Look to the skies

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Monday, November 7, 2011

These are exciting times for skywatchers. First, we’ll have a celestial guest in the form of asteroid 2005 YU55, which will slip in between Earth and the Moon tomorrow but presents no danger to us at all. It’ll be some 200,000 miles (320,000 kilometers) away at its closest approach, so still fairly distant. The rock itself is pretty dark but should still be visible through a medium-size telescope (6 to 8 inches), shining at magnitude 11.1.

Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission, en route to the martian moon Phobos, should light up the sky November 8 at 22:55 GMT for about 9½ minutes. This map shows where the probe will be coasting in sunlight (the thin red line), when its boosters will burn in sunlight (the thick red line), when it’ll be burning at night (the thick black line), and when it’ll be coasting at night (the thin black line). The green lines indicate how far the probe will be visible. // Map by PHOBOS-SOIL project, 2011
Not only will we be receiving visitors, though, but we’ll also send out some of our own. Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe is due to launch tomorrow on its ambitious trip to Mars’ largest moon, where it’ll collect a sample of soil (grunt is Russian for dirt or soil) to return to Earth. It’s an exciting mission, and if all goes well the probe will arrive in Mars orbit in 2012, land on Phobos in 2013, and return its sample by 2014.

But if you’re itching for some excitement right now, and are located south of the equator, the Phobos-Grunt project could use your help. Because the probe’s boosters will fire out of view from Russia, the team leaders are inviting amateur astronomers in South America to observe two rocket burns, providing data to ensure everything’s going well with the mission’s trajectory.

Observers can report their findings at http://phobos.cosmos.ru/index.php?id=1686&L=2 (registration required). The first burn should take place tomorrow at 22:55 GMT and last for about 9½ minutes, while the second burn is scheduled for November 9 at 1:02 GMT for about 17 minutes. Both will be visible pretty much only from South America and parts of the South Pacific. If you plan to participate, you’ll need to report your data as soon as possible to help the Phobos-Grunt team. (Find viewing tips at http://satobs.org/seesat/Nov-2011/0031.html.)

The Phobos-Grunt’s second rocket burn will take place November 9 at 1:02 GMT and should last about 17 minutes. If you live in these areas, you can help Russia track the mission’s success by observing — and immediately reporting — the probe’s trajectory. // Map by PHOBOS-SOIL project, 2011
This also means that any mentions of a killer asteroid or South American UFOs in the next few days probably won’t live up to the hype. So, instead, go outside and see what you can see. And if you’re lucky enough to spot any Phobos-Grunt activity, let us know in the comments section below.

(Special thanks to James Oberg, who helped out with this blog post and wrote about a similar issue in the July 2002 issue of Astronomy.)

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