October 2010 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
First, my apologies to readers that this month’s column is late … In light of the
short horizon, let’s look at some news items from astronomy and space exploration.
Next month we’ll resume our look at stellar evolution.
One of the Mars rovers (Opportunity) is going strong, over six years into its original
90 Martian day mission! Its twin (Spirit) has been hibernating since the onset of
Martian winter, and may be incapacitated due to a lack of power through the cold
season. You recall that it got stuck in soft sand and wound up resting on a rock.
Controllers are still monitoring, just in case it charges its batteries sufficient
to call home.
The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has been officially retired, as
of 6 October. This satellite was launched in 2001, and over its lifetime has given
us the most detailed view of the cosmic microwave background … essentially the residual
radiation from the big bang and the beginning of the universe itself. Analysis of
its data stream allows us to set the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years,
with a precision about 1%. It is now in a stable parking orbit around the Sun. Ave
The Moon is not our destination, at least not in the near future for American astronauts.
The Constellation program has been restructured by the Obama administration. The
mission is now to build a “heavy lift” launch vehicle and move on to explore beyond
the Earth-Moon system. Maybe a “near Earth asteroid.” Maybe on to orbit Mars. The
Space Shuttle is to be retired, and Americans will depend on Russian spacecraft
to get to the International Space Station until and unless private launch capability
is developed. As columnist David Brooks points out in a New York Times column on
October 12, we seem to have gone from a country that can go to the Moon to one that
can’t. And, it’s been our choice.
Lunar phases for October: New Moon on the 7th, at 2:44 pm; First
Quarter on the 14th, at 5:27 pm; Full Moon on the 22nd at
9:37 pm; Last Quarter on the 30th, at 8:46 am.
Jupiter is probably still the best target for planet watchers this month. It’s already
above the horizon at sunset, and remains visible for most of the night. Look after
sunset to east-southeast. That bright “star” about 20 degrees above the horizon
is Jupiter … it’s the largest planet in the solar system and is still relatively
close, so a telescopic or binocular view will give you a good look at the gas giant
and its moons.
At mid-month, dawn finds Saturn low to the east, but as we approach November, it
will rise earlier and appear higher, reaching 25 degrees above the east-southeast
horizon by month’s end.
Evening twilight finds Mars low in the southwest, only about 12 degrees above the
horizon. Be careful to distinguish it from the red star Antares (which means “against
Mars”) which is also in that direction. Mars will be the brighter of the two.
Looking overhead, about two hours after sunset, finds the familiar constellation
Cygnus near zenith. The bright star Deneb, marking the tail of the swan, is to the
northeast. Albireo, marking the head is at the southwest end of the cross-shaped
asterism. The Milky Way arcs overhead from northeast to southwest, passing directly