NOVEMBER 2, 1997: Waxing Moon Passes Planets
- The planets continue to be on parade for the fall season, spread
across the sky like a string of brilliant pearls right after sundown.
To locate their positions, use the moon which debuts early this week
in the southwest as a thin crescent. On Tuesday, in deep twilight,
youíll find the moon standing high above the planet Venus. A good
southwestern horizon will be mandatory, but the sight will be beautiful,
especially if the sky is exceptionally clear. Start viewing about
30 minutes after sundown. With binoculars, look for Mars about half
a binocular field diameter to the right of Venus. Remember how Venus
passed Mars about two weeks ago? Thursday, mid-afternoon (yes,
during the daylight), if the sky is very clear and blue, try
finding the nearly first quarter moon in the southeast. It will
be slightly above, but equally positioned between Uranus (left of
moon) and Neptune (right). On Friday, the first quarter moon is
above and slightly to the left of Jupiter. Try finding Jupiter
shortly after sunset (5:00 p.m.) with binoculars a little more
than half a field width below the moon. By next Wednesday, 7 p.m.,
the moon has moved to within a hairís distance of Saturn. More
about this next week.
NOVEMBER 9-11, 1997: Near Occultation of the Moon and Saturn
- Youíve noticed through your skywatching that the moon usually
misses the planets which it approaches. Even though the moon and
planets orbit in nearly the same planes, the difference is
substantial enough so that the moon rarely passes directly
in front of a planet. Thatís not the case Tuesday evening
for the southeastern US, when the moon will occult Saturn for
about an hour if you live in Miami. From southeastern PA, the
nearly full moon will appear to pass under the ringed world,
but just barely. Along the Jersey shore, south of Atlantic City,
a brief occultation will occur, while AC will see the moonís
limb graze Saturn from about 7:16-29 p.m. For Allentown, the
closest approach appears to be at 7:24 p.m., but it's so close
that you may need a telescope to see it occurring because of
the overwhelming brilliance of the moon. The moon leads
Saturn by about one lunar diameter at 6:00 p.m. when Saturn
should be an easy target through most binoculars. Watch as
the moon approaches Saturn during the next 1-1/2 hours, then
pulls away from the ringed world as the rest of the night passes.
If you own a telescope or a higher powered spotting scope, use
it to enhance the experience. Clear skies!
- TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 11 NEAR OCCULTATION OF SATURN AND THE MOON:
- The near occultation of Saturn and the moon went off as scheduled
under a mackerel sky which may have even improved observations of the
event. Saturn was easily visible in binoculars at 6 p.m. When next
I viewed the moon about 7:05 p.m., sky conditions had deteriorated.
I thought I just caught a glimpse of Saturn among the moving clouds
and so decided to bring out my telescope. I had set it up about 5 p.m.
in my study, so it was just a matter of scooping it up and taking it
outdoors. By the time I caught my first telescopic view through a
break in the clouds, Saturn was probably no more than about one ring
diameter away from the moonís limb. I was certainly viewing within
a few minutes of closest approach. I continued watching, alternating
between my telescope and binoculars for an additional 45 minutes as
the moon slowly pulled away from Saturn. Through binoculars, as
clouds scudded past, the moon often dimmed while a thinner gap exposed
Saturn for a brief moment allowing it seemingly to flare into view.
Observing Saturn with binoculars through clear patches of sky proved more
difficult because the moonís brilliance overwhelmed the ringed world. It
was also interesting to view the difference in brightness between Saturn
and the moon. Although Saturn appears like a yellow diamond against
a black sky, it paled next to the brightness of the moon. When first
spotted with binoculars, after nearest approach, Saturn was probably
no more than 2-3 minutes of arc away from the moon which is about 30
minutes of arc in diameter.
NOVEMBER 12-14, 1997: Leonid Meteors Peak
- With the near occultation of Saturn behind us, turn your focus
towards an increase in meteor activity for the beginning of next week.
On Monday morning (17th) near dawn, the Leonid meteor shower peaks. Even
though the landscape will be bathed in bright moonlight, Leonid
activity has been on the increase during the last several years.
The comet dust responsible for this outbreak in shooting star
activity is thickest every 33 years as the comet responsible for
its release, Tempel-Tuttle, passes through the inner solar system,
releasing these particles which slam into Earthís atmosphere
causing the air to glow. The last Leonid storm occurred in 1966,
when rates of over 100,000 meteors per hour were estimated in the
Southwest. The Lehigh Valley was shrouded in clouds that night.
This year rates of 30-50 meteors per hour during the several hours
before Mondayís dawn could prove realistic. Leo is low in the
east at 1:30 a.m. Three hours later, it is still positioned in
the east about midway up in the sky. Look for bright Regulus as
the "dot" of a backwards question mark. Meteors will appear to
radiate from here. Save!
NOVEMBER 16, 1997: Pegasus Flies Again
- The Leonid meteor shower peaks about dawn (5:00 a.m.) on Monday (17th)
with perhaps as many as 30-50 meteors per hour visible. Start observing
anytime after 1:30 a.m. View towards the east. This is also a great
time to get to know a few more stars of autumn. Center stage, just east
of south about 8 p.m. is Saturn. Its brightness pales next to Jupiter,
much lower in the southwest, but Saturn is still the dominate "starlike"
object of that region. Above and to the right of Saturn by about two
fists is the star Algenib. It forms the southeast corner of the Great
Square of Pegasus, the body of the flying horse, four stars which are
approximately the same brightness and which do indeed form a giant
easy-to-see square. Pegasus is due south, more than halfway up in
the sky. Proceeding clockwise, the other three stars are Alpheratz,
Scheat, and Markab. The rest of the horse is essentially invisible
from all urban and most suburban locations because of light pollution.
I have always enjoyed the pronunciation of Scheat (SHEE-at). Yes,
it does sound very much like that four letter word. My students
have occasionally used it to joke with me. After all, how can you
get into trouble for calling out the name of a star? Save. More
about Pegasus next week.
NOVEMBER 23, 1997: Great Square Leads to Other Stars
- Last week, we spoke about the four stars which formed the Great
Square of Pegasus, the flying horse--clockwise--Algenib, Alpheratz,
Scheat, and Markab. Algenib is above and to the right of Saturn which
dominates the south at 8:30 p.m. These stars can be used, just like
the Pointer Stars of the Big Dipper, to locate other luminaries of
interest. Follow Alpheratz past Markab to find unmistakably bright
Jupiter low in the southwest and establish that this system really
does work. Then go in the other direction, far across the sky to
find the sixth brightest star of the night sky, Capella, twinkling
vigorously in the northeast. Scheat through Algenib will again
lead you back to Saturn, while going the other way will bring you
to Deneb, near the zenith, and the faintest of the Great Summer
Triangle triad, now beginning to slide towards the western horizon.
Finally, Scheat through Markab will send you nearly straight down
towards the southern horizon, where low in the sky will be found
Fomalhaut, the principle star of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern
Fish, and a sure sign that autumn is upon us.
NOVEMBER 30, 1997: Evening Lineup of the Planets
- During this week all the planets will be "theoretically" visible in
the sky right before sundown. From southwest to southeast, the lineup
will be Pluto, the sun, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter,
and Saturn. The moon will pass them all, approaching Saturn by next
Monday. To astronomers this represents a planetary alignment, but
remember, the planets will not be located one in back of the other.
They will be spread across most of the southwestern sky from the location
of the setting sun to the southeast. The angular separation, excluding
Saturn, will be about 72 degrees, seven stacked fists held at armís length.
When Saturn is included, the distance stretches to 128 degrees. During
March of 1982 we had another close grouping in the morning sky. Another
tight grouping (excluding Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto), about 26 degrees
across, will occur on May 4, 2000. However, here the planets will be
on both sides of the sun, allowing the spectacle to be visible only from
space. Watch as the moon passes above Venus on Tuesday, and then
approaches/passes Jupiter on Thursday/Friday.