Rosetta’s comet from 17.8 miles – forbidding yet inviting

Four image mosaic of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, using images taken on September 19th by Rosetta. Faint jets of vaporizing ice carrying dust and gas shoot upward from the comet’s ‘neck’.  Click for a jumbo version. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

2.5 miles of rugged, icy, airless desert. Is there a more forbidding looking place in the solar system than Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko? In this new close-up, composed of four separate images taken with Rosetta’s navigation camera on September 19, we take in the comet from a distance of only 17.8 miles (28.6 km).

Crop of the original photo mosaic showing a big boulder tilted on its side and casting a shadow.  Relatively smooth and rugged terrain are found side by side all over the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Click to pull up the giant version on your screen and spend some time scrolling around the landscape. Layering and striations abound, especially in the center of the larger lobe (left). The top of the larger lobe and ‘neck’ between lobes display smoother terrain that looks as though softened either through below-surface melting and refreezing. Or maybe it’s just covered in dust.

A possible fissure across the comet’s neck. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Boulders are everywhere like sprinkles on a cupcake, but the most interesting feature to my eye is the apparent crack or fissure in 67P/C-G’s neck. No telling how deep it might be. Given that comets are easily breakable objects – sometimes crumbling to bits in the solar heat – we would expect to see cracks in its surface.

Toned up version of the Comet 67P/C-G showing active jets and spots and specks of possible dust in the vicinity. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

A hint of the geyser-like jets are seen in the original photo, but I’ve lightened it further to make the near-comet environment easier to see. Recent measurements by Rosetta’s MIRO instrument reveals the comet losing water at a much faster rate than three months ago. Although the amount varies as the nucleus rotates, the maximum measured recently was 1.3 gallons (5 liters) per second with an average of a quarter-gallon (1 liter) per second.

The toned photo also shows lots of small flecks that might be noise in the camera detector, cosmic ray hits or sunlight reflecting off dust and ice lifting off the comet –  I can’t say.

Reconstructed color view of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko showing how truly dark and coal-colored the comet is. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS team; MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA. Additional processing and copyright: Elisabetta Bonora and Marco Faccin (Alive Universe Images - flickr.com/photos/lunexit)

Finally, if you haven’t already seen it, I wanted to share a recent Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) photo of the comet taken in early September with Rosetta’s high resolution OSIRIS camera and reconstructed as a color image by Elisabetta Bonora and Marco Faccin. I’m not sure how they determined color shadings but the darkness of the comet is accurate.

 

Jupiter-moon conjunction / Space station expecting guests / Hello Mars!

Tomorrow morning September 20th the crescent moon will be lined up in conjunction with the planet Jupiter ahead of the Sickle of Leo. This view shows the sky a little more than an hour before sunrise. Stellarium

Getting a little extra sleep these September mornings? That benefit comes from later sunrises as we approach the fall equinox. I don’t know about you, but I sleep better in a darkened bedroom.

The rate of change has really picked up in the past few weeks with the sun now rising around 7 o’clock, a far cry from late June’s 5:15.

Later sunrises also mean a chance to catch an early morning sky event. Many of us are active around 6 a.m. prepping for work or getting your children ready for school. If you can find a few minutes to spare, tomorrow morning offers up two fine sights.

Look east in the brightening dawn and you’ll see a slender crescent moon in conjunction with the brightest of the planets, Jupiter. The two will just 5º apart meaning you’ll be able to squeeze three fingers held at arm’s length between them. Then, between 5:30-6:15 a.m. now through at least next week, the International Space Station (ISS) will be making regular passes across the northern sky from many locations across the U.S., Canada and Europe.

To find out exactly when and where to look, key in your zip code at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys site or select your city at Heavens Above. The ISS looks like the brightest “star” in the sky and travels from west to east. A typical complete pass takes about 5 minutes.

An earlier SpaceX Dragon capsule docking with the space station in March 2013. Astronauts will use the grapple arm to grab the capsule Monday morning Sept. 22 at around 6:30 a.m. CDT. Berthing begins around 8:45. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The three current astronauts aboard the space station await the arrival of the other half of their crew next week. NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore, Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev and Flight Engineer Elena Serova will launch aboard their Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 25 to begin a six-hour, four-orbit trek to the orbiting complex.

Before that, SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon ship will launch tomorrow morning Sept. 20 at 1:14 a.m. Central time to deliver cargo and crew supplies to the ISS early Monday morning Sept. 22nd.

Among the items are the first 3D printer in space, the ISS-RapidScat instrument to monitor ocean winds for climate research and weather forecasting and a commercial experiment designed to make a better golf club. The printer will allow astronauts to make their own tools and replacement parts that would otherwise cost a lot of money to ship up from Earth.

Fruit flies such as these spent one month aboard the International Space Station during an earlier study. More are on the way. Credit: NASA / Dominic Hart

20 female mice and 30 fruit flies will also go along for the ride. The mice will be housed in the new Rodent Research habitat, where they’ll be studied for the effects of spaceflight on the human body. In space, rodents don’t spend their time floating around. They’re very physically active but tend to hold onto the walls.

Fruit flies will be monitored for the effects of oxidative stress changes which happen in organisms ranging from fruit flies to humans. Oxidative stress involves a build up of harmful molecules inside cells that can cause cell damage, and it’s associated with infections and disease.

Artist view of India’s Mars orbiter at Mars. Arrival and orbit insertion is expected for Sept. 24. Credit: ISRO

There’s much more in the works for space mission news as Mars welcomes two new emissaries from Earth. NASA will insert the MAVEN spacecraft into orbit around Mars Sunday night, and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will arrive at the planet only three days later on Sept. 24.

The MAVEN mission will study Mars’ climate present and past as scientists try to figure out how the planet evolved from a warmer, wetter past to the current dry, cold desert. MOM is India’s first-ever mission to another planet. While primarily a demonstration and testing of that country’s technology, MOM will also photograph the Red Planet and study its mineral makeup from orbit.

Minor aurora alert tonight Sept. 18-19

The auroral oval has expanded south this evening (11:45 p.m. CDT) in response to favorable changes in the solar wind. Observers in northern Minnesota, Maine and other borderland states should be watchful for auroras overnight. Credit: NOAA

Observers in the northern U.S. and southern Canada should be alert for auroras tonight. The direction of the magnetic field has been mostly south for the past 8 hours, providing a nice linkage into Earth’s magnetic bubble. It’s cloudy in Duluth, Minn., but the Ovation oval plot (above) would indicate visible aurora low in the northern sky from northern Minnesota, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Maine around 11-11:30 p.m. CDT.

* Update Friday, Sept. 19 — Minor storming is also possible tonight from higher latitudes in the U.S.

 

Hold my hand as we peer into the Bootes Void

The Big Dipper, the brightest part of the constellation Ursa Major the Great Bear, is followed down into the northwestern sky by twinkling orange Arcturus and the constellation Bootes, the Bear Guard. Stellarium

Most of us would consider Bootes the Bear Guard a spring constellation. That’s when it first appears in the eastern sky, following the tail of Ursa Major the Great Bear as the snow drifts recede. Come fall, Bootes (Boh-OH-tease) and its bright luminary Arcturus recline in the west within spitting distance of the Dipper.

Every evening I look up to check on the condition of the sky. Arcturus is either flashing happily or gone missing, hidden by clouds. Gazing up from Arcturus, it’s easy to trace out the remaining points of starlight that form the kite-like figure of Bootes. Like a kite let go, Bootes drifts away to the west as the night deepens.

The next clear night, follow the arc of the Dipper’s Handle to Arcturus and then work your way up and around to pick out the constellation’s fainter stars. If you now direct your gaze to a blank spot between Bootes and the end of the Dipper’s handle, you’ll be staring at the center of a remarkable nothingness, the Bootes Void.

Map of the Bootes Void showing it alongside other dense superclusters of galaxies. Credit: Richard Powell

Normally we talk about the presence of something in the sky in this blog, but today we’ll focus on absence. The Void, a roughly spherical realm of space 250 million light years in diameter, is virtually empty. Space is already empty enough. If the sun were shrunk down to the size of a grapefruit, the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would be 2,000 miles away. From there, it’s another 1,000 miles to the next closest, Barnard’s Star.

American astronomer Robert Kirschner discovered the void in 1981 as part of a survey to measure how fast distant galaxies were fleeing from one another as the fabric of space expands in the ever-widening wake of the Big Bang. Six years later, Kirschner and team turned up 8 galaxies in this vast volume of space centered 700 million light years from Earth. By the late ’90s only 60 galaxies were known, making the Void not as devoid of galaxies as originally thought.

Still, the wind blows through it like a ghost town. Considering that the average distance between galaxies in typically a few million light years, the Void should contain some 10,000 inhabitants. Where have they fled?


The Millenium Simulation will give you a feel for the large-scale structure of the universe. Enjoy the ride!

Galaxies are vast assemblages of stars, clusters, gas clouds and planets thousands of light years across. Their mass gives them considerable gravitational might, so they’re attracted to one another. Over the lifetime of the universe, galaxies congregate into strands, clumps and clusters. The surrounding space empties out like a parking lot at closing time and becomes a void.

The Bootes Void is no ordinary emptiness. It’s HUGE. Too big to have formed with the current lifetime of the universe say astronomers. That’s why it’s thought to have agglomerated from smaller voids that merged together to form one of the largest voids in the known universe, a so-called supervoid.

Millenium Simulation of the large-scale structure of the universe shows a sponge-like texture of filaments of galaxies threading empty voids of space. The galaxies – each too tiny to see individually at this huge scale – clump around invisible dark matter and each other. Credit: Millenium Simulation

Galaxy clumping has amazing consequences for the large-scale structure of the universe. Astronomers think the visible matter of the universe clustered around clumps of dark matter, which makes up 73% of all the ‘stuff’ out there, shortly after the Big Bang. Once galaxies formed, they continued their clustering ways up to the present day. Instead of a random distribution of matter across space, the universe looks like a sponge where hundreds of billions of galaxies swirl in filaments and nodes around the comparatively empty voids.

Funny how the biggest things in the universe can be so surprisingly close to home. Look up toward the Big Dipper and Arcturus in the western sky after sundown and think of where you are.

Follow Mars to Dschubba, whirling dervish of the night

Photo taken last night in late twilight at 8:30 p.m. looking southwest. With Mars nearby, finding our featured star Delta Scorpii is a snap. The two will be closest tomorrow night September 17th. A car zoomed by during the 20-second exposure. Credit: Bob King

Looked at Mars lately? If you haven’t I’m not surprised. It’s lost it’s luster since spring and rides the “low path” in Scorpius in the southwestern sky at dusk. From my home in the mid-northern latitudes, it now spends most of its brief nightly circuit hidden behind trees. But I encourage you to look for the Red Planet over the next few evenings. It’s passing very close to a fascinating star in the head of Scorpius the scorpion, Delta Scorpii.

Delta, also known by its Arabic name, Dschubba (JOOB-a), normally shines at magnitude 2.3, a tad fainter Beta Scorpii (2.6) directly above it. But on June 26, 2000, amateur astronomer Sebastian Otero of Buenos Aires noticed something peculiar. He’d been making brightness estimates that night of stars that are constant or don’t vary in brightness.

Mars will be very near Delta in the head of Scorpius not far from similarly colored Antares tonight. The pair will be closest tomorrow night (September 17) at just a half-degree apart. Delta is an unusual variable star that’s been in outburst since 2000. Stellarium

To his surprise, when he selected Delta, he found it brighter than normal. After alerting others to confirm his result, observers around the world watched as the star slowly rose in light until peaking at magnitude 1.6 in 2003. Yes, three years later.

I got in on the fun, too, watching Dschubba outshine every star in its constellation except the brightest, Antares. The change in the appearance of the scorpion’s head was striking. It still is. While the star has fluctuated in brightness since Otero’s discovery, it remains unusually bright; current estimates place it around magnitude 1.8. And now Mars will take you right to it.

Delta Scorpii likely resembles VFTS-102 (illustrated here), the fastest rotating star found to date. It goes round at 1 million mph or 100 times faster than the sun. The incredible speed has flattened the star into an egg shape and spun off a disk of material in the star’s equatorial plane like Delta. Credit: NASA

Delta’s an amazing star despite its unremarkable appearance. Nearly 15  times more massive than the sun and located about 470 light years from Earth, it’s blazing surface shines at least 14,000 times brighter than the home star. If those aren’t superlatives enough, this star rotates at least 112 miles per second, 90 times the sun’s rate.

Studies reveal the star is disrobing right in front of our eyes, flinging mass from its equator as it spins at breakneck speed. The material accumulates in a disk around the star and is responsible for the rise in brightness and appearance of bright lines of emission in the star’s rainbow spectrum.

Dschubba has three companion stars in orbit about it. One, a cooler, fainter star with a period of 10.8 years, may be connected with the Delta’s outburst in 2000 and a second peak in brightness in 2011. Perhaps its revolution about the primary star stirs the great beast to release extra material every 11 years.

While Delta Scorpii lays low this time of year, you can still follow it into October and then watch with anticipation when it returns to the morning sky in winter. If you’d like a chart with magnitudes to estimate its brightness, click over to the AAVSO and key in Delta Sco in the “Create a finder chart” window.

Site ‘J’ it is! Comet lander readies for November touchdown

The primary landing site for the Rosetta lander Philae will be on the comet’s head in an area that’s both safe and shows interesting activity. Site J was chosen from the original “Top 5″. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for Osiris team/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPD/DASP/IDA

Site J it is! European Space Agency scientists have selected a safe but intriguing region on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for humanity’s first-ever soft landing on a comet. Site C, located on the larger ‘body’ of the comet, was selected as backup.

Close-up of Philae’s primary landing site J, which is located on the ‘head’ of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 20, 2014 from a distance of about 42 miles. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Choosing a landing site hasn’t been easy. Safety was a prime concern. Site J appears to have relatively few boulders and receives sufficient daily sunlight to recharge Philae and continue science operations on the surface beyond the initial battery-powered phase. The majority of slopes there are sloped less than 30º relative to the local vertical, reducing the chances of Philae toppling over during touchdown. The J Site also allows the probe to be in regular communication with the orbiter as it passes overhead during each orbit of the comet.

Close-up of Site C,  Philae’s backup landing site.
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“As we have seen from recent close-up images, the comet is a beautiful but dramatic world – it is scientifically exciting, but its shape makes it operationally challenging,” says Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at the DLR German Aerospace Center.

Since the descent to the comet is passive in the comet’s low gravity field – like dropping a piece of paper – it’s only possible to predict the landing point to within about 1,000 feet (~300 meters). Descent time to the surface is estimated at 7 hours. Landing has to happen by November before 67P/C-G becomes too active spewing dust and gas as it draws ever nearer the sun.

See it in 3D! You can roam Philae’s primary landing site with all its ridges and valleys if you have a pair of red-blue 3D glasses. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“There’s no time to lose, but now that we’re closer to the comet, continued science and mapping operations will help us improve the analysis of the primary and backup landing sites,” says ESA Rosetta flight director Andrea Accomazzo.

Site J offers scientists a place to analyze 67P/C-G’s ice and dust and study the ice vaporization processes that make comets such special critters.
During the descent, Philae will take photos and observe the comet’s dusty-gassy environment. Once it gently drops to the surface at the equivalent of a walking pace, it will fix itself to the comet’s crust using a harpoon-like device and ice screws in the landing legs. It will then shoot a 360-degree panorama of its surroundings.
Next comes an analysis of the plasma and magnetic environment, and the surface and subsurface temperature. The lander will employ a drill to collect samples from beneath the surface and analyze them inside its onboard lab. The interior structure of the comet will also be explored by sending radio waves through the surface towards Rosetta.
Source: Rosetta blog, ESA

Philae snaps photo of Rosetta orbiting comet / New mosaic may show ice particles

The Philae lander, stowed aboard Rosetta, took this photo of the side of the mothership and one of its 46-foot (14-m) long solar arrays with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in the background. Two images with different exposure times were combined to capture the bright, 2.5-mile-wide comet and dimmer hardware. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Seeing this makes me feel like I’m in orbit. What a nice perspective with the comet in the frame. It was taken by the Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer (CIVA) on September 7th and shows part of the spacecraft and one of its solar arrays from a distance of about 31 miles (50 km) from the comet.

CIVA is several instruments in one. CIVA-P consists of seven cameras – five regular cameras and one dual-instrument stereo camera – that will take a 360º panorama of the landing site once it’s safely on the surface of the comet. A section of the panorama will be shot in stereo.  Landing is scheduled for November 11th.

Artist’s impression of Rosetta’s lander Philae (front view) on the surface of the comet. Philae will be deployed to 67P/C-G in November where it will make in situ observations of the comet surface, including drilling 9 inches (23 cm) into the surface to gather a sample for analysis in its on board laboratory. Copyright: ESA/ATG medialab

CIVA-M has a miniaturized visible light microscope and a coupled infrared spectrometer (an instrument used to measure light in the infrared part of the spectrum) that will be used to study a drilled sample from the comet’s crust. CIVA-M is designed to identify organic materials in the soil.

Four-image navigation camera mosaic of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, using photos taken on September 10 when Rosetta was just 17.3 miles from the comet. Click for a giant version. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager, will announce the primary and backup landing sites for the washing-machine-sized probe at a presentation tomorrow morning at ESA Headquarters in Paris. The challenges and scientific expectations of the sites will be presented and shared with the media. We’ll have photos and the latest information here when it arrives.

In this cropped version, a bright, reflective spot is visible. It doesn’t show in images taken before this one (although the shadow does, so it’s unrelated). It’s either a camera artifact or something reflective like a fleck of ice or dust that passed by in the foreground. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

In the meantime, have fun exploring the huge mosaic of 67P/C-G snapped from just 17.3 miles (27.8 km) away. In the cropped closeup, there’s an interesting bright spot that may either be an artifact or a something reflective (ice?) in the foreground. Take a look at the image below, which I’ve lightened up to show the comet’s neck in reflected sunlight and a speckling of either “noise” from cosmic ray hits or a mix of noise and reflections from bright ice and dust particles released by the comet.

In this lightened up view of the comet, we can the neck area dimly illuminated by sunlight reflecting from the comet’s larger lobe. Small streaks and specks – cosmic ray hits, detector noise or dust and ice or some combination – are visible too. I’ve circled a few of the larger ones. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

What happened to the aurora? / New forecast for tonight Sept. 13-14

Observers in Maine were treated to a very nice aurora early last night September 12th. Mike Taylor saw this “intense aurora” light up above the unused railroad tracks along Unity Pond at 8:38 p.m. Click to see more of Mike’s work. Credit: Mike Taylor

Feeling disappointed in the aurora last night? The storm happened as forecast only it petered out just about the time the sky was getting dark across much of North America. Observers in Maine caught a good show early, and the lights even put in an appearance here in northern Minnesota, albeit low in the north from behind clouds.

The Kp index, an indicator of magnetic disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere, shot up to “7″ last night before dropping off to low activity, where it’s remained all day so far today. Credit: NOAA

NOAA space weather forecasters call for minor G1 storm tonight September 13 from about 10 pm to 4 a.m. Central Daylight Time tomorrow.

Minor usually means auroras in the bottom half of the northern sky for skywatchers living in the U.S.-Canada borderland region. You may choose to ignore the forecast and go to bed. I understand. You’re feeling a little burned. Those who feel like soldiering on, remain alert for possible auroras.

ACE orbits ahead of Earth toward the sun and can measure the clouds of plasma belted out by the sun about an hour before they arrive at Earth. Credit: NASA

It’s hard to blame NOAA. Predicting the magnetic inclination of a cloud of solar plasma at a distance is fraught with uncertainty. We get a little help from the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) which orbits at the L1 libration point, one of five places near Earth where the sun’s and Earth’s gravity are in balance, allowing a satellite placed there to remain relatively stationary. ACE pivots about some 932,000 miles (1.5 million km) from Earth and 92 million miles (148.5 million km) from the sun.

The probe detects the direction, strength and magnetic field particulars of incoming blasts of particles from the sun and provides advance warning of about one hour of dangerous storms. Storms that affect power grids, satellites and of course paint the sky in northern lights. It also measures the magnetic properties of the cloud and relays that data in real time for us to see in the ACE plots.

ACE plot of magnetic field direction or Bz from last night. You can see how the storm dissipated once the magnetic direction of the cloud changed from south (during the storm) to north (above the white horizontal line). Credit: NASA

Yesterday’s big puff of electrons and protons came packaged in a magnetic field that linked into Earth’s  - at first. But later in the evening, the cloud’s magnetic field changed from south to north and was effectively cut off from connecting with our planet’s magnetic bubble. Earth gave it the cold shoulder, and you and I lost some sleep.

After tonight, calmer conditions are expected for a couple days. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. I’ll be watching tonight and report back.

Curiosity rover reaches the sublime Mt. Sharp

The next goal for NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover – the beautiful layered rocks at the base of Mt. Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL

You’ve seen it looming in the background of so many photo for more than two years. Finally, we’re there. NASA’s Curiosity rover rolled up to Mount Sharp in Gale Crater. With a peak 2.7 miles (4.4 km) high, Mt. Sharp stands more than a half mile higher than Mt. Ranier in Washington.

Orbital view of the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater, the peak Mt. Sharp and Curiosity’s landing site. The rover now begins its journey up the mountain’s slope. Credit: NASA

The mountain is built of layer upon layer of stratified rocks deposited by water and wind after the massive impact that excavated Gale Crater more than 3 billion years ago. From orbit, scientists have detected clays in some of the layers, an indication that water flowed here in the past.

Curiosity’s route up Mt. Sharp will first take it through the Pahrump Hills, which make up part of the Murray Formation of layered rocks. The white dashed line represents the border between rocks of Gale Crater’s plains, which Curiosity has investigated since landing, and those at the base of Mt. Sharp. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

As Curiosity begins its trek up the mountain’s slope, it will first trundle across the Pahrump Hills, a region of layered rocks that’s part of the Murray Formation. At some point within this broad expanse of soft rock, the rover will drill a sample and analyze it before continuing upslope. Several miles later, it will encounter a ridge of hematite-bearing rocks. Hematite is a gray version of iron oxide (rust) that precipitates in hot springs or in pools of standing water.

Orbital view of the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater showing Curiosity’s planned path up Mt. Sharp. The rover has traversed 5.5 miles to reach the mountain’s base. Credit: NASA image with illustration by T. Reyes

An intriguing layer of clay-bearing rocks that lies further upslope and offers the best opportunity of finding organic, carbon-containing minerals. A region containing sulfates, found earlier by Curiosity in the form of gypsum (calcium sulfate) extends beyond the clay layer higher yet. Gypsum is the same material used to make drywall back on Earth.

More detailed view of a potential path up Mt. Sharp from an earlier study this year showing the different terrains Curiosity will traverse. Credit: NASA/JPL

Scientists hope to study the transition between the two. Sulfates point to a time when the ancient, more watery Mars evolved from a wet, fresh-water climate to a drier one with acidic waters that favored the formation of sulfates instead of clays.

We all hope Curiosity’s wheels, poked and torn by sharp rocks, will be up for the long journey ahead.

“In late 2013, the rover team realized a region of Martian terrain littered with sharp, embedded rocks was poking holes in four of the rover’s six wheels. This damage accelerated the rate of wear and tear beyond that for which the rover team had planned. The team altered the rover’s route to a milder terrain, bringing the rover farther south, toward the base of Mount Sharp”, according to NASA.

A view of Mars taken on September 12, 2014 by the Curiosity rover’s hazard avoidance camera. Inset shows a big hole in one of the rover’s aluminum wheels from 2013. Looks rough out there! Credit: NASA/JPL

Curiosity has already fulfilled its initial goal of determining whether Mars ever offered an environment suitable for the formation and development of early life. Clay-bearing rocks in the Yellowknife Bay site revealed an ancient lakebed that once lapped with fresh water and contained the key elemental ingredients for life - sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – as well as a sulfate energy source potential life could use to thrive.

Showtime! Aurora makes first appearance – updated

A diffuse double is seen low in the northern sky at 9:30 p.m. CDT this evening September 11, 2014. The Big Dipper is off to the left. Credit: Bob King

(Scroll down for the latest update)

Just came in from a check on the northern lights and they’re out. Just a quiet start, but I can see a classic green arc low in the northern sky. Once my eyes were dark adapted, faint rays streaked the sky above the arc. No doubt they would have stood out more boldly were it not for the rising gibbous moon off to the east. Stay tuned for more updates during the night.

Faint rays streak either side of this photo taken at 9:35 p.m. Moonlight lowered the contrast but they were dimly visible with the naked eye. Credit: Bob King

Here are some links for you to check out to help you plan through the night:

The approximate extent of the auroral oval forecast for 10:30 p.m. CDT from Ovation. Credit: NOAA

* Ovation oval – shows the approximate extent of the auroral oval that looks like a cap centered on Earth’s geomagnetic pole. During storms, the oval extends south into the northern U.S. and farther.

* Kp index – indicator of magnetic activity high overhead and updated every three hours. A Kp index of “5″ means the onset of a minor storm; a Kp of “6″, a moderate storm.

* NOAA space weather forecast

* Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite plots - The magnetic field direction of the arriving wind from the sun. The topmost graph, plotting Bz, is your friend. When it drops into the negative zone that’s good! A prolonged stay at -10 or lower increases the chance of seeing the aurora.

* UPDATE 8:15 a.m. Saturday Sept. 13: Well, well, well. Yes, the effects of the solar blast did arrive and we did experience a G3 storm, only the best part happened before nightfall had settled over the U.S. and southern Canada. The peak was also fairly brief. All those arriving protons and electrons connected for a time with Earth’s magnetic field but then disconnected, leaving us with a weak storm for much of the rest of the night. More activity is expected tonight but the forecast calls for a lesser G1 geomagnetic storm.

* UPDATE 10:30 p.m. : Although the aurora has died back, I just got the NOAA forecast update which still calls for a strong storm overnight. Crossing my fingers it happens.

Graph of Bz from the ACE spacecraft shows the past 24 hours of solar wind direction changes. Far right is 11 p.m. CDT Credit: NOAA

* UPDATE 9:30 p.m. : Definite aurora seen through breaks in the clouds low in the northern sky here in Duluth, Minn. After a big surge late this afternoon and during early evening, activity’s temporarily dropped off. The ACE plot has “gone north”. Will keep tabs and report back.

UPDATE Friday 7:30 p.m September 12: Wow! Kp=7 (G3 storm). Auroras should be visible now over the far eastern seaboard of Canada including New Brunswick and the Gaspe Peninsula. If I were a betting man, folks in Maine should see at least a low, glowing arc in the northern sky. Still dusk here in Duluth.

UPDATE Friday 3 p.m.: The Kp index is now at “5″ or minor storm. If you live in the Scandinavian countries or Iceland, you’re getting a very good show right now.

* UPDATE Friday 9 a.m. September 12: Auroras did appear as forecast overnight beginning at nightfall and continuing through about 1 a.m. this morning. Then the action stopped. The Kp index reached “5″ during that time leading to a G1 or minor geomagnetic storm. It wasn’t a particularly bright aurora, remained low in the northern sky and had to compete with moonlight, so many of you may not have seen it.

The stronger G3 geomagnetic storm from the second and more Earth-directed solar blast is still forecast for tonight. This should bring a much better display and should begin right at nightfall. Peak is expected between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Central Daylight Time.

My forecast is good, so I’ll be updating during the night. Good luck and clear skies!