Astronomy News for the Month of May 2016

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For special JPL programs and presentations in your area visit the JPL Solar System Ambassador website.
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In this Newsletter...

Background screen credits: NGC5775 - Imaged March 21/22, 2001 using the 16" Kitt Peak Visitors Center telescope as part of the Advanced Observing Program.

Mars shines brilliantly and looms large through this month as it puts on its best show in 11 years.
Credit: ESA/MPS/OSIRIS team

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

20 day moon

The Moon



Moon/Planet Pairs

For reference: The Full Moon subtends an angle of 0.5°.

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The Planets & Dwarf Planets

Planetary Reports generated by "TheSky" software. These reports provide predicted data for the planets for the first of each month for the current year. The rise and set times for the Sun and the Moon for each day of the month 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

"If events that occur once a decade whet your observing appetite, then May is the month for you. First, Mars shines brighter and looms larger through a telescope than at any time since 2005. The Red Planet will dominate the sky from dusk to dawn. Not to be outdone, Mercury crosses the face of the Sun on May 9 for the first time since November 2006.

But there is plenty more on tap during these pleasant spring nights. Jupiter will captivate anyone who looks up during the early evening hours, while beautiful Saturn entices viewers to stay up past midnight. It’s a month of super­latives and contrasts sure to thrill any planetary observer." Astronomy Magazine, May 2016, p.36


Is in inferior conjunction on the 9th. Mercury also transits the Sun on the 9th beginning at 11:12 UTC (7:12 a.m. EDT). This 7.5 hour transit 7.5 is visible for most of the world. (See the map below for areas of visibility. For more info on the transit, visit

Mercury sets at 8:53 p.m. on the 1st. Mercury moves to the morning sky after the 9th. Mercury Rises about 4:36 a.m. by month's end. Mercury is stationary on the 21st. Look for Mercury low above the western horizon soon after sunset for the first few days of the month and after mid-month, look for Mercury rising just before the Sun. Mercury is in the constellation of Aries shining at magnitude 0.9 on the 31st.


Rises at 5:41 a.m. on the 1st and about 5:32 a.m. by month's end. Venus lies about 1° above the eastern horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise. If you have a very flat eastern horizon, you might be able to spot Venus shining through the early morning twilight glow. Venus moves from the constellation of Aries into Taurus shining at magnitude -3.9.




Reaches opposition on the 22nd, rising as the Sun sets. Mars makes its closest approach to Earth on the 30th, only 46.8 million miles away and shines the brightest for the year. Mars rises at 9:54 p.m. on the 1st and about 7:10 p.m. by month's end. As the month progresses, Mars will rise earlier in the evening sky. Look for Mars about an hour or so after sunset to the east. Mars moves from the constellation of Scorpius into Libra this month shining at magnitude -1.9.


Is stationary on the 9th. Jupiter sets at 3:51 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:50 a.m. by month's end. Look for Jupiter in the early evening to the south-southwest soon after sunset. Jupiter is in the constellation of Leo shining at magnitude -2.2.


Rises at 10:25 p.m. on the 1st and about 8:13 p.m. by month's end. Look for Saturn low to the east in the early morning and late evening. Saturn is in the constellation of Ophiuchus shining at magnitude 0.1.


Has returned to the morning sky but may still be a bit low to spot easily. Uranus rises at 5:12 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:14 a.m. by month's end. Uranus may be visible by the last week of the month but will still be very low to the eastern horizon to be spotted easily until later in the month. Uranus is in the constellation of Pisces shining at magnitude 5.9.


Rises at 3:38 a.m. on the 1st and about 1:37 a.m. by month's end. Look for Neptune in the early hours before dawn to the east-southeast. Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius shining at magnitude 7.9.

Dwarf Planets


Rises at 5:12 a.m. on the 1st and about 3:38 a.m. by month's end. Ceres has returned to visibility in the pre-dawn skies, but the best time to spot Ceres will be during the last half of the month. Ceres is in the constellation of Cetus this month shining at magnitude 9.3.


Rises at 12:45 a.m. on the 1st and about 10:38 p.m. by month's end. Look to the south to spot Pluto in the early morning hours before dawn. 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

  • 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.

    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

  • "Observers across the contiguous United States and points south should have a nice 7th-magnitude comet to view through their telescopes on May mornings. The catch: Comet PANSTARRS (C/2013 X1) struggles to climb above the horizon haze before dawn breaks. You’ll need a clear, flat eastern horizon to spot PANSTARRS as it slides south through Aquarius." Astronomy, May 2016, P. 42

  • For information, orbital elements and ephemerides on observable comets, visit the Observable Comets page from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    For more information about Comets, visit Gary Kronk's webpage.

  • Eclipses

    Solar Eclipses

  • No solar eclipse activity this month.

    Lunar Eclipses

  • No lunar eclipse activity this month.
  • Observational Opportunities

  • Watch Mercury transit the Sun on the 9th.
  • Look for Jupiter and Mars in the evening.
  • Look for Saturn, Pluto, Neptune, Ceres and Uranus before sunrise, although Neptune, Ceres and Pluto are not visible with the naked eye.
  • Try to spot Venus before sunrise.
  • Enjoy the Eta Aquarids meteor shower peak on the morning of the 5th under a moonless sky.
  • Asteroids

    (From west to east)

    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 - April 22, 2016
    What happened to the old site?

    Full-Res: PIA08388

    Enhanced Exploration

    "Welcome to the updated, homepage of the Cassini mission to Saturn. p> We've enhanced the website to improve its performance on all devices and screen sizes - from phones to 40-inch monitors. We eliminated clutter. Most importantly, we are intensifying our focus on telling the epic story of a mission that began long before it launched in October 1997 and continues with a very unique science phase ahead.

    A year from now Cassini will begin its Grand Finale orbits, diving between Saturn and the rings, before plunging into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, 2017. We hope the site will make it even easier to follow Cassini's new path into uncharted regions as well as revisit her historic ten plus years of scientific discovery and engineering achievement.

    Stay tuned. We plan to add new features, new stories and new images each month."

    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.

    Raw images are available at

    More information about Cassini is available at the following sites: Check out the new updated website as of April 22, 2016.

    Cassini Imaging Team - Archives from Dec. 2015 and earlier.

    New Horizons - April 21, 2016
    Pluto's 'Halo' Craters

    Full Image

    "Within Pluto's informally named Vega Terra region is a field of eye-catching craters that looks like a cluster of bright halos scattered across a dark landscape.

    The region is far west of the hemisphere NASA's New Horizons spacecraft viewed during close approach last summer. The upper image - in black and white - sports several dozen "haloed" craters. The largest crater, at bottom-right, measures about 30 miles (50 kilometers) across. The craters' bright walls and rims stand out from their dark floors and surrounding terrain, creating the "halo" effect.

    In the lower image, composition data from New Horizons' Ralph/Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) indicate a connection between the bright halos and distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple. The floors and terrain between craters show signs of water ice, colored in blue. Exactly why the bright methane ice settles on these crater rims and walls is a mystery; also puzzling is why this same effect doesn't occur broadly across Pluto."

    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 - April 19, 2016
    New Ceres Images Show Bright Craters

    Full Image

    "Craters with bright material on dwarf planet Ceres shine in new images from NASA's Dawn mission.

    In its lowest-altitude mapping orbit, at a distance of 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres, Dawn has provided scientists with spectacular views of the dwarf planet.

    Haulani Crater, with a diameter of 21 miles (34 kilometers), shows evidence of landslides from its crater rim. Smooth material and a central ridge stand out on its floor. An enhanced false-color view allows scientists to gain insight into materials and how they relate to surface morphology. This image shows rays of bluish ejected material. The color blue in such views has been associated with young features on Ceres."

    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."

    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 - March 07, 2016
    MESSENGER Data May Reveal the Remains of Mercury's Oldest Crust

    Video Animation

    "Mercury's surface is unusually dark, an observation that until recently had planetary scientists mystified. But in a new study published today in Nature Geoscience, a team of researchers provides evidence that the darkening agent is carbon, a finding that offers important clues to the nature of the planet's original crust.

    Patrick Peplowski, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, and lead author of the paper, explains that earlier measurements of the chemistry of Mercury's surface only added to this mystery because they indicated that Mercury's surface has low abundances of iron and titanium, important constituents of the most common darkening agents on the Moon and other silicate bodies.

    "A process of elimination led prior researchers to suggest that carbon may be the unidentified darkening agent, but we lacked proof," he said. "Spectral modeling of MESSENGER color imaging data suggested that weight-percent levels of carbon, likely in the form of graphite, would be required to darken Mercury's surface sufficiently. This level is unusually high, given that carbon is found at typical concentrations of only ~100 parts per million on the Moon, Earth and Mars."

    Whatever the darkening agent, the scientists surmised that it was most concentrated in Mercury's low-reflectance material (LRM), which generally appears as deposits excavated from depth by impact cratering. The researchers examined MESSENGER Neutron Spectrometer measurements of LRM and surrounding materials, and they found that increases in low-energy neutrons are spatially correlated with LRM. Such increases require that the LRM have higher concentrations of an element that is inefficient at absorbing neutrons. Carbon is the only darkening agent suggested for Mercury that is also an inefficient neutron absorber."

    The MESSENGER app is available for download from iTunes.

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

    Pack Your Backpack

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

    Past, Present, Future and Proposed JPL Missions -

    Visit JPL's mission pages for current status.

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    Mars Missions

    Be A Martian

    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 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 - March 09, 2016
    Close Comet Flyby Threw Mars' Magnetic Field Into Chaos

    "Just weeks before the historic encounter of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) with Mars in October 2014, the MAVEN spacecraft entered orbit around the Red Planet. To protect sensitive equipment aboard MAVEN from possible harm, some instruments were turned off during the flyby; the same was done for other Mars orbiters. But a few instruments, including MAVEN's magnetometer, remained on, conducting observations from a front-row seat during the comet's remarkably close flyby.

    The one-of-a-kind opportunity gave scientists an intimate view of the havoc that the comet's passing wreaked on the magnetic environment, or magnetosphere, around Mars. The effect was temporary but profound.

    "Comet Siding Spring plunged the magnetic field around Mars into chaos," said Jared Espley, a MAVEN science team member at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We think the encounter blew away part of Mars' upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would."

    Unlike Earth, Mars isn't shielded by a strong magnetosphere generated within the planet. The atmosphere of Mars offers some protection, however, by redirecting the solar wind around the planet, like a rock diverting the flow of water in a creek. This happens because at very high altitudes Mars' atmosphere is made up of plasma layer of electrically charged particles and gas molecules. Charged particles in the solar wind interact with this plasma, and the mingling and moving around of all these charges produces currents. Just like currents in simple electrical circuits, these moving charges induce a magnetic field, which, in Mars' case, is quite weak."

    Visit LASP and MAVEN for more information.

    Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity - April 27, 2016
    Curiosity Mars Rover Crosses Rugged Plateau

    Full-Circle Vista from 'Naukluft Plateau' on Mars

    "NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has nearly finished crossing a stretch of the most rugged and difficult-to-navigate terrain encountered during the mission's 44 months on Mars.

    The rover climbed onto the "Naukluft Plateau" of lower Mount Sharp in early March after spending several weeks investigating sand dunes. The plateau's sandstone bedrock has been carved by eons of wind erosion into ridges and knobs. The path of about a quarter mile (400 meters) westward across it is taking Curiosity toward smoother surfaces leading to geological layers of scientific interest farther uphill.

    The roughness of the terrain on the plateau raised concern that driving on it could be especially damaging to Curiosity's wheels, as was terrain Curiosity crossed before reaching the base of Mount Sharp. Holes and tears in the rover's aluminum wheels became noticeable in 2013. The rover team responded by adjusting the long-term traverse route, revising how local terrain is assessed and refining how drives are planned. Extensive Earth-based testing provided insight into wheel longevity."

    To follow the Mars Curiosity rover and NASA on Foursquare, visit: and

    For information about NASA's partnership with Foursquare, visit:

      Mars Rover Landing - Free for the Xbox (requires Kinect)

      Visit the Mars Science Laboratory page.

    Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Spirit and Opportunity) - April 26, 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: Camera on Robotic Arm Passes Diagnostic Test - sols 4351-4357, April 20, 2016-April 26, 2016: :

    "Opportunity is exploring 'Marathon Valley' on the rim of Endeavour crater, trying to identify specific outcrops for evidence of clay minerals.

    The rover has been investigating the surface target, called 'Pierre Pinaut.' The rover experienced an anomalous camera fault on Sol 4350 (April 19, 2016), during a Microscopic Image (MI) mosaic, so the activities in that plan did not complete. Opportunity then performed two sets of diagnostics on Sol 4352 (April 21, 2016). The MI images completed normally and several Panoramic Camera (Pancam) panoramas taken before and after the MI camera anomaly completed normally. On Sol 4354 (April 23, 2016), the original MI activity using the robotic arm from Sol 4350 (April 19, 2016), was repeated successfully which included the placement of the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). More Pancam panoramas were collected on the next sol. On Sol 4357 (April 26, 2016), the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) on the robotic arm was used to brush the surface target, followed by the placement of the APXS for a long integration.

    As of Sol 4357 (April 26, 2016), the solar array energy production is 618 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.541 and a solar array dust factor of 0.764.

    Total odometry is 26.58 miles (42.78 kilometers), more than a marathon."

    Landing sites

    Visit the Mars Exploration Rover page.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission - March 21, 2016
    New Gravity Map Gives Best View Yet Inside Mars

    "A new map of Mars' gravity made with three NASA spacecraft is the most detailed to date, providing a revealing glimpse into the hidden interior of the Red Planet.

    "Gravity maps allow us to see inside a planet, just as a doctor uses an X-ray to see inside a patient," said Antonio Genova of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The new gravity map will be helpful for future Mars exploration, because better knowledge of the planet's gravity anomalies helps mission controllers insert spacecraft more precisely into orbit about Mars. Furthermore, the improved resolution of our gravity map will help us understand the still-mysterious formation of specific regions of the planet." Genova, who is affiliated with MIT but is located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the lead author of a paper on this research published online March 5 in the journal Icarus."

    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.

    All of the HiRISE images are archived here.

    More information about the MRO mission is available online.

    Mars Odyssey Orbiter - May 01, 2016
    Mars Close Approach to Earth:
    May 30, 2016

    "Simply go outside and look up, contact your local planetarium, or look for a star party near you.

    In 2016, the planet Mars will appear brightest from May 18 to June 3.

    Mars Close Approach is May 30, 2016. That is the point in Mars' orbit when it comes closest to Earth. Mars will be at a distance of 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers). Mars reaches its highest point around midnight -- about 35 degrees above the southern horizon, or one third of the distance between the horizon and overhead. Mars will be visible for much of the night.

    By mid-June, Mars will become fainter as Mars and Earth travel farther away from each other in their orbits around the Sun.

    Miss seeing Mars Close Approach in 2016? The next Mars Close Approach is July 31, 2018."

    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 - March 09, 2016
    InSight - Revealing the Heart of Mars
    NASA Targets May 2018 Launch of Mars InSight Mission

    "NASA's Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to study the deep interior of Mars is targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018.

    InSight's primary goal is to help us understand how rocky planets -- including Earth -- formed and evolved. The spacecraft had been on track to launch this month until a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument prompted NASA in December to suspend preparations for launch.

    InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and France's space agency, Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), on a path forward; the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument was accepted in support of a 2018 launch.

    "The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We're excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018."

    NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will redesign, build and conduct qualifications of the new vacuum enclosure for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the component that failed in December. CNES will lead instrument level integration and test activities, allowing the InSight Project to take advantage of each organization's proven strengths. The two agencies have worked closely together to establish a project schedule that accommodates these plans, and scheduled interim reviews over the next six months to assess technical progress and continued feasibility."

    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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