Amateur astronomer Percival Lowell electrified the world in the late 1800s by claiming to see artificial canals for water crisscrossing the face of Mars. The Mars craze has spawned countless books and films, including a radio drama in 1938 by H.G. Wells of a Martian invasion so convincing that thousands fled the cities in terror. Luckily, Mars has been the target of real science as well. After several fly-by and orbiter missions by both the Russians and U.S., the Viking 1 and 2 landers set down on the surface of Mars in 1976 where they tested soil samples and searched without success for signs of primitive life. The most intriguing landers were the 2004 duo of Spirit and Opportunity that were dropped to the surface in what amounted to giant beach balls and have sent back thousands of pictures. Now Curiosity landed on Aug. 6, 2012, and is already sending back valuable pictures and data. The size of a small SUV, Curiosity will also test soil samples, search for water and carbon dioxide, and for any signs of life as did the Vikings that still remain on the Martian surface. Perhaps in its four-year study of Mars, Curiosity will meet up with one of its Viking neighbors.
Focus on the Planets
Mercury lies too close to the Sun all month to be readily visible but may make a brief appearance low in the west at the very end of the month.
Venus rises in the east around 3 a.m. On Sept. 12, Venus, the crescent moon, and M44, the Beehive Cluster, form an ascending diagonal from left to right on the eastern horizon.
Mars rises in the southwest during the early evening. On Sept. 19, Mars is to the immediate right of the crescent moon about an hour after sunset.
Jupiter rises just before midnight and is high in the southeast just before dawn. By month’s end Jupiter will rise around 10 p.m. Surface features, such as the Great Red Spot, are readily visible by telescope and the planet’s four major moons offer a different configuration each night.
Saturn rises in the west-southwest about an hour after sunset where the ringed planet keeps company with Spica. Both planet and star sink toward the horizon each night and are essentially lost to view by the end of the month. Saturn’s rings are tilted for optimum viewing but the planet lies so close to the horizon that the view will be distorted by the Earth’s atmosphere.
Uranus rises in the southeast around midnight and is larger and brighter than any other time of the year appearing as a blue-green disk to viewers with binoculars.
Neptune is seen as a blue-gray disk in the south among the stars of Aquarius. Both Uranus and Neptune may be found with the aid of the finder’s chart in the September 2012 issue of Sky & Telescope.
1 Sunrise, 5:57 a.m.; sunset, 7:13 p.m.
7 Moon at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth.
8 Jupiter is less than a degree above the moon high in the southeast about an hour before sunrise. To the pair’s lower right is Aldebaran, the “red eye” of Taurus the Bull. Moon in last quarter, 9:15 a.m.
10 Mercury is at superior conjunction, or passes behind the sun as viewed from Earth, and moves into the evening sky.
12 Venus, winter’s brilliant “morning star,” lies close to the lower left of the moon at dawn.
16 New moon, 10:09 p.m. The sun enters Virgo on the ecliptic.
19 Moon is at perigee, or closest approach to Earth. Mars is to the immediate right of the crescent moon in the southwest about an hour after sunset while Saturn lies far to the lower right.
22 Fall or autumnal equinox, 10:47 a.m. The sun crosses the celestial equal from the northern to the southern hemisphere. The sun enters the astrological sign of Libra but astronomically is still in Virgo. Moon in first quarter, 3:41 p.m.
30 Full moon, 11:17p.m. This being the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, it is the Harvest Moon. Every decade or so the Harvest Moon can fall in October. Looking east an hour before dawn will reveal brilliant Venus with Regulus just to the lower left. Sunrise, 6:31 a.m.; sunset, 6:18 p.m.