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Mars and the Pleiades

April 1, 2019

Two of the most popular sights in the night sky are teaming up right now — the planet Mars and the Pleiades star cluster. They’re due west as darkness falls, about a third of the way up the sky. Mars looks like a modest orange star. The dipper-shaped Pleiades is close to the right.

Mars is popular not just to look at, it’s popular to explore. Almost a score of American spacecraft have studied the Red Planet from up close. As of early March, in fact, five of those craft were still at work. And so were three other missions, from Europe, Russia, and India.

One American mission went silent last year. The Opportunity rover landed in January 2004, and operated for more than 14 years. But a massive dust storm blanketed Mars last year, turning day to night. The solar-powered rover hunkered down, using its batteries to keep itself warm. When the storm cleared, though, Opportunity didn’t wake up. Months of attempts to contact it produced no results.

The most recent Mars explorer touched down in November. InSight is probing the Martian interior. It’s listening for Marsquakes, and taking the planet’s temperature. That should provide the best picture yet of how Mars is put together.

Today, several countries are preparing the next round of Mars missions. As many as five could launch in the summer of 2020 — a combination of orbiters, landers, rovers, and even a small helicopter — new explorations of a popular planet.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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