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Three Worlds, One Shot: a February 2015 Conjunction Event

Conjunction of the Moon, Venus, and Mars on Feb. 20, 2015. © Jason Major.

Conjunction of the Moon, Venus, and Mars on Feb. 20, 2015. © Jason Major.

Did you have clear skies last night? If so, you may have been able to catch the sight above: a conjunction of the crescent Moon and the planets Venus and Mars in the western sky!

I captured the photo above with a Nikon D7000 and a Sigma 150-500mm lens. Venus is the brighter object at left, Mars appears dimmer and redder above. Part of the Moon’s “dark side” can be seen due to Earthshine – sunlight reflected off Earth onto the Moon. (Sometimes romantically called “the old Moon in the new Moon’s arms.”)

Although the worlds were only within a degree or two of each other in the sky they were in reality very far apart (obviously). The actual distances from Earth to each at the time of the event? Moon: 363,784 km; Venus: 213 million km; Mars: 329.1 million km.

Check out this and other images in my Flickr gallery here.

AKATSUKI to Get a Second Chance at Venus in December

Illustration of AKATSUKI/Planet-C by Akihiro Ikeshita. (JAXA)

Illustration of AKATSUKI/Planet-C by Akihiro Ikeshita. (JAXA)

If any of you remember this, back in Dec. 2010 Japan’s Venus Climate Orbiter spacecraft AKATSUKI (or Planet-C), after a five and a half month journey through space, failed to enter orbit around Venus due to a faulty thruster nozzle. It sailed right past the cloud-covered planet, going into orbit around the Sun. Fortunately, JAXA mission engineers were able to determine the cause of the problem and come up with some work-arounds for a second attempt when the spacecraft is aligned with Venus later this year.

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NASA Wants to Send Humans to Mars, But What About Venus?

NASA, SpaceX, Mars One… all (and others) are actively working on plans to send humans to the surface of Mars at some time within the next few decades. And while the first human exploration of the Red Planet will be a truly momentous and historic event in whatever fashion it ends up being – it will involve the first steps people make on another planet – getting humans safely to the surface of Mars and back will certainly not be a simple task… we still have yet to venture farther than our own Moon, after all.

To help develop the technologies needed and work out the logistics of traveling to Mars, NASA is proposing an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that would be sort of a “midpoint” in human spaceflight beyond Earth. The exact details of ARM won’t be nailed down until next year (2015) but in essence it will involve getting a small asteroid or a piece thereof into orbit around the Moon, where it can be examined and sampled by astronauts. But while ARM will certainly assist in practicing for advanced deep space missions, some NASA engineers are suggesting that we could do better, actually putting humans if not on at least above another planet with airships soaring the skies of Venus.

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It’s Time to Say Bon Voyage to Venus Express

Illustration of ESA's Venus Express aerobraking in Venus' upper atmosphere (ESA)

Venus Express will soon plunge into the planet’s thick atmosphere (ESA)

Launched in 2005, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express successfully entered orbit around our cloud-shrouded neighboring world. Now, after more than eight and a half years of scientific observations Venus Express has run out of fuel and will soon go gentle into that good night – that is if by “going gentle” you mean death-diving into the corrosive, sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere of an intensely overheated planet.

“While we are sad that this mission is ended, we are nevertheless happy to reflect on the great success of Venus Express as part of ESA’s planetary science program and are confident that its data will remain important legacy for quite some time to come.”
— Martin Kessler, Head of ESA Science Operations

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Surprise: it can snow on Venus! (But it’s made of metal.)

Radar observations of Ovda Regio highlands show bright, reflective "frost" on rising slopes but dark "bare" patches at the highest elevations. (NASA image)

Radar observations of Ovda Regio highlands show bright, reflective “frost” on rising slopes but dark “bare” patches at the highest elevations. (NASA Magellan data)

Our neighboring planet Venus is pretty badass. Sulfuric acid-laden clouds, crushing atmospheric pressure, and broiling surface temperatures soaring to nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit (480 degrees Celsius) make Earth’s “sister” world quite the alien horror show. And now there may be another strange phenomenon to add to Venus’ list of extreme oddities: heavy metal ferroelectric “snow” covering its highest mountain peaks — but, curiously, only up to a certain height.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Venus Express Survived Its Dive!

Illustration of ESA's Venus Express aerobraking in Venus' upper atmosphere (ESA)

Illustration of ESA’s Venus Express aerobraking in Venus’ upper atmosphere (ESA)

Having made over 3,000 orbits of Venus over the past eight years, ESA’s Venus Express has (as of May 15) completed its science mission and is now in the final few months of its operational life. With a nothing-left-to-lose attitude, the spacecraft recently made a daring and risky dive down into the upper layers of the planet’s thick atmosphere, coming within 80 miles of Venus’ broiling surface on July 12 — that’s the closest any human-made spacecraft have gotten to Venus since the Soviet Vega balloon-and-lander missions of 1985!

As dangerous as it may have been for the spacecraft, Venus Express survived the encounter and grabbed some valuable data about the planet’s atmosphere along the way. It’s now working its way up to a higher altitude orbit, but there’s no escaping the fact that its fuel reserves are nearly depleted and it will soon be back on its way down into Venus’ atmosphere on a mission-ending, one-way trip.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

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