It’s All About Mars in October

by Lance D. Davis

NASA is developing a path for an exciting journey to Mars – a rich destination for scientific discovery and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. This month of October brings an amazing night-sky view of the Red Planet.

Mars is currently visible, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight. Earth’s closest neighbor is also at its brightest and will remain that way well into November.

Two illustrations contrasting Mars’ position when it reaches opposition and conjunction. During opposition, like in October 2020, Earth passes near Mars – which is easily visible and bright. During conjunction, Mars and Earth are far from each other, so Mars appears small and faint.
Two illustrations contrasting Mars’ position when it reaches opposition and conjunction. During opposition, like in October 2020, Earth passes near Mars – which is easily visible and bright. During conjunction, Mars and Earth are far from each other, so Mars appears small and faint. Credit: NASA

Right now, Mars is the third brightest object in Earth’s night. The Moon and Venus are the two brightest objects, and usually Jupiter is third. But for this season, Mars is passing close enough to Earth to outshine Jupiter. This great visibility of Mars coincides with an event known as opposition, which happens every two years and two months.

Opposition occurs when the orbit of a planet, such as Mars, takes it near the Earth. Just like runners passing each other on a track, the faster, inner planets, such as Earth, can approach and overtake slower-moving outer planets like Mars. When the planets pass each other during this opposition, Mars’ proximity means it will appear larger and brighter in our sky. Because the Sun, Earth, and Mars are lined up during this passing, Mars will rise at sunset, having a high overhead at midnight. This is the closest the Red Planet will come to Earth for the next 15 years, or until September 2035.

At its furthest, Mars reaches about 250 million miles (400 million km) from Earth. During the October opposition, it will be as close as 40 million miles (60 million km) – nearly seven times closer. Although Mars will still look like a bright star to the unaided eye, it will grow dramatically in size when seen in a telescope. This year, Mars’ closest approach to Earth happens just a week before the opposition on Oct. 13, giving the Red Planet its biggest, apparent size of the 2020’s.

When it comes to observing Mars around opposition, telescopes will show more of the planet’s details, such as dark and light regions on Mars’ surface, and the prominent south polar ice cap, which will be tilted towards the Earth. Due to the turbulence of our atmosphere, these details can be hard to see, especially in smaller telescopes.

Many amateur astronomers use a color video camera attached to their telescope, running special software that selects the best frames to stack into a single image. This helps in negating the blurring caused by the air.

The most striking thing about Mars’ appearance – whether seen with the naked eye or through a telescope – is its red color. This color is caused by iron in the rocks on Mars’ surface – the same thing that causes the red color in sandstone formations in the southwestern US.

So, when you spot Mars, keep your eye on it and enjoy its fiery, red brightness!

 

Sky Watching Highlights for October 2020

There’s plenty to see in the sky for October! The Moon will be full not once, but twice this month. It’s also a great time for viewing Mars and trying to spot the galaxy of Andromeda. Learn more from the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

International Observe the Moon Night 2020

by Lance D. Davis

International Observe the Moon Night is a worldwide public event encouraging observation, appreciation and understanding of our Moon and its connection to NASA exploration and discovery.

This is a great time to celebrate the Moon with enthusiasts and curious people all over Earth as excitement grows about NASA’s Artemis program, which will send the next man and first woman to the Moon.

International Observe the Moon Night 2020
Image Credit: NASA/Jennifer Baer

Since 2010, the celebration has occurred annually in September or October when the Moon is around first quarter – a great phase for excellent viewing opportunities.

You can join NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for a live planetarium show Saturday, Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m. CDT – available online to everyone via YouTube and Facebook. Interviews with planetary and citizen scientists will also be included.

This virtual event is brought to you by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall and U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Whether it’s outdoors, at home, online, or wherever you may be, you are encouraged to be a part of International Observe the Moon Night. Please remember to follow your local health and safety guidelines.

Learn more and find other events here.

The Autumnal Equinox is Near

Happy equinox, Earthlings! Sept. 22 marks the fall equinox, when day and night are nearly equal.

“However, that day/night length depends on where you are on Earth,” said NASA solar scientist Mitzi Adams. “For example, at the North and South Poles, the length of the day and night is six months!”

At the North Pole, the Sun will sink below the horizon for a kind of twilight from now until sometime in October when it will be completely dark, explained Adams. Spring twilight begins a few weeks before the vernal, or spring, equinox in March, when the Sun rises above the horizon again.

Autumnal Equinox
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This only happens twice in Earth’s year-long trip around the Sun. The rest of the year, the Sun shines unevenly over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. That’s because Earth’s axis is tilted with respect to the Sun-Earth plane. But on these special days – the spring and fall equinox – the Sun shines equally on both north and south.

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of astronomical fall. From now until the beginning of spring, nighttime hours will last longer than daylight as the Sun travels a shorter arc across the sky each day. The Sun has its shortest path of the year at the time of the winter solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year — when sunrise and sunset are as far south as they can go (at any one location). It’s just the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where September 22 kicks off astronomical spring.

The equinox—meaning “equal night” in Latin—occurs at 8:31 a.m. CDT.

Sky Watching Highlights for September 2020

This month spot the Moon together with Mars and Venus, along with the flickering star Fomalhaut, which had itself a planet…until it didn’t! Check out the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more.

Perseids Peak: Watch Best Meteor Shower of the Year!

By Emily Clay

The Perseid meteor shower is here! With Comet NEOWISE making its way out of the solar system, it is time for a celestial show caused by a different comet. Perseid meteors, caused by debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, began streaking across the skies in late July and will peak in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 12.

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The Perseids show up every year in August when Earth ventures through trails of debris left behind by an ancient comet. Image
In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The Perseids show up every year in August when Earth ventures through trails of debris left behind by an ancient comet. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Perseid meteor shower is often considered to be one of the best meteor showers of the year due to its high rates and pleasant late-summer temperatures. This year’s shower, however, has the unfortunate circumstance of the Moon phase—last quarter—impeding the view of the shower peak, reducing the visible meteors from over 60 per hour down to 15-20 per hour. But the Perseids are rich in bright meteors and fireballs, so it will still be worth going out in the early morning to catch some of nature’s fireworks.

WHEN SHOULD I LOOK?

Make plans to stay up late the night of Aug. 11 or wake up early the morning of Aug. 12. The Perseids are best seen between about 2 a.m. your local time and dawn. The Moon rises at around midnight, so its brightness will affect the peak viewing window. However, even though the Moon’s phase and presence will keep the frequency of visible meteors lower, there is still nearly one meteor every two minutes during the peak!

If those hours seem daunting, not to worry! You can go out after dark, around 9 p.m. local time, and see a few Perseids. Just know that you won’t see nearly as many as you would had you gone out during the early morning hours.

How can you see the Perseids if the weather doesn’t cooperate where you are? A live broadcast of the meteor shower from a camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) will be available on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook starting around 8 p.m. CDT on Aug. 11 and continuing until sunrise on Aug. 12. Meteor videos recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning; to identify Perseids in these videos, look for events labeled “PER.”

WHY ARE THEY CALLED PERSEIDS?

All meteors associated with one particular shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, called the radiant. Meteor showers take their name from the location of the radiant. The Perseid radiant is in the constellation Perseus. Similarly, the Geminid meteor shower, observed each December, is named for a radiant in the constellation Gemini.

HOW TO OBSERVE PERSEIDS

If it’s not cloudy, pick an observing spot away from bright lights, lay on your back, and look up! You don’t need any special equipment to view the Perseids – just your eyes.  (Note that telescopes or binoculars are not recommended because of their small fields of view.) Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky so don’t worry about looking in any particular direction.

While observing this month, not all of the meteors you’ll see belong to the Perseid meteor shower. Some are sporadic background meteors. And some are from other weaker showers also active right now, including the Alpha Capricornids, the Southern Delta Aquariids, and the Kappa Cygnids. How can you tell if you’ve seen a Perseid? If you see a meteor try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Perseus, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Perseid. If finding constellations isn’t your forte, then note that Perseids are some of the fastest meteors you’ll see!

Pro tip:  Remember to let your eyes become adjusted to the dark (it takes about 30 minutes) – you’ll see more meteors that way. Try to stay off of your phone too, as looking at devices with bright screens will negatively affect your night vision and hence reduce the number of meteors you see!

Happy viewing!

See Comet NEOWISE! A Once-in-a-Lifetime Event

For Comet Vocabulary, please read to the end of the post.


For most, early July is when most people living in the United States look to the skies to watch dazzling firework shows. However, this month there is a different kind of show happening in the sky.

Comet Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) was only discovered a few months ago on March 27 by NASA’s NEOWISE telescope and has quickly become a popular solar system visitor. Its popularity is warranted, however, as it is the brightest comet since Comet Hale-Bopp that passed by Earth 23 years ago in 1997.

The graphic shows the comet as seen from Huntsville, Friday, July 17 at 9 PM. Look almost due northwest, 15 degrees above the horizon. The comet will be below the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, and about as bright (magnitude 3). Binoculars should give a really spectacular view!
The graphic shows the comet as seen from Huntsville, Friday, July 17 at 9 PM. Look almost due northwest, 15 degrees above the horizon. The comet will be below the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, and about as bright (magnitude 3). Binoculars should give a really spectacular view!

Comet nuclei are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the sun. They can range in size from a few miles to tens of miles wide, and the nucleus of NEOWISE measures about 3 miles across. When these comets approach the sun, their frozen bodies start to sublimate, and they spew dust and gasses in a tail that can span millions of miles.

Comet NEOWISE made its harrowing close approach to the sun, known as its perihelion, on July 3, and it is now zooming past the Earth on its way back out of the solar system. NEOWISE will make its closest approach (64 million miles) to Earth on July 22, but the best viewing window is happening right now until July 19.

NEOWISE can be seen with the naked eye, but for an even better viewing experience, binoculars or even a telescope is recommended. As for which to choose, binoculars are your current best option. “Definitely use binoculars for now – the tail of NEOWISE is at least 7 degrees long, which is much bigger than the field of view of most telescopes,” said Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center. “Binoculars will allow you to see the whole thing, whereas a telescope only shows a tiny part.”

To see NEOWISE, start looking in the northwestern sky about an hour after sunset. The comet will be below the stars that make up the bowl of the Big Dipper and shining nearly as brightly at a magnitude 3. If you are an early riser, you can still see NEOWISE about an hour before sunrise in the northeastern horizon until the end of the week.

You need a clear view of the horizon to see this comet. Beaches, fields, and areas with higher elevations are all great observation spots. In areas with more light pollution, binoculars may be necessary for viewing. This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event, as NEOWISE won’t be visiting again for 6,800 years!

Learn more about comets at NASA’s Solar System Exploration website.

For comet-related, kid-friendly activities, visit NASA Science Space Place.

Top 5 viewing tips for Comet NEOWISEComet Vocabulary

Comet – Made up of ice, dust and gas which form a coma and sometimes a visible tail when it is orbiting close to the sun

Nucleus – The head of the comet, which is made up of ice and frozen gas that vaporizes to form the coma and the tail

Sublimate – The transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas state, without passing through the liquid state

Perihelion – The point where an object orbiting the sun is closest to the sun

Magnitude – The units used to describe brightness of astronomical objects. The smaller the numerical value, the brighter the object is

See the Red Planet in July 2020

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is planned to launch this summer, sending the Perseverance rover and the first-ever Mars helicopter to the Red Planet. So, if you’re a Mars exploration fan, this month is a great time to spot Mars yourself. Check out the video below produced by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more.

Lyrids Peak for Earth Day

April has already been an active month for celestial events and it is about to get even better with the Lyrid meteor shower beginning April 19. Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Lyrids will peak on April 22 during the predawn hours.

A new Moon this year will make way for good viewing of the Lyrids, leaving the sky dark. While rates of Lyrids per hour can be low, they are also known to produce bright fireballs, and this year we are expecting rates of up to 15 meteors per hour.

Composite image of Lyrid and not-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico from April, 2012. Image via NASA/ MSFC/ Danielle Moser.
Composite image of Lyrid and not-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico from April, 2012. Image via NASA/ MSFC/ Danielle Moser.

The Lyrids are pieces of space debris that originate from the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. They are one of the oldest known meteor showers, having been observed for over 2,700 years. Their radiant, or point in the sky from which they appear and where they get their name, is in the constellation Lyra. The Lyrids appear to come from the vicinity of one of the brightest stars in the night sky – Vega. Vega is one of the easiest stars to spot, even in light-polluted areas.

“This will actually be a good year for the Lyrids and it is exciting the peak is on Earth Day and in the middle of International Dark Sky Week,” said Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “While the Lyrids aren’t as prolific as other meteor showers like the Perseids or Geminids, they usually do produce some bright fireballs, and since the Moon will be nearly invisible April 22, rates should be about as good as it gets for this shower.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NASA plans to observe Earth Day virtually this year, and will highlight the agency’s many contributions to sustaining and improving our home planet with a week of online events, stories and resources. With the Lyrids peaking on April 22, the day is shaping up to be full of observations and science, including the “NASA Science Live” broadcast airing at 3 p.m. EDT. The special Earth Day episode will explore important discoveries about our home planet, advances in green technology and aircraft.

Not only do the Lyrids coincide with Earth Day this year, the shower also falls (pun intended!) during International Dark Sky Week which begins April 19 and goes to April 26. This international observance focuses on preserving and protecting our night sky and the wonders that comes with it.

For more about NASA’s Earth Day plans, visit NASA’s Earth Day website.

For more on meteor showers, visit the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.