Dust Storm Starting to Subside

Evidence Martian Dust Stom is Subsiding:
by John Hlynialuk

A frame from the animation created by astrophotographer Damian Peach showing a global dust storm on Mars.
Damian Peach
More on this animation here: Damian Peach animation

Recent reports (July 27) indicate that the worst is over for the Martian dust storm and the dust seems to be subsiding. We are not out of the woods yet, however, as it can take several months for the atmosphere to clear to pre-storm levels. The worst possible scenario is for another storm to start up, as it is dust storm season in the southern hemisphere on Mars.

Hopefully, the atmosphere will clear up and viewing of surface features will get back to “normal” very soon, perhaps by the end of August.

The article quoted here from www.space.com gives the current status of the dust storm and its effect on ground resources like Opportunity, for example. Also make sure you have a look at the link in the Damian Peach image above which shows the before and after views of Mars.

Martian Dust Storm is Starting to Die Down
from www.space.com July 27, 2018

The dust is finally beginning to clear on Mars, but it'll probably still be a while before NASA's sidelined Opportunity rover can phone home.
global dust storm has enshrouded Mars for more than a month, plunging the planet's surface into perpetual darkness. That's complicated life significantly for the solar-powered Opportunity, which has apparently put itself into a sort of hibernation; the rover hasn't contacted its controllers since June 10.

A long-awaited dawn seems to be on the horizon, however. [
Mars Dust Storm 2018: How It Grew & What It Means for the Opportunity Rover]

"It's the beginning of the end for the planet-encircling dust storm on Mars," NASA officials wrote in an
Opportunity mission update yesterday (July 26).

Scientists studying the storm "say that, as of Monday, July 23, more dust is falling out than is being raised into the planet's thin air," agency officials added. "That means the event has reached its decay phase, when dust-raising occurs in ever smaller areas, while others stop raising dust altogether.”

Other data points support this conclusion. For example, measurements by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show that temperatures in the middle atmosphere have stopped rising, indicating less absorption of solar heat by dust particles.

In addition, NASA's Curiosity rover — which is nuclear-powered and can therefore work through the storm — has observed a decline in overhead dust at its location, the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater, agency officials said.

Some Martian landforms previously hidden beneath the dust can now be spotted from orbit again, they added, and may even be visible using Earth-based telescopes by early next week, when Mars will make its
closest approach to our planet since 2003

But don't hold your breath waiting to hear from Opportunity, which has been exploring Mars since 2004. According to yesterday's mission update, "it could still be weeks, or even months, before skies are clear enough" for Opportunity to recharge its batteries and ping its handlers.
The storm is a serious threat to the six-wheeled robot, but mission team members have expressed
cautious optimism that Opportunity will survive. Their calculations suggest that temperatures at Opportunity's location — the rim of the 14-mile-wide (22 km) Endeavour Crater — won't get cold enough to freeze the rover to death.

That fate befell Opportunity's twin, Spirit, after it got bogged down in sand in 2010 and couldn't reorient itself to catch the sun.

Originally published on Space.com.

Mars is Back! but playing hide and seek.

by John Hlynialuk


Image above is a Hubble Space Telescope image and shows much more than you can see with a telescope.

Mars in 2018 -closest since record close approach of 2003

The close approach of Mars to Earth in 2003 is being repeated this year. The orbit of Mars is an ellipse and only every 15 to 17 years or so do the distances line up so that we get a better than average separation from the Red Planet . From 2018 onwards, oppositions of Mars gradually get farther and farther (until Sep 2035) so this year is the time to get out and pay some serious attention to the planet.

One or two viewing occasions are not going to do it, however. The planet is not as high in the sky as it has been at other oppositions so our atmosphere will play a significant role in your not seeing Mars at its best. You need to be persistent and get out often as you pursue Mars. You need a combination of dark, clear skies, good seeing and maximum altitude above the horizon to be rewarded with better than average views.

The map/diagram below from Sky&Telescope shows the main features of the planet. But there are other sources of detailed information as well.

Mars viewing guides can be found here:
SkyNews Mars Guide and here from Cosmic Pursuits: Cosmic Pursuits Mars Guide as well as here: Sky&Telescope Mars viewing There is also a Mars app that shows which face of Mars is visible at your observing time. Called Mars Profiler the link is here: S&T Mars Profiler

On the down side a big dust storm started up in mid-May and continues to shroud the entire planet. Features of the surface have been pretty much obliterated and will remain so until the dust settles. Details of the storm’s development can be found here:
Martian Dust Storm and here: Dust Storm Update but a quick synopsis follows.

The storm started in the opposite (northern) hemisphere from where they normally occur and then expanded into southern regions so by June 19, the entire planet was shrouded. NASA’s Rover Opportunity which went into a hunkered-down mode has not been heard from since June 10.

Amateur observers have been chewing their nails waiting for a break in the storm but the only things noticeable are an overall fifth of a magnitude increase in brightness and a subtle change in the colour of the planet from its usual reddish-orange (or pink) to a pumpkin orange hue. Few telescopic observers have noticed even a polar cap glowing feebly through the haze.

Scott Guzewich, atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, struck a note of optimism, writing in a July 5th blog that "the amount of dust over Gale Crater has been slowly declining over the last two weeks, and it’s possible the dust storm has reached its ‘peak”’. Once storms like this peak, it still takes several months for the atmosphere to clear to pre-storm transparency. This puts us into late August/September before things settle down. By that time, Mars will be well past its July 27 opposition. All is not lost however, since in late August, Mars crosses the meridian (its highest point above the southern horizon) around 11 pm and in late September that occurs around 9:30 pm. So if anything, Mars viewing will still be going on into the fall. The down side is that it shrinks from its 24 arc-second diameter on July 27 to 16 arc-seconds in late September.

The chart below shows Mars features as they will (eventually) be visible. Sky&Telescope has a great app called
Mars Profiler that will keep track of the visible face for you. Click on the link provided. And keep your fingers, toes etc, crossed for a quick clearing of the dust!


An Aurora named STEVE???

A new “auroral” phenomena named STEVE
by John Hlynialuk

A new type of auroral feature has been identified and it goes by the initials “S.T.E.V.E” standing for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. It has likely been around for a long time but only drew professional astronomers’ interest in July 2016. As it turned out I caught it on camera 4 years before that and 5 years before its nature was sorted out by satellite measurements in 2017.

Two years ago, a group of aurora photographers out west named the Alberta Aurora Chasers (avid imagers from all walks of life) came to the attention of a University of Calgary auroral scientist, Prof. Eric Donovan. The Aurora Chasers had been photographing aurora for years and occasionally imaged an unusual ray of purplish light that sometimes appeared along with normal aurora. It often showed up with multiple green “fingers” dubbed a “picket fence” nearby. The AAC member who showed such an image to Prof. Donovan thought he had captured a proton arc, but these features are sub-visual as the professor pointed out. Donovan had no idea what it was but he was intrigued and gave it the name “Steve” a whimsical label signifying something unknown (from an animated film where some animals name a forbidding hedge “Steve” to make it less ominous). Only later was the phenomena given the “backronym” STEVE as mentioned in the first paragraph.

Prof Donovan was able to get measurements of the gases in STEVE and detected a large increase in temperature and a westward velocity of the materials (the “T” and the “V” in STEVE’s official name). Undoubtedly, STEVE had been observed in the past but scientists did not have the all-sky cameras on the ground or satellites in orbit that could take Steve’s temperature and other vital signs. Neither had the community of amateur scientists (citizen scientists as they are now called) alerted professionals that there was something new in the heavens that needed explanation. Equally as important was the fact that cameras sensitive enough to easily photograph the faintest phenomena in the night sky had come into the hands of ordinary folks. A lot of them were trying them out taking pictures of star trails, the Milky Way, and also northern lights. A lot of factors came together, and as a result, STEVE’s time had come.

Canon 50D image by John H. with 10 mm WA lens (140° fov) at f/2.8, ISO 1250 Steve is the two purplish rays and green picket fence structure upper centre of image.

After I heard about STEVE, I went back and searched my own photo archives and found some images of what I called a “strange aurora” that appeared on Apr 25, 2012. Turns out it was STEVE! I was at the Fox Observatory and just closing up at 11:18 pm when I noticed this strange light in the sky. Thanks goodness I had my camera with me and before the display ended around midnight, I had taken about 5 dozen images. The image included here was made at 11:38 pm and showed the narrow purplish ray as well as the green picket fence feature that are characteristics of STEVE. That aurora was the second one in two weeks that I imaged from the ES Fox Observatory and there was no sign of STEVE on the previous occasion.

Canon 50D image with 10 mm WA lens (140° fov) at f/2.8, ISO 1250.

One of about 5 dozen images of an aurora that developed rather quickly on April 25 around 11:15 pm. It lasted less than an hour but during that time STEVE appeared in about half of the images. The narrow feature in purple above is the Strong Thermal Emission and Velocity Enhancement that gives STEVE its name.

The green “picket fence” features also accompany this new aurora type but may be a separate phenomena. There appear to be two rays, a prominent one near the horizon at centre and a fainter one that runs along the left edges of the pickets in centre giving an overall appearance of a large bird’s wing. A four-day old crescent Moon is just setting in the west behind the cloud bank and Procyon is the brightest star just above the horizon to the left of the clouds. STEVE is in front of Gemini with Castor and Pollux behind the some of the pickets just to the right of STEVE. The faint line crossing STEVE left to right is a contrail. See if you can pick out Leo (head down) just below the left centre of the image. Don’t let Mars throw you off since it was 5° to the east of Regulus on this date in 2012. Venus was also visible 13° to the right of the Moon but it has set in this image.

Further research is being done by Donovan’s aurora group. Interestingly enough, it turns out that although STEVE looks like an auroral ray, it is not actually an aurora per se. This also brings into question whether the picket fence features are not aurora as well, but that is still to be determined.

The story is told by the Professor himself in this TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6liyhbQJeE . Have a look.

Supernova Betelgeuse?

Keep an Eye on Betelgeuse
by John Hlynialuk

Next to the Big Bang that started the whole shebang, the most energetic event in the universe is a stellar explosion called a supernova. The most colossal of the several types of supernovas involve giant stars, so the explosion (a Type II supernova) is even more awesome than it might be otherwise. The amount of energy released is totally unimaginable, -in a month or so the equivalent of all the energy released during the entire lifetime of our Sun! It is just another way that the Universe can kill us. (Spoiler alert: we are far enough away from any star that could go boom and our Sun is a pretty ordinary star not prone to explode.)

Betelgeuse is one of a few stars big enough to show a disk to Earth-based telescopes
(the big ones anyway)
Betelgeuse imaged in ultraviolet light by the Hubble Space Telescope and subsequently enhanced by NASA.
The bright white spot is likely one of this star’s poles. Image via NASA/ESA.

When a really massive star goes supernova, for a time it can outshine its entire home galaxy of several billion stars and be seen from billions of light years away. Astronomers detect over a hundred supernova per year on average from the billions of galaxies that exist outside our own Milky Way. Within our home galaxy, we see only one or two per century but there would be some hidden on the other side of the dusty central area, so there is no way to give an accurate estimate, -one every 50 years is a lower limit.

This a composite color image of the Herschel PACS 70, 100, 160 micron-wavelength images of Betelgeuse.
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS/L. Decin et a

Planets orbiting these exploding stars and even objects within about 50 light years of the supernova can be “affected” (meaning destroyed) by the explosion. The intense shock wave and extremely energetic pulse of X-rays can disrupt neighbouring stars and strip off the atmospheres of planets around them or just plainly vaporize them if they are too close. Luckily for us there are no supernova candidate stars close enough to our solar system, so death by supernova is less likely than death by comet or asteroid and even those odds are smaller than death by car accident. There is very good evidence that dinosaurs and many other species on Earth were snuffed out by a comet about 65 million years ago, so these are the time scales we are talking about, long by human lifetime standards, but pretty short in the 13.5 billion year lifetime of our universe.

Thankfully, there are no pre-supernova stars within the 50 light-year distance from Earth, but go farther afield, about 10 times farther and we find one very likely candidate for a spectacular explosion, the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. It may happen a million years from now or perhaps tomorrow, astronomers have statistics, but no specific dates. But they are pretty certain that it will go off before a million years go by.

The star Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetle juice” ) is easy to find in the evening sky in February and later in the spring as well. Orion, the Hunter, as a constellation is recognizable by his Belt, a line of three evenly spaced, equally bright stars in the centre of a rectangle of similarly bright stars. Betelgeuse is the one in the upper left corner and has a slightly reddish tinge associated with its red giant status. Compare it to the star Rigel at the lower right corner which is a little whiter, even a bit blue. The diagrams below from Sky Safari 5 show Orion as it would appear above the southeastern horizon at 7 pm EST presently and then at some point in the future with SN Betelgeuse.

Orion Feb pm

Sky Safari 5 Orion as it appears now (above) and with SN Betelgeuse (below)


Should Betelgeuse explode “tomorrow” keep in mind that the event actually happened over 400 years ago (the current best guess for distance to Betelgeuse is 430 light years) since the light from the supernova would have had to travel from the star to us. Rest assured that we are at a safe distance regardless.

Still, it would be a pretty spectacular sight! Betelgeuse the supernova, shining at its peak would, for several weeks or even months, be the brightest object in the night sky, -perhaps as bright as the full Moon, and visible even in the daytime. Astronomers, both professional and amateur are especially excited about a Betelgeuse supernova since we would have a ring-side seat at the most spectacular phenomenon in the universe! Thank goodness we are far enough away to safely watch the show!

Local Eclipsers Snowed Out!

Most of Ontario and much of eastern Canada saw no lunar eclipse Jan 31 due to poor weather. However, NASA TV did broadcast the eclipse from 4 sites, and only one, the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii was clouded out. Griffith Observatory near Los Angeles and Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB as well as the Mt Lemmon Observatory north of Tucson AZ had clear conditions. NASA was able to supply high quality images from start to finish as the Moon set in the west around 7 am MST. Even in the most western locations in North America (except Alaska), the Moon set just after or a bit before the last bit of umbra had departed the face of the Moon.

The full Moon was visible through thin, quickly moving clouds for a time after moonrise in Owen Sound and climbed above the escarpment to the east of my location.


Composite image of Jan 30 full Moon only 12 hours before eclipse. Last time we saw it from Owen Sound was around midnight.
Canon 60Da with 100 mm lens (eff=160mm) ISO 3200 f/4.5 1/15 s (background) plus FM at 1/800 s at 6:18 pm EST (John H. Image)

But even then the clouds hid the moon for 20% of the time and by 9 pm, there was significant cloud cover. When I rose at 5:45 am to check the skies, there was a barely perceptible disk of moonlight and by 6 am, it was snowing in Owen Sound and the Moon was invisible. NASA TV to the rescue!

Images below from NASA TV were broadcast live and viewers got to see it from different locations (Griffith Observatory and Armstrong Flight Research Center near Los Angeles, Mt. Lemmon Observatory (N. of Tucson AZ) and the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii. The latter location was clouded out. Here is a sampling of images.


The fully eclipse Moon was right next to the Beehive Cluster in the centre of Cancer at right. The original image was a screen capture of the NASA feed and was slightly enhanced in PS to bring out more stars in the cluster. Mt. Lemmon Observatory near Tucson AZ.

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This image was taken just before the inset of totality from Griffith Observatory north of Los Angeles.

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Another Griffith Observatory image around mid-totality.

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Totality is just over and the edge of the Earth’s umbra is starting to appear at lower left.

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Partial phase is underway after umbral eclipse ends in this image from Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edward’s AFB

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Partial is still underway as daylight approaches and the Moon sets below the western horizon at Edward’s AFB.

Griffith Observatory has put together a time-lapse video here: Griffith Time-Lapse

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