Bright Spots on Ceres Return to View

animated sequence of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows northern terrain on the sunlit side of dwarf planet Ceres.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

animated sequence of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows northern terrain on the sunlit side of dwarf planet Ceres.

As NASA’s Dawn orbiter approached the Ceres in late February, it released tantalizing images of a pair of bright spots on the floor of a big crater of the dwarf planet. But after the craft began orbiting Ceres on March 6, 2015, the newsfeed went silent. Conspiracy theories started brewing, naturally, about how the government was keeping secret the discovery of (fill in the blank) on Ceres. It turns out the spacecraft was just settling in and was mostly over the dark side of the dwarf planet. Now NASA has released two new images of Ceres, including the still mysterious bright spots, taken from Dawn on April 14 and 15 from 14,000 miles above Ceres’ north pole.

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Mars, Venus, and the crescent Moon

The crescent Moon, Venus, and fainter Mars in near alignment on February 20, 2015.

No, that’s not a typo. The word syzygy (pronounced “SIZ-i-jee”) is an obscure astronomical term that refers to an alignment in a straight line of three celestial bodies bound by gravity. I thought of this old term last week as I snapped the above image during the lovely conjunction of the crescent Moon, Mars, and Venus after sunset. While this alignment was not a syzygy in the proper sense, it was close.

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Jupiter Observing Guide for 2015

jupiterWhat’s that bright star in the east? That’s no star… it’s Jupiter, the biggest planet in the solar system and perhaps the most interesting object to see with a small telescope. The planet reached opposition this month and remains ideally placed for viewing through May. On this page, you can download the PDF notes and audio of a short guide that takes you on a tour of Jupiter and shows you how to see and understand the fascinating features on the face of this big planet.

(Publisher’s Note: This guide to Jupiter is just a tiny part of the year-long astronomy course called The Art of Stargazing. This course is offered once a year at One-Minute Astronomer, and will be open to new students during the last week of February 2015).

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Asteroid 2004 BL86 Buzzes Earth

2004BL86A small asteroid flies past Earth tonight and grows bright enough to spot with a small telescope. The little rock, which is about 300 meters across, was discovered about ten years ago and has the designation 2004 BL86. At its closest approach, the asteroid will pass within 1.2 million km, about three times the Earth-Moon distance. It’s the largest such asteroid to come this close to Earth until 2027.

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