Thursday, December 22, 2005

Long Nights full of Planets

Long Nights full of Planets
by Dave Adalian

For the price of a little midnight oil, along with some luck and a bit of persistence, the naked-eye planets can all be viewed in a single night this week. But, you’ll have to move quickly and be eagle-eyed.

The easiest of the nighttime wanderers to find is Earth’s sister planet, bright Venus, which, like Earth, is about 8,000 miles wide. Even though Venus now appears as the wisp of crescent through a telescope it shines brilliantly as the Evening Star low in the southwest before it chases the Sun over the horizon.

Far more difficult to find is 30,000-mile-wide Uranus, the dimmest of the naked-eye planets. It too is in the southwest just after sunset, in the constellation Aquarius, but unless you know exactly where to look you’ll likely miss it. You’ll also need a very dark viewing spot well away from city lights.

While Uranus, the father of the Titans, can be seen without optical aid, your best bet is to look for him with binoculars on the night of Tuesday, Jan. 3, when he’ll be just a degree or so northwest of the new moon. His methane-rich atmosphere will make him look like a bluish star.

Far easier to find is bright and ruddy, 4,000-mile-wide Mars. The God of War sits high in the sky just after sundown, almost straight overhead. He’ll make his way slowly across the sky as the night moves on, finally setting in the early morning hours.

Mars will remain a prominent feature of the night for many month yet, not passing from the sky until spring turns to summer.

Just now making his move into the evening sky is golden Saturn, the 74,000-mile-wide ringed planet. He rises about 8 p.m. in the constellation Cancer and takes the entire night to cross the sky, setting in the hour after dawn.

West of Saturn is a ghostly naked-eye star cluster known as the Beehive.

Rising at about 3 a.m. is 88,000-mile-wide Jupiter, King of the Gods. This bright gas giant planet with its bands of red and swirling storms is directly southwest as dawn begins.

Minutes before the Sun rises the last of the naked-eye planets appears. Swift 3,000-mile-wide Mercury hovers just above the horizon as the sky begins to brighten, heralding the return of daylight. By the end of the week fleet-footed Mercury will be impossible to find as it fades back into the glare of the Sun.


This column appeared originally in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on Dec. 22, 2005.