This image shows the target landing area for Curiosity with Mt. Sharp in the background. The wiggly line shows the planned route for Curiosity up the flanks of the mountain.

Sky Almanac

Aug 5, 11:31pm: Tear yourself away from Greco-Roman wrestling and fencing to watch the descent of Curiosity onto the surface of Mars. It’s going to be a cliff-hanger!

Aug 11-12: Perseid meteor shower should be best after midnight when Perseus rises above the horizon. You should be able to see one or two meteors every minute. The number of meteors will grow as dawn approaches as we rotate into the prow of spaceship Earth.  When you see a meteor try to trace its path backward and see if it emerged from a spot between Perseus and Cassiopeia. If so, it was a true Perseid meteor, a snow-flake left over from the birth of the solar system.

Aug 13-14: Watch Mars move between Saturn and Spica low in the west-southwest soon after sunset.

The sky crane lowering Curiosity onto the surface of Mars depiction by NASA

Aug 17: New Moon

Aug 21: About an hour after sunset look for the stunning sight of the slender crescent moon forming a trapezoid with Mars, Saturn, and Spica

  The Higgs Boson

Higgs boson walks into a church. The priest stops the particle and says, “We don’t allow your kind in here.” The particle responds: “Without me, you can’t have mass.”

There was great jubilation in the world of physics on July 4 when two teams of researchers announced they had found evidence for the long sought after Higgs Boson, also known as the God Particle. That jubilation was not particularly shared by Stephen Hawking who had lost a $100 bet that the particle would never be found. Hawking much prefers discoveries that are total and complete surprises. Jubilation may also have been muted in the Vatican where they are certainly not too happy about physicists making statements about God. They and other religious bodies want to make sure everyone realizes that existence of the Higgs Boson neither proves nor disproves the existence of God.

The Andromeda Galaxy now. NASA

The discovery of the Higgs Boson has been anticipated so eagerly in the physics community because it is proposed to be the source of mass of particles and therefore the whole structure of the cosmos. The Higgs field, which accompanies the Higgs particle, fills the entire universe, slows down particles moving though it, and gives them inertia. British physics liken the slowing down of particles in the Higgs field to moving through treacle, a substance, which for many of us American may be just as mysterious as bosons.

Curiosity on Mars

Curiosity is close to finishing its 352-million-mile trip to Mars. If all goes well on August 5 the Mars Science Laboratory, named Curiosity, will plummet through the Martian atmosphere at a speed of 13,000 miles per hour. During the final “six minutes of terror” the space craft will go through a series of maneuvers to slow itself down and touch down on the surface unscathed. Because it weighs 2000 pounds, five times more than previous Martian Rovers, an air bag bounce wouldn’t work on this trip. First a huge parachute will deploy, a brilliant orange and white in the Martian sunlight (the colors of Caltech). Next, eight retrorockets will fire, and a sky crane will lower Curiosity on to the sandy surface. It will find itself inside Gale crater, slightly south of the Martian equator.  The bottom of the 96-mile-diameter crater is lower than its surroundings and may have harbored an ancient lake with sediments and lake shores. In the center of the crater is a three-mile-high mountain named after Robert Sharp, a Caltech professor of geology, who once taught me what little geology I know.  The plan is to read the history of Mars by studying the geological strata of Mt. Sharp from bottom to top. Instead of climbing Mt. Sharp with their rock hammers, NASA geologists will use a collection of spectrometers, x-ray detectors, and laser beams to look for evidence of ancient water and life. As Curiosity moves upward on its six wheels it will eventually reach a point estimated to be 1200 feet from the bottom corresponding to the time when Mars passed from a wet planet to the dry, desiccated object it is now.

The grand slam of the mission would be discovery of evidence that life once existed on Mars. But if evidence of life is not found, Curiosity might learn why life didn’t evolve on Mars. Once it was wetter and warmer, by all rights some form of primitive life should have appeared. If not, why not? A fascinating result would be to discover that life on young Mars did appear, and it evolved along different pathways than it did on Earth.

Collision with the Andromeda Galaxy

Skies Over Crestone in 4 Billion Years When Andromeda Collides with the Milky Way. NASA depiction.

We will land on Mars on August 5 and the Andromeda galaxy will collide with our galaxy in four billion years. The Milky Way and Andromeda are moving toward each other under the influence of gravity produced by stars, gas, dust, and even dark matter.  These two behemoths, each containing at least 200 billion stars, are now 2.5 million light-years from each. But watch out! It’s like a baseball batter watching an oncoming fastball. Although Andromeda is approaching us more than 2,000 times faster than a fastball, it will take 4 billion years before the collision. Although the galaxies will plow into each other, stars inside each galaxy are so far apart that they will not collide with other stars during the encounter. Many stars will be thrown into different orbits around the new double galactic center. New stars will be created out of compressed gas. Our solar system will probably be tossed much farther from the galactic core than we are today.

This future history is remarkably certain. The other major event that comes to mind is the exhaustion of the Sun’s core of hydrogen fuel, which will occur in some 6.5 billion years. But before that the Sun’s brightness will slowly increases over time. That as well as the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere may change the Earth’s temperature and climate making living on Earth impossible before Andromeda arrives. I hope not; the spectacle in the sky will be awesome!

by Kim Malville