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Illinois hunting and fishing

By NASA/ESA
Mars, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Tired of snow, check out Mars

January 11, 2010 at 10:00 AM

GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

I’d love to talk of the beauty of the night sky, but all I see lately is clouds and snowflakes. This, too, will pass, and soon enough we will enjoy sunny days and starry nights. Perhaps where you live, conditions have been better for seeing the wonders above.

Snowflakes of course are wonders; they say no two are exactly alike, but who has compared them all? Their six-pointed designs, as seen under magnification, are another example of the beauty all around us, created by no human hand.

In 2008, NASA landed a spacecraft known as the Phoenix Mars Lander, at the edge of the North Polar Cap. The hardy lander lasted five months, two months past its “warranty,” before succumbing to the bitter Martian winter. The mission was heralded as a great success. Water ice was discovered, and study of the soil gives further evidence that Mars once had a warmer, wetter environment in eons past. Snow was even detected falling from Martian clouds, but the flakes vaporized before reaching the ground.

The water ice, as hard as cement, was uncovered in the soil beneath the stationary lander.

Powered by solar panels, the already distant sun was in the sky less and less as winter approached, just as happens on Earth. Phoenix lost its energy supply and went silent in November 2008.  Photographs taken in August 2009 from an orbiting satellite have shown a bird’s-eye view of Phoenix, surrounded by dry ice frost. The solar panels are also covered, and may have broken off with the weight (reminder to have your roof shoveled off?).

Most of the white polar caps are made up of carbon dioxide dry ice.

You might complain about winter on Earth, but on Mars, winter is TWICE as long (but so is summer). A Martian year is approximately twice that of Earth’s orbital revolution.

Winter is finally receding in the Martian Northern Hemisphere (we should be so lucky). In mid-January, the Phoenix mission team plans to send a signal to Mars in the unlikely chance they can revive the lander after all this time.

On Earth, specifically northeast Pennsylvania, we have endured temperatures this winter in the single digits above zero Fahrenheit, with a wind chill sending it below zero. Northern Minnesota has been nearly 30 below zero in places. On Mars, winter at the pole is as cold as –200 degrees F. The daytime surface temperature, in the summer and surely at the equator, might reach +80 degrees F. The air temperature on Mars, however, rarely gets past the freezing point of water.

The next clear evening, be sure to brave the cold enough to look up in the east and see Mars. Shining at magnitude –1.0, it is almost as brilliant as the blue-white star Sirius (magnitude –1.4), which is seen well up in the southeast, to the lower left of Orion. Mars has a distinct orange hue; some may say yellow-orange, others lean toward red. What does your judgment say?

Every two years, Mars and Earth reach their closest point. These passages vary widely because of the elliptical shape to Mars’ orbit, as well as the Earth’s. This year, Mars’ approach is only average, but it has still become very noticeable in the sky. A telescope magnifying at about 100X will show its tiny disc, although don’t expect to see a lot.

Careful, practiced observation, coupled with the rare night of steady air, may reward you with glimpses of distinguishable, Martian surface features. You may be able to see the large white North Polar Cap, in contrast with the orange-hued desert plains. Gray smudges might also be seen, which are surface areas of darker contrast.

New moon arrives Jan. 15.

In the early morning before sunrise, look for the thin crescent moon low in the southeast, Jan. 10 to 13. On the 11th, the moon is very close to the bright-red star Antares. On the 13th, a half-hour before sunrise, a very thin crescent is visible low to the horizon; Mercury is at upper left. Binoculars will help. On Jan. 16 to 18, in the evening sky, see the returning crescent moon glide past brilliant Jupiter in the west-southwest.

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Keep looking up!

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