Newsletter for February, 2021

Welcome to the second of our monthly newsletters. We will be bringing this to your mailbox around the middle of each month, to keep you informed about Planetarium and Friends news, as well as happenings in the world of astronomy and events in our area related to science education. Visit the website for more news updates and a list of our articles.

NASA's Perseverance rover will land on Mars on February 18 at approximately 3:30pm EST, and you can watch coverage of the landing starting at 2:15! The landing will use a parachute and skycrane system similar to Mars Curiosity. In addition to the rover, the mission includes the Mars Helicopter, the first flying vehicle on another planet. Perseverance will continue NASA's search for signs of ancient life on Mars, and also record sounds so we can experience more about what it's like to be on the surface of Mars. On the mission website, you can preview the
landing, learn more about the science, take part in student activities, create your own Mars selfies and participate on social media! Contributed by Jim Edwards-Hewitt.

People love calendars, and have spent a lot of time creating and improving them over the millennia - but they all pertain to our own planet. What about calendars for other worlds in our solar system? The time it takes for each planet to orbit the Sun is completely different! Scientists have actually created a calendar system for Mars, which helps them track data and makes it easier to study Martian climate. In this calendar, the beginning of Mars year "0" was (arbitrarily) assigned to May 24, 1953. That means that Mars year 36 just began on February 7th, 2021 (translated to the Gregorian Earth calendar). Contributed by Kathi Overton.

The EMM lifted off from Japan on July 20, and reached Mars orbit on Feb. 9. It will study the Mars weather system, its atmosphere, and carries an instrument that can measure the temperature of the surface. One of its goals is to shed light on Mars' evolution, particularly the mechanism that led to the supposed loss of Mars' water and much of its atmosphere.

was held online on Jan. 23 at 1:30 PM. In addition to other routine business, the Friends elected two new Directors: Ashley Jacoby  and Laura Karl. Preceding the official meeting was an engaging and informative talk by Max Parks entitled "NASA and Politics: How to Conduct Space Science within a Bureaucracy".

Alan Shepard, the fifth person to walk on the moon, played some lunar golf on 6 February, 1971, during the Apollo 14 mission. Now Andy Saunders, an imaging expert, has processed the film taken at the time to discover where exactly on the lunar surface Shepard's balls are resting: "ball number one traveled 24 yards, and ball number two traveled 40 yards".

Cover, Banneker's 1792 Almanac (public domain)
began work on the survey for the new federal district that is now Washington, DC in February 1791. He handled the astronomical calculations required by the survey team to determine the latitude and longitude of each boundary stone. He spent about 4 months on this project. Banneker's other projects included producing almanacs and forecasting solar eclipses. Born on a Maryland farm, Banneker was a talented 18th-century African-American astronomer. Contributed by Jennifer Bartlett.

NASA's Van Allen Probes spacecraft, launched in 2012 to study the Van Allen belts, depicted here, have supplied data that show that electrons in the atmosphere can attain velocities close to the speed of light (> 7 MeV). The generation of these ultra relativistic velocities is predicted by models that show they arise
from local areas of low plasma density, when there is not much in the neighborhood to slow the electrons down. This has implications for the safety of artificial Earth satellites. 

Yuanming Wang, a PhD student in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, has made a major advance in the search for the universe's "missing matter". Working models of the cosmos say that only about 5% of the stuff of our universe is "normal," visible matter. Except that half of that seems to be missing: we can't see it. The new technique involves observing the interference to radio sources caused by clouds of cold, dark, invisible matter passing between us and them.

exploits the mechanism behind solar flares. Fatima Ebrahimi, a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, has invented a concept for generating rocket thrust that accelerates plasma out of the rocket by using magnetic reconnection, the force driving
Solar flare on Oct 2, 2014 (NASA)

 solar flares. Previous designs for rockets that use plasma for reaction mass employ electric fields, and generate far smaller thrust. 

The Russian Progress 77, a self-driving supply ship, blasted off on the morning of February 15. After a two-day trip, it will dock with the International Space Station, a maneuver to be covered by NASA TV. This is a suicide mission: some time later this year, the Progress will detach, taking with it the docking port that has been in service for two decades, and be cremated in the atmosphere.
Russia's Progress 76 resupply ship, packed with almost three tons of stuff, approaches the ISS above Ukraine on July 23, 2020 (NASA)

Hydrazine on Saturn's Moons.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft had made several surprising observations of the light absorption by the surfaces of several of Saturn's moons, including Rhea, shown here. It is now understood that these
An image from Cassini of Rhea (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
 measurements could be explained by the presence of hydrazine on the moons. Although hydrazine is a rocket fuel, and was used in Cassini's thrusters, those were not used near Rhea. The chemical was, most likely, the result of a natural process on Rhea's surface, or could
have migrated from Titan's atmosphere.

Since March 2020 three planetariums in the Indian state of Orissa, including the one shown here, have been closed by order of the state government, in response to the COVID pandemic, but have been offering virtual shows. Beginning February 2, they have been allowed to reopen, under a restriction of not more than 50 people in the audience. 

Pathani Samanta Planetarium building in Bhubaneswar. © Subhashish Panigrahi

The Starship program is part of Elon Musk's plan to colonize Mars. On Feb. 2, SN9, the latest prototype, had a successful liftoff and flight test, but exploded upon landing. The FAA is conducting a safety investigation into the accident.