Catching a Ride
Mars is squeezing in its last appearance in the evening sky over the next few nights. It's quite low in the west as twilight begins to fade, and drops from sight not long after nightfall. It looks like a modest little orange star.
You probably didn't know it, but several hundred thousand people are on Mars right now. A few hundred thousand more are orbiting the planet. For that matter, a whole bunch are orbiting Saturn, too, while still more are heading toward Pluto -- in virtual form, that is. That's because several spacecraft are carrying CDs, DVDs, or other objects with the names or signatures of hundreds of thousands of supporters and well-wishers.
NASA's been letting people take virtual trips to the planets for a couple of decades now. You sign up through the web, and print out a certificate confirming that you're along for the ride.
The next mission that'll carry names into space is called Kepler. It's scheduled for launch in February. Although it won't head toward other planets, it will look for planets in other star systems. It'll monitor thousands of stars, looking for tiny dips in their light caused by planets passing in front of them. Mission scientists expect to find hundreds or thousands of planets this way -- including some that might be similar to Earth.
You can hitch a virtual ride with Kepler by signing up through the mission web site by the first of November. The address is kepler.nasa.gov.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.