August 2, 2014

25.06.10- MRO and the Case of the Martian Spirals.

 

The NPC of Mars. (Credit: NASA/Caltech/JPL/E. DeJong/M. Stetson).

The NPC of Mars. (Credit: NASA/Caltech/JPL/E. DeJong/M. Stetson).

 

   Scientists may have solved the formation of one of the more curious features on Mars; the formation of its polar ice spirals. First spotted by NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft in 1972, these strange swirling patterns etched in the polar ice caps have remained a mystery. For example, the ice formation actually tends to form against and creep into the prevailing winds. Now Jack Holt and Isaac Smith at the University of Texas have used the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiters (MRO) Shallow Subsurface Radar to shed new light on the mystery. MRO’s radar can penetrate layers of ice that have accumulated over the millennia. During the Viking missions, researcher Alan Howard of the University of Virginia first proposed a mechanism for how these spirals could form via wind sweeping downslope and picking up water vapor and ice crystals and subsequently depositing them on the leeward or sun shadowed side on the opposite side of a trough. This process would be self replenishing as the spiral crept forward, much like glacial movement on Earth. This Sun-wind mechanism never gained wide spread acceptance, however, until close scrutiny by the MRO. The Coriolis force generated by the rotation of Mars adds the final touch, creating the final spiral structure. So why don’t we see similar structures in the polar regions of Earth? In the Arctic and Antarctic, more complex forces come into play; here, local topography overpowers the Coriolis force (remember, Mars, while having a day similar in length to the Earth, is much tinier) and shapes the force of the wind. The findings may also explain a prominent feature in the Martian northern polar cap; the Chasma Boreale, a long gash burrowed deep into the ice. It appears as if this canyon is related to a single ice melt event from 5 to 10 million years ago, and prevailing winds have not allowed for deposition of ice ever since. MRO has even discovered a second unknown chasm as well. The history of the formation of the polar caps all tie in to the Martian climate puzzle; a picture of the tiny world’s climate history is rapidly evolving into a unique story, one that parallels our own but diverges from it as well. What new mysteries does the Martian landscape hold?

Book Review: Ares Express

Ares-Express

Ares Express is Ian McDonald’s marvelous and long awaited sequel to Desolation Road.  Mars is still the setting, but a Mars far in the future from that in Desolation Road. The railroad is still key, but the story line is fresh. It revolves around the person of  Sweetness Octave Glorious Honeybun Asiim 12th, her (mis)adventures, and an unforgettable supporting cast.

Sweetness has an ethereal shadow who she’s always believed was the spirit of her dead twin. The truth is at the root of Sweetness’ mission to find Devastation Harx.

Devastation Harx, a metaphor for evil in a person representative of every false prophet that ever garnered a following, is appropriately devious and conscience free, stealing others’ souls and property from his airship over Mars.

Grandmother Taal, who’s successful betting in a game of chance took 15 years off her age, is another character of note.  It is she who heads out from the Ares Express to bring back Sweetness, whose ill planned escape from that train set the story in motion.

There are also cameo, but plot necessary, visits by Dr. Alamantando and the Green Man, both introduced in Devastation Road.

The sensual undertones throughout the book, the colorful characters, the wit, the Martian background, the fusion fueled trains, and the ongoing battle of good vs. evil all contribute to making this a great read. Thank you, Mr. McDonald!

Review: Solis by A.A. Antanasio

A classic by A.A. Antanasio!
A classic by A.A. Antanasio!
 

 

   Every once in a while, we come across a book that sat on our shelves for years unread, only to later wonder how we could have by-passed such a gem for so long. Such a find is a book is Solis, by A.A. Attanasio the topic of this week’s retro review. Mr. Attanasio is also the author of another all-time Sci-Fi favorite of ours, Radix. Apparently, he has yet to write a bad novel, as evinced by this 80’s work of the distant future. All of Mr. Attanasio’s novels assume a sleek and sophisticated audience; rather than spoon-feed you an idea or concept, he allows the reader to piece things together.  Solis is a twist on the old Rip Van Winkle theme in Sci-Fi; this motif has a lineage way back to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but also has its contemporaries in works such as Larry Niven’s outstanding Out of Time, which will also be a subject of review one day. Perhaps only Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man beats out Solis in its sweep and scope of social commentary.

The key protagonist and window into this future realm is Charlie Outis, a 21st century man who had his brain cryogenically frozen in the hopes that future technology could one day reanimate him. This concept isn’t entirely fiction; the Alcor Foundation out of Riverside California promises just such a hope for its customers. Of course, there is much controversy surrounding the concept, as it’s hard to quickly freeze neural tissue without any cell wall rupturing or damage, but in Solis, a future technology has found a way to reverse and repair this, albeit at extreme cost.

However, the parties responsible for Mr. Charlie’s revival turn out to have less than benign motives; instead, they install his brain as a slave controller for an asteroid harvester. Much of the motive for this and the subsequent tale stems from Mr. Charlie’s legal status; being that he was technically “dead” thousands of years prior, his standing in this twisted future technocratic society is little more than that of hardware or property.

Mr. Charlie’s disembodied brain is able to summon Munk, an android with a seemly superfluous sub-program that gives him an affinity for archaic humans, and Jumper Mei Nilli, a spacer with a thirst for adventure. The tale that unfolds on and around future Mars is one of journeying towards cognizance and what it truly means to be human. As they escape and encounter more fellow travelers of their elk, Mr. Charlie and his band must overcome a menagerie of menaces both personal and external. This lends itself towards a very Odyssean-style tale. Their goal: Solis, a mythical haven for humanism deep in the Martian desert. A parallel could also be drawn between Solis and The Wizard of Oz; each character is on an individual quest of self-fulfillment; Mr. Charlie to become human again, and Munk looking to understand human motives.

304px-Alcor-Dewar2    

 

The “Bigfoot” Dewar whole body containment system. (Photo Courtesy of the AlcorLife Extention Foundation).

Like Radix, some of Mr. Attanasio’s wonderful prose is really allowed to shine through in Solis; you actually care about what happens to his characters, and he paints a future universe of autobots, andrones, and neo-sapiens that is totally convincing. I would even put Solis in the select realm of books that are worth re-reading, high praise in this short time span we have on planet Earth.

Read Solis and dig up an undiscovered gem by an under-appreciated author. I would love to see more adventures in the Solis universe, but Mr. Attanasio doesn’t seem to lack a new and unique backdrop for each tale he pulls out of his fertile imagination. I’d also love to see Solis make the big screen one day… are you listening, SyFy?

Mars; the future site of Solis? (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech).

 Note: At the time of posting this, Astroguyz will be live and underway at the STS-132 NASAtweetup… now’s a good time to hit that Follow Me button on this page as we track space shuttle Atlantis’s final mission. A full after-action post will be the topic of next Friday’s review!

13.05.10: Finding Martian Lava Tubes.

(Credit: Jim Secosky NASA/JPL/ASU).

(Credit: Jim Secosky NASA/JPL/ASU).

Martian lava tubes as seen by THEMIS. 

   A key hunt on the Martian surface is underway. Since the Pathfinder series of landers in the mid-90’s, NASA’s mantra has been to Follow the Water. Scouring the surface of Mars, we see signs of ancient water erosion, as evinced by complex braidings, channels and scarps…

Or is it? Up until recently, it’s been thought that only water could produce such complex features. Now, researcher Jacob Bleacher of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland has analyzed grooved channels on the flank of Ascraeus Mons, one of the three famous mountains in the Tharsis Montes chain of volcanoes, of which Olympus Mons is a member. Some of the highest peaks in the solar system, these extinct volcanoes are of the shield variety. Earlier photographic analysis suggested that the channels on the ramparts of Ascraeus were the result of water erosion on ancient Mars. But analysis by Bleacher utilizing a battery of instruments aboard Mars Odyssey, including the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) revealed an interesting puzzle; although the initial origin point of the channel looked like it was formed by water, action further down the chain was highly suggestive of collapsed lava tubes (above). A hybrid water-lava eroded channel is highly unlikely…a single cause of formation by lava is simpler and much more plausible. Colleague Andy de Wet has spied even more curious features; “the channel is actually roofed over as if it were a lava tube, and lined up along this are several rootless vents.” Evidence throughout the solar system is mounting that lava flows may mimic water erosion; on our bone dry (for the purposes of this discussion!) airless Moon, evidence of ancient lava flows is seen around the Mare Imbrium, and on Earth, complex slow moving flows have carved intricate structures seen and studied around Mauna Loa, Hawaii. These findings may serve as a caveat that all that looks like evidence of water on Mars, perhaps isn’t… areas such as the Ascraeus Plateau beg for further exploration. So, just when will we be able to take a day-hike down these ancient lava tubes, and ponder (and blog about) their origins in person?

Review: How to Build a Habitable Planet by James Kasting.

Some years ago, a book entitled Rare Earth was published amid much controversy. The central thesis of this work was that events that led to the eventual habitability and diversity of life and intelligence on Earth were so improbable, as be near to impossible to replicate elsewhere in our galaxy. The book marked a sort of change in thinking in the realm of exobiology, one from “intelligent civilizations are everywhere” championed by the late Carl Sagan to the concept that we may be the only ones, if not the first.

Out now from Princeton Press!
Out now from Princeton Press!


[Read more...]

26.04.10-Amateurs Scour the Solar System.

marshorizon_opportunity

A stunning Martian panorama! (Credit:NASA/JPL Image Processing by Michael Howard & Glen Nagle).

   A quiet sort of revolution has been brewing online. Amateur astronomers have taken to the web on cloudy, light polluted nights and turned newly found computing power normally reserved for gaming and Second Life into something truly productive and phenomenal; the reprocessing of planetary images. This link includes more examples than you can shake a robotic camera arm at; the data is culled not only from the raw image archives of older spacecraft such as Mariner 10 and Voyager 2, but newer generation spacecraft such as the Cassini orbiter around Saturn and the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity pictured above. These images frequently circulate the web and are processed and discussed long before even NASA engineers get to them. And with the mounting number of new missions out there and the transparency and access to public data increasing, the trend is likely to continue. But beyond just pretty pictures, the images dug up often have real scientific merit and value as well; for example, Philosophy professor Ted Stryk actually caught Neptune’s tiny moon Despina in the act of transiting as he sifted through old Voyager data! This makes one wonder; what else might engineers and scientists have missed? Emily Lakdawalla, web editor for the Planetary Society has contributed extensively to this growing revolution of online citizen scientists, taking advantage of Cassini’s equinox mission to produce some stunning images. So give it a try; put that ultimate power sitting idle on your desk to work doing something useful and productive… you just might spot that unknown moon or monolith!

neptune_despina_transit_combo_despinabrightened

A sight never before seen from Earth; the transit of Neptune’s moon Despina! (Credit: NASA/JPL Image processing & Copyright: Ted Stryk).

Event: Mars passes the Beehive.

 

The path of Mars over the coming week. (Created in Starry Night & Paint).

The path of Mars over the coming week. (Created in Starry Night & Paint).

  

    This week offers a two-fer, an easy to spot naked eye conjunction of two very different objects and a difficult to observe occultation. 1st up is a close pairing of the planet Mars and M44, the Beehive Cluster. From the 13th of April until the 20th, both will be grouped in a visual circle less than 2° arc degrees in diameter, an easy target for both camera lens or binocs. Mars will be at closest apparent approach on the evening of the 16th. Both ride high near the zenith in the dusk skies for northern hemisphere viewers, making for an easy photo op. Of course, Mars is a scant 3 odd light minutes away; M44 is at an estimated distance of 577 light years. Also known as Praesepe, the Manger, this cluster in the heart of the constellation Cancer has been known since ancient times. Proper motion studies suggest that this open cluster may share its origins with the V-shaped Hyades in the constellation Taurus; about 1010 members of this group have been identified, including 11 white dwarfs.

Up for a challenge? On the evening of the 15th, the 3 day old crescent Moon will occult the close spectroscopic binary star Mu (µ) Arietis.  The action occurs around 3:00 UT (on the 16th) and favors viewers on the North American west coast. Unfortunately, the event does not occur under the most favorable circumstances; the Moon will be a thin crescent, the star is +6 magnitude, and the entire event will be low in the dusk skies. Still, we’d love to hear from anyone who successfully witnessed this difficult to observe event!      

The astro-word for the week is Messier Object. Back in 1771, French astronomer Charles Messier got tired of misidentifying faint little fuzzies he came across in the night sky in his quest for comets and decided to compose a catalog of these objects. The original published list contained 45 objects and Messier later expanded it to 103. The current tally stands at 110, although the list contains a few dubious entries. The catalog was the first list of deep sky objects, and has since spurred countless “Messier Marathons” common in spring. Morphologically, the catalog contains open & globular clusters, planetary nebulae, emission nebulae and galaxies. Of course, Messier had no inkling what these objects truly were when he cataloged them. It’s somewhat odd that such un-comet like objects as M44 and the Pleiades made this list, but say, the Double Cluster on the Perseus-Cassiopeia border did not. And of course, there was a whole menagerie southern sky objects yet to be categorized. That would have to wait for the Herschel dynasty of astronomers, and their expanded New General Catalog!

12.03.10:Update: A Phobos Flyby/Martian Moons Ephemeris II.

 

(Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

(Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

 Mars Express scouts the proposed landing site(s) for Phobos-Grunt.

    The pictures are in: ESA’s Mars Express has performed two close flybys of Phobos in the past weeks and performed sensitive gravimetric as well as photographic reconnaissance passes of the bizarre moon. Of course, the data reveals more questions than it solves. Is Phobos solid rock, or just a loose rubble pile? Clearly, more is to be learned about this misshapen moon…we’ll have the pics up as soon as they’re in!

   The good news is, it not too late to try and spot these elusive beasties for yourself! Reader Ed Kotapish was good enough to provide us with an extended ephemeris for the eastern elongations of both Deimos and Phobos; note that on early Saturday, the 13th both moons are at their eastern most elongations within 20 minutes of each other! This curious event is favorable for U.S. viewers;

here are the greatest elongations for the Martian moons given in Universal Time through the rest of March;

12 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 2134 W

13 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0125 E
PHOBOS 0513 W
PHOBOS 0904 E
DEIMOS 0924 E
PHOBOS 1252 W
PHOBOS 1643 E
PHOBOS 2031 W

14 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0022 E
DEIMOS 0032 W
PHOBOS 0411 W
PHOBOS 0802 E
PHOBOS 1150 W
PHOBOS 1541 E
DEIMOS 1541 E
PHOBOS 1929 W
PHOBOS 2320 E

15 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0308 W
DEIMOS 0650 W
PHOBOS 0659 E
PHOBOS 1047 W
PHOBOS 1438 E
PHOBOS 1827 W
DEIMOS 2159 E
PHOBOS 2218 E

16 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0206 W
PHOBOS 0557 E
PHOBOS 0945 W
DEIMOS 1308 W
PHOBOS 1336 E
PHOBOS 1724 W
PHOBOS 2115 E

17 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0103 W
DEIMOS 0417 E
PHOBOS 0454 E
PHOBOS 0843 W
PHOBOS 1234 E
PHOBOS 1622 W
DEIMOS 1926 W
PHOBOS 2013 E

18 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0001 W
PHOBOS 0352 E
PHOBOS 0740 W
DEIMOS 1035 E
PHOBOS 1131 E
PHOBOS 1520 W
PHOBOS 1911 E
PHOBOS 2259 W

19 MAR 2010
DEIMOS 0143 W
PHOBOS 0250 E
PHOBOS 0638 W
PHOBOS 1029 E
PHOBOS 1417 W
DEIMOS 1652 E
PHOBOS 1808 E
PHOBOS 2156 W

20 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0147 E
PHOBOS 0536 W
DEIMOS 0801 W
PHOBOS 0927 E
PHOBOS 1315 W
PHOBOS 1706 E
PHOBOS 2054 W
DEIMOS 2310 E

21 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0045 E
PHOBOS 0433 W
PHOBOS 0824 E
PHOBOS 1213 W
DEIMOS 1419 W
PHOBOS 1604 E
PHOBOS 1952 W
PHOBOS 2343 E

22 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0331 W
DEIMOS 0528 E
PHOBOS 0722 E
PHOBOS 1110 W
PHOBOS 1501 E
PHOBOS 1849 W
DEIMOS 2037 W
PHOBOS 2240 E

23 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0229 W
PHOBOS 0620 E
PHOBOS 1008 W
DEIMOS 1145 E
PHOBOS 1359 E
PHOBOS 1747 W
PHOBOS 2138 E

24 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0126 W
DEIMOS 0254 W
PHOBOS 0517 E
PHOBOS 0905 W
PHOBOS 1257 E
PHOBOS 1645 W
DEIMOS 1803 E
PHOBOS 2036 E

25 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0024 W
PHOBOS 0415 E
PHOBOS 0803 W
DEIMOS 0912 W
PHOBOS 1154 E
PHOBOS 1542 W
PHOBOS 1933 E
PHOBOS 2322 W

26 MAR 2010
DEIMOS 0021 E
PHOBOS 0313 E
PHOBOS 0701 W
PHOBOS 1052 E
PHOBOS 1440 W
DEIMOS 1530 W
PHOBOS 1831 E
PHOBOS 2219 W

27 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0210 E
PHOBOS 0558 W
DEIMOS 0639 E
PHOBOS 0950 E
PHOBOS 1338 W
PHOBOS 1729 E
PHOBOS 2117 W
DEIMOS 2147 W

28 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0108 E
PHOBOS 0456 W
PHOBOS 0847 E
PHOBOS 1235 W
DEIMOS 1256 E
PHOBOS 1626 E
PHOBOS 2014 W

29 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0006 E
PHOBOS 0354 W
DEIMOS 0405 W
PHOBOS 0745 E
PHOBOS 1133 W
PHOBOS 1524 E
PHOBOS 1912 W
DEIMOS 1914 E
PHOBOS 2303 E

30 MAR 2010
PHOBOS 0251 W
PHOBOS 0643 E
DEIMOS 1023 W
PHOBOS 1031 W
PHOBOS 1422 E
PHOBOS 1810 W
PHOBOS 2201 E

31 MAR 2010
DEIMOS 0145 E
PHOBOS 0154 W
PHOBOS 0545 E
PHOBOS 0933 W
PHOBOS 1324 E
DEIMOS 1653 W
PHOBOS 1712 W
PHOBOS 2103 E

 Good luck, and again, we’d love to hear of any confirmed sightings!

04.03.10: A Close Flyby of Phobos.

401-20080729-5851-6-na-1b-Phobos-Flyby_H1
Phobos on a pass of Mars Express last July. (Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/G. Neukum).

  

 The European Space Agencies’ (ESA) Mars Express orbiter completed the closest ever flyby of the misshapen Martian moon, Phobos, but don’t expect to see any mind blowing pictures…yet. Part of a series of 12 flybys, last nights’ pass skimmed to worldlet by 67 km, allowing its feeble gravity to deflect the space probe by a tiny but perceptible amount. This will allow engineers on the ground to get an idea of the internal density and composition of Phobos. But to do so, all instruments must be silent, so scientists can isolate minute oscillations on the probes carrier signal via the Doppler Effect. But take heart; Mars Express will further probe the moon on future passes via its MARIS radar, and will have its cameras switched on during next weeks’ March 7th pass…expect more cool pics soon!

Astro-Challenge: Can You Spot the Moons of Mars?

Mars and its moons as they appeared on the moment of their discovery in 1877. (Credit: Constructed by the Author in Starry Night).

Mars and its moons as they appeared on the moment of their discovery in 1877. (Credit: Constructed by the Author in Starry Night).

This weeks’ challenge is a toughie and not for the faint of eye sight. In 1877, American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered the Martian Moons using the newly installed 26” refracting telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Named appropriately Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror), the moons were well suited companions for Mars, the god of war. Both moons, however, are tiny; outermost Deimos is 12.6 km in size and orbits Mars once every 30.35 hours, while innermost Phobos is larger, at 22.2 km in size and orbits the Red Planet in only 7.7 hours! In fact, at an orbital radius of only 9,377 km, Phobos orbits its primary closer than any other satellite in the solar system. Both tiny misshapen worlds are believed to be captured asteroids that will, one day millions of years in the future, spiral into Mars. Most of the time, these moons lie out of the range of all but the largest telescopes; but as Mars just passed opposition this past week, however, sighting these elusive moons might just be possible. [Read more...]

29.01.10: A Failed Vision: Where does the U.S. Space Program go from here?

The launch of Ares X-1 last year; a one shot rocket? (Credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph/Kevin O'Connell).

The launch of Ares X-1 last year; a one shot rocket? (Credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph/Kevin O'Connell).

By now, everyone in the astro-blogosphere has heard the bad news concerning the Constellation program. No Ares. No Mars. No permanent presence on the Moon. This week’s announcement of Congress failing to provide funding for the future manned space program comes as a tremendous blow to all who work in and follow the space industry. All we’re left with is the vague promise of the development of a heavy lift rocket to get us out of low-Earth orbit, a promise that might be over a decade from lift-off… at this point, it seems as if we may be headed towards another lean decade, much like what struck the space program in the 70’s after Apollo.

But is there hope? Certainly, the dual forces of crisis and opportunity may well come into play here. While the shuttle program is coming to an end, the extension of the International Space Station out to 2020 assures us that our manned presence in space will indeed continue. Scientists and astronomers may quietly breathe a sigh of relief, as the axe didn’t fall on their pet space probe, and funds for small shoe-string unmanned projects won’t be sacrificed to the dollar-guzzling manned space program.  Perhaps, as some might argue, the “Apollo on steroids” approach lacked the vision to truly grab the public’s imagination and was doomed from the start. But all would ultimately acknowledge that we truly need both, a robust manned program and a diverse unmanned space exploration program. It’s true; we are in financially troubling times. Unfortunately, space exploration tends to wind up on the short list of many inside the beltway as they search for perceived pork barrel projects to cut. But history has shown that nations that cease exploration and curiosity tend to end up as historical has-beens’ as they become introspective and withdrawn. Perhaps the sight of Chinese or Indian astronauts setting up shop alongside our hallowed Apollo sites will be enough to inspire a new space race… but will it be too late? “How could this have happened?” the credulous public will then say… how did we end up so far behind?

We here at Astroguyz believe now is the time for vision and action in space. What’s needed are some truly innovative plans for exploration; how about a manned mission to an NEO such as Apophis in 2029? Or funding the shelved Terrestrial Planet Finder?  Or further exploratory landers for Europa or Titan? A heavy lift platform also gets astronomers wheels spinning as to the payloads it could launch. Now might be the time to dust off some of those innovative alternate plans that engineers were said to have been moonlighting over years back. But one thing is certain; any new drive into space must be accompanied with a twin drive in science education as seen in the 60’s to be truly effective. This week’s news may have been a major setback, but there are lots of intriguing options out there; let’s get out of low-Earth orbit and back into deep space exploration, this time, for good!

Astro Event: The Closest Full Moon of the Year.

Last year's Wolf Moon as seen from Astroguyz HQ in Hudson, Florida. (Photo by author).

Last year's Wolf Moon as seen from Astroguyz HQ in Hudson, Florida. (Photo by author).

(Editor’s note: Due to a flurry of astronomical events, February’s events of the week will be released on an accelerated schedule; hang on!)

Amid the opposition of Mars, two launches out of the KSC and the Cape next week, and an exceptionally fine elongation of Mercury in the early morning skies, this weekend brings us a special treat; the closest Full Moon of the year. This Moon, known also as the Full Wolf Moon, is technically full at precisely 06:00 Universal time on Saturday morning, the 30th of January. This comes only 3 hours prior to perigee, when the Moon is closest to Earth in its orbit. At this time, the Moon will be only 217,862 miles distant, and appear 34.1’ arc minutes in size, as opposed to 29.3’ arc minutes at apogee. An added plus is that this Full Moon occurs at a very northerly declination in the constellation Cancer, and hence will be riding high for northern hemisphere viewers all night. And don’t forget ruddy Mars, just 7° degrees north of the Moon!

The astro word for this week is albedo. Think that bright silvery Full Moon is bright? Science says otherwise. Albedo is the measure of the percentage of light reflected back by an astronomical object; 100% is a full mirror, optimal reflection, and 0% is pitch black. On Earth, fresh snow reflects about 85% of the light that falls on it, and the average albedo of Earth is about 30%, depending on the amount of cloud cover and the percentage of land versus ocean presented to the Sun. In fact, this phenomenon of reflectivity may play a key role in a lesser known effect impacting global climate; that of global dimming. Now for the real shocker; the average albedo for the Moon is about 10%, slightly less than worn asphalt! Ask the Apollo astronauts; the Moon is in fact, a very grey-to-black place! The reason that this weekend’s Full Moon looks bright is that you are seeing the sum of 5% of the Sun’s reflected light crammed into an area tinier than a fingernail at arm’s length. In fact, anyone who has stood under a 99% percent eclipsed Sun, as occurred earlier this month, will tell you that even 1% of the sun’s output is still pretty bright!

An Ephemeris of the Martian Moons.

This is a quick posting of the best apparitions of the moon of Mars, Deimos and Phobos, as promised in the Mars opposition post. The tables run for a week after opposition, and are accurate to about 10 minutes or so. I hand crafted these in Starry Night after I found a lack of info about the web for this data. Obivously, we here at Astroguyz see a definite gap that those looking to spot these ellusive beasties are in need of. With Mars at opposition, the closest Full Moon of the year, and two back to back launches, its going to be a busy last week of January…. we’ll have a larger post out on tips to spy the Martian moons this weekend!

Deimos Date EST
     
Eastern Elongation 29 6:48
Western Elongation   21:33
Eastern Elongation 30 13:01
Western Elongation 31 4:00
Eastern Elongation   19:29
Western Elongation 1 10:42
Eastern Elongation 2 1:36
Western Elongation   16:22
Eastern Elongation 3 8:04
Western Elongation   22:30
Eastern Elongation 4 14:08
Western Elongation 5 5:31
Eastern Elongation   20:07
Western Elongation 6 11:20

 

Phobos

   
   Date  EST
Eastern Elongation 29 2:48
Western Elongation   6:46
Eastern Elongation   10:29
Western Elongation   14:19
Eastern Elongation   18:13
Western Elongation   21:48
Eastern Elongation 30 1:43
Western Elongation   5:37
Eastern Elongation   9:30
Western Elongation   13:10
Eastern Elongation   17:00
Western Elongation   20:55
Eastern Elongation 31 0:49
Western Elongation   4:41
Eastern Elongation   8:30
Western Elongation   12:04
Eastern Elongation   15:56
Western Elongation   19:45
Eastern Elongation   23:42
Western Elongation 1 3:30
Eastern Elongation   7:28
Western Elongation   11:10
Eastern Elongation   14:52
Western Elongation   18:47
Eastern Elongation   22:41
Western Elongation 2 2:34
Eastern Elongation   6:30
Western Elongation   10:19
Eastern Elongation   14:00
Western Elongation   17:45
Eastern Elongation   21:40
Western Elongation 3 1:30
Eastern Elongation   5:24
Western Elongation   9:11
Eastern Elongation   12:56
Western Elongation   16:42
Eastern Elongation   20:31
Western Elongation 4 12:29
Eastern Elongation   4:20
Western Elongation   8:08
Eastern Elongation   11:52
Western Elongation   15:41
Eastern Elongation   19:30
Western Elongation   23:10
Eastern Elongation 5 3:08
Western Elongation   6:58
Eastern Elongation   10:50
Western Elongation   14:40
Eastern Elongation   18:24
Western Elongation   22:10
Eastern Elongation 6 2:05
Western Elongation   6:01
Eastern Elongation   9:42
Western Elongation   13:42
Eastern Elongation   17:26
Western Elongation   21:08

Astro-Event: Mars at Opposition.

Mars during the 2005 opposition. (Photo by Author and Graphic created in Mars Previewer).

Mars during the 2005 opposition. (Photo by Author and graphic created in Mars Previewer).

Contrary to the once-every-August viral emails soon to be clogging your inbox, Mars will not appear as “large as a Full Moon” on this or any other year… but Mars will reach opposition this week on Friday, January 29th. Unfortunately, this apparition isn’t a particularly favorable one; Mars will only reach 14.1” arc seconds in apparent diameter, a far cry from the excellent 2003 opposition where it reached 25.1”, very close to the possible max. This is due to the fact that while Earth reached perihelion earlier this month, Mars is also very close to aphelion in its relatively eccentric orbit. In fact, although Mars approaches us every two years or so, the next really good opposition won’t be until 2018 (24.3”).  Still, any opposition of the Red Planet is worth viewing, as it is rare that Mars reveals any detail at all! Mars is currently in the constellation Cancer, and rises low in the east after sunset. Shining at magnitude -1.2, Mars is unmistakable for its orange-to red glow. Do things look a bit yellowish? A planet wide dust storm could be underway, as it is entering spring on the northern hemisphere of Mars. [Read more...]

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 NASA’s 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 isn’t stellar; Phoenix has more than likely been encased in CO2 ice for several months; and don’t 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 don’t 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, Let’s hope that Phoenix lives up to its namesake and rises from the dead!

Top Astronomy Events for 2010.

(Photo credit: Art Explosion).

(Photo credit: Art Explosion).

Ah, it’s that most hallowed time of year yet again; a time to look ahead at what astro- wonders await in 2010. Here’s a quick month-by-month rundown of the curious, unique and bizarre coming to a sky near you. Like last year, rather than bore you with a laundry list of every obscure wide conjunction and moon phase, we distilled ‘em down to the best of the best. [Read more...]

08.11.09:Does Cometary Mass Extinction Need to be Rewritten?

The disconnection event of comet 73P Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA/ESA/H. Weaver STScl.)

The disconnection event of comet 73P Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA/ESA/H. Weaver STScl.)

Comets are cause all mass extinctions in Earth’s history, right? Maybe not, if new research is correct. Simulations run by the scientists at the University of Washington now suggest that the giant planets of Jupiter and Saturn may do a much more through job of cleaning up incoming debris than is generally realized. Short period comets such as Halley’s are generally accepted to be denizens of the Kuiper belt, which extends out to 100 Astronomical Units (A.U.s), while much more numerous populations of long period comets are theorized to come from the Oort cloud, a massive solar system-engulfing sphere at a distance of 1,000 A.U. to up to 3 light years distant. Traditional cometary mass extinction theory states that when a star passes close enough to the shell of the Oort cloud, a rain of comets are pried free and the inner solar system becomes a celestial shooting gallery for a million years or so. Simulations, however, suggest no more than three impacts could have occurred over the last 500 million years or so, fuel for at best maybe a minor extinction event or two. Then there’s the pesky affair of some extinct species shown to exist above the K-T iridium layer… doubtless, the case of mass extinction is a thoroughly messy business. As reported earlier last month in this space, more than one impactor is suspected in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Examination of other inner solar system bodies should pin down the frequency, duration, and average number of killer comets, as the Moon, Mars and even Mercury have relatively little erosion and would be potential targets as well. Any incoming comet stands a 40% chance of having its orbit altered by Jupiter, as happened to Hale-Bopp in the late 90′s. Thanks, Jove!

Review:Redshift 7: The Ultimate in Astronomy Software.

Redshift

Availble from Maris technologies! (Credit: Redshift).

Desktop-based planetarium programs have really come into their own in the past few years. From their early evolution in the 1980′s with computer programs written in Basic that would show you stick figure constellations, planetarium programs are now full fledged sky simulators that allow you not only to control your telescope and plan your observing sessions more effectively, but allow you to travel through space as well as time. [Read more...]