Astronomy News for the Month of May 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.


23

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

"While Venus and Jupiter dominate May's early evening sky, glorious Saturn remains visible all night as it reaches opposition and peak visibility.

May nights may not last long for Northern Hemisphere observers, but nature fills those fleeting hours with plenty of tempting targets. At the top of this month's list has to be Saturn, which puts on an all-night show as it reaches opposition and peak visibility. Close behind are Venus and Jupiter, a pair of brilliant planets adorning the evening sky. And honorable mention must go to innermost Mercury. The diminutive world produces its finest evening display of 2015 early this month." Astronomy Magazine, May 2015, p. 36.

Mercury

Is at greatest eastern elongation (21° above the western horizon) on the 7th. Mercury is stationary on the 19th. Mercury is in inferior conjunction on the 30th. Mercury sets at 9:41 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:43 p.m. by month's end. Look for Mercury low to the west about 30 minutes after sunset during the first three weeks of the month. Mercury is in the constellation of Taurus shining at magnitude -0.1 on the 1st.

Venus

Sets at 11:30 p.m. on the 1st and about 11:42 p.m. by month's end. Look for Venus fairly high above the western horizon soon after sunset. Venus moves from the constellation Taurus into GeminiGemini shining at magnitude -4.2.

Earth

N/A.

Mars

Rises at 6:36 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:47 a.m. by month's end. Rising just minutes after the Sun this month, Mars is lost in the Sun's glow and is not visible. Mars will return to view later this summer. Mars moves from the constellation of Aries into Taurus this month.

Jupiter

Sets at 2:33 a.m. on the 1st and about 12:40 a.m. by month's end. Jupiter is visible all evening. Look for Jupiter high overhead soon after sunset. Jupiter is in the constellation of Cancer shining at magnitude -2.0.

Saturn

Is at opposition on the 22nd. Saturn is at its best viewing for 2015. Saturn rises at 9:29 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:16 p.m. by month's end. View Saturn all night long this month. Saturn moves from the constellation of Scorpius into Libra shining at magnitude 0.0.

Uranus

Rises at 5:06 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:08 a.m. by month's end. Uranus is visible in the morning sky low on the eastern horizon. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.

Neptune

Rises at 3:35 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:34 a.m. by month's end. Look for Neptune in the east in the morning sky. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets

Ceres

Rises at 3:25 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:44 a.m. by month's end. Ceres, along with Neptune are rising earlier in the a.m. hours, so both will be a little easier to spot to the southeast before sunrise as the month progresses. Ceres is in the constellation of Capricornus shining at magnitude 8.6.

Pluto

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

  • No eclipse activity this month.

  • Meteor Showers

  • The Eta Aquarids 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.

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

  • Comets

  • Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is barely visible this month near the star Polaris. Shining around 12th magnitude, observers will need at least a 10 inch telescope to spot Comet Lovejoy.

  • 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.

  • Observational Opportunities

  • Look for Venus and Mercury to the west soon after sunset.
  • Observe Jupiter all evening long.
  • Observe Saturn at its best for this year soon after sunset.
  • Enjoy the Eta Aquarids meteor shower around the 5th and 6th.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)
    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 27, 2015
    Faint D Ring

    Full-Res: PIA18313

    "Not all of Saturn's rings are created equal: here the C and D rings appear side-by-side, but the C ring, which occupies the bottom half of this image, clearly outshines its neighbor.

    The D ring appears fainter than the C ring because it is comprised of less material. However, even rings as thin as the D ring can pose hazards to spacecraft. Given the high speeds at which Cassini travels, impacts with particles just fractions of a millimeter in size have the potential to damage key spacecraft components and instruments. Nonetheless, near the end of Cassini's mission, navigators plan to thread the spacecraft's orbit through the narrow region between the D ring and the top of Saturn's atmosphere.

    This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 12 degrees below the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Feb. 11, 2015.

    The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 372,000 miles (599,000 kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 133 degrees. Image scale is 2.2 miles (3.6 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 - April 29, 2015
    NASA's New Horizons Detects Surface Features, Possible Polar Cap on Pluto

    "For the first time, images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft are revealing bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto - the primary target of the New Horizons close flyby in mid-July.

    The images were captured in early to mid-April from within 70 million miles (113 million kilometers), using the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed images beamed back to Earth. New Horizons scientists interpreted the data to reveal the dwarf planet has broad surface markings - some bright, some dark - including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap.

    "As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto's visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object," says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons."

    Also captured in the images is Pluto's largest moon, Charon, rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit. The exposure times used to create this image set - a tenth of a second - were too short for the camera to detect Pluto's four much smaller and fainter moons."

    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 - April 20, 2015
    Ceres' Bright Spots Come Back Into View

    "The two brightest spots on dwarf planet Ceres, which have fascinated scientists for months, are back in view in the newest images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Dawn took these images on April 14 and 15 from a vantage point 14,000 miles (22,000 kilometers) above Ceres' north pole.

    An animation and still image are available here:

    http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA19064

    The images show the brightest spot and its companion clearly standing out against their darker surroundings, but their composition and sources are still unknown. Scientists also see other interesting features, including heavy cratering. As Dawn gets closer to Ceres, surface features will continue to emerge at increasingly better resolution. Dawn has now finished delivering the images that have helped mission planners maneuver the spacecraft to its first science orbit and prepare for subsequent observations. All of the approach operations have executed flawlessly and kept Dawn on course and on schedule. Beginning April 23, Dawn will spend about three weeks in a near-circular orbit around Ceres, taking observations from 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the surface. On May 9, Dawn will begin to make its way to lower orbits to improve the view and provide higher-resolution observations."

    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 - April 30, 2015
    NASA Completes MESSENGER Mission with Expected Impact on Mercury's Surface

    "Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., confirmed today that NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft impacted the surface of Mercury, as predicted, at 3:26 p.m. EDT this afternoon (3:34 p.m. ground time).

    Mission controllers were able to confirm the end of operations just a few minutes later at 3:40 p.m., when no signal was detected by the Deep Space Network (DSN) station in Goldstone, California, at the time the spacecraft would have emerged from behind the planet had MESSENGER not impacted the surface. This conclusion was independently confirmed by the DSN's Radio Science team, who were simultaneously looking for the signal from MESSENGER from their posts in California.

    MESSENGER was launched on August 3, 2004, and it began orbiting Mercury on March 18, 2011. The spacecraft completed its primary science objectives by March 2012. Because MESSENGER's initial discoveries raised important new questions and the payload remained healthy, the mission was extended twice, allowing the spacecraft to make observations from extraordinarily low altitudes and capture images and information about the planet in unprecedented detail."

    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: March 18, 2015
    MAVEN Status Update: April 08, 2015
    MAVEN Completes 1,000 Orbits around Mars

    "MAVEN completed 1,000 orbits around the Red Planet on April 6, four-and-a-half months into its one-year primary mission.

    MAVEN is in its science-mapping orbit and has been taking data since the start of its primary mission on Nov. 16, 2014. The furthest point in the spacecraft's elliptical orbit has been 6,500 kilometers (4,039 miles) and the closest 130 kilometers (81 miles) above the Martian surface.

    "The spacecraft and instruments continue to work well, and we're building up a picture of the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere, of the processes that control its behavior, and of how loss of gas to space occurs," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's principal investigator from the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder."

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - April 22, 2015

    Mars Orbiter Views Curiosity Rover in 'Artist's Drive'
    Full image

    "A view from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on April 8, 2015, catches sight of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover passing through a valley called "Artist's Drive" on the lower slope of Mount Sharp.

    The location of the rover, with its shadow extending toward the right, is indicated with an inscribed rectangle. North is toward the top. The view covers an area about 550 yards (500 meters) across. An unannotated version of the image is at: http://mars.nasa.gov/multimedia/images/?ImageID=7132"

    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) - April 23, 2015

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

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

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

    OPPURTUNITY UPDATE: Rover on the Lookout for Dust Devils! - sols 3990-3998, April 15, 2015-April 23, 2015: :

    "Opportunity is on the west rim of Endeavour Crater next to the "Spirit of St. Louis" crater near the entrance of "Marathon Valley."

    The rover had been conducting an in-situ (contact) science campaign at the outcrop named "Thermopylae."

    On Sol 3991 (April 16, 2015), the robotic arm was used to collect a Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic and then place the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) for a multi-hour integration. A small Navigation Camera (Navcam) mosaic was also collected on that sol. On the next sol, a new Navcam Dust Devil Watch was sequenced. On Sol 3993 (April 18, 2015), further MI mosaics were collected followed by another APXS placement. For the next sol, the APXS was offset to an adjacent target for another integration.

    However, during the preparation for the afternoon UHF relay pass the rover experienced a reset, stopping all sequences. The cause of the reset is unknown and still under investigation. Further, an amnesia event occurred later that night for the wakeup to start Deep Sleep. The rover was restored to master sequence control on Sol 3996 (April 21, 2015). On Sol 3998 (April 23, 2015), Opportunity drove a little over 26 feet (8 meters) to reach the rim of the Spirit of St. Louis crater.

    As of Sol 3998, the solar array energy production was 620 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.766 and a solar array dust factor of 0.731.

    Total odometry is 26.25 miles (42.24 kilometers), more than a marathon."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - April 02, 2014
    Team Returning Orbiter to Duty After Computer Swap

    "Mission Status Report Updated on April 8th at 2:05 p.m. PT

    The team operating NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has restored the spacecraft to full service, following last week's unplanned swap of duplicate computers on the orbiter. The mission resumed communication-relay operations on April 4 and subsequently resumed observations with all of its science instruments.

    NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, at Mars since 2006, made an unplanned switch on Wednesday from one main computer to a redundant one onboard, triggering a hiatus in planned activities.

    Sensing the computer swap, the orbiter put itself into a precautionary safe standby mode. It remained healthy, in communication and fully powered. The mission's operations team expects the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to resume full duty within a few days, including communication relays and science observations.

    The orbiter has experienced this type of unplanned computer swap six times previously, starting in 2007 and including two occasions in 2014."

    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 conditions suitable 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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