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Astronomy News

In the News January/February

Moon Missions in January and February...   To quote Robert Heinlein, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."
January 8th,   The first American lunar lander mission since the Apollo Lunar Missions lifted off on January 8th, 2024.   Notably, the lander flew as part of NASA'’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which has encouraged private companies to build and operate their own lunar landers to deliver NASA supplies and instruments to the moon.   Also of note, this mission was not a SpaceX mission! The space launch system, engines, and lunar lander were respectively the joint effort of United Launch Alliance (whose Vulcan Centaur replaces their Saturn V system), with Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) engines instead of the Russian built engines used on the Saturn V's, and private company Astrobotic's lunar lander, the Peregrine.   The rocket and engines performed flawlessly, but disappointingly, the lunar lander suffered a fuel valve malfunction at the point of lunar separation; the loss of fuel was too great to attempt a soft landing on the moon.

January 19th,   The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) SLIM mission (Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon) accomplished part of its main mission objectives, an autonomous soft lunar landing with pinpoint accuracy--less than 330 feet from its planned target!   Then came the bad news.   It appears that one of the lander's main engines had lost thrust about 50 meters from the lunar surface, causing the lander to fly sideways, tip over, and land on the Moon upside-down.   Again, the Moon is a harsh mistress!

February 22nd,   Today the private company Intuitive Machines (with the help of NASA and a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket) executed the first U.S. based soft landing on the Moon in 50 years!   NASA's Apollo 17 crewed-landing in 1972 was the last time the U.S. accomplished this feat.   Under NASA's commercial lunar services program, the utlimate goal of today's Odysseus lunar lander was to garner information for NASA's planned Artemis III crewed mission to the moon; thus the targeted crater was Malapert A near the South Pole of the Moon.   Like the Japanese mission SLIM, the Odysseus mission was successful on many fronts.   Like SLIM, the Odysseus lunar lander also ended up on its side instead of upright.   Fortunately, some of the antenna in the array are still able to transmit data.   A summary of the mission can be found Here.   ...and yet nother lesson that the Moon is a harsh mistress!

Whatever Happened to the Samples from Asteroid Bennu?
January 19th,   It has been a long time since the capsule containing samples from this carbonaceous asteroid parachuted to Earth on September 24th of last year.   With the development of special tools, NASA has finally opened the cold-welded chamber to reveal the chunks of primitive rock that were harvested by the Osiris-Rex mission in 2020.   Not only will researchers pore over the secrets of this treasure trove for years to come, but they will also have the opportunity to validate the accuracy of the instruments that had been used to study the elements and chemicals of the asteroid from afar as they compare the results of the earlier investigations with the genuine article!   The Osiris-Rex blog can be found Here.

Adieu, Ingenuity, You Overachiever!
January 25,   Three years after its planned longevity, the plucky Marscopter has been grounded.   This short recap from NASA tells the story .

Adieu, Saturn, mon ami
February 1st,   Catch your last fleeting glimpses of the ringed planet as it quickly disappears with the setting Sun in the West/South-West.   At its departure, Saturn's rings sport a 9 degree tilt, still enough to entice its admirers.   When Saturn returns again at a reasonably observable early morning altitude at the end of May, the rings will be nearly edge-on, like looking edge on at a thin piece of paper.   And so they will appear for almost two years as Saturn completes its nearly 30 Earth-year orbit around the Sun.   For a good image of the changing tilt of Saturn's rings, check out this NASA image.

February 2nd,   Punxsutawney Phil will have his day in the sun today, but savvy astronomy buffs are looking forward to life in the shadow of the MOON on April the 8th!

Once Every Four Years...
February 29th, one extra day every four years (with a few if ands and buts), was the solution to bring our earthly calendars into harmony with Earth's true time to orbit the sun, returning to its same position relative to the background of the stars.   This correction to the Roman calendar of emperor Julius Ceasar (which had been use in since 46BC) was not made until 1582 by Pope Gregory the XIII.   This short, fun read about the "new" Gregorian Calendar is worth a few moments.   Check it out Here.

February's Lunar Cycle:
The Last Quarter Moon occurs on the 2nd, New Moon on the 9th, First Quarter on the 16th and the Full Moon is on the 24th.

On-Line Programs to enjoy on a cloudy night!
--Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Image of Aristarchus Crater released Dec 1st, 2022 LROC.
--The McDonald Observatory Archive of livestreams can be found Here.
--The STSCI lecture series archives can be found Here.

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