NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover: What you need to know

Utrecht University geologist William McMahon explains the latest findings.

NASA is getting ready to launch its Mars 2020 Perseverance rover on an epic mission to the Red Planet.

The launch window for the spacecraft that will carry the Perseverance rover to Mars opens on July 30 and closes on Aug 15, 2020.

Launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the rover is scheduled to land on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb 18, 2021. The mission’s duration on the Red Planet’s surface is at least one Martian year or about 687 days.

“Perseverance is a robotic scientist weighing just under 2,300 pounds (1,043 kilograms),” explains NASA in a statement. “The rover’s astrobiology mission will search for signs of past microbial life on Mars, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect rock and soil samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.”

This illustration depicts NASA's Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This illustration depicts NASA’s Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Notably, NASA’s Mars helicopter will hitch a ride on the Perseverance rover. A technology demonstration, the helicopter will test the first powered flight on Mars, according to the space agency.

Another technology demonstration called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) will produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere, which could be crucial as NASA works toward its long-term goal of eventually sending humans to Mars.

Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars, a nonprofit organization that aims to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades, told Fox News that the mission will get people talking about future space exploration.

This artist's concept shows the Mars Helicopter on the Martian surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This artist’s concept shows the Mars Helicopter on the Martian surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“I think this launch can really connect everybody to the realities of sending humans to Mars,” he said.

The Perseverance rover also follows hot on the heels of NASA’s historic Demo-2 mission with SpaceX, which recently launched astronauts into space from American soil for the first time since the final Space Shuttle flight in 2011.

The launch was also the first time a private company, rather than a national government, sent astronauts into orbit.

Attached to the Perseverance Mars rover, this 3-by-5-inch aluminum plate commemorates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and pays tribute to the perseverance of healthcare workers around the world.

Attached to the Perseverance Mars rover, this 3-by-5-inch aluminum plate commemorates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and pays tribute to the perseverance of healthcare workers around the world. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“[Mars 2020 is] a really interesting mission – I think it’s really well timed in the context of what has been happening,” Carberry said.

NASA’s goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could visit Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet.

Citing repair issues, NASA recently pushed the start of the Mars 2020 launch window back from July 17 to July 20. A NASA spokesman told Fox News that the delay was not related to the coronavirus pandemic.

If the rover isn’t launched by mid-August, it would need to wait until 2022 when Earth and Mars are back in proper alignment. A two-year delay could add another $500 million to the nearly $3 billion mission.

Perseverance is one of three upcoming missions to Mars. The United Arab Emirates and China also are preparing spacecraft for launch to the red planet by mid-August.

NASA recently announced that the Perseverance rover will carry a small aluminum plate honoring health care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

China’s first Mars rover Tianwen-1 launches this week. Here’s what it will do.

China’s Mars rover will likely attempt to land at a site in northeastern Mars, according to a new paper published just days ahead of the mission’s launch.

The paper, which was published last week in the journal Nature Astronomy, was written by team members of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission, which aims to send an orbiter and a lander/rover duo to the Red Planet. 

The study reveals new details about Tianwen-1, outlining its intended landing area, science goals and the names of instruments aboard the spacecraft. It also stresses the historic nature of the mission: Not only is Tianwen-1 China’s first fully homegrown Mars mission, it’s also the first to carry both a planetary orbiter and a rover. (China’s first Mars craft of any kind, an orbiter called Yinghuo-1, launched on a Russian rocket along with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission in November 2011. The launch failed, and all the spacecraft aboard eventually fell back to Earth.) 

An artist's illustration of China's first Mars rover Tianwen-1 on the Red Planet. The mission launches on July 23, 2020.
An artist’s illustration of China’s first Mars rover Tianwen-1 on the Red Planet. The mission launches on July 23, 2020. (Image credit: CNSA)

Tianwen-1 means “questions to heaven” and was taken from the title of a poem by Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE). The mission is expected to launch on a Long March 5 rocket in late July or early August from Wenchang on Hainan Island, according to the paper. Current unofficial estimates suggest a launch around July 23.

The spacecraft will reach Mars in February 2021, at the same time as NASA’s Perseverance rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which launched on Sunday (July 19). However, China’s rover will remain attached to the orbiter for two to three months before attempting its landing, according to the paper.

The chosen landing area is Utopia Planitia, a huge basin formed by a large impact far back in Mars’ history that was also the region where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976. According to areas defined in earlier statements on landing areas, China had isolated a portion of the vast plain as a candidate landing area, running from Isidis Planitia to the big volcano Elysium Mons. 

A Long March-5 rocket was vertically transported to the launch area at China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center on July 17, 2020. Note the logos of the European (ESA), French (CNES), Argentine (CONAE) and Austrian (FFG) space agencies in addition to that of the China National Space Agency (CNSA).
China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission and its Long March-5 rocket rolled out to the launch area at China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center on July 17, 2020. (Image credit: CNSA)

The low elevation of the area means there will be more time and atmosphere for the entry spacecraft to slow down and safely descend to the surface. The latitude, between roughly 20 and 30 degrees north, is also suitable for receiving enough sunlight to power the roughly 530-lb. (240 kilograms) rover. The relatively smooth surface will also be conducive for roving. The mission also benefits from the engineering heritage of China’s Chang’e lunar exploration program, the paper noted.

The rover is expected to be in operation for about 90 Martian days, or sols, and is nearly twice the mass of China’s Yutu-2 rover, which is currently in its 20th lunar day on the far side of the moon. The Tianwen-1 orbiter will provide a relay communication link to the rover while performing its own scientific observations for one Martian year, according to the paper. (One sol is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. One Martian year is 687 Earth days.)

The orbiter will operate in a polar orbit in order to  map Mars’ morphology and geological structure while also using the Mars-Orbiting Subsurface Exploration Radar instrument to investigate soil characteristics and water-ice distribution. It will also measure the ionosphere and the electromagnetic and gravitational fields, the new paper reported.

The rover will investigate the surface soil characteristics and water-ice distribution with its own Subsurface Exploration Radar. It will also analyze surface material composition and characteristics of the Martian climate and environment on the surface. 

One of the paper’s authors was Wan Weixing, the chief scientist for Tianwen-1. Wan died in May, just a couple of months before the coming launch. He is described as a world-leading space scientist and a pioneer in China’s planetary science program in an obituary published last month, also by Nature Astronomy. His given name, Weixing, literally means “satellite.”

As well as detailing his career in space, science and academia, the obituary gives insight into Wan’s other interests. He often stayed up late to watch English Premier League or Italian Serie A soccer matches, sometimes causing him trouble in getting to academic meetings the next morning, obituary author Yong Wei recalls.

WATCH Japan and UAE Successfully Launch a Probe to Mars

Watch Japan and UAE successfully launch of H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 42 (H-IIA F42). The H-IIA Launch Vehicle No.42 will carry aboard Emirates Mars Mission’s (EMM) Hope probe, developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the United Arab Emirates.

UAE successfully launches Hope probe, Arab world’s first mission to Mars

A rocket carrying the unmanned probe, known as Al-Amal in Arabic, joins China and US in race to red planet

An H-2A rocket carrying the Hope Probe lifts off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center
 An H-2A rocket carrying the Hope Probe lifts off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center Photograph: KYODO/Reuters

The first Arab space mission to Mars has blasted off aboard a rocket from Japan, with its unmanned probe – called Al-Amal, or Hope – successfully separating about an hour after liftoff.

A live feed of the launch showed the rocket carrying the probe lifting off from the Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Japan at 6.58am (9.58pm GMT).

Almost exactly one hour later, the feed showed people applauding in the Japanese control room as the probe successfully detached.

In Dubai, the launch was met with rapturous excitement, with the UAE Mars mission’s deputy project manager Sarah al-Amiri declaring it “an indescribable feeling” to see the probe blasting off.

“This is the future of the UAE,” Amiri, who is also minister of state for advanced sciences, told Dubai TV from the launch site.

The Emirati project is one of three racing to Mars, including Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the United States, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest.

In October, Mars will be a comparatively short 38.6m miles (62m km) from Earth, according to Nasa.

Hope is expected to reach Mars’s orbit by February 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the unification of the UAE, an alliance of seven emirates

Unlike the two other Mars ventures scheduled for this year, it will not land on the planet, but instead orbit it for a whole Martian year, or 687 days.

While the objective of the Mars mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics in the red planet’s atmosphere, the probe is a foundation for a much bigger goal – building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 years.

The UAE also wants the project to serve as a source of inspiration for Arab youth, in a region too often wracked by sectarian conflicts and economic crises.

On Twitter, the UAE’s government declared the probe launch a “message of pride, hope and peace to the Arab region, in which we renew the golden age of Arab and Islamic discoveries.”

Several dozen probes – most of them American – have set off for Mars since the 1960s. Many never made it that far, or failed to land.

The drive to explore Mars flagged until the confirmation less than 10 years ago that water once flowed on its surface.

Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager, has said the Hope probe will offer a special perspective on the elusive planet.

“What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have an holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons,” Sharaf told a pre-launch briefing.

“We have a strategy to contribute to the global effort in developing technologies and science work that will help one day if humanity decides to put a human on Mars.”

An H-2A rocket carrying the Hope Probe lifts off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center

Jupiter amazingly bright in July’s night sky and look for Saturn nearby

As the sun sets, look to the east-southeast for the appearance of Jupiter and Saturn.  Gigantic Jupiter, enveloped by a deep atmosphere and icy cold, shines brilliantly, while Saturn, appearing only about 1/13 as bright, still glows conspicuously with a sedate yellow-white hue. Saturn was the Roman moniker for the Greek god Cronus, the personification of “Father Time.”  Ancient sky watchers named the planets for their most notable aspect, and Saturn seemed to move sluggishly compared to the other deities, taking almost 30 years to make one complete circuit of the sky. How amazed they would have been if they could have viewed Saturn through a telescope and gazed upon its magnificent system of rings.

Jupiter and Moons as seen from Backyard Telescope July 20, 2020
Jupiter and Moons as seen from Backyard Telescope July 20, 2020
Jupiter and Moons as seen from Backyard Telescope July 20, 2020

And have you ever wondered how the ancient Romans happened to name Jupiter after the most powerful of gods, although they knew nothing of the planet’s physical characteristics?

UAE set for historic Mars mission as it preps Hope orbiter for launch

The orbiter named Amal, or Hope, is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission

The United Arab Emirates is set to launch a historic mission to Mars from an island off the coast of Japan.

The orbiter named Amal, or Hope, is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. Amal will take the UAE into an exclusive group of countries that have orbited Mars that includes the U.S., India and the former Soviet Union, as well as the European Space Agency. China will soon launch its own rover to the Red Planet.

“Two days separate us from the date of the next opportunity to launch the ‘Probe of Hope’ to the Red Planet, God willing. Arabs to Mars” tweeted Dr. Mohammed Alahbabi, director-general of the UAE Space Agency, on Friday.

The launch, initially scheduled for Wednesday from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center, was postponed as a result of thunderstorms, clouds, and unstable weather conditions. The mission’s launch has been reset for 5:58 p.m. ET Sunday, a spokesman for the mission told Fox News Friday.

An employee works at the control room of the Mars Mission at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), in the Gulf emirate of Dubai. 

An employee works at the control room of the Mars Mission at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), in the Gulf emirate of Dubai.  (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Hope’s mission control is the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is the provider of the H-IIA rocket, said there is a slight chance of further postponement depending on the weather. The company has set a launch window through Aug. 13. A final decision is expected Sunday.

Hope is to reach Mars in February 2021, the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since its formation. A successful Hope mission would be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a future in space.

Mars also looms large for a number of other countries, including China and the U.S., which will soon launch their own missions to the Red Planet.

NASA, for example, is getting ready to launch its Mars 2020 Perseverance rover on an epic mission to the Red Planet.

The launch window for the spacecraft that will carry the Perseverance rover to Mars opens on July 20 and closes on Aug 11, 2020.

Launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the rover is scheduled to land on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb 18, 2021. The mission’s duration on the Red Planet’s surface is at least one Martian year or about 687 days.

Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars, a nonprofit organization that aims to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades, told Fox News that this is an exciting time for space exploration.

“International excitement and investment in space exploration has never been so strong,” he said.

NASA’s longer-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could visit Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet.

China is also planning to launch its own rover to Mars. The Long March-5 carrier rocket carrying the rover is due to blast off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern island province of Hainan in late July or early August, according to state media reports Friday that quoted the China National Space Administration.

“Over the next several years, the European Space Agency (partnering with Russia) and the Indian Space Agency (ISRO) also will be launching robotic missions,” Explore Mars’ Carberry told Fox News. “All of these missions serve as important precursor missions before we send humans to Mars in the 2030s.”

Are UFOs a threat? We need to investigate, says former head of secret US program

File photo - a 'UFO' sighting over Sheffield, U.K, March 4, 1962 (CIA).

File photo – a ‘UFO’ sighting over Sheffield, U.K, March 4, 1962 (CIA).

There’s no denying that America has an enduring fascination with unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. However, UFO interest extends far beyond the U.S. — sightings are reported worldwide, and multiple observations in far-flung locations describe aerial objects that are uncannily similar to each other, Luis Elizondo, former head of a top-secret U.S. government agency tasked with investigating UFOs, recently told Live Science.

Though some label UFOs as alien spacecraft, the term simply describes aerial objects that defy explanation. One possibility is that they represent technology deployed by a hostile human source, so it’s impossible to say for sure that UFOs are harmless, Elizondo said. Evaluating the potential threats posed by UFOs should therefore involve the collaboration of leaders around the world, said Elizondo, who left the Pentagon in 2017 and is now a director of global security and special programs at To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a private agency pursuing evidence of UFOs.

“I think we’re at the point now where we’re beyond reasonable doubt that these things exist,” Elizondo said. “We know they’re there — we have some of the greatest technology in the world that has confirmed their existence.” But where do these objects come from, what are their capabilities and what are the intentions of whoever may have sent them? Elizondo and other experts delve into these questions in the second season of the series “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation,” with the first episode airing tonight (July 11) on the History Channel.

In the show’s new season, Elizondo and Chris Mellon, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and Intelligence, piece together eyewitness accounts and other clues about intriguing, unexplained sightings by military personnel and civilians, according to the series website.

UFOs are also known as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, and the U.S. government has been collecting reports of these enigmatic objects since the 1950s: in the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, from 1952 to 1969, and through the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), a federal agency that compiled witness accounts of UFO encounters from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Project Blue Book investigated more than 12,000 reports of UFO sightings. Most of those turned out to be misidentification of aircraft, weather balloons, clouds or starlight, but 700 incidents were left unresolved.

Long-standing stigma and government secrecy surrounding UFOs have encouraged people to dismiss sightings as hoaxes or jokes. But as long as the origins and capabilities of even a few of these objects remain unknown, it would be foolish to not take them seriously, Elizondo explained.https://6d37e0f736c518751bb55ccf0a0f6bb4.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“There’s something in our sky and we don’t know what it is, we don’t know where it’s from. Is that a problem? From a national security perspective, yes, it’s a problem,” he said. “We need to understand what these are, in order to make a determination if they’re a threat.”

Elizondo, a former military intelligence officer, led the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which formed in 2007 to probe reports of unexplained aerial sightings and reportedly shuttered in 2012, Live Science previously reported.

As with Project Blue Book, a number of AATIP’s UFO cases turned out to be misidentifications or technology malfunctions — but some UFOs remained unidentified. Over time, Elizondo’s involvement with AATIP led him to the realization that the bureaucracy of the system was failing the public, keeping information about UFOs secret and downplaying the risks they might pose.

“That’s really what led me to resign,” he told Live Science.

No elegant solutions

Many of the UFO sightings that AATIP investigated were recorded by members of the military in restricted airspace. Among them were three mid-air encounters that U.S. Navy pilots captured on video in 2004 and in 2015; the footage was officially declassified and released online on April 27. Other instances involved UAPs flying at what appeared to be hypersonic speeds — more than five times the speed of sound.

None of the objects had visible wings or other means of propulsion. What’s more, they appeared to be performing maneuvers that would have subjected them to as much as 700 times the normal pull of gravity, or 700 Gs, Elizondo said. (Of course, there is no way to confirm those estimates, as the sightings were so fleeting and much of the obvious documentation is not readily available.) To put that into perspective, airplane cockpits can withstand only about 18 Gs before cracking, and people can typically endure just a few seconds at 9 Gs before losing consciousness, as gravity draws blood into the extremities and oxygen ceases to flow to the brain, according to PBS.

“It would be my hope that we can find elegant solutions to what these things are,” he said. “If you can show me one technology that mankind has ever been able to build that does that, great! But so far no one’s been able to show that, to me or anybody in the U.S. government.”

The new season of “Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation” begins July 11 on the History Channel at 10 p.m./9 p.m. CT.

Comet NEOWISE surprises some stargazers with two tails

Astronauts Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, and ISS commander Chris Cassidy speak with Bill Hemmer.

As stargazers try to catch a glimpse of NEOWISE as it soars across the nighttime sky, careful viewers may notice the comet has two tails trailing behind it.

An unprocessed image from the WISPR instrument on board NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, shortly after its closest approach to the Sun. The Sun is out of frame to the left. The faint grid pattern near the center of the image is an artifact of the way the image is created. The small black structure near the lower left of the image is caused by a grain of dust resting on the imager’s lens. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher

The comet’s main tail or dust tail, which is always whitish in color because its particles easily reflect sunlight at every wavelength, is made of fragments from the comet that have been ejected from its nucleus and curves outside the path of the comet’s trajectory, according to Forbes.

This outstanding composition shows the blue ion tail and the grey/white dust tail of comet NEOWISE as it nears its closest approach to Earth. The dust tail is curved and diffuse while the ion tail is straight and highly collimated. Both are caused by extremely different physical processes.
 
DAMIAN PEACH / IAN SHARP

The dust that makeup up the main tail are pulled by three forces: the sun, the comet itself and the force from the sun’s radiation.

Differently sized particles are all subjected to the same amount of gravitational acceleration but smaller dust grains are affected more than larger ones by solar radiation and move at different speeds, making the tail appear wider.

The second slightly narrower tail, however, actually becomes prominent before the main dust tail, according to Forbes.

At some point in the comet’s trajectory, ultraviolet light radiating from the sun becomes strong enough that it heats up and ionizes the comet’s carbon monoxide – the weakest ice-based molecule in the makeup of a comet, according to the magazine.

The carbon monoxide absorbs the sunlight and fluoresces at 4200 Angstroms, the wavelength for blue light, making it appear blue, according to an article from Case Western Reserve University.

The main dust tail is always a grayish-white, the same color as the comet itself.

The ion tail always points away from the sun in a straight line because it distorts magnetic field lines as it interacts with charged wind particles from the sun, according to the university.

The ion tail is made up of single molecules that are all equal in mass, meaning they’re affected by the forces around them equally and follow the same, narrower path, according to Forbes.

In early photos of comets, the blue ion tail is the only one visible.

NEOWISE, the brightest comet in the sky since Hale-Bopp in 1997, was discovered in March and can be seen by the naked eye for most viewers in the Northern Hemisphere this month.

While many comets have two tails, including all “great comets,” it’s also possible NEOWISE has an extra ion tail.

“Parker Solar Probe’s images appear to show a divide in the ion tail,” NASA said of NEOWISE. “This could mean that comet NEOWISE has two ion tails, in addition to its dust tail, though scientists would need more data and analysis to confirm this possibility.”

What color are comets when they are not near the Sun?

Do comets look as vibrant when they’re not getting a helping hand from the Sun?

Comets are black before they near the Sun but when they approach it, they burst into bright colours just like comet ISON

Comets are black before they near the Sun but when they approach it, they burst into bright colors just like comet.

The heart, or nucleus, of a comet is a collection of frozen water and gases as well as other carbon-based materials. As a result, comets far away from our Sun are effectively black since they have one of the lowest albedos – a measure of how much light they reflect – of any object we have observed.

As a comet gets closer to the Sun, some of these frozen gases sublimate creating the coma – the envelope of atmosphere that surrounds a comet. These gases can reflect sunlight and turn our dark object into a bright, yellow-white body. One of the two tails a comet produces, the ion tail – a collection of charged particles pushed away by the solar wind – will begin to glow with a blue tint.

Look up! NEOWISE comet’s best viewing occurs this week

IMAGE: Neowise comet
The comet Neowise is seen from near Effingham, Kan., Monday, July 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)Source: Associated Press

Astronomy buffs will get a treat in the night sky the next few weeks as Comet NEOWISE passes us by on its way back to the outer solar system. 

While the comet will be visible for the next few weeks, those at Space.com feel the best time will come during the July 14th-19th stretch, which is this Tuesday through Sunday. 

Don’t miss your chance to catch a glimpse. If you don’t catch the comet this time around, you would have to wait another 6800 years, making this a once in a lifetime opportunity!

The comet, which is about 3 miles across in size, has already passed by the sun and while it will be dimming as it continues its journey, it will be a slow dimming process as it now approaches Earth. After moves past its closest point to Earth (64 million miles away) on July 22nd, the dimming will become more rapid as the comet moves away from both the sun and Earth. 

It has been visible in the morning, but by July 18th, it will only appear 5 degrees above the horizon at twilight and it will no longer be visible in the morning just a few days later. 

Despite the morning visibility diminishing, the visibility will get better in the evening with visibility 10 degrees above the horizon starting tonight (July 14th), doubling to 20 degrees by July 19th. The moon phase should cooperate as well, with a waning crescent phase. Tanger Black – US11.5-12 | EU46The Softest & Comfortable Indestructible Shoes The all-in-one solution to work shoes that provide a perfect blend of comfort, style and protection. Thanks to the advancements we’ve made in footwear…Ad By Indestructible ShoesSee More

For best viewing at night, start looking about one hour after sunset just over the northwest horizon. Of course, give yourself the most ideal conditions possible for viewing, such as getting away from light pollution and higher cloud coverage. While the comet will be visible with the naked eye, binoculars or other optical aides will enhance the view. 

Keep an eye on the forecast for viewing by checking out our daily forecast article

NEOWISE – The Comet & The Story of The Spacecraft Which Discovered It

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE is now visible to observers in the Northern Hemisphere. You can see it in the twilight just before sunrise and now, just after sunset without any binoculars or telescopes, it’s the best comet in over a decade.

However, the spacecraft which discovered it has a pretty amazing story, it was launched just over a decade ago, helped find 3 new stars close to the Sun, and a huge catalog of asteroids. After its primary mission ended it was reactived as an asteroid survey telescope and Comet NEOWISE is one of its discoveries.

Neowise comet and rare astronomical phenomena captured in remarkable image

The C/2020 F3 comet was discovered in March

A photographer in Italy captured the image of a lifetime when he snapped a picture showing two astronomical phenomena, including a streaking comet and “night-shining” clouds.

Atop the nearly 11,500 foot-high Hochfeiler mountain in the South Tyrol Alps in Italy, Martin Rietze captured the image of the NEOWISE comet and the Noctilucent clouds, SWNS reports.

The comet, also known as C/2020 F3, was discovered in March by NASA’s NEOWISE space telescope.

The NEOWISE comet seen above noctilucent clouds taken from the Hochfeiler mountain in the South Tyrol alps in Italy on July 8. (Credit: SWNS)

The NEOWISE comet seen above noctilucent clouds taken from the Hochfeiler mountain in the South Tyrol alps in Italy on July 8. (Credit: SWNS)

Noctilucent clouds occur when astronomical light reflects on ice in the clouds.

The comet, which can be observed with the naked eye, has been visible since July 7, NASA said on its website.

“Through about the middle of the month, the comet is visible around 10 degrees above the northeastern horizon (the width of your outstretched fist) in the hour before dawn,” the space agency added. “From mid-July on, it’s best viewed as an evening object, rising increasingly higher above the northwestern horizon.”

NASA notes that the comet’s closest approach to earth will be on July 22, at a distance of about 64 million miles.

“The comet takes about 6,800 years to make one lap around its long, stretched out orbit, so it won’t visit the inner solar system again for many thousands of years,” the agency explained on its website.

Space’s Trash Collector? A Japanese Entrepreneur Wants the Job

A vacuum chamber used to test parts of Astroscale’s IDEA OSG 1 satellite at the company’s factory in Tokyo. The satellite, scheduled to be launched next year, will compile data on the density of space debris.
A vacuum chamber used to test parts of Astroscale’s IDEA OSG 1 satellite at the company’s factory in Tokyo. The satellite, scheduled to be launched next year, will compile data on the density of space debris.Credit…Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

TOKYO — Sitting in a drab industrial neighborhood surrounded by warehouses and factories, Astroscale’s Tokyo office seems appropriately located for a company seeking to enter the waste management business.

Only inside do visitors see signs that its founder, Mitsunobu Okada, aspires to be more than an ordinary garbageman. Schoolroom pictures of the planets decorate the door to the meeting room. Satellite mock-ups occupy a corner. Mr. Okada greets guests in a dark blue T-shirt emblazoned with his company’s slogan: Space Sweepers.

Mr. Okada is an entrepreneur with a vision of creating the first trash collection company dedicated to cleaning up some of humanity’s hardest-to-reach rubbish: the spent rocket stages, inert satellites and other debris that have been collecting above Earth since Sputnik ushered in the space age. He launched Astroscale three years ago in the belief that national space agencies were dragging their feet in facing the problem, which could be tackled more quickly by a small private company motivated by profit.

“Let’s face it, waste management isn’t sexy enough for a space agency to convince taxpayers to allocate money,” said Mr. Okada, 43, who put Astroscale’s headquarters in start-up-friendly Singapore but is building its spacecraft in his native Japan, where he found more engineers. “My breakthrough is figuring out how to make this into a business.”

The 50-pound IDEA OSG 1 satellite will carry panels that measure the number of strikes from debris of even less than a millimeter.
The 50-pound IDEA OSG 1 satellite will carry panels that measure the number of strikes from debris of even less than a millimeter.Credit…Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Over the last half-century, low Earth orbit has become so littered with debris that space agencies and scientists warn of the increasing danger of collisions for satellites and manned spacecraft. The United States Air Force now keeps track of about 23,000 pieces of space junk that are big enough — about four inches or larger — to be detected from the ground.

Scientists say there could be tens of millions of smaller particles, such as bolts or chunks of frozen engine coolant, that cannot be discerned from Earth. Even the tiniest pieces move through orbit at speeds fast enough to turn them into potentially deadly projectiles. In 1983, the space shuttle Challenger returned to Earth with a pea-size pit in its windshield from a paint-chip strike.

And plans are being made to make low orbit even busier, and more essential for communications on Earth. Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are aiming to create vast new networks of hundreds or even thousands of satellites to provide global internet connectivity and cellphone coverage. The growth of traffic increases the risk of collisions that could disrupt communications, as in 2009 when a dormant Russian military satellite slammed into a private American communications satellite, causing brief disruptions for satellite-phone users.

Worse, each strike like that creates a cloud of shrapnel, potentially setting off a chain reaction of collisions that could render low orbit unusable.

Satellite parts being tested at Astroscale’s Tokyo plant.
Satellite parts being tested at Astroscale’s Tokyo plant.Credit…Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

“If we don’t start removing these things, the debris environment will become unstable,” said William Ailor, a fellow at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center in California. “We will continue to have a growing debris population that could affect the ability to operate satellites.”

Enter Mr. Okada, a former government official and internet entrepreneur, who said a midlife crisis four years ago prompted him to return to his childhood passion of space. As a teenager in 1988, he flew to Alabama to join the United States Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, and later chose to attend business school at Purdue University, the alma mater of his hero, Neil Armstrong.

Later, Mr. Okada realized that he could use his experience in the start-up world — he had founded a software company in 2009 — to get a jump on other space debris projects.

“The projects all smelled like government, not crisp or quick,” he said of conferences he attended to learn about other efforts. “I came from the start-up world where we think in days or weeks, not years.”

16 Psyche: The asteroid that could make every person on Earth a billionaire

Could 16 Psyche make every person on Earth a billionaire? The space mining race is heating up.

  • 16 Psyche is an asteroid full of metal in the asteroid belt that could be worth $700 quintillion.
  • NASA plans to visit 16 Psyche by 2026.
  • Commercial mining of faraway asteroids could still be decades away and some set closer targets, like the moon.

Would you like to be a billionaire? All you have to do is figure out how to go into space and mine 16 Psyche, an asteroid made of gold and other metals like iron and nickel. Flying somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, this amazing space rock is estimated to be worth as much as $700 quintillion, thanks to all the metals it contains.

Quintillion, if you are wondering, is 1 with 18 zeroes. It’s such a large amount of money that if you divide it up between everyone alive on Earth currently, each person would get about $93 billion.

Of course, don’t pack your bags for your new palace just yet – the prospect of actually getting such a giant chunk of precious metals back to Earth is difficult and hasn’t been accomplished yet even on much smaller scales. And 16 Psyche is a truly massive space rock at over 200 km (120 mi) in diameter. It is one of the largest asteroids flying in the asteroid belt.

Experts, like Professor Zarnecki of the Royal Astronomical Society, conjecture we may be up to 50 years away from being able to carry out commercial mining operations of that size. To start things off, NASA is planning to send a Discovery Mission to the asteroid in 2022, which will arrive there by 2026.

Some skeptics also don’t believe the asteroid is as full of expensive things as we think, with Peter Schiff of Euro Pacific Capital tweeting that 16 Psyche may just be “made almost entirely of an iron-nickel alloy, with small amounts of other metals, likely to include gold.” He thinks the news about the asteroid are just out there to help bitcoin, which would benefit from the price of gold going down.

There are also other questions to consider – if it really is so full of gold and other riches, the asteroid could actually crash Earth’s economy, which at $75.5 trillion is a pittance against the amount of money one could get from the asteroid.

Artist’s conceptual drawing of the Psyche spacecraft, which will be used to directly explore 16 Psyche.Maxar/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Veteran miner Scott Moore, CEO of the mining company EuroSun Mining, explained to Oil Price that: “The ‘Titans of Gold’ now control hundreds of the best-producing properties around the world, but the 4-5 million ounces of gold they bring to the market every year pales in comparison to the conquests available in space.”

Of course, the thinking that a space gold rush that discovers a vast amount of heavy metals could bring down Earth’s affairs is based on the current state of economy and the needs of the present day. Decades from now our requirements for metal might be entirely different.

16 Psyche was actually discovered back in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, and named after the Greek mythological character Psyche.

Besides this giant rock in the asteroid belt, there are other mining opportunities much closer to Earth. Moore points out that while Psyche “may be the Holy Grail of space exploration for gold,” near-Earth asteroids are much better first targets for mining. Even our moon might be a better place to start such operations. It also has gold as well as platinum and other rare earth metals.

In other nearer goals, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources each plan to mine the 2011 UW158 asteroid, worth up to $5.7 trillion.

Lest you think this is all science fiction, Morgan Stanley projects the global space economy to be already worth $350 billion, which it thinks will grow to trillions by 2040. The race is on between the U.S., China, Japan and even small Luxembourg, which has 10 space-mining companies registered.

Why is NASA sending a spacecraft to a metal world?

Can You Really Become a Mars Land Owner?

You may soon be able to own a piece of the red planet!

On Nov. 26, 2018, NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars, becoming the eighth space-exploring robot to visit the Red Planet. For adventurous humans inspired to eventually follow in the footsteps of this spacecraft, possibly terraforming Mars or owning land there may seem like the next best thing. A handful of companies, such as Buy Mars and Lunar Embassy, sell ads on Facebook and elsewhere claiming they “possess a legal trademark and copyright for the sale of extraterrestrial property” or are the “only recognized world authority” for the sale of lunar and planetary real estate. Deeds sell between $30 and $500. While it may be true that colonizing Mars is on the horizon, can anyone really own property on Mars?

How Valid Is a Mars Land Deed?

Like all real estate transactions, it comes down to the law. The foundational law for space was drafted 50 years ago, when space exploration was still in its infancy. In 1967, the United States, the then–Soviet Union and the United Kingdom wrote the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” Nicknamed the “Outer Space Treaty,” the document established guidelines to ensure equal and peaceful access to space. More than 100 nations signed it. It accounts for real estate in space, among other things. Article II of the Outer Space Treaty states, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” In short, nobody can claim ownership of Mars or land on Mars, or do so with any other celestial body.

But the treaty was made to be modified as society advanced. In 2015, the United States Congress passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015, or SPACE Act, which allows U.S. citizens to “possess, own, transport, use and sell” materials extracted from celestial bodies, reported Nature. The new law accounts for the growing interest in mining asteroids, the moon or other celestial bodies for minerals or other resources. Private companies will be able to set up shop on Mars, mine it and lay claim to those resources, but won’t be able to own the land.

For those who really want a Mars land deed with their name on it, there’s nothing wrong with buying one. It’s a novelty item that might make a nice gift for the person who has everything. But it’s just for fun. The document won’t be recognized by any government authority as legitimate or legally binding.

A Mars Colony Is Coming

Even as the Mars InSight lander begins to gather scientific data from the Red Planet to better inform the potential for human survival there, Earthlings are making plans to colonize Mars. In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Space Policy Directive-1, which refocused America’s space program on human exploration. The plan involves returning humans to the moon, establishing a means for traveling to Mars by the 2030s and eventually expanding human presence across the solar system later in the century.

Getting beyond the moon will require advanced rocket propulsion to speed astronauts to their destination. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is building the boosters for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, designed to take humans beyond Earth orbit. In 2020, the rockets will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the lunar vicinity as part of Exploration Mission-1. The mission will be step one in a series of increasingly complex missions that will work like stepping stones to lead humans into deep space.

Others are shooting for Mars, too. Mars One, a venture launched by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, says they aim to have humans on Mars by 2031.

When Will Humans Begin Terraforming Mars?

A hundred years from now, humans may be thriving on Mars. But they’ll likely be conducting their lives under the confines of a transparent dome akin to a large terrarium. Climate, temperature and atmosphere will be controlled, and humans will be able to grow plants for food. Terraforming Mars — that is, manipulating the atmosphere to create an Earth-like, habitable environment — is simply not possible using any of the technology available to humans, according to NASA. Scientists have proposed large-scale geo-engineering projects, such as releasing carbon dioxide trapped in the Martian soil to create a thicker atmosphere that warms the planet. But recent studies have shown that there isn’t enough CO2 in the soil. The atmospheric pressure on Mars is also less than 1 percent of that on Earth. If, somehow, scientists could figure out how to warm the skies and get them to rain, the water would evaporate quickly.

For now, humans will have to be satisfied with standing on planet Earth and gazing up at the red dot in the sky. Over the ages, that dot has inspired humanity to imagine an existence beyond the heavens. The potential for extraterrestrial life, colonization and terraformation calls to civilization and soon, we will make our way into space. We’ve taken the first steps by sending machines ahead of us. In fact, Mars is the only planet in the solar system inhabited by robots. Perhaps, one day soon, we will join them.

Mysterious, gel-like substance discovered on the far side of the moon has been identified

It was found during China’s Chang’e 4 mission to the moon.

Scientists have identified a strange, gel-like substance that was discovered on the far side of the moon.

The material was found last year during China’s Chang’e 4 mission to the moon. Citing the Chinese language publication OurSpace, Space.com reports that the matter was “gel-like.”

China's Chang'e 4 moon rover, known as Yutu 2, photographed by the Chang'e 4 lander on the moon's far side.

China’s Chang’e 4 moon rover, known as Yutu 2, photographed by the Chang’e 4 lander on the moon’s far side. (CNSA)

In a paper published in the journal Earth and Planetary Sciences, researchers described the substance as a “dark greenish and glistening impact melt breccia.”

Impact melt breccia is a type of lunar rock formed from asteroids striking the surface of the moon.

In their paper, the scientists explain that the substance discovered by the Chang’e 4 mission’s Yutu-2 rover is similar to two melt breccia samples returned from the moon by NASA’s Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 missions.

In a separate project, scientists have used radar technology to shed new light on the subsurface of the moon.

Asteroid Apophis inbound: Will it hit Earth in 2029 or let us live?

Asteroids the size of Apophis are far fewer in number and so do not pass this close to Earth as often but Apophis is a also representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.

Asteroid Apophis inbound: Will it hit Earth in 2029 or let us live?

At closest approach, Apophis will be over the Atlantic Ocean | Photo for representation

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Asteroid called 99942 Apophis will cruise by Earth, about 31,000 km above the surface
  • That’s within distance that some of our spacecraft that orbit Earth
  • A team of astronomers discovered Apophis in June 2004

On April 13, 2029, a speck of light will streak across the sky getting brighter and faster.

At one point it will travel more than the width of the full Moon within a minute and it will get as bright as the stars in the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor is colloquially known in the US as the Little Dipper).

But, it won’t be a satellite or an airplane.

Then what it may be? Well, it will be a 340-metre-wide near-Earth asteroid.

The asteroid called 99942 Apophis will cruise harmlessly by Earth, about 31,000 km above the surface. That’s within the distance that some of our spacecraft that orbit Earth.

The international asteroid research community couldn’t be more excited.

THE ASTEROID’S CLOSE APPROACH

This week at the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland, scientists are gathering to discuss observation plans and science opportunities for the celestial event still a decade away.

During a session on April 30, scientists will discuss everything from how to observe the event to hypothetical missions we could send out to the asteroid.

“The Apophis close approach in 2029 will be an incredible opportunity for science,” Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who works on radar observations of near-Earth objects (NEOs), said.

“We’ll observe the asteroid with both optical and radar telescopes. With radar observations, we might be able to see surface details that are only a few meters in size,” Marina Brozovic said.

WATCH | Apophis asteroid and Earth at closest approach

It’s rare for an asteroid of this size to pass by the Earth so close. Although scientists have spotted small asteroids, on the order of 5-10 metres, flying by Earth at a similar distance, asteroids the size of Apophis are far fewer in number and so do not pass this close to Earth as often.ADVERTISEMENT

The asteroid, looking like a moving star-like point of light, will first become visible to the naked eye in the night sky over the southern hemisphere, flying above Earth from the east coast to the west coast of Australia. It will be mid-morning on the East Coast of the United States when Apophis is above Australia. It will then cross the Indian Ocean, and by the afternoon in the eastern US it will have crossed the equator, still moving west, above Africa.

At closest approach, Apophis will be over the Atlantic Ocean and it will move so fast that it will cross the Atlantic in just an hour.Small asteroid was caught in process of spinning so fast it’s throwing off material, according to new data from Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories | Photo via Nasa

APOPHIS AND CHANCES OF IT IMPACTING EARTH

A team of astronomers discovered Apophis in June 2004.

The observations caused quite a stir – initial orbital calculations revealed that the asteroid had a 2.7 per cent chance of impacting Earth in 2029.

Fortunately, additional observations refined the orbit and completely ruled out that possibility.

Current calculations show that Apophis still has a small chance of impacting Earth, less than 1 in 1,00,000 many decades from now, but future measurements of its position can be expected to rule out any possible impacts.

Davide Farnocchia, an astronomer at JPL’s Center for Near Earth Objects Studies (CNEOS), who is co-chairing the April 30 session on Apophis with Brozovicm, said, “We already know that the close encounter with Earth will change Apophis’ orbit, but our models also show the close approach could change the way this asteroid spins, and it is possible that there will be some surface changes, like small avalanches.”

“Apophis is a representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs),” Paul Chodas, director of CNEOS, said. “By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be used for planetary defense.”

(Inputs from Nasa)

There’s more metal on the moon than we thought

Earth’s moon is more metal than scientists imagined.

NASA’s prolific Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) found rich evidence of iron and titanium oxides under the surface of the moon, which may show a close connection with Earth’s early history.

Scientists have been debating how the moon formed for decades. The leading theory suggests that a Mars-size world collided with Earth billions of years ago. The colliding world shattered upon impact and blasted part of the proto-Earth’s surface into space. The debris surrounded Earth with a ring; the moon we see today is the result of that ring slowly collapsing under its own gravity.

The moon’s chemical composition, however, doesn’t show clear evidence of that theory. The lunar highlands on the moon, visible from the Earth as bright regions, have rocks with smaller amounts of metal-bearing minerals relative to our planet.

That could make sense if Earth was already layered, with heavier metals sunk to the core — except that the moon’s dark maria planes formed at the same time and have higher metal abundance even than Earth’s rocks.

LRO’s new findings could explain the discrepancy. The new research relies on a device called the Miniature Radio Frequency (Mini-RF) instrument, a radar probe designed to map lunar geology, look for water ice and test communications technologies.

The instrument scoured the terrain in the moon’s northern hemisphere for an electrical property called the dielectric constant. This constant is a number comparing the ability of a material to transmit electric fields with that of the vacuum of space. 

Electric-field transmission is useful to find ice in the shadows of craters, where it is protected from the heat of the sun. But it can also identify areas where more metals, like iron and titanium oxides, are exposed to the surface.

And the scientists noticed that the dielectric constant increased with crater size, but only up to a certain point. Craters between 1 and 3 miles (2 and 5 kilometers) in diameter showed the dielectric constant increased steadily as the craters grew larger. For craters between 3 and 12 miles (5 to 20 km) wide, however, the constant held steady.

“It was a surprising relationship that we had no reason to believe would exist,” Essam Heggy, co-investigator of the Mini-RF experiments from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and lead author on the new research, said in a NASA statement

The team’s theory was that the first few hundred feet (or meters) of the moon’s surface has few of these oxides, but a richer source of metal lies further below. Then, as meteors collide with the lunar surface and scratch away upper layers, metals become exposed. That sort of pattern would also explain low metal levels in the lunar highlands and higher abundances in the darker and lower plains closer to the moon’s subsurface.

To test their work, researchers compared Mini-RF’s crater-floor radar images with metal oxide maps produced by a range of missions: LRO Wide-Angle Camera, Japan’s Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE) mission (also called Kayuga) and NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft. SELENE and Lunar Prospector are no longer operating, but their archival data remains.

Those observations showed that larger craters did indeed contain more metal, according to NASA, which the researchers believe support their hypothesis about buried metallic deposits that meteors excavate.

The results are even more intriguing in light of a puzzling phenomenon reported in 2019 by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, at the moon. Gravity measurements of the moon suggest there is a lot of dense material that is tens to hundreds of miles (or kilometers) underneath the moon’s massive South Pole-Aitken basin. The GRAIL results, paired with LRO’s new find, thus suggest metals may be more concentrated in certain regions of the moon.

The LRO results are one small step to better understanding how the moon formed, as the observations show how iron and titanium oxides are distributed beneath the moon’s northern hemisphere. Next, the researchers will be looking at crater floors in the southern hemisphere to see how much metal is there.

study based on the research was published Wednesday (July 1) in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Comet NEOWISE could give skywatchers a dazzling show this month. Here’s what to know.

Astrophotographer Chris Schur captured this view of Comet NEOWISE F3 from Payson, Arizona before dawn on July 5, 2020.
Astrophotographer Chris Schur captured this view of Comet NEOWISE F3  from Payson, Arizona before dawn on July 5, 2020. (Image credit: Chris Schur/Chris Schur Astrophotography)

Earlier this year, the NEOWISE space telescope discovered its latest comet, a distant and inconspicuous object.  

At the time of its discovery on March 27, the comet — dubbed Comet NEOWISE (short for Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) and cataloged as C/2020 F3, was located 194 million miles (312 million kilometers) from the sun and shining at a very faint magnitude of +17 — that’s about 25,000 times fainter than the faintest star that can be glimpsed with the naked eye. It was only visible with large telescopes.

But in July, Comet NEOWISE has raised hopes that it will become a tantalizing object for skywatchers after two previous comets (ATLAS and SWAN) fizzled out earlier this year. 

When we talk about the comet’s brightness below, we’ll be discussing its magnitude — a measurement of an object’s brightness in the sky. The lower the magnitude, the brighter the object. The brightest stars in the sky are zero or first magnitude. The faintest stars visible to the eye on dark, clear nights are sixth magnitude. First magnitude stars are 100 times brighter than those of sixth magnitude.  

 Third time a comet charm?

Comet NEOWISE survived its closest approach to the sun, (perihelion) unlike its 2020 predecessors, comets ATLAS and SWAN. All the way into its approach to the sun, NEOWISE displayed a perfectly circular and well-condensed head, or coma compared to the faint, wispy, almost ghostly coma displayed by Comet ATLAS and the “hammerhead” looking coma of Comet SWAN, which foretold a possible break-up. As it turned out, both of those objects indeed faded away long before either reached the vicinity of the sun.

Well before NEOWISE’s solar arrival on Friday (July 3), veteran Australian comet watcher, Michael Mattiazzo was confident that NEOWISE would remain intact, giving at least a 70% chance that it would survive its close brush with the sun. 

Skywatcher Michael Jager captured this view of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) on June 26 with a telescope.
Skywatcher Michael Jager captured this view of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) on June 26 with a telescope.  (Image credit: MIchael Jager)

And apparently it did! The comet was 27.3 million miles (44 million km) from the sun on July 3, when it was subjected to temperatures of up to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit (593 degrees Celsus). Thereafter, rapid motion to the northeast and then east, owing to the comet’s sharp orbital inclination to the orbital plane of the planets, will quickly carry it away from the sun’s vicinity in the days to follow.  

Astrophotographer Chris Schur spotted Comet NEOWISE early today (July 5) from Payson Arizona. 

“The comet continues to be stunning, rising tail first over the plateau, some 20 miles distant,” Schur told Space.com while sharing photo he captured through an Explore Scientific AR152 mm telescope. “I was able to easily see it naked eye with about a degree of tail visually. Gorgeous yellow color in the scope.”

 An overachiever! 

This chart shows the location of Comet NEOWISE in the evening sky in mid-to-late July 2020.
This chart shows the location of Comet NEOWISE in the evening sky in mid-to-late July 2020. (Image credit: Joe Rao/Space.com)

Originally, NEOWISE was not expected to get much brighter than ninth or 10th magnitude, making it accessible only to those with good binoculars or small telescopes. But during the spring, observers in the Southern Hemisphere followed the very rapid brightening of this object as its distances from both the sun and Earth decreased. A consensus of observations placed it at magnitude +9.9 on May 10.  

Just under a month late, on June 7, the comet was on the far side of the sun, 73 million miles (117 million km) distant from the star and 147 million miles (236 million km) from Earth. It had increased 12-fold in brightness to a magnitude +7.2. As projected on the sky, the comet was scarcely 24 degrees from the sun (a closed fist at the end of an outstretched arm covers 10 degrees of the sky) and the two were rapidly closing together. Shortly thereafter, the comet was lost to observers in the increasing glare of the sun. 

But from June 22 through June 27, the comet was within the range of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). SOHO is a cooperative mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. The spacecraft is stationed in a halo orbit around the sun-Earth L1 Lagrangian point, a position roughly 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) sunward of Earth. At this point in space, the orbital period of SOHO exactly matches the orbital period of Earth. From this orbit, SOHO is able to observe the sun 24 hours a day.

Using its Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO-3), which can create an artificial solar eclipse, NEOWISE could be monitored as it passed near to the sun. During this time, the comet appeared to significantly brighten, with comet expert Charles Morris estimating a magnitude of +1.7 just before it passed out of the field of the LASCO-3 camera. Comet NEOWISE also appeared to have developed a rather bright, albeit short and stubby forked-shaped dust tail. 

 Surprise! 

This chart shows the location of Comet NEOWISE in the predawn sky of early July 2020.
This chart shows the location of Comet NEOWISE in the predawn sky of early July 2020.  (Image credit: Joe Rao/Space.com)

And then, quite unexpectedly, amateur astronomers were able to make sightings of Comet NEOWISE before sunrise beginning on July 1.  

“Wow– it was very bright, near magnitude +1,” Ray Brooks of the Arizona Sky Village near Tucson saw the comet through binoculars and told Space.com. “If the comet were in dark skies at a decent elevation, it would be a spectacular naked-eye object.” 

On the morning of July 4,  Brooks could see Comet NEOWISE’s forked double tail break the top of a nearby mountain first, followed by the comet head.Advertisement

Another assiduous Arizona comet watcher is astronomer Carl Hergenrother of Tucson, who saw NEOWISE both on July 1 and July 2, describing as appearing at least as bright as a first magnitude star, in spite of it being very low to the horizon and against a bright twilight sky. 

And the highly reputable comet expert, John E. Bortle of Stormville, New York was amazed at the comet’s performance so far. 

“Theoretically, the comet shouldn’t still be brightening noticeably, as its distance to the sun is undergoing only a small reduction day-to-day at this point, making me think that the comet’s current brightness is not being governed mainly by its distance from the sun but, rather it is experiencing some manner of progressive slow outburst,” he said.

 Is this a Great Comet in the making?

Comets fall into two categories. “Common” comets are faint fuzz-balls that are visible only with the help of good binoculars or telescopes. Tonight, for instance, there are perhaps eight or 10 such comets in our sky.

Then, there are the “Great” comets, those that become bright enough to be plainly visible with the naked eye and accompanied by a striking tail of dust and gas. Unfortunately, such displays do not come around very often. In the average human lifespan, you may get a chance to see perhaps four if you are very fortunate.

The last great comet visible from the Northern Hemisphere was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, but is NEOWISE developing into one right now? Based on the very latest brightness estimates, Comet NEOWISE might fall just short of the criteria, though once it becomes evident in darker skies it should be quite obvious, especially away from light polluted cities.

 When and where to look 

NEOWISE is about to take center stage, which we visualize in two diagrams; one for the morning sky and the other for the evening sky. The time frames are for the beginning (morning) and end (evening) of nautical twilight, when the sun is positioned 12 degrees below the horizon, corresponding to approximately 80 minutes before sunrise and 80 minutes after sunset for those living at mid-northern latitudes. The lines extend directly away from the sun, showing the probable direction in the sky of the comet’s tail should one develop.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

In the morning sky, the first views of NEOWISE could come as early as July 5 or 6 in the morning sky, very low above the northeast horizon. By around July 11, the comet will reach an altitude of nearly 10 degrees — for comparison, 10 degrees is roughly equal to the width of your fist held at arm’s length.  Then over the next 10 days it will gradually slide back down toward the north-northeast horizon, eventually disappearing from dawn visibility. 

A far-better viewing perspective will become available in the evening sky starting around July 12, when it will appear low in the northwest sky. In the evenings to follow, the comet will rapidly climb higher in the sky.  

On July 22, NEOWISE will make its closest approach to the Earth, a distance of 64 million miles (103 million km). By July 25, the comet will appear 30 degrees (“three fists”) up from the west-northwest horizon as darkness falls. And on July 30-31st, the comet will be passing just to the north of the fine star cluster of Coma Berenices or Berenice’s Hair.

 Final thoughts

Although on successive July evenings the comet will grow fainter, it will be farther from sun, setting later and visible in a darker sky. As we move into August, the comet will be very well placed for observers with small telescopes.  

Amateur observers should seek the most favorable conditions possible. Even a bright comet, like this one, can be obliterated by thin horizon clouds, haze, humid air, smoke, twilight glow, city lights, or moonlight. Of course, binoculars or telescopes will only enhance the view.Advertisement

For the more technically inclined, or for those who own a “GoTo” Telescope, the ephemeris below is from calculations by Daniel Green.  Positions are valid for 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on every fourth date and provides the comet’s right ascension and declination; next is the comet’s elongation, or angular distance from the sun, followed by the constellation the comet is in, and lastly an approximate predicted magnitude.  

Exciting times are ahead. NEOWISE is here. “Comet” get it!

DateRight AscensionDeclinationElongationConstellationMagnitude
July 505h 07.20m+34°04.8’16°Auriga0.7
July 906h 34.38m+40°24.3’20°Auriga1.2
July 1307h 24.78m+45°41.0’24°Lynx2.0
July 1708h 40.20m+48°11.1’29°Ursa Major2.7
July 2110h 06.66m+46°01.9’36°Ursa Major3.5
July 2511h 20.33m+39°40.1’43°Ursa Major4.3
July 2912h 12.71m+31°40.6’50°Coma Bernices5.1
Aug. 212h 48.45m+24°06.0’55°Coma Bernices5.9
Aug. 613h 13.52m+17°41.2’58°Coma Bernices6.6

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

NASA wants to use a steam-powered robot to explore icy moons that could host alien life

NASA’s plans to explore the ice moons of the Solar System are getting more detail as the space agency is developing a robot that would use steam to power itself in deep space.

In a post to its website, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory notes researchers are developing a soccer-ball sized robot known as SPARROW (Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds) that “would use steam propulsion to hop across the sort of icy terrains found on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.”

“The terrain on Europa is likely highly complex,” said Gareth Meirion-Griffith, JPL roboticist and the lead researcher of the concept, in the statement. “It could be porous, it might be riddled with crevasses, there might be meters-high penitentes” – long blades of ice known to form at high latitudes on Earth – “that would stop most robots in their tracks. But SPARROW has total terrain agnosticism; it has complete freedom to travel across an otherwise inhospitable terrain.”

Moons In this artist's concept, a SPARROW robot uses steam propulsion to hop away from its lander home base to explore an icy moon's surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Moons In this artist’s concept, a SPARROW robot uses steam propulsion to hop away from its lander home base to explore an icy moon’s surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Both moons have been mentioned as candidates to possibly host life previously, including one study published in December 2019 that suggested they could be “indigenous.”

By using steam to power the robot, SPARROW could thrive in the “low-gravity environment” on Enceladus and Europa, hopping “many miles over landscapes that other robots would have difficulty navigating,” NASA added.

With its global ocean, unique chemistry and internal heat, Enceladus has become a promising lead in our search for worlds where life could exist.

With its global ocean, unique chemistry and internal heat, Enceladus has become a promising lead in our search for worlds where life could exist. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Enceladus and Europa both likely have oceans that exist under a layer of ice crust. In 2019, researchers determined Enceladus’ ocean is likely 1 billion years old, placing it in the sweet spot for supporting life.

In 2018, researchers acknowledged they had found the “building blocks” for life on Enceladus, having discovered complex organic molecules.

JPL notes that the SPARROW concept is dependent upon a lander to serve as a home base for it. The lander would “mine ice and melt it” prior to putting it on SPARROW, which would later heat it and create the steam necessary to power itself.

An artist's illustration of a plume of water vapor emanating from Jupiter's moon Europa. (NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI)

An artist’s illustration of a plume of water vapor emanating from Jupiter’s moon Europa. (NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI) (NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI)

JPL added that it’s possible “many SPARROWs could be sent together, swarming around  a specific location or splitting up to explore as much alien terrain as possible.”

Enceladus is not the only celestial satellite of Saturn to intrigue scientists. In June, NASA announced the latest mission in its New Frontiers program. Known as Dragonfly, the mission will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, which could potentially host extraterrestrial life.

Two months later, NASA confirmed it would launch a mission to Europa, a trek that could answer whether the icy celestial body could be habitable for humans and support life.

Get set for July 4 buck moon, partial lunar eclipse: NASA’s top tips for July skywatchers

The July 4 full moon is known as the buck moon or thunder moon

Skywatchers are in for a treat on July 4, when the buck moon, or July full moon, rises in the sky. There will also be a partial lunar eclipse.

“July’s full moon will rise after sunset in the evening of Saturday, July 4, before reaching peak illumination at 12:44 A.M Eastern Time on Sunday, July 5,” explains The Old Farmer’s Almanac. “Look towards the southeast to watch it rise above the horizon.”

The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains that the buck moon earned its name because it occurs at a time of the year when a buck’s antlers are “in full growth mode.” Another name for the buck moon is the thunder moon.

NASA notes that there will also be a partial penumbral eclipse of the moon. In a penumbral lunar eclipse, part of the moon passes through the outer part of Earth’s shadow, the space agency says.

On the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the full buck moon rises above the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in New York City on July 16, 2019 as seen from Kearney, New Jersey - file photo.

On the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the full buck moon rises above the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in New York City on July 16, 2019 as seen from Kearney, New Jersey – file photo. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

“The moon will be close enough to opposite the Sun that its northern edge will pass through the partial shadow of the Earth,” explains NASA on its website. “Although visible from the Americas, this slight dimming of part of the moon should be difficult or impossible to notice without instrumentation. The moon will appear full for about three days around the eclipse, from Friday evening into Monday morning, making this a full moon weekend.”

Last month, skywatchers across the globe enjoyed the stunning June full moon or strawberry moon. The strawberry moon was also a penumbral lunar eclipse for skywatchers in Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania.

The buck moon, however, will not be as high in the sky as the strawberry moon. “For 2020, this full Moon in early July is closer to the summer solstice and will be lower in the sky than the full Moon in June,” explains NASA on its website.

The May full moon, known as the flower moon, was the last supermoon of 2020.

July is also a good time for seeing Venus and Mercury, according to NASA. “Wednesday morning, July 8, 2020, will be when the brightest of the planets, Venus, reaches its greatest brilliancy,” it explains, on its website. “Starting the morning of Thursday, July 16, 2020, the planet Mercury will be above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (at least for the Washington, D.C. area), making all five of the naked eye planets visible (if you have a clear view of Mercury on the horizon in the east-northeast and Jupiter and Saturn on the horizon in the southwest).”

The five naked-eye planets are Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter