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Dr. Aileen O'Donoghue, St. Lawrence University
Dr. Aileen O'Donoghue, St. Lawrence University

In the night sky: stars, planets and a meteor shower

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Astronomer Aileen O'Donoghue stopped by the studios this morning with an update on stars and planets to watch for this summer. Venus has risen in the morning sky. Mars, Saturn and Spica are near the horizon after sunset. And the Perseid meteor shower is on its way in the next two weeks.

O'Donoghue teaches physics at St. Lawrence University. She told Martha Foley she's also looking forward to the landing of NASA's "Curiosity" science lab on Mars August 6.

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Martha Foley
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The sun will set at about 8:30 p.m. tonight, and by about 9 p.m. the sky will be dark enough for viewers to start seeing a star named Spica and Mars in the southwestern sky. Though Mars had faded since earlier in the spring, it forms a triangle with Spica and Saturn low in the sky. According to O’Donoghue, they will set by 10 p.m. but they are visible at dusk.

Saturn appears to be golden in color and will be above Spica, which appears blue. Mars is tinted red and will be to the right. “Mars is moving toward Spica and Saturn and will move between the two of them,” said O’Donoghue.”And they’ll be lined up on about the 13th of August. So that’s a nice little thing to watch them, and every day they’re different. And it’s cool if we have this series of clear skies, then you can see it change from one day to the next, so that’s always fun.”

There is also a morning star in the sky at this time of year; Venus rises by about 4 a.m.  This is also an ideal time to see the Perseid metior shower. O’Donoghue said, “The comets, you know, they leave this tail, right, this trail of stuff. And it’s this time of year that the earth passes through this line of debris. And that’s what creates these meteors. And they’re like the size of your thumbnail; most of them are itty bitty. But they’re spectacular in their death.”

O’Donoghue recommends that people look for the meteors between midnight and 3 a.m. The rising of the moon shouldn’t affect viewers. O’Donoghue said, “You can still see some in the evening, it’s just that it’s in the evening, it’s like stuff hitting the back window of the car. In the morning, it’s the stuff hitting the windshield because in the morning, the planet is moving. We’re looking up in the direction the planet is moving.”

NASA’s Mars science lab, Curiosity, it also on its way and started its procedures for descent yesterday. It left earth a few years ago. “It’s a long way, you know. And remember, it’s like passing the baton in a relay, although we’re tossing the baton, we’re not handing it one to the other. And so it’s supposed to land at 1:31 a.m. eastern daylight time on Monday, August 6.”

There won’t be live coverage of the landing. O’Donoghue says that by the time scientists receive word that the lab has entered the atmosphere, it will either be on the surface and working or it will be dead. O’Donoghue recommended that people search for ‘NASA Curiosity’ online to find a video called “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

O’Donoghue said, “This thing weighs a ton, and it’s really pretty big, about the size of a Mini Cooper or something.” The Mars Rovers were considerably smaller and were dropped down to Mars in airbags. This craft is too heavy, so it will go into the atmosphere with a heat shield that will slow it down. After that, it will open a large parachute and then use downward facing rockets to slow further. The rover will ultimately go down on a cable out of the spacecraft, and they will jettison the craft that lowered the rover.

“If they land the rover with rockets, it will spray dust all over its solar panels and it won’t get any power,” said O’Donoghue. “It’s really complicated, and so there’s a lot of people at NASA just panicking.”

The time from when the spacecraft enters the atmosphere until the time that it lands will be the seven minutes of terror referenced on the video. O’Donoghue said, “It’ll be exciting, and I mean, if you go to the web, if you google ‘NASA curiosity,’ there’s this one – the first one that came up was a site called ‘Get Curious,’ and that’s a countdown. But if you go to another one that has NASA first, you can see up-to-the-minute news and you can watch it on NASA tv. And while you can’t see the landing, you can see the people at NASA panicking.”

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