Sunday, January 31, 2021


What’s Up February 2021

Winter brings long cold nights that are ideal for sky gazing. Unfortunately, Oregon is prone to clouds and rain during the winter months that frequently prevent sky gazing. So take advantage of every break in the weather to go outside and view the night sky.

The focus this month is on the planet Mars, which is the only planet in February that we can easily see in the evening sky (see images below from


To the naked eye, Mars appears as a bright red star and even through an amateur telescope details are often difficult to make out.

The most exciting aspect about Mars this month is the arrival of three spacecraft at the planet: NASA Perseverance, Emirates Mars Mission, and the China’s Tiawen-1. All three were launched last summer.

NASA Perseverance   

The Perseverance mission includes a lander and a rover. The goal of the mission is to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth by a follow-on mission.

The image below (from Nature Magazine) provides an overview of the Perseverance Rover.

Perseverance also contains the Ingenuity Helicopter, which will be used to test the first powered flight on Mars.


Source: NASA Mars Helicopter

Landing a spacecraft on Mars is extremely difficult, and NASA is the only space agency so far that has achieved this. The NASA diagram below shows the timeline for the Perseverance landing, which will be on February 18 at midday (west coast time).

NASA TV will have a live broadcast about the landing starting at 11:15 a.m. PST. More information and a toolkit about the landing can be found at Perseverance Landing.

If you want to see a simulation of the landing visit Perseverance Simulation.

Perseverance will attempt to land in the Jezero Crater, which contains the remains of an ancient river delta. The image below of the crater was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera aboard the ESA (European Space Agency) Mars Express Orbiter.   

At our local astronomy group (Southern Oregon Skywatchers) virtual meeting last month we featured a presentation (sponsored by North Medford High School and ScienceWorks museum) by two JPL scientists about the NASA Mars rovers. It was a fascinating presentation and a video of it can be found here: Mars Rover JPL Presentation.

Other Mars Spacecraft

The New York Times published an excellent article last year about space missions that have explored our Solar System including Mars.


As you can see from the above list, Mars is a popular destination. 

I mentioned in the introduction there are two other Mars missions that will arrive at the planet in February.

United Arab Emirates Mars Mission (EMM)

The EMM Hope Orbiter is designed to orbit Mars and study the dynamics of the Martian atmosphere. It will use three instruments aboard the spacecraft to examine the daily and seasonal weather events (such as dust storms) in the lower and middle atmosphere and determine how the weather varies in different regions of the planet. It will also attempt to find out how the escape of atmospheric particles from the gravity of Mars affect its climate. Visit Emirates Mission for more information about the mission.

China Tianwen-1 Spacecraft

This spacecraft from China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) will arrive at Mars on February 10 and enter orbit around the planet. It consists of an orbiter, lander, and rover. The objectives of the mission are to search for evidence of both current and past life, and to assess the planet's environment. On arrival, the orbiter will begin imaging the main candidate landing site within the Utopia Planitia impact basin with the objective of landing the rover sometime in May. If the rover lands on Mars successfully it will make China only the second country to do so. For more information, see Planetary Society Tianwen-1.

Build Your Own Mars Rover

If you want to build your own cardboard rover, NASA JPL has an easy project your can do at home, see JPL Cardboard Rover.

February promises to be an exciting month for the space program and Mars. See you next month.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

What’s Up January 2021

The beginning of a new year is an ideal time to explore what astronomical events we can expect in the coming twelve months and this will be the focus of this month's column. As usual, I will concentrate on events that can be experienced without the need for expensive equipment.


One interesting event in December last year was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21. Normally such an event does not gain much public attention but given the rarity of the event and the fact that it occurred near Christmas, the conjunction gained a lot of attention in the media.

In any given year there are often several planetary conjunctions, and this will also be the case this year:

February 11: Venus-Jupiter conjunction. The best time to see this conjunction will just before sunrise. At this time in the early morning Saturn will also appear in the same part of the sky. 

March 9 and 10: Mercury-Jupiter-Saturn alignment. On these two days these three planets will appear to be almost in perfect alignment in the early morning sky. The crescent Moon will also be visible at this time and this will provide a great opportunity to take a photograph.

July 12: Venus-Mars conjunction. This conjunction will be at sunset and the crescent Moon will be in the same field of view.

August 18: Mars-Mercury conjunction. These two planets will appear close together at sunset. Their proximity to the setting Sun though may make this conjunction difficult to see.

These conjunctions are often interesting to photograph and you do not need sophisticated equipment to do this. The image at the beginning of this article is of the December Jupiter-Saturn conjunction and I took this using a Sony Lumix camera on a tripod. You can also use a smart phone to do the same thing. NASA has a free e-book on how to do this – see

One other planetary event of interest will be on January 27 when Mercury will reach its highest point in the evening sky – see for details.


Eclipses of the Sun and Moon are always fun events. There will no eclipses of the Sun visible from the West Coast in 2021, but if you happen to be in Antarctica in December you be will able to experience a total solar eclipse! There will, however, be two lunar eclipses visible from North America in 2021:    

May 26: Total lunar eclipse (occurs during a super moon).

November 19: Partial lunar eclipse (during the maximum phase, it will briefly appear as a total eclipse).

Meteor Showers

A meteors or shooting star may be seen anytime of the year in the night sky. At periodic intervals, however, the Earth’s orbit crosses the debris from a comet orbiting the Sun causing a meteor shower. These showers are named for the constellation where the meteors appear to be coming from (this point is called the “radiant”). Dates for meteor showers in 2021 are:

December 27, 2020 - January 10, 2021 (peak night Jan. 2): Quadrantids.

April 16 - 30 (peak night April 21): Lyrids

April 19 - May 28 (peak night May 5): Eta Aquariids.

July 17 - August 26 (peak night Aug. 13): Perseids.

October 6 - 10 (peak night Oct. 7): Draconids.

October 2 - November 7 (peak night Oct. 20): Orionids.

November 6 - 30 (peak night Nov. 16): Leonids.

December 4 - 17 (peak night December 13): Geminids.

December 17 - 26 (peak night December 21): Ursids.

Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is the third brightest object in the sky and is an easy and fun object to spot if you know when and where to look. The NASA site below can be used to find out when the ISS will appear in the night sky in our area. It also enables you to receive emails and text alerts when the ISS is flying over:

Space Program

Last year was a busy time for space exploration and 2021 promises to be equally exciting. Key events and missions planned for 2021 include: 

Early 2021: Test of SpaceX SN9 Starship prototype. 

February 18: NASA Perseverance rover landing on Mars.

March 29: Uncrewed orbital test of Boeing CST-100 Starliner.

March 30/Spring 2021: SpaceX Crew-2 launch to the ISS.

April 23: China’s Tianwen-1 rover landing on Mars.

June: First crewed test of Boeing CST-100 Starliner.

July 22: Launch of NASA DART mission to crash a spacecraft into asteroid 68503 Didymos.

October 16: Launch of NASA Lucy mission to visit 8 asteroids in a decade.

October 31: Launch of the NASA James Webb space telescope.

October 2021: SpaceX Crew-3 launch to the ISS.

Late 2021: Possible launch of Artemis 1 (SLS rocket with uncrewed Orion capsule) to lunar orbit.

More details about most of these missions can be found on the NASA website at

2021 will also see increased testing of space tourism technology with launches by Virgin Galactic (founded by Richard Branson) and Blue Origin (founded by Jeff Bezos). More information about these programs can be found on the websites of these two companies.

As you can see this promises to be an exciting year. See you next month when I will take a detailed look at the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars.

References and Further Reading

Monday, January 4, 2021

 Mars Madness 2021

This is a public outreach event and everyone is welcome to join in. This link can be used on the day to access Zoom (all times are PST):