Planetary views abound

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2002

I've just moved here, so what would I know about the night skies on the Kenai?

Fortunately, the movements of planets, the sun and moon and the rotation of Earth -- yielding the stars' daily apparent motion -- are very predictable, so here we go.

The North Star is higher than what I'm used to, at about 60 degrees above the northern -- where else -- horizon.

Don't look for a bright star, in fact it's only the 49th brightest star as seen from our solar system. Instead, find the Big Dipper first, fairly low in the northwest in the early evening, then put two fingers on the last two stars in the Dipper's pan and finally mark that distance five times up: you've found the North Star.

If you're out of town, you also will be able to find the Little Dipper, of which Polaris is at the end of its handle. Another hint: it's as if you were flipping pancakes back and forth between the two dippers.

On the other side of Polaris you'll find Cassiopeia in the shape of a W, fairly high in the northwest.

From Cassiopeia on, you see a faint band of many stars extending high through the eastern sky and ending on the southern horizon: the Milky Way, or the galaxy in which we live.

As you follow the Milky Way's span, you also notice three bright stars high in the southern sky: they are Vega, Deneb and Altair, which make up the summer triangle.

When you look at the southern horizon, you should see some Zodiac constellations such as Scorpius and Sagittarius -- but you don't because we're so far north. Thus, they just graze the horizon, and since our sun will reside in these constellations in the winter, it soon also will just graze the horizon.

There is only one planet available this month. It's a fainter one, but it's possible to see it with binoculars: Uranus. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are so bright they have always been known to mankind.

Start out by looking toward the horizon just east of south. Find an elongated triangle (see diagram) of stars; these are Nu Aquarii and Alpha and Beta Capricorni.

You'll notice you've got the right ones when using your binoculars. The upper right one (Alpha Cap.) is actually a multiple. Next go down and you find a pretty triple. Then go left (you may do this without your binoculars) and you'll see four stars in line. Above the furthest left are three stars (use binoculars again).

The lower of these three is named "Kate," for my wife. I'm kidding. But I did make her a nice chart of Capricornus, attached a photo that I took and framed it (it cost $5).

That method sure beats the $50 some companies charge. After all, the only one recognizing the star named in her honor is me.

If you "buy" a star, no astronomer and no astronomy organization will recognize it because it would be way too cumbersome and completely unnecessary for us to make catalogs of names for millions of stars.

However, the 10,000-plus known asteroids are officially named after people -- Paul, George, John and Ringo among them -- but you get to choose a name only if you're the discoverer.

Now, look to the left of Kate and you see two lights: one is a star, the other, perhaps exposing some greenish hue, is Uranus.

How do we know? Uranus moves across the sky -- that's how we know. Mark its position on the night you find it, then look at it a week later and Uranus will have moved slightly. If you try to extend your expertise, find Neptune.

Next month we'll find Saturn -- which is way easy.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. This column will appear on the first Sunday of each month.

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