Across the Universe: Spotting Ceres
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2015 Ceres was the first body found in the region between Mars and Jupiter now called the Asteroid Belt. In the late 1700s Titius and Bode had noted a pattern in planet positions that suggested there should be a planet in the gap between Mars and Jupiter; on New Year’s Day of 1801, Father Giuseppi Piazzi found Ceres from his observatory in Sicily. They expected a planet, so that’s what they called Ceres – though William Herschel, who had just discovered the gas giant Uranus, sniffed that such a tiny dot of light was neither planet nor star (Latin, “aster”) but a mere “asteroid.” Only fifty years later, when a number of other such small bodies had been found, did Ceres and the other asteroids get “demoted” to the status of “minor planet.” (And later work showed that the Titius-Bode pattern which predicted a planet at Ceres’ position was actually just … Continue reading

Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn
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Also in Exploring the Solar System Exploring the Solar System: The Mass of the Sun Marvellous Mars Drawing Workshop at Dunsink Observatory Dublin Astronomical Sketching – Education in action Stars Wonderful Stars at Wexford Town Library Ireland Get ready the Perseids are coming Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016 On the richness of the lunar surface Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn View the entire series … Continue reading

Bringing Mars to Earth – Educational Outreach
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  Mars is an extraordinary planet , its textures and exquisite beauty have been brought to Earth by the images of HiRise on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter . Curiosity gives us a ground eye view as it drove through Gale crater and on to Mount Sharp. From Earth by eye Mars is but a tiny pink dot , in small telescopes it becomes a slightly larger pink dot . It is not easy to see detail on Mars for most people. My best views were in the South refractor at Dunsink Observatory and through a friend’s 16 inch Schmidt Cassegrain.The polar caps stood out in the 16 inch while the 11.75 inch objective at Dunsink showed a hint of dark areas on the predominantly rusty pink planet body. Of course Martian dust storms and the quality of our sky has a lot to do with seeing any detail at all. Pointing out Mars in the sky for public groups and children’s … Continue reading

Bored at the Speed of Light
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A proper “to-scale” representation of the solar system is hard to make. This is because the distances within the solar system are vast, compared to the sizes of the sun and the planets, and because there is so much variation in size among the sun and the planets themselves. Thus representations of the solar system inevitably show everything too close together, and too similar in size. But recently I was introduced to a nice online effort at a “to-scale” representation or model of the solar system — click here to have a look at it. “Thank you” to Fr. Joseph-Mary Hertzog, O.P., who introduced me to this model. The scale of this model is such that, on a modestly large screen, the moon is a single pixel in size, while the sun is roughly the size of an orange. The distances between planets is so great that an effort to manually scroll through this model from one planet to another … Continue reading

Venus and Mars in the Evening, Jupiter in the Morning
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Venus is low and bright, and Mars is high and dim in the southwestern sky after dusk. Jupiter is low in the predawn sky to the southeast. Venus orbits the Sun faster than the Earth, and as it catches up with the Earth over the next couple months, it will continue to appear higher in the evening sky. In mid-February, Venus will start to appear lower in the sky each evening, until it disappears into the glare of the Sun in early March. Venus will reappear in the predawn sky starting in early April. Mars will continue to dim as the Earth puts more distance between the two planets, until it disappears into the glare of the Sun in mid-April. Mars will reappear in the predawn skies in late September. Jupiter will be visible in the predawn skies for several months, slowly moving from east to west; it will appear high in the southern sky in January, and low in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in October 2011 Following the Phobos session at the joint European-American Planetary Science Conference, held[in 2011] in Nantes, France, my colleague Dan Britt commented, “You know the origin of Phobos and Deimos…” These moons of Mars, named for the Roman gods of fear and terror, are 10-km sized potato-shaped piles of rubble. Pockmarked by craters, they look just like the kind of dark bodies you see in the neighbouring asteroid belt. “They’re captured asteroids, right?” I replied. “That’s what we think in America,” Dan replied. “But in Europe, apparently, everyone is convinced that they are actually made from material splashed off the crust of Mars by a giant impact.” For years, Dan had been trying to convince NASA to spend a spacecraft to Phobos. He argued that if you could collect enough rocks from its surface and bring them back to Earth, you would get not only asteroidal material but also an occasional rock that might … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
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This column first ran in The Tablet in August, 2008 A friend has a home on the western shore of Lake Huron, with a glorious view of the lake from her living room window. She tells how once she showed the sunrise over the lake through that window to her visiting four year old grandson. The boy took in the colorful display with rapt amazement. The next morning, she heard a shout from the living room. “Come quick, grandma!” cried the little boy. “It’s doing it again!” The [2008] discovery by the Phoenix spacecraft of ice in the Martian soil had all the inevitability of the sun rising yet again. But the scientists who found it were just as thrilled as that four year old boy. For thirty [now going on 40!] years we’ve known there must have been water on Mars. The spacecraft that orbited the planet in the 1970s sent back images of dried up river beds. (But were … Continue reading

Jupiter Looms as Juno Approaches July 4th Arrival
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The Juno spacecraft has been in the gravitational embrace of the planet Jupiter for a month now, and is quickly approaching the moment it will ignite its thrusters, and enter into orbit over Jupiter’s poles. Juno may have some very interesting things to see, if aurorae spied by the Hubble Space Telescope in recent weeks continue to swirl around Jupiter’s north pole. Follow Juno on July 4 — Orbit Insertion Day: Noon EDT — Pre-orbit insertion briefing at JPL 10:30 p.m. EDT — Orbit insertion and NASA TV commentary begin 1:00 a.m. EDT on July 5 — Post-orbit insertion briefing at JPL Watch all of these events online, at: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv http://www.ustream.tv/nasa http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2 Learn more about the Juno: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/juno … Continue reading

Jupiter’s Gravitational Influence now the Dominant Force on the Juno Spacecraft
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As a spacecraft nears a large celestial body, there is a point where the gravitational influence of that body becomes greater than that of any other body. Jupiter has a rather large gravitational influence, and the Juno spacecraft, still over a month away from its encounter with the giant planet, has crossed that threshold. From: JPL Press Release: 2016-136: Since its launch five years ago, there have been three forces tugging at NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it speeds through the solar system. The sun, Earth and Jupiter have all been influential — a gravitational trifecta of sorts. At times, Earth was close enough to be the frontrunner. More recently, the sun has had the most clout when it comes to Juno’s trajectory. Today, it can be reported that Jupiter is now in the gravitational driver’s seat, and the basketball court-sized spacecraft is not looking back. “Today the gravitational influence of Jupiter is neck and neck with that of the sun,” … Continue reading

Mars Opposition 2016
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Orbital mechanics, being what they are, means that objects orbiting closer to their parent body are moving faster than those orbiting further out: Earth being closer to the Sun, orbits faster than Mars. About every 26 months, the Earth will “catch up to and pass by” Mars. The point where the Earth and another planet are closest in their orbits is called an “opposition.” The best time to observe a planet through a telescope is during an opposition – and that’s happening RIGHT NOW with Mars (May 22, 2016). Groups and individuals across the globe will be holding public “Mars Vigils.” The NASA Night Sky Network has a list of events across the U.S., and Meetup may have listings for your area. I highly encourage everyone on planet Earth to get eyeballs to eyepieces and have a look at the red planet! NASA released this stunning Hubble image of Mars on May 19, 2016 showing cloud formations near Mars’ southern … Continue reading

2016 Mercury Transit
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On Monday, May 9th, the planet Mercury will cross the face of the Sun, in what is known as a “transit.” The Earth and Mercury must be aligned properly in their orbits for the transit to be visible. Mercury’s orbit is inclined 7° to the plane of the ecliptic, making Mercury transits an uncommon astronomical event, occurring only about 13 times a century. The next Mercury transit will occur in 2019. The transit begins at 7:12 a.m. EDT; a telescope or high-powered binoculars are required to observe the event. Observing events will be taking place all over the world.  CAUTION: Please do not look at the Sun with the unaided eye; use solar glasses, or telescopes or binoculars with solar filters. The entire transit will be visible to persons in eastern North America, and western Europe. The western U.S., most of Europe, Africa, and Asia will be able to observe a portion of the transit. There are numerous websites broadcasting … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2009. Last week [April 2009], NASA’s Kepler space telescope sent back its first images of a star field in the constellation Cygnus. Launched in March [2009], Kepler has been slowly positioning itself far from Earth’s bright clouds; unlike most spacecraft, it’s not a man-made moon orbiting the Earth, but a man-mad asteroid following the Earth around the Sun, with a “year” a few weeks longer than Earth’s. Now, from the darkness of its orbit, it has aimed its telescopes at the Milky Way to look for traces of Earth-like planets. The plan is simple. For the next three years (six years, if all goes well) it will be watching the same star-filled region of the Milky Way, carefully measuring the brightness of every star in its field of view – some 100,000 of them – looking to see if any one of them periodically dims by a hundredth of a percent or less. … Continue reading