Saturday, March 28, 2009
Streaking skyward, a Delta II rocket carries NASA's Kepler spacecraft aloft into the clear night of March 6. The dramatic scene was recorded in a time exposure from the crowded pier in Jetty Park at the northern end of Cocoa Beach, Florida, about 3 miles from the Cape Canaveral launch site. Kepler's mission is to search for Earth-like planets orbiting in the habitable zone of other stars. A planet orbiting within a star's habitable zone would have a surface temperature capable of supporting liquid water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it. To find Earth-like planets, Kepler's telescope and large, sensitive camera will examine a rich star field near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy.
What's happened to the Moon? Nothing, although from some locations, February's full moon, which occurred about two weeks ago, appeared strangely distorted as it rose. Visible in particular was a curiously inverted image section pinched off near the horizon, an effect dubbed the Etruscan vase by the pioneering science fiction writer Jules Verne for its familiar shape. This odd moon image piece was created by moonlight refracting through an atmospheric inversion layer on Earth where cold air was trapped near the surface. The photographer also reported that, as the moon rose, a red rim was faintly visible on the lower part of the moon, while a green rim appeared on the top. Similar to the Sun's famous green flash, these effects arise when the Earth's atmosphere acts like a prism, sending different colors of light on slightly different paths. The above image mosaic has been horizontally compressed by computer to fit a standard screen.
The striking X near the center of this lunarscape is easily visible in binoculars or a small telescope. Yet, not too many have seen it. The catch is, this lunar X is only apparent during a four hour period just before the Moon's first quarter phase. At the terminator, or shadow line between lunar day and night, the X illusion is produced by a configuration of the craters Blanchinus, La Caille and Purbach. Near the Moon's first quarter phase, an astronaut standing close to the craters' position would see the slowly rising Sun very near the horizon. Temporarily, the crater walls would be in sunlight while the crater floors were still in darkness. Seen from planet Earth, contrasting sections of bright walls against the dark floors by chance look remarkably like an X. This sharp image of the Lunar X was captured at approximately 11:59 UT on March 3, 2009