Jimmy Westlake: Mars month


Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

— Silently and without much fanfare, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft has been speeding toward the "Red Planet" Mars at 74,000 mph for the past nine months. When it arrives May 25, it will attempt a powered soft landing near the north polar ice cap to drill for water and determine whether the conditions ever were suitable to support life as we know it.

The Viking spacecraft made the last successful powered soft landing on Mars in 1976. The ill-fated Mars Polar Lander apparently crashed during its landing attempt in 1999 and never was heard from again. The new Phoenix mission to Mars was built using spare parts from that failed mission and, so, was appropriately named for the legendary bird that was consumed by fire and then reborn from its own ashes. Meanwhile, Mars itself has been hanging around in our winter and spring evening sky, moving through the stars of Taurus and Gemini. Although it has dimmed considerably since its close swing past Earth in December, Mars still is easy to spot because of its distinctive, reddish hue. Look for it in the western sky an hour or so after sunset, about halfway up toward the overhead point and not far from the twin bright stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.

If you own a pair of ordinary binoculars, pull them out this week and watch night by night as Mars closes in on the famous Beehive Star Cluster. On the night of May 22, Mars will pass in front of the Beehive cluster, providing a spectacular view through binoculars or a small telescope. The dazzling Red Planet will be surrounded by dozens of glittering stars.

Also known as the Praesepe (Latin for "manger") and Messier 44, the Beehive is a swarm of 350 stars laying nearly 600 light years away in the direction of our constellation Cancer the Crab. At that distance, the star cluster appears as a faint, fuzzy mist to the unaided eye, but binoculars will reveal 40 or so of the Beehive's brightest "bees."

Three days after Mars crosses over the Beehive, Phoenix will make its daring attempt to land on that little red light in the sky, 170 million miles away. Stay tuned to the national news media for more information as Phoenix prepares to explore our neighboring world.


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