In the morning of the 6th, Venus, Mercury and the waning crescent Moon form a spectacular triangle. Venus moves from the constellation of Sagittarius into Capricornus shining at magnitude -3.9.

Earth

N/A.

Mars

Rises at 12:56 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:08 a.m. by month's end. Mars is visible to the east in the morning before dawn. Mars is in the constellation of Libra this month shining at magnitude 0.6.

Jupiter

Rises at 8:29 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:20 p.m. by month's end. Jupiter is now visible earlier in the evening as the month progresses. Look for Jupiter in the east in late evening and early morning skies. Jupiter is in the constellation of Leo shining at magnitude -2.4.

Saturn

Rises at 3:18 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:32 a.m. by month's end. Look to the southeast before sunrise to spot Saturn. Saturn is in the constellation of Ophiuchus shining at magnitude 0.5.

Uranus

Sets at 10:40 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:04 p.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the early evening sky. Look west soon after sunset to spot Uranus just above the horizon. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.

Neptune

Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 28th. Sets at 7:27 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:33 p.m. by month's end. Neptune may be too low to easily spot this month, however, the first week of the month may be your best chance to view Neptune before it is lost in the evening twilight haze. Observers will need telescope to see it. Neptune will return to the morning sky next month. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 8.0.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres

Sets at 6:38 p.m. on the 1st and about 5:44 p.m. by month's end. Ceres will be next to impossible to spot this month as it is definitely lost in the evening twilight glow. Ceres is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 9.1.

Pluto

Has returned to the morning sky this month, rising at 5:34 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:43 a.m. by month's end. Wait until the end on the month to try to spot Pluto above the eastern horizon. 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.

    Meteor Scatter (or Meteor burst communications) - "is a radio propagation mode that exploits the ionized trails of meteors during atmospheric entry to establish brief communications paths between radio stations up to 2,250 kilometres (1,400 mi) apart." Tune your shortwave or your HF amateur radio to 54.310 MHz SSB and see if you can hear any pings.

  • Comets

  • Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) passes near Polaris in early February. Most observers in the northern hemisphere should be able to spot this comet glowing around 6th magnitude almost all night long. Looking north, towards Polaris, observers will see the comet move southward (climbing higher in the sky, as the month progresses. Comet Catalina will pass through the constellations of Camelopardalis and Cassiopeia. Use binoculars or a small telescope to spot Comet Catalina this month.

  • 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

    Solar Eclipses

  • No solar eclipse activity this month.

    Lunar Eclipses

  • No lunar eclipse activity this month.
  • Observational Opportunities

  • Look for Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Pluto, Venus, and Mercury before sunrise, though Pluto is not one that you can see with the naked eye.
  • Try to spot Uranus early evening.
  • See if you can spot a bolide (fireball) or two this month, and if you do, submit your observations to the American Meteor Society's web site.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Pisces.
    • Eunomia is in the constellation of Aries.
    • Euterpe is in the constellation of Orion.
    • Astraea is at opposition on the 15th in the constellation of Leo.
    • Hygiea is in the constellation of Virgo.

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

    For those living in the north-western United States, the Moon will occultoccult 1st magnitude Aldebaran on the night of February 15/16. The path of a grazing occultation crosses the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Along this line, observers will see the star appear and disappear as Aldebaran "grazes" the edge of the Moon.

    IOTA Logo

  • Information on various occultations can be found by clicking the IOTA logo.
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    Subscriber Gallery

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    Member Meteor Sightings

    This is a new section where I will post meteor, fireball, etc sightings that have been published on the American Meteor Society's web site. I want to make this an active section of the web pages and newsletter and would like to publish the links to member sightings. If you have any published sightings, please provide me with the links and I will post them here for all to enjoy.

    Event ID Date/Time Location Observer Link
    3587-2015 2015-11-22 17:38 MST CO Kevin S 3587aw
    3829-2015 2015-12-05 18:06 MST Highlands Ranch, CO Burness A 3829a
    3871-2015 2015-11-13 01:55 MST CO Charles N 3871a

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    Planetary/Lunar Exploration Missions

    (Excerpts from recent JPL mission updates)
    Cassini - February 02, 2016
    Saturn's Rings: Less than Meets the Eye?

    Full-Res: PIA14636

    "Fast Facts:

    • Researchers "weighed" the central parts of Saturn's most massive ring for the first time.

    • The results confirm that more opaque areas in the rings do not necessarily contain more material.

    • Research on the mass of Saturn's rings has important implications for their age.

    It seems intuitive that an opaque material should contain more stuff than a more translucent substance. For example, muddier water has more suspended particles of dirt in it than clearer water. Likewise, you might think that, in the rings of Saturn, more opaque areas contain a greater concentration of material than places where the rings seem more transparent.

    But this intuition does not always apply, according to a recent study of the rings using data from NASA's Cassini mission. In their analysis, scientists found surprisingly little correlation between how dense a ring might appear to be -- in terms of its opacity and reflectiveness -- and the amount of material it contains.

    The new results concern Saturn's B ring, the brightest and most opaque of Saturn's rings, and are consistent with previous studies that found similar results for Saturn's other main rings."

    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:
    http://www.nasa.gov/cassini
    http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

    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 04, 2016
    Pluto's Mysterious, Floating Hills

    Full Image

    "The nitrogen ice glaciers on Pluto appear to carry an intriguing cargo: numerous, isolated hills that may be fragments of water ice from Pluto’s surrounding uplands. These hills individually measure one to several miles or kilometers across, according to images and data from NASA’s New Horizons mission.

    The hills, which are in the vast ice plain informally named Sputnik Planum within Pluto's 'heart,' are likely miniature versions of the larger, jumbled mountains on Sputnik Planum's western border. They are yet another example of Pluto's fascinating and abundant geological activity."


    It's always Pluto Time somewhere, and NASA wants to see your view.

    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 29, 2016
    New Animation Takes a Colorful Flight Over Ceres

    Video Link

    "A colorful new animation shows a simulated flight over the surface of dwarf planet Ceres, based on images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft.

    The movie shows Ceres in enhanced color, which helps to highlight subtle differences in the appearance of surface materials. Scientists believe areas with shades of blue contain younger, fresher material, including flows, pits and cracks.

    The animated flight over Ceres emphasizes the most prominent craters, such as Occator, and the tall, conical mountain Ahuna Mons. Features on Ceres are named for earthly agricultural spirits, deities and festivals.

    The movie was produced by members of Dawn's framing camera team at the German Aerospace Center, DLR, using images from Dawn's high-altitude mapping orbit. During that phase of the mission, which lasted from August to October 2015, the spacecraft circled Ceres at an altitude of about 900 miles (1,450 kilometers)."

    Take a tour of weird Ceres!

    "Visit a 2-mile-deep crater and a 4-mile-tall mountain in the video narrated by mission director Marc Rayman. Get your red/blue glasses ready for the finale - a global view of the dwarf planet in 3D."

    Can you guess what's creating those unusual bright spots on Ceres?

    Ceres Topographic Globe Animation

    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

    Ceres Fly By

    A gallery of images can be found online.

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

    MESSENGER - November 24, 2015
    MESSENGER's Brett Denevi Awarded Top Scientist Honor from Maryland Academy

    "The Maryland Academy of Sciences presented MESSENGER Team Member Brett Denevi with their Outstanding Young Scientist award during a ceremony on November 18 at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.

    The Outstanding Young Scientist award program was established in 1959 to recognize and celebrate extraordinary contributions of young Maryland scientists.

    Denevi, the Deputy Instrument Scientist for the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) on the MESSENGER spacecraft, is "an unusually accomplished young scientist who has helped to solve multiple difficult problems, the solutions to which have contributed to our basic understanding of how the solar system has evolved and the processes that drove its evolution," stated MESSENGER Co-Investigator Scott Murchie."

    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.

    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 - November 5, 2015
    MAVEN Reveals Speed of Solar Wind Stripping Martian Atmosphere

    "The MAVEN mission has identified the process that appears to have played a key role in the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold, arid planet Mars is today.

    MAVEN data have enabled researchers to determine the rate at which the Martian atmosphere currently is losing gas to space via stripping by the solar wind. The findings reveal that the erosion of Mars' atmosphere increases significantly during solar storms. The scientific results from the mission appear in the Nov. 5 issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters."

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - January 27, 2016

    Sandy Selfie Sent from NASA Mars Rover

    "The latest self-portrait from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the car-size mobile laboratory beside a dark dune where it has been scooping and sieving samples of sand.

    The new selfie combines 57 images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of Curiosity's arm on Jan. 19. It is online at

    http://mars.nasa.gov/multimedia/images/?ImageID=7658

    The rover has been investigating a group of active sand dunes for two months, studying how the wind moves and sorts sand particles on Mars. The site is part of Bagnold Dune Field, which lines the northwestern flank of Mars' Mount Sharp.

    When the component images were taken, the rover had scuffed the edge of "Namib Dune" and collected the first of three scoops of sand from that dune. It used its scoop later to collect a second sample on Jan. 19, and a third on Jan. 22."

    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) - February 02, 2016

    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: Climbing Steeper Slopes to Reach Science Targets - sols 4269-4275, January 26, 2016-February 02, 2016: :

    "Opportunity is exploring 'Marathon Valley' on the rim of Endeavour crater. The rover is climbing up steep slopes to reach high-value science targets up on 'Knudsen Ridge.'

    Opportunity performed the first of two steep climbs on Sol 4269 (Jan. 26, 2016), with just less than 16 feet (5 meters) for progress on slopes nearing 30 degrees. On the next sol, the rover ascended further up slope about 14 feet (4.4 meters) reaching tilts just under 30 degrees. For the next fives sols Opportunity conducted extensive Navigation Camera (Navcam) and Panoramic Camera (Pancam) imaging surveys of the potential rock targets and ridge outcrop in front of the rover in preparation for extensive in-situ (contact) science campaigns on the geologic units high up on this ridge line.

    As of Sol 4275 (Feb. 2, 2016), the solar array energy production was 498 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.459 and a solar array dust factor of 0.683.

    Total odometry is 26.51 miles (42.66 kilometers), more than a marathon."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - December 14, 2015
    Some Mars Minerals with Watery Past May be Relatively Young

    "Minerals formed by water altering precursor geological materials are widespread on Mars. Most come from a wet era more than 3.7 billion years ago, early in the planet's 4.5-billion-year history. A new study shows that later alteration by water, within the last 2 billion years or so, may be more common than previously thought. Geologists Ralph Milliken and Vivian Sun of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, surveyed sites near the center of 633 Martian craters, including 265 with deposits of clays and other hydrated minerals detected in observations from orbit. At several of the sites, evidence pointed to local formation of the hydrated minerals inside relatively young craters. The study is reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. The full story from Brown University is at: https://news.brown.edu/articles/2015/12/mars"

    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.

    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 01, 2016
    Happy Valentine's Day!

    "Cant go to Mars? Send your own Mars card today!

    Send a Mars Card to your favorite Earthling!

    Send a Mars Card!"

    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.

    Journey to Mars - December 22, 2015
    InSight - Revealing the Heart of Mars
    NASA Suspends 2016 Launch of InSight Mission to Mars, Media Teleconference Today

    "After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload.

    "Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we're not ready to launch in the 2016 window. A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars."

    The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES). Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom, the instrument requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment."

    Learn more about the InSight Mission.

    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

    Radio 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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