Planets visible in winter's sky

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2003

The following description and diagram are applicable from December well into April. The Kenai Peninsula College book store sells star finders for $5. You can check "Sky & Telescope" and "Astronomy" magazines, as well.

There are several planets to look for in this winter's night skies. You can find Jupiter in Leo, rising in the east after midnight and visible in the south until dawn. Saturn can be seen in Gemini, rising in the east. Mars is found in Pisces, high in the south to southeast sky right now, then in Aries and finally Taurus in April. In fact, Mars would join Saturn in May but that's when we run out of dark skies. You also can find Venus on the western horizon all winter long in the evening. While stars are fixed relative to each other, you'll notice that planets move among the Zodiac constellations.

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

Above Orion you find Taurus, part of it in the shape of an arrowhead including red Aldebaran. Above that is 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. Left of Taurus is the pentagon Auriga with yellow Capella.

Beneath Capella appear Castor and Pollux, the twins in Gemini, which form a triangle with Saturn this winter. Then we close this circle towards the horizon with Procyon and Sirius, the brightest star in the entire sky.

Since Jupiter resides further east, also look for Cancer and Leo, with the former containing the pretty Beehive star cluster in which 20 to 30 of its total of 350 stars can be seen with binoculars.

Special astronomical events in December:

The earliest sunset on Dec. 16

The solstice beginning of winter on Dec. 22 at 7:04 a.m.

The latest sunrise will be Dec. 27. This may be startling and the explanation is too long-winded for this month's column, thus I refer to the summation page at www.analemma.com.

The nights of Dec. 13 and 14, look for the Geminid meteor shower, one of the three most impressive meteor showers this year.

At the end of the month try to spot Neptune with binoculars just above Venus while Saturn will be in opposition at its brightest and, in a telescope, at its largest.

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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