Venus dominates the western sky

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The bright planet Venus, the second out from the sun, dominates the western evening sky for the next several months. At present it is hovering above the west to southwest horizon just after sunset.

From our perspective here on Earth, Venus is just coming around from the far side of the sun, It will be in our evening sky until next March.

Meanwhile, in the southern sky, Jupiter glimmers with eye catching brightness lurking on the eastern edge of the constellation Sagittarius. With a good pair of binoculars you can spot four little pinpricks of light -- the moons of Jupiter, discovered by astronomical pioneer Galilio Galilei. With a small telescope the moons will remain as pinpricks but Jupiter itself will show its cloud bands, making the planet look as if it possess racing stripes.

You might want to keep a watch on this pair of bright planets as they draw closer to each other during the months of October and November. They are moving toward a very close pairing on Dec. 1 with each other and a slender crescent moon.

While you are out looking for Venus, at least 30 minutes after sunset, why not attempt to locate a pair of frequently overlooked constellations? The first is Bootes, (pronounced Bo'-oates) often called the Herdsman, who is thought of as "herding" the great bear, Ursa Major. We also know Ursa Major as the Big Dipper.

In fact, you can use the Big Dipper to help locate Bootes. Use the stars that form the arc of the handle and follow the arc out to the left to find the bright star Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation. It is the base point of the loop of stars above Arcturus that form a kite-like pattern.

Directly above Bootes, and just below the bright star Vega, is the large constellation Hercules, which can be located if you look for a pattern of stars in the shape of the letter "H." The main body of Hercules is an odd-shaped asterism called the Keystone.

The main claim to fame of Hercules is the magnificent Hercules star cluster, also called M13 being the 13th object located by French comet hunter Messier. To locate the cluster, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope and a dark sky will be needed. Look on the western (lower) edge of the Keystone near where the top joins the western edge. It will be a bright fuzzy patch in binoculars but will become a glorious swarm of thousands of stars in a small telescope.

Have you downloaded your information for the Great World Wide Star Count? Participating is quite simple. Point your favorite web browser to http://www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/starcount/ and click on the "steps" link then follow the instructions. The count calls for counting the stars in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan, or the Northern Cross as it is sometimes known. The count starts on Oct. 20 so get your information as soon as possible.

SKYWATCH

Full moon on Oct. 14 will wipe out almost all evening observations. There are three other planets that can be observed in our skies at present. One is Saturn which has just returned to morning skies. Look in the east no later than a half hour before sunrise just below the constellation Leo, the Lion. The other two are Neptune and Uranus. However, I think I am going to wait on discussing them until December and January respectively when we will be able to use Venus as a helper to locate the dim, distant planets.

NEXT TIME:

More astronomical blathering.

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