January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Get Your Students Started in Sky Watching

Posted: Friday, September 30th, 2011

by Robert Victor

The current school year will be exceptionally rich for sky watching. October is a good time to get your students started!

The school year 2011-2012 will be enhanced by many spectacular sky events: evening planet gatherings, with as many as four bright planets visible simultaneously from late February until late April, and a close pairing of Venus-Jupiter, the two brightest planets, on March 13; predawn lunar eclipses on December 10 and June 4; a deep solar eclipse late in the afternoon of May 20; and a rare transit of Venus across the face of the Sun on the afternoon of June 5. In October the Milky Way passes nearly overhead at nightfall, and a sky watching session can provide good telescopic views of Jupiter and its four bright satellites discovered by Galileo, and many star clusters and other favorite deep sky objects.

Bright evening planets: Venus moves out from 13° to 20° upper left of the setting Sun in October 2011 and begins to set in a darker sky. The brilliant planet of magnitude –4 thus becomes easy for unaided eye, but you must look early, very low in the WSW evening twilight glow. Mercury emerges after midmonth, but in this poor apparition it remains low in twilight. Mercury is brighter than magnitude zero, but still much less bright than Venus, so binoculars are useful. Look just 3° lower right of Venus on the 21st. After passing below Venus, Mercury lingers only 2° lower left of the brighter planet during Oct 29-Nov. 14. Look for Venus and Mercury to the lower right of the young crescent Moon on Oct. 28. Jupiter on Oct. 1 rises N of E as darkness falls. Its rising time shifts over 4 min. earlier each day, and by the 28th Jupiter rises at sunset and reaches opposition in Aries, all-night visibility, and greatest brilliance near mag. –3. Jupiter appears near the Moon on the nights of Oct. 12 and 13, from shortly before nightfall until next day’s dawn.

On Oct. 14, Venus-Earth-Jupiter align in space. With Earth between them, Venus and Jupiter then appear to us in mutual opposition. On what date after Oct. 14 will your students first see Venus and Jupiter simultaneously? (Observers with mountains around them may have to wait until November.) Beginning on the first date some of them succeed, have them keep track of Venus and Jupiter until March 13, 2012, when they’ll form a spectacular pair just 3° apart well up in the western sky at dusk. Venus-Jupiter will then be in mutual conjunction, when Earth-Venus-Jupiter align in that order, on March 13. Coming issues of California Classroom Science and the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar will chart their progress between now and then as the Venus-Jupiter gap closes. Keep looking up! For a sample issue of the Sky Calendar and subscription info, visit www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/skycalendar/.

Planets at dawn: Jupiter in dawn twilight begins October well up in WSW, and sinks low, N of W, by month’s end. Mars rises after midnight and by dawn twilight is high in ESE to SE. Against stars, Mars opens October at mag. +1.3 in Cancer near the southern edge of the Beehive cluster (use binoculars to see the cluster) and goes 17° E, ending at mag. +1.1 in Leo, within 6° W of Regulus, heart of Leo. Mars will pass within 1.4° north of Regulus on the mornings of Nov. 10 and 11. Saturn and Spica emerge less than 5° apart low in E to ESE morning twilight glow in the closing days of October and rise about half an hour earlier each week.

While we’re still on daylight saving time (until November 6), take advantage of the dark morning skies available at a convenient time to get a preview of the stars where theyll appear after nightfall in February and March: Orion the Hunter and the brilliant blue-white Sirius the Dog Star high in the southern to southwestern sky, and the Big Dipper and Leo high in the northeast to southeast.

Once the Moon has passed Full on Oct. 11, students can follow the waning Moon in the predawn sky for the next two weeks until Oct 25. Catch the Moon near Jupiter before dawn on Oct. 13 and 14; near the Pleiades star cluster on Oct. 15; Aldebaran, eye of Taurus on Oct. 16; Pollux and Castor, the Gemini Twins on Oct. 19; Mars on Oct. 21; Regulus, heart of Leo, on Oct. 22; and — more difficult — using binoculars 40 min. before sunrise, try for Saturn rising 10° to lower left of the last, old crescent Moon on Oct. 25.

Even if you wait until the students arrive at school, they can use the recess period before first bell, or the opening few minutes of first period, to follow the Moon with unaided eye in the daytime sky each morning from Oct. 12 or 13 (just past Full, setting in WNW) until the Moon becomes too thin and too close to the Sun to find easily in daylight, before Oct. 25. Especially for a few mornings around Oct. 19 and 20, with the Moon near Last Quarter phase (half full), if you fit your telescope’s low-power eyepiece with a single polarizing filter, and rotate the eyepiece within its tube while you’re observing the Moon, you can darken the blue sky and greatly improve the contrast between Moon and sky. Even in daylight, craters along the lunar terminator will really stand out!

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.


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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.

One Response

  1. Y’know, there is a daytime sky as well as a night sky. Once they know how to read the clouds, students will be able to predict weather, know how sunlight and moisture team up to produce weather, and much more. It’s also interesting to compare satellite views of one’s area and what one sees from the other side. All you have to do is march the students out of the door, look up, and observe.

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