That was no crash! The NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft successfully landed on the asteroid 433 Eros on 12 February, much to the delight of project scientists. Solar panels continue to provide adequate power, though communication is restricted to the relatively slow "low-gain antenna" - the spacecraft is sitting on the high-gain antenna! On its way in, it returned images of the surface, the last on able to discern objects about the size of a golf ball. Data collection from the gamma ray spectrometer was extended about 10 days, to further analyze the composition of the surface. As we told you last month, the craft was never designed for a landing - this was an attempt to squeeze a last bit of science from the last few kilograms of maneuvering fuel. As you read this, the craft has been "turned off" - but it was fun while it lasted!
The demise of the 15 year old Russian space station MIR has been delayed about a week from the planned 6 March de-orbit - as of this writing, no definite time has been announced, but expect it to splash into the South Pacific by mid-month.
Kudos to NASA's most recent mission of Atlantis, which successfully attached the Destiny module to space station Alpha. (The crew so dubbed it, and media seem to have accepted the naming, despite NASA Administrator Goldin's insistence that "it's not theirs to name.")
We started in December looking at a number of web sites that might be of interest to astronomy and space buffs. One that we listed was a site for tracking satellites, so you could identify that moving light you just saw. The site has since moved to http://www.heavens-above.com - but, with the move came more features. Check it out! Also, several readers called to say that the "bad astronomy" site was not working. It's back! Phil Plait is a self-described "astronomer and curmudgeon" whose site is dedicated to both informing about good science, and debunking bad science. Check it out at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/.
Since the early days of human space flight, astronauts have been snapping high quality images of their home planet.
Want to know when the Sun sets or rises from your favorite vacation spot? How about calculating the precise phase of the Moon, or whether that planet you're looking at can be seen by your grandchildren in Topeka? Try out the Naval Observatory's Astronomical Applications web site at http://aa.usno.navy.mil/ for answers to these and many other questions.
But, my most earnest advice is to get out, away from city lights, and look at the sky for yourself. The wonder is worth the effort!
Lunar phases for March: First Quarter on the 2nd, at 9:02 pm; Full Moon at 12:23 pm on the 9th;Last Quarter on the 16th at 3:45 pm; New Moon on the 24th at 8:21 pm.
Evening twilight is marked still by Venus, brilliant and high over the western horizon at sunset and not setting for another 3 hours on March 1. It will sink rapidly as the month advances and the planet catches up to Earth and passes us in its orbit, which is closer to the Sun and thus moving faster. Jupiter and Saturn are near the Pleiades, in Taurus, higher than Venus and to the southwest. Early risers can see Mars and Mercury in the pre-dawn, though Mercury is close to the southeast horizon and hard to find. Venus joins the morning sky on the last day of the month, but will rise only minutes before the Sun. Our midmonth look at the overhead sky finds Castor and Pollux a bit west of zenith at about 9:00. They form a rough triangle with Regulus, in the Constellation Leo, to the southeast of zenith, and Procyon in Canis Minor to the southwest of zenith. Procyon is fairly bright, but not nearly so as Sirius, just below it in Canis Major. To the southwest, Orion is settling to the horizon, and we are close to our last view for the season of this most prominent winter constellation. Orion is chasing but never catching Taurus - which is playing host this month to Jupiter and Saturn - and the Pleiades cluster. That bright star near Jupiter is Aldebaran. To the south, just a bit closer to the horizon than Regulus, you may discern a broad, faint cluster of stars. These are the Hyades cluster, broader and fainter than the Pleiades, but important to astronomers because the relative motions of individual stars is one of the key components in our ability to calibrate distance measurements to other stars. The bright star just rising to the east is Arcturus, in Bootes. Indeed, its arrival and the departure of Orion herald the onset of spring.
George F. Spagna, Jr.