Be there with Curiosity in this wicked interactive panorama

Take a look around Mars today when you have a few minutes. Click the photo for a spectacular 360-degree interactive panorama. Panorama photo by Andrew Bodrov with images by NASA/JPL

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to stand on Mars and look around in all directions, wonder no more. Click on the photo to view a high-definition, interactive panorama of the Martian landscape pieced together with photos made by Curiosity’s navigation cameras. Since the images were taken from atop the nearly 7-foot tall mast, you feel like like you’re on stilts as you gaze this way and that including over the top of the rover.

You can use your mouse to move from left to right and top to bottom. The big mound in one part of the image is 3.4 mile high Mt. Sharp at the center of Gale Crater. That’s the direction Curiosity will head once it’s ready to roll.

My favorite parts were seeing the sun in the sky for the first time and watching the lighting change as I turned “my head’ to look around. The panorama link above is a large version for maximum YOU ARE THERE effect. For a smaller version as well as panoramas made using imagery from previous rovers, click HERE.

My hat goes off to photographer Andrew Bodrov for creating the scene using NASA images. Thanks for taking us to Mars!

Start your Mars day with a little bit of sol

Curiosity inside Gale Crater photographed on August 12 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The grayish-blue patches near the rover are the blast pattern from the sky crane descent stage. Click image for a monster version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

If not kin, Earth and Mars are blood brothers. Both have ice, clouds, storms, volcanoes and desert landscapes to name a few traits in common. We also share similar tilts in our axes and days that are almost identical in length.

Notice I said ‘almost’. The Martian day is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds long or 2.7% longer than Earth’s. To distinguish it from an Earth day, scientists call it a “sol”, the Latin word for sun. In previous Mars missions as well as this one, you need to know what time it is at your lander or rover site so you can take pictures and measurements in the light of day and beam them up to the Mars orbiters for relay back to Earth.

Artist’s concept shows the Curiosity using it ChemCam instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires invisible laser pulses at a target. The instrument then views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify the chemical elements. Credit: NASA/JPL illustration

To keep track of day and night at both operating rover sites (Opportunity Rover is still in good health) the teams operating the probes must synchronize their work schedules with Mars time. They do this by using a 24-hour Mars clock where the seconds, minutes and hours are all 2.7% longer than the standard 24-hour Earth clock.

That’s right. Those 40 minutes of extra time in the Martian day are divvied up evenly across the day to create a convenient 24-hour clock where every second is ever so slightly longer than an Earth second.

Planning life around Martian sunrise and sunset for the Earth-bound comes with interesting and sometimes painful consequences. Mission controllers’ work schedules slip out of synch with Earth time by 40 minutes a day. Many of us start work at the same time every day of the week. Rover operators begin their shift 40 minutes later each day. Huh?

NASA/JPL ground controllers celebrate when they see the first images transmitted back from Curiosity after a successful landing on Mars August 5-6, 2012. They’ll soon be living on Martian time. Credit: NASA – Bill Ingalls

Let’s say Curiosity’s operator and I both start work on Monday at 10 a.m. Remember, he’s using a watch synchronized to Mars time and I’ve got a cheap Earth watch from Target.

The next day we both start work again at 10 a.m. according to our watches. Can you guess what happens? He shows up 40 Earth minutes late even though his watch reads 10 a.m. just like mine. By the end of the week, the rover driver starts work 4 x 40 minutes or more than 2 1/2 hours late. After 18 days, he’s coming to work at 9 p.m. Earth time and working a long, lonely night! Yet his watch still tells him he’s arriving to work on time at 10 a.m. Again, this is because Mars’ day is 40 minutes longer than Earth’s.

You can imagine how a Mars work schedule must wreak havoc with your personal life. A day shift soon morphs into an evening shift and then an overnight. One entire cycle – the number of days it takes to get back in synch with Earth time – takes 36.5 days or a little more than five weeks. These men and women are working days and night over that time. Getting a good night’s rest must have been challenging.

Garo Anserlian, master watch and clockmaker, devised the first watch to tell Mars time. A Mars day, called a sol, is divided into 24 hours like an Earth day but 40 minutes longer. Credit: NASA

So it was for scientists involved with the previous two Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit. To help keep everything on schedule without having to constantly translate from Earth time to Mars time, system engineers involved with those missions went on a hunt to find a watchmaker to build a Mars watch. Enter Garo Anserlian of Executive Jewelers in the little town of Montrose, California.

He took up the challenge, attaching tiny weights to clock innards, to lengthen an ordinary Earth second into a Martian one. Members of the rover team each got a custom watch geared to Mars time to help them plan daily rover activities. That was back in 2003-2004. Now Anserlian sells Mars watches to regular folks at $295 a pop. Check out his site if you’re interested.

A Mars watch for sale by Anserlian’s Executive Jewelers store. Credit: Executive Jewelers

While today is only Sol 10 for Curiosity, the 10th Mars day since the landing, it’s Sol 3,044 for the Opportunity rover which landed in January 2004.  I wondered whether the Opportunity Rover folks were still bound to Mars time after more than 8 years of the rover’s operation on the planet.  To find out I called D.C. Agle in the Jet Propulsion Lab’s (JPL) newsroom.

For the first 90 days of the mission, they lived like Martians but since then JPL’s worked out a “more livable” arrangement. With Curiosity, the team of scientists and engineers will also clock their days by the punishing Mars schedule for the coming 3 months.

Some of the scientists still wear the watches, but most are now using desktop Mars clocks or Smartphone apps. Agle uses the free NASA program called Mars 24 for PC or Mac. It’s a  Java application that displays Martian times for both Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers and a representation of the planet showing its current sun- and night sides. Get it HERE and feel (almost) like you’re living on Mars.  There’s currently no NASA Smartphone app for Mars time, but several others are available at online stores:

* Mars Clock and Mars Surface Times for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch
* Martian Time for Android

A screen grab from NASA’s free Mars 24 program. You can now have you own Mars clock right on your computer desktop. Credit: NASA GISS

One last time tidbit. Many of us watched the final minutes of Curiosity’s thrilling descent to Mars last earlier this month. While it all seemed to be happening moment-by-tense-moment, the probe had already landed 14 minutes earlier. Done deal. It took radio communications traveling at the speed of light 14 minutes to make the trip back to Earth. To quote the late Johnny Carson: “That is wild stuff.”

Three planets and a smile at dawn

Venus right next to the moon just a minute or two before it was covered yesterday afternoon. The difference in brightness is striking. Venus was still visible with the naked eye at the time. Photo: Bob King

I hope some of you got to see Venus alongside the crescent moon yesterday afternoon. The view through binoculars was simply amazing.  Venus was brilliant compared to the dull moon. Though the moon was officially brighter — magnitude -9 vs. -4.5 for Venus — the planet’s surface brightness was far higher because it’s wrapped in clouds that reflect sunlight well. The moon in contrast is covered in charcoal-toned dust and rocks.

The difference between the two could not have been more profound. By the way, the moon was only brighter overall. What it lacked in surface brightness, it made up in surface area.

Perseid meteor shower activity is winding down, but I managed to catch a busy spell when I stepped out at 3:15 this morning. Four meteors including a sputtering fireball shot out of Perseus in just five minutes of looking up. Amateur astronomer John Chumack uses a low-light video camera to record meteors from his home in Dayton, Ohio. He compiled all the meteor images he captured over August 11-12 into a single video. Hit play to see 220 Perseids fly by in just 2 minutes!

Venus is far to the right of the sun and high in the dawn sky in August. On the 15th it reaches a maximum separation of 46 degrees from the sun as seen by an observer on Earth. Planets and sun not to scale. Illustration: Bob King

Venus reaches greatest elongation tomorrow (Aug. 15) when it’s as far off to one side of the sun as it can get. That means it rises well ahead of the sun and stands high in the eastern sky at dawn. For Duluth, Minn. the planet comes up at 2:30 a.m., fully 3 1/2 hours before sunrise. As seen from Earth, Venus is almost exactly 50 percent illuminated by the sun and looks like a little half moon in a telescope. When the planet is west of the sun and visible in the morning hours, astronomers say it’s at greatest western elongation. At greatest eastern elongation, Venus shines in the evening sky and its other half is lit. At “full” and “new moon” phases the planet is either nearly in front of or behind the sun and lost in the solar glare.

Mercury joins Venus and Jupiter to form a long arc of naked eye planets visible in the morning sky at mid-month. The map shows the sky tomorrow morning about 45 minutes before sunrise. Created with Stellarium

While you’re out admiring Venus, look much lower in the northeastern sky about 45 minutes before sunrise for yet another planet at greatest western elongation – Mercury. Mercury is farthest west of the sun (18 degrees) on the 16th and easy to see if you have a wide open view to the east. The moon helps point the way tomorrow morning.

See the crescent moon hide Venus this afternoon

A gravel bar in the shape of a crescent formed in Lake Superior at the mouth of the Lester River in Duluth recently. Photo: Bob King

The Perseid meteors still have some spunk! Observers worldwide reported a sharp rise in activity between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.  CDT (when it was dark in Asia) Sunday. Rates hit over 100 meteors an hour during that time. A good show was still in progress last night, finally tapering off some during early morning hours today.

Crescents are everywhere. I was shooting aerial photos for the newspaper about a week ago. As we flew along the shore of Lake Superior I was paying more attention air turbulence than anything else. The plane seemed impossibly delicate as it pitched this way and that in the wind and heat. I looked out the window to follow our progress and moments  later spotted the most perfect crescent moon – a gravel bar at the mouth of the Lester River northeast of downtown. The sight quickly took my mind off the bumpy ride.

Later this afternoon, sky watchers across much of North America will see Venus covered or occulted by the real crescent moon. Finding the moon will be a little tricky. If you live in the Midwest it’s only 20 degrees high (two fists held at arm’s length) in the western sky when it happens around 3:30 p.m. (CDT). East Coast observers will have a tougher time with the moon only a few degrees high.  Exceptionally clear skies are required to see a thin moon so close to the horizon in the middle of the day.

Venus will hover right above the edge of the lunar crescent this afternoon August 13. This view shows the scene from Duluth, Minn. when the moon will be 20 degrees high in the west at the time. Created with Stellarium

Mountain states and the West Coast have the easiest time of it. When the occultation starts between 1 and 2 p.m. Pacific time, the moon will be 40 degrees high in the western sky. Take along a pair of binoculars to help you find it. Look for the crescent about 45 degrees or 4 1/2 fists to the lower right of the sun.

Use this map and table from Sky and Telescope to find your city along with the time when Venus disappears behind the moon. Remember that the times shown are Universal or Greenwich Time. Subtract 4 hours for Eastern Daylight Time; 5 hours for Central; 6 for Moutain and 7 for Pacific.

Venus is tiny half moon tomorrow as seen in a small telescope. The moon will take about a half minute to completely cover it. Venus reappears on the other side of the moon at 4:22 p.m. for Duluth. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Go out 10 or 15 minutes before the occultation to find the moon either with your naked eye or with assistance from binoculars. Venus should be very easy to see nearly pinned to the moon’s pale white sunlit edge even in small binoculars. A small telescope will show the planet as a small half moon. Because it’s tiny and near maximum brightness, it will probably stand out better than the paler moon.

You may even be able to see Venus with the naked eye. For easterners unable to watch the occultation, all is not lost. You can still use the moon to find Venus in the daytime. Go out an hour earlier,  find the moon and look one moon-diameter above it to see Venus.

The last widely observed occultation of Venus by the moon happened on the morning of April 22, 2009. Both were crescents at the time. Notice how much brighter Venus is than the moon. Photo: Bob King

The moon’s orbital motion will carry it closer and closer to the planet until it takes that first bite. Since Venus has an actual shape and size as opposed to stars which are pinpoints even in large telescopes, it will take the moon nearly a half minute to completely cover it. About an hour later, Venus will re-emerge from behind the moon. Those times are also in the table if you scroll further down.  For Duluth, Minn. the hide-and-seek starts at 3:31 p.m. with Venus reappearing at the other end of the moon at 4:22 p.m. Disappearance and reappearance times for several other cities are shown below.

A Venus-moon-hawk “conjunction” at 11:30 a.m. today Aug. 13 when the moon was 2 degrees from Venus. Once I found the moon, Venus was relatively easy to see with the naked eye. Give it a try yourself. Photo: Bob King

Many of us will be at work when the occultation happens. Don’t tell my boss, but I’m going to sneak out for a few minutes around 3:30 with my binoculars. It’s not often you get to see the moon occult a planet in the light of day.

* Dayton, Ohio at 4:40 and 5:32 p.m.
* Chicago, Ill. at  3:37  and 4:29 p.m.
* Grand Forks, ND at 3:27 and 4:22 p.m.
* Denver, Colo. at 2:35 and 3:40 p.m.
* Seattle, Wash. at 1:07 and 2:23 p.m.

Perseid report, Curiosity spies old riverbed and winter arrives at dawn

A fainter Perseid meteor (around 2nd magnitude) streaks above a line clouds lit by light pollution early this morning August 12. Details: 20mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 1250 and 45 second exposure. Photo: Bob King

It’s not much of a Perseid photo, but it’s all I’ve got to show from last night. Conditions were far from ideal in Duluth for the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Lots of high clouds snuffed out the fainter meteors. Around 1 a.m. as rates were picking up, heavier clouds rolled in and I had to call it quits. How did you fare?

Not that there weren’t some great meteors – I saw 26 during about two hours of casual viewing; a couple were as bright as Jupiter and some came in pairs one right after the other. All were white or yellow and moved swiftly. Despite clouds, this rate seemed lower than expected.

The graph shows the zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of the Perseid meteor shower. It spiked on Saturday afternoon (U.S. time) and stayed at a fairly high level into the night. It’s dropping off now as Earth moves out of the meteor stream. Credit: International Meteor Organization

Observers submitting reports to the International Meteor Organization’s Perseid website reported a maximum of 97 meteors per hour around 1:30 p.m. (CDT) Saturday August 11. For observers in North America overnight activity dropped to around 70-80 per hour. These numbers are what an observer would see under ideal dark skies with the radiant overhead. It’s known in the trade as the ZHR or zenithal hourly rate and determined by applying a mathematical formula to each individual’s meteor count.

Meteor shower watchers use the ZHR to standardize observations made by many different observers under different sky conditions. The actual number of meteors seen is nearly always lower, which is why you have to take meteor shower predictions with a grain of salt. By the way, you can still go out tonight to watch the shower. Numbers will be lower but the late-comers will still put on a show.

The moon and Venus, joined by Orion and Jupiter, will sparkle up the eastern sky tomorrow morning at the start of dawn. This map shows the sky facing east about 90 minutes before sunrise. Created with Stellarium

I finally turned in when the moon and Jupiter put a glow in the clouds to the east. Tomorrow morning if you’re willing to risk losing a bit of sleep, the moon and Venus will make a handsome couple at dawn. They’ll be joined by Orion – yes, Orion! – Aldebaran and the V-shaped Hyades star cluster next to Aldebaran. All the winter stars are on the move in the morning sky, itching to replace those of summer and fall. Watch out, snow will be here before we know it.

A part of the wall of Gale Crater north of the landing site shot with Curiosity’s high resolution camera. A network of valleys formed by water erosion long ago carved the rim. The main channel (labeled) looks like an arroyo or dirt road and is 11 miles away. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mission controllers have been uploading new software into Curiosity’s “brain” the past couple days to ready it for roving and geological exploration. On the first leg of its Mars journey, all it could “think about” was making a safe landing and shooting the first photos. Now that that’s been accomplished, it’s time for baby to walk.

One of the more interesting recent images from the rover shows a channel in the rocky rim of Gale Crater where water once flowed. According to NASA: “This is the first view scientists have had of a fluvial system – one relating to a river or stream — from the surface of Mars. Known and studied since the 1970s beginning with NASA’s Viking missions, such networks date from a period in Martian history when water flowed freely across the surface.”

We’ve seen these water-carved channels from orbit many times, but a ground level view makes it easier to imagine a Mars soaked with streams, lakes and maybe even an ocean.

Curiosity captures rocket stage crash; Perseid meteors peak tonight!

The shadowy spot on the horizon to the left of center is dust raised by the impact of the sky crane when it crash landed. Photo taken before the clear dust cover was removed from the lens. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mystery of the blob in one of the first images taken by one of Curiosity’s Hazcams has been solved. NASA officials first thought it might be dust on the lens or even a dust devil in the distance, but it now appears to be the impact plume from the sky crane when it crash landed shortly after gently delivering the rover to the surface. Mission controllers checked the direction the rover’s camera pointed and it lined up perfectly with the blast. Images made 45 minutes later show nothing on the horizon. Nabbing a picture like that by chance is akin to a hole in one.

Mars (right), Saturn (top) and Spica form a compact triangle last night August 10 a little more than an hour after sunset low in the southwestern sky. Details: 70mm lens at f/2.8, 8 seconds at ISO 800. Photo: Bob King

Mars is still booking through the evening sky sky, making a variety of ever-changing triangles with Saturn and the star Spica over the past few weeks. On the 13th and 14th, the planet will slide between the two and start a new series of triangles when it comes out the other side heading east.

The changing scene is fun to watch. All you need is a clear view to the southwest during evening twilight.

The ISS crosses from the Dipper to the W last night. Very bright and easy to see. Details: 16mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 640 and 2.5 minute exposure. Photo: Bob King

The International Space Station (ISS) made a fine pass across the northern sky here in Duluth around 10:10 p.m. last night Aug. 1o, following an arc spanning from the Big Dipper through the polestar and beyond the W of Cassiopeia. To find out when the ISS passes over your house this weekend, click HERE and type in your zip code. Duluth, Minn. times are shown below.

A short but bright Perseid meteor flashes below the Andromeda Galaxy (top right) from my driveway early this morning. At lower right is M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy. Photo: Bob King

While taking pictures I was lucky enough to spot half a dozen Perseid meteors Counts were good Friday night with up to 30 per hour being reported at various locations around the world. This bodes well for tonight when the shower reaches maximum between 11 p.m. and dawn.

While you’re watching Perseids you might also catch some sporadic or random meteors. My best this morning was a bright orange fireball that sliced across the northern sky while fragmenting into pieces. What a treat! Read up on when and how to watch the meteor show HERE.

Space station viewing times for the Duluth, Minn. region:
* Tonight August 11 starting at 9:16 p.m. Brilliant overhead pass. Second pass at 10:53 p.m. across the northern sky.
* Sunday night August 12 at 10 p.m. across the north
* Monday night August 13 at 9:06 p.m. and again at 10:43 p.m. in the northern sky

What does Earth look like from Mars?

Curiosity is inside Gale Crater far to the east of the planet’s most prominent telescopic feature Syrtis Major. Credit: NASA/ESA/ Hubble

Now that Curiosity’s safe and secure on the Red Planet and snapping photos of everything in sight, I hope it focuses its cameras on Earth sometime soon.

The rover sits inside the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater in Mars’ eastern hemisphere just 5.4 degrees south of the equator. I was curious what the sky looks from Curiosity’s location and fired up Stellarium to see.

It didn’t take long to find Earth, low in the northeastern sky in morning twilight not far from the planet Venus.

Seen from Gale Crater on Mars, Earth is a brilliant blue “star” in the constellation Pisces on August 10. Not far below shine the planet Venus. The view shows the sky facing east about 45 minutes before Martian sunrise. Maps created with Stellarium

Since Earth is an “inner planet” from Mars’ perspective, the same way Venus and Mercury are inner planets for us, it never strays too far from the sun and goes through phases just like the moon and other inner planets. Curiosity will see Earth best during morning and evening twilight. At Mars current distance from Earth of 154 million miles, our planet shines at magnitude -1.4 or nearly same as Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

To the eye, Earth would shine a pale ocean water blue. Venus would still be the brightest planet (magnitude -3.0) but distinctly dimmer than when viewed from Earth, because it’s farther from Mars than it is from our planet.

Earth and moon seen through binoculars from Curiosity’s landing site this morning.

According to my calculation, the moon would be slightly less than one arc minute from Earth and probably not visible as a separate point of light with the naked eye. However, you could easily see it directly below Earth through a pair of binoculars. The two would appear as a beautiful double planet!

The moon is much darker than Earth and would only shine at magnitude 2.5, about the same brightness as one of the Big Dipper stars. Through a small telescope magnifying around 60x Earth would appear as a tiny gibbous moon or a little more than 3/4 full.

More sky wonders await Curiosity’s cameras. Mars’ two moons cycle through the sky just like our moon.

Mars’ moon Phobos joins Earth and Venus shortly before sunrise on the morning of August 12.

Phobos, the larger, is 14 miles wide and orbits only 3,700 miles from Mars’ surface. It’s so close that it moves around Mars faster than the planet rotates. Instead of rising in the east and setting in the west, Phobos rises in the west and sets in the east. Nuts, right? It moves so fast it crosses the entire sky in just four hours and 15 minutes. If you could be there in person, you’d see it move in real time like a very slow satellite.

While Phobos is one of the darkest, least reflective bodies in the solar system, its proximity to the planet means it’s brighter than you’d expect, easily outshining Earth and Venus at magnitude -5 at midmonth. Wait a minute – that’s brighter than Venus is from Earth!

A gorgeous sight for Curiosity’s eyes – Venus, Earth, Phobos and Deimos in morning twilight on August 31. Foreground image shows the Opportunity rover’s solar panels. Sorry, I don’t have Curiosity in my software yet!

The smaller moon Deimos is about 7 miles wide and orbits far enough from the planet to rise in the east and set in the west like our moon does. Things really get fun later this month on the morning of 31st. That’s when Earth, Venus, Phobos and Deimos are all together in the eastern sky before sunrise. Wouldn’t it be cool if NASA pointed one of the high-resolution cameras for an awesome family portrait?

Mars’ north polar axis points toward Deneb and the Northern Cross which are part of the larger Summer Triangle. This view shows the sky from mid-northern latitudes on Mars. From roughly 10 degrees north of the Martian equator to the north pole, Deneb never sets.

One last tidbit. Mars’ axis is tipped 25.2 degrees, nearly the same as Earth’s 23.5 degrees. That’s why both planet’s have seasons. Despite similar inclinations, Mars’ axis points to a different direction in the Martian sky. Earth’s north polar axis points to the venerable North Star in the Little Dipper. Mars’ “north star” is close to Deneb, the bright star that marks the head of the Northern Cross or constellation Cygnus. Mars’ southern polestar is near the naked eye star Kappa Velorum.

It’s fun and fascinating to imagine how the planets and stars look on other worlds, especially the one we’re exploring with robotic eyes at this very moment. Seeing Earth from far away allows us to put our planet in perspective – we’re  a point of light dancing among the stars just like all the other planets.

Earth – that tiny point of light near the top – photographed by the Spirit Rover on Mars. Credit: NASA

Curiosity snaps first color panorama of Mars

A portion of Curiosity’s first 360-degree hi-res color panorama shows the slope of Mt. Sharp in the distance plus gray patches in the foreground from the descent stage’s rocket engines blasting the ground. Click to explore the full, fab hi-res version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Who could let the day go by without checking in Curiosity? Let me guess – taking pictures again? I’m happy to report that the high-resolution cameras were used today to shoot the first color panorama. The photo above looks kind of ordinary until you click it and arrive at the full panorama. Wait till you see the luscious detail.

Rocks and Mars dirt are sprinkled atop the rover in this picture taken with one of the navigational cameras on the mast. Click to see the full panorama. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The same is true with the second image. It’s another high-resolution panorama but in black and white and taken with one of the NavCam’s. I’ve cropped it down to show only the top of the rover, the better to see the dirt and rocks that landed there from the sky crane’s rocket exhaust. Had the rover landed using rockets all the way to the ground into of being dropped from a height by the sky crane, the amount of debris tossed up might have damaged equipment. So while it looks nasty – we wish we had a broom – it’s much cleaner than it might otherwise be. Let’s hope a dust devil comes by soon to give Curiosity a clean sweep.

See more photos HERE.

Don’t miss the Perseids, the year’s best meteor shower

The photo NASA doesn’t want you to see. Looks like the wrong time and place AGAIN for the wicked witch of the east.

Mars has so dominated astronomy news this week, it might be easy to ignore everything else in the sky. I’m here to tell you to put the coffee on for the year’s best meteor shower. Yep, you guessed it – the annual Perseids (PURR-see-ids) are back!

The Perseids stand out in several ways: they happen in August when the weather’s nice, they’re rich with meteors –  typically around one a minute – and this year the shower reaches it maximum on Saturday night, when you’re planning on staying up late anyway. Right?

The Perseid meteor shower peaks this Saturday night – Sunday morning. Meteors will appear to shoot out of a spot in the northeastern sky in the constellation Perseus below Cassiopeia. Maps created with Stellarium

The best viewing starts late Saturday night August 11 with the peak coming just before dawn Sunday morning when Perseus – the constellation from which the shower originates – is high in the northeastern sky.

Although the published rate for the Perseids is around 100 per hour, most of us won’t see that many. That number was determined by dedicated meteor shower watchers observing under ideal conditions. For casual viewing under suburban skies you might see between 30 and 60 per hour. That’s plenty!

The thick crescent moon rises around 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning in Taurus near brilliant Jupiter. It won’t be bright or high enough to affect meteor watching. The map shows the sky facing northeast at about 2:30 a.m. local time.

Find a place away from glary lights to allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness. That way you’ll see many more meteors. While the Perseids spit out the occasional fireball, most shower members are going to be closer in brightness to the stars of the Big Dipper. Lots leave these cool “smoke” trails called meteor trains. They’re actually tubes of glowing air molecules created as the meteoroid particles charge in the atmosphere from outer space at an average speed of 130,000 miles per hour 50 to 70 miles over our heads.

Since the meteors appear to radiate from Perseus, the higher the constellation rises, the higher the radiant gets and the more meteors will show above your horizon. That’s why those who stay up late will get more goodies. To view the shower all you need are your eyes and a comfortable chair. Set up facing to the east or southeast with Perseus off to your left. Sit back, look up and enjoy.

A Perseid meteor, remnant of Comet Swift-Tuttle, burns up to the left of the Milky Way during a past shower. Credit: Kevin Clifford/AP

The Perseids are the left-behind sand, seed and pebble-sized particles from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862, it circles the sun every 120 years. Over millenia, the comet has left a stream of debris along its orbit which the Earth passes through every year in mid-August. The little comet crunchies hit our atmospheric ‘windshield’ like bugs smacking a car’s windshield and vaporize in a flash of light we call a meteor or shooting star.

A Perseid meteor captured from one of the windows in the International Space Station last August. Credit: NASA

While shower maximum occurs the morning of August 12, you’ll still see a fair number of meteors Friday night and Sunday night, so don’t pass on the event if your weather’s poor Saturday. Check your local forecast HERE.

Call a friend or coax a family member to stay up late this weekend to enjoy the show. Not only will you see meteors, the space station is making evening passes across North America and the crescent moon will be near the brilliant planets Jupiter and Venus. Speaking of the moon, it rises around 1:30 a.m. local time Sunday morning and should have little effect on the shower, since it’s neither too bright nor too high.

Curiosity thrills with first eye-level photos of distant mountains

The mountainous rim of Gale Crater photographed by Curiosity’s navigational camera this morning. They look “misty” possibly because of dust haze. The scoured patch in the foreground might be from the sky crane’s rocket exhaust. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The trickle of Mars photos is fast becoming a torrent.  Curiosity’s mast, the pole-like affair sticking out of the rover that holds the high resolution color cameras and navigational cameras (NavCams), went up this morning. We’re finally getting clear, high resolution pictures taken at eye level. Check out those mountains! Want to browse more images? Click HERE and HERE.

Another view of the distant hills in Gale Crater. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Navcam on the mast looked down to photograph Curiosity’s mast and instrument platform. Click to for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Oh, OK – how about another fresh pic:

High-resolution picture of the heat shield falling to the Martian surface by Curiosity’s descent camera shortly after separation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech with toning by Emily Lakdawalla and myself

Not only has Curiosity been busy shooting pictures but the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took a spectacular scene of the rover delivery stages strewn about the Martian landscape yesterday.

The heat shield was the first piece of hardware to hit the ground followed by the back shell attached to the parachute. The rover touched down next and the sky crane last. After the cables connecting it to the rover were cut, the crane flew off to the northwest and crashed. The darker areas around each object are where the dust was disturbed by rockets or impact revealing darker material beneath. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/U. of A.

The first picture shows the wide scene that serves to locate the pieces. Click on the photo for a much higher resolution view. I then took the hi-res images and zoomed in for a clearer view in the panels below:

Closeup views from the high resolution picture taken by MRO of the rover and its parachute and back shell. Credit: NASA/JPLl-Caltech-U. of Ariz.

Closeups of the sky crane and heat shield crashes. The sky crane hit Mars at a very shallow or oblique angle, creating a jet-like blast pattern. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. of Ariz.

Meanwhile, mission controllers at JPL have been snapping more pictures with those Hazcams mounted on Curiosity’s chassis including a 3-D shot of the rover’s shadow and distant hills. I hope you have a pair of those red-blue glasses to try out on this pic – the view is amazing!

3-D look at Curiosity’s shadow and the distant hills including the 3.4 mile high Mt. Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s today’s status report on the rover from JPL: 
Curiosity is healthy as it continues to familiarize itself with its new home in Gale Crater and check out its systems. The team’s plans for Curiosity checkout today included raising the rover’s mast and continued testing of its high-gain antenna. Science data were collected from Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector, and activities were performed with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station instrument.