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?
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.
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.
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.