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  Night Sky

Night Sky

November 2009 Night Sky

—Charlie Christmann, Signpost

Saturn Has Rings

Well, I know this is not big news to most. Everyone since Galileo with a small telescope can see them. NASA has sent several spacecraft out to investigate them. Cassini has been orbiting Saturn for several years, investigating the ring system and the moons with all types of instruments and cameras. You would think we knew almost all there is to know. Yet Saturn still surprises us.

The main part of the ring system extends from 4,500 to fifty thousand miles above Saturn’s cloud tops. Yet, when seen on edge, they are only about thirty to fifty feet thick. Studies show the rings are almost pure water ice and consist of particles as small as snowflakes and as large as thirty feet across.

If you were to train your telescopes or good binoculars on Saturn today, you would barely see any rings. Every fourteen to fifteen years, the rings tilt such that the view from Earth is edge-on. In September, the rings essentially vanished and are only now beginning to open back up. You can check out the rings again in a few years.

So, why all the fuss about the rings this month? It’s all about one of those little surprises Saturn has thrown at us. A new ring has been discovered around the planet by NASA. And, no, Cassini, did not find it. Spitzer, the Earth-orbiting infrared telescope is the discoverer. And this is one giant ring! If you could see it with your naked eyes, it would span two full moons. This ring spans from 3.7 million miles to 7.4 million miles.

The moon Phoebe orbits in this ring and is most likely the source for the ring material. Being tenuous and cold, the ring can only be seen by its faint long-wave infrared glow.

Fall Sky Tour

Take a jacket outside about 8:30 p.m. this month and enjoy some great sky viewing in the crisp air.

In the west, look for the bright stars of Altair in Aquila, Deneb in Cygnus, and Vega in Lyra. Outside city lights, you should also be able to find Sadr, just west of Deneb. Looking north, find Polaris and Kocab in Ursa Minor. Dubhe and Aloth are low on the northern horizon in Ursa Major. In the south is bright Fomalhaut in Piscis Australis, and Alnair low in the horizon in Grus.

The west has the bright stars of Orion appearing just above the horizon this month. Rigel and Betelgeuse are the brightest there, but also look for Bellatrax, the opposite shoulder from Betelgeuse. In the belt, you can see Alnitak and the open star cluster next to it. Just above Orion, in Taurus is Albebaran. In Auriga, the bright star Capella is joined by Alnath and Menkalinan. And low in the northeast, one of the Gemini twins, Castor, will be peeking above the horizon.

Almost directly overhead, you can see Alpheratz and Mirach in Andromeda. Other stars you might be able to spot are Agol and Mirphak in Perseus; Ruchbah, Shedar, Caph in Cassiopeia; Almaak in Andromeda; and Hamal in Aries.

The Planets and the Moon

Mercury will be a tough target this month, being too close to the sun to really see.

Venus is the bright morning “star” rising in the east about forty-five minutes before the sun. On the 15th, you will find Venus seven degrees to the upper left of the Moon about ten minutes before sunrise.

Mars rises earlier as the month progresses, starting at 11:00 p.m. early in the month and rising around 10:00 p.m. late in the month. The Moon and Mars have a conjunction on the 8th. The Moon will be four degrees (half a hand width) to the lower right of Mars. The bright star to the right of the pair is Procyon.

Jupiter is high and bright in the south after sunset. It sets in the west around 11:00 p.m. mid-month. Get out your binoculars on the 23rd. Look for a Jupiter-Moon conjunction. The Moon and Jupiter are three degrees apart. Also look for faint blue-green Neptune four degrees to the upper left of Jupiter.

Be awake in the early morning to find Saturn. It rises between 3:30 a.m. early in the month and 1:45 a.m. late in the month. An hour before sunrise, look for Saturn and the moon to be eight degrees apart on the morning of the 12th.

The Moon is full at 12:14 a.m. on the 2nd and new at 12:14 a.m. on the 16th. The Moon’s perigee (closest to Earth) is at 12:31 a.m. on the 7th and its apogee is at 1:08 a.m. on the 22nd.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!






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