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What's Up...Dancing when the sun sets PDF Print E-mail

By Vernon Whetstone

Amateur Astronomer


Most of the action in the sky this week takes place in the evening.
The smallest planet, Mercury, and the largest planet, Jupiter, are continuing their little dance in the west after the Sun goes down.
If you have been watching for the last few days, Jupiter, which has held a place of prominence in the evening sky, is getting ready to exit, stage right and Mercury will be taking its place, at least for a while.
The tiny, speedy little planet has been rising higher each evening and last night made its closest approach as they passed each other.
The pair are pulling away from each other now but still make a grand sight in binoculars about a half-hour after sunset. In fact, they can be seen without any optical aid but a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope will enhance the experience.
Find a place with a good view to the west and that is free of any obstructions like trees or buildings.
Tonight, Wednesday, March 16, the pair are just a little over two degrees apart. Tomorrow, Thursday, they will be three degrees apart so both can easily be seen in the field of view of your binoculars.
If you watch each evening at about the same time you will see them move apart until Thursday, March 24, when they will be at their farthest distance apart.
At that point Mercury will start to return toward the horizon sinking lower each evening until April 3, when Mercury will be lost in the glare of the setting Sun. It will appear again as a morning object the following week.
Jupiter will have long since left the sky.
But, not to worry, our sky will not be left planet-less, About 10:30 p.m. MDT, shift your gaze to the east to find one of our favorite planets, Saturn, peeking over the horizon.
We have been waiting for Saturn to make the shift from morning to evening skies and that time has arrived.
Saturn, the ringed planet, or as some have called it, “The Lord of the Rings” makes a wonderful sight in even a small telescope with enough magnification. You just need to know where to look.
Well, turn your gaze eastward and find the large constellation Virgo, the Maiden. It is stretched out just coming up. Find its brightest star, Spica, and look about 10 degrees up on Virgo’s right side for a small, yellowish dot that will not be twinkling like the other stars.
You remember our rule, stars twinkle, planets don’t.
The ring plane of Saturn is continuing to open up to show more space between the rings and the planet, makes for better viewing.
SKY WATCH: Full Moon, Saturday, March 19. This will be the closest full Moon of the year. Thursday, March 17, the Moon will be below and right of Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, the Lion. On March 19, the Moon moves to just up and right of Saturn, although the brightness of the full Moon may wash out the light from the planet. On March 20, the Moon moves on lower to be near Spica. The best time for viewing is about 11 p.m. MDT.
NEXT WEEK: More astronomical blathering.