Stargazing Nights

Stargazing Nights

Frosty Drew Observatory
Friday February 1, 2019 at 7:00 p.m
$5 Suggested Donation per person 5 years and older

Tonight is Stargazing Night, and for a second week in a row, clear skies are forecast for our night of awesomeness! We can expect clouds to move out of our region by 7:00 pm, leaving skies crystal clear until about 2:00 am, when the clouds start to return. Being that the 4% waning crescent Moon does not rise until 5:37 am, we will have super dark skies to celebrate for our entire geek out. Temps will be cold, in the low 20’s, dropping into the teens, though warmer than they have been for the past few days. With temps that low, dressing properly will make a huge difference in how fabulous the night will be. The sky will bring its game tonight, so do your part and dress to rock.

We will open the Observatory and Sky Theatre at 7:00 pm tonight. In the Observatory, telescopes will start off with a fantastic view of the Orion Nebula, followed by an impressive list of objects only visible on the darkest nights, including the Messier 46 open star cluster, the Wolf-Rayet star – NGC 2359, the Eskimo Nebula, the Medusa Nebula, Jupiter’s Ghost, and an attempt at Sirius B – the closest white dwarf to the Solar System. In the Sky Theatre, breaks from the cold will be available with warm temps. On screen we will either host a live stargazing session or show our regular feature of celestial objects photographed at Frosty Drew Observatory. We will stay open until 11:00 pm.

Overall, tonight is another excellent night to be out at the darkest spot in Rhode Island! Clear skies, no Moon, and thousands of stars will make for an amazing night with the cosmos. Temps will be cold, and the persistent 4 mph - 7 mph wind will certainly remind you that it’s the heart of the winter in New England. Though you can significantly mitigate the cold by taking a moment to read out primer in how to dress for nights like tonight. So gear up and set out for fabulous skies and fantastic views at Frosty Drew Observatory and cast off your weekly woes with an escape to the cosmos.

Weekly Happenings
Scott MacNeill

Let’s take a moment here to talk about the Opportunity rover, which is on Mars, and the emptiness of the past 7.5 months of no communications from the lil rover after the devastating global dust storm on Mars silenced it.

Opportunity, which was designed for a 90 day mission, has been residing on Mars for the past 15 years. The lil rover, which uses solar power to recharge its batteries, was seriously impacted by the global dust storm that swept over Mars during May – July 2018. During the dust storm, sunlight was too obscured by dust in the martian atmosphere over Opportunity’s location to allow for adequate battery charging. As a result, the Opportunity rover dropped into low power mode, and ceased communication with Earth. Once the storm ended and the dust cleared, the wait began, but the rover never called home. Skip ahead nearly 7.5 months and we still haven’t heard from the lil chic. Our last communication from the rover was received on June 10, 2018, since then over 600 attempts from Earth have been made to initiate communications with the rover. The Mars Exploration Rovers mission, which oversees Opportunity, is changing up their communications strategy and will commence sending new commands that take into account potential isolated failures in the rover, which may be the cause of communications silence. The idea is that perhaps the rover is operation but the primary radios, which Opportunity uses to phone home, have failed, and the rover is awaiting a command to fail-over to backup radios, or possibly the rover’s internal clock is out of sync. These failures can be mitigated with an update or minor change in operation.

The clock is ticking for Opportunity to reestablish communications with Earth due to the coming winter season on Mars’ southern hemisphere. During southern winter on Mars, temperatures will drop low enough to cause damage to Opportunity’s batteries and computer systems, without adequate active protection. Sadly, in the end, the cold of the martian winter is how Spirit - Opportunity’s partner rover, died in 2010. NASA is determined to get Opportunity back in action, and the lil guy has a lot of humanity back here on Earth pulling for it. So don’t give up just yet on Opportunity, this rover has done some amazing things and this event may be just another notch on its belt of amazing feats. Follow along with the latest news about Opportunity. Then send high-fives and hopes that a rover which has exceeded its mission expectations by nearly 15 years, will wake up before winter comes.

We have had some fabulous passes of the International Space Station (ISS) in the evening sky over New England these past couple of weeks, including a fantastic transit of the ISS with the Moon on the night after the total lunar eclipse (check it out). If you’ve missed out on these awesome views of Earth’s only continuously inhabited space destination, then second chances rock! This week, amazing passes continue, and will persist until February 12th. Here are some notable passes over the Northeast this week:

Sat, Feb 2 at 6:20 pm, starting in NNW, rising to 16°, heading towards the NNE.
Mon, Feb 4 at 6:14 pm, starting in NW, rising to 22°, heading towards the NE.
Tue, Feb 5 at 6:59 pm, starting in NW, rising to 39°, heading towards the NNW.
Wed, Feb 6 at 6:08 pm, starting in NW, rising to 36°, heading towards the E.
Thu, Feb 7 at 6:53 pm, starting in WNW, rising to 55°, heading towards the S.
Fri, Feb 8 at 6:01 pm, starting in NW, rising to 78°, heading towards the ESE. ← Fabulous pass!

Get these times on your calendar and set your alarm. You may have noticed, and will notice, that the ISS does not always completely cross the sky and will fade out of view during the pass. This happens due to the ISS dropping into Earth’s shadow, sunset for the ISS residents. When we observe the ISS, we are observing sunlight reflecting off the station. At an average of 200 miles altitude, light emit by the ISS is too dim to be seen with the unaided eye. This is also one of the reasons we do not see the ISS every time it passes overhead. As an observation rule, the ISS needs to be in direct sunlight, while observers on the ground experience nighttime. Now get out and see a testament to the engineering prowess of humanity!