Mars to show off in night sky, not because of NASA

Mars and Moon to show off in January nighttime sky dance

StarDate Mars view
Mars has gotten a ton of attention lately with all of NASA's red planet satellite and rover maneuvers, but astronomers say it could get more on the night of January 29.  That's when Mars will shine its brightest for the entire year alongside a full Moon. 

According to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory StarDate magazine it will be one of the sky watching highlights of the year as Mars and the Moon are low in the east-northeast at nightfall, with the Red Planet to the left of the Moon.  Only the Moon, the planets Venus and Jupiter, and the star Sirius shine brighter and since Venus is out of view in the Sun's glare, Mars will rank as the fourth-brightest object in the night sky, StarDate says. 

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 The reason Mars will shine so brightly is that Mars is at opposition on the 29th, which means it lines up opposite the Sun as Earth passes by Mars in our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun. Mars rises around sunset and remains in view all night, StarDate stated.

If you want to get a real close up view of Mars, NASA may be able to help you.  Last week it began soliciting public photo shoot suggestions for the camera onboard its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  NASA said the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, or HiRISE, is the most powerful camera ever to orbit another planet. It has taken thousands of black-and-white images, and hundreds of color images, since it began science operations in 2006.

A single HiRISE image will often be a multigigabyte image that measures 20,000 pixels by 50,000 pixels, which includes a 4,000-by-50,000 pixel region in three colors. It can take a computer up to three hours to process such an image.  Despite the thousands of pictures already taken, less than 1% of the Martian surface has been imaged, NASA said. 

Mars was also in the news this week because after weeks of trying to get its rover Spirit out of a sandtrap, NASA said it was resigned to leaving the rover in place and making adjustments to help it survive as a remote but stationary science robot. 

NASA said its main goal with Spirit over the next few weeks will be to position the rover as well as possible to help it gather enough sunlight to survive the severe Martian winter. If Spirit survives, it will continue conducting significant new science from its final location. The rover's mission could continue for several months to years. 

NASA's other Mars traveler, Opportunity is chewing up Martian dirt and unearthing the mineral and chemical makeup of the red planet. 

Meanwhile, NASA's other Mars recovery attempt has shown no signs of life.   The space agency has been listening for its frozen Phoenix Mars Lander to see if there is an outside chance it is still alive after a Martian winter.   

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