Have you noticed that the red planet has received the lion’s share of planetary press coverage lately? In July 2020 three Martian space missions were launched: The United Arab Emirates mission will place an advanced weather satellite, called Hope, in a Martian orbit. The Chinese mission Tianwen-1 will deliver an orbiter, lander and rover to the planet. NASA and JPL will land Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars. Perseverance is similar to the phenomenally successful Curiosity rover and will drill and deposit caches of samples for a possible retrieval mission. Ingenuity is a small helicopter that will take short three minute missions that will scout for interesting objects for Perseverance to examine. All three missions will reach Mars in February 2021, just in time for the Victoria Centre AGM! What a great time to become the Centre President!
Martian enthusiasts will also be excited to learn the Hilary Swank and her brave team of astronauts in the Netflix Martian exploration drama AWAY will likely be renewed for another season. Keen observers of this program may, like me, be puzzled by the intermittent nature of weightlessness in this drama. I wonder if special effects budgets are a factor.
The big event this month, however, is the opposition of Mars which takes place on October 13th. At this time, only 0.41 astronomical units away, the Martian angular diameter reaches 22.4 arc seconds. In anticipation of this event some keen RASCals like John McDonald have been perfecting their planetary photography techniques. You may remember that during the last opposition in the Summer of 2018 a major dust storm prevented us to savour the surface details. Although weather patterns have been favourable of late, smoke from the major wildfires in Northern California have introduced a new element of uncertainty. We should keep in mind that the crescendo of the Martian angular diameter is a gradual event and let’s hope for usable skies and wonderful images.
Right in the middle of this Martian jamboree, however, I was happy to hear that our much neglected sister planet, Venus, crashed the party. On September 14th, a paper announced that “Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus”. In 2017 the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope detected the spectral signature of the molecule phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere. This was followed up by higher resolution data from ALMA in 2019. This created great excitement because phosphine is considered a bio-signature in rocky planets and offers the intriguing possibility of life in the Venusian atmosphere. This may inspire future missions to Venus … which maybe a good thing since those wildfires are ringing alarm bells about global warming. Maybe we should spend more effort studying the planet next door which provides an outstanding illustration of a runaway greenhouse effect. We have much more to learn.
Stay well …
And Useable Skies