Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Planetary Tour Starts Tonight

Planetary Tour Starts Tonight (May 3, 2007)
by Dave Adalian

You may be one of the many people who found themselves with a sudden interest in the stars and planets after the announcement last month of the discovery of a possibly earthlike planet just 20.4 years away.

If the first earthlike planet we’ve found is this close, imagine how many others there must be in a galaxy bigger than 100,000 light years across. Suddenly, the possibility we’ve got neighbors who could be peering back at us with their own telescopes from their own backyards becomes tantalizingly real.

The star the newly discovered planet orbits, Gliese 581, is a dim red dwarf in the constellation Libra, and it doesn’t do much for the imagination, especially if you’re a newly minted planet-gazer looking for something to hang your dreams of space upon.

But, I’ve got good news for you would-be space cases: there is a bevy of much closer planets you can see with your own eyes starting tonight.

If you look west tonight just after sunset, you’ll find the brightest of the naked-eye planets, brilliant Venus, shining like a jewel. This sister planet to Earth will be spending the entire summer as the evening star.

To find the largest of the local planets, you’ll have to stay up tonight until the Moon rises around 11 o’clock. When it makes its way skyward, it will sit just to the right and below Jupiter.

Though you’ll need a telescope if you want to see it, the recently demoted dwarf planet Pluto is to Jupiter’s left. The bright red star to the right and above the Moon is Antares.

When Jupiter and the Moon are just entering the sky, Saturn will be in the opposite direction, sitting well above the horizon to the west in the constellation Leo.

The dimmest of the naked-eye planets, sea-blue Neptune, is rising in the early morning these days, around 3 o’clock. It takes a dark sky to see Neptune, but you can get a very good idea of its general location when the Moon rises near it on the morning of May 10.

On the evening of May 17, the Moon will be back in the west just after sunset, this time with elusive Mercury just below it. The Moon will be the barest slice, just a few hours past new, and may itself be difficult to find.

Finish your springtime planetary tour on May 19 when Venus and the Moon meet in an incredibly close pairing that’s sure to dazzle.


This column appeared originally in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta and Tulare (Calif.) Advance-Register on May 3, 2007.

No comments: