Thin Crescent Moons And Space Station Swings, These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

The crescent moon greets sky watchers tonight in the western sky during twilight. Binoculars will show Mars very low above the horizon about an hour after sunset. Created with Stellarium

Two of our favorite sky objects are back. A fingernail crescent moon will scratch the sky at dusk and the space station begins another series of swing-bys  at  dawn.

Watch for the moon in the southwest during evening twilight. If you’re game for a challenge, use binoculars to find dim Mars about 7 degrees directly below the moon. Think of Curiosity up there poking around the rocks of Gale Crater in Yellowknife Bay. Can you believe it’s been there for 161 days already?

This image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) shows the patch of rock cleaned by the first use of the rover’s Dust Removal Tool (DRT) on Jan. 6, 2013. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last week the rover used its motorized, wire-bristle brush for the first time to dust off a rock in preparation for close-up inspection by the hand-lens imager and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). The APXS analyzes the elements that compose the rock by bombarding it with alpha particles (helium atoms) and X-rays and measuring what scatters back. Each element gives off its own distinctive energy fingerprint.

Expedition 34 crew members photographed an extensive blanket of stratocumulus clouds as they flew over the northwestern Pacific Ocean on Jan. 4, 2013. The cloud pattern is typical for this part of the world. The low clouds carry cold air over a warmer sea. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Morning sky watchers again have the pleasure of tracking the International Space Station (ISS), now beginning a fresh series of passes before sunrise. Winter mornings make watching the space station easy compared to summer. With the sun rising so late, you can look for the station when you step out to pick up the paper or walk the dog. No getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. like you did during the summer months with its early sunrises and even earlier twilights.

The times below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. Check out times for your town at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page or log in to Heavens-Above, where you can print out cool maps of the space station’s path in the sky. Look for the ISS to first appear in the west and travel east; a typical pass takes about 5 minutes.  It looks like a brilliant, steady yellow star on the move.

* Tomorrow Jan. 14 beginning at 6:55 a.m. High pass across the northern sky. Brilliant at magnitude -3.2
* Tues. Jan. 15 at 6:07 a.m. when it suddenly leaves Earth’s shadow in the western sky in Leo and travels across the top of the sky headed east. Brightest pass of the week at mag. -3.4
* Weds. Jan. 16 at 6:51 a.m. Nice pass across the northern sky
* Thurs. Jan. 17 at 6:03 a.m. Appears  suddenly out of Earth’s shadow halfway up in the northwestern sky moving east.
* Fri. Jan. 18 at 6:48 a.m. Full pass across the northern sky
* Sat. Jan. 19 at 6 a.m. First appears out of Earth’s shadow near the North Star moving east.

Closeup of the large sunspot region 1654 taken at 9 a.m. CST this morning Jan. 13, 2013 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Solar storms or flares occur when powerful magnetic energy stored in the spots is explosively released.  Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The sun’s been looking pretty hot this past week. Lots of flares, including a few rated as moderately powerful M-class storms, have been popping off in the large sunspot group 1654. I see today that the Kp index, an indicator of magnetic activity around the Earth, is starting to climb again – just a little. The space weather forecast doesn’t predict any auroras minor or major in the next three days, but that could change if 1654 continues firing off flares as it rotates to face the Earth more directly.

2 Responses

  1. Bob Crozier

    That Expedition 34 photo of the cloud covered north Pacific is exactly what messes with my ability to see the sky in winter months where I live: cold air coming in over the long deep valley filled with warm(ish!) water. It makes for LOTS of fog and clouds. Summers can awesome though!

    So what did we learn from that cleaned off rock on Mars? btw, I sort of thought the dust would be deeper than that!

    1. astrobob

      Not much yet. No report has been published. They’re probably still running tests or examining the results before making an update. Brushing was only done a week ago.

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