by William J. Bechaver
For the beginning of the year, we have been primarily watching the mechanics of the solar system, as the planets perform their complex dance in the early morning sky.
Though February was relatively uneventful this year, last week we observed as Venus passed Saturn in the morning sky.
Brilliant Venus is slowly descending with each passing day. We will continue to chase it around the Sun almost throughout the summer, until it will finally be lost in the early morning glow.
Saturn, like the other outer planets, is slowly climbing higher in the morning sky as we outpace it and are slowly catching up to it. When February began, it was still too low to separate from the glow of the dawn. But, by mid-month, it had emerged far enough to be faintly seen with its sister Venus.
March starts off with a lunar encounter with Saturn. During the early morning hours of Friday 1 March, the beautiful crescent Moon will lie less than one degree above Saturn.
Saturn now rises just after four in the morning, so the pair will be well above the horizon while the sky remains adequately dark to have an excellent chance to view them.
The close pairing of the Moon and Saturn is just one of two encounters between the two this month. As Saturn continues to rise, it will meet with the Moon earlier each month, and the second encounter will take place twenty nine days from now, but I’ll remind you at the end of the month.
The following morning, the Moon will lie below Saturn, and just above Venus, the two separated by a little over one degree. Go out on Saturday 2 March, and you will see an alignment of the three objects.
Saturn will lie further above the Moon, with Venus just down and to the right. Maybe the most important object is one you can’t see. That morning, between the Moon and Saturn, is tiny Pluto.
Pluto is far too tiny and distant to be observed with a naked eye. Binoculars won’t even help very much. To view Pluto on a good, clear night, you need a pretty powerful telescope, and viewing tends to be better when the objects are higher in the sky. But just so you know that Pluto is there, between the Moon and Saturn, in a nice little alignment, with Venus below.
The following morning, the Moon will be below Venus, a little further than it was above. The Moon travels about twelve degrees across the sky in one twenty-four hour day, so if you go out on two successive mornings, like on Saturday and Sunday, you can see how far the Moon has moved in relation to the planets, and determine what is about twelve degrees.
As a general rule of thumb, the width of the Moon is usually determined to be about half a degree, two Moons being one degree. The entire visible night sky is, of course, 180° from horizon to horizon.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.