Looking to move? Try Mars! Robert Zubrin on the fast track to colonizing Mars

In July 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, President George H.W. Bush called for America to renew its pioneering push into space with the establishment of a permanent lunar base and a series of human missions to Mars. Almost 25 years later, these goals still seem like pipe dreams to many Americans. However, as the nation debates how to proceed with human space exploration, a human mission to Mars must still be on the table.

While many have said that such an endeavor would be excessively costly and take decades to complete, a small team at Martin Marietta drew up a daring plan that could sharply cut costs and send a group of American astronauts to the Red Planet within ten years.

The plan, known as Mars Direct, has attracted both international attention and broad controversy.

Mars Direct is a sustained humans-to-Mars plan, advocating a minimalist, live-off-the-land approach to exploring the planet Mars. It allows for maximum results with minimum investment. Using existing launch technology and making use of the Martian atmosphere to generate rocket fuel, extracting water from the Martian soil and eventually using the abundant mineral resources of the Red Planet for construction purposes, the plan drastically lowers the amount of material which must be launched from Earth to Mars. Thus, it sidesteps the primary stumbling block to space exploration, and rapidly accelerates the timetable for human exploration of the solar system.

The principal author of Mars Direct, Robert Zubrin, has presented the plan to such fora as the blue ribbon Synthesis Group, headed by former Apollo astronaut General Thomas Stafford, the Augustine Committee, as well as to various government officials, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator John McCain, and NASA Administrators Dan Goldin, Mike Griffin, and Charles Bolden.

He will present at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on May 7 at 7 p.m. in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. Click here for advance tickets.

Principal author of Mars Direct, Robert Zubrin

HMNS DISTINGUISHED LECTURE
“Mars Direct: Humans to the Red Planet within a Decade,” with Robert Zubrin, Ph.D.
Wednesday, May 7, 7 p.m.
HMNS Wortham Giant Screen Theatre
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12

Can Americans reach the Red Planet in our time? Principal author of Mars Direct, Robert Zubrin, addresses this question. Zubrin is an aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society. Following the lecture, he will sign copies of his popular books The Case for Mars, How to Live on Mars, and Merchants of Despair. Click here for advance tickets.

SPECIAL EVENING SCREENING
The Great Planet Adventures
Wednesday, May 7, 6 p.m.
HMNS Burke Baker Planetarium
Tickets $8, HMNS Members $4

Discover what it would be like to live, dress, and work on each planet and what you would need to survive in each planetary environment — particularly the local weather and gravity fields. Click here for advance tickets.

A total eclipse over Houston: What color was last night’s ‘blood Moon’?

I hope you saw the eclipse last night and didn’t lose too much sleep. The weather was perfect and the Moon performed as predicted. The press excitedly dubbed it a ‘blood Moon,’ but we didn’t know what color the Moon would actually be.

Here’s the Moon entering eclipse and fully in the Earth’s shadow (taken from my front yard). Is it a ‘blood Moon’ after all? You be the judge.

Photo by Gary Young. All rights reserved.

Photo by Gary Young. All rights reserved.

These photos were taken by my husband, Gary Young. (I was the frozen assistant.) We used a Takahashi FCT-76 telescope and a Canon 60D camera to capture the photos.

It was a spectacular eclipse, with Mars nearby to the right and Saturn off to the left. Both planets were very bright and easy to identify. The star near the Moon (and just off the field of these images) was Spica in the constellation Virgo.

The planet Mars at night is big and bright, deep in the heart of April

Editor’s note: Press play on the SoundCloud track to really get in the Mars mood while you read.

April is the best month in 2014 to see our blushing cosmic neighbor, Mars! And you’ll definitely want to make a trip out to the George Observatory this Saturday for a Mars Viewing Party from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Take a peek at the marvelous Red Planet while you make the best of this opportunity away from city lights, using some great equipment among cheery fellow astro-enthusiasts.

But what makes April 2014 so special? Here are some reasons (and dates) to make sure you take advantage of the best viewing opportunities:

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU

On April 8, Mars reaches opposition, something that only happens every 26 months. This means that Earth (and therefore you and me) will be right in between the Sun and Mars. This creates some great viewing opportunities, since Mars rises as the Sun sets and will be up all night long.

SO CLOSE YOU CAN TASTE IT

Because of their elliptical orbits, Earth and Mars will be at their closest on April 14. If the planets’ orbits were perfectly circular, they would always reach their closest points at opposition. However, since Mars’ orbit is more eccentric (more egg-shaped, less circular) than Earth’s, this point of closest approach is happening just after opposition.

The closer we are to an object in space, the bigger and brighter it appears to us. So as we approach our closest point to Mars, the planet’s luminosity (brightness) will appear to increase.

WANDERING STARS

The word planet derives from the ancient Greek word for “wandering star.” This apparent “wandering,” or retrograde motion, happens whenever Earth reaches opposition with an outer planet, and then passes it due to our orbit closer to the sun. As we approach and then pass Mars, it will appear to move backward in the sky in relation to the stars behind it, then continue on its regular path across the sky.

This retrograde motion was one of the first reasons people began to question the Earth-centered model of the universe. If Earth was at the center of everything, and stars existed in crystal domes above it, why would these planets move differently? No clear reason was apparent until we realized planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun.

So if you keep your eye on Mars this month, you will have the chance to see one of the earliest questions in astronomy for what it really is – and that’s really awesome.

Mapping of Mars’ retrograde motion from Earth’s point of view

For the best chance to catch a glimpse of Mars, make sure you come out to the George Observatory this Saturday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.!

 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars and the Moon share the limelight

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on April 1, 9 pm CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini, the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion, the Hunter sets with Taurus, the Bull.  To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars—little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius.  Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night.  The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo, the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring.  Mars is up all night long this month.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on April 1, 9 p.m. CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion the Hunter sits with Taurus the Bull. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars: little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring. Mars is up all night long this month.

This month, Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it high in the west at dusk.

Mars is up virtually all night long this month. On April 8, Earth passes between the Sun and Mars. This places Mars at opposition, an alignment where we see Mars rise at dusk and set at dawn — Mars is up literally all night long. It turns out that Mars is farther from the Sun than average when Earth passes it, so at this opposition Mars is not as big or bright as in years past. Still, Mars now rivals the brightest star at night, Sirius, and is now as bright as it will get until May 2016.

Saturn remains in the pre-dawn sky. Face south right before sunup to see it. You can also begin observing Saturn in late evening. It rises just after 10:30 p.m. tonight, and then about a half hour earlier each night until by month’s end, it’s up until twilight. Saturn comes to opposition next month.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look southeast at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

Brilliant winter stars shift towards the west during April. Dazzling Orion is high in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points right to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. Above Orion are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini the Twins. Jupiter is among the Twins this month. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line south from Orion’s belt (left as you face west). Forming a triangle with Betelgeuse and Sirius is Procyon the Little Dog Star.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring in the south and east. Look for Leo the Lion almost overhead at dusk. In the east, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to “arc to Arcturus” and then “speed on to Spica.”

Moon Phases in April 2014:

1st Quarter: April 7, 3:31 a.m.
Full: April 15, 2:44 a.m.
Last Quarter: April 22, 2:52 a.m.
New: April 29, 1:17 a.m.

The Full Moon of Tuesday morning, April 15, fully enters the Moon’s shadow, causing a total eclipse of the Moon. The Moon first encounters the shadow at 12:58 a.m.; that’s when the partial phases begin. By 2:06 a.m., the Moon is all the way inside the shadow, and thus totally eclipsed. The Moon takes 78 minutes to cross the shadow, so totality lasts until 3:24 a.m.. The Moon then emerges from the Earth’s shadow until the eclipse is over at 4:33 a.m.

Keep in mind that the eclipse happens in the morning hours of Tues., April 15. Don’t go out looking for this Tuesday night! Our George Observatory will be open from sundown Mon., April 14 until dawn on Tues., April 15 for observing the eclipse. If you can’t come to the George at such early morning hours, remember that anyone who sees the Moon sees the eclipse. You can observe this eclipse from your backyard or even through your window if you have one that faces south/southwest.

The only thing that can stop you from seeing the eclipse is overcast weather. If we do get clouded out, or if you can’t get up in the middle of the night, we can observe another eclipse on Oct. 8, 2014, right before dawn.

Click here to see the HMNS Planetarium Schedule

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear skies!