Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll
Our newest visitor to Mars lands at the planet’s north pole
The waning crescent moon rises well after midnight at week’s end and disappears amid the glare of the sun by Tuesday.
Dark skies reveal Mars high in the east, around 8:25pm this week. Looking like little more than an orange smudge, our neighboring planet is pulling far from us in its orbit. We can nonetheless see it in startling clarity after last weekend’s successful landing of the Phonenix explorer and pictures taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter 200 miles overhead.
After nine and a half months traveling 422 million miles, Phoenix touched down near Mars’s north pole. Originally one of two polar landers destined for Mars, this craft was deep-sixed after the 1999 disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander during its descent to the south pole. Finally, the north-pole mission was revived, and the craft was renamed after the bird of myth reborn from its own ashes.
With a robotic arm, Phoenix will dig into the frozen crust to “study the history of water and habitability potential in the Martian arctic’s ice-rich soil,” its mission states. To see more, log onto the website of the University of Arizona, Tuscon, which manages the mission with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech: http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/mission.php.
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