February 2004 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
NASA appears to have dodged the jinx which doomed two of every
three Mars probes. As I write this, the British probe Beagle 2 is
probably lost … there has been no telemetry with the lander
since it was scheduled to plunge into the Martian atmosphere. The
European Mars Express made a successful orbit insertion, and has
already begun returning science data and images. Most exciting,
though not terribly surprising, was the direct observation with
its infrared camera of water vapor in the atmosphere over the polar
The twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have both made successful
landings protected by their airbag systems. Spirit is having some
software difficulty related to managing the computer's "flash
memory" but controllers are confident of recovering most if
not all functionality. Opportunity has just landed and, other than
jaw-dropping images of bedrock in the crater where it bounced to
a stop, it's too early to draw any serious science conclusions.
We'll have much more to say in the coming months.
In 1989, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first Apollo
landing on the Moon (Apollo 11), then President George H. W. Bush
declared plans to return to the Moon, and then journey on to Mars.
Within a year that vision's $400 billion projected cost made the
whole project fade quietly away. In the run up to his State of the
Union address, now President George W. Bush has directed that NASA
redirect its planning to … return to the Moon and then journey
to Mars. With something akin to smoke and mirrors, he projects that
it will cost us far less than the projected cost for his father's
proposal, and puts off serious expenditures until well after he
is out of office (whatever the outcome of next November's balloting).
Some funding will come from the retirement of the remaining shuttles
after completion of the International Space Station in 2010. Other
new moneys will be added only slowly, as little as a billion dollars
over the next five years. One major casualty of this new vision
is the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA has cancelled plans to visit
and refurbish the Hubble next year, claiming safety and cost issues.
(A servicing mission costs about $1 billion.) $200 million has already
been spent on new hardware, which will now have no application.
Another $300 million, at minimum, will be needed to figure out how
to de-orbit the telescope safely, probably by attaching a remote-controlled
retrorocket to drop it into the ocean. Instead of its intended retirement
early in the next decade, it could be another piece of orbiting
space junk within two years.
Lunar phases for February: Full Moon on the 6th, Last Quarter on
the 13th; New Moon on the 20th, First Quarter on the 27th.
February is another good month for evening planet watchers. Venus
will emerge from the southwestern evening twilight after sunset.
Look for it a bit less than 35 degrees off the horizon at the beginning
of the month, and appearing progressively higher by month's end,
when it will set nearly three hours after the Sun. Mars begins the
month about 63 degrees above the southern horizon, and remains visible
until setting around 11:30. Saturn is visible to the east after
sunset, climbing from about 35 degrees above the horizon. Jupiter
rises to the east earlier each evening. It clears the horizon after
8:30 as we begin February, it will rise as the Sun sets by the first
of March. Mercury is low to the southeast at sunrise, but you'll
have difficulty finding it through haze, light pollution, and ground
Two hours after sunset at mid-month, the sky is split from northwest
to southeast by the Milky Way. Almost directly overhead lies the
constellation Auriga, with the Twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux
just to the east. Toward the eastern we see the bright star Regulus
in Leo just rising. High to the south you'll have little difficulty
identifying Orion by the three bright stars forming his "belt."
The bright red star above and to the left, on the "shoulder"
is called Betelgeuse … It's a red giant, swollen to a size
which would engulf the orbit of Mars as it adjusts to running out
of fuel at its core. The Sun will share that fate in another 5 billion
years or so! Your eye will also note the Pleiades cluster above
and to the right of Orion. This relatively nearby group of stars
are about 10 million years old, and they lie a mere 400 light years
distant. Back in Orion, below the belt lies the Orion Nebula, illuminated
by the Trapezium Cluster … these stars are truly young, a mere
1 million years old but nearly 1500 light years from Earth. Beyond
Orion lies a giant, opaque cloud of gas and dust several million
times the mass of our Sun. The Orion Nebula is on the near edge
of the cloud, one of many active star forming "nurseries"
in our Galaxy. To the northeast you'll see the familiar inverted
bowl of the "big dipper." To the northwest, on a clear
moonless night, look for the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant
object visible without a telescope. Like our own Milky Way, this
galaxy is a flattened disk of some hundred billion stars.
For your own monthly star chart, you can direct your web browser
You will find extensive descriptions of what's worth looking for,
and you can download and print a single copy for your personal use.