Mars on the move; space station back in the evening sky

Mars forms rapidly changing patterns with Saturn and the star Spica in the coming two weeks. These maps show the sky facing low in the southwest about an hour after sunset. Created with Stellarium

Mars is unstoppable. Maybe you’ve already noticed that it’s trying its best to evade the setting sun in the western sky. Mars moves much faster than any of the other outer because it’s considerably closer to Earth. Its eastward orbital motion is obvious in a matter of just a few nights if the planet happens to be near a bright star or much slower moving planet.

The north wall and rim of Gale Crater taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The haziness is from dust deposited on the camera’s clear dust cover during descent. I toned the image for better contrast. Click photo to see the original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

That’s exactly where it is right now –  next door to Saturn and Spica in evening twilight. Mars threads the needle between the pair on the nights of August 13 and 14. As you watch the planet, consider that it carries its new robotic guest along for the ride at 15 miles per second or 3 miles per second slower that Earth. Being closer to the sun, our planet moves faster.

Today NASA shared what I believe is the first color photo from Curiosity. It was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) mounted on Curiosity’s robotic arm. The camera’s main purpose is to shoot closeups of soil and rocks. When it’s ready for that job, the lens cover will be removed and we’ll get much sharper, contrastier images similar to yesterday’s picture of Mt. Sharp. This is the best color for now.

The full moon on August 1, 2012 captured by an astronaut on the International Space Station. Because the moon was so close to the horizon, the thicker (denser) air greatly distorted its shape.  Credit: NASA

While you’re out Mars-gazing, keep watch for the brightest satellite in the sky. The International Space Station (ISS) is back to making passes during evening hours. The times below are when you can see it in the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, log in to Heavens Above or simply key in your zip code over at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page. The ISS is a brilliant, steady light moving from west to east. A typical pass takes about five minutes.

* Tonight starting at 9:36 p.m. Pass across the south-southeastern sky. Second pass at 11:12 p.m. in the west; fades out as it enters Earth’s shadow not far from the North Star.
* Wednesday Aug. 8 at 10:19 p.m. straight across the top of the sky. Brilliant show!
* Thursday Aug. 9 at 9:26 p.m. high across the south and again at 11:03 p.m. in the northern sky.
* Friday Aug. 10 at 10:09 p.m. halfway up in the northern sky.
* Saturday Aug. 10 at 10:10 p.m. Nice pass across the north

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