Still curious one year on


Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. Perseids peak next week – try seeing some this weekend coming up even though the peak is next Monday evening Aug. 12th. Young moon won’t interfere with late night observing. Friday evening 45 minutes after sunset, look in the west for that thin crescent moon below brilliant Venus. Over the next weeks watch as Saturn sinks down toward Venus. Deep into summer now, sunsets are coming earlier, sunrises are coming later providing more evening observing time with warm temps.

August 5, 2013

[Dave Heller] Let’s extend anniversary greetings to the Mars Rover Curiosity. Tomorrow marks the start of its second year on the Red Planet. Here to get the party started is Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. Derrick, what are the highlights from the first year?

[Derrick Pitts] I think the first highlight is that the spacecraft landed safely after what has been described as seven minutes of terror! This is the period between when the spacecraft entered the atmosphere of Mars–

— Fingernails bitten down to the quick!

Absolutely, fingers bitten down to the knuckles! This is such a terrible thing to have to go through because it took seven minutes for them to know whether or not the spacecraft landed successfully. Everything went wonderfully as we well know, and it is well on its way to its destination of Mount Sharp, where it hopes to be able to look at environments where it’s hoped that they will find evidence that it was a good place for life to have developed.

  • Curiosity landing on Mars – NASA mission crew reaction, August 2012

Now previous NASA rovers have gone long beyond the extended warranty — what’s the best case scenario for Curiosity?

The best case scenario for Curiosity would be that it would double its lifetime on the surface and that would mean 20 years! It’s currently expected that its operational lifetime will easily be 10 years because it has its own on-boards power supply, and we’ve learned from previous missions how to build the spacecraft to be as robust as they possibly can be.

Derrick, let’s head out of doors. Last week we touched on the Perseid meteor shower.

I would suggest that this weekend coming up you can go out, take a look around and see if you can see a few Perseids, because the peak comes up next Monday. And next Monday there will only be a thin crescent moon in the early evening; that will set early enough so you’ll have dark skies for the rest of the night to see.

We’re of course weeks past the solstice, I presume sunsets are coming noticeably earlier now?

We’re into deep summer now. And that means that sunsets are coming earlier; sunrises are coming later. We have more nighttime to observe the sky, more dark time to observe the sky under warm conditions. And that’s really great because the Milky Way now stretches across the sky from north-northeast; almost to directly north, almost to directly south. Then in the Milky Way we can find all kinds of great constellations — Sagittarius and Scorpios are very low on the southern horizon. But what’s really important is to understand that we’re looking into arm of our galaxy, into the arms of our own spiral galaxy and seeing some of the hundreds of billions of stars that make up our galaxy.

I understand there’s a real treat for early morning risers as well.

At 5 a.m. over on the eastern side of the sky, main constellations of the winter sky: Orion, Taurus, Auriga the Charioteer, and Gemini the Twins. But it’s also accented by three great planets; we can sort of stair-step down the sky from Jupiter, down to red Mars, down to tiny but bright Mercury.

Moon is merely a crescent stage — does it make a big difference versus new moon and full moon for night gazing?

Some people think it can make a big difference in a lot of ways. As far as night gazing is concerned, certainly it can make a difference because the brighter the moon phase you have on hand, the fewer dim stars you can see. It won’t affect planets so much unless the moon is close by; the bright glare can have a big effect. But you know a couple of weeks ago, people were saying that the full moon was going to have an effect on the birth of the new royal prince in the UK.

It did, didn’t it?

Uh, no. Not at all. The reason why of course is because gravitationally speaking, the moon is always full! The moon is always full. In terms of viewing, it is the amount of the fully illuminated side of the moon that is available for us to see that makes the difference in terms of how we describe — is it crescent, is it gibbous, is it full, is it half — but just the same, no matter how much we see of it, or even if we can’t see the moon, it’s still there gravitationally full as always.

  • Phases of the moon. Image credit:

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