You can spot Mars in the evening sky tonight. Now home to the Perseverance rover, the Red Planet is presently wandering through the constellation Taurus, close on the sky to the Seven Sisters or Pleiades star cluster. In fact this deep, widefield view of the region captures Mars near its closest conjunction to the Pleiades on March 3. Below center, Mars is the bright yellowish celestial beacon only about 3 degrees from the pretty blue star cluster. Competing with Mars in color and brightness, Aldebaran is the alpha star of Taurus. The red giant star is toward the lower left edge of the frame, a foreground star along the line-of-sight to the more distant Hyades star cluster. Otherwise too faint for your eye to see, the dark, dusty nebulae lie along the edge of the massive Perseus molecular cloud, with the striking reddish glow of NGC 1499, the California Nebula, at the upper right.
What if you could fly around Mars? NASA may have achieved that capability last month with the landing of Perseverance, a rover which included a small flight-worthy companion called Ingenuity, nicknamed Ginny. Even though Ginny is small – a toaster-sized helicopter with four long legs and two even-longer (1.2-meter) rotors, she is the first of her kind – there has never been anything like her before. After being deployed, possibly in April, the car-sized Perseverance (“Percy”) will back away to give Ginny ample room to attempt her unprecedented first flight. In the featured artistic illustration, Ginny’s long rotors are depicted giving her the lift she needs to fly into the thin Martian atmosphere and explore the area near Perseverance. Although Ingenuity herself will not fly very far, she is a prototype for all future airborne Solar-System robots that may fly far across not only Mars, but Titan.
Our Sun won’t last forever. In about 5 billion years, it’ll run out of nuclear fuel, swell up like a giant balloon, and then gradually fade out of existence. All traces of life around it will be wiped out in the process. Other Sun-like stars throughout our galaxy will meet similar fates, with average lifespans of 10 billion years.
Fortunately for us, under the right conditions life can emerge just a billion years after a star is born. And our star is far from typical: The most common type of star in our galaxy, a red dwarf, can shine for more than a trillion years. Red dwarfs make up more than 75% of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way. Owing their names to their colors and diminutive sizes, red dwarfs are barely bigger than Jupiter, burning through their fuel slowly thanks to their lower masses and gravities.
Because they are so common and long-lived, red dwarfs present promising places to search for life beyond Earth. Some of the most exciting exoplanets—planets that orbit other stars—we’ve found to date are orbiting red dwarf stars. But for all the promise these stars have to offer life, there are perils.
It’s always nice to get a new view of an old friend. This stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of nearby spiral galaxy M66 is just that. A spiral galaxy with a small central bar, M66 is a member of the Leo Galaxy Triplet, a group of three galaxies about 30 million light years from us. The Leo Triplet is a popular target for relatively small telescopes, in part because M66 and its galactic companions M65 and NGC 3628 all appear separated by about the angular width of a full moon. The featured image of M66 was taken by Hubble to help investigate the connection between star formation and molecular gas clouds. Clearly visible are bright blue stars, pink ionized hydrogen clouds – sprinkled all along the outer spiral arms, and dark dust lanes in which more star formation could be hiding.
What would it look like to land on Mars? To better monitor the instruments involved in the Entry, Decent, and Landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars last week, cameras with video capability were included that have now returned their images. The featured 3.5-minute composite video begins with the opening of a huge parachute that dramatically slows the speeding spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere. Next the heat shield is seen separating and falls ahead. As Perseverance descends, Mars looms large and its surface becomes increasingly detailed. At just past 2-minutes into the video, the parachute is released and Perseverance begins to land with dust-scattering rockets. Soon the Sky Crane takes over and puts Perseverance down softly, then quickly jetting away. The robotic Perseverance rover will now begin exploring ancient Jezero Crater, including a search for signs that life once existed on Earth’s neighboring planet.
Slung beneath its rocket powered descent stage Perseverance hangs only a few meters above the martian surface, captured here moments before its February 18 touchdown on the Red Planet. The breath-taking view followed an intense seven minute trip from the top of the martian atmosphere. Part of a high resolution video, the picture was taken from the descent stage itself during the final skycrane landing maneuver. Three taut mechanical cables about 7 meters long are visible lowering Perseverance, along with an electrical umbilical connection feeding signals (like this image), to a computer on board the car-sized rover. Below Perseverance streamers of martian dust are kicked-up from the surface by the descent rocket engines. Immediately after touchdown, the cables were released allowing the descent stage to fly to a safe distance before exhausting its fuel as planned.
Tomorrow, NASA will make a bold attempt to successfully land Perseverance Rover to search for evidence of life inside this ancient lake crater on Mars.
Scientists using a new technique to image exoplanets in the mid-infrared may have just found a super-Earth-sized exoplanet around Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to us. Whats more the planet is orbiting in its star’s habitable zone.
At just over 4.22 light years from Earth, Alpha Centauri shines in the sky as a single star and the third-brightest star visible from our world. But, in reality Alpha Centauri is a triple star system consisting of two sun-like stars, Alpha Cen A & B, and a smaller red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri.
Proxima Centauri is already famous for harbouring a a rocky planet – Proxima b – not much bigger than the Earth; a significant finding uncovered by scientists a few years ago, after the exoplanet was spotted whizzing around the red dwarf in just 11 days.
A Chinese rover has discovered an unusually-shaped rock, suspected to be a piece of a meteor, wedged into the surface of the Moon.
According to Space.com, China’s Yutu-2 rover made its discovery on the far side of the Moon. The elongated shard was described as a “milestone” by the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) science outreach channel Our Space — and it stands out as the latest example of the fact that the long-observed lunar surface can still hold surprises for intrepid explorers.
Starting Thursday, there may be an amazing new robotic explorer on Mars. Or there may be a new pile of junk. It all likely depends on things going correctly in the minutes after the Mars 2020 mission arrives at its new home planet and attempts to deploy the Perseverance rover. Arguably the most sophisticated landing yet attempted on the red planet, consecutive precision events will involve a heat shield, a parachute, several rocket maneuvers, and the automatic operation of an unusual device called a Sky Crane. Thursday’s Seven Minutes of Terror echo the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, as depicted in the featured video. If successful, the car-sized Perseverance rover will rest on the surface of Mars, soon to begin exploring Jezero Crater to better determine the habitability of this seemingly barren world to life – past, present, and future. Although multiple media outlets may cover this event, one way to watch these landing events unfold is on the NASA channel live on the web.
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope features an impressive portrait of M1-63, a beautifully captured example of a bipolar planetary nebula located in the constellation of Scutum (the Shield).
Would the Rosette Nebula by any other name look as sweet? The bland New General Catalog designation of NGC 2237 doesn’t appear to diminish the appearance of this flowery emission nebula, at the top of the image, atop a long stem of glowing hydrogen gas. Inside the nebula lies an open cluster of bright young stars designated NGC 2244. These stars formed about four million years ago from the nebular material and their stellar winds are clearing a hole in the nebula’s center, insulated by a layer of dust and hot gas. Ultraviolet light from the hot cluster stars causes the surrounding nebula to glow. The Rosette Nebula spans about 100 light-years across, lies about 5000 light-years away, and can be seen with a small telescope towards the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros).
Get out your red/blue glasses and float next to asteroid 433 Eros. Orbiting the Sun once every 1.8 years, the near-Earth asteroid is named for the Greek god of love. Still, its shape more closely resembles a lumpy potato than a heart. Eros is a diminutive 40 x 14 x 14 kilometer world of undulating horizons, craters, boulders and valleys. Its unsettling scale and unromantic shape are emphasized in this mosaic of images from the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft processed to yield a stereo anaglyphic view. Along with dramatic chiaroscuro, NEAR Shoemaker’s 3-D imaging provided important measurements of the asteroid’s landforms and structures, and clues to the origin of this city-sized chunk of Solar System. The smallest features visible here are about 30 meters across. Beginning on February 14, 2000, historic NEAR Shoemaker spent a year in orbit around Eros, the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid. Twenty years ago, on February 12 2001, it landed on Eros, the first ever landing on an asteroid’s surface. NEAR Shoemaker’s final transmission from the surface of Eros was on February 28, 2001.
This gorgeous island universe lies about 85 million light-years distant in the southern constellation Fornax. Inhabited by young blue star clusters, the tightly wound spiral arms of NGC 1350 seem to join in a circle around the galaxy’s large, bright nucleus, giving it the appearance of a cosmic eye. In fact, NGC 1350 is about 130,000 light-years across. That makes it as large or slightly larger than the Milky Way. For earth-based astronomers, NGC 1350 is seen on the outskirts of the Fornax cluster of galaxies, but its estimated distance suggests that it is not itself a cluster member. Of course, the bright spiky stars in the foreground of this telescopic field of view are members of our own spiral Milky Way galaxy.
In brush strokes of interstellar dust and glowing gas, this beautiful skyscape is painted across the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy near the northern end of the Great Rift and the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Composed over a decade with 400 hours of image data, the broad mosaic spans an impressive 28x18 degrees across the sky. Alpha star of Cygnus, bright, hot, supergiant Deneb lies at the left. Crowded with stars and luminous gas clouds Cygnus is also home to the dark, obscuring Northern Coal Sack Nebula and the star forming emission regions NGC 7000, the North America Nebula and IC 5070, the Pelican Nebula, just left and a little below Deneb. Many other nebulae and star clusters are identifiable throughout the cosmic scene. Of course, Deneb itself is also known to northern hemisphere skygazers for its place in two asterisms, marking a vertex of the Summer Triangle, the top of the Northern Cross.
It somehow survived an explosion that would surely have destroyed our Sun. Now it is spins 30 times a second and is famous for the its rapid flashes. It is the Crab Pulsar, the rotating neutron star remnant of the supernova that created the Crab Nebula. A careful eye can spot the pulsar flashes in the featured time-lapse video, just above the image center. The video was created by adding together images taken only when the pulsar was flashing, as well as co-added images from other relative times. The Crab Pulsar flashes may have been first noted by an unknown woman attending a public observing night at the University of Chicago in 1957 – but who was not believed. The progenitor supernova explosion was seen by many in the year 1054 AD. The expanding Crab Nebula remains a picturesque expanding gas cloud that glows across the electromagnetic spectrum. The pulsar is now thought to have survived the supernova explosion because it is composed of extremely-dense quantum-degenerate matter.