Well, when the wild weather we have been experiencing this early spring gives way to clear skies we have some wonderful sky sights awaiting us.
Tonight if it is clear the one day old crescent Moon and the planet Mercury will adorn the western sky as soon as it starts to get dark. You will need a clear view of the western horizon to see them. If you have binoculars please use them as they will really enhance your view.
You will also be able to see the ‘dark of the Moon’ - the portion of the Moon that isn’t illuminated by the Sun. We call this ‘Earthshine’ http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2005/04oct_leonardo/ and it is caused by the reflection of sunlight off our planet’s oceans and clouds which illuminates the lunar surface.
Tonight’s Earthshine should be particularly noticeable as the Moon was at perigee, or closest to the Earth for the month yesterday. In fact, yesterday’s New Moon was a Supermoon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermoon
If you look to the lower right of the Moon about a fist width or so you will see a bright yellowish colored ‘star’ which is actually the planet Mercury. Mercury will be visible in the western sky all month and this will be our best view of the year for the planet closest to the Sun.
|Mercury At Sunset|
When it is dark you will see bright Jupiter high in the southeast sky all month. The four main moons of Jupiter http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/jupiter/moons can be seen in binoculars and mimics the view Galileo would have had in his crude telescope in 1610 when he discovered them. NASA’s Juno spacecraft http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/juno/where is closing in on the king of the planets and is due to arrive July 4, 2016.
If you are up late - around 1:30 a.m. - or an early riser before dawn, The Red Planet Mars and Saturn await your gaze. Mars will be closest to our planet next month and it is very noticeable now as a reddish-colored ‘star’ in the southeast sky. Do not confuse Mars with the reddish-colored star Antares that is almost directly below it - Mars will be brighter. The Greek name Antares means ‘rival of Mars’ and this month you can really see why the star got its name.
Mars has several active and planned missions exploring it from orbit and on the surface http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/space-missions/missions-to-mars.html . It is a fascinating world and in amateur sized telescopes actual features can be seen for the next several months. I hope to get some pictures to share with you.
Saturn is a yellowish-colored ‘star’ to the lower left of Mars. NASA’s Cassini mission https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/main/index.html has been studying the ringed planet for 11 years and is still going strong.
Mars, Saturn and Antares make a beautiful triangle in the sky this month. If you have a dark sky you can see the gorgeous Milky Way to their lower left. The view will be best around 5:00 a.m. in the South over the next week before the Moon starts to light up the sky as it approaches Full on the 22nd. The waning gibbous Moon will be in the heart of this celestial triangle on the 25th.
In case you were wondering, Venus is too close to the Sun now otherwise we could have seen all five visible planets this month.
Not to be left out of this planetary parade Earth Day 2016 http://www.earthday.org/2016/01/19/earth-day-2016-trees-earth/ occurs on the 22nd and this year’s theme is “Trees for Earth”.
As you can see there is much to enjoy in the sky this month. I hope you can join me at Shenandoah National Park for one of my lectures and sky viewing sessions http://www.goshenandoah.com/activities-events/astronomy .
Enjoy the view!
Sky Guy in VA