March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Celestial Highlights, March Through June 2016

Posted: Monday, March 14th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Planet rising and setting graphs by Jeffrey L. Hunt

From early March through early June 2016, Earth overtakes all three bright outer planets within 90 days, each planet reaching peak brilliance and all-night visibility: Jupiter in early March, Mars in late May, and Saturn in early June. For several months following these dates of their oppositions, each respective planet will remain conveniently visible in the evening sky…at last!

In late January and for much of February 2016, early risers enjoyed a wide panorama of all five naked-eye planets across the morning sky. By early March, Mercury, heading toward its Mar. 23 superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun, disappeared from view to lower left of Venus. Look before mid-March, and you might still catch Venus low in ESE and Jupiter low in west, while Saturn with brighter reddish Mars nearby to its right adorn the southern sky. Between that pair and a little lower, look for the reddish twinkling star Antares, heart of the Scorpion.

On mornings in March 2016, Venus and Jupiter sink toward opposite horizons, Venus heading toward its June 6 superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun, and Jupiter reaching opposition to the Sun on the morning of March 8 as Earth overtakes it. With Jupiter in the west, the Sun below the eastern horizon, and Saturn in the south just over 90° W of Sun, we visualize our counterclockwise revolution around the Sun and the forward motion of our Spaceship Earth nearly toward Saturn. Venus, moving faster, is leaving us behind, and we are passing Jupiter, causing it to drop from sight in our right (west) window.

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Now we change the scene to the evening sky. At dusk on March 7 (earlier on same night), we have the Sun below our western horizon, and Jupiter visible in the east. Now we’re looking out the rear window of Spaceship Earth. On March 7, we’re moving away from a point in Taurus, about 8° ENE of Aldebaran. Faster moving Mercury will emerge from beyond the Sun and have the year’s most favorable evening apparition in the western sky at dusk in April, before it transits the Sun on May 9.

As we overtake the solar system’s three bright outer planets within a 3-month interval in 2016, they’ll appear at opposition in turn: Jupiter on the night of March 7, Mars on the night of May 21, and Saturn on the night of June 2. In each case, locate the point on the ecliptic 90° east of the Sun, and that’s quite close to the direction away from which Spaceship Earth is moving, at 30 km/sec. (In the morning sky, look at the point on the ecliptic 90° west of the Sun, and that’s very close to the direction toward which Spaceship Earth is heading.)

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Following is a selection of events we suggest teachers recommend to their students to observe in the sky.

2-letter abbreviations are used for the five naked-eye planets (Me for Mercury, Ve for Venus, etc.) Also, GEE = greatest elongation of Mercury east of Sun, visible in western evening sky; UL = upper left; etc.

Angular distances between objects are not those at the time of their conjunction as listed in almanacs, nor are they the worldwide minimum separations. They are instead valid for the suggested time of observation for southern California, at dawn or dusk midtwilight, which we define as the moment when the Sun is 9° below the horizon.

Planets in evening mid-twilight, March-June 2016

Mar  21 Moon 2° from Ju, now 165° E of Sun. Note Moon’s phase

each month through Sept. 2, as it passes Ju.

Apr   8 First crescent Moon, about 39 hours after New, 9° UL of Me.

Apr 17 Me at GEE Apr 17-18, 20°, year’s most favorable evening appearance.  Mercury is brighter before this date than after, because it is a backlighted, fading crescent after it passes GEE. Me will transit the Sun’s disk on May 9. (Information on Mercury’s transit and how to safely observe it will appear in next month’s article.)

Also on Apr. 17, Moon 3° LR of Ju. Within an hour after sunset from mid-April nightly into June, record in your logbook which stars of the Winter Hexagon you can spot. In clockwise order starting with Sirius, the Hexagon includes Procyon, Pollux (and Castor, not plotted on the chart), Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel, with Betelgeuse inside. Which star will drop out on the earliest date? Which of the stars of the Hexagon will still be visible at the beginning of June? Find out by observation! You will be observing the seasonal change of the positions of stars in the sky, a consequence of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.

May 7 First Moon, about 32 hours old, low, az ~ 285°.

May 14 Moon 4° LR of Ju. Note Ma just rising az ~ 117°.

May 21 Ma at opposition tonight (note great brilliance, equal to Jupiter’s!), 6° LR of Full Moon.

Ma retrograding near Delta in head of Scorpius. Sa rising az ~ 116°, 10° LL of Moon.

May 22 Moon, past Full, rising < 4° left of Sa. Note Antares rising 9° LL of Ma and 7°-8° right of Sa.

Jun  2 Sa at opposition tonight. Spaceship Earth is passing between Sa and Sun. As we overtake Sa, we are moving almost directly away from Ju. As we look toward Ju, we are facing out the “rear window” of Spaceship Earth.

Jun  6 Young Moon, age 24-25 hours,  low in WNW, 15° below Pollux.

Jun 11 Moon, nearly at FQ, appears 5° left of Ju.

Jun 16, 17 Moon leapfrogs Ma June 16-17.

Jun 18 Moon appears 3° UL of Sa.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Robert D. Miller for his twilight sky charts, to Jeffrey Hunt for his graphs showing the rising and setting times of the planets, and to John French and Shannon Schmoll at Abrams Planetarium for helping to program the following Digistar 5 planetarium demo.  

A youtube video showing a view of the morning twilight sky from mid-October 2015 until early March 2016, followed by a view of the evening twilight sky from early March through late October 2016 is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp1bvQZDQ1Y

Resources:

Illustrations of events mentioned above appear in Sky Calendar. For a sample issue and how to subscribe, visit www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

An activity, Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets, to help students investigate visibility of bright planets and first magnitude stars, is available at the CSTA website. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their observations with the aid of items provided: Two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn; a table of data for plotting planets on orbit charts (.docx file); and a sheet with questions on star and planet visibility in 2015-2016 (.docx).

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt is a retired planetarium director living in the Chicago, Illinois area.  He has taught astronomy and sky watching to all ages.  He learned the tricks of the trade from Robert C. Victor when he studied astronomy education at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University.  Jeff writes an astronomy blog at jeffreylhunt.wordpress.com.  Follow him on Twitter at @jeff_hunt.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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