PLANET WATCHING TIPS FOR FEB-MARCH 2012
For those interested in seeing the "Naked Eye Planets" that are all currently visible at the moment, I wanted to share with you some tips on
identifying these wonders of the night sky.
Also, for more information, there are a few discussions under way here on ATS...
Planet Alignment right now!
Attention Skywatchers, Great Views Of The Planets Coming Your Way
First lets talk magnitudes. The magnitude of an object in the sky is a measurement of brightness. So knowing a little bit about the magnitudes of
these planets will help you identify them in the night sky. The smaller a number on the magnitude scale, the brighter the object is. For comparison
sake, an object at about magnitude 5 may need some binoculars, especially in urban areas to view it. The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius
which has a magnitude of about −1.5 found just east of Orion, in the constellation Canis Major. The sun itself (Sol) is a whopping -26 mag, while a
full moon is -13 mag, and a crescent moon at about -6 mag.
The magnitude of the planets fluctuates due to their orbits around the sun altering the distance they are from Earth. When a planet is "in
opposition" it will have a much higher magnitude then normal because because it is opposite the sun in the sky. Only planets beyond Earth can be "in
opposition" placing the earth smack dab between the sun and that planet. The increase in magnitude is due to a closer proximity to earth, as well as
the side of the planet being viewed from earth is fully illuminated (much like phases of the moon)
Second, planets do not emit light, they reflect sun light. Because of this, planets tend not to flicker like stars due, unless seen close to the
horizon where atmospheric distortions can resemble some flickering. This makes it easier when trying to determine if you are looking at a planet or a
star in the night sky.
That being said, lets talk planets!
: Is the toughest of these planets to spot due to it's close proximity to the sun, more so the further away you are from the equator
due to the angle of the sun over the horizon. It's brightness varies drastically from about -2 to about 5.5 magnitude, and current magnitude is
almost -1 and getting dimmer as we head into spring. Currently visible, it can be found close to the western horizon for about an hour after sunset in
the Pisces constellation, and shines with a nice sliver color.
Due to Mercury being so close to the sun, one cool fact is that Mercury is usually visible during total solar eclipses!
: Is the brightest object in the night sky after the moon. Venus is called both the "Morning Star" and the "Evening Star" because it
reaches it's maximum brightness either right before sun rise or right after sun set, and can usually be found close to the eastern horizon (morning
star) or western horizon (evening star) along the ecliptic. Right now, Venus is the "evening star" and sticks out like a sore thumb after sunset as
a bright point of white light with a magnitude of about -4! Also in the Pisces constellation Venus can be viewed for about 3-4 hours after sunset.
Venus is also responsible for much confusion to those with an untrained eye, sometimes being mistaken for a UFO or even Niburu.
: Is pretty bright right now as it approaches opposition (March 5th) with a magnitude of 1.2 making it the third brightest of these planets
about as bright as Mercury or Sirius. Mars is pretty easy to spot as it clearly has a reddish tint to it. Because Mars is so close to opposition right
now, it rises in the east shortly after sunset and will traverse the night sky setting in the west just before sunrise. Mars can be found on the south
side of the constellation Leo.
In 2003 Mars was closest to the Earth during opposition then it had been in nearly 60,000 years with a magnitude of just shy of -3!
: Jupiter has been visible for several months now. Currently at a magnitude of about -2 it is the second brightest of the planets, and
the third brightest object in the night sky right now. As we head toward mid March, Jupiter and Venus will move closer and closer to each other,
providing a nice spectacle in the night sky. Jupiter has a slightly yellowish tint to it and is as easy to spot as Venus is, sitting just west of it
in the sky. Jupiter is visible for about five hours after sunset.
If you have a good pair of binoculars or small telescope you can see the major moons of Jupiter as they shine at about magnitude 5.
: Rising in the east at about the same time Jupiter is setting in the western horizon (shortly before midnight), Saturn is a little more
difficult to spot than the rest. It has a magnitude of about 1 making it a bit dimmer than some of the brighter stars in the sky, but still pretty
bright. To make Saturn a little easier to spot, it is currently in the Virgo constellation next to Spica in the night sky, a star with a magnitude of
almost 1 as well. Under urban lighting the two should stand out pretty well in the night sky together. Saturn is the goldish/yellow one on the south
west side of the pair.
A modest wal-mart telescope can be used to view Saturn's rings!
Well I hope that helps and I hope you all get a chance to view these objects in the night sky, they truly are a wonder to behold. Keep Looin'