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Don’t miss winter sky’s last hurrah

The Sky Guy

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2006

 

  Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

Graphic courtesy of Andy Veh

Days are getting longer and nights are getting shorter. We’re also leaving the freezing cold behind. As we all love winter’s benefits, we surely regret that our beloved starry skies will take a back seat soon.

But at least we get some nice views for a goodbye. With Daylight Savings Time starting today, it doesn’t get dark until 10 p.m. or even later and therefore the diagram shows the southeastern sky around 11 p.m. A very bright Jupiter makes up a beautiful isosceles triangle with the bright stars Arcturus and Spica.

For the diagram I chose April 13 because the full moon appears between Spica and Jupiter. The day before it’s next to Spica, the day after next to Jupiter, showing nicely our moon’s west-to-east motion as it’s orbiting us.

I’m alternating between two planetarium software, Redshft 3 and Starry Night Pro to draw my diagrams. Since SNP shows landmarks on the horizon I chose it and as I was running it, I noticed that there are quite a few bright satellites orbiting through this part of the sky. One distinguishes satellites from airplanes since the satellites’ paths of flight are very linear and stable, seem very high up and brighten up, then fade. That’s due to them reflecting our sun’s light, which is beneath the western horizon at this time. In fact, the satellites fade as they enter Earth’s shadow in the east or are rather backlit in the west. The best Web site to check for satellite fly-bys is www.heavens-above.com (Chris Peat in Germany maintains it). Start out by entering your exact location and access its location database which includes towns as small as Kasilof and Tyonek.

Saturn is still visible. You find it as it makes a very obtuse triangle with Gemini’s Castor and Pollux low in the west. The pretty Beehive cluster (great in binoculars) is just to the left of Saturn and can be seen with the naked eye, as I noticed even in locations where some streetlights are diminishing the view. In a small telescope Saturn’s rings can be spotted, as can some of its moons — especially Titan — and Jupiter’s four large moons, as well.

Mars is rapidly moving from Taurus into Gemini. During April it can be seen above Orion on the western horizon rather early during dusk.

The winter sky with its brilliant stars and constellations, Sirius, Procyon, Aldebaran, Castor, Pollux, Capella, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Auriga, is giving its last hooray for the season until we meet them again in November — to which, I’m positive, we’re all looking forward to.

Venus and Mercury appear so low during dawn in Alaskan skies that it may be better to look at them during a trip to the second-largest state in the US.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. He can be reached at aveh@uaa.alaska.edu.



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