Observe the sun and Mercury this month while celebrating the Messenger spacecraft's Mercury orbit insertion on the 18th and Sun-Earth day on the 19th.


The sun and Mercury.

Hello and welcome! I'm Jane Houston Jones at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

On March 18 NASA's Messenger spacecraft is scheduled to be inserted into orbit around Mercury. It will be the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.

To get there, Messenger traveled through the inner solar system, flying by Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times. The spacecraft used the gravity of Venus to resize and rotate its flight path closer to Mercury's orbit in 2006 and 2007.

Messenger experienced many extreme conditions during its nearly 5 billion mile journey to Mercury.

You can see elusive Mercury for yourself this month, too. Look for Mercury next to larger and brighter Jupiter 45 minutes after sunset all month long. They'll look light two bright stars very low on the western horizon.

On Mercury orbit insertion day, March 18, you can see Mercury to the upper right of Jupiter.

And on the 19th, join your local astronomy club or science center as they celebrate Sun-Earth Day. This year offers solar observers a myriad of amazing features.

But take care and never look directly at the sun, or you'll damage your eyes.

Through special solar-safe telescope filters, you can see sunspots on the sun. If you see any large sunspot groups, try to observe them over several days. You may be able to see them march across the sun's photosphere as our star rotates.

Flares that explode and prominences that sometimes erupt into space from the sun can be seen with special H-alpha filters. These special narrow-band filters isolate only the hydrogen alpha wavelength. This filter blocks all the other color of light and reveals the sun's chromosphere.

You can learn more about Sun-Earth Day events and hands-on activities at solarsystem.nasa.gov/yss, which stands for Year of the Solar System.

And you can learn all about NASA missions at www.nasa.gov

That's all for this month. I'm Jane Houston Jones.
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