The Galactic Times Newsletter #7 - Aug 17 - 31, 2021

The Future of Mars Explorations, This Just In, Exoplanetary Systems --Are We Unique?;, Sky Events including Jupiter's Opposition, Astronomy in Everyday Life--Beer and Meghan's Jewels

Cover — Mars: The Future

In This Issue:

  • Cover Story — Mars: The Future (The JAXA Sample Return Mission, ExoMars 2022, and Future Missions to other planets, too)

  • This Just In — Touring the Asteroid Bennu—the Awesome Video; A Rare (and Barely Naked Eye) Nova

  • Article — A Diversity of Exoplanets, Are We Not The Standard?

  • Sky Planning Calendar — Including: Observing Jupiter and its Moons at Opposition; Finding Uranus

  • Astronomy in Everyday Life — Delicious Space Dust; Meghan’s Jewels

  • The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter Highlights

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Dr. Larry Krumenaker.

Cover Story — Mars: The Future

A massive summary session at the Royal Astronomical Society’s Annual Meeting covered the latest on all the active Mars probes. A second session covered what we are expecting in missions about to be launched.

MMX: This Japanese mission is a twist on the Mars probe idea. It’s going to explore Mars by exploring the surface of Phobos.

To be launched in 2024, it will spend 2025-8 mostly exploring Phobos through orbiting the moon, but also sending a little rover to hop around and take samples from as many different sides of the moon—leading, following, top, bottom, near and far, as it can, then retrieve the little boxy trapping device, and with a hail and farewell fly by Deimos, return the samples to Earth by 2029. The intention is to determine if these small bodies are captured asteroids or original moons or a remnant of Mars from some giant impact, and get some ideas about the origins of such small bodies. It expects to find ejecta from Mars, and likely asteroidal material as well. It will compare its samples to those of surface landers, meteorites examined on Mars’ surface as well as those found on Earth. The orbiter will be equipped with remote sensors, for use around both moons and Mars.

ExoMars 2022: The next big ESA landing mission, this one is designed to search for signs of present and past Martian life, specifically to drill down to soils below the surface regolith where there should be undisturbed subsurface material from about 4 billion or so years ago. The rover will be equipped with a multitude of sensors and laboratories, but it will also accumulate samples for later retrieval by a later mission. The rover has been christened the Rosalind Franklin.

Some of the experiments are designed to also examine the present conditions and whether they can be viable for life today, both Martian and future Earth colonists, such as generation of water. There is also a mast camera, called PanCam. Equipped with 11 filters on horizontal- and vertical-facing cameras, it is designed for geological and atmospheric explorations, among other things.

Sidebar: Mars seems to be having all the fun! Are there any other active planned missions to other planets besides Mars? Answer—not many.

Venus in the 2020s five missions in active planning, one by a private US company, two by NASA, one Russian and one from India. Only the Russian one is a landing mission, the others are orbiters or atmospheric probes including one a balloon to float in the hot air. The first scheduled for launch is the Rocket Lab atmospheric probe, in 2023

To Jupiter is simply the JUICE mission, Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer in 2029. Just past the decade, a SpaceX/ESA Europa Clipper is scheduled for 2030, set strictly for that moon.

Beyond Jupiter or inside of Venus, nothing in this decade. It is Go, Mars, Go!

This Just In—

Touring the Asteroid Bennu

A fascinating film was released by NASA, about 5 minutes long, showing the incredibly rocky landscape of the tiny ravioli-shapped asteroid Bennu. Covered with boulders of all kinds, including some bright ones believed to have come from Vesta, the largest asteroid, and at least one that only a few years ago was apparently seen to have been ejected and re-landed back on Bennu, the video covers the flight and landing of OSIRIS-REx and origins of the names of the boulders out of Egyptian mythology. A wonderful flick, for teachers and just about anybody interested in the solar system. Bennu video

* A Rare (and Barely Naked Eye) Nova

Contrary to popular mythos, a nova isn’t a star that just blows up—that’s a supernova. A nova is a star that has a kind of temper tantrum where it blow up its surface usually due to a surplus of hydrogen loaded onto it by a companion star. There is a rare form of such a star called a recurrent nova, a star that blows its cool more than once. There are only seven of those known and one of those just blew its top again.

RS Ophiuchi is normally a dim nothing-to-see-here-folks kind of star of magnitudie +12 in the summer constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer, north of Scorpius. But on August 8th, it jumped up 600 times its normal brightness to magnitude +4.8, well above the naked eye limit (though still not easy for light polluted skies. It last popped up in 2006 and has done so five other times since 1898. RS is a white dwarf with a red giant companion dumping gas on its hot tiny self which when enough accumulates undergoes nuclear fusion and booms. Regular novae just go boom once and done.

It should be binocular bright for the next month, then fade more slowly for the next two, given its past consistent history, until it is back to its normal self. Given its position in the south in early summer evening skies, this might be a fun observing project to monitor to see a real change in an object in the sky for someone with a telescope.

Its position is RA 17:51:23 Dec -06d 42’ 50" near bright Nu Ophiuchi. (Source: Astronomy Now UK)

Article—A Diversity of Exoplanets, Are We Not The Standard?

At the recent Royal Astronomical Society and European Astronomical Society meetings, a very hot topic were analyses of the kinds of exoplanets, and exoplanetary systems that have been found. When you have thousands in your database, you can get some pretty good statistics, even if you don’t have a pure sample. After all, we can only see certain kinds of planets among other stars; earth-sized worlds and smaller are still hard to find. Nevertheless, what can we now generalize about these worlds?

First, we might ask, how unique is OUR solar system? We have four small worlds huddling near the Sun, and then four gas giants (one much bigger than all the others combined), and three rings or spheres of debris—the asteroid belt, Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud. John Zink of UCLA asked the question about our uniqueness and divided the question into two parts—How do planets form? And, how do orbits evolve? Answering these would help us to understand our origin, and our history.

Since much of our data comes from both the original Kepler mission—studying that one tiny bit of space but deeply and intensely for transiting planets—and the later K2 mission that examined multiple regions around the sky, plotting all the findings of planet size versus stellar light intensity, both relative to Earth, found two interesting points. Both missions separately found a great lack of planets much less massive than Neptune (sub-Neptunes they are called), and a gap in planetary radii; 1.5-2 Earth radii planets are missing. What could this mean?

Laura Kreidberg, of the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Germany, in a plenary speech, gave a larger summary of the overall picture of things. In the 26 years since the first exoplanet was found, we know cool M stars average 3.5 X more planets per star than Sun-like stars. It is also known that exoplanets are much more diverse than solar system planets. Planet masses go as high as 10,000 Earth masses, and go as far from their star as 100 Astronomical Units (AU) whereas our farthest planet—Neptune—is a mere 30 AU. In fact, our planetary system falls much in the gap where the vast majority of other stars’ planets—-don’t!

From Laura Kriedberg’s presentation.  Note that our Solar System’s worlds are mostly in the lower right corner, where other stars’ planets are not found!

So to partially answer Zink’s question, we may be quite unique!

While new exoplanets are still being found, by a diversity of ways (transits, direct imaging, multiple space-borne telescopes, ground-based detectors, interferometry, and other methods), we seem to moving greatly towards trying to detect planetary characteristics now. Size matters, but even more, atmosphere existence, composition, and biosignatures, that is, evidence of either technology or life changing a primordial atmosphere, like methane to oxygen as life on Earth did.

#1. In the Solar System, the more metals, the less massive the planet. Is that universal? Detecting metals versus non-metals is key here.

#2. Are there clouds, and if so, what kinds? And are they maintained or lost around the less massive worlds?

#3. How well do the surface spectra come through the atmosphere and clouds so that we can tell what the surface is made of? And therefore, tell if life is changing the surface?

The answers here are still, we’ll get back to you on that.

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 17 The Moon is at perigee. We have a Super Waning Gibbous Moon!

Aug 18 The Moon occults (eclipses, covers up) a bright, magnitude 2.1 star (Sigma σ) in Sagittarius tonight, though you will need a telescope to watch it. It will blink out along the dark edge of the nearly Full moon in the hour:40s in your time zone (the minute varies, AZ 7 PM, FL 11 PM) and only in the very southern US—Arizona through Florida. Covid hotspots—observe safely. It’s a glancing occultation, and the star reappears in 20 to 60 minutes.

Aug 20 Saturn is four degrees north of the Moon.

Aug 22 Full Moon. Four degrees away is brilliant Jupiter, at its closest at the the midnight between the 21st and 22nd.

Aug 28 Uranus is a mere 1.5 degrees away from the Moon, or just three Moon diameters to the north. While the Moon passes it every month, and would be closer next month, an increasing fuller moon each month hence will make it harder to find even though Uranus, at magnitude 5.7 and technically naked eye, is at its brightest for the year, and for the rest of the year. Catch it now with binoculars or telescope (see the map).

Aug 29-31 The Moon crosses below the Seven Sisters star cluster, past the Hyades cluster, and almost through Taurus’ horns.

Aug 30 Last Quarter.

Border Crossings

That was short. The matching up of traditional and reality that began on the 10th of August ends on the 23rd. The horoscopes say the Sun enters Virgo—-Uh uh. It’s in Leo and will be there for some time more. C’est dommage, tradition….


Forty minutes after sunset is the magic planet moment this month. Check your local time for the latter, and plan to be set up before “40” and observing by then.

Mercury passes a mere 0.1 degree from fellow (allegedly) red world Mars on the 19th, but you need to be either in the Southern Hemisphere, or have a really good tracking telescope and avoid direct sunlight (and have a really clear Western sky) for even a slight chance to see them. If you haven’t spotted them up in the Northern Hemisphere by about 40 minutes after sunset, you’ve lost the opportunity. You’ll have better luck with Mercury—alone—by month’s end, again at that 40-minute mark.

Venus is still moving further away from the Sun, but also heading south of the celestial equator which means it stays visible but still not too high above the horizon after sunset. It sets near twilight’s end at month’s end.

Saturn: Visible as soon as it is dark enough in the southeastern sky, it is visible all night, certainly until morning twilight begins. Rings and Titan and disk are all still their best for small scopes and other moons and ring gaps for larger ones.

Jupiter: Reaches opposition, rising just as the Sun sets and visible all night, setting as the Sun rises, on the 19th. It is 4 Astronomical Units (4X the Earth-Sun distance) away from us, the light you see being 33 light-minutes old, i.e. if you see it at 8 PM, it left Jupiter at 7:27 PM. Second only to Venus at magnitude -2.9, it appears brighter because of shining in the darker, non-twilit sky. It’s disk is 49 arc-second (49”) wide, as wide as the entire ring system of Saturn appears! Its four Galilean moons, all bright enough to be visible to the naked eye if Jupiter wasn’t there, are at their brightest and range their farthest from the King of the Planets. Good binoculars should easily show Callisto (mag. 5.5), Ganymede (mag. 4.4) , and probably Europa (mag. 5.1) and some claim that by blocking Jupiter by a house or roof edge at the right moment, you can see the first two with the naked eye (10 arc-minutes or about 630” for the first, half that for the second). Any telescope will show them all in a never-ending positional parade.

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

It is a bit nebulous to me why Space Dust is a good moniker for a beer, but I suppose we’ll just have to see how many stars the reviews get…..

* * *

Noted on a Hollywood column, Page Six, the Duchess of Sussex wears constellation necklaces, with diamonds for stars, costing between one and two thousands of dollars, in honor of her children, which is certainly cool. Unfortunately, though the stars are roughly accurate, they aren’t the correct astronomical constellations, exactly.

Her son Archie was born on a May 6th, when the Sun is in Aries. The Taurus necklace is for him….but it should be for her daughter Lilibet, who was born this past June 4th. The Sun had entered that constellation by then, not the Gemini that Meghan was wearing.

While it is certainly one’s prerogative to wear what one wishes, in an era where science is downplayed, and where some celebs are pushing “get vaccinated,” it would be nice to see this modern woman wear the correct constellations for science, not pseudoscience, yes? I sent an email to the Sussex’s foundation. We’ll see if there is a response. She should get some money back, Gemini for Aries. Aries has only three stars in it…..

The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter Issue 7 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 - Asteroidal Potatoes

  • Connections to the Sky - NASA StarShade Origami for Home Use

  • Astronomical Teachniques - Rotato Redux!

  • The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners - (2): How College Planetariums are Used; Observing Diaries for Astro 101 Classes

  • A Look at the Next Generation Science Standards, in Astronomy, Part 4 - The Paradigms of Skills

  • 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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