Astronomy News for the Month of January 2015


Apologies! Due to a death in the family, the newsletter is late this month. I am working on updating the web pages and the email version. I will complete these as time allows. Family First!

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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.


19

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 January

Happy New Year everyone! Start your evening viewing this month by looking to the west soon after sunset. Look for Venus and Mercury, low on the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. Slowly scan to the southwest to spot Mars, Neptune and Uranus. However, the highlight for January is our largest planet, Jupiter. Several of the Jovian moons transit the face of Jupiter on the evening of the 23rd/24th. As Jupiter is setting, Saturn appears in the southeast before dawn.

Mercury

Is at greatest eastern elongation (19° above the western horizon) on the 14th. Mercury is stationary on the 20th. Mercury is in inferior conjunction on the 30th. Look for Mercury low near the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset for most of the month. Mercury sets at 5:46 p.m. on the 1st. Mercury sets about 5:00 p.m. by month's end. Mercury moves from the constellation of Sagittarius into Capricornus shining at a magnitude -0.7 on the 15th.

Venus

Sets at 6:02 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:17 p.m. by month's end. Look for Venus low near the western horizon soon after sunset. Venus moves from the constellation Sagittarius into Aquarius shining at magnitude -3.9 on the 15th.

Earth

Is at perihelion (91.4 million miles from the Sun) on the 4th.

Mars

Sets at 8:04 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:05 p.m. by month's end. Mars can be spotted about 20° above the southwest horizon about an hour after sunset. Mars moves from the constellation of Capricornus into Aquarius this month shining at magnitude 1.1.

Jupiter

Rises at 7:57 p.m. on the 1st and about 5:38 p.m. by month's end. On the night of January 23/24, the shadows of Io, Callisto and Europa cross the face of Jupiter at the same time. Less than 30 minutes later, the moons disk cross the face of Jupiter as well. View Jupiter around 1:40 a.m. EST. Jupiter is in the constellation of Leo shining at magnitude -2.5.

Saturn

Rises at 4:14 a.m. on the 1st and about 2:25 a.m. by month's end. Look for Saturn above the southeastern horizon before sunrise. Saturn moves from the constellation of Libra into Scorpius shining at magnitude 0.6.

Uranus

Sets at 12:22 a.m. on the 1st and about 10:20 p.m. by month's end. Look to the south to spot Uranus in the evening sky after sunset. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.8.

Neptune

Sets at 9:13 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:16 p.m. by month's end. Look for Neptune in the south-southwest evening sky this month. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres

Has returned to the morning sky this month. Ceres rises at 6:26 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:20 a.m. by month's end. Ceres will be difficult to spot low on the south-eastern horizon before sunrise. Ceres is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 9.0.

Pluto

Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 3rd. Pluto returns to the morning sky but is lost in the Sun's twilight glow this month and is not visible. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius.

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

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Astronomical Events

Meteor Showers

  • The Quadrantids - This shower is generally visible between December 28 and January 7, with a very sharp maximum of 45 to 200 meteors per hour occurring during January 3 and 4. The meteors tend to be bluish and possess an average magnitude of about 2.8.

    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 January sky for evening viewing. Comet Lovejoy is predicted to shine around 8th magnitude this month. Look for Comet Lovejoy traveling from the constellation of Lepus to Andromeda. Dark skies and a 3-4 inch telescope will be needed to view 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.

  • Lunar Eclipse

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Look for Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Neptune to the southwest soon after sunset.
  • Find Uranus in the evening sky.
  • Observe Jupiter in the evening and early morning sky.
  • Observe the Quadrantids meteor shower early in the month.
  • Try to spot Comet Lovejoy with a small telescope.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Hebe is in the constellation of Cetus.
    • Juno is at opposition on the 29th in the constellation of Hydra.
    • Flora is in the constellation of Leo.
    • Iris 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.
    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 - December 29, 2014
    Circling Saturn

    Full-Res: PIA18292

    "In addition to being evidence of past impacts, craters can serve another valuable scientific purpose. By counting the number of craters in an area, scientists can estimate the age of the terrain. Older surfaces, such as on Mimas (246 miles, or 396 kilometers across), will have more craters per unit area than younger surfaces.

    The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 30,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) from Mimas. Image scale is 981 feet (299 meters) per pixel.

    This view looks toward the trailing hemisphere of Mimas. North on Mimas is up and rotated 4 degrees to the left. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on June 5, 2012.

    The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 31,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) from Mimas. Image scale is 982 feet (299 meters) per pixel."

    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 - December 31, 2014
    The PI's Perspective
    It's Pluto Eve!

    Joel Parker
    New Horizons Co-Investigator

    "As 2014 ends and 2015 begins, I'm reminded of something senior planetary scientist and New Horizons science team member Rick Binzel said a while back: "It's Pluto Eve!"

    New Horizons has been awake from hibernation since mid-day on Dec. 6, having completed its almost nine-year-long cruise phase from Earth to "Pluto space." We're currently in the very earliest stages of Pluto approach.

    Since waking New Horizons, we've been checking out spacecraft systems and some of the instruments, calibrating gyroscopes, collecting trajectory tracking information, and undertaking many other spacecraft preparations before the Pluto encounter starts on Jan. 15. At the same time, our science, engineering and operations teams have been planning and testing spacecraft command loads (detailed flight plans) for the first parts of encounter operations in early 2015. Needless to say, it's been a busy time."

    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 - December 29, 2014
    Dawn Spacecraft Begins Approach to Dwarf Planet Ceres

    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 has entered its approach phase toward Ceres
    • The spacecraft will arrive at Ceres on March 6, 2015

    NASA's Dawn spacecraft has entered an approach phase in which it will continue to close in on Ceres, a Texas-sized dwarf planet never before visited by a spacecraft. Dawn launched in 2007 and is scheduled to enter Ceres orbit in March 2015.

    Dawn recently emerged from solar conjunction, in which the spacecraft is on the opposite side of the sun, limiting communication with antennas on Earth. Now that Dawn can reliably communicate with Earth again, mission controllers have programmed the maneuvers necessary for the next stage of the rendezvous, which they label the Ceres approach phase. Dawn is currently 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers) from Ceres, approaching it at around 450 miles per hour (725 kilometers per hour)."

    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 24, 2014
    MESSENGER Mission News
    Innovative use of Pressurant Extends MESSENGER's Mission, Enables Collection of New Data

    "The MESSENGER spacecraft will soon run literally on fumes. After more than 10 years traveling in space, nearly four of those orbiting Mercury, the spacecraft has expended most of its propellant and was on course to impact the planet's surface at the end of March 2015. But engineers on the team have devised a way to use the pressurization gas in the spacecraft's propulsion system to propel MESSENGER for as long as another month, allowing scientists to collect even more data about the planet closest to the Sun.

    "MESSENGER has used nearly all of the onboard liquid propellant. Typically, when this liquid propellant is completely exhausted, a spacecraft can no longer make adjustments to its trajectory. For MESSENGER, this would have meant that we would no longer have been able to delay the inevitable impact with Mercury's surface," explained MESSENGER Mission Systems Engineer Dan O'Shaughnessy, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md. "However, gaseous helium was used to pressurize MESSENGER's propellant tanks, and this gas can be exploited to continue to make small adjustments to the trajectory."

    This gas is less efficient, he added, but as effective as the liquid propellant at modifying the spacecraft's trajectory."

    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 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 - anuary 09, 2015

    Sols 864-866: Hello Again, Pink Cliffs!
    Full image and caption


    "The drive toward "Pink Cliffs" went according to plan, so in the Sol 864 plan we will be doing a very short drive (called a "bump") toward our drilling target: "Mojave" (shown right). Before the drive, ChemCam will analyze 5 locations in a line across a possible mineral vein in the rock, at a target called "Harrisburg". This type of observation, called a "raster", was quite common before ChemCam's focus problems, but this will be the first time doing a 5-point raster since the focusing laser stopped working. ChemCam is still collecting images and spectra at multiple focus positions per point, to make sure we get good data."

    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) - December 17, 2014

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

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

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

    OPPURTUNITY UPDATE: Rover No-Flash Mode - sols 3868-3874, December 10, 2014-December 17, 2014: :

    Opportunity is on the west rim of Endeavour Crater heading towards 'Marathon Valley,' a location assumed to have abundant clay minerals only about a half-mile (800 meters) to the south.

    With the continuing Flash memory problems on the rover, the project has chosen to operate the rover without using the non-volatile Flash storage system and instead rely on the volatile random access memory (RAM) for temporary storage of telemetry, or rover data. Longer term, the project will implement a strategy to mask off the troubled sector of Flash and resume using the remainder of the Flash file system in normal operations.

    Using RAM memory for data storage, Opportunity drove on Sols 3868, 3870 and 3873 (Dec. 10, 12 and 16, 2014), totaling over 361 feet (110 meters). Engineers collected drive direction imagery and atmospheric observations on the same sol of each drive. Drivers are developing sets of multi-sol plans, some containing drives, to carry the rover's activities through the coming holidays.

    As of Sol 3874 (Dec. 17, 2014), the solar array energy production was 494 watt-hours, an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 1.189 and a solar array dust factor of 0.646.

    Total odometry is 25.73 miles (41.42 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: http://pubs.usgs.gov/sim/3309/"

    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 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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