Astronomy News for the Month of January 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 January

Five planets grace the morning sky before dawn: Mercury, Venus, Mars Jupiter and Saturn. These are the 5 wanderers of the sky that our ancestors viewed before telescopes were invented. Uranus and Neptune are still visible in the early evening skies soon after sunset. The Quadrantids Meteor Shower peaks during the first week of January and is one of the best winter showers to watch.

Mercury

Starts out this month in the evening sky, visible soon after sunset. However, Mercury approaches inferior conjunction on the 14th, so try to spot Mercury during the first week of January. But not to worry, Mercury returns to the morning sky by the last week of the month, joining the other 4 visible planets. Mercury sets at 6:15 p.m. on the 1st. Mercury rises about 5:39 a.m. by month's end. Mercury moves from the constellation of Capricornus into Sagittarius shining at magnitude -0.4 on the 1st.

Venus

Rises at 4:23 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:17 a.m. by month's end. Look for Venus in the early morning skies before sunrise. On the morning of the 9th, Venus and Saturn reach their closest conjunction on 10 years. Venus moves from the constellation of Scorpius into Sagittarius shining at magnitude -4.0.

Earth

Is at perihelion (91.4 million miles from the Sun) at 6:00 p.m. EST on the 2nd.

Mars

Rises at 1:36 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:56 a.m. by month's end. Mars is visible to the east in the morning before dawn. Mars moves from the constellation of Virgo into Libra this month shining at magnitude 1.1.

Jupiter

Rises at 10:36 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:29 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. On the morning of the 11th at 4:00 a.m. EST, watch the transit of three Jovian moons, Europa, Callisto and Io. Jupiter is in the constellation of Leo shining at magnitude -2.3.

Saturn

Rises at 5:06 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:18 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 12:43 a.m. on the 1st and about 10:40 p.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the evening sky. Look to the southwest soon after sunset to spot Uranus. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.8.

Neptune

Sets at 9:24 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:27 p.m. by month's end. Neptune can be spotted to the southwest once the skies darken, though observers will need binoculars or a telescope to see it. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres

Sets at 7:39 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:38 p.m. by month's end. Ceres will be difficult to spot for those living in the more northerly latitudes due to its lower altitude just above the south-western horizon. Ceres moves from the constellation of Capricornus into Aquarius shining at magnitude 9.3.

Pluto

Is in inferior conjunction with the Sun on the 5th and will not be visible this month. Pluto will return to the morning sky later in the month but will still be lost in the pre-dawn twilight glow to be spotted.

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.

    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 55.25 MHz SSB and see if you can hear any pings.

  • Comets

  • Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) passes within 0.5° of Arcturus in the pre-dawn hours on the 1st. Shining around 5th magnitude, Comet Catalina continues to advance through the morning sky at about 2° per day, passing into Ursa Major towards the end of January. could reach magnitude 4 in early December in the pre-dawn sky passing through the constellation of Virgo approaching the bright star Arcturus by the end of the 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, Venus, Saturn and Mercury before sunrise.
  • Try to spot Neptune and Uranus later in the evening.
  • Enjoy the Quadrantids meteor shower peaking early in the month.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Cetus.
    • Eunomia is in the constellation of Pegasus.
    • Euterpe is in the constellation of Orion.
    • Astraea is in the constellation of Leo.

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

    On the evening of the 19th at about 9:30 p.m. EST (2:30 a.m. UTC Jan 20), the Moon occults Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus the Bull. This event can be seen by most North American viewers.

    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 - December 21, 2015
    Cassini Completes Final Close Enceladus Flyby

    Full-Res: PIA17210

    "NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun transmitting data and images from the mission's final close flyby of Saturn's active moon Enceladus. Cassini passed Enceladus at a distance of 3,106 miles (4,999 kilometers) on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 9:49 a.m. PST (12:49 p.m. EST).

    "This final Enceladus flyby elicits feelings of both sadness and triumph," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. "While we're sad to have the close flybys behind us, we've placed the capstone on an incredible decade of investigating one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system."

    Cassini will continue to monitor activity on Enceladus from a distance, through the end of its mission in Sept. 2017. Future encounters will be much farther away -- at closest, more than four times farther than this latest encounter.

    This was the 22nd Enceladus encounter of Cassini's mission. The spacecraft's discovery of geologic activity there, not long after arriving at Saturn, prompted changes to the mission's flight plan to maximize the number and quality of flybys of the icy moon."

    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 10, 2015
    Pluto's Close-up, Now in Color

    Full Image

    "This enhanced color mosaic combines some of the sharpest views of Pluto that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft obtained during its July 14 flyby. The pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel - revealing features smaller than half a city block on Pluto's surface. Lower resolution color data (at about 2,066 feet, or 630 meters, per pixel) were added to create this new image.

    The images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide, trending (top to bottom) from the edge of "badlands" northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Pluto's "heart" feature, and just into its icy plains. They combine pictures from the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) taken approximately 15 minutes before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto, with - from a range of only 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers) - with color data (in near-infrared, red and blue) gathered by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) 25 minutes before the LORRI pictures."


    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 - December 22, 2015
    Lowdown on Ceres: Images From Dawn's Closest Orbit

    "NASA's Dawn spacecraft, cruising in its lowest and final orbit at dwarf planet Ceres, has delivered the first images from its best-ever viewpoint. The new images showcase details of the cratered and fractured surface. 3-D versions of two of these views are also available.

    Dawn took these images of the southern hemisphere of Ceres on Dec. 10, at an approximate altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), which is its lowest-ever orbital altitude. Dawn will remain at this altitude for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward. The resolution of the new images is about 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel."

    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 - December 17, 2015

    Rocks Rich in Silica Present Puzzles for Mars Rover Team
    Full image

    "In detective stories, as the plot thickens, an unexpected clue often delivers more questions than answers. In this case, the scene is a mountain on Mars. The clue: the chemical compound silica. Lots of silica. The sleuths: a savvy band of Earthbound researchers whose agent on Mars is NASA's laser-flashing, one-armed mobile laboratory, Curiosity.

    NASA's Curiosity rover has found much higher concentrations of silica at some sites it has investigated in the past seven months than anywhere else it has visited since landing on Mars 40 months ago. Silica makes up nine-tenths of the composition of some of the rocks. It is a rock-forming chemical combining the elements silicon and oxygen, commonly seen on Earth as quartz, but also in many other minerals."

    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 15, 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: Rover On Steeper Slopes - sols 4222-4228, December 9, 2015-December 15, 2015: :

    "Opportunity is inside "Marathon Valley" on the west rim of Endeavour Crater.

    The rover is positioned on steep slopes for improved solar array energy production. The near-term object is to position the rover to be able to grind a high-value surface target with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT). This target may hold some of the clues as to the origin of the clay spectral signature detected in Marathon Valley.

    On Sol 4222 (Dec. 9, 2015), Opportunity bumped back about 12 feet (3.65 meters) to set up for an approach to this target on a very steep slope. On the next sol, the rover bumped forward about 28 inches (70 centimeters), but because of the steep slopes the drive stopped as wheel currents exceeded protective set points for this steep terrain. A second attempt was made on the next sol to approach this same target. Again the steep terrain caused the drive to stop after only 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) of wheel motion. Slips as high as 50 percent (not uncommon for this steep terrain) were seen on the last drive step.

    The rover used the next sol to perform a robotic arm salute to allow unobstructed imagery in front of the rover. Then on Sol 4227 (Dec. 14, 2015), Opportunity backed down slope about 10 feet (3 meters), collecting both pre-drive and post-drive imagery. On the next sol, the rover drove about 14 feet (4.4 meters) to approach the target from a more lateral direction. An approach bump is planned for the next sol.

    As of Sol 4221 (Dec. 8, 2015), the solar array energy production was 407 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.438 and an improved solar array dust factor of 0.660.

    Total odometry is 26.50 miles (42.65 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 - September 2, 2015
    What Happened to Early Mars' Atmosphere? New Study Eliminates One Theory

    Rocks Here Sequester Some of Mars' Early Atmosphere
    This view combines information from two instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to map color-coded composition over the shape of the ground in a small portion of the Nili Fossae plains region of Mars' northern hemisphere.
    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/Univ. of Arizona

    "Scientists may be closer to solving the mystery of how Mars changed from a world with surface water billions of years ago to the arid Red Planet of today.

    A new analysis of the largest known deposit of carbonate minerals on Mars suggests that the original Martian atmosphere may have already lost most of its carbon dioxide by the era of valley network formation.

    "The biggest carbonate deposit on Mars has, at most, twice as much carbon in it as the current Mars atmosphere," said Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena. "Even if you combined all known carbon reservoirs together, it is still nowhere near enough to sequester the thick atmosphere that has been proposed for the time when there were rivers flowing on the Martian surface."

    Carbon dioxide makes up most of the Martian atmosphere. That gas can be pulled out of the air and sequestered or pulled into the ground by chemical reactions with rocks to form carbonate minerals. Years before the series of successful Mars missions, many scientists expected to find large Martian deposits of carbonates holding much of the carbon from the planet's original atmosphere. Instead, these missions have found low concentrations of carbonate distributed widely, and only a few concentrated deposits. By far the largest known carbonate-rich deposit on Mars covers an area at least the size of Delaware, and maybe as large as Arizona, in a region called Nili Fossae."

    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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