The crescent moon made a beautiful return appearance to the evening sky late last week. Did you see that wispy thing? Tonight it’s filled out and high in the southwest at dusk. You’ll also notice how earthshine — sunlight reflected from Earth to the moon and back — faintly illuminates the remainder of the moon. With binoculars you can often see details in the earthlit portion including several lunar seas and possibly even the rayed crater Tycho. Give it a try then look a short distance to the right of the moon to find the planet Mars.
Few amateur astronomers now observe Mars in a telescope because it’s so far away (the reason it’s not particularly bright) and tiny — there’s almost nothing to see except its shape. Mars continues to fade but will stick around through the end of May before it’s lost in the solar glare. We won’t see it brightly again until spring of 2020!
Good thing we can still get closeup views via the Curiosity rover’s eyes. After exploring Vera Rubin Ridge in Gale Crater for more than a year, the rover is now rolling toward the “Glen Torridon” region, an area that appears rich in clay-bearing rock as seen from orbit. Clay is good sign that water flowed and pooled within the crater long ago.
The Curiosity Rover departs Vera Rubin Ridge. Click and drag the image to see a 360° view.
The 360-video lets you visit Curiosity’s final drill site on the ridge, an area nicknamed “Rock Hall.” It was created from a panorama taken by the rover on Dec. 19. The rover found patches of hematite there, an iron-rich mineral that often forms in water as well as crystals of what looks to be gypsum, which may have crystallized in an evaporating lake.
Glen Torridon is a trough between the ridge and Mt. Sharp, the broad peak Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. Once it settles into its new digs, mission controllers will select a drill site to gnaw into those clay-rich rocks in hopes finding more organic molecules. Clay is good at trapping organics, which along with water are essential to making a habitable environment for life possible.
Things to ponder when you look up at the Red Planet tonight.