MAVEN & MOM at Mars


Two New Spacecraft in Orbit at Mars; MAVEN (atmospheric studies) and the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM); (atmospheric and surface detectors on board) will gather data to be shared with scientists WW. India is the only other country besides UK to successfully get a spacecraft to Mars although Beagle crash-landed. Russians have never been able to get a craft to mars successfully. Five operational craft in orbit and two on the surface. THIS EVENING – the moon is just above Mars; Saturn is a bit to the right of this pair. This fall, the young moon will pass close to these two every month; Oct. 27th, Nov. 25th. Jupiter commands pre-dawn sky. Jersey shore dwellers – this is a MUST morning observation for you! Hungry, hungry Galaxies! – Milky Way prepping to ‘eat’ two nearby irregular galaxies in four billion years. Andromeda to eat us one billion years later!

September 29, 2014


  • Indian school children pose for photographs with a poster of Mars Orbiter Mission satellite as they celebrate its success in Chennai, India, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. India triumphed in its first interplanetary mission, placing a satellite into orbit around Mars on Wednesday and catapulting the country into an elite club of deep-space explorers. (AP Photo/Arun Sankar K)

[Dave Heller] It’s getting more crowded above Mars with two more spacecrafts recently joining the three already in orbit. Let’s head out to the Red Planet with Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. Derrick, this is hardly ho-hum — it’s no easy task getting to Mars successfully.

[Derrick Pitts] That is certainly true. A number of countries have tried to send spacecraft to Mars — Russia, China, Japan, as well as the UK and the US — India has now joined that group and have sent a spacecraft to Mars. But of all those countries, it’s really only the US and India that have been successful at getting a spacecraft into orbit without incident.

Has India leap-frogged the moon, in that regard?

No, they haven’t leap-frogged the moon. They have sent spacecraft into lunar orbit. But Mars has a special quality to it that befuddles almost everyone, or fouls up everyone’s attempts to get something into orbit or down onto the surface. So, the Russians have had problems, China’s had problems; the UK almost got a spacecraft down on the surface but it crash-landed, and so no one’s had luck at that except the US at actually landing on the surface. Now India has joined us in orbiting Mars.

Maybe those Martians are intrigued by those “M” names — what’s with MAVEN and MOM?

[Laughs] Yes, they might be. So the MAVEN spacecraft is a Mars atmospheric explorer spacecraft. It’s the US-version of the spacecraft that’s going to look at the atmosphere of Mars in an attempt to figure out from the data collected from the atmosphere of Mars what might have happened to the water on the surface of Mars in Mars history? We all now clearly understand that at one time Mars was much warmer and much wetter, but the water has all disappeared from the surface now, and we need to better understand what might have caused that to happen. The Mars orbiting spacecraft from India is also going to do atmospheric studies, looking for methane to try and understand how much methane is in the atmosphere of Mars and where it could have originated from. But it also has on board cameras that will allow it to take very, very high resolution images of the surface to study the surface as well.

And, perfectly convenient, the moon is providing a great marker to find Mars in the night sky.

It’s doing so in the very early portion of its phases each month this fall. So by the time the moon reaches anywhere from 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 days old, meaning that it’s visible in the evening sky just after sunset, not far from west. Its position is going to be not far from that of Mars, and early this fall, Saturn as well. So for example tonight if you go out after sunset, look for the crescent moon, you’ll find it just above Mars and Saturn will be off to the right of the two. It’ll be small, but it won’t twinkle. That’s a good way to identify planets — stars twinkle, but planets don’t. And then as we go through the rest of the fall, October 27 you’ll find a similar situation where that thin crescent moon will be near Mars. And then it occurs again on November 25, recognizing of course that this is very early in the phasing of the moon for each of those months.

And it’s a real treat for those savoring a second summer season at the shore.

Oh, indeed it is. Because if you’re up early in the morning at the shore this fall, you’ll be able to see Jupiter very high above the eastern horizon before sunrise. Now the cool thing is that sunrise is coming later and later, so you don’t have to be out at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. 5:45 to 6:15, even 6:30 — it’ll be time enough for you to see the largest planet of our solar system, glowing brightly above the eastern horizon. It should look beautiful on those clear seashore mornings.

Hey, we spoke briefly about the Andromeda galaxy eventually overtaking and encompassing our very own Milky Way. But what we didn’t touch on then is that Andromeda is going to get a bigger bite.

It certainly will, because between now and then — and that event is going to occur five billion years from now — just one billion years before that happens, our galaxy the Milky Way will overtake two smaller galaxies. They are irregular galaxies, meaning that they are amorphous in shape, but it’s the large and the small magellanic clouds. They are galaxies rather than clouds of stars, and they’re best viewed from the southern hemisphere. But these two objects — about 170,000 lightyears away from us — happen to be on the right velocity vector for us. And the gravitational attraction between us and them is just right so that they can be consumed within our galaxy. We’ve already seen that that’s happened in our past, where the Milky Way has overtaken other galaxies and they become incorporated into ours. And the same thing will happen four billion years in the future, we’ll overtake these two smaller galaxies. And then a billion years later, the Andromeda galaxy will overtake us.

And it’s all happening in the context of an entire group of galaxies. In our case, our local group.

That is indeed the case because all of the galaxies that we’ve mentioned so far all belong group, called the local group. Now as it turns out, the Milky Way and the Adromeda galaxy are the largest members of this group. We are indeed enormous. Our galaxy has somewhere around 350 to 400 billion stars. The latest estimate for the Adromeda galaxy is that it has nearly a trillion stars. So these two enormous galaxies are sort of in the command of the whole local group, if you will. But the other some 40 members of the group all have an effect too. And just think — these 45 or so members are just one group of a cluster of clusters of galaxies, that are all held together, strung together by gravity, strung across the entire universe.

  • A mere 2.5 million light-years away, the Andromeda Galaxy really is just next door as large galaxies go. So close, and spanning some 260,000 light-years, it took 11 different image fields from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) satellite’s telescope to produce this gorgeous portrait of the spiral galaxy in ultraviolet light. While its spiral arms stand out in visible light images of Andromeda (also known as M31), the arms look more like rings in the GALEX ultraviolet view, dominated by hot, young, massive stars. As sites of intense star formation, the rings have been interpreted as evidence Andromeda collided with its smaller neighboring elliptical galaxy M32 more than 200 million years ago. The large Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way are the dominant members of the local galaxy group. Credit: GALEX, JPL-Caltech, NASA

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