What's Up in Space -- 17 Dec 2003
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SUNSPOTS: The Earth-facing side of the sun is nearly blank. Only a few small sunspots pepper the solar disk. But the farside of the sun is a different story. Holographic images reveal what may be a large sunspot group there. If it persists, the 'spot would appear on the sun's eastern limb on or about Dec. 22nd.
DUST STORM ON MARS: Although Mars has been receding from Earth since August, it's still big and bright enough for backyard telescopes to reveal features on its surface. Lately, amateur astronomers have been seeing something new: bright clouds of dust spreading around the planet.
Above: Martian dust clouds on Dec. 16th, photographed by Don Parker of Coral Gables, Florida. See also images of Mars on Dec 13th and 14th from Don Parker; on Dec. 15th from Ed Grafton; and Dec. 16th from Joel Warren.
A curious side-effect of the storm is the increasing brightness of Mars. "Mars was about 0.17 magnitudes brighter on Dec. 15th," says ALPO executive director Richard Schmude, Jr. "This increase is due to [sunlight reflected by] dust. Polarization measurements also indicate the presence of some dust."
Dust storms on Mars sometimes grow so large that they encircle the entire planet. Will this one? No one knows. But with three space probes (Beagle 2, Spirit & Opportunity) set to land on Mars in the coming weeks, astronomers will be watching carefully to see what happens.
DAYTIME JUPITER: Jupiter is bright enough to see in broad daylight--if you know where to look. On Dec. 16th the quarter Moon and Jupiter were only a few degrees apart, so sky watchers were able to find it using the bright moon as a guide. For instance, Wren Keller of Tucson, Arizona, took this picture of Jupiter through a 10-inch telescope at 9 o'clock in the morning.
You don't need a big telescope, however, to see planets during the day. Binoculars work fine. Bright Venus and Jupiter are easy targets when the Moon is nearby. Saturn and Mars are possible, too. It's fun and a little surprising to see these planets pop out from the blue when you happen across them.