Jersey Skies: Celestial trio gathers after sunset and Mars lander’s curtain call

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A close-up view of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Kevin M. Gill

We’ve had a nice view of Saturn for many months, but now that is coming to an end. The planet is very low in the southwest sky after sunset, but we do have one last opportunity to see it easily.

On Jan. 21, 22 and 23, Venus and Saturn will be close to each other and the moon. To see them together, face the southwest sky between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Venus will be extremely bright, so it should be fairly easy to spot. It will be about 12 degrees above the horizon, so you will need a good view in that direction. Saturn will be the pinpoint of light above Venus on Jan. 20 and 21. On Jan. 22, Saturn will be above and right of Venus and the two will be close together — less than half of a degree apart.

Then, on Jan. 23, the crescent moon will make an appearance here as well. Look for the moon, Venus and Saturn lined up in the southwest sky; the trio should make for a pretty sight after sunset.

One of the last images of Mars sent by NASA’s InSight Lander. Its four-year mission appears to be at an end. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Insight Mission Ends

As expected, NASA’s Mars InSight Lander has ended its mission. Recently, dust has been accumulating on its solar panels, reducing the amount of power available to keep its instruments operating.

NASA lost contact on Dec. 15, and despite two attempts to reestablish communications, mission controllers we unable to do so. Engineers will continue to monitor for any signals from the spacecraft, but its batteries are likely dead at this point. Thus ends a four-year mission that was the first to probe Mars’ deep interior.

One of InSight’s most important instruments was its seismometer. It recorded more than 1,000 marsquakes. These vibrations allowed the structure of the Martian core, mantle and crust to be studied. Scientists conclude that the core of the planet is about 1,100 miles in diameter, larger than originally thought and surprisingly made of lighter elements. The spacecraft also discovered that the crust is 15 to 25 miles thick — thinner and less dense than expected.

InSight has added to our knowledge of Mars that will aid our understanding of planets and how they form.

Kevin D. Conod is the planetarium astronomer at the County College of Morris and president of the North Jersey Astronomical Group.

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