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Things are changing in the night sky

Vernon Whetstone

One difficult thing about writing a weekly newspaper column is I have to write well before an event takes place so I often don’t know what really happened on any particular day.
I am thinking about the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower which was between Aug. 12-13 specifically. I won’t know what the weather was like or if the sky was cloudy or not.
However, that won’t stop me from plodding right along talking about those things that are still in our future. We can only hope for good conditions because we know the stars, planets, and the moon will be there no matter what the clouds are doing.
One event we can watch right now, even if the weather on a particular day isn’t good, is the two planets, Mars and Saturn, passing each other in the early evening sky. If the sky is cloudy one day, you can always wait until the next.
Remember, the two only look like they are close, they are positioned in what we call a “line of sight” arrangement which means one of them is near and the other is far, and no, I am not doing a Grover from Sesame Street.
Mars is the closest at about—in rough numbers—94 million miles from Earth whereas Saturn—again, in rough numbers—is about 925 million miles from Earth. They only look like they are close.
In any case, now is a good time to watch the pair as they get closer then pass each other, an event which will take place on Aug. 21-22. They will pass, then begin to pull apart.
They can be found by looking southwest any evening about an hour after local sunset, which for southwest Nebraska is between 7:45 and 8 p.m. MDT.
Another line-of-sight event will be on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 23. The best time for looking will be not much later than 5:30 a.m. MDT. Time is critical on this one because the Sun is rising and our window of opportunity for a good look does not last long.
Look east, very close to the horizon for bright Venus, slightly dimmer Jupiter above it, and a very, very slender crescent moon just to their right.
All three won’t fit into a binocular field of view, but, as an extra added attraction why not throw in a very nice star cluster, M-44, the Beehive in Cancer, the Crab.
The cluster is just to the upper left of Jupiter and will show up very nicely in your binoculars.
Since you are outside looking at Venus and Jupiter, take a look up and to the right for an important constellation, Orion, the Hunter. If you have been complaining about how hot it is, well, Orion will give you the good news that winter is coming.
Another clue that things are changing can be found in the early evening sky looking east, it is our old friend, Pegasus, the Flying Horse. Pegasus is one of the first of the constellations of autumn.
Pegasus is also called “The Great Square” because that is what it looks like, except at this time of year the square is tipped up on its side and looks like a giant diamond.
The ancients paid a lot more attention to the sky than we modern folk do. It told them the seasons, what was and what was to come. The rising and setting of constellations and stars told them when it was time to plant and harvest and when the seasons would be changing.
I think we have lost a lot with our bright city lights and signs. We have lost touch with who we were.
SKYWATCH: Third quarter moon, Sunday, Aug. 17. Two sets of planetary conjunctions, one in the morning and one in the evening.