MARS AND SATURN CLOSE THE GAP ON EASTER

by William J. Bechaver

As we began to watch the positions of Mars and Saturn a couple of months ago, they were in completely different quadrants of the sky.

But now, Mars has caught up to Saturn in its orbit, and we here on Earth are rapidly gaining on them both. The gap between the two will appear to be negligible early within the week.

The best time to view the two is in the early morning hours. Right now, locating them can be a little tricky. They lie above The Teapot, one of the most recognizable asterisms in the night sky. It is located in the Sagittarius constellation.

Though far outshined by Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are still the brightest objects in the area. If you wait until just after six o’clock in the morning, or about a half an hour before sunrise, the three planets will remain the only objects still visible in the predawn sky, along with the Moon, of course. The lightening of the sky will have faded all the stars from view.

Mars and Saturn lie very close together in the south-eastern sky, with brighter Jupiter further off in the west, ahead of the Moon.

On the night of Sunday 1 April, the two planets will lie less than two degrees apart as they rise about an hour after midnight, or in the early morning hours of April 2.

If you go out a couple hours after midnight, or anytime on Monday morning before the sunrise begins to lighten the sky, look to the south east, and you should see the two planets very close together.

Both planets are not very bright right now, so they will not be as prominent as other recent conjunctions. Yet, it will be a spectacular sight to look for in the early morning hours.

If you have trouble picking them out, don’t fret. Next weekend, the Moon will join the pair, and they will not have moved very far from each other by then. With the Moon moving into that part of the sky, not only will it make them easier to spot, it will also add one more element to form a more impressive conjunction.

But if you find them, keep an eye on them until then, on successive mornings, to watch the progression as they slowly move apart before the Moon joins the formation.

The Moon is making its own headlines this week, as the full moon on Holy Saturday marks the second Blue Moon of the year. A Blue Moon has commonly become known as the second full moon in any month. As we had one in January, this is the second of the year, the full moon falling on the last day of March.

Also, the Moon will catch Jupiter on the morning after the close encounter of Mars and Saturn. So, on Monday night or Tuesday morning, go out and find the Moon, a few days beyond full, and it will make a nice pairing with Jupiter, the two lying about four degrees apart.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.

• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

THE NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM

by William J. Bechaver

Last month, I got the opportunity to visit The National Air And Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Air And Space is the most popular museum under the care of The Smithsonian Institution, and in fact, is the most visited museum in the nation.

The Smithsonian Institute is a collective of great museums in our nation’s capitol, which includes The National Gallery, The Natural History Museum, The National History Museum, The Museum Of The American Indian, and many others.

The Air And Space Museum was constructed on its prominent site along The National Mall in 1976. It is due for major renovation, which will begin this summer. So, I decided to visit it now, in its original configuration, before all the changes and updates are made, so I can make a comparison when I visit in the future.

The site also has significant historical notoriety, as it was where the city’s armory once stood, which housed The Armory Hospital during The Civil War, where the worst of the wounded were cared for.

I spent several days entirely at The Air And Space Museum.

Housed there, of course, is The Wright Brother’s Flyer, the first powered fixed-wing aircraft to take to the skies. You can also see The Spirit Of Saint Louis, Charles Lindbergh’s plane that was the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.

And then, there are the aircraft that competed in, and determined that the United States would win, The Space Race.

There is the Bell X-1, in which Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier. There is the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule, the actual one in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. The cramped Gemini capsule in which two astronauts sat next to each other, for days on end without moving, side by side, orbiting the planet and making the first space walks, is on display.

There is also the Apollo 11 Capsule in which the first men to walk on the Moon, resolutely winning the space race, returned from their journey.

You can see an unused, yet fully functional, Lunar Module and Command Module, vehicles which made the trip to the Moon possible.

There also, are the vehicles NASA has since used to explore other worlds, to the far reaches of our solar system, and beyond, as Voyager I and Voyager II have now left the realm of the solar system and entered interstellar space.

The collection of aircraft is, of course, extensive and impressive.

While in Washington, I took the opportunity to meet up with Neil Newman. Neil is a Walsenburg native, and a graduate of John Mall High School, and has worked for NASA for thirty years. He is a deputy director of one of three international offices that support the agency, and has spent his entire tenure with NASA supporting international activities on a variety of space programs. He has worked mostly on human spaceflight projects, including the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and Space Exploration.

It was great to see him, reminisce about trips our families took together when we were young, and get caught up. Neil suggested, if I had the time, to visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Air And Space Museum, located near Dulles International Airport, where they have one of the Space Shuttles on display, along with other huge aircraft in a massive hangar facility.

So, the day before flying out to come home, I stayed near Dulles, and spent a day at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

When I walked in, I was overwhelmed by the size of the facility, and the diversity of the collection of aircraft.

Most overwhelming was when I discovered that it is the Space Shuttle Discovery on display there.

You see, Discovery and I have a special history, and relationship, and in fact, this was not the first time I saw the great space vehicle.

Back on January 28, 1986, I was a student at U.S.C. in Pueblo, the day of the Challenger Disaster, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral.

The Space Shuttle program was put on hold for more than two years. By the time it resumed, I was living in Los Angeles.

Space Shuttle Discovery was the first to launch when the shuttle program resumed in September 1988.

I made the trip up to Edwards Air Force Base on 3 October 1988 to watch the conclusion of our “Return To Space” mission, the first landing of the resumed shuttle program.

So, when I walked into the museum at Dulles, and saw Discovery was there, it was quite emotional for me. I had seen her once before, as she descended from space, and glided down to land safely in the high desert of California. Though now I was seeing her close up, I had seen her from a distance before, nearly thirty years ago.

Yet, the highlight of my trip was when I had the opportunity to take Amtrak down to Virginia Beach to visit my nephew Ryan Carter. Ryan is a Sargeant in the Army, and has since been moved to South Korea, where he will serve for the next year. I was lucky to have the chance to spend time with his family before his departure, enjoying the company of his lovely wife, Sammi, and meeting for the first time their beautiful baby boy, Xander.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.

• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

The National Air And Space Museum is part of The Smithsonian Institute. All of the Smithsonian Museums are open to the public seven days a week, with free admission.

For more information about The National Air And Space Museum, visit their website by clicking here.

And for information about The Udvar-Hazy Center, visit their website by clicking here.