Monday, May 28, 2007

Mars Joins Planetary Parade

Mars Joins Planetary Parade
by Dave Adalian
In my last column, I took you on a tour of the naked-eye planets, starting at sunset with elusive Mercury and ending in the early morning hours with blue Neptune. This time, another member of the solar system entourage joins the show while two others put in their best appearances of the year.

Tiny Mercury, a rocky planet just 3,000 miles wide, sits closest to the Sun, making it a bit of a challenge to view. But on Saturday, Mercury will be as far as it ever gets from the Sun as seen from Earth, a condition known as greatest elongation.

While Mercury, swift-footed messenger to the gods, will be visible for another couple of weeks, now, before it falls back into the fiery skirts of Sol, is the best time to see it. Look a bit north of dead west about an hour after the Sun retires to find it.

Don’t confuse Mercury with its brighter sister, Venus, also prominent in the west after sundown. This brightest of planets reaches greatest elongation one week after Mercury, but being farther from the Sun rides higher in the sky. Venus is a bright white, while Mercury, seen through more of Earth’s atmosphere, appears pink. Beside Venus are the twin suns of Gemini, Pollux and Castor.

Imagine a line through Mercury and Venus and follow it up the sky about the same distance as the current separation of Mercury and Venus. There, you’ll find Saturn, still sitting like a cosmic ball of yarn before the paws of Leo the Lion.

Saturn and Venus are headed for a close conjunction toward the end of June, so watch them night-to-night as grow ever closer together. Both will be gone from the sky by late July.

While the western trio is riding high, the King of Worlds, Jupiter, is rising in the southeast. By 11 o’clock it is well placed for viewing.

By 3 a.m., Neptune is high enough to be seen--if the sky is dark enough--but a chart is necessary to find it. (See link to a finder chart below.)

About an hour and a half later, just before dawn’s probing fingers creep above the horizon, look east to find Mars’ shining ruddily.

The Red Planet bears watching over the next year as it sweeps toward a close pass of Earth on Christmas Eve then fades back into the distant reaches of the Solar System, not to return again until mid-2009.


This column appeared originally in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta and Tulare (Calif.) Advance-Register on May 31, 2007.

1 comment:

Robert Carnegie said...

Is this thing on?

"Saturn, still sitting like a cosmic ball of yarn before the paws of Leo the Lion" indeed. :-)