Another probe is on its way to Mars, this one is called Mars Odyssey, and we hope its fate will not be the same as Polar Lander or Climate Orbiter, i.e. we hope it works. The task of sending probes to Mars is actually quite daunting. Over the past 4 decades, the success rate has only been 60%, including spacecraft launched by the United States, the former Soviet Union, and their successors, the Russian space agency. Put another way, anything launched towards Mars has a 4 in 10 chance of failure!
We can be critical, and often have been, of seeming ineptitude by some NASA planners. We can both giggle and groan when we learn that somebody built a probe with everything measured in inches, feet, and pounds - and that it was then controlled by somebody else who thought the measurements and specifications were in centimeters, meters, and newtons. We can bemoan budget cuts, or cost overruns in other programs that threaten the science missions. But … getting to Mars is and will continue to be a difficult undertaking.
We were spoiled, perhaps, by early success. Our first three landing attempts worked perfectly! Vikings I and II made soft landings in July of 1976, photographed the surface, sampled the rocks and soil, tested for water and possible life. Their companion orbiters returned thousands of images of the planet's surface. Decades later, we thrilled to the safe bounce-and-roll landing of Pathfinder and its plucky rover Sojourner. Mars Global Survey continues to return high resolution images, giving tantalizing hints at Mars' wetter past, and the possible presence of water there, even today. So, perhaps, a few failures should not be the surprise. The few spectacular successes should be!
Lunar phases for May: Full Moon on the 7th, at 9:52 am; Last Quarter on the 15th, at 6:11 am; New Moon at 10:46 pm on the 22nd; First quarter at 6:09 pm on the 29th.
Evening planet viewing will be limited. Jupiter and Saturn are low to the west and lower as the month advances. Jupiter disappears into the bright twilight by month's end; Saturn will be gone by mid-month. Mercury will be low to the west-southwest all month, brightest in the early weeks, highest at mid-month, then fading near the end of the month. Mars returns to our evening sky this month, rising about 3 ½ hours after sunset on the 1st, a bit over an hour after sunset by the 31st. Venus is bright in the east at sunrise, with Mars still visible to the southwest.
Standing at about 9:00 pm at mid-month, facing the west, you'll notice Castor and Pollux, the two brightest stars in Gemini are still high above the horizon. The last two bright stars of Orion for the season - Betelgeuse and Bellatrix - are low and probably lost in the haze. A bit to the southwest, to your left, you will note Procyon, the bright star in Canis Minor, just a bit lower than Castor and Pollux, while Capella (in the constellation Auriga) is about the same height above the northwest horizon.
Turning towards the south, we see the high and familiar "sickle" of Leo, looking like a reversed question mark above the bright heart of the lion, Regulus. Leo is a constellation also rich in "deep sky" observing targets - use your binoculars to pick out several galaxies on a dark night, sweeping your field of view from Regulus towards the east. To the southeast, Spica is the brightest star in Virgo. Though part of the zodiac, Virgo is not an impressive constellation, with Spica perhaps the only star you'll pick out if the skies are hazy or the moon is full.
Arcturus marks the eastern sky, in Bootes, while bright Vega initially hugs the northeast horizon. To the north, we find the inverted bowl of the "big dipper", with its pointer stars (the two at the front edge of the "bowl" lining up above Polaris, the North Star.
George F. Spagna, Jr.