Astronomy News for the Month of March 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.


Intricate detail of Jupiter's dynamic atmosphere shows through telescopes of all sizes, especially in the weeks around its early March opposition.
NASA/ESA/A. Simon (GSFC)


The Month At-A-Glance
A calendar displaying the daily astronomical events.


18 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 March

Most of our solar system's planets and dwarf planets are now visible in the predawn skies. If you are up before dawn this month, begin your early morning observations with Jupiter setting in the west. Continue to scan the skies eastward to find Mars, Saturn, Pluto, Venus, Mercury and Neptune. However, Mercury is only visible during the first two weeks of the month and Neptune may still be lost in the early morning twilight glow to be spotted easily. Uranus is visible in the early evening just above the western horizon after the Sun sets. Ceres is lost in the Sun's glow all month. There is a total solar eclipse over parts of Indonesia and the Pacific Ocean on the 9th. Observers in Hawaii will see a partial solar eclipse in the late afternoon on the 8th.

Mercury

Is in superior conjunction on the 23rd. Mercury rises at 5:58 a.m. on the 1st. Mercury sets about 7:12 p.m. by month's end. Look for Mercury low above the eastern horizon before sunrise during the first two weeks of the month and in the evening to the west by the end of the month. Mercury moves from the constellation of Capricornus into Pisces shining at magnitude -0.3 on the 1st and -1.6 on the 31st.

Venus

Rises at 5:31 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:10 a.m. by month's end. Look for Venus in the early morning skies before sunrise. Venus moves from the constellation of Capricornus into Pisces shining at magnitude -3.8.

Earth

The Vernal Equinox occurs on the 20th at 12:30 a.m. EDT.

Mars

Rises at 12:08 a.m. on the 1st and about 10:49 p.m. by month's end. Mars is visible to the east in the early morning before dawn. Mars moves from the constellation of Libra into Scorpius this month shining at magnitude -0.1.

Jupiter

Is at opposition on the 8th, rising as the Sun sets. Jupiter is at its peak shining its brightest and appearing its largest for 2016. Jupiter rises at 6:20 p.m. on the 1st and about 3:59 p.m. by month's end. Jupiter is visible all night long. Jupiter is in the constellation of Leo shining at magnitude -2.5.

Saturn

Rises at 1:32 a.m. on the 1st and about 11:28 p.m. by month's end. Saturn is stationary on the 25th. Look to the east before in the early morning to spot Saturn. Saturn is in the constellation of Ophiuchus shining at magnitude 0.4.

Uranus

Sets at 8:04 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:06 p.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the early evening sky for the first two weeks of the month. After mid-month, Uranus becomes lost in evening twilight glow. Look west soon after sunset to spot Uranus just above the horizon. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.

Neptune

Rises at 6:33 a.m. on the 1st and about 4:33 a.m. by month's end. Neptune may be too low to easily spot during the first half of the month, but as the month progresses, Neptune will brighten at it rises earlier each day. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 8.0.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres

Is in conjunction with the Sun on the 3rd. Ceres returns to the morning sky after conjunction but will remain lost in the morning glow all month. Ceres is in the constellation of Aquarius.

Pluto

Rises at 3:43 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:43 a.m. by month's end. Look to the east to spot Pluto before sunrise. 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.

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

  • Comets

  • Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) passes through the Camelopardalis to Perseus this month. Most observers in the northern hemisphere should be able to spot this comet glowing around 8th magnitude almost all night long. Use binoculars or a small telescope to spot Comet Catalina this month.

  • Comet Ikeya-Murikami (P/2010 V1) also shining around 8th magnitude passes through the constellation of Leo.

  • 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

  • A total solar eclipse occurs over parts of Indonesia and the Pacific Ocean on the 9th. Observers in Hawaii will see a partial solar eclipse in the late afternoon on the 8th.

    Lunar Eclipses

  • A penumbral eclipse occurs on the evening of the 23rd. The Full Moon may appear slightly dimmer than usual during this type of eclipse.
  • Observational Opportunities

  • Jupiter is at its best for the year this month.
  • Look for Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Pluto, Venus, Neptune and Mercury before sunrise, although Neptune and Pluto are not visible with the naked eye.
  • Try to spot Uranus early evening during the first two weeks of the month.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Vesta is in the constellation of Cetus.
    • Astraea is in the constellation of Leo.
    • Hygiea is at opposition on the 15th in the constellation of Virgo.

    • 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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    Subscriber Gallery

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    Member Meteor Sightings

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

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

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    Planetary/Lunar Exploration Missions

    (Excerpts from recent JPL mission updates)
    Cassini - February 22, 2016
    Three Times the Fun

    Full-Res: PIA18357

    "Three of Saturn's moons -- Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas -- are captured in this group photo from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

    Tethys (660 miles or 1062 kilometers across) appears above the rings, while Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) sits just below center. Mimas (246 miles or 396 kilometers across) hangs below and to the left of Enceladus.

    This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 0.4 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 3, 2015.

    The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 837,000 miles (1.35 million kilometers) from Enceladus, with an image scale of 5 miles (8 kilometers) per pixel. Tethys was approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) away with an image scale of 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel. Mimas was approximately 1.1 million miles (1.7 million kilometers) away with an image scale of 6 miles (10 kilometers) 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 - February 18, 2016
    Pluto's "Hulk-like" Moon Charon: A Possible Ancient Ocean?

    Full Image

    "Images from NASA's New Horizons mission suggest that Pluto's largest moon, Charon, once had a subsurface ocean that has long since frozen and expanded, pushing out on the moon's surface and causing it to stretch and fracture on a massive scale.

    The side of Charon viewed by the passing New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015 is characterized by a system of "pull apart" tectonic faults, which are expressed as ridges, scarps and valleys, the latter sometimes reaching more than 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) deep. Charon's tectonic landscape shows that, somehow, the moon expanded in its past, and - like Bruce Banner tearing his shirt as he becomes the Incredible Hulk - Charon's surface fractured as it stretched.

    Charon's outer layer is primarily water ice. When the moon was young this layer was warmed by the decay of radioactive elements, as well as Charon's own internal heat of formation. Scientists say Charon could have been warm enough to cause the water ice to melt deep down, creating a subsurface ocean. But as Charon cooled over time, this ocean would have frozen and expanded (as happens when water freezes), pushing the surface outward and producing the massive chasms we see today."


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

    What is Pluto?

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

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

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

    LORRI Looks Back

    New Horizons gallery

    Find New Horizons in the iTunes App Store here.

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

    Dawn - January 29, 2016
    New Animation Takes a Colorful Flight Over Ceres

    Video Link

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

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

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

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

    Take a tour of weird Ceres!

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

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

    Ceres Topographic Globe Animation

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

    Dawn's Virtual Flight over Vesta

    Ceres Fly By

    A gallery of images can be found online.

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

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

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

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

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

    The MESSENGER app is available for download from iTunes.

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

    Pack Your Backpack

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

    Past, Present, Future and Proposed JPL Missions - http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions

    Visit JPL's mission pages for current status.

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    Mars Missions

    Be A Martian

    Mars website mobile version is here!

    Mars on the Go! NASA Be A Martian Mobile App
    If you want the latest news as it happens, try our Be A Martian app.
    Download on Mobile Devices
    Android | iPhone | Windows Phone
    JMARS

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

    Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

    "The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) began in 1948, a decade before NASA. We are the world's only research institute to have sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto. LASP is an affiliate of CU-Boulder AeroSpace Ventures, a collaboration among aerospace-related departments, institutes, centers, government labs, and industry partners."

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

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

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

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - February 12, 2016

    Celebrating Women in Science
    Full image

    "In honor of the first-ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science -- designated by the United Nations to take place each February 11 -- more than 150 women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory posed for a photo in mission control.

    To read some of their stories as well as those of JPL interns and fellows "daring mighty things," visit:

    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 09, 2016

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

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

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

    OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Taking Panoramic Views and Prepping for Science - sols 4276-4282, February 03, 2016-February 09, 2016: :

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

    For the past week, Opportunity has been collecting extensive Pancam panoramas of the location all around Knudsen Ridge. One important purpose is to collect detailed imagery of the surface targets that the rover will approach next for detailed in-situ (contact) investigation.

    As of Sol 4282 (Feb. 9, 2016), the solar array energy production was 493 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.443 and a solar array dust factor of 0.675.

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

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

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

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

    Simulated Flyover of Mars Canyon Map

    This animation simulates a flyover of a portion of a Martian canyon detailed in a geological map produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and based on observations by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The landforms include a series of hills called Candor Colles.

    MARS RECONNAISSANCE ORBITER HIRISE IMAGES
    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - February 01, 2016
    Happy Valentine's Day!

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

    Send a Mars Card to your favorite Earthling!

    Send a Mars Card!"

    See the Mars As Art Gallery

    Dulles Airport Full News Release

    Global Martian Map

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

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

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

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

    Visit the Mars Odyssey Mission page.

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

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

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

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

    Learn more about the InSight Mission.

    Mars Missions Status

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

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    Astronomy Links and Other Space News

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

    Green Laser

    Colorado Astronomy Links

    Radio Astronomy Links

    Other Astronomy Links

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    Astronomical Lexicon

    Definitions of astronomical terms. Many of the astronomical terms used in this newsletter are defined here.

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    UT Logo

    Read the Universe Today Newsletter by clicking on the logo.

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    Acknowledgments and References

    Much of the information in this newsletter is from Astronomy® Magazine (Kalmbach Publishing), JPL mission status reports, the Internet, "Meteor Showers - A descriptive Catalog" by Gary W. Kronk, Sky & Telescope web pages, and other astronomical sources that I have stashed on my bookshelves.

    The author will accept any suggestions, constructive criticisms, and corrections. Please feel free to send me any new links or articles to share as well. I will try to accommodate any reasonable requests. Please feel free to send questions, comments, criticisms, or donations to the email address listed below. Enjoy!

    More Acknowledgements and References

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