Starry Night: Curiosity has landed

Posted Wednesday, August 8, 2012 in Features

Starry Night: Curiosity has landed

Mars (courtesy NASA)

by Tristan Radtke

The beginning of August brought with it the beginning of a long-term project to study the surface of Mars, courtesy of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Rover Curiosity arrived on Mars at about 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 6, about three-quarters of a year after launching aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V vehicle on Nov. 26, 2011. The rover will study the conditions on the surface of Mars, examining rock and mineral deposits as well as searching for signs of water, in an attempt to determine whether or not the conditions to sustain life have existed on Mars in the past.

Curiosity generated quite a bit of buzz as the Mars Science Laboratory streamed the landing live across the Internet and even created mobile apps for the landing so that it could be followed by mobile phone and tablet. The landing went smoothly, particularly considering that Curiosity is by far larger than any other lander or rover sent to Mars, and the rover now begins its long-term mission as the seventh manmade object on the surface of Mars, behind the earlier Viking 1 and Viking 2, Pathfinder, Opportunity and Spirit, and Phoenix missions.

For more in-depth information about Curiosity, or about the Mars Science Laboratory and its missions, visit their website at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/.

The stars

This week, take a nice long look at the Milky Way, which bisects the Summer Triangle. It is a hazy band of light, often mistaken for clouds, that represents our view of our galaxy. Imagine for a minute that you are on a vinyl record, down in one of the grooves. As you look back toward the central disk (where the name of the record is and the artist), there is a limit to what you can see. That's kind of what it is like to see the central part of the Milky Way from our position in the western spiral arm, also known as the Orion arm. That's why our view is so narrow. Most of the individual stars we can see are located in our "arm" of the galaxy.

The planets

• Mercury: On Aug. 1, Mercury was lost in the glare of the sun. By Aug. 15, Mercury will have escaped the sun’s glare, rising around 4:15 a.m.

• Venus: On Aug. 1, Venus rose around 2:15 a.m. By mid-August, Venus will rise at about 2 a.m.

• Mars: On Aug. 1, Mars set at around 10:30 p.m. By mid-August, Mars will set in a line with Saturn and Spica, setting at about 10 p.m.

• Jupiter: Jupiter rose at 1 a.m. on Aug. 1. On Aug. 15, Jupiter will rise at 12:15 a.m.

• Saturn: On Aug. 1, Saturn set around 11 p.m. By mid-month, Saturn will set in a bright and quite visible line with Mars and Spica at about 10 p.m.

• Uranus: On Aug. 1, Uranus rose at 10:30 p.m. On Aug. 15, Uranus will rise at about 10:15 p.m.

• Neptune: On Aug. 1, Neptune rose just behind the sunset around 8 p.m. It will not have moved far by Aug. 15, rising just after sunset at around 8 p.m.

• Pluto: On Aug. 1, Pluto rose before sunset at around 6 p.m. Pluto will rise around 4:35 p.m. on Aug. 15, setting around 2:30 a.m.

The moon

The moon reached full phase on Aug. 2, waning to third quarter by Aug. 9 and to new phase on Aug. 17. The moon will reach first-quarter phase on Aug. 24, and will reach full phase before the month of September on Aug. 31, marking the first time this year that the same month had two full moons. The second full moon in a month is called a "blue moon."

Special event

The Perseid meteor shower will peak on the evenings of Aug. 12 and 13, typically after midnight. Look in the direction of Perseus. Don't bother with a telescope; the meteors happen too fast. Just a comfortable lawn chair and some bug repellent is all you need. The Perseids come from the Swift Tuttle comet, and as the Earth passes through the remnants of the dust tail of the comet, the tiny particles enter the atmosphere and burn up, leaving a dazzling show of "falling stars."

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