News

Europe’s ExoMars spacecraft begins lowering its orbit

20 March 2017 Stephen Clark

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a Russian-launched, European-built spacecraft that arrived at Mars in October, is starting to dip into the upper reaches of the red planet’s atmosphere in a year-long “aerobraking” campaign place the observatory in the right position to hunt for methane, an indicator of potential biological activity.

Observing

See planet Venus hit peak brightness in the evening sky

13 February 2017 Ade Ashford

Currently setting over four hours after the Sun as seen from the heart of the UK and visible in the west-southwest at dusk, dazzling Venus is about to hit peak brightness in the constellation of Pisces. The planet attains magnitude -4.8 on Friday 17 February — some 21 times the luminosity of brightest star Sirius gracing the southeast horizon as darkness falls.

Observing

See the Mars-Venus-Moon conjunction of 31 January

30 January 2017 Ade Ashford

Dazzling Venus and much fainter Mars have a close encounter with a young Moon in the constellation of Pisces at UK dusk on Tuesday 31 January. The trio form an equilateral triangle small enough to be encompassed by the field of view of a 7x binocular low in the west-southwest for a couple of hours from 7pm GMT.

Observing

See Mars and Neptune get close on New Year’s Eve & New Year’s Day

31 December 2016 Ade Ashford

The young crescent Moon’s nightly motion from 31 December 2016 to 3 January 2017 carries it past dazzling planet Venus and first-magnitude Mars. A small telescope also reveals outermost planet Neptune, which passes just 0.02 degrees from Mars around 7h UT on 1 January, offering observers around the world a New Year’s Day treat.

News

Mars rover’s drill out of action

18 December 2016 Stephen Clark

The rock-coring drill fixed to the end of the Curiosity rover’s robot arm has suspended operations to allow engineers on the ground to diagnose, and officials hope correct, a problem traced to the mechanism that pushes the drill bit onto rocks to collect powder samples.

Observing

See the Moon pass in front of Neptune on 6 December

4 December 2016 Ade Ashford

For the seventh and final time this year, the Moon occults outermost planet Neptune on Tuesday 6 December. Weather permitting, this event will be seen over a swathe of the Western Hemisphere including the northeastern USA, eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the western British Isles.