NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, dispatched to determine if the planet most like Earth in the solar system could have supported microbial life, has taken on a second job - moonlighting as an astronomer.
Last week, Curiosity outfitted its high-resolution camera with protective filters and took pictures of the sun as Phobos, one of Mars’ two small moons, sailed by.
It was a tricky shoot. Phobos and its sister moon Deimos are closer to Mars than our moon is to Earth, so they shoot across the sky relatively quickly. Phobos takes less than eight hours to circle Mars. Deimos takes about 30 hours to make the trip.
Last Thursday, the moons started to cross paths.
With very little understanding of astronomy but with the aid of a phone app, I began a three evening attempt to capture the moon with the Olympic Rings. The rings have been hanging iconically on Tower Bridge for the London 2012 Olympic Games and it was suggested to me that a full moon should – at the right angle – cross through them.
Day One – Having planned to be in the “perfect” spot on London Bridge with a good view of the Olympic Rings further up river and using the app information, I waited for the moon to rise. However the horizon itself was a little cloudy. When the moon eventually showed itself about 10 minutes after the app’s moonrise time it was off to the right hand side of the bridge.
I hadn’t taken into account that the moon wouldn’t rise in a vertical line but would travel across the sky. So, by a combination of it appearing late through cloud and miscalculation, I was totally in the wrong place. I rushed carrying the tripod with a heavy 400mm lens attached and the rest of my camera gear hanging off my shoulders – running off the bridge, down several flights of steps, and to the path alongside the River Thames to try re-align the moon with the rings.
However, the moon moves surprising quickly. I couldn’t manage to run far or fast enough in time to get the image before the moon rose high, over and above the bridge.
Day Two – Armed with my 400mm, only a monopod and less gear, ready to run after the moon should I be in the wrong location again, I returned to London Bridge. A recalculation had been made. The moon was rising later and at a slightly different angle to the night before.
From my previous mistakes I knew that when the moon was on the horizon it needed to be to my left in order for it to move across through the rings. However, to my dismay, the rings were not there.
A runner makes his way along a trail on a butte in front of the “super Moon” at Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona May 5, 2012. A “super Moon” will light up Saturday’s night sky in a once-a-year cosmic show, overshadowing a meteor shower from remnants of Halley’s Comet, the U.S. space agency NASA said.
The Moon will seem especially big and bright since it will reach its closest spot to Earth at the same time it is in its full phase, NASA said. REUTERS/Darryl Webb
Finding lost moon rocks is his mission: After NASA’s lunar voyages, the samples were given as goodwill souvenirs to states and nations. Many have gone missing. But an investigator’s on their trail.
TIL: “It is illegal for individuals, even astronauts, to own moon rocks.”
Photo: Joseph Gutheinz, a retired NASA investigator and self-appointed moon rock hunter, stands before the lunar samples vault at Space Center Houston. (James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle