The Phoenix has Landed

Congratulations to the team behind the successful landing of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander this weekend. In the coming months, the Lander will send back data that will hopefully answer questions about the past and present climate of Mars, the Martian arctic’s ability to support life and the history of water on the planet.

Here are some different ways you can follow the Mission on your Mac:

1. Phoenix Mars Mission website

This site is, as you would expect, the primary source for the latest images, video, news. There is some great blog content here, too. As an aside, check out this CIO article about the behind-the-scenes challenge of serving up web content for the mission in near-real time to tens of thousands of people at once. It’s especially impressive considering that the imagery content is streaming in from millions of miles away.

2. Twitter with the Phoenix

Yes, even the Phoenix Mars Lander has a Twitter account. This is a convenient way to get regular updates — and the spacecraft is even responding to user questions (the tweets are written in the first ‘person’).

3. Visit the Mission on Second Life

And, yes, there’s also a Second Life site for the Mission.

4. Mac screensaver, widget

You can download a couple of Mac freebies over at the Phoenix Mars Mission site. The Mac screensaver features current imagery that auto-updates each time it is launched. The widget provides current Martian weather data.

5. Get the iTunes podcast

There’s also a Phoenix Mars Mission podcast hosted by the University of Arizona. This is the first time a public university has led a Mars mission.

I’ll leave you with an interesting fact: there is a DVD fastened with Velcro to the Phoenix Mars Lander. It’s called Vision of Mars, and it’s a compendium of Mars-related text, art, and radio broadcasts from the 19th and 20th century compiled by the Planetary Society. It also contains 250,000 names of Society members and space exploration enthusiasts. According to the Society, it’s “a message from our world to future human inhabitants of Mars.” The disc, billed as the ‘first library on Mars,’ is reportedly the most expensive DVD ever made. It’s comprised of silicon glass and is designed to last for 500 years.

If it were up to me, I would have attached a Nintendo Wii.

Microsoft Launches WorldWide Telescope

I just spent an hour playing with Microsoft’s just-released WorldWide Telescope. At first glance, you may dismiss this is as just another space simulator like Starry Night, Stellarium, Celestia, or Google Earth. However, I think it will stand on its own as a unique and extraordinary offering.

WWT allows you to surf around the galaxy, seamlessly viewing stitched images from our civilization’s best telescopes. Panning and zooming around the galaxy is exceptionally fluid — faster and more immersive than other offerings I’ve seen. The technology behind this is Microsoft’s new high-performance “Visual Experience Engine.”

As one not ordinarily impressed by Microsoft products, I have to say that I really like WWT. The navigation controls are easy to use. The imagery is incredible. As you’re sailing along, the thumbnails along the bottom of the screen instantly update to show you what’s in the neighborhood. You can change views on the fly to look at galaxies, constellations, and other formations at different wavelengths. Overall, you get a sense of where you are in the universe better than other tools I’ve used. One other feature that stands out: slick multimedia guided tours from experts and enthusiasts — and you can create your own tour, too.

I’m always happy to see a new, free astronomy tool for the public. This is certainly a great addition. The only bad news is that it’s Windows-only.

I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to test this package out given the minimum system requirements to run WWT on your Mac:

– Microsoft® XP SP2 (minimum), Windows® Vista® (recommended) with BootCamp
– Mac with Intel Core 2 Duo (2.2 GHz or faster) processor recommended
– 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM; 2 GB RAM recommended
– NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 128-MB SDRAM or recommended
– HFS+ hard disk format (also known as Mac OS® Extended or HFS Plus) and 10 GB of available hard disk space
– 1440 x 900 or higher-resolution monitor

I don’t have Windows on BootCamp, but I do have VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta. My Mac isn’t quite 2.2 GHz. But I decided to try it out anyway. After some wrangling, I got it to work. Here’s what I’m running:

– MS XP Home Edition SP2 on VMWare Fusion
– 24-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2.16GHz/2MB RAM running Mac OS X 10.5.2
– VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta (Settings: 2 virtual processors, 1120 MB RAM, Accelerated 3D graphics enabled)

This worked well for me, with a few caveats: I experienced video and audio stutters when clicking on an object for ‘more information’ or when starting up a tour. I also found the tours played back much more smoothly (with better image quality) after I let them play through once, and then played them again. I also had to reboot after I was finished running the application through VMWare — my Mac was quite sluggish afterwards. Not bad trade-offs, all things considered. One note: I tried cranking up the alloted RAM for my virtual Windows installation all the way up to 1830MB (VMWare’s recommended max for 2GB RAM), but this did not work. I experienced severe sluggishness, probably due to memory swapping. It worked fine once I turned the RAM back to 1120MB.

I would run BootCamp, but the version of Windows I own (Home Edition) is not compatible…and I don’t want to buy a newer version of Windows. If you’re in this camp (and your Mac is as good or better than mine), this is a working alternative if you want to try out WWT. It’s worth a look. If you run Windows on BootCamp, definitely give it a try.

Get your Mac ready for the Lunar Eclipse

If the skies are clear where you live tomorrow night (or tonight, depending on your time zone), don’t miss your chance to witness the last lunar eclipse until Dec. 2010.

The Stellarium View

Here in Hawaii, I’ll be heading out to the beach around 11 p.m. While I won’t be bringing my Mac with me, this event marks a great occasion to highlight a few of the astronomy programs available for OS X. These tools are excellent teaching aids and are just plain enjoyable. If you don’t have a Mac, no worries: each of these apps run on Mac, Windows, and Linux.

If you go outside to watch for the eclipse, keep an eye out for Saturn (if you have a telescope the rings will be visible) and Regulus (the 22nd brightest star in the night sky, in the Leo constellation).

Saturn and Regulus will be the brightest points in the sky nearest to the eclipsed moon. Exactly where they will appear relative to you, of course, will depend on your location and the time you go outside to have a look — but they will appear to be close to the moon.

Cloudy out? View the solar system on your Mac

1. StellariumFree. This planetarium application specializes on views of the sky from an earthly perspective. Enter your coordinates to see what’s going on in your sky on a given night. This is my app of choice for casual desktop sky-gazing; it’s also a great learning aid. I enjoy setting the program to fast-forward so I can watch the sky come to life in quicktime. There are many user-contributed scripts available to enhance your Stellarium experience which make an already interesting program even more engaging. This is a great program to keep on your Mac for those times when you want to quickly identify a star or constellation.

2. Google EarthFree. It isn’t just for earth-browsing any more. Check out the ‘Sky’ view mode for a full-featured astronomy package chock full of user-contributed goodness. I’ve lost many hours engrossed in the ‘Sky’ view; this Google Earth expansion is still a pretty new feature, but it keeps getting better and better.

3. CelestiaFree. Celestia doesn’t confine you to viewing stars from an earth-bound perspective. You are free to fly around the visible universe in dizzying three dimensions. There are many, many expansions available for Celestia that make it even more fun and valuable as a learning tool. The one thing about Celestia is that it’s not quite as easy to use as the other programs; still, it’s an amazing tool with a dedicated user base and it’s a joy to use.

4. Starry NightExpensive. I own an old Mac OS 9 version of Starry Night Pro and I still use it on my old iBook G4 in Classic mode (note that Classic only runs on Tiger and earlier versions of Mac OS X). It’s come a long way since then and is worth checking out if you really enjoy astronomy and want a feature-rich package with many great animations and photo-realistic imagery. Even the old version of Starry Night that I own is visually very beautiful. It’s a great teaching aid to view the solar system in motion from any perspective, watch eclipses, find satellites, view the earth from distant planets, and more. If you go for the Pro package, you can hook up your Mac to your telescope to track distant objects. My only problem with Starry Night is that it seems to have gone overboard a bit with commercialization — there are now at least six SN packages to choose from, and all of them are pricey.

My favorite experience with Starry Night? Heading out in a canoe late at night with my old iBook back in my home state of Maine on Nicatous Lake (far, far away from any light pollution), turning on Starry Night’s ‘night vision mode’ and spending a few hours looking up at the sky. Note that this is only enjoyable in the summer while doused with about one gallon of bug spray to keep the mosquitos away.

More Mac astronomy links

If Mac astronomy software interests you, check out Pure Mac’s comprehensive list of astronomy apps for more ideas. Hope the skies are clear wherever you may live.