October 23, 2017

Hailing Phoenix.

The receding ice in the region of the Phoenix Lander as seen from HiRise. (Credit:NASA/JPL/Caltech/Texas A&M University.

The receding ice in the region of the Phoenix Lander as seen from HiRise. (Credit:NASA/JPL/Caltech/Texas A&M University.

This week, engineers at NASAís Jet Propulsion Laboratory will begin listening for a very special phone call; that of the Phoenix Lander on the northern polar region of Mars.†Spring is in the air on the northern hemisphere of Mars, and bets are on as to whether the Lander survived the bleak Martian winter. Already, the outlook isnít stellar; Phoenix has more than likely been encased in CO2 ice for several months; and donít forget, the Martian year and seasons are roughly twice as long as here on Earth! Add to the fact the Mars is close to aphelion in its relatively eccentric orbit, and the odds donít look good. †To phone home, Phoenix will need to recharge its spent batteries to a point where its automated broadcasting can kick in; the solar angle is currently about the same as when scientists lost contact last year. If it does start transmitting, Mars Odyssey currently in orbit will be listening. Odyssey passes over the landing site about 10 times a day, and will listen in over the next few months. †The sixth successful landing on the Red Planet and only the third successful soft landing, Phoenix returned some first rate science, and gave us concrete evidence of water ice lurking just below the Martian soil. Now approaching opposition, Mars is rising low in the east just after dusk; more on that next week! For now, Letís hope that Phoenix lives up to its namesake and rises from the dead!

The AMA Joins the Fight!

Astronomers now have a new powerful ally in the fight against light pollution; the American Medical Association(AMA). The June 16, 2009 vote was passed unanimously to recognize light pollution as a health hazard, further moving the cause from a special interest plea to a general mainstream concern. The AMA has echoed with its large voice what we’ve suspected all along; humans need darkness. A lack thereof in major urban areas has encroached on the suburbs and formerly pristine rural areas and can contribute to sleep deprivation and elevated stress levels. In addition, the glare itself can pose a safety hazard for night-time drivers. I’ve personally driven in many urban areas were headlights weren’t even necessary, and hence forgot to turn them on! And let’s not forget the impact on wildlife, or the waste in cash, illuminating the undersides of aircraft…. or the needless increase in CO2 emissions. Let’s hope this not-so-minor move brings back our night skies!