The Sky Above You – February 2024
By Duncan Lunan
The Moon will be very close to Spica in Virgo on February 1st, a day before it’s at Third Quarter (half-full, waning, in the morning sky). It will be New on February 9th, and Full on February 24th, when it will pass through the ‘Sickle’ of Leo, between the stars Regulus and Algieba. It passes near Venus on the 7th, low down, before dawn, passing Jupiter on the 14th and 15th, and grazing below the Pleiades on the 16th, when it will be at First Quarter (half-full, waxing).
On December 28th the Parker Solar Probe made its 18th close pass around the Sun, each one closer than the last, due to Venus encounters which change its orbit. This time it reached a distance of 4.51 million miles from the solar surface, and in September a final Venus pass will set it on course for its last five solar orbits, going down to 4.3 million miles. That will still be twice the planned distance of the Starprobe proposed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1980s, but some of the original objectives, such as confirmation of the relativistic frame dragging predicted by Einstein, have been done by other means in the meantime.
The chequered history of recent lunar probes continued with the private US Peregrine lander, built by Astrobotic, which was launched successfully on the maiden flight of the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan booster, only for a valve to stick as its fuel tank was being pressurised, causing the tank to burst. With no hope of a landing, Astrobotic powered up as many as possible of the scientific payloads, and continued to monitor them until Peregrine burned up over the Pacific. Astrobotic remains in high hopes of success with its much larger Griffin lander, which is in preparation.
A poignant touch was that the human remains to be deposited on the Moon, by the space funerals company Celestis, including a sample of DNA from Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Many years ago, back in the early 1980s, I received as a present a package which would have allowed me to send a follicle of my hair, containing my DNA, on a private space mission to leave the Solar System. Due to other problems at the time I never got round to doing it, but Arthur Clarke did, famously attaching the message ‘Farewell, my clone!’ The mission never took place, but perhaps the follicle was the sample in question. If so, though it didn’t reach the Moon, its final disposal was apt. Arthur became enthusiastic about scuba-diving in the early 1950s, and convinced Wernher von Braun to include it in astronaut training, where it’s now used extensively. He wrote several books about it, the first two of which were The Reefs of Taprobane, about the coastal water of Sri Lanka, where he later settled – and The Coast of Coral (Muller, 1956) about the Great Barrier Reef. Peregrine would have entered atmosphere over the Reef, but its entry point was shifted north to avoid complaints from environmentalists – not that anything but dust would have reached the Earth’s surface.
Meanwhile on January 19th, Japan’s SLIM spacecraft achieved the intended pinpoint landing near Shioli crater in Mare Nectaris, south of Mare Tranquillitatis in the Moon’s eastern hemisphere. It released two roving vehicles built by a toy company, immediately before touchdown. It was then intended to land horizontally, so that the rocket exhausts wouldn’t contaminate the ground below; but unfortunately one motor then failed, making it pitch forward too far. An image from the LV-2 rover shows SLIM sitting on its nose, with its solar panels in shadow facing the ground. When battery power dropped to 12% communications were cut off, in hopes that sunlight would reach the panels as the Sun moves westward overhead. One news report said that it had been reactivated as the Sun came up, but actually the landing was at First Quarter, when the site was already in daylight. The Moon was Full on Burns’ Night, January 25th, and it will set at the SLIM landing site on February 1st, so after reactivation on the 28th its controllers are working flat out to gain all the science return from the mission that they can.
Although a brief restoration of power was a long shot, it did happen on 2015 with ESA’s Philae lander, after it failed to anchor itself to Comet 67-P and ended up in a crevice. Although the Rosetta project artist Carlo Palazzari painted Philae waking up and setting to work, its short spell of solar power was not enough to return useful data, and reluctantly Philae was switched off, eventually to be joined on the surface by Rosetta at the end of the mission. SLIM is not insulated to survive the lunar night, and if it is reawakened its subsequent life will be similarly brief.
The next US attempt at a landing will be made by the Intuitive Machines Nova-C lander, also known as IM-1. It was planned to launch in January, but was postponed to a new launch window beginning on February 8th, with the launch now scheduled for February 14th. The booster is the well-tried Space-X Falcon 9, so no problems are anticipated on that score. Nova-C’s propulsion used methane and liquid oxygen, derived from NASA’s Project Morpheus in 2012-13, which successfully demonstrated the technology. But the target once again is the difficult terrain around the lunar south pole, so the outcome remains to be seen.
The planet Mercury is not visible this month, at superior conjunction beond the Sun on the 28th.
Venus rises at 6.00 a.m., low down in the morning sky, passed by the Moon on the 7th, and will disappear before the end of the month. Venus passes very close to Mars on the morning of the 22nd, but there’s little chance to see either from the UK, particularly from Scotland.
Mars is still out of sight beyond the Sun, until spring this year. The Griffith Observer, produced by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, urges us not to miss the conjunction between Venus and Mars, but they’re a lot further south than we are, where both planets rise an hour and a quarter earlier.
In ‘Rotorcraft in Space’ (ON, 5th February 2023), I described the remarkable achievements of the Ingenuity helicopter, released on Mars by the Perseverance rover in Jezero crater, and I’ve continued to note them since. Originally intended only to perform five test flights, the tiny craft has gone on to play a vital part in the exploration of the crater floor and the ancient river delta projecting into it. On January 18th it completed its 72nd flight, to an altitude of 40 feet, and contact was later resumed after an unexpected glitch before touchdown. Celebrations were premature, however: it turns out that at least one of the rotor blades has been damaged, ‘an accident, not an incident’, to quote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The blade tip has apparently snapped off, and stable flight will no longer be possible. If the damage was caused by material kicked up the landing, Ingenuity has literally bitten the dust.
Meanwhile another US Mars mission is quietly taking shape, the twin ESCAPADE spacecraft (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers), planned for launch in October 2024. With this one the uncertainty is once again due to a previously untried booster. This will be the first launch of Jeff Bezos’s New Glenn booster, which has been subject to repeated delays over recent years. Encouragingly, though, it will fly on the same new BE-4 lox-methane engines which successfully launched the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan booster with Peregrine, so there’s good reason to hope for success. The first and second stages of the vehicle have now been brought together for the first time, at Kennedy Space Center.
Jupiter, in Aries, sets at midnight, and the Moon passes Jupiter on February 14th and 15th. Io transits the face of Jupiter between 6.39 p.m. and 8.49 p.m., followed by its shadow between 7.56 and 10.05 p.m..
Possible crustal movements on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa have been reported in various media during January, and there’s a more detailed explanation by Andrew Jones, ‘NASA Juno spacecraft picks up hints of activity on Jupiter's icy moon Europa’, Space.com, online, 25th January 2024, citing Heidi N. Becker et all, ‘A Complex Region of Europa’s Surface with Hints of Recent Activity Revealed by Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit’, JGR Planets, 22nd December 2023. During its 45th orbit of Jupiter on September 29th 2022, the Juno spacecraft imaged a ‘platypus-shaped’ region of the moon illuminated only Jupiter-light, south of a crack in the ice lined with dark patches which may have been formed by plumes of water escaping from below. Comparison with images of the same region obtained by the Galileo spacecraft in 2010 suggest changes possibly due to subsidence and to further liquid outbreaks. The investigators caution that the two images were obtained under different lighting conditions and the apparent changes may not be genuine. Nevertheless, if water is reaching the surface from the ocean below the ice, it would improve the chances of detecting any life that there may be there.
Saturn, now off our map, sets at 7.00 p.m., and will be gone by mid-February, once passed by the Moon on the 11th. Saturn and Mercury are in conjunction on the 28th, on the far side of the Sun where neither will be visible.
Uranus, on the left side of Aries, sets at 1 a.m.. Uranus appears near the Moon on the 16th.
Neptune is in Pisces, setting around 10 p.m.. Neptune is near the Moon on January 12th, and will be occulted by it for observers in Australia.
Another piece of good news is that NASA and ESA have jointly given the go-ahead for the LISA mission (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), which is intended to detect gravitational waves in space, using laser beams exchanged between three satellites with a baseline of 1.6 million miles, with much greater reach and accuracy than the present ground-based detectors. I have been following the gravitational wave research at Glasgow University since the 1970s, bringing a succession of speakers on it first to Airdrie Observatory, more recently to the Astronomers of the Future Club in Troon. One of those was Prof. Martin Hendry, after the success of the LISA Pathfinder prototype, built by British Aerospace, in 2015. Although LISA Pathfinder’s technical performance exceeded expectations, he was duly cautious about whether the main mission would be funded. It won’t fly until the 2030s, so there are many hurdles to be overcome, but the ESA announcement on January 25th is a big forward step.
Duncan Lunan’s recent books are available through Amazon. For more information see Duncan’s website, www.duncanlunan.com.
The Sky Above You
By Duncan Lunan
About this Column
I began writing this column in early 1983 at the suggestion of the late Chris Boyce. At that time the Post Office would allow 1000 free mailings to start a new business, just under the number of small press newspapers in the UK at the time. I printed a flyer with the help of John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) offering a three-part column for £5, with the sky this month, a series of articles for beginners, and a monthly news feature. The column ran from May 1983 to May 1993 in various newspapers and magazines, but never in more than five outlets at a time, although every one of those 1000-plus papers would have included an astrology column. Since then it’s appeared sporadically in a range of publications including The Southsider in Glasgow and the Dalyan Courier in Turkey, but most often, normally three times per year, in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos from the first issue in March 2003 until the last in January 2018. It continues to appear monthly in Troon's Going Out and Orkney News. Enquries from other outlets welcomed!
The monthly maps for the column were drawn for me by Jim Barker, based on similar, uncredited ones in Dr. Leon Hausman’s “Astronomy Handbook” (Fawcett Publications, 1956). Jim had to redraw or elongate several of them because they were drawn for mid-US latitudes, about 40 degrees North, making them usable over most of the northern hemisphere. The biggest change needed was in November when only Dubhe, Merak and Megrez of the Big Dipper, as the US version called it, were visible at that latitude. In the UK, all the stars of the Plough are circumpolar, always above the horizon. We decided to keep an insert in the January map showing the position of M42, the Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion, and for that reason, to stick with the set time of 9 p.m., (10 p.m. BST in summer), although in Scotland the sky isn’t dark then during June and July.
To use the maps in theory you should hold them overhead, aligning the North edge to true north, marked by Polaris and indicated by Dubhe and Merak, the Pointers. It’s more practical to hold the map in front of you when looking south and then rotate it as you face east, south and west. Some readers are confused because east is on the left, opposite to terrestrial maps, but that’s because they’re the other way up. When you’re facing south and looking at the sky, east is on your left.
The star patterns are the same for each month of each year, and only the positions of the planets change. (“Astronomy Handbook” accidentally shows Saturn in Virgo during May, showing that the maps weren’t originally drawn for the Hausman book.) Consequently regular readers for a year will by then have built up a complete set of twelve.