Apollo 12 anniversary celebrated at Martian Crater as Opportunity blazes ahead


NASA recently celebrated the anniversary of the historic Apollo 12 lunar landing mission with another history making craft – the long lived Opportunity Mars rover. Opportunity traversed around and photographed ‘Intrepid’ crater on Mars in mid November 2010. The crater is informally named in honor of the ‘Intrepid’ lunar module which landed two humans on the surface of the moon on 19 November 1969, some forty one years ago.

Apollo 12 was only the second of NASA’s Apollo missions to place humans on the Earth’s moon. Apollo astronauts Pete Conrad and Gordon Bean precisely piloted their lunar landing spacecraft nicknamed ‘Intrepid’ to a safe touchdown in the ‘Ocean of Storms’, a mere 180 meters (600 feet) away from the Surveyor 3 robotic lunar probe which had already landed on the moon in April 1967. The unmanned Surveyor landers paved the way for NASA’s manned Apollo landers.

As Conrad and Bean walked on the moon and collected lunar rocks for science, the third member of the Apollo 12 crew, astronaut Dick Gordon, orbited alone in the ‘Yankee Clipper’ command module and collected valuable science data from overhead.

On the anniversary of the lunar landing, the rover science team decided to honor the Apollo 12 mission as Opportunity was driving east and chanced upon a field of small impact craters located in between vast Martian dune fields. Informal crater names are assigned by the team to craters spotted by Opportunity in the Meridiani Planum region based on the names of historic ships of exploration.

Opportunity rover took first panorama of Intrepid crater on Sol 2417 (Nov.11, 2010) which shows the rim of distant Endeavour crater in the background. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Rover science team member James Rice, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., suggested using names from Apollo 12 because of the coincidental timing according to NASA. “The Apollo missions were so inspiring when I was young, I remember all the dates. When we were approaching these craters, I realized we were getting close to the Nov. 19 anniversary for Apollo 12,” Rice said. He sent Bean and Gordon photographs that Opportunity took of the two craters named for the two Apollo 12 spaceships.

Bean wrote back the following message to the Mars Exploration Rover team: “I just talked with Dick Gordon about the wonderful honor you have bestowed upon our Apollo 12 spacecraft. Forty-one years ago today, we were approaching the moon in Yankee Clipper with Intrepid in tow. We were excited to have the opportunity to perform some important exploration of a place in the universe other than planet Earth where humans had not gone before. We were anxious to give it our best effort. You and your team have that same opportunity. Give it your best effort.”

On November 4, Opportunity drove by and imaged ‘Yankee Clipper’ crater. After driving several more days she reached ‘Intrepid’ on November 9. The rover then traversed around the crater rim and photographed the crater interior from different vantage points, collecting two panoramic views along the way.

The rover team assembled the initial tribute panoramic mosaic taken on Sol 2417 (Nov. 11) and which can be seen here in high resolution along with ‘Yankee Clipper’.

Opportunity soon departed Intrepid on Sol 2420 (Nov. 14) to resume her multi-year trek eastwards and took a series of crater images that day – from a very different direction – which we were inspired to assemble into a panoramic mosaic (in false color) in tribute to the Apollo 12 mission (see above).

Our mosaic tribute clearly shows the rover wheel tracks as Opportunity first approached Intrepid on Nov. 9 – which is fittingly reminiscent of the Apollo 12 astronauts walking on the moon 41 years ago as they explored a lunar crater. By comparison, the arrival mosaic from Sol 2417 shows distant Endeavour crater in the background.

Intrepid crater is about 16 meters in diameter, thus similar in size to ‘Eagle’ crater inside which Opportunity first landed on 24 January 2004 after a 250 million mile ‘hole in one shot’ from Earth. Eagle was named in honor of the Apollo 11 mission.

“Intrepid is fairly eroded with sand filling the interior and ejecta blocks planed off by the saltating sand”, said Matt Golembek, Mars Exploration Program Landing Site Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. Asked about the age of Intrepid crater, Golembek told me; “Based on the erosional state it is at least several million years old, but less than around 20 million years old.”

Opportunity is blazing ahead towards a huge 22 km (14 mile) wide crater named ‘Endeavour’, which shows distinct signatures of clays and past wet environments based on orbital imagery thus making the crater a compelling science target.

“Intrepid is 1.5 km from Santa Maria crater and about 7.5 km from Endeavour.”

“We should be at Santa Maria crater next week, where we will spend the holidays and conjunction. Then it will be 6 km to Endeavour,” Golembek said.

The road ahead looks to be alot friendlier to the intrepid rover. “The terrain Opportunity is on is among the smoothest and easiest to traverse since Eagle and Endurance. Should be smooth sailing to Endeavour, averaging about 100 meters per drive sol. We should easily beat MSL to the phyllosilicates,” Golembek explained.

Phyllosilicates are clay minerals that form under wet, warm, non-acidic conditions. They have never before been studied on the Martian surface.

MSL is the Mars Science Lab, NASA’s next Mars lander mission and which is scheduled to blast off towards the end of 2011. Golembek leads the landing site selection team.

The amazing Opportunity rover has spent nearly seven years roving the Martian surface, conducting a crater tour during her very unexpectedly long journey at ‘Meridiani Planum’ on Mars which now exceeds 26 km (16 miles). The rovers were designed with a prime mission “warranty” of just 90 Martian days – or sols – and have vastly exceeded their creators expectations.

“What a ride. This still does not seem real,” Rob Manning told me. Manning headed the Entry, Descent and Landing team at JPL for both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. “That would be fantastic if Opportunity could get to the phyllosilicates before MSL launches.”

Stay tuned.

This map of the region around NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows the relative locations of several craters and the rover location in May 2010. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems/WUSTL
AS12-48-7133 (20 Nov. 1969) --- This unusual photograph, taken during the second Apollo 12 extravehicular activity (EVA), shows two U.S. spacecraft on the surface of the moon. The Apollo 12 Lunar Module (LM) is in the background. The unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft is in the foreground. The Apollo 12 LM, with astronauts Charles Conrad Jr. and Alan L. Bean aboard, landed about 600 feet from Surveyor 3 in the Ocean of Storms. The television camera and several other pieces were taken from Surveyor 3 and brought back to Earth for scientific examination. Here, Conrad examines the Surveyor's TV camera prior to detaching it. Astronaut Richard F. Gordon Jr. remained with the Apollo 12 Command and Service Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit while Conrad and Bean descended in the LM to explore the moon. Surveyor 3 soft-landed on the moon on April 19, 1967.

Star Cluster

WISE Reveals a Hidden Star Cluster


There are few things in astronomy more awe inspiring and spellbinding than the birth of a star. Even though we now understand how they are formed, the sheer magnitude of it is still enough to stir the imagination of even the most schooled and cynical academics. Still, there is some degree of guesswork and chance when it comes to where stars will be born and what kind of stars they will become. For example, while some stars are single field stars (like our Sun), others form in groups of two (binary) or more, sometimes much more. This is what is known as a Star Cluster, by definition, a group of stars that share a common origin and are gravitationally bound for some length of time.

Thereare two basic categories of star clusters: Globular and Open (aka. Galactic) star clusters. Globular clusters are roughly spherical groupings of stars that range from 10,000 to several million stars packed into regions ranging from 10 to 30 light years across. They commonly consist of very old Population II stars – which are just a few hundred million years younger than the universe itself – and are mostly yellow and red. Open clusters, on the other hand, are very different. Unlike the spherically distributed globulars, open clusters are confined to the galactic plane and are almost always found within the spiral arms of galaxies. They are generally made up of young stars, up to a few tens of millions of years old, with a few rare exceptions that are as old as a few billion years. Open clusters also contain only a few hundred members within a region of up to about 30 light-years. Being much less densely populated than globular clusters, they are much less tightly gravitationally bound, and over time, will become disrupted by the gravity of giant molecular clouds and other clusters.

Star clusters are particularly useful to astronomers as they provide a way to study and model stellar evolution and ages. By estimating the age of globular clusters, scientists were able to get a more accurate picture of how old the universe is, putting it at roughly 13 billion years of age. In addition, the location of star clusters and galaxies is believed to be a good indication of the physics of the early universe. This is based on aspects of the Big Bang theory where it is believed that immediately after the creation event, following a period of relatively homogenous distribution; cosmic matter slowly gravitated to areas of higher concentration. In this way, star clusters and the position of galaxies provide an indication of where matter was more densely distributed when the universe was still young.

Some popular examples of star clusters, many of which are visible to the naked eye, include Pleiades, Hyades, the Beehive Cluster and the star nursery within the Orion Nebula.

We have written many articles about star cluster for Universe Today. Here’s an article about a massive star cluster discovered, and here are some amazing star cluster wallpapers.

If you’d like more information on stars, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and here’s the stars and galaxies homepage.

We’ve done many episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Listen here, Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From?



Planck Time


Ever wonder why we are here, how and why the universe that we inhabit came to be, and what our place is in it? If so, than in addition to philosophy, religion, and esotericism, you might be interested in the field of Cosmology. This is, in the strictest sense, the study of the universe in its totality, as it is today, and what humanity’s place is in it. Although a relatively recent invention from a purely scientific point of view, it has a long history which embraces several fields over the course of many thousand years and countless cultures.

In western science, the earliest recorded examples of cosmology are to be found in ancient Babylon (circa 1900 – 1200 BCE), and India (1500 -1200 BCE). In the former case, the creation myth recovered in the EnûmaEliš held that the world existed in a “plurality of heavens and earths” that were round in shape and revolved around the “cult place of the deity”. This account bears a strong resemblance to the Biblical account of creation as found in Genesis. In the latter case, Brahman priests espoused a theory in which the universe was timeless, cycling between expansion and total collapse, and coexisted with an infinite number of other universes, mirroring modern cosmology.

The next great contribution came from the Greeks and Arabs. The Greeks were the first to stumble onto the concept of a universe that was made up of two elements: tiny seeds (known as atoms) and void. They also suggested, and gravitated between, both a geocentric and heliocentric model. The Arabs further elaborated on this while in Europe, scholars stuck with a model that was a combination of classical theory and Biblical canon, reflecting the state of knowledge in medieval Europe. This remained in effect until Copernicus and Galileo came onto the scene, reintroducing the west to a heliocentric universe while scientists like Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton refined it with their discovery of elliptical orbits and gravity.

The 20th century was a boon for cosmology. Beginning with Einstein, scientists now believed in an infinitely expanding universe based on the rules of relativity. Edwin Hubble then demonstrated the scale of the universe by proving that “spiral nebulae” observed in the night sky were actually other galaxies. By showing how they were red-shifted, he also demonstrated that they were moving away, proving that the universe really was expanding. This in turn, led to the Big Bang theory which put a starting point to the universe and a possible end (echoes of the Braham expansion/collapse model).

Today, the field of cosmology is thriving thanks to ongoing research, debate and continuous discovery, thanks in no small part to ongoing efforts to explore the known universe.

We have written many articles about cosmology for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the galaxy, and here are some interesting facts about stars.

If you’d like more info on cosmology, the best place to look is NASA’s Official Website. I also recommend you check out the website for the Hubble Space Telescope.

We’ve recorded many episodes of Astronomy Cast, including one about Hubble. Check it out, Episode 88: The Hubble Space Telescope.


Why Can We See the Moon During the Day?

Crescent Moon

We all know the basics of the Diurnal Cycle – day and night, sunrise and sunset. And we are all aware that during the day, the Sun is the most luminous object in the sky, to the point that it completely obscures the stars. And at night, the Moon (when it is visible) is the most luminous object, sometimes to the point that it can make gazing at the Milky Way and Deep-Sky Objects more difficult.

This dichotomy of night and day, darkness and light, are why the Moon and the Sun were often worshiped together by ancient cultures. But at times, the Moon is visible even in the daytime. We’ve all seen it, hanging low in the sky, a pale impression against a background of blue? But just what accounts for this? How is it that we can see the brightest object in the night sky when the Sun is still beaming overhead?

Continue reading “Why Can We See the Moon During the Day?”

What is Gravitational Force?

Why Do Planets Orbit the Sun

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation is used to explain gravitational force. This law states that every massive particle in the universe attracts every other massive particle with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This general, physical law was derived from observations made by induction. Another way, more modern, way to state the law is: ‘every point mass attracts every single other point mass by a force pointing along the line intersecting both points. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the point masses’.

Gravitational force surrounds us. It is what decides how much we weigh and how far a basketball will travel when thrown before it returns to the surface. The gravitational force on Earth is equal to the force the Earth exerts on you. At rest, on or near the surface of the Earth, the gravitational force equals your weight. On a different astronomical body like Venus or the Moon, the acceleration of gravity is different than on Earth, so if you were to stand on a scale, it would show you that you weigh a different amount than on Earth.

When two objects are gravitational locked, their gravitational force is centered in an area that is not at the center of either object, but at the barycenter of the system. The principle is similar to that of a see-saw. If two people of very different weights sit on opposite sides of the balance point, the heavier one must sit closer to the balance point so that they can equalize each others mass. For instance, if the heavier person weighs twice as much as the lighter one, they must sit at only half the distance from the fulcrum. The balance point is the center of mass of the see-saw, just as the barycenter is the balance point of the Earth-Moon system. This point that actually moves around the Sun in the orbit of the Earth, while the Earth and Moon each move around the barycenter, in their orbits.

Each system in the galaxy, and presumably, the universe, has a barycenter. The push and pull of the gravitational force of the objects is what keeps everything in space from crashing into one another.

We have written many articles about gravitational force for Universe Today. Here’s an article about gravity in space, and here’s an article about the discovery of gravity.

If you’d like more info on Gravity, check out The Constant Pull of Gravity: How Does It Work?, and here’s a link to Gravity on Earth Versus Gravity in Space: What’s the Difference?.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Gravity. Listen here, Episode 102: Gravity.

What Galaxy Do We Live In?

If you are not an astronomy enthusiast you not have thought much about what galaxy do we live in. So depending on that the answer may surprise you. If you know anything about galaxies you know that they are groupings of stars that number in the hundreds of billions. The most famous is the Milky Way. It is from this galaxy that we even have the term. The simple point is that the Earth is part of the Milky Way even though if we see it in the sky it looks like we are observing it from the outside. Why is that? To understand you need to know exactly where we live in neighborhood of the Milky Way Galaxy.

As we are part of the solar system Earth pretty much follows the path of the sun as it goes through its own orbit around the galaxy. The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy type so it has arms sort of like an octopus. The Sun is located near the outward tip of the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way. This makes Earth about 28,000 light years from the galactic core of our home galaxy.

The Solar System also has a galactic year that it follows. It takes around 200 million to 250 million years for the solar system to orbit the Sun. Another indicator of our position is where the galactic equator. While our star system is considered to be on the outskirts of the Milky Way this is only an estimate. It is believed that the Milky Way is larger than first estimated. There is also suspicion that our galaxy is in the process of absorbing other smaller galaxies. However, there is not enough empirical evidence available to support the claim.

So what would be so important about knowing what part of the galaxy we live in? One reason is space exploration. Some time in the future mankind may find a way to achieve faster than light space travel. This can provide a new set of challenges for engineers and astronomers to tackle. For example how would an astronaut keep from getting lost in space? Detailed mapping and computer programming in the future could help galactic wayfarers know where they are going and more importantly how to get home.

The other reason is that it never hurts to know our place in the scheme of things. Just thinking of the challenge of finding earth if we were so far way helps us to understand how truly vast the universe is.

We have written many articles about the Milky Way galaxy for Universe Today. Here are some facts about the Milky Way, and here’s an article about the closest galaxy to the Milky Way.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies. Listen here, Episode 97: Galaxies.

Sources: SEDS, Daily Galaxy

Space Wallpapers


Here are some amazing space wallpapers. If you want to make one of these your computer desktop wallpaper, just click on the image. That will take you to a much larger version of the image. You can then right-click on the image and choose, “Set as Desktop Background”. That will make any of these space wallpapers your desktop background.


This is one of the most famous space photographs every taken. It’s called “Earthrise”, and it was captured by the crew of Apollo 8 as they were orbiting around the Moon. They saw the Earth rising over the Moon’s horizon and captured this amazing photograph.

Earth from space
Earth from space

NASA created this amazing wallpaper as part of its celebration for Sun-Earth day in 2008. You can see the Sun shining just outside of the photograph above.

Supernova 1054 AD
Supernova 1054 AD

Almost 1000 years ago, a star detonated in the sky as a supernova, shining brilliantly for a few days. After it faded away, it was replaced by this amazing nebula.

Star formation in the Eagle Nebula
Star formation in the Eagle Nebula

This amazing space wallpaper shows active star formation in the Eagle Nebula. These newly forming stars are blasting out huge clouds of gas and dust into space.

Saturn wallpaper
Saturn wallpaper

Here’s a beautiful image of Saturn captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during a time that it was positioned over the planet’s pole.

We have got lots of image galleries here in Universe Today. Here are some Earth wallpapers, and here are some Venus wallpapers.

You can also download some cool space wallpapers from NASA’s JPL, and here are some wallpapers from Hubble.

You might also want to try listening to an episode of Astronomy Cast. Here’s an episode just about the Hubble Space Telescope.

After Loss of Lunar Orbiter, India Looks to Mars Mission

India Moon Mission

After giving up on re-establishing contact with the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman G. Madhavan Nair announced the space agency hopes to launch its first mission to Mars sometime between 2013 and 2015. Nair said the termination of Chandrayaan-1, although sad, is not a setback and India will move ahead with its plans for the Chandrayaan-2 mission to land an unmanned rover on the moon’s surface to prospect for chemicals, and in four to six years launch a robotic mission to Mars.

“We have given a call for proposal to different scientific communities,” Nair told reporters. “Depending on the type of experiments they propose, we will be able to plan the mission. The mission is at conceptual stage and will be taken up after Chandrayaan-2.”

On the decision to quickly pull the plug on Chandrayaan-1, Nair said, “There was no possibility of retrieving it. (But) it was a great success. We could collect a large volume of data, including more than 70,000 images of the moon. In that sense, 95 percent of the objective was completed.”

Contact with Chandrayaan-1 may have been lost because its antenna rotated out of direct contact with Earth, ISRO officials said. Earlier this year, the spacecraft lost both its primary and back-up star sensors, which use the positions of stars to orient the spacecraft.

The loss of Chandrayaan-1 comes less than a week after the spacecraft’s orbit was adjusted to team up with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for a Bi-static radar experiment. During the maneuver, Chandrayaan-1 fired its radar beam into Erlanger Crater on the moon’s north pole. Both spacecraft listened for echoes that might indicate the presence of water ice – a precious resource for future lunar explorers. The results of that experiment have not yet been released.

Chandrayaan-1 craft was designed to orbit the moon for two years, but lasted 315 days. It will take about 1,000 days until it crashes to the lunar surface and is being tracked by the U.S. and Russia, ISRO said.

The Chandrayaan I had 11 payloads, including a terrain-mapping camera designed to create a three-dimensional atlas of the moon. It is also carrying mapping instruments for the European Space Agency, radiation-measuring equipment for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and two devices for NASA, including the radar instrument to assess mineral composition and look for ice deposits. India launched its first rocket in 1963 and first satellite in 1975. The country’s satellite program is one of the largest communication systems in the world.

Sources: New Scientist, Xinhuanet