Phobos-Grunt cracks up over South Pacific

Approximate reentry point of the Russian Mars probe at 11:45 a.m. CST today.

Time for a collective sigh of relief. The Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft crashed down 775 miles west of Wellington Island (just west of Chile) in the South Pacific at 11:45 a.m. CST today according to Russia’s Novosti news service, where you can read the full story. Any surviving fragments are likely chillin’ on the ocean floor.

Perhaps some materials were able to float and may be bobbing around in the waves. Stay tuned to see if anything washes up.

Russian Mars probe demise imminent

This map shows the expected reentry location as predicted by the Russian Federated Space Agency in the South Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile. The red dots represent amateur satellite watchers. Credit: Screen grab from Simone Corbellini's Visual SAT-flare Tracker 3-D

A satellite observer in Tulsa, Oklahoma saw the Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt fly over last night, so it’s still up there. Not for long though. Here are estimates from several agencies and individuals on when the craft is expected to break up and burn as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere today. All times are CST and were updated at 11:26 a.m. January 15. At this point, the U.S. and Canada and much of the rest of the world won’t be under the fall path; it appears the craft could reenter over the South Pacific, South America or southern Europe.

** UPDATE: This just in at 12:45 p.m. Phobos-Grunt crashed down 775 miles west of Wellington Island in the South Pacific at 11:45 a.m. CST today according to Russia’s Novosti news service, where you can read the full story. We can all take a deep breath – any surviving fragments are now sitting on the ocean floor.

* Russian Aerospace Defense Forces – 11:51 a.m.
* The Aerospace Corporation — 11:52 a.m. +/- 20 minutes
* Harold Zimmer (another amateur satellite watcher): 12:02 p.m. +/- 40 minutes
* Russian Federated Space Agency ROSCOSMOS  — 12:08 p.m. +/- 26 minutes
* Ted Molzcan (noted amateur satellite watcher) — 12:11 p.m. +/- 20 minutes
* Ted Molzcan (2nd estimate using a different program) — 1:53 p.m. +/- 40 minutes

Depending on which prediction comes true, the probe could land in a variety of places. Russia has it in the South Pacific, Zimmer places it in the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil, the Aerospace Corporation off the coast of Chile and so on. If you’d like to see all the potential fall spots based on this list and other estimates, please head over to the Visual SAT-flare Tracker 3-D site and click the red-underlined reeentry predictions link. Remember these are predictions. Depending on exactly how it interacts with the atmosphere as it descends, the craft could reenter on the other side of the planet. I’ll have more updates as news arrives.

The moon is in conjunction with Saturn tomorrow morning January 16. The map shows the sky facing south around 6 a.m. local time. Created with Stellarium

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that tomorrow morning at dawn the last quarter moon will stop beside bright Spica in Virgo and the planet Saturn. If you haven’t seen Saturn yet this winter, this is an easy way to get there. Use the map at right to help you step over to the trapezoid of stars that form the little constellation of Corvus the Crow.

Time’s up for Phobos-Grunt, re-entry expected Sunday

The waning gibbous moon joins Mars tonight in the southeastern sky. This map shows the sky around 11:30 p.m. local time. Created with Stellarium

Late tonight look to the east to see the moon line up below the Red Planet. Binoculars will reveal nice crater detail on the moon but don’t expect them to show much on Mars. Being a small planet only about twice the size of the moon, Mars requires a telescope to see any surface detail. With a magnification of about 70x, you might just see the planet’s tiny white polar cap. 200x will nail it as long as the air is reasonably steady.

While NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory continues on it path toward an August touchdown, the Russian Phobos-Grunt space probe, which has been stuck in Earth-orbit purgatory, will finally come flaming down through the atmosphere sometime this Sunday January 15. The exact time and location of re-entry aren’t known just yet due to uncertainties in its orbit and the upper atmosphere, but it’s expected to land in the Indian Ocean. For now. The satellite could still land anywhere between 51.4 degrees north and 51.4 degrees south latitude. I’ll keep you posted with updates through the weekend. You can also see its current ground tracks (areas it’s passing over) by clicking HERE.

**UPDATE 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 15: Latest reentry times HERE.

Phobos-Grunt, launched last November 8 by the Russian Space Agency ROSCOSMOS, failed to fire the rockets that would have set it on a course for Mars’ moon Phobos. Its main objective was to land there, drill up a rock sample and return it to Earth for study.

A mockup of the Phobos-Grunt lander. Credit: CNES

One of the concerns out there is the ship’s 8.3 tons of highly toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel. ROSCOSMOS predicts it all to burn up high in the atmosphere before any pieces of the probe make it to the ground. Some 20-30 pieces with a total weight of about 440 lbs. are expected to survive the fiery descent. Fully-fueled, Phobos-Grunt weighs 29,100 lbs.

Keep an eye to the sky on Sunday and we’ll be in touch. In the meantime, if you have a few extra minutes and would like to learn more about all 41 past missions to Mars, the current Curiosity mission and two more in the works, check out the Planetary Society’s Missions to Mars site.

Saturn-moon conjunction plus Comet Lovejoy’s a joy to behold

The two-tailed Comet Lovejoy photographed remotely via computer control early yesterday morning from Malargue, Argentina by the Czech team of Jakub Cerny, Jan Ebr, Martin Jelinek, Petr Kubanek, Michael Prouza and Michal Ringes. The sun was just below the horizon when the picture was taken.

I just had to share this awesome comet photo taken yesterday morning. What a thing of beauty, as sleek as a tailfin on a ’59 Cadillac. A few amateur astronomers in Brazil and Australia are seeing the comet just before sunrise using binoculars. They report a tiny, bright head or coma and short, thin tail.  It’s currently around magnitude -1 or about as bright as Sirius.

The waning crescent moon is in conjunction with the planet Saturn tomorrow morning Dec. 20. This map shows the sky around 6 a.m.

Planning on being up tomorrow morning around 6? Take a look out the window toward the southeast and you’ll see the moon in conjunction with the planet Saturn with the bright star Spica nearby. Saturn now rises around 2:30 a.m. and is well up in the early dawn sky. Its brightest moon Titan, easily visible in any telescope, will lie just to the northwest of the planet.

Dione photographed by Cassini during last week's close pass. Beyond Dione's shadowed edge, the smaller moon Mimas orbits in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

While we’re on the topic, the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn made its closest pass yet of Dione (dye-OH-nee), a 697-mile-diameter moon with a thick crust of water ice, last Monday, coming within just 62 miles of its surface. This is one of many photos taken of the encounter. Click HERE to see more. The craters you see were made in ice, which at Saturn’s distance is as hard as rock.

If you put on a coat and step outside tomorrow, in addition to the nice conjunction, you can spot both the Chinese space station precursor satellite Tiangong 1 and the stubbornly uncommunicative Phobos-Grunt probe stuck in Earth orbit. Tiangong 1’s pass is a bright one; P-G’s is fainter but as long as you’re already outside, why not try anyway? Phobos-Grunt is expected to burn up in the atmosphere when it drops out  oforbit on January 11 plus or minus five days.

* Tiangong 1 starting at 5:57 a.m. when it leaves Earth’s shadow about two fists high in the southwestern sky traveling east. Passes beneath Saturn and the moon. Maximum brightness 1.5 – pretty bright!
* Phobos-Grunt spacecraft at 6:34 a.m. on a parallel track in the south but one fist higher up. Passes above Saturn and the moon. Maximum brightness 2.8.

The times above are for the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, please log in to Heavens Above or key in your zip code at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby site.

I couldn’t resist adding a couple more photos of Comet Lovejoy. Two were taken by spacecraft while the third was made early this morning from Argentina. Enjoy!

Lovejoy can be seen in the lower left in this visible light photo taken by the Japanese Hinode spacecraft. Credit: JAXA/LMSAL

The comet's tail wriggles in this 4-frame sequence made in ultraviolet light by the STEREO-B spacecraft as the comet hurried away from the sun several days ago. The strange wriggles might be connected to magnetic fields in the sun's corona. Credit: NASA

An evocative image of Comet Lovejoy's tail rising shortly before the sun this morning Dec. 19. It was taken by the same Czech team described above using only a 200mm telephoto lens.

Moon and Jupiter delight plus how to see a sick satellite

A gargoyle carved into shape of an American Indian casts a shadow looking toward the moon late yesterday afternoon from downtown Duluth, Minn. Details: 400mm lens at f/32. Photo: Bob King

You never know where the moon’s going to pop up. Yesterday afternoon it played hide and seek with the buildings downtown as I walked around looking for a suitable place to frame a bit of heaven and earth. Both tonight and tomorrow night the waxing gibbous moon will be near the planet Jupiter high in the southeastern sky. The combination of bright moon and bright planet will definitely catch your eye.

The moon passes just a few degrees from Jupiter tonight and Tuesday night. Created with Stellarium

If you have binoculars, point them at Jupiter and look for three of its moon strung out to the upper left (east) of the planet. Telescope users can watch a pretty shadow transit of Io between 8-10 p.m. CST. Look for an inky black dot along the edge of the planet’s South Equatorial Belt slowly moving from east to west above the planet’s cloud tops. Io itself may also be visible to the west of the shadow if the air is very steady and you’re using at least a 6-inch telescope.

The layout of Jupiter's four brightest moons this evening.

It’s always good to get the ground truth about something we hope to see in the sky. I consider it essential for this blog, since we’re always talking about stuff that’s up there. Case in point is the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe still stranded in orbit. I’ve been waiting for a clear night and a bright pass of the craft for more than a week.

Last night it finally happened. I used the prediction from the Heavens Above website and the satellite was right on time, on track and matched its predicted brightness as it flew over the front yard. What surprised me was how fast the probe moved; it reminded me of a rock flying through the air. The speed was indicative of the P-G’s altitude which varies from 124 to 311 miles. When passing a locale on the lower, closer end of its orbit that thing can move! I also detected a bit of yellow-orange color from the gold foil or mylar insulation that covers the craft.

It was still twilight when Phobos-Grunt passed by last night, so its track (at top) is faint in the bright blue sky during the 30-second time exposure. Photo: Bob King

Phobos-Grunt was faint during first half of its track in the western sky, but as it traveled east and the angle between it and the sun widened, it steadily brightened. Sort of a “full moon” effect as applied to satellites. At best P-G shown brighter than the Big Dipper stars and was very easy to see.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you give it a try soon before the probe burns up in the atmosphere during re-entry sometime early next year. Although I’m sure the engineers in Russia involved in the probe are pained and embarrassed by P-G’s failure to fire rockets and head for Mars, when it comes to satellites, one’s troubles are in full view by anyone on the planet who cares to look. As it flew by, I was sad at a lost opportunity.

Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands used a telescope and tracking mount/software to capture this closeup image of the Russian probe during a pass on November 29. Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

If you’d like to see the probe, log in to Heavens Above, select your city and click on the Phobos-Grunt link. You’ll be shown a table of pass times and other information about direction, altitude and brightness. Remember that the smaller the magnitude number, the brighter the pass. Anything from magnitude 2 and under is easily visible. Click on the time link to go to a very handy map showing the satellite path in the sky, and use that as your reference when you’re outside. You can also use Visual SAT-Flare Tracker 3D or CalSky. All show similiar times and maps.

I’ve listed a few passes below for the Duluth, Minn. region. Bring binoculars if possible. With them, you should easily see P-G’s red hue.

* Tonight beginning at 5:04 p.m. in twilight. This pass is almost identical to the one I saw last night. You’ll start to see it at about 5:06 p.m. when it’s just below the North Star and moving quickly eastward (to the right as you face north). Maximum brightness of magnitude 1.8.
* Tuesday at 4:57 p.m. again in twilight which makes the early portion of the pass difficult to see. It will be brightest at 1st magnitude (!) when it passes through the W of Cassiopeia high in the northeastern sky around 4:59 p.m.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at this coming Saturday’s total eclipse of the moon visible from much of the U.S., Asia, Australia and Eastern Europe. I’ll have maps and a helpful guide.

We’re on our way to Mars!

The Mars mission rockets skyward after this morning's successful launch. Credit: NASA

Curiosity Rover is on its way to Mars! The Mars Science Laboratory mission launched successfully right on schedule this morning at 9:02 a.m. CST. The Atlas V rocket sent the probe a parking orbit around Earth; a second firing of the upper stage then propelled the probe on its 352 million mile journey to Mars. It will arrive August 6, 2012, enter the Martian atmosphere and deploy parachutes and a special descent stage that will gently lower the rover onto the surface.

The rover begins its studies a short distance from a mountain in the center of Gale Crater in the planet’s equatorial region. There it will zap rocks with lasers and scoop up samples of soil and analyze them in a miniature laboratory looking for water and organic compounds.

Mars on Nov. 18 shows the dark, Africa-shaped marking called Syrtis Major (right of center) and the North Polar cap made of mostly "dry ice" or frozen CO2. Credit: Damian Peach

During its nearly two-year prime mission after landing, Curiosity will use 10 science instruments  “to investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life,” according to NASA.  Mission control is in communication with the probe. Over the next few weeks they’ll be checking out the instruments and performing a planned course correction maneuver. For more about the mission, click HERE. You’ll find additional updates HERE.

Meanwhile the Russian Mars craft Phobos-Grunt remains stuck in Earth orbit with only sporadic communications with ground control. No word yet on why the rockets that would have sent it to Mars failed to fire. The Phobos mission window has closed, but there is hope the probe can be re-purposed for another mission.

The tender lunar crescent and planet Venus this evening. Created with Stellarium

We’ve got a rainy-snowy day here in Duluth, Minnesota, but if it were clear tonight, I’d be watching the very thin crescent moon woo Venus in the southwestern sky at dusk. Let’s hope you have better weather. Look very low in the southwest about 15 minutes or so after sunset. Once you’ve found the moon, Venus is just a few degrees to the left or east. The pairing will be even closer for folks living on the West Coast and Hawaii.

Mars Science Lab mission blast-off and rocket separation

Comet Garradd still going strong; Russian Mars probe contacted!

Comet Garradd on November 19 shows a classic dual tail. The longer, blue streak is the ion tail. The dust tail is shorter and glows pale yellow from reflected sunlight. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Remember Comet Elenin? Hopes were high it would become the best comet of 2011, but instead it dissolved into a cloud of dust. Amateur astronomers are still tracking its fading remnants as the comet passes the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus this week.

Use this finder chart to track down Comet Garradd. It inches slowly northward only a few degrees in the coming month. The map shows Hercules at around 6 p.m. at the end of evening twilight in the western sky. M13 is a bright globular cluster and stars are shown to 7th magnitude. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software.

The brightest comet of the year never received the dire publicity that stuck with Elenin to the end. Comet Garradd was well-placed and easily visible in binoculars this summer as it crossed the Milky Way en route to its current residence in the sprawling constellation Hercules. Underdog Garradd remains a 7th magnitude fuzzball in binoculars this month. I looked it up recently on one of the few clear nights we’ve had in November and was thrilled to see two tails sticking out of the comet’s bright, fuzzy head or coma. Both show wonderfully in Michael Jaeger’s photo and were just as pretty in my 15-inch scope though much more subtle.

Comet Garradd is 195 million miles away or about twice our Earth’s distance from the sun. That gap will close to 118 million miles by early next March, when the comet will brighten by a magnitude, placing it within naked-eye range from the countryside. Take a look now before it drops too low in the western sky and the moon returns. The best viewing time is right at the end of evening twilight as soon as the sky gets dark.

Binoculars still show a soft, puffy glow and perhaps a hint of a tail. A modest-sized telescope will show the dust tail and maybe even a hint of the ion tail. Dust tails are formed of smoke-sized particles of dust embedded in cometary ice. Heat from the sun vaporizes the ice and releases the particles which fall behind the comet in the form of a tail measuring between 600,000 and 6 million miles long. Comet dust reflects light just like good old house dust or cigarette smoke. Ion tails fluoresce blue when ultraviolet light in sunlight breaks down carbon monoxide jetted by the comet and are often much longer – up to 100 million miles.

The European Space Agency's Perth, Australia radio telescope that contacted Russia's Phobos-Grunt craft yesterday. Credit: ESA

Just got the news this morning that contact was re-established with the Phobos-Grunt mission that’s been stuck circling the Earth since its November 8th launch. You might recall the probe’s engines failed to fire and send the ship to Mars. Yesterday at 2:25 p.m. CST, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) tracking station at Perth, Australia, picked up a radio signal from the probe. ESA is now working with engineers in Russia on how best to maintain communications with the spacecraft. Another contact will be attempted tonight.

There’s no information on what might have gone wrong with Phobos-Grunt or how it might be remedied. If engineers can establish a solid communications link with the craft and learn how to correct the engine-firing problem, it might still be sent on its Mars-Phobos mission, but probably not anytime soon. The next launch window opens in 2013. Full story HERE.

A well-narrated and illustrated summary of how we’ll study Gale Crater with the Curiosity Rover.
Meanwhile the Mars Science Lab Mission (Curiosity Rover), which was originally scheduled for a Nov. 25 launch, has been delayed one day to replace a battery on the rocket. Blastoff is scheduled for 9:02 a.m. Central time this Saturday. Click this Mars Exploration Family Portrait by Jason Davis for a really cool graphic showing all missions to Mars to date.

Beauty at dawn plus tips for happier satellite watching

An aureole of light surrounds Jupiter as it shines through low clouds last night north of Duluth, Minn. Photo: Bob King

The ailing Russian Phobos probe was a no-show for me last night. You may have had the same luck. Unless satellite flyby engines are updated with the latest orbital changes, the times and paths listed aren’t always reliable. This morning I posted a request to the visual satellite observers group known as Seesat-l for a more reliable, accurate source of satellite predictions. Several people got back to me with two other online flyby calculators that look like excellent, up-to-date tools. One of the easiest to use is CalSky.

When I clicked on the link, it instantly knew my location and plotted a list of Phobos-Grunt passes for the upcoming week. Talk about effortless! Included for each day are links to the satellite’s ground track (overflight path) and a star chart to show its path through the sky.

The second is a very nice, interactive site created by Simone Corbellini called Visual Sat-Flare Tracker 3D. Once you key in your location, it shows predicted passes for the next 24 hours. The big star map is a big plus! Try them out and let me know how they work. And if you have questions on terminology, etc., just use the Comment section in the blog to ask for help.

Last night’s stars didn’t sparkle any less despite Phobos-Grunt’s absence. The fresh snow cover added cheer to the darkness as the Big Dipper settled in for a nap behind the leafless trees. The familiar constellation ebbs lowest in late November and for many disappears altogether until the wheeling of the Earth brings it back into view in the early morning hours. In the south, Jupiter rose to dominate the sky until clouds attempted to quench its radiance. They never succeeded. The planet blasted through even when all the other stars were gone. No one puts Jupiter down.

Look low in the southeastern sky about an hour or so before sunrise Tuesday morning for the delightful trio of moon, Spica and Saturn. Created with Stellarium

Tomorrow morning there will be a very attractive gathering of the thin crescent moon, Virgo’s brightest star Spica and the planet Saturn. If you’ve had any difficulty finding the planet after its recent emergence into the November dawn sky, this is your chance to see it with ease. The map shows the sky around 6 a.m. or about and an hour and 15 minutes before sunrise. Telescope owners are encouraged as always to tote our their instruments and check out one of nature’s more unique creations – the rings of Saturn. I can never seem to get enough of them. The dim, earth-lit portion of the moon to the right of the sun-illuminated crescent should be especially striking. Binoculars will allow you to see darkened lunar seas and even the shapes of several larger craters.

Doomed Mars probe may buzz over your town tonight

Two paths are shown for the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft on an all-sky map. The yellow path is for tonight's pass between 6:14 and 6:17 p.m. The green track shows tomorrow's 6:12 to 6:15 p.m. pass. The probe disappears into Earth's shadow at the end of each track. Created with Stellarium

Just a reminder that the Russian Phobos-Grunt space probe, once headed for Mars but still stuck in Earth orbit, will be making good passes tonight and tomorrow night for the Duluth, Minn. region. Just a reminder that the Russian Phobos-Grunt space probe, once headed for Mars but still stuck in Earth orbit, will be making good passes tonight and tomorrow night for the Duluth, Minn. region. Tonight’s appearance is the brighter, easier one to see. Heavens-Above predicts the spacecraft could reach nearly first magnitude this evening or brighter than the Big Dipper stars.

Watch carefully for any unusual changes in brightness that might indicate it’s tumbling. Phobos-Grunt will first appear in the southwest at 6:14 p.m. Central time tonight Sunday (6:12 p.m. on Monday) and move northeast, taking about 3 minutes to follow the tracks shown in the diagram above. One caveat: because the craft’s orbit is slowly changing, the track and times could be off some. Take a look and let us know what you see – I’ll be out there tonight, too. For times and maps for your city, please log in to Heavens Above.

Aurora and flowing water meet in this photo taken earlier this month from Norway. Click to enlarge. Credit: Ole Salomonsen

Earlier this month champion aurora photographer Ole Salomonsen of Norway set up his camera in a river to capture this beautiful picture of the northern lights. He held his tripod as hard as he could to keep it stable against the flowing water and used a mix of moonlight and a touch of LED lighting to brighten up the foreground. Key to getting a photo like this, besides being constantly on the alert for auroras, is taking the time to find a picturesque setting and using a fast (sensitive to dim light) wide angle lens. Ole uses a 14-24mm Nikon lens on a high-end Canon camera body. In this image, he’s closer to the wider or 14mm range.

We’ve entered a quiet time for auroras, but you can use the lull to scout around your neighborhood or town for a spot that would make a fine setting once the lights return. To see more of Ole’s photos, check out his Flikr page.

And don’t forget, tonight the eclipsing variable star Algol hits minimum at 6:02 p.m. Central time. It will start the evening dim (for the Eastern, Midwest and Mountain states) and then gradually brighten back to maximum by around 9 p.m. Click HERE for a finder map and to learn more about Algol.

Phobos monolith mystery, plus a spine-tingling Mars landing

Breakdown of the Phobos-Grunt (soil) probe. In addition to the lander, a Chinese satellite would be deployed to orbit and study the planet Mars. Credit: IKI

It’s been over a week and Russia’s Phobos-Grunt space mission is still stuck in Earth orbit. So close yet so far. Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, said the craft is in control of its flight and keeping a stable orientation to the sun, allowing it generate electricity. Unfortunately, no one on the ground can “talk” to the probe and tell it to fire the two rockets that would send it on its intended mission to Mars and its largest moon Phobos.

When scheduling an interplanetary mission launch, scientists take advantage of favorable alignments between Earth and its target. For Mars, these “windows” occur every 26 months and last just several weeks. This mission window will close in early December. After that, it’s a what-goes-up-must-come-down scenario with the craft expected to burn up in the atmosphere sometime in December or early January. Not exactly the gift from Santa we were expecting under the Christmas tree.

The re-entry capsule that will deliver Phobos soil back to Earth. Credit: TsAGI

At 29,000 lbs., Phobos-Grunt is lot of material, but its fate will likely be the same as that of the recent UARS (Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite) and German X-ray satellite ROSAT. Expect it to burn up, fuel and all, in the atmosphere somewhere over the ocean. One part is almost certain to survive however – the sample return capsule intended to deliver 7 ounces of Phobos’ soil back to Earth in 2014.

If the probe can’t fulfill its mission, we’ll miss out on some incredible science, photography and one little curiosity. Ever heard of the Phobos monolith? Some fringe sites portray it as actual monolith akin to the one in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, while others believe it to be a pyramid. As usual, imagination sometimes gets the better of us. The object is about 15 feet across and somewhat fuzzy – especially if you zoom in – which makes it that much easier to picture it as something it isn’t.

The Phobos 'monolith' at left. At right is another section of the original image that shows additional boulders casting long shadows on the surface of the moon. Credit: NASA

The photos above were taken by Mars Global Surveyor and are parts of a much larger image. When I saw it initially, I thought the ‘monolith’ looked like a big rock partially buried in the moon’s dusty soil. To prove the likelihood of this hypothesis, I explored the entire image and wasn’t surprised to find a smattering of additional boulders strewn about the landscape. Except for their varying sizes, they look remarkably like the ‘monolith’. So we either have multiple monoliths or – much more likely – boulders that landed at various points on the surface following an ancient impact on the moon.

Click on the panel above to see the original large image file and have a look around for yourself. The exercise will show you that it’s important to get your hands on the original data when dealing with fantastic conjectures about this or that celestial body or phenomenon. Those with an agenda will often crop or enhance photos to lead you down a spurious path.

Homestake vein appears to be a harder layer of rock that may have formed in a hydro-thermal process involving water. Credit: NASA/JPL

Despite the potential setback for Phobos exploration, the Mars rover Opportunity has been crunching its way across Mars for nearly 8 years, racking up 21.25 miles on its odometer. The rover is presently overwintering near the lip of Endeavour Crater , where the science team is investigating a curious vein of rock named Homestake using instruments on the rover’s arm.

Three generations of Mars rovers. Sojourner, the first and smallest, explored Mars in 1997. At 2 feet long, it's tiny in comparison to Curiosity. The new rover is designed for a 2-year primary mission and 3 to 12 miles of travel inside the 96-mile-diameter Gale Crater.

If all goes well, Mars studies will take an enormous leap at 9:25 a.m. (CST) next Friday November 25 when the Curiosity rover launches atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Due to land on Mars next August, the car-sized rover will photograph, sample and study layers of clay and sulfate-rich minerals on the slopes of a 3-mile-high mountain in Gale Crater. Both kinds of materials form in a water-rich environment. While not designed to detect life, Curiosity will be able to determine whether Mars was once conducive to the formation of life based on what it finds in those layers.

I’m saving the best for last. The manner in which the rover will descend to the surface using the ‘sky crane’ technique is unique to say the least. Rather than describe it, I’d like you to watch the video. The simulation is so realistic I found it positively thrilling and think you will, too.

After you’re finished with that one and crave more, here’s another. It begins at Earth and includes sound effects you wouldn’t naturally hear, because the craft is above the atmosphere. Once in the Martian atmosphere, the sounds are accurate. This video takes you a step further to show how Curiosity will drill into a rock and analyze its composition. Don’t forget to hit the full-screen button and turn up the sound. Can you think of a better way to put your tax dollars to work?