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Saturday, August 24, 2013
After this August’s dismal wet weather, September’s historically crisper skies bring a welcome change, accentuating captivating celestial scenes. To a cloud weary skywatcher, the stars sparkle brighter, the planets shine sharper, and the moon glows stronger.
Each day’s morning sky features two planets, one commanding and the other unassuming.
Before the first hint of dawn’s light, look high in the east for Jupiter, the morning sky’s brightest object except for the passing crescent moon. The king of planets will be located between the familiar wintertime constellation of Orion and the twin bright stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Aug. 31 finds the crescent moon glowing to the left of Jupiter. (Four weeks later on Sept. 28, the crescent moon again glows next to this bright planet.)
The other object, Mars, is much fainter — shining about the same brightness as nearby Procyon — and sits about halfway between Jupiter and the horizon. When Mars isn’t bright enough to give a commanding presence, it can be located by following its descriptive nickname. They don’t call it the Red Planet for nothing! Another give away is that, while the neighboring stars twinkle, Mars does not. Its steady light indicates that it is a planet, not a star.
Two mornings after the moon visits Jupiter, a thinner crescent hovers to the lower right of Mars, positively identifying it. If you watch throughout September, you will quickly notice that the Red Planet is not stationary with respect to the background stars, but moves slowly to the southeast each morning.
On Sept. 6, Mars drifts in the heart of Cancer, entering the skep, the starry housing for the Beehive Star Cluster, also called M44. At the center of the skep’s four equally bright stars, appearing as a dim smudge to the unaided eye but easily spotted through binoculars, twinkles more than a dozen stellar bees.
For the next four mornings, Mars quietly creeps through the skep and on the 8th and 9th it sits amid the bees. Consider that, while Mars orbits about 210 million miles from our world, the stars of M44 are 13 million times farther.
Situated about one binocular field of view to the lower left of M44, stealthily moves an object which is now becoming prominent in the popular news. Comet ISON currently lies 260 million miles from our little world and may take another 45 days for it to brighten enough to be glimpsed through binoculars.
Not all celestial happenings occur in the morning. Intriguing scenes awaits skywatchers in the hour after sunset.
As September begins, Venus brilliantly glows low in the west-southwest in the dusking sky. It shines to the right of the much, much dimmer Spica, which struggles to be seen in the twilight.
Like Mars, Venus moves, although the amount is hard to judge because the twilight’s brightness obscures the dimmer reference stars. By Sept. 5, it passes above Spica, creating a duo best viewed through binoculars at 8:30 p.m.
Three nights later, the thin crescent moon, sporting the beginnings of Earthshine, rises out of the western twilight. Directly to its right shines Venus, creating an ethereal skyscape. The pair quickly drops below the mountain ridge lines, setting by 9:15.
Venus continues moving eastward for the rest of September. It passes below Saturn on Sept. 18 and 19, then slides below the moderately bright Zubenelgenubi on Sept. 23 and 24. Since it may be lost in the twilight, use binoculars to spot Zuben and to reveal its double star nature.
From beginning to end, September’s skies offer captivating celestial scenes. The only question is whether our fickle weather will cooperate.
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