Earth and Moon captured together in amazing new photo

Chang’e 5 took this splendid photo of Earth and Moon together while it passed over the lunar far side on October 28, 2014. The Moon reflects far less light than Earth and appears darker.  Click to grab a large version. Credit: CNSA / Xinhua News Agency

A friend alerted me to this wonderful photo of Earth and Moon in the same single image taken by China’s Chang’e 5 lunar test vehicle. The spacecraft is conducting an 8-day mission to the Moon and back to refine the technology needed for a planned sample return mission in 2017. Launched on October 23, this is China’s fourth volley to the Moon; the spacecraft will return to Earth on November 1 according to Xinhua News.

View of Earth taken by the Chang’e 5 test vehicle on October 28 after rounding the far side of the Moon. Australia is easy to see in the clearing. Credit: CNSA / Xinhua News Agency

As it swung high above the far side of the Moon – the hidden half of the lunar globe out of sight from Earth – the solar array monitoring camera on the craft snapped this incredible image. While not the first ever taken of the pair, it’s one of the best composed images and possibly the first to clearly feature the lunar far side along with Earth. You can easily see how much more cratered the Moon’s hidden hemisphere is. And that dark splotch? That’s Mare Moscoviense (Sea of Moscow), one of the very few dark maria or seas on the far side.

View of the Moon by Chang’e 5 on October 28 shows the dark lunar “sea” called Mare Marginis. This patch is visible along the western edge of the moon from Earth. Credit: CNSA / Xinhua News Agency

Chang’e 5 did not enter lunar orbit but kept its camera humming to shoot separate close-ups of Earth and Moon. Like seeing Earth and Moon from afar? Check these out:


Earth and Moon dance a pirouette in these images taken by the Jupiter-bound spacecraft Juno on Oct. 9, 2013

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express captured this image of Earth and the Moon on July 3, 2005 when it was 5 million miles ( 8 million km) away. Credit: ESA

Earth and Moon in 1992 as Galileo photographed the duo on its way to Jupiter. Credit: NASA

Earth is the brightest “star” in Mars’ western evening sky as seen and photographed by the Curiosity Rover on Jan. 31, 2014. Credit: NASA

A single frame from high-definition video of the full Earth over the lunar limb taken by Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft on April 6, 2008. Credit: JAXA/NHK

Earth and Moon from Mars, imaged by Mars Global Surveyor on May 8, 2003. Credit: NASA

Earth rises over the barren lunar landscape photographed by the Apollo 8 crew on December 24, 1968. Credit: NASA

Earth and Moon become a single dot in this photo taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a distance of 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km) on February 14, 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL

Moon gives us a wink / Mars near and afar

Tonight (Oct. 25) the thin lunar crescent appears again at dusk low in the southwestern sky near the planet Saturn. This map shows the sky about 20 minutes past sunset. Source: Stellarium

After a splendid eclipse performance, the Moon returns at dusk this evening low in the southwestern sky after sunset. Reborn as a waxing crescent, it will slip away from the Sun in the coming days and gently light the night.

For those who like something much more challenging than spying the Moon, try finding Saturn about 3 degrees to its west. Binoculars required!

India’s Mars Orbiter tweeted this full-color photo of the planet earlier this month. It features the hemisphere of Mars rich in ancient volcanoes, the brown, circular structures that look like anthills.  The largest, Olympus Mons, is visible at far left center. The planet’s north polar region is covered in clouds. Credit: ISRO

Farther east, Mars, though low, is still an easy catch with the naked eye. Most of us gave up looking at it in a telescope several months ago, since the planet has shrunk to 5.6″ in diameter, not quite twice as big as Uranus’ apparent size. Mars is far from Earth and presently in in its “orange blip” phase. Even at 300x magnification, such a tiny disk shows little detail.

Little Phobos, only 10 by 14 by 11 miles (17 by 22 by 18 km), looks tiny indeed against the backdrop of the mother planet. Credit: ISRO

No matter. So many space probes now orbit the planet, close-up views are available at the click of a mouse. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has sent back some excellent color images of the planet recently including one showing Mars’ small moon Phobos in orbit.


Photos taken by the Mars Curiosity rover on June 28, 2013 show the moon Phobos rising in the Martian sky. White dots are hot pixels and flashes are cosmic rays. 

Another view of Phobos taken by ESA’s Mars Express. This small, dark moon orbits 5,826 miles (9,380 km) above the planet. Credit: NASA

Mars orbiter sends close-up photos of Comet Siding Spring

High resolution image pairs made with HiRISE camera on MRO during Comet Siding Spring’s closest approach to Mars on October 19. Shown at top are images of the nucleus region and inner coma. Those at bottom were exposed to show the bigger coma beginning of a tail. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

They’ve done it again. NASA engineers and scientists successfully slewed the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter into position to get pictures of comet C/2013 Siding Spring during its close flyby on October 19. I think all of us were waiting for pictures more like this one which show more than a bit of fuzz. Not to disrespect fuzz. Fuzz or comet dust seeded the early Earth with important organic compounds and still makes for awesome meteor showers right up to the present day.

The top set of photos uses the full dynamic range of the camera to accurately depict brightness and detail in the nuclear region and inner coma. Prior to its arrival near Mars astronomers estimated the diameter of the nucleus or comet’s core at around 0.6 mile or 1 kilometer. But based on these images taken at much closer range, its true size is less than 1/3 mile or 0.5 km across. The bottom photos overexpose the nuclear region but reveal an extended coma and a short tail extending to the right.

The Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt extends outward from the plane of the planets, while the Oort Cloud encompasses the solar system in a spherical shell containing millions of comets. Long-period comets like C/2013 A1 Siding Spring often have diagonal orbits that cut across the plane.
Credit: NAOJ

Comet Siding Spring is a new visitor to the inner solar system, hailing from the distant repository of comets called the Oort Cloud far past Neptune and the icy asteroids that populate the Kuiper Belt.

It slid sunward on its cigar-shaped orbit for millions of years as the planets wheeled around the Sun like balls in a roulette wheel. By pure chance, Mars happened to lie only 87,000 miles from the comet on its journey toward the Sun.

Annotated photo of Comet Siding Spring taken by the Opportunity Rover on October 19 near closest approach. The comet passed comet passed much closer to Mars than any previous known comet flyby of Earth or Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ASU/TAMU

Photographing a fast-moving target from orbit is no easy trick. You have to pan the MRO’s camera at the precise rate needed to shoot a time exposure without blurring the image. Engineers at Lockheed-Martin in Denver did exactly that based on comet position calculations by engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab. To make sure they knew exactly where the comet was, the team photographed the comet 12 days in advance. To their surprise, the orbital calculations were just a bit off. Using the new positions, MRO succeeded in locking onto the comet during the flyby. Without this earlier check, cameras may have missed seeing Siding Spring altogether!

I’ve also added a new, annotated version of the photo taken by the Opportunity Rover and used in the blog earlier today. From the rover’s point of view, the comet buzzed across the constellation Cetus at the time, while here on Earth we see it in the summertime constellation Ophiuchus.

NASA deserves a pat on the back for their great work in acquiring these images and getting them to us within 24 hours. There will be much more on the observational side (and hopefully more photos!) in the weeks and months to come.

Opportunity Rover takes first pictures of Comet Siding Spring from Mars

Comet Siding Spring photographed October 19, 2014 by the Opportunity Rover. Stars show as point and the streaks are probably cosmic ray hits on the sensor during the exposure. Click for original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Darn rover’s been there more than 10 years and still producing firsts. Around 4:13 a.m. local time October 19, not long before the beginning of morning twilight, NASA’s Opportunity Rover pointed its panoramic camera at Comet Siding Spring in the constellation Eridanus and took a historic photograph – the first of a comet seen from the surface of another planet.

Another photo of the comet taken by Opportunity. Click for original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sure, it’s just a fuzzy spot, but like Galileo’s first look at Jupiter through his primitive telescope, remarkable all the same. I found the photos while digging through the raw images posted on the Opportunity website earlier this morning. There were only three of the night sky, one of which clearly showed a fuzzy object. If you look closely, the comet looks elongated. That might be from trailing during the time exposure or could be a hint of its tail.

Time exposure of the night sky taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover on October 19. You can see real stars if you look closely but most of the specks are noise. No sign of the comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unfortunately I couldn’t find the comet in the several pictures returned by the Curiosity Rover. Each is heavily speckled with noise but no matter how I tried to tone and stretch the photos, no comet. Maybe NASA has other pictures it will offer after they’re cleaned up.

Map showing the landing sites of rovers and probes successfully landed on Mars. Opportunity is located 1.9 degrees south of the Martian equator in the dark feature called Sinus Meridiani. Credit: NASA

I should emphasize here that we’re still awaiting confirmation from NASA that these pictures really do show the comet, but it appears to be the real thing.

Next to a greatly overexposed Mars, we see Comet Siding Spring continuing on its way today October 20, 2014. Copyright: Rolando Ligustri

Comet-Mars encounter coming Sunday: See it through Martian eyes

Simulation of how comet C/2013 Siding Spring will appear in Martian skies around midnight October 18-19, 2014 from the Curiosity rover’s location near Mars’ equator. Credit: Solarsystemscope.com

No one knows exactly how Comet Siding Spring will look from the Red Planet when it blows by just 83,263 miles (134,000 km)  from its surface. Certainly a whole lot brighter than we see it from Earth!  The close shave will happen around 1:28 p.m. CDT this Sunday October 19th.

I spotted it last night at about magnitude +11 not far from Mars in a 15-inch (37-cm) telescope from northern Minnesota. The comet was a faint smudge, but then my eyes were 151 million miles from the duo. Distances like can suck the drama right out of a comet. Seen up close from Mars, it would drop the jaws of a entire crew of astronauts.

If Comet Siding Spring were passing by Earth instead of Mars it would be only 1/3 the distance of the moon from Earth. Credit: NASA

When nearest, Siding Spring is expected to shine at magnitude -5 or about twice as bright as Venus. Mind you, that estimate considers the entire comet crunched down into a dot. But for those who remember, Comet Hale-Bopp’s appearance in spring 1997, it shown at zero magnitude, 100 times fainter than Siding Spring, and made for one of the most impressive naked eye sights in years.

More recently, Comet McNaught climaxed at magnitude -5 in the daytime sky near the sun in January 2007. It was plainly visible in binoculars and telescopes in a blue sky if you knew exactly where to look and took care to avoid the sun. Martians will be far luckier as their comet will appear in a dark sky.


Comet C/2013 Siding Spring as it rises and sets over the Curiosity Rover this weekend October 18-19. Click the control to start, to pause and for other options. Credit: Solarsystemscope.com

To help you picture it the folks at Solarsystemscope.com, famed for their simulations of the dearly departed Comet ISON, have created another gem, a look at Comet Siding Spring as it wheels across the robotic gaze of the Curiosity Rover in the next few nights.

Artist view of the comet passing closest to Mars this Sunday. At the time, the Mars orbiters from the U.S., Europe and India will be huddled on the opposite side of the planet to avoid possible impacts from comet dust. Credit: NASA

Seen from Mars, the comet bobs along Eridanus the River southwest of Orion, passing high in the southern sky overnight. What a sight! The comet nucleus is only about 0.4 miles (700 meters) across, but the coma or atmosphere fluffs out to around 12,000 miles (19,300 km). Seen from the ground, Siding Spring would span about 8°of sky or 16 full moons from head to tail. Moving at 1.5° per minute, it will be fast enough to see crawl across the heavens in real time with the naked eye. Ah, if only we could be there.

Rest assured we’ll get the latest images and results from the rovers and orbiting spacecraft posted here asap.

Comet Siding Spring seen from Earth as it crosses the rich star clouds of the constellation Ophiuchus on October 16. Credit: Damian Peach

As usual, several outlets will be featuring live webcasts and special programs Sunday. Here are two:

* SLOOH starting at 1:15 p.m. CDT (6:15 p.m. UT) Sunday Oct. 19
* Gianluca Masi’s Virtual Telescope site starting at 11:45 a.m. CDT (4:45 p.m. UT)

An exciting weekend lies ahead!

Earth and Mars, space pals forever

This single shot of Earth and Mars together was taken on May 24, 2014 with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft as it orbited the moon. Click to see full, hi-res photo. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Yesterday we watched the total lunar eclipse from Mercury. Today, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) expands our gaze to encompass both Earth and Mars together in space.

LRO’s viewing post was none other than the moon located 240,000 miles from Earth. On May 24th, instead of staring down at the lunar surface, NASA engineers sent commands to the spacecraft to point its Narrow Angle Camera toward Earth. On that date the two worlds were in conjunction from LRO’s perspective.


Mars and Earth from lunar orbit

Mars was about 70 million miles away (112.5 million km) away at the time or 300 times farther away from the Moon than the Earth. That’s why it’s only a tiny dot in the sky.

Moon-facing hemisphere of Mars on May 8, 2014 seen from lunar orbit. Instruments on LRO sometimes use stars and planets for calibration or other special observations. During one of these off-Moon observations, LROC imaged Mars. The planet is so small in LRO’s camera it could only make out the two larger features shown above. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

I know a commercial photographer who takes pictures of babies when they’re asleep. She has to invest a lot time into each of her photos, much of it spent waiting for the children to fall asleep! Likewise the LRO team. To make sure they got the timing and exposure right, the team practiced on Mars weeks in advance.

Seeing the two planets in the same frame seems to shrink the distance between them and tempt us to shove off from home on an exploratory visit.

The LRO folks put it this way:

“The juxtaposition of Earth and Mars seen from the Moon is a poignant reminder that the Moon would make a convenient waypoint for explorers bound for the fourth planet and beyond! In the near-future, the Moon could serve as a test-bed for construction and resource utilization technologies. Longer-range plans may include the Moon as a resource depot or base of operations for interplanetary activities.”

MOM sees Mars in 3D

This 3D picture was made from multiple images by India’s Mars Orbiter on September 28, 2014. To see it in 3D, don a pair of red-blue glasses or follow the instructions below to make a pair of your own. Credit: ISRO

Not long after India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully put itself in orbit about the Red Planet in late September, the spacecraft took this 3D image and tweeted:

Use this template to make a pair of 3D glasses for viewing the Mars photo and any other 3D image that use the red-blue combo to see in 3D. Click for larger version.

“What sorcery is this? Get your 3D glasses to look at Mars the way I do.” The photo is a combination of images taken on September 28 from an altitude of about 46,300 miles (74,500 km). If you don’t have 3D glasses, MOM provided instructions on making your own by using the cutout provided along with a couple pieces of cellophane and red and blue markers. Very innovative. If any of you make a pair, let us know how well it works.

The dark, comma-shaped feature below the center of the disk will be familiar to many telescopic observers of the planet. It’s comprised of the heavily-cratered highland region called Sinus Sabaeus and the flat, rock-free plain Sinus Meridiani (fat end). NASA’s Opportunity Rover landed in Sinus Meridiani (a.k.a. Meridiani Planum) on January 25, 2004 and still takes pictures and measurements to this day.

Regular 2D Mars showing the large dust storm in the planet’s northern hemisphere this fall. The southern ice cap is just visible along the bottom edge of the planet. Credit: ISRO

Both 2D and 3D photos show a significant dust storm blasting across Mars’ northern hemisphere and a pink-tinted southern polar ice cap. The color might come from dust in the atmosphere or rained out on the cap itself.

Another photo of Mars released on October 7 shows Mars from an altitude of 41,350 miles (66,543 km) and features the Elysian region rich in ancient volcanoes. Credit: ISRO
Dark region towards south of the cloud formation is Elysium – the second largest volcanic province on Mars. Credit: ISRO

MOM transmitted a more recent photo on October 7 taken of a different hemisphere of Mars showing the Elysium region known for its many ancient volcanoes. To help you appreciate how many volcanoes dot the area I’ve included a separate, color-coded image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Mars’ volcanoes – seen in white and brown tones here – range in age from more than 3.7 billion years to as young as 500 million. It may still be active today. This color-coded map shows the Elysium region and the location of the first spacecraft from Earth to successfully land on the Red Planet – NASA’s Viking 1 mission which touched down July 20, 1976. Credit: NASA

What’s that musket ball doing on Mars?

Certainly catches the eye, doesn’t it? The spherical rock was photographed on September 11, 2014 by the Curiosity rover. It’s about a half-inch across and according to NASA scientists probably a concretion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It looks ever so much like an early 18th century musket ball, but the chances of soldiers traipsing around Mars a couple hundred years ago seems unlikely. Even if it’s the god of war. NASA’s Curiosity rover snapped this photo during a routine round of landscape imaging on September 11th.

There’s nothing like seeing a near-perfect sphere on another planet to make you sit up and wonder. First off, it’s not as big as you might think, measuring just under 1/2 (1 cm) in diameter or about the size of a marble. Second, we’ve seen spheres on Mars before – zillions of them!

Tiny “blueberries” in the Martian soil near the rock outcrop at Meridiani Planum called Stone Mountain. While other ideas have been proposed for their formation, water trickling through rocks to build concretions remains a strong possibility. Credit: NASA/JPL

The Mars Opportunity rover found countless spheres, nicknamed Martian “blueberries”, during  its exploration of Meridiani Planum. If you could hunker down for a look, they’d remind you of BBs from a  BB gun with diameters of .16 to .24 inches (4-6 mm). The spheres contain large amounts of hematite, an iron-bearing mineral, that most likely originated as concretions in layers of sedimentary rock that have since eroded away.

Groundwater moving through porous rocks can dissolve iron-containing minerals which then precipitate out as small, compact spheres. Concretions on Earth, such as Moqui balls and Kansas Pop Rocks, are considerably larger than the Martian variety, but that may be due to the different environments of the two planets. 

So our mystery sphere is probably a larger-than-usual concretion, freed from its rock stratum by wind and perhaps water erosion and now served up on a plate for Curiosity’s and eyes.

To view more pictures of the weird sphere, click HERE and scroll down toward the bottom for the Mastcam color images.

Planets, moon gather at dusk / Curiosity chews into Mt. Sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MOM sends first pictures from Mars, says ‘the view is nice’

Tweet from India’s Mars Orbiter upon its safe entry into orbit around Mars September 24, 2014. Credit: ISRO

For less than it cost to make the movie “Gravity”, India built and flew a probe to Mars. AND they did it on their first attempt to reach the planet. About half of all probes sent to Mars have either crashed or gone off course. The planet’s known for its bad mojo.

India’s maiden Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to the Red Planet achieved orbit Wednesday, making it only the fourth country to successfully reach the Red Planet. The U.S., Europe and former Soviet Union have all sent probes to the planet beginning in the early 1960s.

MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) now joins one European and three U.S. orbiters in a globe-encircling net of unblinking eyes on the Martian landscape and atmosphere below. You’ll recall the NASA’s MAVEN atmospheric probe only arrived last Sunday. It’s still in the checkout and orbit-shaping phase. In a few weeks, MAVEN will begin “tasting” the Martian air looking for clues of the planet’s missing water and thicker atmosphere it once possessed in abundance more than 3 billion years ago.

MOM tweeted this view of the surface of Mars today, adding “The view up here is nice.” Click to check out the probe’s light-hearted Twitter feed. Credit: ISRO

India’s total mission cost came to $74 million dollars, some $26 million less than the estimated price to film “Gravity”. MAVEN came in at $671 million, nearly 10 times as much.

Despite the Indian Space Research Organization’s frugality, critics in the home country have complained that the money could be better spent on feeding the poor and other projects. At the same time, the Indian people must feel justly proud today for this amazing accomplishment.

Indeed, that’s part of the mission’s purpose – to demonstrate that the county has developed technological prowess in the field of space exploration. All the instruments on board were built in India, including the cameras to photograph and map the surface, sensors to detect methane (an organic compound found in small quantities on Mars that may or may not be connected to potential microbes) and spectrometers to map minerals on the surface.

Photo of the planet and its dusty orange-brown atmosphere. Says MOM: ” I’m getting better at it. No pressure.” Gosh, the spacecraft even cracks jokes! Credit: ISRO

The Mars Orbiter Mission, also known informally as Mangalyaan after the Sanskrit words “Mangala” for Mars and “yana” for craft. MOM will orbit and study Mars for about six months until it runs out of fuel it needs to maintain orbit.

The folks behind the Twitter feed for MOM post updates with a light touch as you can tell from the probe’s first-person conversational style. This people-friendly approach is a great way to involve everyone in the mission. NASA does it too. Matter of fact, when MOM entered orbit, Curiosity tweeted: “Namaste! (Hindi for “greetings) Congratulations to @ISRO and India’s first interplanetary mission upon achieving Mars orbit.”