Starry Night: Mid-February 2012

Posted Wednesday, February 15, 2012 in Features

Starry Night: Mid-February 2012

Courtesy NASA

by Tristan Radtke

On Nov. 27, 2011, the Mars rover Curiosity, just three days after its launch, experienced a computer malfunction that caused the rover, the size of a small car, to reset its onboard computer system while attempting to use a scanner designed to help the vehicle determine its position for navigation. The problem appeared to be a memory fault, so NASA dug into the software and hardware, reconfiguring a ground computer to simulate the rover’s hardware. On Feb. 9, NASA reported that the problem had been fixed, averting a potential disaster for the agency’s Mars Science Laboratory project, according to this MSNBC report.

While that problem was solved, however, a new problem emerged for NASA with the arrival of President Obama’s 2013 budget – a budget which would cut by nearly a quarter the funds available for planetary exploration in that fiscal year, according to the BBC. With a cut of 21 percent, the timing of a follow-up rover mission to Mars – or any of our closest solar neighbors for that matter – would likely be pushed further back, if not scrubbed entirely. Joint NASA and European Space Agency missions to Mars, which have already reached planning stages, are slated for the chopping block under the new budget.

While NASA turns its focus away from unmanned missions to the red planet, the Maven orbiter is still scheduled for a 2013 launch to study the Martian atmosphere. Furthermore, the 2013 budget places a higher priority than past years on human exploration and deep-space exploration, with 6 percent and 22 percent gains from the previous budget respectively. Meanwhile, NASA continues to plan the replacement to the Constellation project and its Ares rockets, a vehicle derived from Space Shuttle technology known as the Space Launch System, as announced in the early fall of 2011, a project clearly tailored to the concept of human exploration of space beyond Earth’s near orbit, indicating that these budgetary changes are more a change in strategy for the agency than a simple budget cut. Indeed, the Curiosity rover was designed with geological survey tools with a stated goal, among many, of assessing the ability of Mars to sustain life – making this change in strategy somewhat well-timed. While there may not be any future automated rover missions to Mars forthcoming, it does seem to indicate the agency’s plan for a successor to Curiosity will likely be controlled by a human pilot rather than radio and computer links.

The Stars

As the Earth moves through its orbit, we are beginning to see spring stars, at least late-ish. Of these, two of the most recognizable constellations are Bootes, the Herdsman, and Virgo, the Maiden. Each of these constellations contains a very bright star. In the case of Bootes, it is Arcturus, which points the way to finding Spica in Virgo. Every astronomy student has learned the phrase "Arc to Arcturus ... Speed to Spica." Face a northerly direction, and find the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. From the handle stars of the Big Dipper, a broad arc of the same shape as the arc in the handle takes you to Arcturus, the "tail" star in the kite-shaped Bootes. Arcturus is the fourth-brightest star in the night sky. Then following a straight line down from the "kite," the next bright star you will find is Spica, a pretty, bluish star, actually a binary system, where the two stars are quite close together. 

 The Planets

• Mercury: Mercury will begin mid-February setting about 20 minutes after sunset. By the end of the month, it will set around 6:30 p.m.

• Venus: Venus will set around 8:20 p.m. on Feb. 15, and by Feb. 29 it will have moved a bit deeper into the evening, setting at 8:50 p.m.

• Mars: Mars will rise at about 7 p.m. on Feb. 15, and by Feb. 29, it will set just about exactly sunrise, remaining visible to the horizon in the early twilight.

• Jupiter: Jupiter will set at 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 15, and by the end of the month it will set at about 9:50 p.m.

• Saturn: Saturn mirrors Jupiter at mid-month, rising around 10:30 p.m., and by Feb. 29, it will rise around 9:30 p.m.

• Uranus: Uranus will set around 8 p.m. at mid-month, but will be dim and hard to spot at a magnitude of 5.9. On Feb. 29, Uranus will set around 7:10 p.m.

• Neptune: Neptune will be lost in the sun’s glare at mid-month due to its magnitude of nearly 8, although it will set around the same time as Venus. By Feb. 29, Neptune will have swapped sides with the sun, but will still be lost in the morning twilight.

• Pluto: Pluto will rise at around 3:45 a.m. on Feb. 15, and by Feb. 29 it will rise at around 3 a.m.


The Moon

The moon waned to third quarter by Feb. 14, and will reach new phase by Feb. 21. The moon will end the month waxing, reaching first quarter on March 1.

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