In the Sky this Week- September 19, 2017
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A veritable riot of conjunctions is happening all week in the eastern predawn skies; Venus is VERY close to the star Regulus, and Mercury and Mars continue to be low in the sky before sunrise. These conjunctions can also be seen from the southern hemisphere; note how the position of the planets differs from the northern hemisphere. Saturn continues to be a good observing target in the southern skies after sunset. The southern skies seen from Perth after sunset are something I’d REALLY like to see; visible are the two Magellanic Clouds, the Carina Nebula In the eastern sky seen from Perth at 1:00 AM on Sept. 18th we see a good example of the different orientation of constellations seen from the southern hemisphere. The Pleiades star cluster can be seen high in the eastern sky at 2:00 AM. The Pleiades open star cluster consists of approximately 3,000 stars, and is among the nearest star clusters to Earth; the cluster … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week – September 12, 2017
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Mercury is about as high as it’s going to get in the eastern predawn sky on the 12th, and will start getting lower each morning. Sirius is high in the sky, and the constellation Canis Major is now fully visible above the southeastern horizon before sunrise. Mercury and Mars will appear very close to each other in the eastern predawn sky on the 16th. Saturn continues to be a great observing target in the southern sky after sunset. The Moon will be in conjunction with the star Aldebaran on the morning of the 12th, and will appear between(ish) the stars Aldebaran and Betelgeuse on the 13th. The eastern predawn sky on the 18th should look pretty interesting: Mercury, Mars, a sliver of a waning crescent Moon, the star Regulus and Venus will all appear in a line. Sunspot AR2680 has rotated into view; this sunspot is about the same size as AR2673 was from last week – which ballooned out and blew off … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week – September 5, 2017
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Mercury and Mars make a reappearance very low in the eastern morning sky – so low in fact, you may have trouble seeing them if you have low shrubs; atmospheric turbulence and light pollution may also make them difficult to spot. Over the week, Mars will not get any higher in the sky, but Mercury will get visibly higher each morning. Mercury will be very close to the star Regulus in Leo on Sept. 10th. Catch Mercury while you can – by next week, Mercury will start getting lower in the sky, and will vanish entirely by late September. The full Moon rises in the east with the sunset on Sept. 5th; Saturn remains high in the southern sky, after sunset. Polaris, the North Star, is visible above the northern horizon before dawn. Two of Polaris’ three stars can be made out in a modest sized telescope; Polaris A, the primary component of the trinary is a Cepheid variable star, … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
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A slightly shorter version of this column first ran in The Tablet in August 2012 Scientists who do experiments need material to experiment on. Thirty years ago, a grad student friend of mine ran into a problem researching motor skill development in infants because there were too many other students in her field writing theses, and not nearly enough infants available in her university town with parents willing to have them studied. (Ironically, my friend was herself pregnant at the time. Her baby, now grown, defended her own psychology dissertation in the fall of 2012; she’s now a psychology professor herself. And a mom, as well.) In meteoritics we cannot advertise for samples, much less produce them ourselves. We have to wait for our subject matter to fall, like manna, from the heavens. In 2012, however, we were fortunate to have two fascinating new meteorites land at our feet. They were each the subject of special sessions at the annual … Continue reading

Curiosity Rover Examines Possible Mud Cracks Preserved in Martian Rock
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I saw this image and immediately thought: dried mud; then I saw where the image came from: the Curiosity Rover on Mars! Reports of water having once flowed in Mars’ ancient past, currently flowing seasonally, and as sub-surface ices have been numerous over the past few years. On Earth, “where there’s water, there’s life;” and water has been found everywhere in the solar system. The Mars 2020 rover will have scientific instruments used to search for signs of past life on the red planet. From JPL Press Release 2017-009: Scientists used NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in recent weeks to examine slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges that likely originated as cracks in drying mud. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Curiosity science team member Nathan Stein. He is a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, who led the investigation of a site called “Old Soaker,” on lower Mount Sharp, Mars. If this interpretation holds up, these would be … Continue reading

When is a week not a week ? When its Science Week 2016 of course !
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Science Week 2016 was the 21st iteration of this infectious annual event . My involvement has been ongoing since 2007. A multitude of varied engagements are supported and promoted by Science Foundation Ireland. The aim is to stimulate interest in a broad range of sciences. Science Week makes the often complex world of science totally digestible to every person who embraces it. The programs are targeted towards school children and their teachers plus the public at large. Science Week touches almost everyone in this country via TV, Radio, Social media, publications and apps. Nationwide road shows, workshops and talks go directly to schools,libraries and other centres. The magic and wonder of many sciences shared with tremendous enthusiasm and smiles by a host of participants. This year my offerings were two drawing workshops Deadly Moons and Marvellous Mars plus a special Constellation session for local cub scouts. The workshops were attended by 800 children in 10 venues over 11 days in … 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

Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016
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“Space: the final frontier. ” The opening line of the famous quote from Star Trek, the missions aim ” to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before. ” During Spaceweek 2016 I had the opportunity to take 360 children and their teachers on an exploration of moons in our solar system and the very topical planet Mars . Through listening and drawing they experienced a small awakening to the robotic images which are unveiling the beauty of other worlds, increasing our understanding with every single pixel. My workshop Deadly Moons now includes the stunning New Horizons image of Charon Pluto’s largest moon. The children loved the Star Wars names on its craters . They enjoyed linking Charon’s features to familiar books and movies. The workshop also showcases the incredable images of Saturn’s moons taken by the Cassini Spacecraft. In order to make my workshop Marvellous Mars extra interesting for the groups I made a model of Mars … 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

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

Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2008. From a glass-enclosed visitor’s gallery at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, I watched three technicians, encased in white suits, slowly affix bits of equipment to a large aluminum frame, the platform of an SUV-sized rover to Mars. Two sets of steering rockets were already attached; two large metal spheres painted black and gold were seated nearby. “Those are the fuel tanks, right?” I asked my friend Steve, an engineer on the project who guided my tour. “Like the ones that blew up the Mars Orbiter in the 1980s?” Every piece has a necessary function, and every piece has a history of what can happen if it goes wrong. Even with a recent string of triumphs, Mars probe failures still outnumber the successes. Each piece is added in a carefully scripted order, with a quality-control specialist looking on: the torque wrench must not overtighten a nut, the accelerometer must not … Continue reading