Sep 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – September, 2013

Plenty of Planets for September

September opens with what I would consider a spectacular display for binoculars. Unfortunately, you have to be out at 6 a.m. to see it so I think I will begin today’s column with an excellent sight that will be easy to see.

On Sunday, September 8, right after sunset (about 8 p.m.), go down to Kollen Park, out to Holland State Park, or anywhere else with a clear view of the western horizon, and look for a thin, crescent Moon. Just to its right, about two Moon diameters away, will be Venus – a truly spectacular sight. To the upper left of this pair you will spot the planet Saturn, a good target for a small telescope. In fact, this gathering is a splendid opportunity to do some great observing with binoculars or a small scope.

If the 8th is a wash, you can still see a nice Moon-Venus-Saturn get-together on the 9th, but the Moon will be over on the other side of Saturn, not nearly as cool. But if you continue to observe the two planets from night to night, you will see them get closer and closer until the 18th when they appear nearest each other.

So what about this 6 a.m. thing? Set your alarm next Sunday and look toward the east an hour before sunrise. The bright “star” you see is actually the planet Jupiter and it forms an isosceles triangle with the stars Castor and Pollux, which lie to its left. Below this group you will see the crescent Moon at the top of another isosceles triangle, this one short and wide. The base of this trio is formed by the planet Mars on the left and the star Procyon on the right.

This activity has the added benefit of you becoming familiar with that part of the predawn sky so you can observe an upcoming event of great coolness. This would be Mars passing in front of a distant star cluster.

At the first opportunity, use binoculars or a small telescope to locate Mars and scan down and slightly left until you come to a small cluster of stars (not visible to the naked eye). This is called M44, the Beehive cluster, and is 500 light years away. If you are really motivated, observe the planet each clear morning and on September 8 and 9 you will see Mars “among” the stars of M44 and its daily motion will become apparent. This is a very cool, very memorable observation that is well worth the effort.

Whether it’s before sunrise or after sunset, there will be planets up in the sky.

This month in history:
Sept. 3: Last two Apollo Moon landings canceled by NASA – 1970
Sept. 6: Space Shuttle Challenger makes first night landing – 1983
Sept. 15: “Lost in Space” premieres – 1965
Sept. 20: Wernher von Braun arrives in US – 1945
Sept. 24: John Young, first Space Shuttle commander, is born – 1930
Sept. 29: First satellite launch from Alaska – 2001