Monday, February 27, 2012

Planet watching

This coming Saturday, March 3, will be a good night to go out and do some naked eye solar system astronomy (I'd say earlier in the week would be good too, but the forecast for the Hudson Valley sucks for the next few days!).


On Saturday, find somewhere you have a clear view to the west and go outside around 6:30 pm (sunset occurs at 5:49 pm EST).  High up in the southern sky will be the bright waxing gibbous Moon.  Looking toward the western horizon, you'll see superbright Venus (magnitude -4.12, the brightest thing in the sky other than the Moon), less bright (mag. -2.02), but still brighter than the brightest stars, Jupiter, and dimmer Mercury (mag. -0.58).


You can't see it, but just a couple of degrees higher and to the left of Mercury is Uranus.

Turn around and face east.  Low on the horizon is reddish Mars.


Mars will be nice and bright (mag. -1.23) because it's now at opposition - directly opposite the Earth from the Sun.  This is a once every two year or so event that leads to it being near its maximum brightness.

If you want to pop outside again after a few hours, you'll see Saturn rising in the east-southeast around 10:30 pm.


You'll have seen all five of the naked-eye planets known to the ancients in one evening (plus the Moon).  As I tell the students in my solar system astronomy class - it's a cheap Saturday night date!

Even better, Jupiter and Venus will get closer and closer together over the next few weeks and on Monday, March 12, at 8:30 pm EDT (after the time change!), you'll be able to see this spectacular sight:


By the way, the sky images here are from Stellarium, a totally free and awesome planetarium program you can download here.

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