Dark skies



Here in the southwest USA we are spoiled with our dark skies. Anyone only has to travel a few miles into the desert and they will be able to see the wonder of the universe first hand. Elsewhere things are not so good. Many people have never even had the chance to see our own galaxy, the Milky Way. From now through Earth Day, April 22, an on-line “Earth and Sky” photo contest is open for submission by any photography enthusiasts of any age from around the world. International projects The World at Night and Global Astronomy Month along with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory are the organizers of the Earth and Sky Photo Contest. The contest was founded by TWAN and Dark Skies Awareness project in 2008 as a regional program. It was expanded to an international effort in 2009 during the International Year of Astronomy. In 2012 participants from about 50 countries submitted a wonderful collection of nightscape images. The contest news was broadcasted by major science news media world-wide and the winning images were widely promoted. With the growing efforts of Astronomers Without Borders (AWB), the organization behind the Global Astronomy Month, the Earth and Sky Photo Contest will have an even larger feedback this year.


Mars, close up


A raw-color version of the mosaic is available at here. Raw color shows the scene’s colors as they would look in a typical smart-phone camera photo.

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced color adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting. White-balancing helps scientists recognize rock materials based on their experience looking at rocks on Earth. The Martian sky would look more of a butterscotch color to the human eye. White balancing yields an overly blue hue in images that have very little blue information, such as Martian landscapes, because the white balancing tends to overcompensate for the low inherent blue content.

Mount Sharp, also called Aeolis Mons, is a layered mound in the center of Mars’ Gale Crater, rising more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor, where Curiosity has been working since the rover’s landing in August 2012. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the major destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called “Yellowknife Bay,” where it has found evidence of a past environment favorable for microbial life.

This mosaic was assembled from dozens of images from the 100-millimeter-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of the Mastcam instrument. The component images were taken during the 45th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s mission on Mars (Sept. 20, 2012). The sky has been filled out by extrapolating color and brightness information from the portions of the sky that were captured in images of the terrain.

Naked eye comet


“Certainly not a ‘great comet’ by any means,” astronomer Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of 1997’s Comet Hale-Bopp, wrote in a posting to the Comets-ML online forum. “The visibility should hopefully improve over the next few nights as it climbs higher out of the twilight, but I don’t foresee anything spectacular.” So our latest celestial visitor, comet panstarrs, might not be bright as we would have hoped, but maybe here in southwestern desert we will get a good view.

That’s what makes Tuesday’s viewing opportunity so key: On March 12, PanSTARRS should be sitting just to the left of the crescent moon, as indicated in this sky chart from SpaceWeather.com. The moon will thus serve as a guidepost for you to turn your binoculars to the right spot just after sunset. There will be about a 10- to 20-minute window to catch the comet each night starting about March 12 and going through the end of the month. It will get dimmer night after night, so Tuesday is the prime date and experienced amateurs at high elevations with no cloud may get a good view. So go round to your astronomer friend just after sunset and see if you can find it.

Moon mining



The most expensive part of space travel is having to bring all our fuel with us. This means we have to launch everything from Earth. Imagine there was no such thing as a gas station, instead we would all have to drive to the oil field in our own fuel tankers and collect all the car fuel required for the rest of our life! Clearly we need gas stations in space, and the Moon might be able to play that role.

To this end, Australian researchers have developed a substance that looks and behaves like soil from the moon’s surface and can be mixed with polymers to create ‘lunar concrete’, a finding that may help advance plans to construct safe landing pads and mines on the moon. Valuable rare earth minerals, hydrogen, oxygen, platinum and the non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel Helium-3 (He-3) are abundant on the moon. NASA and other space agencies have shown interest in lunar mining but the US is yet to ratify a 1984 treaty that would strictly regulate moon resource extraction.

However, even if moon mining was allowed, lunar conditions are so different to Earthly conditions that new machinery may have to be invented to develop resources found there. Furthermore, the cost of transporting materials made on Earth would be prohibitive, forcing scientists to come up with ways to build certain equipment using material only found on the moon’s surface. So the long journey to the outer reaches of the solar system goes via the moon, but it starts with recreating the moon on Earth.