PLANETS DISAPPEAR ONE BY ONE THIS FALL
(September 17, 2018) The stars: The brightest star in our nighttime sky tonight is the brilliant Vega in the constellation of Lyra the lyre (or harp). At sunset, Lyra lies almost overhead just a little to the west of Cygnus the swan described in the previous column. Vega is by far the brightest star in Lyra but, with the naked eye, one can spot several others, four of which form the shape of a little parallelogram to the south of Vega.
PLANETS DISAPPEAR ONE BY ONE THIS FALL
(September 3, 2018) The stars: The summertime Milky Way is now high overhead just at sunset! While this beautiful veil in the sky may have been obvious to the casual observer in years gone by, nowadays it takes some planning and effort to enjoy it. However, all one really needs is a dark night with a clear view of the sky; some of the overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the campus at PARI provide gorgeous views not only of the mountains during the day, but also the stars at night.
OPHIUCHUS THE DOCTOR IS THE THIRTEENTH ZODIAC CONSTELLATION
(August 20, 2018) The stars: Last month we discussed the appearances of Sagittarius the archer and Scorpius the scorpion low in our southern skies on summer evenings. Standing above these two rather prominent constellations are two other constellations that, while not as prominent as Sagittarius and Scorpius, nevertheless cover more of the sky.
PERSEID METEOR SHOWER DUE NEXT WEEK
(August 6, 2018) The stars: For the constellation study this time, let us go a bit later in the evening than usual. Rising in the northeast about sunset is the beautiful constellation of Cassiopeia the queen, sometimes referred to as “the lady in the chair.”
MARS SHINES AT ITS BRIGHTEST
(July 16, 2018) The planets: In describing the planets, I often point out that Venus and Jupiter are, after the moon, the brightest objects in the nighttime sky. Even Sirius the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky, is not as prominent as these planets. But, this month, Mars joins the club.
JULY IS A MONTH FOR PLANET WATCHERS
(July 2, 2018) The planets: In an act of convenience for the casual observer, I have scheduled all five visible planets to be conveniently placed in the pre-midnight skies this week. Let’s make a list of them in the order we should be able to spot them tonight as daylight fades to a dark sky.
ASTEROID VESTA BARELY VISIBLE TO NAKED EYE
(June 18, 2018) The planets: While we have the beautiful spring constellations in our evening sky, such exciting things are happening with the planets that I can’t resist starting with them. For those of you watching the sky, you know we now have the two brightest planets visible in the evening twilight, Venus in the west and Jupiter in the southeast.
MERCURY JOINS FOUR OTHER PLANETS IN THE EVENING
(June 4, 2018) The planets: We’ve been saying this for months but finally it comes true. By mid-June the casual observer will be able to see all fi ve of the visible planets between sunset and midnight. Unfortunately, since Mercury will set before Mars rises, we won’t see all fi ve at once. But, catching sight of the brilliant Venus and the elusive Mercury after sunset and then enjoying views of Jupiter and Saturn while waiting for Mars to rise just before midnight, the patient observer will check off all fi ve of the classical planets from an observing list.
PLANETS ARE GATHERING IN THE EVENING SKY
(May 21, 2018) The planets: Well, the excitement is building! Have you felt it yet? We now have Venus and Jupiter up as the sky darkens, I guess we could say Venus as “Evening Star No. 1” in the west with Jupiter as “Evening Star No. 2” in the east. After the moon, of course, these are the two brightest objects in the nighttime sky.
TWO “EVENING STARS” NOW VISIBLE
(May 7, 2018) The planets: This month we begin a long period of having two “Evening Stars” in our sky after sunset. Venus, the brightest of the planets, has been in our west since early in the year and will continue to dominate the western sky into late September. Tomorrow, Jupiter, the second brightest planet, reaches opposition when it is opposite the sun in the sky and, thus, rises at sunset.
LEO CLIMBS IN THE EAST
(April 16, 2018) The stars: We know spring is now in full swing as we watch Leo the lion climb higher in the eastern sky each night. See if you can spot a pattern traditionally referred to as the sickle. This marks the head and mane of the magnificent lion. The bottom of the sickle is marked by the star Regulus. Regulus means the “little king” which is appropriate as it marks the heart of the king of the beasts and is sometimes called Cor Leoni or the “heart of the king.” The sickle is followed by a triangle of bright stars that mark Leo’s hindquarters. At the end of this triangle is the bright star Denebola or “tail of the lion.”
MARS AND SATURN PASSED EACH OTHER THIS MORNING
(April 2, 2018) The planets: Many things are happening with the planets these nights. First, the elusive Mercury passed by the sun about 2 p.m. yesterday morning. It’s now on the west side of the sun which means it is rising in the predawn hours. But, unfortunately for you early risers, this is a very unfavorable morning apparition in that Mercury will not get very high in the predawn twilight this time around. In switching from the evening to the morning sky, Mercury has left the brilliant Venus as the only naked eye planet visible in the early evening.
ANOTHER “BLUE MOON” THIS MONTH
(March 19, 2018) The stars: While the bright stars of winter continue to dominate the southern sky in the early evening, turn around and look to the north, specifically the northeast. Here, low in the sky, we find the familiar pattern of the Big Dipper. It’s still not late enough in the year to see it high in the north, but we can see it rising, standing on its handle with the bowl opening to the left. Watch the dipper over the next several weeks as it gets higher and higher in the northeast until, with the coming of spring, it will lie high in the north.
MERCURY MAKES ITS BEST APPEARANCE OF THE YEAR
(March 5, 2018) Mercury and Venus: As you probably learned early on, there are two planets that are closer to the sun than the earth is. Throughout astronomical history there have been theories and even possible sightings, later discounted, of a planet even closer to the sun than Mercury. This planet has tentatively been named Vulcan after the god of the hearth, an apt name for one so close to our central star.
EARTH CHASES OUTER PLANETS AROUND THE SUN
(February 19, 2018) The planets: The English word planet comes from the Greek word planētēs meaning “wanderer.” This month the five visible planets are living up to that appellation. The Greeks noticed that, among the bodies in the heavens, all of them stayed put within their respective constellations except for seven from which, incidentally, we get the names of the days of the weeks. Of course, they included in their list of planets the brightest of them all, the sun and moon.
MARS PASSES BY ITS RIVAL
(February 5, 2018) The planets: They’re coming! Be patient! We have not had any bright planets in the evening sky for several months. They’ve been putting on a show in the predawn sky. But, planets move around the sky and the sky itself moves. So, let’s see where everybody is now…
BEGINNING OF A TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE VISIBLE BEFORE DAWN
(January 22, 2018) Total Lunar Eclipse: Lunar eclipses can occur a little less than six months apart. After no total lunar eclipses in over two years, there will be one at each of the next three opportunities, January 31 and July 27, 2018 and January 21, 2019. Only the first and last of these will be visible from the western Carolinas. In the case of the first, the very beginning will be visible here in the predawn hours of Wednesday, January 31…
ORION DOMINATES THE EVENING SKY>
(January 8, 2018) The stars: Winter is truly here now, marked for the astronomer, not by the errant snow shower, but by the inevitable appearance of Orion the hunter in the evening skies. Orion dominates the skies in the winter as does no other constellation in any other season. With his seven bright stars, especially the three in a row that mark his famous belt, he is easily spotted as he rises in the east in the early evening.
PLANET WATCHING FOR EARLY RISERS FOR THE HOLIDAYS
(December 18, 2017) The planets: Zeus does not bless us with visible planets these nights unless we get up early in the morning. But, those morning skies are improving for planet watchers. The red planet Mars is well up at sunrise and Jupiter is quickly approaching it from below; the two will pass on the night of January 6-7. In the meantime, Mercury, which passed the sun on our side last Tuesday, is now quickly rising out of the morning twilight.
BRILLIANT DOG STAR FOLLOWS HIS MASTER ORION
(December 4, 2017) The stars: In the evening skies we can see that autumn is quickly coming to a close; the signs are seen not only in the woods and felt in the air, but also apparent in the sky above. The central figure of the autumn skies, Pegasus the winged horse, has moved to the west in the evening. Alpheratz, the star at the northeastern corner of the Great Square of Pegasus actually marks the head of the chained princess Andromeda. Her body stretches off to the east. Shining dimly at her waist is the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, known to astronomers as Messier 31 (M31).