Planets, Moon Gather At Dusk / Curiosity Chews Into Mt. Sharp

The crescent moon and Saturn twist the night away this evening September 27, 2014. Catch the pair low in the southwestern sky 1-2 hours after sunset. Further east, Mars joins Antares in conjunction. Stellarium

Space weather experts are forecasting a minor G1 geomagnetic storm with possible auroras across the northern U.S. and southern Canada this evening.

While you’re out watching for that telltale green arc in the north, take a few minutes to face the opposite direction. Low above the southwestern horizon you’ll find the crescent moon parked near the planet Saturn. It may be our last chance to see the planet with ease. Saturn’s been sinking into the west for some time. Tonight’s moon will guide you right to it.

A little more than a fist to the left or east of Saturn, Mars will be in conjunction with its colorful friend Antares (both are red-hued) only 3.1º to its north. Both star and planet shine at magnitude +1 though Mars is officially a hair brighter. Can you see the difference?

Photo from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on Curiosity shows the first sample-collection hole drilled in Mount Sharp, the layered mountain that is the science destination of the rover’s extended mission. The hole is 0.63 inch wide and about 2.6 inches deep and photographed from 2 inches away. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover drilled and gathered its first rock sample from the base of Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater. The target rock formation, called Confidence Hills, lies on the Pahrump Hills outcrop at the base of the mountain. The rock is a mudstone and softer than any of the rocks previously sampled by the rover.

Mudstone rock outcrop where Curiosity got its first taste of Mt. Sharp (drill hole at top), the rover’s main science target during its time on Mars. Curiosity landed on the planet in August 2012. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech, colorized by Bob King

“This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL. Scientists hope to get a look at the first rock to underlie Mount Sharp to get a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed and what led to its formation. Mount Sharp is composed of layered sediments, some of which appear to have been deposited by water several billion years ago.

Fish-eye view taken with Curiosity’s front hazcam showing the drill at work on the Confidence Hills target at the base of Mount Sharp September 24, 2014. The rock surface is webbed with cracks. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, colorized by Bob King

NASA will put the breaks on Curiosity now that it’s reached its prime science destination after traveling 5 miles (8 km) since touching down on Mars August 6, 2012. Next, the rover will deliver a powdered rock sample into a scoop on it arm, where the soil’s texture will be scrutinized to access whether it’s safe for further sieving, portioning and delivery into Curiosity’s internal laboratory instruments without clogging hardware.

 

8 Responses

  1. Norman Sanker

    Hey Bob,

    Comet Siding Spring is near the Scorpion’s tail, is there any chance of seeing it? I’m far south of you in Tucson and have a C-8. Looked for it yesterday under soupy skies with no luck. The Moon interferes more each night as the comet heads for Mars.

    Norman

    1. astrobob

      Hi Norman,
      Wish I lived ‘down South’ like you. The comet reaches an altitude of 16 degrees from Tucson and shines at magnitude 10-10.5. It should be faintly visible in your C-8 on a dark, haze-free night. Can you get to a place south of town before the moon gets too bright?

      1. Norman Sanker

        Hey Bob,

        It’s unlikely I’ll be able to get out of town but my sky to the south isn’t bad, especially with the Moon interfering anyway. My plan is to go for it on the 30th when the comet is near a bright star in Scorpius’s tail. With a little luck and magnification, I might be able to pick it out among the many background stars. Thanks for the advice and wish me good weather. At least I won’t have to stay up late or get up early. I’m far enough south here to see Omega Centauri at the right time of year. It’s murky but the elliptical shape is evident. One day: Australia!

        Norman

  2. Norman Sanker

    Hey Bob,

    I searched for Siding Spring on 9-29 and 9-30. I’m convinced that my combination of brain, eyes, telescope, atmosphere, Moon and comet added up to nothing. I simply can not see it with my equipment. Any other southerly observers having any luck?

    Norman

    1. astrobob

      Norman,
      It’s a small comet, only 1.5′ in diameter, diffuse and magnitude 10.0. It sounds like it’s at your limit right now. Give it till after full moon when it will be higher in a dark sky.

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