By Mike Lynch
Without a doubt we’re entering the best stargazing season of the year in the Northwest. Unfortunately it’s also the coldest season of the year.
While you have to brave the cold the winter constellations like Orion and his gang are just so special and spectacular. Another reward for putting up with the big chill is that you can begin your adventure under the heavens much earlier, in fact right after supper.
This coming week though the full moon will really spoil your view as the sky gets “moon washed”. Next week it’ll be a whole lot better. However, there is a celestial gem this week involving the full moon. That’s when it gets close and personal with the planet Jupiter. On Wednesday night the full moon will hang Just below the bright planet Jupiter. On Thursday night it’ll be perched just above the largest planet of the solar system. Jupiter is also at its closest point to Earth, just under 400 million miles away.
The very best show this week is the early morning skies with big celestial hugging going on between Venus and Saturn. You really don’t want to miss this.
Since early summer Venus has been regaling us with its brilliance in the predawn eastern sky. Venus has been so bright in our skies for two reasons. First, it’s been relatively close by. Early in summer it was less than 30 million miles away, which for Venus is nearly its minimum separation from Earth.
It’s now farther away at just over 100 million miles. It’s also so bright because it’s shrouded completely by a very reflective cloud deck that bounces a lot of secondhand sunlight our way.
Venus has also been gradually drifting eastward among the backdrop of stars leaving it lower and lower in east at the beginning of morning twilight. In fact early next year Venus will drop out of the morning sky completely and begin its reign in the evening twilight sky.
Right now though Venus is still very much alive and well in the early morning sky and is in what I call a close celestial hugging with the great planet Saturn. In fact this week the two planets will be practically touching.
It’s so easy and rewarding to see. For most of this week they’ll be less than a degree apart which by the way is only the width of your forefinger at arm’s length. Saturn will be just to the lower left of Venus Monday morning and will be considerably dimmer but easily bright enough to see with the naked eye.
On Tuesday morning Venus will sit just above Venus, and on Wednesday and Thursday it’ll be to the upper right of Venus and beginning to pull away.
While Venus has been migrating eastward among the stars, Saturn is holding nearly steady setting up their “near collision” early this week. Actually they’re nowhere close to having a planetary calamity because they’re physically nowhere near each other. They just happen to be in the same line of site.
In fact Saturn is nearly 900 million miles farther way. While this conjunction between Venus and Saturn is a close one, conjunctions between planets in our solar system are not all that uncommon because all the planets pretty much follow the same path among the stars called the ecliptic. Of course the planets move at different speeds along it and can move both west and east against the backdrop of stars.
This week as Venus and Saturn are in their tight celestial tango and with a small telescope you may see its wonderful ring system made up of ice covered dust particles, rocks, and small boulders.
In fact it’s been estimated that there’s 26,000 times more water in the form of ice in Saturn’s rings than all the water in Earth’s ocean. Saturn even minus the rings is almost 75,000 miles in diameter, more than nine times that of Venus.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores. Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.