Apr 11

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – April, 2021

An Historic Mission on the Red Planet

As winter turns to spring, the “Winter Hexagon” and the popular constellations of Orion and Taurus sink lower in the west, leaving an arc of stars formed by Procyon, Pollux, Castor, and Capella. All month the planet Mars is easily visible, appearing between the two constellations. In the coming months, Mars, along with all its neighbors, will continue to sink lower in the west. If you have trouble picking out which “star” is actually Mars, the planet appears a little brighter than Pollux and a little dimmer than Castor and has a distinct, reddish tone. By the middle of April, the two will be in a straight line with and half way between Betelgeuse and Capella.

Since Mars will soon be out of sight it seems appropriate to recall and reflect on some highlights of events that got the planet in the news recently.

This past February saw three spacecraft from Earth arrive at the red planet: NASA’s Perseverance rover, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, and China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter. Recently a friend asked why, with three spacecraft at Mars, are we only hearing about Perseverance, and not the others. The reason is that Perseverance is the only one on the ground, so to speak. The other two are still in orbit around Mars.

The Hope satellite was meant to stay in orbit and has no landing capabilities. It will remain in orbit and study the planet’s climate and atmosphere and how they change over time. China’s Tianwen-1 (“questions to heaven”) is an orbiter and rover mission currently still in orbit. Its rover will land sometime in the next few months.

Perseverance (aka Percy) landed on February 18, making it the fifth rover on the surface of Mars. It landed in the 45 km-wide Jezero Crater, site of a suspected ancient river delta and lake. NASA has named the site in honor of Octavia E. Butler, the award winning American science fiction writer.

The lander took little time getting to work. It has already taken many photos, explored the nearby terrain, and collected samples for geological study. The most exciting event so far, however, has been the launch of Ingenuity Helicopter. Built to actually fly unaided on the surface of Mars, it has made the first powered flight through the atmosphere of another planet. To me, that’s about as cool as it gets. Some folks at NASA apparently agreed with me because a piece of fabric from the wing of the Wright Brothers 1903 airplane, the Wright Flyer, considered to be the first controlled flight on Earth, has been carried to Mars, tucked safely away aboard Ingenuity.

With an extremely successful landing and first few weeks of work getting set up, doing systems checks and launching the Ingenuity Helicopter, Perseverance appears to be ready to further expand our knowledge and understanding of Mars, which is, of course, up in the sky.

This month in history:
April 01: Comet Hale-Bopp nearest Sun – 1997
April 02: First photograph of Sun taken – 1845
April 09: NASA selects original seven Mercury astronauts – 1959
April 12: Yuri Gagarin becomes first human in space – 1961
April 12: Columbia is first space shuttle to be launched – 1981
April 17: Apollo 13 returns to Earth – 1970
April 25: Deployment of Hubble Space Telescope – 1990
April 28: Eugene Shoemaker is born – 1928