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* Earth & Sky Look for Vega in the northeast in springtime Discuss Print Me Email to Friend Tonight is Friday, May 01 2009 Here is the star Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky. You’ll find this beautiful bluish star by looking northeastward in mid-evening. It’s so bright that you can notice it, even when no other stars are visible. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp. To see the shape of the entire Harp, check out this chart. Vega is a lovely star to come to know. When I was first learning the night sky, 30 years ago, I spent hours, days, weeks, months pouring over charts and books. So I sometimes came to know the names and whereabouts of certain stars before seeing them in the night sky. One soft May evening, I happened to glance toward the northeast. I was thrilled at the sight of Vega – gleaming, sapphire-blue – and surprisingly bright for being so low in the sky. Like all stars, Vega rises earlier each day as Earth moves around the sun. Vega will ornament our evening sky throughout the summer and fall. Although Vega is considered a late spring or summer star, it’s actually so far north on the sky’s dome that you can find it at some time during the night, nearly every night of the year.
You can see green flashes with the eye, sometimes, if you are looking toward a very clear horizon. You must be looking just at sunset, at the last moment before the sun disappears below the horizon. And you have to be careful not to look too soon. Wait until just the thinnest rim of the sun appears above the horizon. If you look too soon, the light of the sunset will dazzle (or damage) your eyes, and you’ll miss that day’s green flash.
You’ll find the moon in a waxing gibbous phase this evening – more than half lighted but less than full – in the sky from sunset until after midnight. Tonight’s moon will be visible near a bright object in our sky. It’s not a star, but a planet – Saturn, planet of the rings. Given clear skies, almost everyone around the world can see the moon and Saturn near each other this evening. Earth passed between Saturn and the sun on March 8 of this year. That was Saturn’s yearly opposition, and it means that we’re farther from Saturn now than we were two months ago. We’re now racing ahead of Saturn in Earth’s smaller, faster orbit around the sun. So Saturn is steadily appearing dimmer on our sky’s dome, and it’s in our sky for fewer hours of each night. There’s a bright star near the moon and Saturn, too, tonight. It’s Regulus, the brightest light in the constellation Leo the Lion. Regulus is the 21st brightest star in all the heavens. Sparkling-white Regulus is bright, but Saturn is brighter. Like all planets, Saturn will be shining with a steadier light than the twinkling stars, and it’ll be closer to the moon than Regulus tonight.
TextTomorrow morning, for example, if you look in the southeast, you’ll find the moon poised more or less between Venus and Jupiter.
Over the next few mornings, the moon can guide your eye to the two worlds whose orbits lie on either side of Earth’s orbit around the sun. These two planets are Venus and Mars, and both worlds are much like Earth in many ways. Both are rocky worlds, for example, in contrast to the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn in the outer solar system. And yet nature in its variety has created two very different planetary surfaces on Venus, Earth and Mars. It’s sometimes said that Venus is too hot, Mars too cold, but Earth just right to support human life. For more about the surfaces of Venus and Mars, see tomorrow’s chart. How can you see these planets for yourself? To see them, you’ll want to be looking in the direction of the sunrise before dawn begins to light the sky. You’ll probably want an unobstructed horizon, with no trees or buildings in the way. You’ll have no trouble seeing Venus. It’s the brightest starlike object visible in Earth’s skies. Mars will be right next to Venus in the eastern predawn sky, but it’ll be much fainter and harder to see. If the sun is coming up, and the sky is beginning to brighten, you might not be able to see Mars. The moon moves eastward, always, in orbit around Earth. In the next few mornings, the moon will be sweeping past these two planets in the predawn sky. Here’s how they’ll look on the morning of May 21.