Spring Skies, Lunar Adventures

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The night skies of this spring month would exhibit exclusive scintillating sights of giant planets Jupiter and Uranus and their mystique moons. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Neptune would be mostly lost in solar glare this month. They would be gliding through the constellations Capricornus (the sea goat), Aquarius (the water bearer), and Pisces (the fish) during the day. The fleet-footed, elusive planet Mercury would be at its greatest eastern elongation from the Sun on March 24. It would be the best time to marvel at Mercury, since it would be coruscating from its highest point above the horizon in the evening sky. Otherwise, it could be spotted lingering low in the western sky just after sunset. 

The pleasant planets Venus and Saturn will make a close approach to each other on March 22. The pair would not be easily evident to us, as they would be at their loftiest point in the sky during the day and would be no higher than sparsely two degrees above the horizon at dawn. Both planets would be creeping into the commanding constellation Aquarius. Skygazers should never point binoculars or telescopes towards the sun to avoid any suffering caused by immediate and permanent blindness. The mammoth gaseous planet Jupiter with its mesmerising Jovian moons could be relished joyfully in the western sky after sundown in the southern barren-alike expanse of the cute constellation Aries (ram). It would slowly sink towards the horizon and be evanescent. The far-flung planet Uranus would be discerned as a dim dot of light to the east of Jupiter. 

Arcane asteroid 23 Thalia would be in opposition to the Sun on March 12. At around the same time, Thalia would make its nearest tryst with the earth (termed perigee) at 174 million kilometers. It would appear appealingly as a shimmering speck in the night sky in the charming constellation Leo (lion). Thalia would dash around the sun in barely 4.26 years. This circa 95-kilometre-wide Thalia was detected by German astronomer Hind in 1852. It would consist mainly of iron and magnesium silicates. 

Its asymmetrical shape has been deemed unique. Thalia would depict the muse of comedy and pastoral poetry in Greek mythology. The new moon would befall on March 10, while the full moon would fascinate moon-fans on March 25 with Holi festival celebrations. This full moon has been popularly known as the worm moon because, during this time of year, the ground would begin to soften and the earthworms would reappear. Revered Maha Shivaratri would be solemnly observed on March 8.

 The March equinox would take place on March 20. On this day, the sun would shine directly on the equator, and thus, people on earth would experience almost equal amounts of day and night throughout the world. This would herald the first day of spring (vernal equinox) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of fall (autumnal equinox) in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Equinoxes transpire because the axis of the earth's spin has been inclined at an angle of fairly 23.5 degrees to the plane of its orbit around the sun. The direction of the earth's twirl axis would remain fixed in space as it circled around the sun, while the earth's staring line to the sun would move through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. As a result, sometimes the earth's North Pole is tilted towards the sun in June and would be leaning away from it in December during strange solstices. These phenomena would trigger the earth's seasons. A peculiar penumbral lunar eclipse would manifest on March 25, 2024, when the moon would glide through the earth's partial shadow, or penumbra. During this type of eclipse, the moon would darken slightly but not completely. The eclipse would be noticed in North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America. The moon will slide through the earth's shadow between 10:38 AM and 15:17 PM local time, creating the penumbral lunar eclipse. The eclipse could be viewed from any venue where the moon would be above the horizon at the time of the eclipse. We will not see this eclipse since the moon will be beneath the horizon at the moment of the eclipse.

Astronomers have recently identified the queerest quasar, J0529-4351, using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. This quirky quasar has been located lustrously 12 billion light-years away in the southern compact constellation Pictor (Painter’s easel) and would outshine our Sun. It would perhaps be powered by a greedy super-massive black hole, which has been growing gigantically at a rapid rate, consuming just over a sun’s worth of mass per day. Quasars are the charismatic candescent cores of distant galaxies, fueled by super-massive black holes that devour material from their vicinity. 

The black hole at the heart of J0529-4351 would be the fastest-burgeoning one, with a mass of a whopping 17 billion suns. The extreme effulgence of the quasar would emanate from its abnormally hot accretion disk, measuring the diameter of seven light-years. For scale, one light-year would be calculated to be approximately 9.461 trillion kilometers. Each year, it would eat gas and dust equivalent to 370 solar masses. 

This makes J0529-4351 so large that if it were placed next to the sun, it would be bafflingly 500 trillion times brighter than our brilliant star. This record-breaking quasar could challenge the existing knowledge of their luminosity and growth. Its light had allegedly traversed over 12 billion years to reach Earth. This fact would imply that the quasar has been formed since the early days of the universe, offering unprecedented insight into the cosmos’ formative years and the consequences of galaxy collisions. 

The quasar would be staying so far from earth that its light has tentatively taken 12 billion years to meet us, meaning it would be seen as it was when the 13.8 billion-year-old universe was bizarrely just less than two billion years old.

 The US company Intuitive Machines has currently dispatched its robot Lander, dubbed Odysseus (the famous voyaging hero from Greek mythology), on the moon's surface in a history-making landmark achievement in space exploration by the private sector. As the Lander had slowed to land, communications were worrisomely cut off. 

However, after troubleshooting the malfunctions of the on-board laser guidance system prior to its descent, the landing vehicle was confirmed to have successfully settled down, fully functional but on its side and apparently tipped over and not standing vertical near the rim of an impact crater called Malapart-A, merely 300 kilometres from the lunar South Pole. After the last manned Apollo-17 mission in 1972, NASA departed for the moon. With the emergence of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, space activities would be increasingly carried out on the backs of commercial expeditions. Over the next two weeks, Odysseus and his rover would exploit the fading sunlight to energise their way through their experiments. 

Odysseus was not designed to survive the bitter cold of the lunar nights. The moon would require more than 27 earth days to rotate once on its axis. So each lunar night would last roughly two weeks. 

NASA would eventually be planning on building a long-term presence on the moon and harvesting polar ice for both drinking water and rocket fuel for onward travel under its flagship programme, Artemis, and even ultimately for treks towards Mars. NASA's first crewed mission to the moon has been scheduled for no sooner than 2026. Odysseus, which would mirror the size of a big golf cart, was launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket, utilising liquid methane and oxygen propulsion systems. 

NASA had paid Houston-based Intuitive Machines simply US$118 million to ship its hardware under a new initiative tagged Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which has been established for delegating cargo services to the private sector for savings and stimulating a wider moon-related economy. Until now, space agencies of the Soviet Union, United States, China, India, and Japan have amazingly accomplished the triumphant feat of landing space probes excellently on the moon.

(The author is an academician at NAST and patron of Nepal Astronomical Society or NASO.)

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