Astronomy News for the Month of May 2014


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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.


02

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 May

May is a great month to observe the five visible planets. Start off by observing Jupiter in the evening, followed by Mars and Saturn. Saturn reaches opposition this month providing some of the best views of the ringed planet this year. Venus is prominent in the morning sky before dawn. Be sure and try to catch Mercury during the last half of May when this elusive planet appears above the western horizon soon after sunset.

Mercury

Has returned to the evening sky this month. Mercury is at greatest eastern elongation (23° above the western horizon) on the 25th. Mercury is visible, low on the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset during the last half of May. Mercury sets about 8:30 p.m. on the 1st and about 9:57 p.m. by month's end. Mercury moves from the constellation of Aries into Gemini shining at magnitude -0.6 on the 15th.

Venus

Rises at 4:22 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:50 a.m. by month's end. Venus will be easy to spot moving from the constellation Pisces into Aries shining at magnitude -4.0 on the 15th.

Earth

N/A.

Mars

Is stationary on the 21st. Mars rises at 5:11 p.m. on the 1st and about 3:05 p.m. by month's end. Mars is still at its best viewing for the year in the evening sky. Check out Mars with binoculars or a telescope. Mars is in the constellation of Virgo this month shining at magnitude -0.9.

Jupiter

Sets at 12:54 a.m. on the 1st and about 11:09 p.m. by month's end. Look for Jupiter in the evening skies this month. Jupiter is in the constellation of Gemini shining at magnitude -1.9.

Saturn

Is at opposition on the 10th rising as the Sun sets. Saturn rises at 8:26 p.m. on the 1st and about 6:13 p.m. by month's end. View Saturn through a telescope to truly appreciate the planet and its ring system. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra shining at magnitude 0.1.

Uranus

Rises at 4:56 a.m. on the 1st and about 2:58 a.m. by month's end. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.

Neptune

Rises at 3:28 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:28 a.m. by month's end. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres

Rises at 6:45 p.m. on the 1st and about 4:32 p.m. by month's end. Having reached opposition last month, Ceres is still bright enough to catch through a backyard telescope this month. Ceres is in the constellation of Virgo shining at magnitude 7.5.

Pluto

Rises at 12:27 a.m. on the 1st and about 10:20 p.m. by month's end. Pluto is in the constellation of Sagittarius shining at magnitude 14.1.

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 Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower - This shower is visible during the period of April 21 to May 12. It reaches maximum on May 5. During the period of greatest activity hourly rates usually reach 20 for observers in the northern hemisphere and 50 for observers in the southern hemisphere. This is one of only 2 meteor showers this year that the Moon will not interfere.

  • "A new shower could outduel the Eta Aquarids this year. Astronomers predict that Earth will pass through debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR before dawn May 24. The resulting shower could produce 100 meteors per hour or more. And with essentially no interference from a crescent Moon that rises around 3 a.m. local daylight time, viewing conditions will be excellent. The shower's radiant lies nearly due north near the border between Ursa Major and Camelopardalis." Astronomy Magazine, May 2014, p. 37.

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

  • Comets

  • Look for Comet PANSTARRS (C/2012 K1) passing within 2° of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) near the handle of the Big Dipper Ursa Major on the 1st. Comet PANSTARRS C/2012 K1 and the whirlpool Galaxy glow around 8th magnitude and may be visible through a 3 inch telescope under dark skies.

    Elements and Ephemeris for Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON)

  • 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

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • View Jupiter shining brilliantly in the evening skies.
  • View Mars in the evening following Jupiter.
  • Next, observe Saturn at opposition on the 10th in the evening and after midnight.
  • Catch Mercury after mid-month in the early evening.
  • Observe Venus, in the early morning sky before sunrise.
  • Try to find Uranus and Neptune in the early morning sky.
  • Try to spot some of the Eta Aquarids streaking through the evening and morning skies in early May.
  • Spot more meteors around the 24th of the month.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    • Vesta in the constellation of Virgo.
    • Metis is at opposition on the 15th in the constellation of Libra.
    • Eunomia is at opposition on the 31st in the constellation of Scorpius.

    • 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 - April 21, 2014
    God of the Gap

    Full-Res: PIA17161

    "Saturn's moon Pan, named for the Greek god of shepherds, rules over quite a different domain: the Encke gap in Saturn's rings.

    Pan (17 miles, or 28 kilometers across) keeps the Encke gap open through its gravitational influence on the ring particles nearby.

    This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 48 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 25, 2013.

    The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) from Pan and at a Sun-Pan-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 87 degrees. Image scale is 9 miles (14 kilometers) per pixel."

    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 27, 2014

    What is Pluto?

    New Horizons Reaches the Final 4 (AU)

    "New Horizons sailed past another milepost today when the NASA spacecraft moved to within four astronomical units (AU) of Pluto - which is less than four times the distance between the Earth and the sun, or about 371 million miles (598 million kilometers).

    "We're as close to the Pluto system now as Earth ever gets to Jupiter, a first for any spacecraft," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. "And hold on to your hat, it just gets more and more exciting from here."

    Since launch on January 19, 2006, New Horizons has covered nearly 2.89 billion miles (4.62 billion kilometers). It makes a temporal connection with one NASA's legendary deep-space explorers this summer when it crosses the orbit of Neptune on Aug. 25 -- exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 made its historic flight past that giant planet. When New Horizons arrives at Pluto on July 14, 2015, it will have traveled farther than any spacecraft ever has to reconnoiter its prime target."

    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 - March 28, 2014
    Dawn Wins National Air and Space Museum Trophy

    "The team in charge of NASA's Dawn mission, history's first detailed exploration of a celestial body inside the main asteroid belt, received the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's highest group honor at a dinner in Washington on March 26. Dawn, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., received the 2014 Trophy for Current Achievement, which honors outstanding achievements in the fields of aerospace science and technology.

    Having explored the giant asteroid Vesta and on its way to the dwarf planet Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft is designed to conduct an in-depth and up-close study of these two celestial bodies formed early in the history of the solar system. In 50 years of space exploration, no other spacecraft has orbited a distant solar system body, then left to travel to–and eventually orbit–another extraterrestrial body."

    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 - April 21, 2014
    MESSENGER Completes Its 3,000th Orbit of Mercury, Sets Mark for Closest Approach

    "On April 20, MESSENGER completed its 3,000th orbit of Mercury and moved closer to the planet than any spacecraft has been before, dropping to an altitude of 199 kilometers (123.7 miles) above the planet's surface.

    "We are cutting through Mercury's magnetic field in a different geometry, and that has shed new light on the energetic electron population," said MESSENGER Project Scientist Ralph McNutt, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. "In addition, we are now spending more time closer to the planet in general -- and that has, in turn, increased the opportunities for all of the remote sensing instruments to make higher-resolution observations of the planet."

    MESSENGER has been completing three orbits of Mercury every day since April 2012, when two orbit-correction maneuvers reduced its orbital period about Mercury from 12 hours to 8 hours. The shorter orbit has allowed the science team to explore new questions about Mercury's composition, geological evolution, and environment that were raised by discoveries made during the first year of orbital operations.

    APL's Carolyn Ernst, the deputy instrument scientist for the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA), said the change from a 12- to an 8-hour orbit provided her team with 50% more altimetry tracks. "MLA coverage takes a long time to build up, and because of the small footprint of the laser, a lot of coverage is needed to obtain good spatial resolution. The more data we acquire, the better we resolve the topography of the planet," she said. "The 8-hour orbit has also allowed us to make more MLA reflectivity measurements, which have provided critical clues for characterizing Mercury's radar-bright deposits at high northern latitudes."

    The probe has been edging closer and closer to Mercury since March 2013, at about the time that the spacecraft orbit's minimum altitude passed closest to Mercury's north pole.

    APL's David Lawrence, a MESSENGER Participating Scientist, said he is excited about what the low-altitude orbits will reveal about Mercury's surface composition. "To date our compositional measurements with neutron, X-ray, and gamma-ray data have resolved only very large regions on Mercury's surface. Altitudes of less than 100 kilometers will enable us to pinpoint the compositional signatures of specific geologic features, which in turn will help us to understand how the surface formed and has changed over time."

    MESSENGER's periapsis altitude will continue to decrease until the first orbit-correction maneuver of the low-altitude campaign, scheduled for June 17."

    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.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - April 25, 2014

    Drill Here? NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Inspects Site

    Full image and caption

    Curiosity Mars Rover Beside
    Sandstone Target 'Windjana'

    "The team operating NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is telling the rover to use several tools this weekend to inspect a sandstone slab being evaluated as a possible drilling target. If this target meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission's third drilled rock, and the first that is not mudstone. The team calls it "Windjana," after a gorge in Western Australia.

    The planned inspection, designed to aid a decision on whether to drill at Windjana, includes observations with the camera and X-ray spectrometer at the end of the rover's arm, use of a brush to remove dust from a patch on the rock, and readings of composition at various points on the rock with an instrument that fires laser shots from the rover's mast.

    Curiosity's hammering drill collects powdered sample material from the interior of a rock, and then the rover prepares and delivers portions of the sample to onboard laboratory instruments. The first two Martian rocks drilled and analyzed this way were mudstone slabs neighboring each other in Yellowknife Bay, about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) northeast of the rover's current location at a waypoint called "the Kimberley." Those two rocks yielded evidence of an ancient lakebed environment with key chemical elements and a chemical energy source that provided conditions billions of years ago favorable for microbial life."

    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) - March 19, 2014

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

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

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

    OPPORTUNITY UPDATE: Driving Up To Crater Rim - sols 3630-3635, April 10, 2014-April 15, 2014 :

    "Opportunity is exploring 'Murray Ridge,' part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater.

    The near-term plan is to drive up to the crater rim's ridgeline and image the interior of Endeavour. On Sol 3630 (April 10, 204), Opportunity moved 28 feet (8.6 meters) to a local highpoint to catch a dramatic sweeping view into the crater. Over the next few sols, the rover collected a large Panoramic Camera (Pancam) panorama. Because the right-front wheel currents have persistently elevated, the project is also performing conditioning heating of the right-front drive actuator, while the rover is stationary to image the crater.

    On Sol 3635 (April 15, 2014), the rover moved about 66 feet (20 meters) further south to complete the view into the crater and make progress towards the clay minerals still several hundred feet (meters) away.

    As of Sol 3635 (April 15, 2014), the solar array energy production was 622 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.413 and a solar array dust factor of 0.831.

    Total odometry is 24.20 miles (38.94 kilometers)."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - March 19, 2014
    NASA Orbiter Finds New Gully Channel on Mars

    Full image and caption

    "A comparison of images taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in November 2010 and May 2013 reveal the formation of a new gully channel on a crater-wall slope in the southern highlands of Mars.

    These before-and-after images are available online at http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/new-gully-channel-terra-sirenum-pia17958.

    Gully or ravine landforms are common on Mars, particularly in the southern highlands. This pair of images shows that material flowing down from an alcove at the head of a gully broke out of an older route and eroded a new channel. The dates of the images are more than a full Martian year apart, so the observations did not pin down the Martian season of the activity at this site. Before-and-after HiRISE pairs of similar activity at other sites demonstrate that this type of activity generally occurs in winter, at temperatures so cold that carbon dioxide, rather than water, is likely to play the key role."

    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 12, 2014
    NASA Moves Longest-Serving Mars Spacecraft for New Observations

    "NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has tweaked its orbit to help scientists make the first systematic observations of how morning fogs, clouds and surface frost develop in different seasons on the Red Planet.

    The maneuver took place Tuesday, Feb. 11. Odyssey team engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, designed the gentle move to accelerate Odyssey's drift toward a morning-daylight orbit. The desired change will occur gradually until the intended orbit geometry is reached in November 2015 and another maneuver halts the drift.

    The change will enable observation of changing ground temperatures after sunrise and after sunset in thousands of places on Mars. Those observations could yield insight about the composition of the ground and about temperature-driven processes, such as warm-season flows observed on some slopes, and geysers fed by spring thawing of carbon-dioxide ice near Mars' poles.

    "We're teaching an old spacecraft new tricks," said Odyssey Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of JPL. "Odyssey will be in position to see Mars in a different light than ever before."

    Neither Odyssey, nor any other NASA Mars orbiter since the 1970s, has flown an orbital pattern with a view of the ground in morning daylight. Earlier NASA orbiters and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter have provided some tantalizing views of morning mists on Mars, but have concentrated on afternoon observation times when views of the surface are less hazy.

    Odyssey was launched in 2001 and began its science mission 12 years ago this month. It is the longest-working spacecraft ever sent to Mars."

    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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    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

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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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