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!

 

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.

Rare Sights for Spring

As spring blooms in the Northern Hemisphere, here’s what’s happening in the night sky!

Venus
On April 3, Venus will pass near a star cluster known as the Pleiades. Also known as the Seven Sisters or M45, the Pleiades lies about 400 light years away from Earth, toward the constellation of the Bull — or Taurus.

Last year as Venus passed close to the Pleiades on June 9, the planet was five degrees south of the star cluster — 20 times farther away than it will be this year. Next year, Venus will be close to the star cluster once more on April 9 — this time at four degrees south of the Seven Sisters. This 2021 passing will be 16 times farther away than the 2020 event.

This year, viewers will have the rare chance at a brilliant view of Venus on April 3. With the naked eye, you will see something similar to the illustration below. However, the best view will be achieved through a pair of binoculars. Don’t miss your shot — Venus won’t make another appearance this close to the Pleiades until 2028!

This illustration -- generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software -- captures what the naked eye might see as Venus passes through the Pleiades April 3, 2020.
This illustration — generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software — captures what the naked eye might see as Venus passes through the Pleiades April 3, 2020.

Supermoon
We will have a Full Moon on April 7 at 9:35 p.m. CDT, at which time the Moon will be near to its perigee — or the point in its orbit that it is closest to Earth. This proximity will provide the largest appearance of the Moon for the whole year, commonly called a supermoon.

With the Artemis Program, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with our commercial and international partners and establish sustainable exploration by 2028. Until that day arrives, the supermoon will put us all a bit closer (physically) to our goal!

Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS
NASA astronomer Tiffany Clements recently captured the below image of Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS using a wide field telescope in New Mexico. Discovered at the end of December 2019 by an automated sky survey searching for Earth-approaching asteroids, this comet could brighten enough to be visible by late May or early June. However, comets are notoriously unpredictable, so stay tuned!

Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS (Credits: NASA/Tiffany Clements)
Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS (Credits: NASA/Tiffany Clements)

About the Upcoming (maybe) Alpha Monocerotid Meteor Shower Outburst…

By: Bill Cooke
Lead, NASA Meteoroid Environment Office


The media is currently broadcasting the prediction of an outburst of the alpha Monocerotid meteor shower on the night of November 21. The researchers making the prediction, Dr. Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, have made calculations that indicate that there may be zenithal hourly rates as high as 400 to 1000 meteors per hour around 11:50 PM Eastern Standard Time (10:50 PM Central and 9:50 PM Mountain; you will note that I am not giving a Pacific time – more on that later). These are impressive numbers, generating lots of buzz in the media. I love meteor outbursts and storms, so I was initially quite excited – I mean, what’s there not to like about an impromptu display involving lots of meteors from a yet-to-be discovered comet?

But as the media inquiries increased, I began to wonder if all the attention is justified. Being a meteor shower forecaster, I am all too aware of the fact that such predictions (including mine), while pretty accurate on the timing, often estimate a shower intensity higher (factors of a few) than what actually takes place. So I decided to take a more detailed look, starting with some dumpster diving for old papers about this shower and making a few calculations of my own. That’s when the skepticism kicked in – I now think there is a pretty good chance there may be no outburst at all. And even if there is, it won’t be as impressive as many think. Allow me to share…

This map shows the total number of meteors observers in the United States can expect to see for this year’s alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, provided the rates are similar to the 1995 outburst.
This map shows the total number of meteors observers in the United States can expect to see for this year’s alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, provided the rates are similar to the 1995 outburst.

In Dr. Jenniskens and Lyytinen’s work, the Earth is forced to pass through the center of alpha Monocerotid meteor stream (AMOs for short) during the shower’s 1925 and 1935 outbursts. We have no idea if this actually happened, but it is a reasonable assumption if these outbursts were more intense than the last one in 1995. Based on this, they conclude that the AMOs are produced by a long period comet that takes about 500 years to orbit the Sun. IF this is right, then we should pass very close to the center of the meteor stream this year, missing it by a scant 15,000 miles. That’s just a tad closer than we got back in 1995, when the observed zenithal hourly rate was about 400 per hour. And it’s why the forecast rate is so high – closer means the same intensity or better.

However, the intensity of the outburst is very dependent on the size of the parent comet’s orbit. If it is much smaller, or larger, the distance from the stream center will be bigger, and there will not be any sky show, just the normal AMOs, puttering along with their normal rate of 3 or so meteors per hour. And since we have not yet discovered this mysterious parent comet, who knows how close the estimate of the orbit is to the actual? A good reason to step outside Thursday night, because the cool thing is that if an outburst does occur, we will have a pretty good idea of the orbit of this comet – not from observing the comet with telescopes, but by counting its debris as they burn up in our atmosphere.

The old papers I dug up also proved enlightening. I could find no meteor rate numbers for the 1925 outburst – just that it was short, with a fair number of meteors. The 1935 AMO outburst was observed in 2 places – a meteor observer in Begumpet, India and the commanding officer of a U.S. ship in the Philippines each reported seeing a total of just over 100 meteors in a 40 minute span of time. That’s nice, but it certainly is nowhere close to the spectacular rates produced by the Leonid and Draconid meteor storms of the 1900’s. A moderate outburst, yes, but not a meteor storm. Even fewer were seen in 1985, when one observer reported 36 meteors seen over 16 minutes of time. It is true that the calculated rates were in the hundreds per hour, but what matters to the average person is the total number of meteors they will see. Zenithal hourly rates give the theoretical rates for a perfect observer under perfect skies with the shower radiant straight overhead (something that never happens in reality), and while they may be a good way to scientifically measure meteor shower activity, they are poor indicators of what will actually be seen. The observer reports, however, do tell us what we might expect.

And then we come to 1995, the best-observed AMO outburst. Quite a few observers in Western Europe saw about 100 meteors over an hour’s time, consistent with the observations of the previous AMO outbursts. These data do not indicate that we were closer to the AMO stream center in 1925 and 1935, as Jenniskens and Lyytinen suggest; in fact, it appears that AMO outbursts are fairly constant with regard to numbers, with about 100 meteors seen over the less-than-an-hour duration of the outburst. At face value, this would mean no outburst. However, the numbers seeming to be not strongly dependent on distance is possibly good news; even if the researchers’ distance assumptions are wrong, we still may have a chance of a respectable, albeit short, outburst, provided Earth gets “close enough” to the stream center.

At the beginning of this post, I gave times for the predicted peak in the Eastern, Central, and Mountain time zones, but left out Pacific. That’s because the AMO radiant – the point in the constellation of Monocerotis from which the meteors appear to originate – is below the horizon at the peak time for locations west of Denver. That means people on the Pacific Coast will not see this outburst, even if their skies are clear. So if you live there and want to experience the shower, you need to go quite a bit east. If you do, please don’t blame me if the outburst is a no show; as I said, I am a bit skeptical. For the eastern United States, the radiant is not very high in the sky at the forecast peak time (about 23° in Orlando), which is unfortunate since the observed number of meteors is tied to the radiant altitude. The higher the radiant, the more meteors people see. So my computer savvy colleagues have generated this map, which shows the total numbers of meteors you can expect to see if the outburst is similar to that of 1995. Blue is good, red is worse, white means no meteors at all. The decrease in total expected meteors is pretty obvious as you move west

And of course, there is the weather. Remember, you need clear, dark skies to see meteors, and it looks like Mother Nature is going to be mean, with clouds forecast over much of the part of the U.S. that has a chance of observing the outburst. So, if you are gifted with good seeing, give yourself about 45 minutes to adjust to the dark – go out about 10:35 PM Eastern, 9:35 PM Central, or 8:35 PM Mountain. Lie flat on your back, look straight up, and enjoy looking at the night sky (maybe listen to some appropriate tunes, but don’t look at your cell phone, as the bright screen will ruin your night vision). If Jenniskens and Lyytinen are right, you might see some pieces of a comet that awaits discovery, burning up in the atmosphere 60 miles above your head.

That’s worth a couple of hours, I think. Even if there is no outburst, it doesn’t hurt to get out under the stars for a bit.