Astronomy News for the Month of March 2015


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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.


21

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 March

Spring returns to the northern hemisphere this month. Looking to the west, start your evening by observing brilliant Venus and ruddy Mars. Swing around to the east and spot our largest planet, Jupiter. After midnight, Saturn is visible before sunrise for early morning observers. Catch Mercury early in the month just before sunrise. 10th magnitude Comet Lovejoy passes through Cassiopeia this month. Icelanders will be treated to a solar eclipse on the 20th.

Mercury

Mercury rises at 5:28 a.m. on the 1st and about 6:34 a.m. by month's end. Look for Mercury low to the southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise during the first couple of weeks in March. Mercury moves from the constellation of Capricornus into Pisces shining at magnitude 0.0 on the 1st.

Venus

Sets at 8:20 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:17 p.m. by month's end. Look for Venus low near the western horizon soon after sunset. Venus moves from the constellation Pisces into Aries shining at magnitude -3.9.

Earth

Daylight Savings Time begins at 2:00 a.m. on the 8th for most of North America. The Vernal equinox occurs on the 20th at 6:45 p.m. EDT.

Mars

Sets at 8:03 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:58 p.m. by month's end. Mars can be spotted just below Venus this month rapidly approaching the western horizon. Mars moves from the constellation of Cetus into Aries this month shining at magnitude 1.3.

Jupiter

Sets at 5:37 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:29 a.m. by month's end. Jupiter is visible almost all night long. Look for Jupiter in the east soon after sunset. Jupiter is in the constellation of Cancer shining at magnitude -2.4.

Saturn

Is stationary on the 14th. Saturn rises at 12:41 a.m. on the 1st and about 11:34 p.m. by month's end. Saturn is best viewed after midnight this month. Saturn is in the constellation of Scorpius shining at magnitude 0.4.

Uranus

Sets at 8:36 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:42 p.m. by month's end. The best time to observe Uranus this month will be on the evening of the 4th, look for Uranus less than a full moon's width below Venus. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.

Neptune

Has returned to the morning sky this month but remains too low to spot easily. Neptune rises at 6:30 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:31 a.m. by month's end. Look for Neptune very low to the east in the morning sky. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 8.0.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres

Rises at 4:14 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:53 a.m. by month's end. Ceres will be difficult to spot to the southeast before sunrise. Ceres moves from the constellation of Sagittarius into Capricornus shining at magnitude 9.1.

Pluto

Rises at 3:36 a.m. on the 1st and about 2:36 a.m. by month's end. Pluto may be a little easier to spot as it continues to rise earlier in the a.m. hours. 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 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 Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is passing through the constellation of Cassiopeia this month making is visible for northern observers all night long. Shining at 10th magnitude, Comet Lovejoy will be difficult to spot unless observed from dark sky sites. Comet Lovejoy passes about 1° west of open cluster M103 on the 17th.

  • 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

  • A total solar eclipse occurs just south and east of Iceland on the 20th.

  • Observational Opportunities

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

    (From west to east)
    • Juno is in the constellation of Cancer.
    • Iris is at opposition on the 6th in the constellation of Leo.
    • Eleanora is at opposition on the 5th in the constellation of Leo.
    • Nysa is at opposition on the 22nd in the constellation of Virgo.
    • Massalia is in the constellation of Virgo.
    • Herculina is in the constellation of Ophiuchus.
    • 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 - February 12, 2015
    A New Way to View Titan: 'Despeckle' It

    Full image and caption

    -- Radar images of Titan have always had a grainy appearance due to electronic noise.

    -- A new tool suppresses the noise, resulting in clearer views than ever before.

    "During 10 years of discovery, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has pulled back the smoggy veil that obscures the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Cassini's radar instrument has mapped almost half of the giant moon's surface; revealed vast, desert-like expanses of sand dunes; and plumbed the depths of expansive hydrocarbon seas. What could make that scientific bounty even more amazing? Well, what if the radar images could look even better?

    Thanks to a recently developed technique for handling noise in Cassini's radar images, these views now have a whole new look. The technique, referred to by its developers as "despeckling," produces images of Titan's surface that are much clearer and easier to look at than the views to which scientists and the public have grown accustomed."

    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 18, 2015
    85 Years after Pluto's Discovery, New Horizons Spots Small Moons Orbiting Pluto

    Full article with images

    "Exactly 85 years after Clyde Tombaugh's historic discovery of Pluto, the NASA spacecraft set to encounter the icy planet this summer is providing its first views of the small moons orbiting Pluto.

    The moons Nix and Hydra are visible in a series of images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft from Jan. 27-Feb. 8, at distances ranging from about 125 million to 115 million miles (201 million to 186 million kilometers). The long-exposure images offer New Horizons' best view yet of these two small moons circling Pluto, which Tombaugh discovered at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Feb. 18, 1930.

    "Professor Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto was far ahead its time, heralding the discovery of the Kuiper Belt and a new class of planet," says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "The New Horizons team salutes his historic accomplishment."

    Assembled into a seven-frame movie, the new images provide the spacecraft's first extended look at Hydra (identified by a yellow diamond) and its first-ever view of Nix (orange diamond). The right-hand image set has been specially processed to make the small moons easier to see. environment of the space near Pluto's orbit. Next week, on Jan. 25, the sensitive LORRI long focal length camera aboard New Horizons will begin imaging the Pluto system for navigation purposes. This will yield dozens of images that our navigation teams will analyze for positional information about Pluto and Charon against star fields, allowing us to home in more accurately than by radio navigation from Earth alone."

    What is Pluto?

    On Video: How Do We Get to Pluto? Practice, Practice, Practice

    Part I: The Encounter Begins
        - Small mp4 (38 MB, 640x360)
        - Large mp4 (116 MB, 1280x720)

    Part II: Passing Pluto
        - Small mp4 (34 MB, 640x360)
        - Large mp4 (102 MB, 1280x720)"

    LORRI Looks Back

    New Horizons gallery

    Find New Horizons in the iTunes App Store here.

    For more information on the New Horizons mission - the first mission to the ninth planet - visit the New Horizons home page.

    Dawn - February 25, 2015
    'Bright Spot' on Ceres Has Dimmer Companion

    "Dwarf planet Ceres continues to puzzle scientists as NASA's Dawn spacecraft gets closer to being captured into orbit around the object. The latest images from Dawn, taken nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) from Ceres, reveal that a bright spot that stands out in previous images lies close to yet another bright area.

    "Ceres' bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin. This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations," said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    Using its ion propulsion system, Dawn will enter orbit around Ceres on March 6. As scientists receive better and better views of the dwarf planet over the next 16 months, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of its origin and evolution by studying its surface. The intriguing bright spots and other interesting features of this captivating world will come into sharper focus."

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

    Dawn's Virtual Flight over Vesta

    A gallery of images can be found online.

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

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

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

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

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

    The MESSENGER app is available for download from iTunes.

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

    Pack Your Backpack

    Calling all explorers! Tour JPL with our new Virtual Field Trip site. Stops include Mission Control and the Rover Lab. Your guided tour starts when you select a "face" that will be yours throughout the visit. Cool space images and souvenirs are all included in your visit.

    Past, Present, Future and Proposed JPL Missions - 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: February 11, 2015

    "Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics"

    "MAVEN is about to carry out its first "deep-dip" campaign. This involves lowering the lowest altitude in the orbit from about 150 km above the surface to about 125 km. We do this so that we can measure the properties of that additional 25 km of the upper atmosphere between 150 and 125 km. It doesn't seem like much, but this lets us go all the way down to the top of what we call the lower atmosphere, and it will let us make the connection then from the top of the upper atmosphere all the way down to the surface.

    We'll use three rocket-motor burns to lower the orbit, spread over three days. We do it gradually so that the spacecraft can "walk in" and we don't get taken by surprise by anything along the way. Then we'll stay in the "deep dip" orbit for five days, which covers about 20 orbits around the planet. Finally, we'll use two maneuvers to "walk" back out and get back to our regular science mapping orbit."

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - February 25, 2015

    NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Drills at 'Telegraph Peak'

    Hole at 'Telegraph Peak' Drilled by Mars Rover Curiosity

    This hole, with a diameter slightly smaller than a U.S. dime, was drilled by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover into a rock target called "Telegraph Peak." The rock is located within the basal layer of Mount Sharp. The hole was drilled on Feb. 24, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

    -- "Telegraph Peak" is third drilling site in outcrop at base of Mount Sharp

    -- Choice of drilling site motivated by chemistry measurements

    -- Mission heading through "Artist's Drive" and higher on Mount Sharp

    "NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used its drill on Tuesday, Feb. 24 to collect sample powder from inside a rock target called "Telegraph Peak." The target sits in the upper portion of "Pahrump Hills," an outcrop the mission has been investigating for five months.

    The Pahrump Hills campaign previously drilled at two other sites. The outcrop is an exposure of bedrock that forms the basal layer of Mount Sharp. Curiosity's extended mission, which began last year after a two-year prime mission, is examining layers of this mountain that are expected to hold records of how ancient wet environments on Mars evolved into drier environments.

    The rover team is planning to drive Curiosity away from Pahrump Hills in coming days, exiting through a narrow valley called "Artist's Drive," which will lead the rover along a strategically planned route higher on the basal layer of Mount Sharp.

    The Telegraph Peak site was selected after the team discussed the large set of physical and chemical measurements acquired throughout the campaign. In particular, measurements of the chemistry of the Telegraph Peak site, using the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) on the rover's arm, motivated selection of this target for drilling before the departure from Pahrump Hills."

    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 18, 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: Solar Panels Get a Small Energy Boost - sols 3928-3936, February 10, 2015-February 18, 2015: :

    "Opportunity is on the west rim of Endeavour Crater heading towards "Marathon Valley," a putative location for abundant clay minerals now only about 492 feet (150 meters) away.

    The project is preparing to mask off the troubled Bank 7 sector of the Flash file system with a new version of the flight software to be uploaded shortly. On Sols 3928 and 3929 (Feb. 10 and 11, 2015), Opportunity performed some targeted color Panoramic Camera (Pancam) observations. On Sol 3930 (Feb. 12, 2015), the rover drove about 66 feet (20 meters) to get a view into Marathon Valley. This was followed by a post-drive Navigation Camera (Navcam) panorama. Opportunity drove again on Sol 3932 (Feb. 14, 2015), bumping near a potential surface target. An atmospheric argon measurement with the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) was made. On the following two sols a 360-degree Navcam panorama was collected.

    A small dust cleaning events occurred on Sol 3934 (Feb. 16, 2015) improving energy production by about 12 percent. On Sol 3935 (Feb. 17, 2015), the robotic arm was used to collect a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic of the surface target "Jean Baptiste Charboneau" followed by an APXS placement on the same for a multi-hour integration. Opportunity drove again on Sol 3936 (Feb. 18, 2015), with a 9.8-meter drive to get a better view into the interior of Marathon Valley.

    As of Sol 3936 (Feb. 18, 2015), the solar array energy production was 559 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.816 and an improved solar array dust factor of 0.695.

    Total odometry is 26.13 miles (42.05 kilometers)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - February 09, 2014
    NASA Spacecraft Completes 40,000 Mars Orbits

    Full image and caption

    -- NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, at Mars since 2006, has now orbited the Red Planet more than 40,000 times

    -- The continuing mission studies the whole planet and has shown that Mars is diverse and dynamic

    "NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed a mission milestone of 40,000 orbits on Feb. 7, 2015, in its ninth year of returning information about the atmosphere, surface and subsurface of Mars, from equatorial to polar latitudes.

    The mission's potent science instruments and extended lifespan have revealed that Mars is a world more dynamic and diverse than was previously realized. Now in its fourth mission extension after a two-year prime mission, the orbiter is investigating seasonal and longer-term changes, including some warm-season flows that are the strongest evidence so far for liquid water on Mars today.

    The orbiter has returned 247 terabits of data, which is more than the combined total from every other mission that has ever departed Earth to visit another planet."

    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 - 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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    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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