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Happy 4th of July from USGS Astrogeology!

Friday, June 30, 2006

Happy Independence Day!

A Heavenly Sky Show on the 4th of July

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Moon and Jupiter
(side by side in May 2006)
Photo credit: Jason A.C. Brock of Wichita Falls, Texas

June 29, 2006: This drives astronomers crazy. Every summer, on the one night when millions of Americans are guaranteed to be outside at nightfall, necks craned upward watching the sky, almost no one pays attention to the heavens. It's all fireworks, fireworks, fireworks. Stars and planets don't stand a chance.

But this 4th of July is different.

At sunset, just as the fireworks are about to begin, the Moon and Jupiter will pop out of the twilight side-by-side: sky map. These are the brightest objects in the night sky, easily beaming through the flash and smoke of a fireworks display.

Sidewalk astronomers, deploy your telescopes! Here is a wonderful opportunity to show off Jupiter's moons, the Great Red Spot, lunar craters and mountain ranges, and the long creeping shadows at the Moon's day-night divide. Bonus: Point your telescope at blank sky and wait for some fireworks. A good starburst at 25x magnification can be very entertaining.

And don't forget to watch out for spaceships.

Continue reading "A Heavenly Sky Show on the 4th of July"

Pluto's Moons Named Hydra and Nix

Monday, June 26, 2006

Pluto's two newest satellites have been named Hydra and Nix by the International Astronomical Union. For more information, refer to the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature, particularly the page that describes planet and satellite names and their discoverers.

Terrible Fire Near Astrogeology's Home Town of Flagstaff

Friday, June 23, 2006

Brins Fire
Courtesy Brent Archinal ( 2006)
These pictures were taken from the Schnebly Hill Road overlook between 9 and 10:30 PM Friday night, June 22, 2006. The fire was pretty much covering all that Brent Archinal could see of the eastern side of Wilson Mountain.

Brent reports that one can see generally the flare-up of the left (southern) part of the fire as it climbs up a huge cliff (~1,000-1,500 ft high), and also as fire streams down a narrow line from the top of the mountain just to the right of that same area. There are also a couple of photos of the (apparently) contract television crew that did a live report from there to a Phoenix station. That's why much of the foreground vegetation in all the photos is brightly lit.

There is some "astrogeology" here, Brent writes, as in the first two photos. The "star" just above the mountain to the left-center (almost in some of the flames) is Mercury, with the stars Castor and Pollux together above the mountain at right. Those images and later images also show two "stars" to the upper left, which are Saturn (brighter) and Mars.

fire on the horizon
Courtesy Brent Archinal ( 2006)
fire on the horizon
Courtesy Brent Archinal ( 2006)

Building NASA's New Spacecraft: Constellation Work Assigned

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Constellation Program
A rocket fires for Translunar Injection, carrying the Crew Exploration Vehicle and lunar lander out of Earth's orbit and toward the moon. Credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates.

NASA's Constellation Program is getting to work on the new spacecraft that will return humans to the moon and blaze a trail to Mars and beyond. Thousands of people across the agency are pulling together to meet this challenge, with work assignments that will sustain ten healthy and productive centers.Each NASA center is playing a vital role in making the Vision for Space Exploration a reality.

More information and images on the NASA website:

Somebody Define Planet, Please

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

2003 UB313
Artist concept of 2003 UB313
(also known as the "10th" planet)
Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC)

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) will be meeting this August to hammer out the final definition of the word "planet." If approved, the definition will be announced in September.

Webster defines the word planet as: any of the seven celestial bodies sun, moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn that in ancient belief have motions of their own among the fixed stars b (1) : any of the large bodies that revolve around the sun in the solar system (2) : a similar body associated with another star.

So one might ask, what's the big deal? Apparently it's UB313, an object roughly the size of Pluto that orbits the Sun beyond Neptune. The object's discoverer, Mike Brown of Caltech, has argued it should be called a planet. Some astronomers say if UB313 is a planet, then several similar bodies should gain the same status. The number of planets in our solar system could ultimately climb into the thousands as technology improves.

What will the definition be? Will they scratch Pluto from being a planet? What qualifiers will they use to rewrite this definiton? Will they look at mass? Some have wondered if they in fact would include orbit characteristics and formation scenarios? I suppose we won't know until the new committee that includes historians and educators, make their recommendation to the IAU in September. Mark your calenders.

7 New Names in the Elysium Region of Mars

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The following names in the Elysium region of Mars have been provisionally approved by the IAU. The database information and images showing the features can be seen on the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.

Aeolis Planum

Cerberus Palus

Cerberus Tholi

Lethe Vallis



Zephyria Planum

15 New Names Approved for Mars

Monday, June 19, 2006

The following names have been provisionally approved by the IAU for features on Mars. The database information and images showing the features can be seen on the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.

Abalos Mensa

Abalos Scopuli

Baetis Chaos


Columbia Valles

Chryse Colles


Daga Vallis

Hyperborea Lingula


Olympia Cavi

Olympia Mensae


Tenuis Mensa

Xanthe Chaos

A Baby Crater is Born

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

MoonOn May 2, 2006, a baby crater was born on the Moon. NASA says its about 14 meters wide, 3 meters deep and precisely one month, eleven days old. What a baby!

NASA astronomers watched a meteoroid hit the Moon's Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium) with 17 billion joules of kinetic energy.

Bill Cooke, the head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama said that the impact created a bright fireball, which was video-recorded using a 10-inch telescope. Stuff hits the Moon all the time," said Cooke--but this is the best-ever recording of an explosion in progress."

Show me the impact and tell me the full story!

Fourth Annual International Planetary Probe Workshop

Monday, June 5, 2006

June 27 - June 30, 2006
Pasadena, California USA
Late Registration Deadline June 19

IPPW-4, the Fourth International Planetary Probe Workshop, is devoted to robotic exploration of planets with atmospheres through the use of entry probes, aerial platforms and the technologies of aeroassist. The workshop brings together planetary scientists, engineers and technologists with an interest in entry descent and flight in planetary and satellite atmospheres. This includes the major planets - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - with their bottomless atmospheric oceans and Mars, Venus and Saturn's moon Titan which have solid surfaces accessible to scientific investigation. The workshop will feature keynote addresses by leading researchers as well as invited and contributed papers.
The workshop will be preceded on June 25-26, 2006, by a two-day short course "In Situ Instruments for Planetary Probes and Aerial Platforms," designed to further the workshop goals.

More information: Fourth Annual International Planetary Probe Workshop

NASA-Funded Study Says Saturn's Moon Enceladus Rolled Over

Monday, June 5, 2006

Saturn's moon Enceladus - an active, icy world with an unusually warm south pole - may have performed an unusual trick for a planetary body. New research shows Enceladus rolled over, literally, explaining why the moon's hottest spot is at the south pole.

Image right: This graphic illustrates the interior of Saturn's moon Enceladus. It shows warm, low-density material rising to the surface from within, in its icy shell (yellow) and/or its rocky core (red). Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute 200x200

Enceladus recently grabbed scientists' attention when the Cassini spacecraft observed icy jets and plumes indicating active geysers spewing from the tiny moon's south polar region.

"The mystery we set out to explain was how the hot spot could end up at the pole if it didn't start there," said Francis Nimmo, assistant professor of Earth sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz.

The researchers propose the reorientation of the moon was driven by warm, low-density material rising to the surface from within Enceladus. A similar process may have happened on Uranus' moon Miranda, they said. Their findings are in this week's journal Nature.

More on Enceladus. Credit: NASA

Starting and Ending Latitudes and Longitudes

Thursday, June 1, 2006

The starting and ending latitudes and longitudes for the named features on Venus, Mars, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are now available on the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. These coordinates can be viewed by displaying the table of features for a body and then selecting "Show All Fields" near the top of the table, or by selecting the box labeled "Extent" at the bottom of the page.

New name on Venus

Thursday, June 1, 2006

The name Lindgren Patera has been provisionally approved for Venus. This feature can be seen on the image of V-16 from the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.