Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Amateur Astronomy on Mars?

  The country is currently facing automatic budget cuts in January known as sequestration if Congress doesn't come up with some stopgap measures. This means that public support for the Mars programs will be cut proportionally. This will not decrease the functionality of the Mars rovers but their controllers might feel the pinch. One possiblity that NASA might consider is more private support and some "amateur work."
  As an example Curiosity might try some amateur astronomy with the M-100 Mastcam. It has a focal length of 100mm with an f/10 lens and can capture 1600x1200 6.8°x5.1° images. So, time permitting, it might be possible for Curiosity to observe the location of the Martian rotational pole. In Curiosity's case it would probably have to be the South Celestial Pole. A complicating factor is that Curiosity is in a depression about 5° S of the equator so the pole would be very close to the horizon in a dusty environment. But the visible star trails that result from the rotational motion of Mars might still be useful in determing the location of the South pole even if it is not clearly visible. The S pole is diagonally opposite the N pole so it is at RA 9h10m44s, Decl -52°53'11.4" and there are some bright stars nearby in the constellation Vela that could be used to triangulate the pole's position. In the image below one can see the marked position of the S pole and the surrounding stars of Vela.

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