Night Skies

The four brightest planets are now all visible in the "night" sky. Mars it out from dusk until the early morning hours (it's that orange looking star about 45 degrees up in the south-east). Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are all out just before dawn in the east. Venus being the brightest of the threesome, about 45 degrees up from the south-eastern horizon -- the highest it will get in the eastern sky (called greatest elongation). As you will remember from last month, this is because it's an "inner planet" positioned between the sun and the Earth. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are outer planets and thus move across the sky from east to west, at times being visible all night long.

Jupiter, which is the largest planet (we include atmosphere in this size description, we have no idea exactly how big the solid part of the planet actually is because we can't see through the thick cloud cover) and second brightest star like object (right after Venus) in the east. Through a small telescope or big binoculars you can see four of the brightest moons of Jupiter. With a light blue filter on your telescope you can easily see the various bands of clouds around Jupiter at magnifications above 60 times.

Saturn is the dimmest of the three and far more yellow in color than Jupiter (Venus is blue-white, Jupiter is yellow-white, Mars is red-white and Saturn is almost a pure yellow). Through even a small telescope you can see the rings of Saturn when they are well placed for observation -- it takes about 40 x (forty times magnification) to see the ring shape clearly.

The Perseid meteor shower is visible from even bright city skies on the night and morning of August 11th to 12th. Meteor showers occur several times a year when the Earth passes through bands of debris left by comets or asteroids (these specific ones were largely caused by comet Swift-Tuttle). They are periodic events happening each year on the same date as the Earth passes the same location out in space. In the big cities don't expect to see more than a few of the brighter meteor streaks (the fragments strike our atmosphere and burn up on entry, leaving a bright trail in the sky) each hour after 11 p.m. up in the north west portion of the sky (the most meteors will be seen around 1 or 2 am). Out in the country side you can generally see up to about 40 per hour. If you have a camera with an adjustable shutter offering either "B" (for bulb) or "T" (for time-lapse) you can capture this event on film. Almost any film will work. Put the camera on a tripod or on a flat surface like a picnic table (or the ground). Point it up at the sky. Open the shutter and set it up so it stays open (a cable release with locking screw may be necessary to do this) and then walk away for a half hour or so. When you come back release the shutter (close it) and the chances are good that you will get a picture of star trails (little lines or arcs left by the stars as the Earth is moving) with a meteor trail or two moving across the field at a different angle. You may have to instruct the film processing lab to "print regardless" as they often by-pass these types of pictures thinking they are not exposed correctly. You can achieve similar results with digital cameras, provided the shutter can stay open longer than a few seconds.


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