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Planets visible all over the sky

March 22, 2010 at 09:39 AM

GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Planets everywhere you look!

The next clear night be sure to step outside and see four planets. Facing south, one will be to your right, one almost overhead, one to your left, and another under you feet.

Actually, the night doesn’t have to be clear to see the planet under your feet and it is easier to see this one in the daytime. That’s because at night, this particular planet only presents its dark side. The other planets are visible to you because their shiny side is aiming at you.

Venus is currently visible low in the west during evening twilight. The gleaming, white point of light stands out from the deepening blue dusk. A small telescope will show a tiny white disc of this planet, which is actually nearly the same size as Earth. As the months go by, watch as Venus changes phase and grows in size as it loops around the sun.

From Venus you would have to rise above the perpetual cloudiness to see brilliant blue Earth, with the dimmer, yellow star-like moon constantly by its side. If you ever want to complain about the many cloudy nights on Earth, just think of Venus, where stars never shine.

Looking high up, the Red Planet, Mars, glows red-orange near the constellation Gemini.

Your telescope will also show the small disc of Mars, a planet about a third the size of Earth. At least from Mars, peering up at its pink, dusty sky, you can see Earth, shining in the west after sunset or in the east before sunrise. Earth, being closer to the sun, is like Venus is to us. A telescope would show the Earth and moon in its phases, lit partly by the sun depending on were they are in the orbit.

From Mars, the Earth would currently appear as a telescopic crescent in the morning sky but gleaming a brilliant blue to unaided eyes. Earth has been photographed from the surface of Mars by NASA’s intrepid machines.

Saturn glows yellowish-white, like a bright star, rising in the east during the evening. It is situated in the “head” stars of the constellation Virgo, just behind Leo the Lion. Be sure to train your telescope this way. The rings of Saturn are a sight you will never forget and are available to you in even a small telescope magnifying above 30X. 

At this magnification, the planet and rings appear very small. The rings appear at various angles to us as the planet makes its 29-year orbit around the sun. At this time, the rings are slanted almost edge-on. We say “rings” because there are really hundreds of concentric rings, bunched in a handful of broad rings most easily recognized. A small telescope, however, will only show one, wide ring. When the ring system is more fully opened up, it is possible to see what appears as a hair-line split, making two rings, if you use a telescope of about eight inches aperture or more and high magnification.

As with any use of high magnification, be aware that you need a night of steady air to resolve fleeting detail on the planets, the moon or other heavenly target. Magnification used should not exceed about 50X per inch of aperture. If you have a 3-inch mirror, for instance, the best you normally can use on an excellent night is 150X.

Saturday night, March 20, the crescent moon will appear to graze the Pleiades Star Cluster - a stunning sight in binoculars. First-quarter moon is on Tuesday, March 23.

The next night, be sure to see the gibbous moon forming an “L” with Mars and the bright stars Pollux and Castor. On the 25th, the moon forms a neat line with Mars and these two stars.

The writer may be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Keep looking up!

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