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Touring the Evening Skies

September 5, 2011
By Jim Bonser
Well this month we finally say goodbye to Saturn as it leaves the evening skies to hide behind the Sun over the next few weeks. Saturn will go through conjunction with the Sun on Oct. 13. That is; the Sun will be directly in line between us and Saturn. Saturn will not be visible again until it swings around from behind the Sun around the end of October when it begins to rise a little ahead of our wonderful star. Saturn will be worth getting up early to see then because the rings will be opening up and in November those amazing rings will have opened up more than 14 degrees from edge on to us! But that’s not for a couple of months, so what is there for us evening star gazers to see this month?

Well that huge planet, our Earth’s shield in space: Jupiter will finally begin to rise early enough for those of us who like to get to bed before midnight this month! Jupiter rises at 10:11 on Sept. 1 and then a little earlier each night. By the end of the month, on Sept. 30, Jupiter will clear the eastern horizon at 8:14! Jupiter does not reach opposition when it will be its very brightest for the year until Oct. 28, nevertheless, Jupiter will be very bright, shining at magnitude -2.6 to -2.8 (remember, negative numbers means brighter in the magnitude scale). This will be a very close opposition, not quite as close as last year, but almost and so Jupiter will look a little bigger than normal in telescopes so be sure to get out and take a look! Jupiter has been very interesting to observe in telescopes lately as the South Equatorial Belt has faded and then vanished and now seems to be returning. It is fascinating to watch the changes in a telescope; you never know what to expect! I called Jupiter our shield because ever since we watched Jupiter take hits from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, amateurs and professionals alike have caught other impacts as Jupiter continues to absorb comets and asteroids that someday could threaten Earth. Go Jupiter!

If you get caught up watching the beautiful stars and listening to crickets and tree frogs and find yourself still outside around 2 a.m., you might want to look toward the east and try to spot red Mars as it rises silently with the constellation Gemini. This month Mars will glide slowly by the two bright stars Pollux and Castor (Beta and Alpha Geminorumfor those of you who like to get technical) and then more rapidly into Cancer and the Beehive Cluster M44. On Sept. 23 a beautiful crescent moon will join the party and form a pretty triangle withM44 and Mars. I may set a reminder to get up and take a picture – it will be a beautiful grouping for sure! If you decide to capture the scene yourself, be sure to e-mail me your best shot; I would love to see it! If possible be sure to include a tree or building or water tower or something to give a sense of scale and add interest! Mars will glide right into the middle of the Beehive as this month comes to a close and October begins! Be sure to watch as the brilliant Red Planet adds its glittering red to the already beautiful star cluster.

Last but not least, we need to mention the little planet that pretty much hugs the Sun: Mercury. The first couple weeks of September will be excellent for viewing the small, hot planet. Mercury will rise around 90 minutes before the Sun on September 1 at about 5:11 local time. On September 3rd it will shine at -0.3 and by the 10th it will be blazingly bright at -1.0! I would recommend getting out to a place where you have a clear view of the eastern horizon and start looking for Mercury clearing the horizon just a little north of due east at about 6a.m. By 6:30 a.m. the sky will be getting pretty bright but Mercury should remain visible almost until the sun starts to peek out about 6:45 or so. Here is a challenge for you: how long can you still see the planet before the sky is just too bright? Again, if you try this, I would love to hear from you – send a note to my e-mail address!

The Fall or Autumnal Equinox occurs on the morning of Friday, September 23. The Fall Equinox is when the Sun crosses the equator and passes into the southern hemisphere. This means the Sun will rise due East that morning, so set your compasses!

Clear Skies!

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