Wednesday , August 15 2018

Hubble Captures Mars and Saturn as They Pass Close to Earth

The Hubble Space Telescope got off to a rocky start back in the early 90s, but it’s been a real trooper ever since. After more than 25 years, it’s still capturing stunning photos of far-away astronomical objects and advancing human knowledge. It can also take a peek at objects in our own solar system. Both Saturn and Mars have swung close to Earth recently, and Hubble got some new images.

Saturn was in opposition to Earth on June 27, and Mars is sliding that way now. When a planet is in opposition to Earth, it means that planet, Earth, and the sun are aligned. During this time, the planet is as close as it gets to Earth, and it’s fully illuminated by the sun from our perspective. Hubble is designed to look at much more distant objects that are much brighter than planets, so opposition is the best time to get images of the planets with Hubble.

This composite image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on 6 June 2018, shows the ringed planet Saturn with six of its 62 known moons. From left to right, the moons visible in this image are Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, Janus, Epimetheus, and Mimas.

In the new Saturn image, Hubble managed to spot six of the planet’s 62 known moons: Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, Janus, Epimetheus, and Mimas. Astronomers captured the image on June 6, a few weeks before the planet was in full opposition. It was still just 870 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from Earth, which is a mere stone’s throw for Saturn. Saturn was near its maximum tilt toward Earth, so the rings are on full display. You can even see the hexagonal cloud structure around Saturn’s north pole.

Hubble turned toward Mars on July 18th, so again this was a few weeks prior to opposition. The planet was still plenty close for some excellent Hubble snapshots, though. This is an exciting time to take a look at Mars, too. The planet is currently experiencing a global dust storm that obscured some of the details. However, this provides an opportunity to study Mars’ dust storms, which are still poorly understood.

In mid-July the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observed Mars, only 13 days before the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 2018. While previous images showed detailed surface features of the planet, this new image is dominated by a gigantic sandstorm enshrouding the entire planet.

Hubble spotted both of Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos, which can be seen toward the bottom of the image. There are visible clouds over the south pole, and the northern polar ice cap is clear as day. The vast rust-colored haze covering most of the planet is the dust storm, but there are a few notable features still visible. Schiaparelli Crater, Hellas Basin, and Terra Meridiani are all visible near the middle of Mars.

You can expect plenty more photos of Mars as it reached opposition on July 31.

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