March skies feature many dazzling stars and constellations, glimmering high in the night, but two of the brightest stars are the focus of our attention this month: Sirius and Procyon, the dog stars!
The Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter will land in Mars’s Jezero crater on February 18, 2021, NASA’s latest mission to explore the red planet. Landing on Mars is an incredibly difficult feat that has challenged engineers for decades: while missions like Curiosity have succeeded, its surface is littered with the wreckage of many failures as well. Why is landing on Mars so difficult?
Have you ever wondered how many stars you can see at night? From a perfect dark sky location, free from any light pollution, a person with excellent vision may observe a few thousand stars in the sky at one time! Sadly, most people don’t enjoy pristine dark skies – and knowing your sky’s brightness will help you navigate the night sky.
Have you observed Jupiter and Saturn moving closer to each other over the past few months? On December 21, the two worlds will be at their closest, around 1/5 of a full Moon apart! While the two gas giants may appear close, in reality they are hundreds of millions of miles apart. Despite this vast distance, a select few missions have visited both worlds by using a gravity assist from giant Jupiter to slingshot them towards Saturn, saving time and fuel.
October is a banner month for Mars observers! October 6 marks the day Mars and Earth are at closest approach, a once-every-26-months event. A week later, on October 13, Mars is at opposition and up all night. Mars is very bright this month, and astronomers are eager to image and directly observe details on its disc; however, don’t forget to look at the space around the planet, too! By doing so, you can observe the remarkable retrograde motion of Mars and find a few nearby objects that you may otherwise overlook.
Altair is the final stop on our trip around the Summer Triangle! The last star in the asterism to rise for Northern Hemisphere observers before summer begins, brilliant Altair is high overhead at sunset at the end of the season in September. Altair might be the most unusual of the three stars of the Triangle, due to its great speed: this star spins so rapidly that it appears “squished.”
The Summer Triangle is high in the sky after sunset this month for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, its component stars seemingly brighter than before, as they have risen out of the thick, murky air low on the horizon and into the crisper skies overhead. Deneb, while still bright when lower in the sky, now positively sparkles overhead as night begins. What makes Deneb special, in addition to being one of the three points of the Summer Triangle? Its brilliance has stirred the imaginations of people for thousands of years!
NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, is launching later this month! This amazing robot explorer will scout the surface of Mars for possible signs of ancient life and collect soil samples for return to Earth by future missions. It will even carry the first off-planet helicopter: Integrity. Not coincidentally, Perseverance will be on its way to the red planet just as Mars dramatically increases in brightness and visibility to eager stargazers as our planets race towards their closest approach in October of this year.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and look up during June evenings, you’ll see the brilliant star Vega shining overhead. Did you know that Vega is one of the most studied stars in our skies? As one of the brightest summer stars, Vega has fascinated astronomers for thousands of years.
Ever want to mix in some science with your stargazing, but not sure where to start? NASA hosts a galaxy of citizen science programs that you can join! You’ll find programs perfect for dedicated astronomers and novices alike, from reporting aurora, creating amazing images from real NASA data, searching for asteroids, and scouring data from NASA missions from the comfort of your home. If you can’t get to your favorite stargazing spot, then NASA’s suite of citizen science programs may be just the thing for you.