Remember those tubelike structures in martian meteor ALH84001 that were purported to be fossilized bacteria? They were a prime reason why worldwide attention was focused on the landing last July 4 of the Mars Pathfinder and the tiny Sojourner robot rover. Contact was lost with Pathfinder on Nov. 4 with no evidence that life existed in the frozen Martian soil. Now it turns out that the tubules are most likely the result of peculiarities in the crystal growth of carbonate minerals. A recent article in the journal Nature says that a research team lead by J.P. Bradley of the Georgia Institute of Technology found the tubules to be consistent with carbonate-rich rock. Segmentation on the tubules, which was considered highly significant, is thought to have been caused in the laboratory when a metallic film was deposited on the tubules for visualization. Thus no concrete evidence for life on Mars exists but the search will go on.
FOCUS ON THE PLANETS
MERCURY is too close to the sun to be seen in February. Look for the innermost planet to return in March.
VENUS rises in the southeast about an hour before dawn. It will gain in altitude, and increase in brightness, throughout the month.
MARS is just to the upper left of Jupiter on the southwest horizon at dusk. The red planet is now so dim that binoculars are needed to get a decent view and atmospheric disturbance will cause its image to flicker and distort.
JUPITER starts the month low in the west-southwest at dusk sinking lower on the horizon each night until it disappears by mid-month.
SATURN is the highest, and most easily observable, planet in the evening skies. Look for it in the southwestern sky at nightfall. The crescent moon is just to the upper left of Saturn on the first of the month.
URANUS and NEPTUNE are both lost in the glare of twilight and not visible during February. PLUTO is high in the south at dawn but will not be seen until it enters the evening skies in May.
FOCUS ON A CONSTELLATION
The sun enters the constellation of Aquarius on Feb. 16 making the Water Bearer the second stop on our year-long odyssey around the zodiac. Despite the fact that Aquarius has no bright stars or a distinctive pattern, it has been known since Babylonian times as a man pouring water from a jar. Aquarius was important to the Egyptians because the sun passed through its stars at the start of the rainy season signaling the start of spring in that part of the world. One writer places the origin of the constellation as far back in the past as 3000 B.C. In recent times, Aquarius has received a great deal of publicity as being the next constellation in which the Sun is located at the spring equinox. This is what defines an age and the dawning of “The Age of Aquarius” is supposed to usher in permanent peace and justice. Don’t look for it anytime soon as Guy Ottewell of Furman University has calculated that it will be A.D. 2597 before the spring equinox shifts from its current site in Pisces the Fish.
1. Sunrise, 6:55 a.m.; sunset, 4:43 p.m. Jupiter lies just above the southwest horizon with Mars to its immediate upper left. Much higher, and farther to the left, Saturn is nestled against the crescent moon.
3. Moon in first quarter, 5:54 p.m.
5. Look for the moon near Aldebaran, the “red eye” of Taurus the bull tonight.
11. Full moon, 5:23 a.m. The full moon of February is called variously the Snow Moon, Hunger Moon or Wolf Moon. 16 The sun enters Aquarius on the ecliptic.
18. The sun enters the astrological sign of Pisces but, due to precession, astronomically has just entered Aquarius.
19. Moon in last quarter, 10:28 a.m. Venus is at its brightest in the morning sky for this appearance.
26. New moon, 12:26 p.m. The moon is at perigee, or closest approach to the Earth, a combination that could result in abnormally high tides. If you happen to be hanging around the southern Caribbean Sea today, you will be treated to a total eclipse of the sun.
28. Saturn resembles a lone golden star above the moon on the estern horizon this evening.
29. Sunrise, 6:15 a.m.; sunset, 5:22 p.m.
Clair Wood is the Bangor Daily News science columnist.