The Galactic Times Newsletter #6 - Aug 1 - 16, 2021

The Latest Mars Results, This Just In, Sky Events including Perseids and Saturn, The Lunar Dispatch

Mars: The Present

(photo credit Jim Bell/NASA/Mars2020)

In This Issue:

  • Cover Story — Mars: The Present (What We Have Learned to Date from Active Missions)

  • This Just In — Bezos’ Plans; Watery Ganymede; Moon Dust; New Moon Probes

  • Sky Planning Calendar — Including: How to Watch the Perseids; Saturn at its Best

  • Astronomy in Everyday Life — The Lunar Dispatch

  • The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter Highlights

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Dr. Larry Krumenaker.

Cover Story — Mars: The Present (What We Have Learned to Date from Active Missions)

A massive summary session at the Royal Astronomical Society’s Annual Meeting covered the latest on all the active Mars probes (and if you want to know which probes are active, see the article in TGT #2). Here is the latest!

Perseverance and Ingenuity: Almost like two separate missions these days, the little helicopter that could is seeking its own science objectives. One surprise was how it was setting up its own dust clouds, a way to measure surface dustiness. The rover, meanwhile, is about to start taking surface and under-surface samples, which scientists hope one day a second lander will come by and pick up to take back to Earth. It will travel between too-much sand in Seitah to its right and too rugged surface to its left, and then hope to dive into the the Jezero Delta Scarp next year.

Tiawen-1: This Chinese mission has an orbiter, and a stationary research site, and gave birth to a rover mission as well. The orbiter explored the middle magnetotails of Venus and Mars, a gap in data not explored by other missions. These magnetic fields, often described as both looping behind, and draping fields around, the planets, and the former is actually stronger around Mars than the larger inner world, and has not been well studied. Also, the rover and orbiter both have magnetometers and together are measuring induced magnetic fields derived from either space or core influences.

InSight: You can learn a lot by just sitting still! Measuring Marsquakes for 1000 sols got a really good look at Mars’ insides. Mars’ core appears to be on the larger end of expectations, made of lighter elements, has a thinner mantle which means it cooled earlier and quicker, and a two layer crust, perhaps even three layers, max 40 kilometers thick. That crust is hotter than the mantle, acting as a radioactive lid for everything below it, keeping convection sluggish down below.

(From the InSight team PowerPoint)

Curiosity: Still going….and climbing higher up Gale. It is entering a region that scientists believe is a transition between ancient warm and wet to cold and dry environments. Rocks and minerals seem to be varying with the amount of briney salt waters and low temperature sediments.

Hope: The United Arab Emirates’ first space mission is an orbiter designed to investigate Mars’ atmosphere and how it varies annually and daily. The atmosphere has three layers, the exosphere, the thermosphere and the lower atmosphere, and composition and temperatures are monitored. The mission has also photographed auroras.

Future mission plans for Mars? That was a second session at the RAS, and we’ll discuss that in the next newsletter.

Sidebar: Mars seems to be having all the fun! Are there any other active missions around other planets besides Mars? Answer—not many. Venus has a pair of Japanese probes, Akatsuki and a subprobe on it, Ikaros, launched 2010, which reached Earth’s twin in 2015—haven’t heard much on it since; Jupiter has the frequently-in-the-news Juno mission. Mercury will eventually receive the 2018-launched BepiColombo mission full time (it did a fly by Venus once and will again this month) in 2025, but the first of a bunch of Mercurian fly-bys takes place this October. That’s it.

This Just In—

* Editorial Correction
In the previous issue we discussed Richard Branson’s space plane flight into the edge of space and commented on his and Jeff Bezos’ plans—or lack of—for the future. Afterwards we found out that on Blue Origins website there is a mission statement that does talk about orbital missions and space stations. Bezos himself has talked about O’Neill-type rotating inhabitable stations for people to permanently live in. He has christened his orbital spacecraft as New Glenn. However, there is no evidence that New Glenn is no more than an idea. So our statement that at this time these suborbital missions are nothing more than high-priced toe dips into space.

* Jupiter’s Ganymede is All Wet
Ganymede gives its first real evidence that there is water there.

The third Galilean moon out, Ganymede, is the largest, bigger than our Moon or even Mercury, a planet in its own right if it didn’t orbit Jupiter. And it may be a BIG ball of ice. The recently ailing Hubble Space Telescope just found that it could detect, for sure, water coming from the big moon, in the form of water vapor. As the solid ice of the world is hit by solar radiation, auroras are formed in the very thin atmosphere, detected as glowing oxygen emission. This is considered a sign of the breakdown of water ice into hydrogen and oxygen as the ice is sublimated directly from solid to gas.

* Moon Dust
Making a moon is the same as making a planet, right? Apparently so, but until now we’ve never seen it. Some European astronomers have pictured this with a photograph made with the ALMA radio telescopes in Chile. The interferometric image shows a planet with moon, also immersed within its own dusky cocoon, a first.

(photo credit Benisty et al./ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

* New Lunar Probes
Arizona State University is quickly making new, small lunar mission probes. Now shipped to Kennedy Space Center for launch later this year was LunaH-Map, an orbiter designed to check out the polar regions’ PSRs, the perpetually shadowed regions where…the sun don’t shine. There other sources indicate there may be substantial deposits of water ice on or below the surface that future astronauts could use. The next mission they are building, a tiny lunar hopper called Micro-Nova, will land there in a year to site investigate. Future bases are planned shortly in these PSRs.

Sky Planning Calendar


Moon passages by a star, planet or deep sky object are a good way to find a planet or other object if you’ve never located it before.

Aug 1 One day past Last Quarter, the Moon is 1.8 degrees South of the Planet Uranus, which appears as a binocular bright 6th magnitude star. The Moon is also near the Seven Sisters star cluster, a.k.a. The Pleiades, in Taurus the Bull, in the pre-dawn sky, this dawn and tomorrow’s.

Aug 3 The right side of the V-shaped head of Taurus, the Hyades star cluster, points right at the Moon.

Aug 4 Our thinning Moon is safe from being poked, a soap bubble between the two tips of the horns of the Bull!

Aug 6 The Moon is near the eastern Gemini twin star, Pollux.

Aug 8 New Moon.

Aug 10-11 The Moon passes by Venus in the evening twilight; look low in the WNW sky.

Aug 12 The Moon makes its final easy passage past bright blue star Spica.

Aug 14 Impress your friends with this one! That star near the nearly half-moon? That is Zubenelgenubi! Also known as Alpha Librae, it is a wide double star, each of which is double as well, though those extra stars can not be separated by even large scopes. It gets its name from when Libra was not a separate constellation but part of next-door Scorpius, as “the southern claw.”

Aug 15 First Quarter.

Aug 16 That’s not Mars near the Moon, that’s the red giant star Antares.

Border Crossings

The Sun catches up with tradition—it enters Leo the Lion on August 10th. Traditionally, the Sun is said to enter Leo the Lion on the 23rd of July. So for about two weeks, astronomy and astrology match! Woo hoo!


The Perseid meteors, one of the two best meteor showers for amateur astronomers or just plain folks, peaks on the night of August 12th, but you can see Perseids for 2-3 nights on either side. Like most meteor showers, the best views are the 2-3 hours before dawn begins, when the radiant point—where the meteors seem to come from, in the constellation Perseus, the Hero—is at its highest in the sky. Then you max out on the ability to see meteors in all directions; the Earth does not cut off parts of the stream from view. With only a 4-day old crescent moon setting in early evening, you’ve got no astronomical hindrances to getting the most out of this shower this year!

A lounge chair or recliner with some head incline is good. Experience has shown this writer that a slow head movement keeps one alert and catches move ‘moving stars’ plus prevents sleeping. The longest meteor trails are found 45-90+ degrees (circa a right angle) from that radiant, which rises out of the northeast after midnight. Looking AT the northeast means you only see the very shortest of meteor streaks and those are hard to catch! Many Perseids are yellowish and leave lovely smokey trails, some lasting seconds after the ‘blob’ disappears.

If you are good at star patterns, it is fun to map the paths of the streaking meteors on a star chart for a few hours at a time and then point the trails backward and find the center of a rough circle from which they appear to come from, the radiant (it IS a zone, not a point). That circle does shift each night as the Earth orbits the Sun as our perspective on that stream of cometary debris changes.

Finally, some of us have fun mapping the NON-Perseids! There are actually meteors from one or more minor showers, of 5 or fewer meteors per hour, happening at the same time, and even some meteors that are sporadics, that belong to no shower stream at all! Can you find the minor showers?

Mercury: Returns to the evening sky, but just barely, unless you live south of the Equator. Then you get a great show later in the month. Mercury approaches Mars at the end of this period, but you’ll need a good telescope and awfully clear, low horizon to find it.

Venus is still agonizingly slowly gaining more distance from the Sun, but it is also heading ‘southward’ along the ecliptic, the Sun’s path through the Zodiac constellations, so it still isn’t clear the horizon much by the time it is dark enough in twilight to find it! Best to find it when the Moon passes by, around the 10-11th.

Saturn: Saturn rises at sunset August 1. It is at opposition, visible ALL NIGHT! Saturn is 74 light minutes from Earth (so the light you see at 8pm left it at 6:46), it is 8.9 Astronomical Units away (1 AU is the average Earth-Sun distance , about 93 million miles), not as bright as it COULD be at +0.2 but still quite bright and as bright as it will get all this year, until this time again next year….with its rings tilted at us at 18 degrees, and 42 minutes of arc wide (about two-thirds of a degree), and the planet, though, an 18 seconds of arc wide ball (as big as it will get all this year, too). You’ll be able to see the rings make Saturn an ellipse in most binoculars but not separate them from the ball without a telescope. Even a cheap department store refractor at 50X should do it. Look around it for Titan, its largest and brightest (and orange-y) moon, about 50% of the Ring’s full radius away.

Jupiter: Rises during evening twilight, 1 hour after Saturn. We’ll spend more time with it in the next newsletter.

Summertime is here! Check if it is time for a glass of something cool to drink…with the Hermograph Wearable Sundial T-Shirt! Works as a clock or a compass.

Astronomy in Everyday Life

I’d like to introduce you to Will Dowd, a writer in New York, and on Substack. He writes, among other things, a monthly newsletter timed to the Full Moon called the Lunar Dispatch. Everything is themed around the Moon, but also with connections to the Moon and space in literature, history, society and culture. In his most recent Dispatch he talked about the most recent Strawberry Moon, the flight of Branson (and then-upcoming flight of Jeff Bezos) and how it doesn’t hold up to the history of moon flights, or the ten minutes of weightlessness to an Amazon rest break. He segues into a discussion of how the International Space Station (ISS) will become the site of a made-in-space Tom Cruise movie, a wider expansion of astronaut Chris Hadfield’s music video of years past Space Oddity, and compared that latter to Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel on his back. How the latter would have loved to have done so weightless, and loved to have done it in the ISS, where his very dirty existence would find a home—the ISS environment is surprisingly dirty. Unlike Hadfield, though, the very rich as Branson, Bezos and Musk, Senor Michelangelo did not have to answer questions from second graders streamed in from down below.

I found a kindred spirit in Mr. Dowd and his writing, and I hope you find his free monthly newsletter enjoyable.

The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter Highlights

This premium newsletter will be for paid subscribers only, and that payment time is approaching! An Early Bird Subscription plan, with discounted rate, free trial offer, and discounts at the Hermograph Press Store, begins now! But free issues will continue until Labor Day….

  • Cover Photo - Living on Proxima Centauri?

  • Connections to the Sky - Simulating Life on Other Worlds—How About on a Pale RED Dot? (An Art/Science Project).

  • Astronomical Teachniques - Rotating Potatoes = Asteroids!; Cultural Astronomy in Your Hometown; Advice for the External Teacher; Virtual Schooling Advice with Primary Students—Get Up and Dance!

  • The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners - (2): An Antikythera Replica for the Classroom; Science Outreach with Seniors.

  • A Look at the Next Generation Science Standards, in Astronomy, Part 3 - Some Physics.

  • Early Bird Subscription Information and Discounts!

Coming Soon!

Learning Astronomy Under The Northern Stars – A 365-Night Per Year Textbook

Use the stars that are ALWAYS visible to understand basic astronomy, stellar evolution, galactic structure, with the naked eye and common binoculars.  EBook and print book coming.  Detail description and advance orders link coming soon.

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Thanks for reading. Until the next newsletter, stay safe.

Dr. Larry Krumenaker

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