SATURN DOMINATES THE NIGHT SKY by William J. Bechaver

It’s been a little while since we’ve visited Saturn in our night skies, but this week, the giant ringed planet is definitely worth a look.

This weekend, Saturn is in a position we call opposition in the sky, which means it is directly opposite from the Sun in the sky. This means this is the best opportunity we will have to view it all year. When it is opposite the Sun from us, that means that Earth is directly between the Sun and Saturn, which has an orbit further from the Sun than ours. It also means that we are closer to Saturn now than we have been in more than a year. Even so, it is almost ten times further away from us than we are from the Sun. Regardless of that vast distance, Saturn is brighter now than it has been in years. The rings around the gas giant are tilted in our direction, which makes viewing through a telescope spectacular right now, and tends to make Saturn dominantly bright in the sky.

The other advantage to Saturn being at opposition is that it is visible the entirety of the night, rising in the east just as the Sun sets in the west, passing overhead to the south by midnight, and setting in the west just as the Sun is preparing to rise. So, there is no time when you can’t see Saturn during the night.

It hasn’t moved far in the sky from when we last looked. It still dominates the region of Scorpius, almost due south at midnight, just above the arc of the constellation. Go out any night this week, with a new moon, there will be little other light in the sky to distract you from the amazement that is the ringed planet Saturn.

Venus is ever growing nearer as it catches us in its orbit. When we began in March, it was 123.76 million miles away from us. This week, it is at 77.62 million miles. It has decreased an amazing 46 million miles since we began!

Thanks for your interest in astronomy and our featured articles! If you have any article requests or questions, contact Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE] at spacescape@rocketmail.com for inquiries about scientific information, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for current updates or additional viewing opportunities.

William J. Bechaver is the Director of SPACE – Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE], the local Astronomical Society in Southern Colorado.

MYSTERIOUS NEIGHBORS IN DEEP SPACE by William J. Bechaver

Last week, we dealt with objects that occupy our solar system far out beyond the major planets, even beyond Pluto. Until recently, we didn’t know of any objects of great size beyond Pluto. The most massive out there, Eris, right now is three times further from the sun than is Pluto, and as we explored last week, with our greatest technology in space travel, it would still take us 25 years to reach Eris, right now.

But the objects in the far reaches of the region of space known as The Kuiper Belt, are greatly referred to as Trans-Neptunian Objects. That is because they have such irregular orbits, that gravity takes them out to the far reaches of the solar system, then swings them back in, much closer to the sun. Many of these objects come closer to the sun that the orbit of the planet Neptune, when at their closest. When I was in high school, Pluto was closer than Neptune, so we recited the order of the outer planets as Uranus, Pluto, and Neptune. It has since orbited further out, regaining the rightful order of things.

Eris is just such an object. Even though at such a magnificent distance right now, there are times in its orbital period when it actually comes closer to the sun than Pluto. Eris will be nearer the sun than Pluto is now, so the trip will take only a few years. We will have to wait until the year 2246, when it makes its closest approach, to take advantage of the situation. We should have taken advantage of the situation the last time it was so near, but that was way back in the year 1687, when many still believed that the earth was the center of the universe.

Eris is not always the most distant object. Though the planetoid called Sedna is currently closer than Eris, it enjoys a much more elliptical orbit, meaning it swings much further from the sun than any other known planetary object. There are times when its path takes it more than ten times further than Eris is. That means, at those times, it would take us 250 years to travel there, so we would be arriving at Sedna at its furthest just about the same time when Eris is closest to us, sometime around in 2266! When Sedna is way out there, it is nearly thirty one times further from earth than Pluto is right now! Out there, it would take the faint light from the sun nearly a week to reach the planetoid.

The New Horizons spacecraft is making preparations for its close approach to Pluto in July. We’ll keep track of its progress, and learn much more about the mysteries of Pluto in the coming weeks.

Venus is ever growing nearer as it catches us in its orbit. Weekly, we are keeping track of it’s progress, as the distance to our sister planet decreases. This week, the distance is just over 83 million miles. It decreases weekly by nearly 5 million miles!

Thanks for your interest in astronomy and our featured articles! If you have any article requests or questions, contact Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE] at spacescape@rocketmail.com for inquiries about scientific information, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for current updates or additional viewing opportunities.

William J. Bechaver is the Director of SPACE – Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE], the local Astronomical Society in Southern Colorado.

THE STRANGE AND MYSTERIOUS KUIPER BELT by William J. Bechaver

This week, we are in the midst of the Eta Aquiriid meteor shower. It is not a large, nor impressive shower under the best of circumstances. But this year’s falls during the week of the full moon, so the moon will remain in the sky for the entire night, obscuring the fainter meteors during the peak time. It is still worth it to go out and try to see one of the brighter meteors, in the early morning hours before daylight begins to lighten the sky, and the moon is far in the west.

But, the most significant aspect of the Aquiriids is the famous source of the shower. The particles in space that we are passing through in our orbit were left there by the many passes of the most famous comet in history. The origin of the Etas is none other than Halley’s comet.

Halley’s is the most documented comet in history. It has been passing through the inner solar system regularly, every seventy six years, for centuries. Ancient texts are full of documentation of those many passes, for more than two thousand years, and it is the only periodic comet in existence that can be viewed twice during one complete orbit in a human lifetime.

Halley’s is classified as a short-period comet, apparently attributing it’s orbit to an origin in The Kuiper Belt, though many believe it originated much further out.

The Kuiper Belt is the area of space lying just beyond the orbit of Neptune, and stretching far out beyond the furthest orbit of Pluto. Many of the objects in The Kuiper Belt are considered Trans-Neptunian in nature, because their orbits actually cross that of Neptune. There are many minor objects in The Kuiper Belt, similar to The Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. But The Kuiper Belt is twenty times wider, populated by a far greater number of objects, of a much greater mass.

The Kuiper Belt is also the home to many smaller planets, dwarf-planets, minor-planets,and planetoids, Pluto being one, with it’s five known moons. There are four other bodies out there with moons of their own, so Pluto is not unique in that distant region of space. Three of them are named Haumea, Quaoar, and Orcus. Other minor-planets have been identified in the region, including Makemake, Sedna, and one which hasn’t been named yet, currently being distinguished by the year of its discovery, as 2007 OR10. If you have never heard of any of these distant worlds, you are not alone. Casual observers are unaware that these objects are out there, because it is impossible to observe them with the naked eye, and even through the most powerful telescopes available to man, they are merely distant, faded points of light.

The most remarkable object out there, far beyond even Pluto, and sometimes beyond the reaches of The Kuiper Belt, is Eris. Eris is the most massive known object of the region. It is about the size of Pluto, but currently is far more distant. It is nearly three times more distant from the sun than is Pluto. It takes the light of the sun 5 hours to reach Pluto and 13 hours 30 minutes to reach Eris. Since it has taken us 9 years to reach Pluto using our latest and fastest technology in space travel, it would take us nearly 25 years to reach Eris. If we had a probe ready to launch tomorrow, it would not arrive at Eris until the year 2040.

Venus is ever growing nearer as it catches us in its orbit. When we began in March, it was 123.76 million miles away from us. This week, it is nearer than the sun, at 88 million miles. It has decreased an amazing 35.73 million miles since we began!

Thanks for your interest in astronomy and our featured articles! If you have any article requests or questions, contact Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE] at spacescape@rocketmail.com for inquiries about scientific information, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for current updates or additional viewing opportunities.

William J. Bechaver is the Director of SPACE – Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE], the local Astronomical Society in Southern Colorado.

PLANETARY VISITORS AND NEIGHBORS by William J. Bechaver

This month, we are experiencing the overlap of a couple of meteor showers at once. As one shower begins to diminish, another is peaking, so there is a good chance to see a wayward meteor if you step outside after midnight any time this week, and look skyward. The rule of thumb is the later the better, as your chances increase as the planet rotates toward daylight. However, you must go outside well before sunup, to insure that the sky remains at its darkest. Also, this month, the moon will interfere with the best times for meteor viewing, as it won’t set until the early morning hours. So there’s a small window of opportunity after the moon leaves the sky, and before the sun begins to enter, which will present the best time for viewing the meteor showers.

Meteor showers occur when the earth passes through icy particles in space. Generally, these particles are remnants left behind by the tails of passing comets. When the earth’s orbit passes through the particles, they are captured by our gravity, and impact our atmosphere, burning up as they enter.

But comets are not the only source of meteors that strike the earth. Stray meteors, or those not associated with an organized meteor shower, are often rocky bodies that are simply debris, or material left over from the creation of the solar system. There are many bodies determined to be “near earth” objects. Most larger ones have well established, though irregular, orbits. These are observed by scientists, and the larger ones have been named. It is the smaller objects, wandering around the inner solar system, that are often caught up in our gravity and pulled in. Larger members of this meteor group often make it all the way to the surface before burning up completely. These rocky bodies, when found on earth, are meteorites. There are many examples of these rocky remnants in museums and collections around the world.

In the weeks to come, we’ll further explorer the origin of comets, and how where they originate determines the type and duration of each visitor from the depths of the solar system.

Go out every evening, just after sunset, and look to the west, higher in the sky weekly, you can spot our nearest planetary neighbor. It is brilliant Venus, ever ascending higher in the sky, ever becoming brighter as it approaches. It is ever growing nearer as it catches us in its orbit. Weekly, we are keeping track of it’s progress, as the distance to our sister planet decreases. Last week, it was 97.61 million miles distant. This week, the distance is just 92.96 million miles. Venus is now closer to the earth than the sun! It has decreased in one week by nearly 5 million miles! In fact, though they appear far apart in the sky, both Mercury and Venus are now closer to the earth than the sun, both being about the same distance from us this week.
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Thanks for your interest in astronomy and our featured articles! If you have any article requests or questions, contact Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE] at spacescape@rocketmail.com for inquiries about scientific information, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for current updates or additional viewing opportunities.

William J. Bechaver is the Director of SPACE – Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE], the local Astronomical Society in Southern Colorado.