09 April 2008

It's Spring: See Saturn and Mars

This Spring there are two bright planets in the evening sky that you should stop and see when the weather permits. The first is Saturn, the second is Mars.

Saturn is well placed for viewing in the evening and is high in the sky after sunset. Saturn is currently spending several months in the constellation Leo and Saturn itself is near the bright bluish star Regulus which is the brightest star in Leo. They are nearly directly overhead in the evening, slightly to the south. Saturn and its famous ring system are very large compared to all the other planets and therefore reflect a lot of sunlight back to Earth. Saturn is a fairly colorless planet despite what you see in photographs which are often color enhanced. In natural light, Saturn is a blend of off-white, yellow and grey hues and therefore from our point of view looks like a medium-bright yellow-white star.

As Saturn travels in its 29 year path around the Sun, the ring system is more tilted toward Earth for a period of time and then less tilted toward Earth at other times. Sometimes we see the ring system edge-on and because it is so thin, it is very difficult to see the rings at all. For this reason, Saturn is sometime brighter and sometimes dimmer. Right now it is going through a brighter phase and with binoculars stands out as something other than a star. Find a comfortable spot (or lie on a blanket) and spend a few moments looking up near the highest point in the sky. In binoculars, Saturn looks like an oval, brighter than the surrounding stars and shaped differently than everything around it.

Mars is also well placed for viewing in the evening and is in the western sky after sunset. Mars is currently spending time in the constellation Gemini near the twin stars of Castor and Pollux. This diagram shows where to locate it later this week when the Moon passes near it on April 11th. Mars is one of the closest neighbors to Earth and when the alignment is right, can be quite bright. However, at this point it and the Earth are moving further apart and as such, it's brightness is fading from week to week. It still stands out among the stars, and of course it is a distinctive color of orange so it is easy to spot. But unless you know where to look, you might not realize it is a planet and instead think it is just another star. So use the Moon as your guide this week and take it in.

Happy viewing!

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