Mars Transits the Sun

saturn-mars-heliocentric_conjunction   Yes there will be a transit of the Sun by Mars, however you would have to be on the planet Saturn to see this transit as this graphic shows. This astronomical event is known as a heliocentric conjunction. It is determined by measuring, along the ecliptic, the angle between the Earth’s vernal equinox longitude, 0o, and a planet as would be seen if you were on the Sun.
   The Mars – Saturn heliocentric conjunction is on Saturday, 14 June, at 18 UT (1 pm CDT).
   While the short video below, taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover, is not a transit of the Sun by Mars it does show a transit of the Sun by Mercury as seen from the surface of Mars.

Caution: Objects viewed with an optical aid are further than they appear.
   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.

Imbolog 2014

shadowsGroundhog Day
   It has become a tradition in the United States to watch for a ground hog to emerge on the 2nd of February. We know this as Groundhog Day, an event that originates from ancient Celtic tradition. Groundhog Day was known as Imbolog, or sheep’s milk, a time for nurturing young sheep and planting spring crops. The belief arose that if Imbolog were to be sunny and clear, then winter’s effects would endure, foreshadowing a long winter. However, if skies were overcast, then the warmer days of spring would arrive early. To farmers then and today, an early spring means early spring planting and a subsequent early harvest. Often fires were lit to commemorate the event as fires were a sign of warmth and light, both of which increased as days lengthened.

   German immigrant farmers are credited with bringing Groundhog Day with them to the United States as they settled in Pennsylvania. To them, February 2 was called Candlemas Day, because of the practice of lighting candles on this day in celebration of early planting. The Germans believed that the badger was able to predict the weather on the basis of whether or not its shadow appeared. If the badger, or ground hog, saw its shadow on Candlemas it would be scared and return to its burrow for another six weeks-to sleep through the long winter. However if the skies were overcast then no shadow would appear, and an early warm spring would be expected.

   So year after year, since 1898, crowds have gathered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2 to wait for a certain ground hog to emerge from its burrow. Today the belief in this as a predictor of weather is not nearly as consequential as it appears despite all the hoopla created by the news media. Yet there is some scientific rationale to the ritual, albeit not in the accuracy of the forecast. When the skies are clear temperatures tend to be cold as the ground radiates heat absorbed during the day back into the atmosphere. When skies are overcast, temperatures tend to moderate as clouds trap heat nearer the ground.

Caution: Objects viewed with an optical aid are further than they appear.
   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.

It’s About Mars

Click on image to see full size

Click on image to see full size

   Tomorrow morning, 17 August, an hour or so before sunrise look toward the eastern horizon for the planet Mars to rise with the constellation of the Gemini Twins. Mars will be less than 5 degrees from the the star Pollux and easily see together with Mars within the field of view of binoculars as the inset to the graphic on the right shows.
mars jupiter   Shortly after sunrise Mars will reach an interesting position in its orbit relative to the Sun and the planet Jupiter. Both Mars and Jupiter will be at heliocentric conjunction with each other. Both planets will be at approximately 93 degrees heliocentric longitude.

   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

It’s the Time of the Season

A Martian Year

A Martian Year – at One Earth Month Intervals

   Today is the northern hemisphere spring equinox on the planet Mars as the planet transitions from winter to spring during its 684 Earth day orbit around the Sun. Seasons on Mars are marked by the planet’s heliocentric longitude coordinates using the position of Mars along its orbit around the Sun. Each seasonal start/ending point is 90 degrees apart, but because of its elliptical-shaped orbit each Martian season is of varying lengths. At the Martian spring equinox Mars is at 0 degrees longitude.
   I’m not exactly sure why this particular date is used but by international agreement astronomers have selected 11 April, 1955 as 0 degrees for year 1 of this Martian calendar. What this means is that today, 31 July Earth time, is the start of a ‘new year’, the first day of spring for year 32 using the aforementioned calendar system.

Year 32
0 degrees — Spring Equinox — Jul 31 2013
90 degrees — Summer solstice — Feb 15 2014
180 degrees — Fall Equinox — Aug 17 2014
270 degrees — Winter Solstice — Jan 11 2015
Year 33
0 degrees — Spring Equinox — Jun 18 2015

Learn a little (or a lot) more about Mars at the NASA/JPL Mars Curiosity mission web site.

Here is approximately 3 minutes worth of Mars from the Orbit performance.

   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information.

Are We Curious?

    In a recent Letter to the Editor in the Kansas City Star newspaper a reader sort of went off about and against the current mission to Mars. “‘Curiosity’ space waste’“. The current mission to Mars is described as a waste of money and the letter writer questions “who cares”, except “those making billions of dollars.”
    Consider the name of the Rover – Curiosity. That is an apt description of who we are.
We are curious

    Without that curiosity the computer I am typing this on, the Internet it will travel on, even the machinery at the newspaper building, are just some examples of what curiosity is capable of doing. Not to mention learning more about ourselves and our planet.
    As an educator and parent (the same thing) I cannot imagine a world without curiosity – for myself as a life-long learner, or for those I am teaching. If we do not instill and nourish curiosity, encourage asking questions and seeking answers we will continue to fall further behind many other countries who apparently value education more than we do. Our great country currently has fallen to 14th in Science Education and 18th in Math Education. There is certainly something wrong about that.
    As for the “billions of dollars”, that was money spent for jobs in our country. What’s wrong with that?
    I care, and I’m sure I am not the only one.

On the Road Again

Martian regolith on Curiosity’s wheels

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has left the nest so to speak as it begins the first trek, about 400 meters, across Mars toward a science target not yet determined. However I am in favor of making a stop at Winstead’s for some burgers and fries!
Seriously, at this first stop the mission controllers will run some tests using the robotic arm.

Click here to read the NASA Press Release.

Narrated MSL Landing

Here is a neat 4 minute video (What’s It Like To Land On Mars) narrated by Adam Steltzner, Team Leader for the EDL and the Mast Camera on Curiosity Rover. Among other things that I like about this video is how it illustrates a way to use an online simulation, NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System.
What I also enjoy is the thought that there may be many students of mine, classroom and Planetarium, who know Mr. Steltzner from another NASA video – and I think the original “… Minutes of Terror” video. This was “Six Minutes of Terror“, the video describing EDL for the MER Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.


They will remember him as the “smack” guy who describes the impacts the air-bag encased rovers will make when each hits the Martian surface at 40 G.

Click here to watch the Six Minutes of Terror video on YouTube.

Click here to view the narrated MSL Landing video on YouTube.