Astronomy News for the Month of March 2013

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An Open Invitation

For amateur radio and scanner enthusiasts, when in the Denver metro area, please join the Colorado Astronomy Net on the Rocky Mountain Radio League 146.94 MHz repeater on Tuesday nights at 7PM local time.

Special Notice to Denver, CO area residents and visitors to the area:

The Plains Conservation Center in Aurora hosts Full Moon Walks every month weather permitting on or near the night of the full Moon. Visit The Plains Conservation Center for more information and directions.

 Excerpts from JPL mission updates are provided as a public service as part
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For special JPL programs and presentations in your area visit the JPL Solar System Ambassador website.
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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 are also included in the reports.

(All times are local unless otherwise noted.)

Planetary Highlights for March - Jupiter and Saturn are the dominant planets this month. The other visible planets are either disappearing from view or too dim to see without binoculars or telescopes. Observers will need binoculars or a small telescope to spot Uranus low in the west soon after sunset. Venus, Mars and Mercury have disappeared. Ceres, though well placed for evening viewing will need dark skies and a large telescope. However, the real highlight for March is the appearance of Comet C/2011/L4 PANSTARRS. Look for Comet PANSTARRS after the 12th low in the west after sunset.
Mercury - Is in inferior conjunction with the Sun on the 4th. Mercury is stationary on the 16th. Mercury is not visible at the beginning of the month but returns to the morning sky mid month. Mercury is at greatest western elongation (28° above the eastern horizon) on the 31st. Mercury rises at 6:18 a.m. on the 15th and about 4:47 a.m. by month's end. Look for Mercury low on the eastern horizon during the last half of the month when it will be well out of the twilight glow. Mercury moves from the constellation of Pisces into Aquarius shining at magnitude 0.2 on the 31st.
Venus - Is lost in the twilight glow during the first part of the month, then disappears behind the Sun when it reaches superior conjunction with the Sun on the 28th. Venus will return to the evening sky sometime in May. Venus moves from the constellation of Aquarius into Pisces this month.
Earth - Reaches the Vernal equinox on the 20th at 7:02 a.m. EDT.
Mars - Is lost in the evening twilight glow this month and is nearly impossible to spot. Mars moves from the constellation of Aquarius into Pisces this month.
Jupiter - Dominates the evening sky all month. Jupiter sets at 1:05 a.m. on the 1st and about 11:20 p.m. by month's end. Jupiter is nearly vertical by the time the Sun sets. Jupiter is in the constellation of Taurus shining at magnitude -2.2.
Saturn - Has returned to the evening sky this month. Saturn rises at 10:39 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:30 p.m. by month's end. Look to the east to spot Saturn in the late evening. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra shining at magnitude 0.3.
Uranus - Sets at 7:56 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:03 p.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the southwest soon after the Sun sets with binoculars or a small telescope during the first week of the month. After that, Uranus joins Mars on the 22nd but is also lost in the Sun's glare. Uranus reaches conjunction with the Sun on the 28th. Uranus moves from the constellation of Cetus into Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.
Neptune - Has returned to the morning sky this month rising at 6:17 a.m. on the first and about 4:18 a.m. by month's end. Neptune is lost in the morning twilight glow until the latter half of the month. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 8.0.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres - Ceres sets at 2:23 a.m. on the 1st and about 2:08 a.m. by month's end. Look for Ceres high overhead and to the west in the evening after the Sun sets trailing Jupiter by a couple of hours. Ceres moves through the constellation of Taurus into Auriga shining at magnitude 8.4.
Pluto - Is visible in the morning sky this month. Pluto rises at 3:14 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:14 a.m. by month's end. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.1.

As always, good luck at spotting these two, a large telescope and dark skies will be needed.

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Astronomical Events

Meteor Showers

  • There are some minor meteor showers but none that produce rates much higher than 2-5 per hour, except the Gamma Normids that extend over the period of March 11 to 21, with the maximum occurring on March 16. The maximum rate reaches about 5-9 meteors per hour.

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

  • Comets

  • Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS will round the Sun reaching perihelion on the 9th, then becoming visible to northern observers after the 12th when it will be out of the Sun's glare. Look for Comet PANSTARRS about a half hour after sunset. Hopefully, Comet PANSTARRS will glow around 1st or 2nd magnitude, dimming to about 4th magnitude by the end of the month.

    Comet PANSTARRS set to shine after sunset in March

  • 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.

  • Eclipses

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Jupiter dominates the evening sky all month.
  • Saturn is prominent in the late evening and early morning sky before sunrise.
  • Comet PANSTARRS will be visible in the western sky after the 12th.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Taurus.
    • Metis is in the constellation of Gemini.
    • Amphitrite is at opposition on the 12th in the constellation of Virgo.
    • Eunomia is at opposition on the 16th in the constellation of Crater.
    • Irene is at opposition on the 19th in the constellation of Virgo.

    • 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 31, 2013
    Northern Storm in Full Force

    Full-Res: PIA16720

    "This mosaic of images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the trail of a great northern storm on Saturn raging in full force. The contrast in the images has been enhanced to make the turbulent parts of the storm (in white) stand out without losing the details of the surrounding regions.

    The head of the storm is the set of bright clouds near the left of the image. A clockwise-spinning vortex spawned by the storm shortly after it erupted in early December 2010 can be seen in the middle. The head of the storm moved very swiftly westward, while the vortex drifted more slowly westward.

    Cassini's imaging camera obtained the images that went into this mosaic on March 6, 2011. The image is centered at about 0 degrees longitude and 35 degrees latitude.

    A version of this image with a latitude and longitude grid is also available.

    In this image, scientists assigned red, green and blue channels to those visible-light colors. However, this view is not what a human eye would see at Saturn -- in enhancing the contrast, the natural color balance was not preserved. To human eyes, storm would have appeared more like a bright feature against a yellow background with less color variation, as is seen in PIA16724. In this color scheme, the brightness generally corresponds to the altitude of the cloud features. Bright white indicates highest cloud tops in the troposphere, and dark places indicate holes in the cloud layer. The subtle colors that become apparent in this enhanced-contrast view are probably produced by variation in the composition of clouds. However, the coloring agents responsible for producing these subtle hues remain unidentified."

    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 - February 28, 2013
    Pluto Moons: The Votes Are In

    "The public has spoken, choosing candidate names for Pluto's newest and smallest moons. "Vulcan" and "Cerberus" topped the list after more than 450,000 total votes were cast.Read More."

    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 03, 2013
    Picture This: Vesta's Dark Materials in Dawn's View
    Full image and caption

    "A new study of images from NASA's Dawn mission examines remarkable, dark-as-coal material that speckles the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. Scientists are using the images, taken by Dawn's framing camera, to understand the impact environment early in Vesta's evolution. In the most comprehensive analysis of the dark material to date, Dawn scientists describe how this carbon-rich material tends to appear around the edges of two giant impact basins in Vesta's southern hemisphere. The analysis suggests that the dark material was most likely delivered by the object that created the older of the two basins, known as Veneneia, about 2 to 3 billion years ago. Some of those materials were later covered up by the impact that created the younger basin, Rheasilvia."

    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 04, 2013
    MESSENGER's Discoveries Tapped as among Top Space Stories of 2012

    "In 2012, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury completed its primary mission, embarked on an extended mission, saw its images and maps featured on a highly rated television show, sponsored the release of a dedicated app, and celebrated the 8th anniversary of its launch, all the while continuing to produce new findings about the planet closest to the Sun.

    These accomplishments captured the attention of many media outlets, several of which designated MESSENGER's endeavors as a "top story" of 2012.

    "In late November, scientists discovered water on a planet beginning with the letter M -- just not the one we were expecting," wrote Eric Olson of Scientific American, which listed MESSENGER as one of the top 5 space stories of 2012. "As the data keeps pouring in we can probably expect more news on Mercury in 2013," he predicted.

    MESSENGER's confirmation of ice at Mercury's poles also prompted editors at The Huffington Post to include the mission in its Year in Science: Inspiring Discoveries & Important Events.

    The International Business Times -- referring to the spacecraft as "plucky" -- deemed MESSENGER's confirmation of ice on Mercury one of the biggest space stories of 2012.NASA offered a yearlong review of MESSENGER's accomplishments, declaring that it "offered one of the most exciting missions of the 2012 year."

    "We learned a great deal about Mercury over the past year," adds MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "The team published three dozen scientific and technical papers and delivered more than 150 presentations at national and international meetings. New measurements continue to stream back from our spacecraft, and we can look forward with excitement to many additional discoveries in 2013."

    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


    JMARS is an acronym that stands for Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing. It is a geospatial information system (GIS) developed by ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility to provide mission planning and data-analysis tools to NASA's orbiters, instrument team members, students of all ages, and the general public.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - February 25, 2013
    Lab Instruments Inside Curiosity Eat Mars Rock Powder

    "PASADENA, Calif. - Two compact laboratories inside NASA's Mars rover Curiosity have ingested portions of the first sample of rock powder ever collected from the interior of a rock on Mars.

    Curiosity science team members will use the laboratories to analyze the rock powder in the coming days and weeks.

    The rover's Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments received portions of the sample on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22 and 23, respectively, and began inspecting the powder.

    "Data from the instruments have confirmed the deliveries," said Curiosity Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

    The powder comes from Curiosity drilling into rock target "John Klein" on Feb. 8. One or more additional portions from the same initial sample may be delivered to the instruments as analysis proceeds.

    During a two-year prime mission, researchers are using Curiosity's 10 science instruments to assess whether the study area in Gale Crater on Mars ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life."

    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) - February 20, 2013

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

    "No communication has been received from Spirit since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010).

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

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

    OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Opportunity At Work At 'Whitewater Lake' - sols 3220-3227, Feb. 13, 2013-Feb. 20, 2013 :

    "Opportunity is conducting the post-walkabout in-situ (contact) science campaign at different locations around the inboard edge of 'Cape York' on the rim of Endeavour Crater.

    On Sol 3221 (Feb. 14, 2013), it was planned to have the rover perform a very small turn to position the robotic arm for an acceptable surface target, but a Deep Space Network issue prevented the command sequences from reaching the rover. With imagery subsequently returned from Opportunity, an acceptable target was found within reach of the arm, negating the need for a turn.

    On Sol 3224 (Feb. 17, 2013), Opportunity used the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to brush the surface target 'Maley,' which was then followed by a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic and a placement of the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) for an overnight integration. With work complete at this location, on Sol 3227 (Feb. 20, 2013), the rover drove approximately 120 feet (36.5 meters) to the southeast towards the rock target 'Big Nickel' to begin an in-situ investigation there. No 'amnesia' events with the Flash file system have occurred since Sol 3183 (Jan. 6, 2013), and the rover is otherwise in good health.

    As of Sol 3226 (Feb. 19, 2013), the solar array energy production was 521 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.829 and an estimated solar array dust factor of 0.618.

    Total odometry is 22.11 miles (35576.09 meters)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - January 24, 2013
    Orbiter Spies Where Rover's Cruise Stage Hit Mars
    Full image and caption

    "PASADENA, Calif. -- Researchers using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter see seasonal changes on far-northern Martian sand dunes caused by warming of a winter blanket of frozen carbon dioxide.

    Earth has no naturally frozen carbon dioxide, though pieces of manufactured carbon-dioxide ice, called "dry ice," sublime directly from solid to gas on Earth, just as the vast blankets of dry ice do on Mars. A driving factor in the springtime changes where seasonal coverings of dry ice form on Mars is that thawing occurs at the underside of the ice sheet, where it is in contact with dark ground being warmed by early-spring sunshine through translucent ice. The trapped gas builds up pressure and breaks out in various ways.

    Transient grooves form on dunes when gas trapped under the ice blanket finds an escape point and whooshes out, carrying out sand with it. The expelled sand forms dark fans or streaks on top of the ice layer at first, but this evidence disappears with the seasonal ice, and summer winds erase most of the grooves in the dunes before the next winter. The grooves are smaller features than the gullies that earlier research linked to carbon-dioxide sublimation on steeper dune slopes.

    Similar activity has been documented and explained previously where seasonal sheets of frozen carbon dioxide form and thaw near Mars' south pole. Details of the different northern seasonal changes are newly reported in a set of three papers for the journal Icarus. A video showing some of the changes is online at .

    The findings reinforce growing appreciation that Mars today, however different from its former self, is still a dynamic world, and however similar to Earth in some respects, displays some quite unearthly processes."

    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - February 21, 2013
    NASA Student Mars Project Wins Education Award

    "PASADENA, Calif. - A NASA project that allows students to use a camera on a spacecraft orbiting Mars for research has received a new education prize from the journal Science.

    NASA's Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP), a component of NASA's Science Mission Directorate education and outreach activities, enables students from fifth grade through college to take an image of the Red Planet's surface with a camera aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey. Students study the image to answer their research questions. After the image comes back to Earth, the students are some of the first people to see the picture and make their own discoveries.

    Established in 2012, the journal's Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction encourages innovation and excellence in education by recognizing outstanding, inquiry-based science and design-based engineering education modules. A panel of scientists and teachers selected MSIP as one of 12 education projects from fields such as biology, chemistry, physics and Earth sciences.

    Designed to fit within existing science curricula, MSIP targets required science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) objectives and standards for easy integration into classrooms. Authentic research is at the core of the award-winning project.

    "At a time when the U.S. critically needs to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, such student-led discoveries speak to the power of engaging students in authentic research in their classrooms today," said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Not only is the chance to explore Mars motivating, it shows students they are fully capable of entering challenging and exciting STEM fields."

    Since MSIP began in 2002, more than 35,000 students across America have participated from public, private, urban, suburban and rural schools of all sizes, grade levels and student abilities. In 2010, a seventh-grade MSIP class in rural California discovered a previously unknown cave on Mars. A student presented their results at a major planetary science conference.

    "The Mars Student Imaging Project is a perfect example of how NASA can use its missions and programs to inspire the next generation of explorers," said Leland Melvin, NASA associate administrator for education in Washington. "If we want our students to become tomorrow's scientists and engineers, we need to give them opportunities to do real-world -- or in this case, out-of-this-world -- scientific research, using all of the tools of 21st century learning."

    MISP is a key component of NASA's Mars Public Engagement Program. The Mars Education Program at Arizona State University in Tempe, under the direction of Sheri Klug Boonstra, leads MSIP. Philip Christensen, principal investigator for the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) visible and infrared camera aboard Odyssey, is MSIP's mentor.

    Orbiting Mars since 2001, Odyssey has operated longer than any spacecraft ever sent to Mars. The mission's longevity enables continued science from instruments on the orbiter, including the monitoring of seasonal changes on Mars from year to year. Odyssey also functions as a communication-relay service for NASA's Mars rovers."

    Global Martian Map

    "A simulated fly-through using the newly assembled imagery is available online.

    The fly-through plus tools for wandering across and zooming into the large image are at THEMIS."

    Daily Mars Odyssey THEMIS Images
    Can be found at the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) website.

    The Odyssey data are available through a new online access system established by the Planetary Data System.

    Visit the Mars Odyssey Mission page.

    Mars Missions Status

    New Mars missions are being planned to include several new rover and sample collection missions. Check out the Mars Missions web page and the Mars Exploration page.

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    Links and Other Space News

    (If you have a link you would like to recommend to our readers, please feel free to submit it.)

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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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    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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