Planets and Spacecraft

We are less than a week away from the MSL landing on Mars, and toward the end of August the Dawn mission leaves its orbit around asteroid Vesta and heads to the other side of the main asteroid belt to dwarf planet Ceres.

August 6 – 5:30 am CDT

This week Asteroid Vesta will be passing through the stars of the open cluster the Hyades – the face of Taurus the Bull. On the 6th it will be less than half a degree, actually around 14 minutes,  from the reddish star Aldebaran. Vesta is at a magnitude of around 7-8 so it is technically beyond naked eye visibility but from experience I know that it will be as a star-like point of light in binoculars. And given the star field it will be passing through makes it all the more easy to observe.
While out this week keep an eye out for the International Space Station. From my home there is what I would guess is a rare opportunity to see the ISS 4 times in one day – two in the morning and two that night on Monday the 6th. Throughout this week there are several opportunities so be sure to check the ‘sightings’ web (http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/cities/skywatch.cgi?country=United+Statessite for visibility in your area.
This Sunday evening go outside and look above the western horizon for a trio of relatively bright stars forming a triangle. The vertical base of the triangle is formed by Saturn and the star Spica while the west pointing tip of the triangle is the planet Mars. Within a few hours of your evening observation the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, will be landing near the 96 mile diameter Gale Crater.  At 12:31 am CDT on August 6th we should receive radio verification from the vehicle that is has landed – which including radio travel time from Mars means that the rover has actually been on the surface for nearly the past 14 minutes.
Click here to visit the Mars Science Laboratory web site.

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