Planets offer lots of views

Posted: Sunday, December 05, 2004



Bright Venus will be visible near the southeastern horizon until January. Mars will be above Venus, all the while Venus is passing Mars and closing in on the sun. Mars will then be visible in the morning for the entire winter and spring, appearing more and more toward the west and showing up in the evening sky not until October of next year.

Bright Jupiter will climb higher each month, appearing in the south until January and southwest until February, since Earth's rotation is continuous. Jupiter also will be visible in the evening sky starting in March.

A special event this month occurs in the wee hours of Tuesday but only east of the Rocky Mountains: the third-quarter moon will occult Jupiter, so let your friends and relatives back east know about that. We will see our moon beneath Jupiter on the same morning after the occultation is over.

Saturn has been visible near Gemini's bright twin stars during evening in the east and morning in the southwest for a while and will be exclusively an evening planet starting in February.

Uranus and Neptune have been evening planets throughout fall but are now too low to be seen in Alaska. Pluto is actually on the other side of our sun as envisioned from Earth.

I also chose this particular week because the third-quarter moon will be visible in the morning with its sliver appearing near Venus and Mars on Thursday.

An interesting fact for this month: All planets from Mercury to Pluto are arranged in the proper order westward from our sun as seen in Earth's sky, a pattern occurring for the first time in 200 years. Other than being an interesting fact, there is no astronomical or other significance attached to this.

The accompanying diagram shows the sky around 8:30 a.m. in early December (7:30 a.m. later in the month). As such, this diagram depicts the morning sky for a change because of the planets showing up.

Notice that the descriptions in the following paragraphs refer to the evening sky and therefore constellations appear in different parts of the sky, respectively some constellations will have set already in the morning.

As for the evening sky, the stars of winter are back, rising in the east.

The dominating constellation is Orion the hunter. It is many people's favorite because of its brilliance. Four stars arranged in a rectangle (with red Betelgeuse, blue Rigel, Bellatrix and Saiph) outline the body, while three stars make up the belt with the Orion nebula, a stellar nursery, as the sword beneath it.

Above Orion you find Taurus, part of it in the shape of an arrowhead, including red Aldebaran. And above that are the Pleiades star cluster, also called the Seven Sisters, a must for binoculars with which you can see 30 to 50 of its total of 500 stars.

To Taurus' left is the pentagon Auriga with yellow Capella. Beneath Capella appear Castor and Pollux, the twins in Gemini, this winter forming almost a line with Saturn. Then we close this circle towards the horizon, with Procyon and Sirius, the brightest star in the entire sky.

This month's Astronomy magazine shows a sky map of the same region with 27 interesting stars, nebulae and clusters labeled (check out the libraries for the current issue).

Find the Big Dipper on the northern horizon, the Little Dipper high in the north, as usual, and Cassiopeia's "W" shape almost straight up. In the west is the summer triangle comprised of the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair in the constellations Lyra the harp, Cygnus the swan (looking like a cross) and Aquila the eagle, left of which is the small constellation Delphinus. High in the south is Pegasus' great square.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. This column appears on the first Sunday of each month and can be viewed on the Web at chinook.kpc. sky.htm. He can be reached at

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