Archive for the ‘Mars’ Category

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The moon and Saturn tonight

April 19, 2010

It was almost freakishly clear and calm here in Claremont this evening. My friend and fellow blogger Andy Farke came over and we spent some time looking up.  First target was the waxing crescent moon. Here in town, the seeing is often so bad that at anything over 100x, the image looks like it is under a rippling sheet of water. But tonight we were able to push on to 240x with no problems. I’d say the effects of seeing (atmospheric turbulence) didn’t start to be noticeable until 120x and even at 240x it wasn’t a dealbreaker.

Here’s Mare Nectaris and vicinity (click for the larger, unlabeled version). The line of craters formed by Theophilus, Cyrillus, and Catharina is an easy catch in binoculars at this phase. The Altai Scarp is an immense range of cliffs, hundreds of miles long. Mare Nectaris formed as a multi-ringed impact basin, much like the Chicxulub crater from the “dinosaur-killer” asteroid, and the Altai Scarp is the largest surviving stretch of one of the outer rings.

We had a look at Mars, which was a well-defined disc with hints–and only hints–of detail. I suspected the ice cap from time to time, but couldn’t convince myself that I’d really seen it, as opposed to just thinking the disc looked lighter where I know the ice cap ought to be. Still, a whole ‘nuther planet, y’know? Give me a telescope and a world to point it at and I get a little giddy.

The real treat of the evening was Saturn. At 120x it was crisp and jewel-like, but at 240x it was simply astounding. I have never seen so much detail in one of my own telescopes. The photo is by far my best ever for Saturn, but it just doesn’t do it justice, not by a long shot. The whole planet was striped with pastel bands, and we could clearly see the gap between the rings and the planet. The dark band stretching across the disc is the shadow of the rings. Three moons shone out proudly to the left of the rings; Stellarium informs me that they were Dione, Rhea, and Titan, from inward to out. After Andy left I even caught little Enceladus–she of the geysers–between Dione and the rings.

I also cruised over to the globular cluster M3 and it was very nice, a contained explosion of stars. It looked better than I’ve ever seen it, which is saying something since the moon was out. Most DSOs don’t suffer unduly from bad seeing since they are extended and dim to begin with, but globs do. I’m half-tempted to haul out the scope again and have a look at M13, which ought to be up now, but I have to sleep sometime. Good night, and clear skies.

Photos taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera, shooting through an Orion SkyQuest XT10 telescope and Orion Stratus eyepieces.

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Mars landings faked!

April 1, 2010

Here’s a picture of the shadowy government “lab” where all of the images from the supposed Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are invented by Hollywood special effects artists under the direction of unscrupulous government “scientists”. As this remarkable image clearly shows, each rover has only a small sandbox to roll around in. The rest of each faked image is created by the holographic projector standing on the yellow tripod in the middle of the room. The technology used to bilk the unsuspecting public out of  billions of dollars has come a long way since the moon landing hoax!

How much longer are we going to let the incompetent liars at NASA keep taking our tax dollars to support this transparent fraud!!?? Just Say No to the Fake Space Show! Contact your senator or representative today!

(For those without much sense, or a sense of humor: this is a joke, obviously!)

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Mission 16: MARS!

January 26, 2010

Mission Objective: Planet

Equipment: Telescope

Required Time: 10 minutes

Related Missions: Ring of Fire

Instructions: Go outside after dark, face east, and look for a red star. It may help to get to Mars by way of the ring of bright seasonal stars that are also climbing the eastern sky on winter evenings.

On January 29, Mars will be at opposition, when it is directly opposite the sun from us. That means (by definition!) that it rises at sunset and sets at dawn, just like the full moon–in fact, you could say that the moon is full when it is at opposition. So you’ll have to wait a while after sunset before Mars will be very far up the sky. The best time to observe is when Mars is at the zenith and you’re looking through the least atmosphere possible, which happens around midnight.

For observers, the oppositions of Mars vary more noticeably than those of any other planet. The orbit of Mars is considerably more elliptical than that of Earth, so sometimes when we pass each other we are very close, and sometimes not so much–the Earth-Mars distance at opposition (when Mars is directly opposite the sun from us, and therefore as close as it is going to get on that pass) varies from about 35 million miles to something like 60 million miles. Right now we’re at the long end, and 2012 will be about equally as bad. The next close approach is 2018.

Still, Mars is as good as it’s  going to get for two years, so you might as well have a look. Last night I was able to see tantalizing detail at 92x in my six-inch reflector using a 13mm eyepiece. I put in a Barlow lens to double the magnification. Using that and the 3x optical zoom on my Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera, I got the shot at the top of this post, which is comparable to what I could see at the eyepiece. Here’s a labeled version:

The telescope inverts the image by 180 degrees, and I didn’t bother to flip it. Presenting planets southside up is pretty much the standard for solar system astrophotography, to the extent that the map of Mars in the December Sky & Telescope had the south at the top. That map is by expert solar system imager Damian Peach, and I used it to identify the features shown above. If you want to see some really mind-blowing shots of Mars and the other planets, check out Peach’s website. My Mars shot is pretty similar–in terms of part of the planet shown, not clarity!–to the second photo from the top on this page.

That’s all for now. Go explore the red planet. If you don’t have a scope or it’s too cold to set one up (one guy on Cloudy Nights posted a Mars shot he took on a night when it was -36C at his place in Russia!) at least go outside and have a look. Spirit and Opportunity are still up there, six years on. If you do see Mars, throw ’em a friendly wave, or maybe a salute. They’re doing us proud.

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Mission 15: Ring of Fire

January 16, 2010

Mission Objectives: Bright Stars, Constellations

Equipment: Naked eye

Required Time: 2 minutes

Related Missions: Three Astronomical Treats for Naked Eyes, Binoculars, and Telescopes

Introduction: It’s a new mission for a new year. New stars are in the skies, and it’s the perfect time to start exploring the heavens–for the first time if you’re new to this, or exploring it again if you’re an old hand. This mission requires no prior knowledge, experience, or equipment; it’s just about getting out and getting acquainted with the night sky.

Instructions: Go outside after dark, face southeast, and find three stars in a straight, vertical line. These are the stars of Orion’s belt. They are flanked on either side by twin bright stars of roughly equal brightness but different color. On the left is Betelgeuse, an enormous red giant that appears yellow to the naked eye. On the right is Rigel, a blue-white supergiant.

Follow the line made by the belt stars down to even brighter Sirius. Sirius is the brightest star in Earthly skies, but it’s a not a giant or supergiant like Betelgeuse and Rigel. In fact, Sirius is a main-sequence star, a little less than twice the diameter of the sun, but about 26 times as bright. By comparison, Rigel is about 40,000 times as bright as the sun. But Rigel is 773 light years away, whereas Sirius is only 8.6 light years from us–the fifth closest stellar system to our own. Sirius, the Dog Star, is the chief star in the constellation Canis Major.

From Sirius, hang a right-angle left turn and head on to Procyon, “before the dog”, so named because it rises just a few minutes before Sirius from mid-northern latitudes. The small and otherwise dim constellation Canis Minor has little else to recommend it, and Procyon serves mainly as a celestial landmark.

Farther left still, and farther up in the sky, are the twins, Castor and Pollux, at the head of the constellation Gemini. If you have trouble keeping them straight, remember that “Castor is close to Capella, but Pollux is in proximity to Procyon”.

Speaking of Capella, it’s the very bright star directly toward the zenith from Castor and Pollux. It’s a brilliant gem in a ring of prominent stars that mark out the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer (this is not the big ring marked in red on the diagram above, but the much smaller blue-white ring on the upper left).

To the right of Capella is Aldebaran, the burning red eye of Taurus, the Bull. Aldebaran means “the follower”, because this star rises after the Pleiades, which it appears to chase from horizon to horizon (to trace that line, see the previous mission). Aldebaran is an orange giant, meaning that it has exhausted the hydrogen in its core and moved off the main sequence. Without the outward pressure of radiation from hydrogen fusion to prop it up, the core of the star is compacting under gravity and heating up. When it gets hot and dense enough to start fusing helium, Aldebaran will bloat into an immense red giant, like its neighbor, Betelgeuse.

And speaking of Betelgeuse, it lies in the middle of the great circle described by Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Castor and Pollux, Capella, and Aldebaran. I call it the Ring of Fire–nowhere else in the northern sky is there an equal concentration of bright stars.

Below and to the left (east and north) of the Ring of Fire is Mars, which will be at opposition–opposite the sun, and at its closest approach to Earth–in a couple of weeks. The orbit of Mars is more elliptical than that of Earth, and this will not be one of the better oppositions, but it’s still the best look at the red planet that we’ll get for another two years.

What’s next? This mission was just a lightning run through the bright stars of winter. Their respective constellations are packed full of beautiful targets for binoculars and telescopes, and we’ll look at some of those in future missions. If you’re impatient to get started, download this month’s The Evening Sky Map, haul out your optics, and happy hunting!

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Get your Mars on

November 6, 2009

Victoria crater small

The Boston Globe’s The Big Picture feature covers Mars today, thanks to the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. See craters, dunes, water-eroded gullies, dust devils, and the tracks of our rovers, courtesy of what is still the coolest non-Hubble camera in existence.

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More mind-blowing pictures from our robotic servants

September 12, 2009

butterfly_hst_big

There is a certain segment of the population that, when encouriaged to get outside to do a little stargazing, says, “Nah, I’ll stay inside and surf for pictures on the internet.” I don’t advocate doing this instead of going outside and seeing things for yourself, but I’m certainly not opposed to surfing for pictures in addition to stargazing. And this is a good time to do it!

Hubble is back, baby, and the Hubble team showed off the rejuvenated telescope’s mojo with a ream of mind-bendingly awesome pictures, many taken by the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3).  These have turned up all over the astro-blogosphere. My favorite is the Butterfly Nebula, NGC 6302, a planetary nebula blown off by a dying star (at top). Would that we could all go out with such grace.

Mars craters from HiRISE

For my money, the coolest non-Hubble camera in existence is the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image above shows craters and ridges in Hesperia Planum (full version here). The archive of publicly available images from HiRISE continues to grow; go here and spend some time exploring another planet.