WASHINGTON — If you are out and about after sunset any time soon and look at the sky you will see two bright planets. Venus is dazzling in the southwestern sky as it gets dark and cannot be missed. It is well placed for viewing in the sky during the next few months. It will have some interesting alignments with the Moon and Mars this month that I will be writing and Tweeting about.
Ceres to Venus: What to watch for in the sky
On the other side of the sky you will see bright Jupiter in the east. Today it is directly opposite the Sun and is visible in the sky for the whole night for the coming weeks. Jupiter is 36 light minutes from Earth which means it took the reflected sunlight that you are seeing form the planet 36 minutes traveling at 186,000 miles per second (the speed of light) to reach your eye. When you look at Jupiter see what time it is and subtract 36 minutes, that will tell you what time the light left Jupiter to travel more than 400 million miles to you.
Binoculars can show the four main moons discovered by Galileo on Jan. 7, 1610, but a telescope is best. The moons change their positions from night to night as they orbit Jupiter and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) just took a spectacular picture of a rare transit of three of the moons across Jupiter as seen from Earth.
Another solar system object, the dwarf planet Ceres, has been in the news the past few days including a report by WTOP’s Dave Dildine. NASA’s Dawn mission is closing in on a March 6 rendezvous with the largest object in the asteroid belt which lies between the planets Mars and Jupiter. Dawn will orbit Ceres for five months.
Originally classified as an asteroid — a left over remnant from the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago — Ceres was upgraded to dwarf planet status, just like Pluto. On Feb. 4 Dawn took amazing pictures, the best ever, of Ceres from a distance of only 90,000 miles. These pictures show mysterious white spots, craters and Ceres’ rotation. These views are only going to get better and better as we get ever closer to Ceres and enter orbit.
Ceres is also thought to contain more fresh water than our entire planet! A fitting possibility for a world named for the goddess of agriculture and where the word “cereal” came from.
The intrepid spacecraft, which also visited and orbited the giant asteroid Vesta for more than a year, is powered by an ion propulsion engine. This hyper-efficient mode of propulsion allowed Dawn to be the first spacecraft ever to visit two different worlds in the asteroid belt.
Another amazing mission that’s been in deep space for nearly 10 years is NASA’s New Horizons. Our very own Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft. My alma mater, UCLA, is responsible for overall mission science. This spacecraft has traveled more than 3 billion miles en route to a historic flyby on July 14, 2015 of the dwarf planet Pluto and its various moons.
On Feb. 4, New Horizons took new images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. The images come on the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the distant icy world in 1930 while working at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Clyde, whom I had the pleasure to meet and have autograph a Pluto-Charon print, would have been 109 years old. Some of his ashes are carried by New Horizons, a fitting tribute to a fine astronomer and human being.
Finally, I wanted to give you a heads up, a slight pun intended, on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta Mission that has captured the world’s attention these past few months with its sci-fi quality pictures of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko or Comet 67P/CG. Rosetta will swoop down to a distance of less than 4 miles on Valentine’s Day and give us a bounty of scientific data and images.
I can hardly wait to see the returned images from this close encounter of the cometary kind as I have been spellbound by the clarity and detail of the images we have seen so far. Comet 67P/CG is getting closer to the Sun and is becoming active in that there are jets of gas and dust streaming from the comet due to the increased heat from the Sun. Rosetta will fly through these active areas to “sniff or taste” them with the spacecraft’s instrument payload. The data will give us an idea of the composition of this icy and dusty left over from our solar system’s birth.
As you can see much is going on in the solar system and our skies. I’ll be giving a presentation on the “The Future of U.S. Manned Spaceflight” at the Northern Virginia Astronomical Club (NOVAC) this Sunday at 7 p.m. at George Mason University.