Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Week of Wintertime Planet Watching

A Week of Wintertime Planet Watching
by Dave Adalian

In the last hour before the Sun comes up tomorrow, the constellation Sagittarius will just be rising above the horizon in the southeast. There among the stars of the Archer, which are usually seen on much warmer summer evenings, will be a pair of bright planets racing toward conjunction on the first day of February.

A conjunction, of course, is a coming together, and this meeting of wanderers will be an especially close one. On Friday morning at about 6 a.m. Venus will be almost directly southeast and easy to find as the brightest thing in the sky besides the nearly full moon. Down, to the left about seven degrees away and not nearly as bright as Venus, early risers will spot Jupiter.

For the next week the two heavenly bodies will drift closer to each other, moving together about a degree each day as Venus’s orbit brings it seemingly closer to the sunrise and Jupiter. By Monday morning, the gap between the two will have closed to just four degrees, and those who haven’t been making daily checks will notice a huge difference since their last look.

As the week continues the goddess of love and her sire will make their way toward a father and daughter reunion in the early twilight of Friday, Feb. 1 when the pair will be separated just six-tenths of a degree. This is only slightly larger than the width of a full moon.

The Moon that morning will be a very thin crescent at the end of its cycle, riding nearby in the stars of Scorpius. It will not be alone. Close by to its left will be Antares, the red heart of the scorpion.

Those who like to sleep in won’t be left out of the planet viewing, and they don’t have wait for next week to get started either. Tonight by about 9 o’clock, Mars will be almost directly overhead, still glowing brightly after making a close approach in late December.

Surrounding the Red Planet are the six bright stars of the Winter Circle. Going clockwise: dazzling Sirius, white Procyon, Pollux with its dimmer twin Castor, lonely Capella, red Aldebaran and brilliant Rigel.

Below them all in the east nestled in the stars of Leo the Lion sits the Moon, just two days past full. Perched there above it, glowing a golden yellow, is ringed Saturn finally making its return to nighttime skies.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register on Jan 24, 2008.