Jimmy Westlake: Planets parade in morning sky
If you are an early riser, you might have noticed several bright objects in the pre-dawn sky and wondered what they are. They are the planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter, and they are about to put on a fantastic display for us this month.
As October opens, Jupiter is positioned about 15 degrees to Venus’ lower left, about a hand span held out at arm’s length. Venus is by far the brighter of the two, blazing 13 times brighter than Jupiter, but both planets are the brightest things in the morning sky.
In between Venus and Jupiter lie two more bright objects, the red planet Mars and the equally bright star Regulus. Mars is the one closer to Jupiter, and its ruddy color is a dead giveaway. Regulus is the alpha star in the constellation of Leo the Lion, where all of this planetary action is taking place.
Watch on the mornings of Oct. 8, 9 and 10 as the waning crescent moon glides past the trio of planets. On Thursday morning, the moon’s slender crescent will sit only 3 degrees from dazzling Venus — a truly spectacular cosmic moment. Catch the view between 5:30 and 6 a.m., just as dawn begins to brighten the sky.
Friday morning, the even thinner moon will rise beside the planets Mars and Jupiter, only 3.5 degrees from Mars and about 5 degrees from Jupiter. Venus will shine 8 degrees above the moon. If you only have one morning to catch the action, choose Friday.
On Saturday morning, the moon rises well below the trio of planets, but now a fourth planet enters the scene. If you have a clear view to the eastern horizon, watch for little Mercury to pop up about 10 degrees to the moon’s lower left. The only naked eye planet not participating in this celestial parade is Saturn, still hanging on in our early evening sky, low in the southwest after sunset.
After this weekend, the moon leaves the planets behind, but the most amazing action is yet ot come.
On the morning of Oct. 17, Jupiter and Mars will shine only a ½ degree apart. You can easily cover these two worlds with the tip of your pinky finger held at arm’s length.
If you have a telescope, both planets can be viewed up close at the same time. All four of Jupiter’s planet-sized moons will also be in view — Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
Then, on the mornings of Oct. 25 and 26, Venus and Jupiter will gleam only 1 degree apart from each other. Anytime the two brightest planets in our night sky get together for a close conjunction, it is a spectacular sight and worth making the effort to see.
In this case, all you need to do is get out of bed around 5:45 to 6 a.m. and look out of an east-facing window in your house. Heck, you could do that in your PJs. Jupiter and Venus will be waiting there for you.
The planet parade continues into early November when, on the morning of Nov. 3, Venus and Mars will pass only a ¾ degree from each other. Once again, you will be able to view two worlds up close in your telescope at the same time. Jupiter will be shining about 7 degrees above the Venus-Mars pair.
The planet parade finishes up with a magnificent encore return of the crescent moon on the mornings of Nov. 6 and 7. Just before dawn on Nov. 6, the crescent moon will pass only 2.5 degrees from Jupiter, and the next morning the moon will glide only 1.5 degrees from beautiful Venus, with fainter Mars 3 degrees above.
After that, the planets and moon go their own ways, and the fall planet parade comes to a close.
Don’t miss this opportunity to see planetary motion in action and to understand why we call them “planets” (Greek for “wanderers”).
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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