The Galactic Times Newsletter #8 - September 1 - 15, 2021

Cover — An Outdoor Planetarium

In This Issue: 

  • This Just In — Snow on Mars

  • Sky Planning Calendar — Moon-Gazing, Observving—Plan-et with interesting things to observe, Border Crossings

  • Astronomy in Everyday Life — (Cover Story) Halting Steps for an Outdoor Planetarium in Ireland

  • The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter Highlights

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Last half of August has been a slow news period, and a stormy one, with Hurricane Ida passing nearby (and a twister even nearer). School and other events begin now so things should pick up again as the weather cools down. Hope you all are safe.

Dr. Larry Krumenaker.

This Just In—

Snow on Mars

Really never considered it before….every Mars novel and movie always shows Mars’ red desert soil. Nobody ever seems to think about its polar caps. What does the landscape look like there? Can you ski there? Kick the snow with your boots? Will you slip on the ice? I guess you have to know what kind of snow and ice you have there. We just probably think it is like Earth’s, right?

We have been observing ice all over Mars from orbit, and perhaps rarely from—many as frost?—from landers and rovers. But what does snow and ice really look like down there?

As an Arizona State University press release states, “planetary scientists Aditya Khuller and Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, with Stephen Warren, an Earth ice and snow expert from the University of Washington, developed a new approach to determine how dusty Mars ice really is. By combining data from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with computer simulations used to predict snow and glacier ice brightness on Earth, they were able to successfully match the brightness of Martian ice and determine its dust content. Their results have been recently published in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.”

Mars’ ice is darker than Earth’s, it turns out, which means it is dusty ice and darker than fresh snow on Earth, they say. And, warmer.

“There is a chance that this dusty and dark ice might melt a few centimeters down,” Khuller said. “And any subsurface liquid water produced from melting will be protected from evaporating in Mars’ wispy atmosphere by the overlying blanket of ice.”

If you worry about your snowfalls of winter lasting a long time and having to be shoveled often, you’ll hate living on Mars (note to Elon Musk). Based on their simulations, the ASU scientists predict that the ice dug up by the Phoenix Mars Lander formed over the last million years. “It is widely believed that Mars has experienced multiple ice ages throughout its history, and it looks like the ice being exposed throughout the mid-latitudes of Mars is a remnant of this ancient dusty snowfall,” Khuller said. Yikes!

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.

September 6 New Moon.

September 8 The Moon is 6 degrees to the upper right of Mercury, LOW to the horizon, but this is the best guide Northern Hemispherians will have to finding this elusive planet in the evening sky…until Christmas!

September 9 Much easier than with Mercury, but still not so easy keen, the Moon is 4 degrees north of brilliant Venus, higher than Mercury in the evening twilight sky, but still low.

September 13 First Quarter Moon. Really, about the best time to watch the moving shadow play edges of craters and central peaks. Even over a few hours, say, right after dinner and then just before a late nightcap viewing session before moonset near midnight, you can see some changes as the Moon has moved further in its orbit, increasing its phase, and causing lengthening and shortening shadows along the day-night edge, called the terminator (no relation to Ahh-nold)).

Border Crossings

The Sun pops out of the tail end of Leo the Lion on September 15th, entering Virgo. Take whatever prognostication you want from that. Tradition and science dates will match for about another week after that…..


We’ll go from outside in—sort of—this two week period:

The outermost planet Neptune reaches its prime viewing moment for this year, opposition, opposite the Sun in the sky and thus visible all night long, on the 14th. For those who like a bit cosmic irony, the planet named for the King of the Ocean would be found in the constellation of Aquarius, the Water Carrier (or Water Bearer). It is quite dim, magnitude 7.8, buried deep in the faint end of most common binoculars limits. A tiny, greenish disk at best, its reflected sunlight is 4 light hours old when you see it, at almost 29 astronomical units (Earth-Sun distances) away.

Jupiter, just past opposition, is already up by the time it gets dark. An interesting play is to one night try to see where it is in reference to some ground feature (tree, building, spire) one night, and then try to see how soon after sunset you can find it the next clear night. A challenge during hazy summer evenings, yes, but if clear enough, give it a whirl. Technically, Jupiter can be detected in broad daylight when at greatest brilliancy, though it is very difficult and requires sharp eyes, a reference point, and often blocking off of bright day skylight.

Jupiter is due South around 11:30 daylight savings time, give or take a few, during this newsletter time frame. It sets at morning twilight on the 7th, and before that the days afterwards.

Saturn is now a month past its opposition. Higher and to the right of Jupiter, it is in prime position to display its rings and moons, in the south-southeast sky. It is due South earlier than Jupiter, around 10:30.

Both giant worlds are slowly moving westward among the stars, Jupiter a tad faster, being closer to us. These motions are not THEIR motions; they are due to our Earth lapping them in our orbit, an illusion. If you catch any stars nearby them, watch the distances over a week or two and see the changes. This is no different than watching cars on the highway as you pass them apparently going “backwards” compared to you, you being faster than they are. You know the cars are moving forward, they just don’t look that way if you are ‘lapping’ them.

Mars is on vacation. You won’t get an evening view until late 2022; no, Mars’ oppositions don’t occur with US election cycles, it just seems that way (craziness is just a coincidence….). It will start to reappear in the morning skies late in November.

Venus, as noted above, is in the evening twilight, though it at last is starting to get far enough from the Sun to be above the horizon after twilight ends starting this month, and for the rest of the year, though not as grandly as it can do when it is a spring evening object.

You’ll find Venus close to the bright first-magnitude star Spica these two weeks, minimum distance 1.7 degrees on the 5th, near the Moon on the 9th.

Mercury is a decent object in the evening skies…..for our Australian and other Southern Hemispherean readers. If you can find it around the 13th, it will be both at its maximum distance from the Sun, 27 degrees, and a half-moon shape in a telescope—just like the First Quarter moon a quarter of the way around the sky on the same date, so compare the two!

Are you almost late? Check…with the Hermograph Wearable Sundial T-Shirt! Works as a clock or a compass.

Astronomy in Everyday Life

The Halting Steps of an Outdoor Planetarium

On the west coast of Ireland lies the city of Galway, a seaport of about 90,000 people, and lots and lots of rain. There is no science museum, and no planetarium. But National University of Ireland, Galway Emeritus Professor Andrew Shearer would like to change that, and with the help of RAS 200 anniversary project funding, Making Space, he might be able to. If Covid would just leave, and if the City cooperate.

Five years ago, Shearer led a local group to come up with projects to increase the use of a plaza outside the City Museum, which has little natural science inside it, only some marine science. Additionally, a previous European Union project, Sea2Sky, works to connect Galway’s heritage as a port with ocean science and inland with geology (next year is the International Year of Geophysics) and upwards to the stars. Two projects got some approval. The premiere one was a collaboration, a planetarium…outside the Museum proper, on the plaza.

This outdoor star dome would be about 5 meters in diameter and about 3 meters above ground on four columns, with two projectors on the columns projecting images into the dome. The plan was to have it do star shows, rotating programs, and special events every evening and on the many cloudy days, with a person on hand to do talks or answer questions most day and evening hours. It would be automated during the rest of the night. The projectors would not be bright enough during the brightest of days and daylight hours, but the far north latitude of Galway would limit that number of ‘off hours’. There isn’t much to do on Galway’s rainy days and this would definitely increase tourism activities available. (See Cover Photo of this issue.)

The dome never got off the ground. First, the City had qualms not so much about the security of the projectors and dome, but about the plaza area. It already was somewhat of a nighttime gathering site and they were afraid that the roughly ten-person capacity might get, well, even more rowdy, or otherwise, interested in non-astronomical endeavors under the dome. But before any real rejections were made concerning anti-social behaviours, Covid pretty much cancelled everything anyway.

Making Space and Dr. Shearer are also involved with a local community project, as part of an intergenerational programme between an active retirees group and transition year students, the collective name for students between exams at ages 15 and 18, both together called Croí na Gaillimhe (heart of Galway).  This project is an 8-kilometer planetary walk where they will mark the positions of the planets by mosaic tiles.

In October, the Making Space group hopes to meet again with the City again as Ireland begins to re-open and answer some of the City’s questions. After all, the people will gather there, drink, whatever, whether there is a dome or not; they may turn an old city wall there into a screen as well; there is a different plan for securing the projectors. Hopefully they can find accommodations, or offer alternatives, after five years of thinking things over.

This author is aware of other ‘outdoor planetarium’ ideas attempted, though most have been ‘natural’ ones, using amphitheaters in the ground, with screens along the perimeter and the natural sky above. Memories remain of a few band-shells that have been used for projecting sky images as sit-down planetariums. These ideas were given during our conversation. In ‘turnabout is fair play’ to the possible alcoholic crowd disruptors of the outdoor dome, Dr. Shearer would like to turn a nearby unused distillery building into a science museum, but that is another story brewing altogether. -LK

The Classroom Astronomer Newsletter Issue 8 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 - Planetary Ball Drop

  • Connections to the Sky - A Tool For Comparing Mars and Earth

  • Astronomical Teachniques - Start the School Year with Some Observations;
    Demonstrating Gravity on Other Worlds;
    Using Jupiter to Demonstrate an Example of Kepler’s Third Law

  • The RAP Sheet – Research Abstracts for Practitioners - 
    “Educational Design Framework for a Web‑Based Interface to Visualise Authentic Cosmological “Big Data” in High School”;
    “Understanding of Teachers on Phases of the Moon and the Lunar Eclipse

  • A Look at the Next Generation Science Standards, in Astronomy, Part 5 - The Missing Matters

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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