Super conjunction and auroras (we hope) highlight upcoming weekend

Sunspot group 1520 is still ripe for more flares. It’s joined here by an entourage of additional groups. Photo taken at 8 a.m. (CDT) today July 13 by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Aurora watchers get ready. Yesterday’s X1.4 class flare from big sunspot group 1520 unleashed a coronal mass ejection (CME) directly toward the Earth. This powerful enhancement in the solar wind will arrive sometime tonight or early tomorrow morning bringing with it a good possibility for auroras through Sunday.

A series of short time lapse videos of yesterday’s X1.4 flare in sunspot region 1520 taken in different colors or wavelengths of light. 

Sunspot region 1520 isn’t done yet. Space weather forecasters give it a moderate chance of producing more X-class flares through the 15th. Sunspots are regions on the sun’s surface where magnetic energy is highly concentrated. Flares occur when magnetic fields of opposite directions come into close contact within a sunspot group, interact with each other and release that energy explosively.

Yesterday’s flare shortly before it popped off (left) and during the explosion (right) seen in far ultraviolet light.  Credit: NASA

Light the fuse on 160 billion tons of TNT and you’ve got the equivalent of a solar flare. Flares heat the surrounding gases to 18 million degrees and eject matter into space as CMEs at speeds over 600 miles per second. Wicked!

Tomorrow morning (July 14) and Sunday morning, watch for beautiful pairings of the moon and planets Jupiter and Venus. Created with Stellarium

The weekend’s shaping up to be a not-to-miss potpourri of celestial enjoyments. Tomorrow morning the moon moves closer to the sky’s current brightest planets Jupiter and Venus in the company of the sky’s two brightest star clusters – the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and Hyades. Watch for them in the east starting around 3:30 a.m. as morning twilight is just beginning. They’ll be higher and easier to see an hour later, but the brightening sky may may require binoculars to see the clusters.

The BIG EVENT happens the next morning on Sunday the 15th, when the moon will be in conjunction and near both planets at dawn. Should be a wonderful sight. Get your cameras ready for both the conjunction and northern lights.

Pluto’s growing family plus Comet Machholz to sail past sun

Photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on July 7, shows five moons orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The green circle marks the newly discovered moon, designated P5. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

Pluto has a new moon! Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers discovered the tiny object with the provisional name of S/2012 (134340) 1. “S” refers to satellite, “134340″ is Pluto’s official minor planet name and “1″ is the first new moon of Pluto discovered in 2012.

That’s all fine and good, but we’re going to call it by its nickname “P5″, the fifth moon found around the dwarf planet.

P5 is extremely faint (magnitude 27) and orbits just 58,000 miles from Pluto. Based on its faintness and the reflectivity of its surface, the moon is estimated at 6 to 15 miles across. Even to Hubble’s eye it’s only a speck of light.

The orbits of Pluto’s five known moons. P5, the smallest of all, orbits second-closest. The position of New Horizons is marked during its close flyby in 2015. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Feild

Pluto probably got its moons as a result of a collision between the dwarf planet and another asteroid billions of years ago. Objects move very slowly in the outer solar system far from the sun. The collision that lofted chunks of Plutonian crust into space was gentle enough for some of the debris to be captured in orbit. Much of the remainder fell back to Pluto.

On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to fly just 6,000 miles from the erstwhile planet at 32,000 mph. At that speed, even a collision with a pebble could destroy the probe. Astronomers are using the Hubble to hunt down as much “orbital debris” as possible in case the craft’s trajectory needs to be changed to avoid a potential hazard.

Nix, the goddess of night, in this 10th century depiction with the prophet Isaiah.

Pluto’s other moons are Charon (750 miles), Nix and Hydra (between 28 and 87  miles) and P4 (8-21 miles). All, like Pluto, are named by convention after mythological figures of the underworld.

Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld; Charon the ferryman who sailed the souls of the dead across the River Styx; Nix the Greek goddess of darkness and night and Hydra, a many-headed serpent that guarded the underwater entrance to the underworld.

In time, both P4, discovered in 2011, and P5 will join the fold with unique names. As long as we’re going all dark and mythy, allow me to suggest Snape for P4 and Voldemort for P5.

Big sunspot group 1520 photographed at 10 a.m. this morning July 12 by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

Sunspot group 1520 is still a spectacle through a small telescope equipped with a solar filter. I can’t get enough of this prolific outbreak of magnetic energy on the sun’s photosphere.

Today the group directly faces Earth AND just released a powerful X1.4 class flare at 11:53 a.m. (CDT). This and additional flares from the region in the next few days would be Earth-directed, bringing with them a good chance for auroras late this weekend and early next week. I’ll post alerts if that’s likely to happen.

Comet 96P/ Machholz showed up just this morning (July 12) at the edge of the field of SOHO’s coronagraph. It has a small bright head and short tail. Credit: NASA/ESA

There’s still more sun-related news. Returning comet 96P/Machholz  showed up today in SOHO’s C3 coronagraph, a device that blocks sunlight so astronomers can study the sun’s outer atmosphere or corona. The comet will pass only 11.2 million miles from the sun when it reaches perihelion on July 14. Then in late July it will swing north of the sun into the early evening sky where observers with small telescopes might catch it shining around 8th magnitude. I’ll have more on Machholz in tomorrow’s blog.

Sprites and elves haunt nighttime thunderclouds

Red sprites captured by astronauts aboard the space station on April 30, 2012 while they passed over Myanmar (Burma) and just north of Malaysia. The white glow is lighting inside a thundercloud. Credit: NASA

Ever since I learned about sprites, the bizarre electric discharges associated with thunderstorms that shoot up in the sky instead of down to the ground, I’ve wanted to see one. July’s a great month to be on the look out for these short-lived red flashes that come and go in milliseconds. They occur some 50 miles above active thunderstorms – about the same level as noctilucent clouds – and extend upward from 12 to 19 miles. The name refers to the phenomenon’s spooky, elusive nature like the folkloric fairies of old.

Red sprite with blue tendrils extending downward. Click to see a short movie of a sprite.  Credit: Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks

Dr. Dave Sentman of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks is one among a small group of researchers who have been studying these mysterious bursts of colored light. Although no one’s sure what sprites really are or what causes them, these scientists have learned that sprites contain a great deal of energy.

They’re associated with positive cloud-to-ground lightning discharges but unlike lightning, they direct their energy toward outer space into Earth’s ionosphere. In addition to light, sprites also radiate radio waves and even pulses of high-energy gamma rays.

Sprites are members of a family of energetic, high-altitude phenomena occurring during thunderstorms. Credit: Abestrobi / Wiki

Sentman and other scientists flew above thunderclouds to study sprites up close. Seen nearly head-on, he describes them as colorless and about as bright as the aurora; younger members of the team with younger eyes spied the red color.

Sprites aren’t the only recently discovered electrical discharge to pop up in thunderstorms. Similar phenomena called elves, blue jets and halos have also been recorded, though sprites are more common and likely to be observed.

So how do you see one? Well, you could get lucky and find yourself in an airplane flying between storm clouds at 35,000 feet on a cross-country vacation. If so, turn off the overhead light and squeeze your face up against the window with your eyes on the stars above.

For ground viewing, you’ll need a night-time thunderstorm but not one that covers the sky and blocks the sprites from view. Best is a clear, starry sky with a line of thunderstorms crackling away along a distant horizon. That way you have a line of sight view across the cloud tops. The next time you notice flashes of lightning in an otherwise cloudless night sky, see what direction they’re coming from and drive to where you have an open view of that horizon.

A thunderhead cloud is lit from within by lightning a couple years back. Note the stars above it.  I didn’t see any sprites that night. Photo: Bob King

To improve your chances, avoid observing during twilight and in bright moonlight. You need dark skies and dark-adapted eyes. Fix your gaze a short distance above the line of thunderclouds while ignoring the bright flashes of lightning.

You can use a piece of cardboard or the roof of your car to help block the storm if it’s too much of a distraction.

Not all thunderstorms produce sprites, elves and the rest, so you’ll need patience to see one. The more you’re out under the stars, the better your chances.

I hope the fairies will guide you and me both to our first sprite this summer. You can learn more about sprites HERE and HERE.

Night sky’s leading lady back in the limelight

The W of Cassiopeia is back up in the northeast at nightfall during mid-July. Use binoculars to enjoy a look at the Double Cluster (actually in neighboring Perseus) and the ET or Owl Cluster (NGC 457). Photo: Bob King

A princess, two queens and a virgin. There are four females in the sky – Andromeda (princess), Coma Berenices (queen), Cassiopeia (queen) and Virgo (virgin) – and one of them is asserting her authority once again. Cassiopeia, the W-shaped constellation, crouches low in the northern sky from May through June. For many of us, it’s lost in the trees or simply too close to the horizon to notice. Not anymore.

NGC 884 (left) and NGC 869 are paired up as the Double Cluster. Credit and copyright: Hunter Wilson

The past few nights have been clear and the Queen of July has been on the rise in the northeastern sky. Take a minute the next time you’re out to pay your respects, and don’t forget to grab the binoculars.

Just a “binocular field of view” below the W’s left side is one of the finest star clusters in the sky. It’s two clusters really, in a gravitation embrace thousands of light years from Earth. Amateur astronomers know it by the simple name the Double Cluster. You’ll revel in the many tiny sparks of starlight hovering around their clumpy cores like moths around a streetlamp.

Can you see ET? The eyes are at top. NGC 457′s other name is the Owl Cluster. Credit: Jim Misti

Don’t leave just yet. Below the middle of the W, look for the cluster named after the extraterrestrial ET in the Steven Spielberg movie.

You’ll need a small telescope to see the gangly arms and two “eyes” that give the cluster its nickname, but even binoculars will show a bright star with a peppering of fainter ones around it.

I think of two things when I see Cassiopeia on the rise again – next month’s Perseid meteor shower and fall nights, when the constellation stares down from on high and the bugs are vanquished.

The Big Dipper is the brightest portion of the Great Bear or Ursa Major. Am I wrong or does the bear appears to be hunting for blueberries? Photo (left) Bob King; map from Stellarium

Another northern constellation looks most like its name in July. Almost all of us have seen the Big Dipper, now high in the northwestern sky at nightfall, but have you taken the next step and traced the outline of the bear it represents?

The Great Bear or Ursa Major covers a huge portion of the sky. Once you connect the dots, you’ll be impressed with its size and bear-like outline. The posture or stance is just right too –  there’s a certain aggressiveness to the figure as it bears down (pardon the pun) on the northern horizon.

Aurora pokes its head out then takes a snooze

The K or Kp index is a measure of magnetic activity in Earth’s magnetic field and a good indicator of aurora. The farthest right red bar was the reading at 7 p.m. (CDT); the yellow bar after that showed a drop starting around 10 p.m. Credit: NOAA

If the sky had only been dark around 4 or 5 o’clock this afternoon, I think we would have seen a fine aurora here in the U.S.  Darkness finally arrived around 11, right about the time the northern lights started to wane.

From north of Duluth, we saw a low greenish arc at 11:15 p.m. followed at midnight by a few faint rays. Soon after, the moon came up and what was left of the lights was too faint to see.

The estimated 3-hour Kp index at right gives you an idea of the aurora potential through 10 p.m. July 9. I’ve included descriptions for the different levels. Keep in mind these are not hard and fast but based on my own observations over the years. Sometime after midnight, the levels dropped back down to 2.

This was the peak of the display from Duluth at around 11:50 p.m. Monday night. A low greenish arc and a few faint rays showed. The camera also picked up the flashing light of an airplane. Photo: Bob King

We have another shot at seeing auroras tonight (July 10) before entering a quiet period of about two days, according to the space weather forecast. Even if the northern lights show meekly, the sight of the Milky Way is worth any drive away from the city. It’s not only magnificent to the naked eye, but binoculars resolve so many clusters, nebulas and starry clumps within the hazy band, you’ll be tempted to stay up all night. We’ll have more on how to find some of these gems very soon.

Interplanetary magnetic field cracks open an auroral portal

Pale green auroral patches and rayed arcs illuminate the bottom third of the northern sky earlier this morning. Photo: Bob King

Another bleary-eyed morning with a happy heart. So it is after a late-night encounter with the northern lights. Last night’s display wasn’t in the forecast but just one of those things that happens time to time, when the interplanetary magnetic field dips southward.

Auroras bloom in Earth’s skies for at least several reasons: solar flares, coronal mass ejections, coronal holes AND fluctuations in the sun’s magnetic field.

The spiral shaped IMF, invisible to the eye, permeates the solar system with the sun’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA with my own additions

Streams of high-speed electrons and protons, known as the solar wind, boil off the sun, spreading its magnetic field across the solar system.

Called the interplanetary magnetic field or IMF, it continually rushes past Earth and the rest of the planets like waves flowing around rocks in a pond.

With one difference. Since the sun rotates, the IMF and solar wind are twisted into a spiral. Picture the IMF as water spraying from a rotating lawn sprinkler.

Earth has a magnetic field too. While it deflects most of what the sun deals out,  it’s not without its vulnerabilities or “soft spots”. When the gusty, ever-fluctuating IMF tips south in the Earth’s vicinity, it cancels our magnetic field at the point of contact, opening a crack in the planet’s armor. Solar wind particles seize the opportunity and stream directly into the upper atmosphere to spark auroras.  That’s what happened last night. Thank you IMF.

Look at this beast! Sunspot group 1520, seen this morning July 9, has a complex magnetic field, making it a potential hotbed of solar flares in the coming weeks. It’s also big enough to see with the naked eye using a safe solar filter. For timely aurora alerts, follow my tweets at AstroBob_bk. Credit: NASA

There’s a small chance for auroras again tonight from a coronal mass ejection blasted our way by last week’s large sunspot group 1515, now departing over the sun’s western edge. A worthy replacement has already sprung up along the sun’s eastern edge, the behemoth group numbered 1520. I easily spotted it this morning with nothing more than a pair of solar eclipse glasses. The sketch below shows how it looked facing east around 10:30.

Sketch of naked eye sunspot group 1520

Last night I grabbed another look at Nova Sagittarii No. 4, the topic of yesterday’s blog. I hope you did too. The star was faintly visible at magnitude 8.2 in 10×50 binoculars from a dark site. For the moment, it’s fading after its initial outburst – typical nova behavior – but keep an eye out for surprises. Novae sometimes re-brighten on their way back to obscurity.

While you’re up late squinting after auroras, don’t miss the last quarter moon rising around midnight in Pisces. It’s on its way to a wonderful conjunction with Jupiter and Venus this Sunday.

Aurora alert: Northern lights happening tonight July 8-9

A patchy aurora with stretchy rays shifted about the northern sky this morning July 9 (Monday) around 1 a.m. (CDT). Details: 20mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 1250 and 25 seconds. Photo: Bob King

The Kp index of magnetic activity  hit “5″ at 10 p.m. (CDT) and the auroral oval is thick across Canada. Auroras are possible tonight; keep an eye on the northern sky for any telltale green arcs or glows if you live in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. I’ll report back later.

Earlier, around 11:30 p.m. Sunday night July 8, a series of faint, parallel rays  staked out the northern sky. Photo: Bob KIng

The above is what I wrote just after 10 o’clock. Once twilight faded around 11:15 p.m., the aurora was indeed at work in the northern sky, building arcs and tall, faint rays to an altitude of some 40 degrees. The display continued into the wee hours. At 1 a.m. just north of Duluth, Minn.,  colorless arcs and patches danced across the north to 25 degrees. They were plainly visible even with the moon up. Enjoy the pix while I enjoy some sleep.

PS. Yes, there’s a continued chance for more auroras Monday night.

New bright nova sparkles in Sagittarius

New Nova Sagittarii 2012 #4 is located just above the star Delta in the “spout” of the Teapot constellation of Sagittarius. Sagittarius is east or left of the Scorpion with its bright fiery star Antares. The map shows the sky facing south around 11:15 p.m. Maps created with Stellarium.

Novas are popping up like daisies in the constellation Sagittarius this year. To date, four “new stars” have been discovered in the Teapot, enough to keep its contents at a steady boil.

Earlier yesterday (July 7) Koichi Nishiyama and Fujio Kabashima of Japan found the most recent nova – Nova Sagittarii 2012 #4 – on exposures made with a camera and 105 mm lens. Shining at magnitude 7.7 at the time of discovery, the nova was bright enough to see in binoculars and small telescopes. It still is. Last night I saw it from my driveway at the identical brightness through my 8x40s.

Use this zoomed-in map with a pair of binoculars or small telescope to hunt down the new nova. Center your scope on the naked-eye star Delta in Sagittarius, then move about 1 degree north to find a bright triangle of 6th magnitude stars. Nova Sgr #4 is about 1/2 further north just south of the magnitude 7.2 star.

Typical 40mm and larger binoculars can reach 8th magnitude or fainter; with a good locator map, you should be able to see the nova for yourself in the coming nights, especially since the moon is rapidly departing the evening sky.

As we learned a few days ago in the case of Nova Persei, novas occur in close binary stars, where a small but extremely dense and massive (for its size) white dwarf grabs hydrogen gas from its closely orbiting companion. The gas swirls down to the dwarf’s 150,000 degree F surface, where it’s compacted by the gravity and heated until detonating like a gazillion thermonuclear bombs. Suddenly, a faint star that wasn’t on anyone’s radar vaults a dozen magnitudes to become a standout “new star”, one bright enough for a pair of Japanese amateurs to snag it in a 40-second exposure.

Model of a nova in the making. A white dwarf star pulls matter from its bloated red giant companion into a whirling disk. Material funnels to the surface where it later explodes. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Novae can rise in brightness from 7 to 16 magnitudes, the equivalent of 50,000 to 100,000 times brighter than the sun, in just a few days. Meanwhile the gas they expel in the blast travels away from the binary at up to 2,000 miles per second. This is one big firecracker!

Depending on the particulars of the explosion, including distance and whether or not there’s a significant amount cosmic dust between us and the star, novae can be bright or faint.

Some, like  Nova Cygni 1975 (in the Northern Cross) reached magnitude 1.7  in late August that year. I remember how its presence “distorted” the outline of that familiar constellation. Other novae are too faint for small instruments or brighten and fade so quickly, if there’s a cloudy spell, you might miss it.

An imaginary view of a nova explosive seen close up. The blast is not powerful enough to eject the companion star. Credit: Emanuele Feronato, Bob King

Sagittarius – and nearby Scorpius and Ophiuchus also – are familiar discovery grounds for novae because that’s where most of the stars of the Milky Way are concentrated. Why? Because we’re facing the center of the galaxy when we direct our gaze toward these star groups. The more stars in your line of sight, the better the chance that one of the many billions will flare into nova-hood.

The best time to see Nova Sgr 2012 #4 is between about 10:30 p.m. and 3 a.m. Optimum time is around midnight when Sagittarius, always low in the southern sky from northern latitudes, reaches its highest point above the horizon. Use the maps to star-step your way to the nova. For those familiar with celestial coordinates, its exact position is: R.A. 18 h 20′ 27.3″, Dec. -27 degrees 44′ 26″.

You can also get a nice printable chart at the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) website. In the Star Finder box, type in PNV J18202726-2744263, the temporary name for the new nova, and click the Create a finder chart link. Your chart will have north at top. If you want to print out a different orientation or a more customized version, just click the blue Return and Replot link.

How bright the nova will be tonight is anybody’s guess. Maybe the same as last night, but it could also be fainter or brighter. Good luck spotting one of nature’s more explosive creatures!

Double star in Poniatowski’s bull simply gorgeous

Though now obsolete, the sky’s other bull, Taurus Poniatowski, once grazed to the left or east of the Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.

In 1777 a Polish-Lithuanian astronomer Marcin Poczobutt chose to honor the Polish king Stanislaus Poniatowski by creating a small constellation in his honor named Taurus Poniatovii (Poniatowski’s bull). The little figure was scraped together from stars alongside the much larger Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.

Like a lot of small, faint groups created by 18th century astronomers, the bull never survived except in the history books. One of a dozen or more obsolete constellations, the stars of Poniatowski’s bull eventually were parted out to Ophiuchus and Aquila the Eagle.

The southern sky around 10:30 p.m. in early to mid-July. Ophiuchus is a large constellation above Scorpius and its bright, red star Antares. Our featured double star, 70 Oph, lies just to the left or east of Beta Oph. Maps created with Stellarium

The face of the bull is a stellar “V”outlined by the 4th magnitude stars 67, 68 and 70 Ophiuchi. Fainter stars extend the V further north. In binoculars they resemble a dimmer version of the Hyades in the real Taurus the Bull. From suburban areas and the countryside, it’s easy to see the group about halfway up in the southern sky at nightfall around 10:30 p.m.

Close up of 70 Oph located about 4 degrees to the left or east of the easily visible Beta Ophiuchi.

You’re welcome to seek out the obsolete bull for its own sake, but if you own a telescope, point it at 70 Ophiuchi (Oph) the next clear night. This unassuming star is one of the sky’s most colorful doubles.

Located just 16 light years away, the stars of 70 Oph revolve about their common center of gravity in just 88 years.

That’s short enough to watch them through at least half an orbit during your lifetime. Most doubles show no noticeable change over hundreds or even thousands of years because of greater separation and distance.

This diagram shows the dimmer 6th magnitude companion of 70 Oph in orbit about the brighter one (on crosshairs). The two are about 6 arc seconds apart and easily splittable in a small telescope. South is up and east to the right in the diagram. Credit and copyright: Richard Dibon-Smith

Their average separation of the two stars is nearly the same as the distance of Uranus from the sun. When closest back in 1989, they were a little more than a billion miles apart or Saturn’s distance from the sun. The duo reaches maximum separation in 2028 at 3.2 billion miles, similar to Pluto’s average distance.

Currently they’re easily divisible with a small telescope using a magnification of 50x or higher. The fainter companion lies to the southeast or upper right of the brighter as seen in a typical reflecting telescope.

How 70 Oph looked to my eye last night at 76x in a 10-inch telescope. Illustration: Bob King

Classified as orange dwarfs, both stars are smaller, cooler and less luminous than the sun. These characteristics make 70 Oph one of the most colorful pairs in the sky as I found out last night when viewing it through my 10-inch scope.

The brighter star is yellow orange; its fainter companion shines a rich red. Strongly colored stars so close together make a thrilling sight in any telescope. Take a look for yourself and see what you think.

While you’re in the area, make a second stop above the top of Ophiuchus at Alpha Herculis, the brightest star in Hercules the Strongman. This is another colorful double star with a bright red-orange supergiant orbited by a fainter greenish companion separated by about 5 arc seconds.

It’s estimated that at least half of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy are double or multiple. You could easily spend all night hopping from one to the next and barely scratch the surface. To help you in that quest, here’s a list of 100 of the best.

Binocular vision? Go trinocular with Mars!

Mars, Saturn and the star Spica are the apexes of a right triangle (one containing a 90-degree angle) visible in the west last night. The trio will be visible all month in the southwestern sky at dark. Photo: Bob King

Triangles abound in the night sky. You can take any three stars and connect them to make a variety of triangles. Amateur astronomers often navigate to a deep sky object by creating instant triangles, squares and other figures to help them negotiate a busy star field. There are even two official triangular constellations: Triangulum and Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle.

Binocular vision may be characteristic of more advanced life forms, but I’m advocating we take the next step: trinocular vision. Trinocular refers to the three eyepieces used for viewing and photography in a trinocular microscope; for this article we use it in the spirit of fun.

Let’s take a look at a fresh new triangle in the heavens this month comprised of Mars, Saturn and Spica. These three apexes all shine brightly at 1st magnitude and span the southwestern sky at nightfall. As you’d expect, any triangle involving planets never remains the same thanks to their tireless orbiting of the sun. A month from tonight, the three will be gathered into a much more compact equilateral triangle (all three sides of equal length).

Mars heads quickly toward Saturn and Spica in the coming month. Around the 7th and 8th of August it forms an equilateral triangle with Saturn and Spica, then slips between them on the 13th. Created with Stellarium

Mars is much closer to the Earth and sun and moves more rapidly across the sky while Saturn, nearly a billion miles distant, appears to barely move at all. Spica is so much farther than either planet and essentially stays put for thousands of human generations.

Opportunity has spent the past four months at Greeley Haven, named after Ronald Greeley, a former member of the mission team. The colors have been exaggerated to better show differences in materials across the landscape. Click the photo to see a larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

The Mars rover Opportunity completed its 3,000th Martian day this past Monday July 2. The milestone marks NASA’s more than 15 continuous years of robotic presence on the Red Planet starting with the Mars Pathfinder rover in 1997 and followed by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter, Mars Odyssey orbiter and Opportunity, the last two of which are still in service. At the same time the agency released a brand new panorama of “Greeley Haven” on the rim of Endeavour Crater, where Opportunity spent its most recent winter. The crater’s interior can be seen in the lower right of the photo below the horizon.

817 separate photos taken  taken between Dec. 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012 were used to create the image showing the terrain around the rover where it was stationery for four months. Sunlight isn’t strong enough during the Martian winter to fully power Opportunity’s solar panels, so mission controllers park it in a protected spot in low-power mode until the sun is high enough to give the rover its get-up-and-go.

You’ll find more information about the panorama HERE, and if you willing to take the risk of downloading a 124MB file of the scene, have at it.