Planetpalooza: All Bright Planets Visible in the July Dusk Sky

Moon and Venus
Venus and the waxing crescent Moon above the Grand Palais in Paris, France from May 17th. Image credit: Gwenael Blanck
Moon and Venus
Venus and the waxing crescent Moon above the Grand Palais in Paris, France from May 17th. Image credit: Gwenael Blanck

Missed the planets in the dusk sky in early 2018? This summer’s astronomical blockbuster sees the return of all the classical naked eye planets in the dusk sky, in a big way.

The Sky Scene in July

This coming July 2018 features a rare look at the solar system in profile: you can see Mercury and Venus low in the dusk looking westward immediately after sunset, with Jupiter high to the south, Saturn rising in the east, and Mars rising just behind. This isn’t a true grouping or grand conjunction, as the planets span a 170 degree swath of the ecliptic from Mercury to Mars (too bad they’re not in orbital order!) but a product of our Earthly vantage point looking out over the swath of inner solar system in the evening sky.

Can you manage a “planetary marathon” and collect all five this coming Fourth of July weekend? Here’s a quick rundown of all the planetary action from west to east:

An amazing view – Mercury through the telescope from May 5th. Image credit and copyright: Roger Hutchinson.

Mercury’s July apparition – fleeting Mercury is always the toughest of the planets to catch, low to the west. -0.3 magnitude Mercury actually forms a straight line with the bright +1st/2nd magnitude stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini the Twins later this week on the evening of June 27th. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 26 degrees east of the Sun on July 12th, presenting a half illuminated, 8” disk. The angle of the evening ecliptic is canted southward in July, meaning that the position of the planets in the evening sky also favors southern viewers. July also presents another interesting mercurial challenge, as Mercury passes in front of the Beehive Open cluster (Messier 44) in the heart of the constellation Cancer on the night of July 3rd/4th.

The span of the planets through late-July at dusk. Credit: Stellarium.

Venus this summer – higher up at dusk, brilliant Venus rules the evening sky, shining at magnitude -4. Venus is so bright that you can easily pick it up this month before sunset… if you know exactly where to look for it. Venus reaches greatest elongation 46 degrees east of the Sun on August 17th, presenting a featureless half-illuminated disk 25” in diameter near a point known as dichotomy. Venus also flirts with the bright star Regulus (Alpha Leonis) in July, passing a degrees from the star on July 10th. Fun fact: Venus can actually occult (pass in front of) Regulus and last did so on July 7th, 1959 and will do so next on October 1st, 2044.

Jupiter, with the shadow of Europa in transit from June 6th. Image credit and copyright: Ralph Smyth.

Jupiter Rules – The King of the Planets, Jupiter rules the sky after darkness falls, crossing the astronomical constellation Libra the Scales. Fresh off of its May 9th opposition, Jupiter still shines at a respectable magnitude -2 in July, with a disk 36” across. Jupiter heads towards quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun on August 6th, meaning the planet and its retinue of four Galilean moons cast their respective shadows off to one side. In fact, we also see a series of fine double shadow transits across the Jovian cloud tops involving Io and Europa starting on July 29th.

The glorious planet Saturn. Image credit and copyright: Paul Stewart

…and Saturn makes five: Stately Saturn never fails to impress. Also just past its June 27th opposition, the rings are still tipped open narrowing down only slightly from last year’s widest angle of 27 degrees, assuring an amazing view. Shining at magnitude 0 and subtending 42” (including rings) in July, Saturn traverses the star-rich fields of the astronomical constellation Sagittarius the Archer this summer. Look at Saturn, and you’re glimpsing the edge of the known solar system right up until William Herschel discovered Uranus on the night of March 13th, 1781.

The origins of a dust storm: Mars from late May. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.

Enter Mars: We saved the best for last. The Red Planet races towards a fine opposition on July 27th. This is the best approach of Mars since the historic 2003 opposition, and very nearly as favorable: Mars shines at magnitude -2.8 at the end of July, and presents a 24.3” disk. More to come as Mars approaches!

And as with many an opposition, dust storm season has engulfed Mars. Be vigilant, as the ‘Red’ Planet often takes on a sickly yellowish tint during a large dust storm, and this cast will often be apparent even to the naked eye. NASA’s aging Opportunity rover has fallen silent due to the lack of sunlight and solar power, and it’s to be seen if the rover can ride out the storm.

The path of the Moon – The Moon makes a good guidepost as it visits the planets in July. The first eclipse season of 2018 also begins in July, with a partial solar eclipse for Tasmania, SE Australia and the extreme southernmost tip of New Zealand on July 13th and wrapping up with a fine total lunar eclipse favoring Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia on July 27th. Note that this eclipse is only 14 hours after Mars passes opposition… we expect to see plenty of pictures of a ruddy Mars near a Blood Moon eclipse.

The Moon also makes a handy guide to catch each of the planets in the daytime sky… though you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to nab Mercury or Saturn (also, be sure the Sun is physically blocked out of view while hunting for Mercury in the daytime sky!) Here are the respective passes of the Moon near each planet in July:

Planet Date Time Moon Phase/illumination Distance
Mercury July 14th 23UT/7PM EDT Waxing crescent/5% 2.1 degrees
Venus July 16th 4UT/00AM EDT Waxing crescent/14% 1.5 degrees
Jupiter July 21st 2UT/10PM EDT Waxing gibbous/63% 4.2 degrees
Saturn July 25th 5UT/1AM EDT Waxing gibbous/94% 2 degrees
Mars July 27th 16UT/12 EDT Full Moon/100% 8 degrees

Unfortunately, the telescopic planets Uranus and Neptune are left out of the July evening view; Uranus is currently crossing the constellation Aries and Neptune resides in Aquarius, respectively. Pluto is, however, currently in the direction of Sagittarius, and you can also wave to NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft en route to its New Year’s Day 2019 KBO destination Ultima Thule (nee 2014 MU69) near the waxing gibbous Moon on the night of July 26th.

The Moon, Pluto and New Horizons on the evening of July 26th. Credit: Starry Night

And finally, another solar system destination in Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer beckons telescope owners in July: asteroid 4 Vesta.

All of this is more than enough planetary action to keep planetary observers and imagers up late on forthcoming July evenings.

Into the Red: Our Complete Guide to Mars Opposition 2016

Mars 2014
Mars from opposition 2014. Image credit and copyright: Paul Stewart.

Ready to explore the Red Planet? Starting in May, Mars invades the evening skies of the Earth, as it heads towards opposition on May 22nd. Not only does this place Mars front and center for prime time viewing, but we’re headed towards a cycle of favorable oppositions, with Mars near perihelion, while Earth is near aphelion. Continue reading “Into the Red: Our Complete Guide to Mars Opposition 2016”

The Cyber-Myth That Just Won’t Die: See Mars as Large as a Full Moon!!!

We've been here before... (All article images and bad photoshopping courtesy of the author).

It’s hard to believe that it’s been with us for a decade now.

Ten years ago this week, the planet Mars reached made an exceptionally close pass of the planet Earth. This occurred on August 27th, 2003, when Mars was only 56 million kilometres from our fair planet and shined at magnitude -2.9.

Such an event is known as opposition.  This occurs when a planet with an orbit exterior to our own reaches a point opposite to the Sun in the sky, and rises as the Sun sets. In the case of Mars, this occurs about every 2.13 years.

But another myth arose in 2003, one that now makes its return every August, whether Mars does or not.You’ve no doubt gotten the chain mail from a well-meaning friend/relative/coworker back in the bygone days a decade ago, back before the advent social media when spam was still sorta hip. “Mars to appear as large as the Full Moon!!!” it breathlessly exclaimed. “A once in a lifetime event!!!”

Though a little over the top, the original version did at least explain (towards the end) that Mars would indeed look glorious on the night of August 27th, 2003 … through a telescope.

Mars during the historic opposition season of '03.
Mars during the historic opposition season of ’03.

But never let facts get in the way of a good internet rumor. Though Mars didn’t reach opposition again until November 7th 2005, the “Mars Hoax” email soon began to make its rounds every August.

Co-workers and friends continued to hit send. Spam folder filled up. Science news bloggers debunked, and later recycled posts on the silliness of it all.

Now, a decade later, the Mars Hoax seems to have successfully made the transition over to social media and found new life on Facebook.

Mars as seen during a close conjunction with the Moon on July 17th, 2003. Mars was 20 arc seconds in size at the time leading up to the August 2003 opposition.
How Mars really appears next to the Moon: Mars as seen during a close conjunction with the Moon on July 17th, 2003. Mars was 20 arc seconds in size at the time, leading up to the August 2003 opposition. Image courtesy of Rick Stankiewicz, used with permission.

No one knows where the Mars Hoax meme goes to weather the lean months, only to return complete with all caps and even more exclamation points each and every August. Is it the just a product of the never ending quest for the almighty SEO? Are we now destined to recycle and relive astronomical events in cyber-land annually, even if they’re imaginary?

Perhaps, if anything there’s a social psychology study somewhere in there, begging the question of why such a meme as the Mars Hoax endures… Will it attain a mythos akin to the many variations of a “Blue Moon,” decades from now, with historians debating where the cultural thread came from?

Here are the facts:

-Mars reaches opposition about every 2.13 Earth years.

-Due to its eccentric orbit, Mars can vary from about 56 million to over 101 million kilometres from the Earth during oppositions.

-Therefore, Mars can appear visually from 13.8” to 25.1” arc seconds in size.

-But that’s still tiny, as the Moon appears about 30’ across as seen from the Earth. You could ring the local horizon with about 720 Full Moons end-to-end, and place 71 “maxed out Mars’s” with room to spare across each one of them!

-And although the Full Moon looks huge, you can cover it up with a dime held at arm’s length…. Try it sometime, and amaze your email sending/Facebook sharing friends!

Important: Mars NEVER gets large enough to look like anything other than a star-like point to the naked eye.

Reality check... how Mars really appears compared to the Moon as seen during a close conjunction in 2012.
Reality check… how Mars actually appears compared to the Moon as seen during a close conjunction in 2012.

-And finally, and this is the point that should be getting placed in all caps on Facebook, to the tune of thousands of likes…  MARS ISN’T EVEN ANYWHERE NEAR OPPOSITION in August 2013!!! Mars is currently low in the dawn sky in the constellation Cancer on the other side of the Sun. Mars won’t be reaching opposition until April 8th, 2014, when it will reach magnitude -1.4 and an apparent size of 15.2” across.

Still, like zombies from the grave, this myth just won’t die. In the public’s eye, Mars now shines “As big as” (or bigger, depending on the bad hyperbole used) as Full Moon now every August. Friends and relatives hit send, (or these days, “share” or “retweet”) observatories and planetariums get queries, astronomers shake their heads, and science bloggers dust off their debunking posts for another round. Hey, at least it’s not 2012, and we don’t have to keep remembering how many “baktuns are in a piktun…”

What’s a well meaning purveyor & promoter science to do?

Feed those hungry brains a dose of reality.

There are real things, fascinating things about Mars afoot. We’re exploring the Red Planet via Mars Curiosity, an SUV-sized, nuclear powered rover equipped with a laser. The opposition coming up next year means that the once every 2+ year launch window to journey to Mars is soon opening. This time around, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission and, just perhaps, India’s pioneering Mars Orbiter Mission may make the trip. Launching from Cape Canaveral on November 18th, MAVEN seeks to answer the questions of what the climate and characteristics of Mars were like in the past by probing its tenuous modern day atmosphere.

The circumstances for opositions of Mars from
The circumstances for the oppositions of Mars from 2001 to 2029.

And as opposition approaches in 2014, Mars will again present a fine target for small telescopes.  As a matter of fact, Mars will pass two intriguing celestial objects next month, passing in front of the Beehive cluster and — perhaps — a brightening Comet ISON. More to come on that later this week!

And it’s worth noting that after a series of bad oppositions in 2010 and 2012, oppositions in 2014 and 2016 are trending towards more favorable. In fact, the Mars opposition of July 27th, 2018 will be nearly as good as the 2003 approach, with Mars appearing 24.1” across. Not nearly as “large as a Full Moon” by a long shot, but hey, a great star party target.

Will the Mars Hoax email enjoy a resurgence on Facebook, Twitter or whatever is in vogue then? Stay tuned!

NASA Looks at 3-D Food Printer for Star Trek-like Replicator

The RepRap self-replicating printer 'Mendel". (Credit: CharlesC under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

The International Space Station may soon have its very own Star Trek food replicator.

Earlier this week, NASA awarded a $125,000 six month grant to the Systems & Materials Research Cooperation to design a 3D printer capable of printing a pizza from 30-year shelf stable foodstuffs.

Founded by Anjan Contractor, SMRC built a basic food printer from a chocolate printer to win NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program in a trial video. The design is based on an open-source RepRap 3D printer.

Contractor and SMRC will begin construction on the pizza-printing prototype in two weeks. Pizza has been one item missing from astronauts menu for years. The 3D printer would “build-up” a pizza serving by first layering out the dough onto a heated plate then adding tomato sauce and toppings.

But this isn’t your mother’s pizza, as the proteins would be provided by cartridge injectors filled with organic base powders derived from algae, insects and grass.

Yummy stuff, to be sure!

Of course, one can see an immediate application of 3D food printing technology for long duration space missions. Contractor and SMRC envisions 3D food printing as the wave of the future, with the capacity to solve world hunger for a burgeoning human population.

Could a 3D food printer be coming to a kitchen near you?

Curiously, printing confectioneries and pet food pellets would be the simplest application of said technology. Printing a soufflé and crowned rack of lamb will be tougher. 3D printing technology has made great strides as of late, and RepRap has made a printer which is capable of printing itself. Those who fear the rise of Von Neumann’s self-replicating robots should take note…

Should we welcome or fear our self-replicating, pizza-bearing overlords?

The International Space Station is due for the delivery of its first 3D printer in 2014. This will give astros the capability to fabricate simple parts and tools onsite without requiring machining. Of course, the first question on our minds is: How will a 3D printer function in zero-g? Will one have tomato paste an insect parts flying about? Recent flights aboard a Boeing 727 by Made in Space Inc have been testing 3D printers in micro-gravity environments.

Made in Space demonstrates 3D Printing technology headed to the ISS next year. (Credit: Made in Space Inc./NASA).
Made in Space demonstrates 3D Printing technology headed to the ISS next year. (Credit: Made in Space Inc./NASA).

Further afield, 3D replicators may arrive on the Moon or Mars ahead of humans, building a prefab colony with raw materials available for colonists to follow.

Artist's conception of a lunar base constructed with 3D printing technology. (Credit: NASA Lunar Science Institute).
Artist’s conception of a lunar base constructed with 3D printing technology. (Credit: NASA Lunar Science Institute).

Will 3D food replicators pioneered by SMRC be a permanent fixture on crewed long duration space missions? Plans such as Dennis Tito’s Mars 2018 flyby and the one way Mars One proposal will definitely have to address the dietary dilemmas of hungry astronauts. Biosphere 2 demonstrated that animal husbandry will be impractical  on long term missions. Future Martian colonists will definitely eat much farther down the food chain to survive. SpaceX head Elon Musk has recently said in a Twitter response to PETA that he won’t be the “Kale Eating Overlord of Mars,” and perhaps “micro-ranching” of insects will be the only viable alternative to filet mignon on the Red Planet. Hey, it beats Soylent Green… and the good news is, you can still brew beer from algae!

Diagram of a proposed 3D food printer based on ReRap. (Credit: SMRC).
Diagram of a proposed 3D food printer based on ReRap. (Credit: SMRC).

Would YOU take a one way journey to Mars? Would you eat a bug to do it? It’ll be interesting to watch these 3D printers in action as they take to space and print America’s favorite delivery fast food. But it’s yet to be seen if home replicators will put Dominos Pizza out of business anytime soon. Perhaps they’ll only be viable if they can print a pizza in less than “30 minutes!”