Mars At Its Brightest Since 2003 As Moon Visits Venus. What You Can See In The Night Sky This Week

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Each week I pick out the northern hemisphere’s celestial highlights (mid-northern latitudes) for the week ahead, but be sure to check my main feed for more in-depth articles on stargazing, astronomy and eclipses. 

What To Watch For In The Night Sky This Week: October 12-18, 2020

This week it’s all about Mars, which will look its biggest, brightest and best in post-sunset skies since 2018 and, technically speaking, since 2003.

However, it’s also a week where the Moon wanes towards its New phase, meaning dark skies at night, gorgeous crescents in the early pre-dawn mornings early in the week, and in early evenings from Sunday. 

MORE FROM FORBESWhat’s That Really Bright ‘Star’ In The Night Sky?

Tuesday, October 13, 2020: Mars at opposition

Tonight the red planet reaches opposition, a moment when the Earth is between it and the Sun. It’s therefore at its biggest and brightest. It’s also visible all night, rising at dusk in the easy and setting at dawn in the west.

The opposition of Mars happens roughly every two years, though technically speaking, Mars is tonight bigger and brighter than at any time since 2003. 

MORE FROM FORBESYour Stargazing Guide To Fall: One ‘Halloween Blue Moon,’ Two Eclipses And A Once-In-397 Years Sight

Wednesday, October 14, 2020: Crescent Moon and Venus

Look east about an hour before sunrise this morning and you’ll see the glorious sight of a very bright 76%-illuminated planet Venus shining 4.3° above a delicate 1% illuminated crescent Moon.

Such a Moon is often called “the New Moon in the Old Moon’s arms.” You may


How could a toxic gas be a sign of life of Venus?

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Scientists recently announced that they had found possible signs of life in the clouds of Venus. We probably should have suspected as much all along.

Venus is a natural place to look for life beyond Earth. It is Earth’s twin — almost the same size and structure — and closer to us than Mars, the current favorite of astronomers looking for life elsewhere in the solar system. Venus is also closer to the Sun, which provides the warmth necessary for life as we know it. In the past, a few scientists have suggested that Venus was a source of primordial life that was later seeded on Earth. That theory, lithopanspermia, never gained popularity because current conditions on Venus seemed very inhospitable to life. The high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Venus ensures that the planet has a runaway greenhouse effect that makes its surface incredibly hot, way hotter than your oven, which kills off microorganisms. And the clouds in its atmosphere are acidic. So scientists turned their attention elsewhere, to Mars and the moons of Saturn. So far, no definitive signs of life have been found on any of them.

But the latest announcement about Venus is a tantalizing one. Astronomers haven’t actually seen life on Venus. Instead, they have observed evidence of a gas called phosphine in the planet’s clouds. What could phosphine have to do with extraterrestrial life?

Phosphine is a highly toxic gas formed when one atom of phosphorus combines with three atoms of hydrogen. Giant planets such as Jupiter have a lot of hydrogen in them and in their atmospheres, and are known to produce phosphine. But on Venus and Earth, there is very little hydrogen in the atmosphere. So, the thinking goes, any phosphine detected is likely associated with life, because someone


Moon May Harbor Ancient Pieces Of Venus’ Surface

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Two Yale University researchers have found a potential shortcut in sampling Venus’ ancient surface. Instead of sending a probe on a costly and extraordinarily challenging Venus sample return mission, they propose simply finding a Venusian meteorite on our own Moon.

There’s never been a bona fide detection of a Venusian meteorite on Earth. For one reason, that’s because in the last several hundred million years at least, Venus’ atmospheric pressures have been so intense that even a catastrophic impactor could not dislodge any Venusian rocks into space. 

But before Venus underwent a runaway greenhouse and morphed into the climatic hellhole it is today, it may have had liquid water oceans as late as 700 million years ago. If so, its atmosphere would have been thin enough for surface rocks to have been dislodged by massive impactors and possibly have found their way to both the Earth and our Moon. 

Due to weathering here on Earth, Venusian meteorites on Earth wouldn’t survive long. But because our Moon has no atmosphere, the authors of a paper accepted by The Planetary Science Journal posit that the Moon may have be the ideal spot to preserve Venus meteorites. 

Lead author Samuel Cabot and co-author Gregory Laughlin investigated the amount of material ejected from Venus when it suffered past impacts from asteroids and comets, and then traced the orbits of the rocks throughout the Solar System. They found that a small (but still significant) fraction of rocks ejected from Venus will be swept up by Earth’s Moon. 

Today, due to Venus’ thick atmosphere, even a catastrophic impactor would not


Did NASA detect a hint of life on Venus in 1978 and not realize it?

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If life does exist on Venus, NASA may have first detected it back in 1978. But the finding went unnoticed for 42 years.

Life on Venus is still a long shot. But there’s reason to take the idea seriously. On Sept. 14, a team of scientists made a bombshell announcement in the journal Nature Astronomy: Using telescopes, they’d detected phosphine, a toxic gas long proposed as a possible sign of alien microbial life, in the upper part of the planet’s thick atmosphere. The detection was a landmark in the long hunt for life elsewhere in the solar system, which has mostly focused attention on Mars and a few moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. Meanwhile, Venus, hot and poisonous, was long considered too inhospitable for anything to survive. But now, digging through archival NASA data, Rakesh Mogul, a biochemist at Cal Poly Pomona in California, and colleagues have found a hint of phosphine picked up by Pioneer 13 — a probe that reached Venus in December 1978.

“When the [Nature Astronomy paper] came out, I immediately thought of the legacy mass spectra,” Mogul told Live Science.

Related: 6 reasons astrobiologists are holding out hope for life on Mars 

Mogul and his coauthors were broadly familiar with the data from the missions, he said. “So, for us, it was a natural next step to give the data another look.  As such, after consulting with my co-authors, we identified the original scientific articles, and promptly started looking for phosphorous compounds.”

The discovery, published to the arXiv database Sept. 22 and not yet peer reviewed, doesn’t tell researchers much beyond what was reported in Nature Astronomy — though it does make the presence of phosphine (made up of a phosphorus atom and three hydrogens) even more certain, they said. The 1978


New Venus Balloon Mission Study Aims To Find Life By 2022

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Two researchers advocate sending a quick mission to Venus to try and quell debate over whether our sister planet’s middle atmosphere does in fact harbor some sort of microbial life. To their credit, instead of standing around grinding their teeth over the issue, Andreas Hein and Manasvi Lingam, have already set forth a new balloon mission proposal specifically geared toward confirming the detection of phosphine (PH3) in Venus’ atmosphere. If funded, they say their mission could launch by 2022.

Their proposal, which is being submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, comes on the heels of this month’s earlier controversy over the tentative detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere. Under certain circumstances, phosphine, a flammable, toxic gas that can signal the presence of biology. 

These balloon-based probes would be slowed down by a parachute, after which the balloons would be deployed in the cloud decks, Lingam, the paper’s second author and an astrobiologist at the Florida Institute of Technology, told me.  The balloons would float in the cloud layer where phosphine has been detected and life has been theorized to exist, and the scientific instruments would operate and gather data, he says.   

Once they hit the atmosphere, the Balloons inflate, similar to airbags, Andreas Hein, an Assistant Professor of aerospace engineering at Paris-Saclay University in France, told me. They then would collect aerosols and dust, which are then analyzed via a microscope and mass spectrometer, he says.

The balloons would probe the Venus atmosphere at a height of 50-60 km, where conditions are similar to those on Earth in terms of temperature and pressure, says Hein. This is about five times the height where airplanes fly today, he says. Microbes might be able to