Today's the day NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrives at Mars and either crashes, sails by into oblivion, or slips into orbit as planned for years of scientific research and communications work. There's a full story in The Sun's Health & Science section today. Go ahead, plurge. Buy a paper. Our children have to eat, too.
But you'll want to follow the probe today live online as the $720 million mission reaches its most critical phase. Two-thirds of all attempts to fly by, orbit or land on Mars since 1960 have failed. To get on board, click here to reach the NASA-TV Webcast, select your player and watch the drama unfold 134 million miles away. Coverage starts at 3:30 p.m.
When it's over, and it gets dark enough outside, you can step outdoors and see Mars for yourself, with your own eyes. It's high in the western sky, visible on any clear evening this month. First, find a reasonably dark spot with a broad view of the sky, and face toward the southwest.
About halfway up the sky in front of you, you'll see the constellation Orion the Hunter. You'll know it by the three bright stars in a tight little line, from left to right. That's Orion's belt. Follow the line of Orion's belt to the right, and a bit higher, and you'll come upon two other bright stars. One is a bit higher and to the right of the other.
The one on the left, and lower, is Aldebaran, the "eye" of the bull in the constellation Taurus. The other, higher and to the right, is Mars. Both are slightly reddish. Aldebaran is a red giant star in our own neighborhood of the Milky Way galaxy, "only" about 72 million light years from Earth. Mars is just 134 million miles away in our solar system, and it's reddish because of the iron oxide - rust - in its rocks and soil.
For sky charts to help you find Mars and other sights in the night sky, go to Heavens Above, sign up and enter your location, then click on "Whole Sky Chart." You can set it for any time or any date. Enjoy.