The Moon and the planet Mars will form a beautiful Christmas-morning decoration tomorrow. They’ll stand high in the south at first light, with orange Mars close to the upper left of the Moon. As a bonus, the bright star Spica will stand to their lower left.
The scientists who study Mars got an early Christmas present 10 years ago today, when Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft entered orbit around the planet. It marked the first successful Mars arrival for any group other than the United States or the Soviet Union.
Mars Express carried the best camera to arrive at Mars to that time. In the decade since, it’s snapped thousands of amazing views of the Red Planet, showing canyons, craters, flood channels, sand dunes, and other features in exquisite detail.
The craft also was equipped with a laser altimeter, which has helped scientists measure the contours of the Martian landscape, as well as ground-penetrating radar. That instrument has helped reveal deposits of water ice beneath the surface.
The arrival at Mars wasn’t a complete success, though. A small lander, known as Beagle 2, hitched a ride with Mars Express. It deployed from the orbiter on time, headed for the Martian surface. Engineers lost contact during its descent, though, and Beagle 2 was never heard from again. But Mars Express continues to probe the mysteries of the Red Planet, a decade after its arrival.
We’ll have more about Mars, the Moon, and Spica tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.