The Moon, Mars and Saturn and the Lyrid meteor shower!
The Moon, Mars and Saturn
The Moon, Mars and Saturn form a pretty triangle in early April, the Lyrid Meteors are visible in late April, peaking high overhead on the 22nd.
You won’t want to miss red Mars and golden Saturn in the south-southeast morning skies this month. Mars shines a little brighter than last month.
By the 7th, the Moon joins the pair. From a dark sky you may see some glow from the nearby Milky Way.
Midmonth, start looking for Lyrid meteors, which are active from April 14 through the 30th. They peak on the 22nd.
The Lyrids are one of the oldest known meteor showers and have been observed for 2,700 years. The first recorded sighting of a Lyrid meteor shower goes back to 687 BC by the Chinese. The pieces of space debris that interact with our atmosphere to create the Lyrids originate from comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. Comet Thatcher was discovered on 5 April 1861 by A. E. Thatcher.
In the early morning sky, a patient observer will see up to more than a dozen meteors per hour in this medium-strength shower, with 18 meteors per hour calculated for the peak. U.S. observers should see good rates on the nights before and after this peak.
A bright first quarter moon plays havoc with sky conditions, marring most of the typically faint Lyrid meteors. But Lyra will be high overhead after the moon sets at midnight, so that’s the best time to look for Lyrids.
Jupiter & Juno
Jupiter will also be visible in the night sky this month!
Through a telescope, Jupiter’s clouds belts and zones are easy to see.
And watch the Great Red Spot transit–or cross–the visible (Earth-facing) disk of Jupiter every 8 hours.
Our Juno spacecraft continues to orbit this gas giant, too!
And Juno’s JunoCam citizen science team is creating exciting images of Jupiter’s features based on the latest spacecraft data.
Next month Jupiter is at opposition–when it rises at sunset, sets at sunrise, and offers great views for several months!
“The first TV image of Mars, hand colored strip-by-strip, from Mariner 4 in 1965. The completed image was framed and presented to JPL director, William H. Pickering. Truly a labor of love for science!” -Kristen Erickson, NASA Science Engagement and Partnerships Director
“There are so many stories to this image. It is a global image, but relates to an individual in one glance. There are stories on social, economic, population, energy, pollution, human migration, technology meets science, enable global information, etc., that we can all communicate with similar interests under one image.” -Winnie Humberson, NASA Earth Science Outreach Manager
“Whenever I see this picture, I wonder…if another species saw this blue dot what would they say and would they want to discover what goes on there…which is both good and bad. However, it would not make a difference within the eternity of space—we’re so insignificant…in essence just dust in the galactic wind—one day gone forever.”
-Dwayne Brown, NASA Senior Communications Official
“I observed the Galactic Center with several X-ray telescopes before Chandra, including the Einstein Observatory and ROSAT. But the Chandra image looks nothing like those earlier images, and it reminded me how complex the universe really is. Also I love the colors.” -Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division
“This image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite captured a unique view of the Moon as it moved in front of the sunlit side of Earth in 2015. It shows a view of the farside of the Moon, which faces the Sun, that is never directly visible to us here on Earth. I found this perspective profoundly moving and only through our satellite views could this have been shared.” -Michael Freilich, Director NASA Earth Science Division
“Pluto was so unlike anything I could imagine based on my knowledge of the Solar System. It showed me how much about the outer solar system we didn’t know. Truly shocking, exciting and wonderful all at the same time.” -Jim Green, Director, NASA Planetary Science Division
“This high-resolution, false color image of Pluto is my favorite. The New Horizons flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 capped humanity’s initial reconnaissance of every major body in the solar system. To think that all of this happened within our lifetime! It’s a reminder of how privileged we are to be alive and working at NASA during this historic era of space exploration.” – Laurie Cantillo, NASA Planetary Science Public Affairs Officer
“The Solar System family portrait, because it is a symbol what NASA exploration is really about: Seeing our world in a new and bigger way.” – Thomas H. Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate
This month, at sunset, catch elusive Mercury, bright Venus, the Zodiacal Light, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter between midnight and dawn!
Both Venus and Mercury play the part of “evening stars” this month. At the beginning of the month they appear low on the western horizon.
The Moon itself joins the pair from March 18th through the 20th.
The Moon skims by the Pleiades star cluster and Taurus’s bright red star Aldebaran on the next few evenings, March 21 through the 23rd.
Jupiter, king of the planets, rises just before midnight this month and earlier by month end.
Even through the smallest telescope or average binoculars, you should see the 4 Galilean moons, Europa, Io, Callisto and Ganymede.
The March morning sky offers dazzling views of Mars and Saturn all month long.
Through a telescope, you can almost make out some of the surface features on Mars.
Look a little farther into Mars’ future and circle May 5th with a red marker. When our InSight spacecraft launches for its 6 month journey to the Red Planet, Mars will be easily visible to your unaided eye.
Keep watching Mars as it travels closer to Earth. It will be closest in late July, when the red planet will appear larger in apparent diameter than it has since 2003!
You are in for a real treat if you can get away to a dark sky location on a moonless night this month – the Zodiacal Light and the Milky Way intersect!
The Zodiacal light is a faint triangular glow seen from a dark sky just after sunset in the spring or just before sunrise in the fall.
The more familiar Milky Way is one of the spiral arms of our galaxy.
What we’re seeing is sunlight reflecting off dust grains that circle the Sun in the inner solar system. These dust grains journey across our sky in the ecliptic, the same plane as the Moon and the planets.
This animation blinks between two images of our Mars Phoenix Lander. The first – dark smudges on the planet’s surface. The second – the same Martian terrain nearly a decade later, covered in dust. Our Mars orbiter captured this shot as it surveyed the planet from orbit: the first in 2008. The second: late 2017.
In August 2008, Phoenix completed its three-month mission studying Martian ice, soil and atmosphere. The lander worked for two additional months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning. The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive through the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter.
Applying Wallpaper: 1. Click on the screen resolution you would like to use. 2. Right-click on the image (control-click on a Mac) and select the option ‘Set the Background’ or ‘Set as Wallpaper’ (or similar).
1. The Fault in Our Mars
This image from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of northern Meridiani Planum shows faults that have disrupted layered deposits. Some of the faults produced a clean break along the layers, displacing and offsetting individual beds.
Our Juno spacecraft captured this image when the spacecraft was only 11,747 miles (18,906 kilometers) from the tops of Jupiter’s clouds – that’s roughly as far as the distance between New York City and Perth, Australia. The color-enhanced image, which captures a cloud system in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere, was taken on Oct. 24, 2017, when Juno was at a latitude of 57.57 degrees (nearly three-fifths of the way from Jupiter’s equator to its north pole) and performing its ninth close flyby of the gas giant planet.
After more than 13 years at Saturn, and with its fate sealed, our Cassini spacecraft bid farewell to the Saturnian system by firing the shutters of its wide-angle camera and capturing this last, full mosaic of Saturn and its rings two days before the spacecraft’s dramatic plunge into the planet’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017.
Saturn’s moon Enceladus drifts before the rings, which glow brightly in the sunlight. Beneath its icy exterior shell, Enceladus hides a global ocean of liquid water. Just visible at the moon’s south pole (at bottom here) is the plume of water ice particles and other material that constantly spews from that ocean via fractures in the ice. The bright speck to the right of Enceladus is a distant star. This image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 6, 2011.
Our Solar Dynamics Observatory came across an oddity this week that the spacecraft has rarely observed before: a dark filament encircling an active region (Oct. 29-31, 2017). Solar filaments are clouds of charged particles that float above the Sun, tethered to it by magnetic forces. They are usually elongated and uneven strands. Only a handful of times before have we seen one shaped like a circle. (The black area to the left of the brighter active region is a coronal hole, a magnetically open region of the Sun).
See Jupiter’s southern hemisphere in beautiful detail in this image taken by our Juno spacecraft. The color-enhanced view captures one of the white ovals in the “String of Pearls,” one of eight massive rotating storms at 40 degrees south latitude on the gas giant planet. The image was taken on Oct. 24, 2017, as Juno performed its ninth close flyby of Jupiter. At the time the image was taken, the spacecraft was 20,577 miles (33,115 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet.
Our Cassini spacecraft obtained this panoramic view of Saturn’s rings on Sept. 9, 2017, just minutes after it passed through the ring plane. The view looks upward at the southern face of the rings from a vantage point above Saturn’s southern hemisphere.
This sequence of images from our Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the Sun from its surface to its upper atmosphere all taken at about the same time (Oct. 27, 2017). The first shows the surface of the sun in filtered white light; the other seven images were taken in different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light. Note that each wavelength reveals somewhat different features. They are shown in order of temperature, from the first one at about 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit (6,000 degrees Celsius) on the surface, out to about 10 million degrees in the upper atmosphere. Yes, the sun’s outer atmosphere is much, much hotter than the surface. Scientists are getting closer to solving the processes that generate this phenomenon.
This orthographic projection shows dwarf planet Ceres as seen by our Dawn spacecraft. The projection is centered on Occator Crater, home to the brightest area on Ceres. Occator is centered at 20 degrees north latitude, 239 degrees east longitude.
This image from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a small portion of the floor of Coprates Chasma, a large trough within the Valles Marineris system of canyons. Although the exact sequence of events that formed Coprates Chasma is unknown, the ripples, mesas, and craters visible throughout the terrain point to a complex history involving multiple mechanisms of erosion and deposition. The main trough of Coprates Chasma ranges from 37 miles (60 kilometers) to 62 miles (100 kilometers) in width.
Quadrantid meteors, a West Coast-favoring total lunar eclipse and time to start watching Mars!
This month the new year’s first meteor shower fizzles, Mars meets Jupiter in the morning sky and the U.S. will enjoy a total lunar eclipse!
Most meteor showers radiate from recognizable constellations. Like the Leonids, Geminids and Orionids.
But the Quadrantids are meteors that appear to radiate from the location of the former Quadrans Muralis constellation, an area that’s now part of the constellation Bootes.
The Quadrantids’ peak lasts for just a few hours, and sadly, this year their timing coincides with a very bright, nearly full moon that will wash out most of the meteors.
You can look in any direction to see all the meteor showers. When you see one of these meteors, hold a shoestring along the path it followed. The shoestring will lead you back to the constellation containing the meteor’s origin.
On the morning of January 6th, look in the south-southeast sky 45 minutes before sunrise to see Jupiter and fainter Mars almost as close as last month’s Jupiter and Venus close pairing.
Mars is only one-sixth the apparent diameter of Jupiter, but the two offer a great binocular and telescopic view with a pretty color contrast. They remain in each other’s neighborhood from January 5th through the 8th.
Finally, to end the month, a great total lunar eclipse favors the western U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii and British Columbia on January 31st. Australia and the Pacific Ocean are well placed to see a major portion of the eclipse–if not all of it.
In late December 2014, an underwater volcano in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga erupted and sent a violent stream of steam, ash and rock into the air. The ash plumes rose as high as 30,000 feet (9 kilometers) into the sky and diverted airline flights.
Most new oceanic islands often wash away quickly within a few months. The island doesn’t have an official name, and is referred to as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai after two older islands to either side.
But this island was different. One of our satellites that detects volcanic eruptions alerted our scientists who were very excited because this type of explosive, undersea eruption is rare. In fact, the new Tongan island is one of only three of this kind of volcanic islands in the past 150 years to emerge and survive. It’s now three years old.
Zooming in from Space
The baby island is also the first of its kind to emerge in the modern satellite era. This is really important since it’s difficult to send our researchers the South Pacific every month to see how the island has changed – which it did very rapidly, especially in the first six months. But satellites in space delivered monthly views which we used to make these high resolution, 3-D topographic maps. With these maps, we tracked the early life and evolution of the island in unprecedented detail.
In April 2015, we watched an isthmus bridge begin forming from the new island to the older island neighboring it to the east. Soft volcanic material, especially on the island’s southern side, was eroded by the ocean and deposited on the tail end, which grew and grew till it reached the other island. It’s about 1600 feet (500 meters) across, or the length of 5 football fields.
The erosive forces of the ocean broke down the southern wall of the crater lake in May 2015. We thought this might mean that the island wouldn’t last much longer because the ocean could now attack the interior of the island’s tuff cone. But in June, a sandbar formed, closing off the lake again and protecting the interior. The sandbar has been in place ever since.
Monitoring these changes of both erosion and growth, we now believe that the island will last from between 6 to 30 years!
Why has the island survived for three years? What makes eroding it away harder than for other blink-and-you-miss-it oceanic islands that disappear into the sea after a few months? To answer these questions, we need rock samples.
Working with the Tongan government, we recruited two French citizens sailing around the world who were in Tongan waters in June, 2017, to go to the new island on our behalf. We treated them like astronauts and gave them instructions to take pictures and samples of the volcanic rocks at locations we could see from space along the coasts, the interior of the crater lake, and from the top of the tuff cone.
They did a fantastic job documenting each sample and where it came from, and then mailed the box of rocks back to our team at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where they are currently being analyzed. We believe that after the eruption, warm seawater mixed with volcanic ash to chemically alter it so that when it hardened into rock it was a tougher material. We’re excited to see if the rock samples confirm this.
Did these Martian volcanoes form in an ocean or lake? If they did, wet environments such as these combined with heat from volcanic processes may be prime locations to search for evidence of past life. We may not know until we arrive on the red planet, but by studying Earth’s landforms, we’ll be better prepared when we do.
Planning a trip to the Moon? Mars? You’re going
to need good tires…
Exploration requires mobility. And whether you’re on Earth
or as far away as the Moon or Mars, you need good tires to get your vehicle
from one place to another. Our decades-long work developing tires for space
exploration has led to new game-changing designs and materials. Yes, we’re
reinventing the wheel—here’s why.
Wheels on the Moon
Early tire designs were focused on moving hardware and
astronauts across the lunar surface. The last NASA vehicle to visit the Moon
was the Lunar Roving Vehicle during our Apollo
missions. The vehicle used four large flexible wire mesh wheels with stiff
inner frames. We used these Apollo era tires as the inspiration for new designs
using newer materials and technology to better function on a lunar surface.
Up springs a new idea
During the mid-2000s, we worked with industry partner
Goodyear to develop the Spring
Tire, an airless compliant tire that consists of several hundred coiled
steel wires woven into a flexible mesh, giving the tires the ability to support
high loads while also conforming to the terrain. The Spring Tire has been
proven to generate very good traction and durability in soft sand and on rocks.
Spring Tires for Mars
A little over a year after the Mars Curiosity Rover landed
on Mars, engineers began to notice significant wheel damage in 2013 due to the
unexpectedly harsh terrain. That’s when engineers began developing new Spring Tire
prototypes to determine if they would be a new and better solution for
exploration rovers on Mars.
In order for Spring Tires to go the distance on Martian
terrain, new materials were required. Enter nickel titanium,
a shape memory alloy with amazing capabilities that allow the tire to deform
down to the axle and return to its original shape.
These tires can take a lickin’
After building the shape memory alloy tire, Glenn engineers
sent it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Life Test Facility. It
performed impressively on the punishing track.
Why reinvent the wheel? It’s worth it.
New, high performing tires would allow lunar and Mars rovers
to explore greater regions of the surface than currently possible. They conform
to the terrain and do not sink as much as rigid wheels, allowing them to carry
heavier payloads for the same given mass and volume. Also, because they absorb
energy from impacts at moderate to high speeds, there is potential for use on
crewed exploration vehicles which are expected to move at speeds significantly
higher than the current Mars rovers.
Airless tires on Earth
Maybe. Recently, engineers and materials scientists have
been testing a spinoff tire version that would work on cars and trucks on
Earth. Stay tuned as we
continue to push the boundaries on traditional concepts for exploring our world
Every day, our spacecraft and people are exploring the solar system. Both the public and the private sectors are contributing to the quest. For example, here are ten things happening just this week:
1. We deliver.
The commercial space company Orbital ATK is targeting Saturday, Nov. 11 for the launch of its Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. Cygnus is launching on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, carrying cargo and scientific experiments to the six people currently living on the microgravity laboratory.
Our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) sure does—and from very close range. This robotic spacecraft has been orbiting Earth’s companion since 2009, returning views of the lunar surface that are so sharp they show the footpaths made by Apollo astronauts. Learn more about LRO and the entire history of lunar exploration at NASA’s newly-updated, expanded Moon site: moon.nasa.gov
4. Meanwhile at Mars…
Another sharp-eyed robotic spacecraft has just delivered a fresh batch of equally detailed images. Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) surveys the Red Planet’s surface daily, and you can see the very latest pictures of those exotic landscapes HERE. We currently operate five—count ‘em, five—active missions at Mars, with another (the InSight lander) launching next year. Track them all at: mars.nasa.gov.
5. Always curious.
One of those missions is the Curiosity rover. It’s currently climbing a rocky highland dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge, turning its full array of instruments on the intriguing geology there. Using those instruments, Curiosity can see things you and I can’t.
6. A new Dawn.
Our voyage to the asteroid belt has a new lease on life. The Dawn spacecraft recently received a mission extension to continue exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. This is exciting because minerals containing water are widespread on Ceres, suggesting it may have had a global ocean in the past. What became of that ocean? Could Ceres still have liquid today? Ongoing studies from Dawn could shed light on these questions.
7. There are eyes everywhere.
When our Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander, and three on the rover, Sojourner. Since then, photo sensors that were improved by the space program have shrunk in size, increased in quality and are now carried in every cellphone. That same evolution has returned to space. Our Mars 2020 mission will have more “eyes” than any rover before it: a grand total of 23, to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere, and assist science instruments.
8. Voyage to a hidden ocean.
One of the most intriguing destinations in the solar system is Jupiter’s moon Europa, which hides a global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Our Europa Clipper mission sets sail in the 2020s to take a closer look than we’ve ever had before. You can explore Europa, too: europa.nasa.gov
9. Flight of the mockingbird.
On Nov. 10, the main belt asteroid 19482 Harperlee, named for the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird, makes its closest approach to Earth during the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun. Details HERE. Learn more about asteroids HERE. Meanwhile, our OSIRIS-REx mission is now cruising toward another tiny, rocky world called Bennu.
10. What else is up this month?
For sky watchers, there will be a pre-dawn pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the Moon will shine near some star clusters, and there will be meteor activity all month long. Catch our monthly video blog for stargazers HERE.
By using sophisticated instruments – tools that can measure the vital signs of a planet – InSight will delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the clues left by the earliest stages of planetary formation.
Previous Mars missions have explored the surface history of the Red Planet. Mars has been less geologically active than Earth, so it retains a more complete record of its history in its core, mantle and crust. InSight will study the sizes, densities and overall structure of the Red Planet’s core, mantle and crust.
The lander will also measure the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interior, and provide glimpses into the evolutionary processes of all the rocky planets in our solar system, including Earth, and even those circling other stars!
Send Your Name to Mars!
You can send your name to Mars onboard the InSight lander! The deadline to get your Martian boarding pass is Nov. 1. To submit your name, visit: mars.nasa.gov/syn/insight