Quick, my young ward, run outside and view the planets!
No seriously! Get outside, soon! There are three planets currently gracing the early evening skies, and you do not want to miss this.
I’ve been waiting to post this because we’ve had a serious stretch of rainy weather here in Virginia, and it seemed cruel to write a post telling everybody about the amazing stuff they can’t go outside and look at. But this past weekend was brilliant, and hopefully some nice weather is here for a little while. So let’s talk planets.
Jupiter has been shining bright in our evening sky for some months now. It’s a dramatic, white star-like object high on the western side of the sky in the early evening. You can’t miss it. It’s the brightest thing out there, assuming the Moon is nowhere around. Grab a pair of binoculars or a small telescope for a real treat – a quick zoom-in will reveal the colorful cloud stripes on the planet and as many as 5 moons orbiting the giant world.
|Jupiter and its four largest moons as seen through a small telescope.|
Looking more south-southwesterly, you still have time to catch the orangey glow of Mars before it fades away into the distance. Mars made a close approach to us in April, and is now getting further and further away from us with each passing day. A good-sized telescope will reveal a mottled surface and possibly a bit of a polar cap on our tiny next door neighbor. Mars is only half the size of the Earth, so seeing any detail on the planet is difficult. With Mars being a bit closer now than it normally is to us, here’s your best shot at seeing some Martian surface detail for a while…the next close approach will be in about two years.
|Mars as seen in a larger telescope during its close approach in April 2014.|
Finally, lower in the southwest you will find the golden glow of Saturn. Here’s the big payoff for your binoculars or telescope – those oh-so-spectacular rings. If you are using binoculars, you’ll need to hold them very steady – a tripod will be your best bet. Remember, you’re looking at something about a billion miles away. But oh, that view is so worth it!
|Saturn as seen through a larger telescope.|
Don’t have a telescope or binoculars? Not sure exactly where to look? No worries. Come on out to the Virginia Living Museum on Saturday May 10 and we’ll do the leg work for you. Our telescopes will be set up (weather permitting) and all you’ll have to do is bend your eye to the eyepiece and stare. Trust me, you’ll be glad you came! For more details on our monthly star party and laser light nights, please visit our website at www.thevlm.org. And if you can’t make the star party, get out there and look up anyway. No matter which way you face, the universe has a lot to offer! Enjoy!
Until next time…