USGS Astrogeology Science Center
USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Look Up! Tonight Is Your Big Chance to See Little Mercury

USGS Astrogeology Science Center
USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Mercury stepped onto the celestial stage this week, and tonight, April 1, it will reach the highest point in the sky it will achieve this year.

Approximately 45 minutes after the last sliver of the Sun disappears beneath the horizon, continue looking dead west. Cast your gaze slightly upward and you’ll notice the first suggestions of two planets. The lower of the two will be Mercury. It won’t yet be totally dark, and you’ll have about one hour to soak it all in. During that time, the celestial dome will slide downward. Mars and Mercury will fall from the sky, chased by a waxing crescent moon, which will remain out until around midnight.

Have a telescope? Mercury will appear as a disc, and as is the case with Venus, you might be able to see its phases (parts of the planet illuminated by the Sun). This is hardly as exciting as Jupiter with its bands of clouds, or Mars with its stunning ice caps, but Mercury is also a lot smaller than either planet. And you can still impress your friends by saying things like, “Ah, Mercury is waning crescent, with a half-Mercury to come!”

So set your expectations accordingly, find a nice open field, lay out a blanket, and relax until after sunset. Your local astronomy club might be hosting a Mercury viewing party, too. The weeks to come will leave Mercury washed in sunlight and hard to see, and in June it will be on the opposite side of the Sun. So if you’re going to catch sight of the closest planet to the Sun this year, you won’t have a better opportunity than tonight.


The oddly adorable Mariner 10. Image Credit: NASA

The first up-close look at Mercury came in 1974 with NASA’s Mariner 10 mission. The spacecraft operated from a heliocentric orbit (i.e., it circled the Sun) and imaged and scanned Mercury on three flybys, when it and Mercury’s orbits coincided. The mission was a success in a lot of ways. It was the first to use a “gravity assist,” in which the gravity of one celestial body is used to “slingshot” a spacecraft to some other target in the solar system. This technique would become standard for space missions going forward. With respect to Mercury, it gave us our first intimate peek at the nearest planet to the Sun, providing information on its geology and magnetosphere.

It wasn’t until 2004, however, that NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft, built by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, launched to unlock the most profound secrets of Mercury. After three flybys, it entered Mercury's orbit in 2011, and in the next four years, it completed 4000 orbits. (It was crashed into the planet's surface in 2015.)

Here's a 2014 view of Mercury, courtesy of MESSENGER.

In addition to mapping Mercury at a level of mind-boggling detail (the top image is an enhanced color global mosaic of the planet), MESSENGER discovered that Mercury is not the dead orb it was once thought to be, but rather, a dynamic, geologically active world. There is water ice on Mercury. It has volcanic deposits. MESSENGER data revealed that it even has active plate tectonics, once the exclusive domain of Earth. (The only other world in the solar system known to have active plate tectonics is Europa.)

We humans are heading back to the smallest planet in the solar system. In October 2018, the European and Japanese space agencies will launch BepiColombo, a Mercury spacecraft designed to study its magnetosphere and surface. It will arrive in December 2025, with its prime mission lasting one year.

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Stephen Hawking’s Memorial Will Beam His Words Toward the Nearest Black Hole
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

An upcoming memorial for Stephen Hawking is going to be out of this world. The late physicist’s words, set to music, will be broadcast by satellite toward the nearest black hole during a June 15 service in the UK, the BBC reports.

During his lifetime, Hawking signed up to travel to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship, but he died before he ever got the chance. (He passed away in March.) Hawking’s daughter Lucy told the BBC that the memorial's musical tribute is a “beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father's presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.” She described it as "a message of peace and hope, about unity and the need for us to live together in harmony on this planet."

Titled “The Stephen Hawking Tribute,” the music was written by Greek composer Vangelis, who created the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. It will play while Hawking’s ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey, near where Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried, according to Cambridge News. After the service, the piece will be beamed into space from the European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain. The target is a black hole called 1A 0620-00, “which lives in a binary system with a fairly ordinary orange dwarf star,” according to Lucy Hawking.

Hawking wasn't the first person to predict the existence of black holes (Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity accounted for them back in the early 1900s), but he spoke at length about them throughout his career and devised mathematical theorems that gave credence to their existence in the universe.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the Hawking family who portrayed the late scientist in the BBC film Hawking, will speak at the service. In addition to Hawking's close friends and family, British astronaut Tim Peake and several local students with disabilities have also been invited to attend.

[h/t BBC]

IKEA's New Collection for Tiny Apartments Is Inspired by Life on Mars

Living in a city apartment can feel claustrophobic at times. As Co.Design reports, the Swedish furniture brand IKEA took this experience to the extreme when designers visited a simulated Mars habitat as research for their latest line of housewares aimed at urbanites.

The new collection, called Rumtid, is tailored to fit the cramped spaces that many people are forced to settle for when apartment-hunting in dense, expensive cities. The designers knew they wanted to prioritize efficiency and functionality with their new project, and Mars research provided the perfect inspiration.

At the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, scientists are figuring out how to meet the needs of potential Mars astronauts with very limited resources. Materials have to be light, so that they require as little rocket fuel as possible to ferry them to the red planet, and should ideally run on renewable energy.

IKEA's designers aren't facing quite as many challenges, but spending a few days at the simulated Martian habitat in Utah got them thinking on the right track. The team also conducted additional research at the famously snug capsule hotels in Tokyo. The Rumtid products they came up with include an indoor terrarium shaped like a space-age rocket, a set of colorful, compact air purifiers, and light-weight joints and bars that can be snapped into modular furniture.

The collection isn't ready to hit IKEA shelves just yet—the chain plans to make Rumtid available for customers by 2020. In the meantime, the designers hope to experiment with additional science fiction-worthy ideas, including curtains that clean the air around them.

Air purifiers designed for urban living.

Furniture joints on bubble wrap on black table.

Modular furniture holding water bag.

[h/t Co.Design]

All images courtesy of IKEA.


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