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FIVE Visible Planets in March 2014

on Wednesday, 05 March 2014.

Get familiar with our five closest celestial neighbors

FIVE Visible Planets in March 2014

For many of us, the view through the telescope that roped us into the astronomy hobby was a view of Saturn. I know that was the case for me, once, when I was a Boy Scout, eons ago and again in 1996 when I was walking through Baltimore with a friend.  There was a youngish guy in a park with a telescope pointed at Saturn.  For only $2.00 anyone could see the ringed planet.  He had quite the wad of one dollar bills and definitely got two of mine and I've never looked back.

During this month of March there are five visible planets for amateur astronomers to enjoy including Saturn, the Queen of Planets. All are relatively easy to identify because they tend to shine with a steadier light than the twinkling stars.  Challenge yourselves and try to locate all five!

As winter trudges toward its ending (slower in some parts of the US than others) the reigning planet as night falls is Jupiter.  Jupiter is hard to miss.  It's the brightest night sky object -shining brighter than any other heavenly body except for the moon.  Jupiter has been with us all winter and is a popular target at the Observatory and in home-based telescopes.  It is great fun to watch the dance of the four Galilean moons (Io, Ganymede, Calisto and Europa).    In case you forgot what we shared at the Observatory, these four moons, discovered by Galileo, are the largest moons of the 67 that have been discovered so far and the only ones visible in backyard telescopes.  The neat thing about them is that they are also visible in a binocular.  Go out and watch them travel around Jupiter every night in March from dusk until the wee hours of the morning.  Find Jupiter - the brightest object in the eastern sky, floating near the two stars, Castor and Pollux, of the constellation Gemini.

At around 11:00 PM daylight savings time, Mars rises in the eastern sky.  It is a reddish starlike object that is near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.  An easy way to find Spica is to follow the handle of the Big Dipper down to the next bright star-that's Arcturus- and then follow that line to the right to the star Spica ("arc to Arcturus, speed/spike to Spica").  Mars is hanging around Spica all month and will brighten as the month progresses because in our field of view, Earth is catching up with Mars in the race of planets around the sun.  Earth and Mars are getting closer and in early April Mars will be at its closest point to Earth and at its brightest.  Through a binocular or a telescope, Mars is really unimpressive except that it is obvious that it is a disk.  On clear, transparent nights, it's possible to see the polar ice cap with high magnification but otherwise it's hard to pick out much detail, if any. Remember, Mars is not nearly as bright as Jupiter.

In the early morning/pre-dawn hours, Venus rises in the east.  It is a bright beacon of light that's hard to miss.  A couple of times this past winter I've seen Venus and had to check that it wasn't an airplane...it's that bright and hard to miss.  It remains a morning star through all of March and most of the Spring.  From our vantage point, Venus goes through phases like our Moon.  Right now it is about 25% illuminated and crescent  is visible through a binocular or  telescope.

Saturn, our Queen, rises about midnight during the early part  of March and late evening as the month progresses.  Saturn is golden colored to the naked eye and is in the vicinity of the constellation Libra, the Scales,  this month. As with other visible planets it rises in the east.  On the first night of spring, the waning moon will help guide you to Saturn if you need help.  Through a binocular, there is a hint of the rings apparent but in a small telescope and larger the glory of the magnificent rings is visible to take your breath away.  And yes, that bright point of light near Saturn is most likely Titan, its largest moon.  That moon actually has a bit of Earth on it - the Huygens probe released by Cassina back in 2004.  The probe landed on the surface of Titan and sent information back to earth for approximately 90 minutes.  It remains the only landing on an outer planetary body.

Mercury is no longer in the evening sky as mentioned in a past blog.  At the end of the month of March it will be visible in our northern early morning sky very low on the horizon.  It will be hard to spot because it competes with the sunrise but for someone trying to catch all five visible planets in March, it's worth the try March 28-30.  It will be below Venus and the moon so use those for your guideposts.
Often, when I go out at night to do something with the horses, I look up and greet the various planets visible as an old friend (really!). Like constellations they are a steady reminder of the wonders of the night sky and as you become more familar with them, they almost seem to wave back!

Messier Marathon

on Saturday, 01 March 2014.

Charles Messier's 20 years of observing in one long night

Messier Marathon

For the seasoned astronomer, this will be old news but for the newer converts to this night time hobby (and daytime and cloudy days and nights) this is a chance to show off some of your skill at identifying and finding all the objects in the Messier catalog.

Charles Messier was an 18th century astronomer who was a self-proclaimed comet hunter.  He discovered 13 comets but more importantly, he made a list of fixed objects in the night sky that could have been mistaken for comets but weren't.  These objects, 103 that he listed and another 7 that were attributed to him in the 20th century, are relatively bright and many are "showpieces" in the night sky.  Many of the objects we observe during our public viewing are among the ones Messier listed.  Can you remember seeing m32, m57,  m81/82, m42 and  m11? I'll list the "common names" at the bottom of this blog.

A Messier Marathon is an opportunity to view all 110 objects in one (long) evening of viewing.  Amateur astronomers challenge themselves in all sorts of ways during these marathons - some locating all the objects from memory, others locating them all in binoculars or very small telescopes, beginners/novices locating them with star charts and star hopping to them, some just using the "go-to" on their scopes to locate them easily (considered cheating by the purists and not eligible for an Astronomical League awards, I believe). It doesn't really matter HOW you do this marathon because completing it has a sort of "bragging rights" attributed to it.

All the Messier objects are visible in the low to mid-northern latitudes from mid-March to early April.  In our area, the end of March to the beginning of April is the best time to do one of these marathons, preferably close to the night of a New Moon. 

The Messier Marathon is literally an all night activity, beginning after the sun goes down and continuing until just before the sun rises.  There's about a two hour break after midnight where viewers can have a nap or talk with other attendees.  The last few hours of darkness is full of star hopping and searching with the final object (m30) extremely difficult to find because sunrise is imminent.  It is suggested you follow a formal list when first doing the Messier Marathon as tried and true observations have sequenced the logical and easiest order to find the Messier objects.

We don't have a Messier Marathon at the Oregon Observatory at Sunriver, probably because no one has tried to organized one.  The Rose City Astronomers have an annual marathon at Kah-Nee-Tah every year as does the Boise Astronomical Society at Bruneau Dunes State Park.  I'm sure other astronomy clubs in the region have them as well. 

A Messier Marathon takes some knowledge, dedication, and camaraderie.  The rewards are great, however, since you get to tour the entire night sky and see many, MANY excellent objects including galaxies, and star clusters both open and globular, nebula .  It's a great jumping off point, too, to getting deeper into the night sky.
Here's a wonderful resource if you want more information: http://messier.seds.org/xtra/marathon/marathon.html

"M" objects listed above identified:
m32    Andromeda Galaxy
m57    The Ring Nebula (cheerio in the sky)
m81/82 Two Galaxies one face on and one edge on in one eyepiece view
m42    Great Orion Nebula
m11    Wild Duck Cluster

Mercury, NOW is best time to see this elusive planet!

on Friday, 24 January 2014.

Only 10% of the people on earth have seen Mercury

Mercury, NOW is best time to see this elusive planet!

The subtitle above is a quote from our popular and long time staff member, Jerry Niehuser.  

Indeed, according to a "Sky & Telescope" article, even Copernicus, developer of the sun-centered model of the solar system, never saw the planet Mercury. He based his model on observations of others.

Because of its proximity to the sun, Mercury is devilishly hard to find in the sky and only appears visible to us in our northern latitudes a few times a year, in the early morning hours just before sunrise or the early evening hours just before sunset.  The planet is ALWAYS in the glare of our sun's light at the twilight hours when it is visible.

Mercury is something of a paradoxical planet.  When it is at its brightest, it outshines any star in the sky but few people who see it know it for what it is.  Only recently has much be learned about this smallest of planets.  The satellite Mercury Messenger has been adding a great deal of date and photos to our knowledge base over the past couple of years. Mercury orbits the sun in about 88 earth days and it takes more than 58 earth days to rotate on its axis.  It's rather hot on Mercury--about 800° in the daytime.  Nights...which are awfully long can be as cold as -270°! 

Mercury can be observed with a telescope.  We look at it frequently during our programs when its available to view.  Like the Moon and Venus, it goes through phases which are visible through a telescope.

The best time to view Mercury in 2014 is right now, January 24 - February 4.  On January 31st, it will be at its highest point in the sky--about 10° in the west-southwest horizon about a half hour after sunset and only sinking below the horizon after it is fully dark.  If you want to view it through a telescope, try to view is as soon as you find it and before it gets too low and in the sky with all the thick atmosphere at the horizon. According to "Sky & Telescope",  Mercury’s disk will be gibbous at first, half lit on January 31st, and crescent in early February.  

If you miss Mercury this time, we'll be viewing the planet again in late May at the Observatory where it will be teamed up with Jupiter and Capella.

Just a short piece of advice here, if you are going to view Mercury through a telescope or binocular, wait until the sun is fully below the horizon!




on Wednesday, 08 January 2014.

Chance to see the Northern Lights at OUR LATITUDE!


Photographically, auroras are more common than most of us think in Central Oregon.  Visual auroras are fairly unusual.  This new year had its first X-Class flare on January 7, 2014 and space weather experts say there is a real possibility that we might be able to see auroras at lower latitudes than normal on January 9 and 10.  Unfortunately, Central Oregon has nothing but clouds predicted over the next few days but if we get some breaks in the clouds, especially to the north, it might be worth shorting yourself of some sleep to go outdoors and take a peek.

Here's a link with all the information:


GEMINIDS!!! and a Comet, too!

on Thursday, 12 December 2013.

What's Up in the Night Sky

Over the next few days, we might be treated to a great display.  The Geminid meteor shower is serving up its annual dose of night sky fireworks peaking between the dark hours of December 12 through dawn of the 14th.  I've already seen a few bright meteors in the wee hours before dawn this entire week and the forecast is for between 80 and 120 meteors per hour or as many as 1 to 2 per minute. 

Unfortunately, it is going to be difficult to see that many.  There is a challenge since we are contending with a waxing gibbous moon that will be full just three days after the Geminids' peak.  The best time to start looking will be between the hours of 3:00 AM (roughly the time of moonset) and about 6:00 AM as twilight begins to brighten.

The meteor shower will appear to emanate from the area around Castor and Pollux in Gemini but will be visible throughout the sky.  So, set your alarm clocks!  Have warm clothes, gloves, boots, and hat already laid out (and don't forget a pot of coffee). Go try and see a few!  They are bright and if we are lucky, very prolific!

If you are already up in those predawn hours to see the meteor shower, you are perfectly situated to see a comet, too!

No, we can't see Comet Ison which was touted to be "The Comet of the Century" for much of the past year.  Poor Ison was basically eaten by the sun as it made its swing around our star and is now thought to be nothing more than a traveling debris field. 

Comet Lovejoy (C/2013R1) has been lurking quietly (and visibly) in our night sky since November.  It became naked eye visible for some about the first of November and is still for those with sharp eyes and ultra dark skies.  I've seen it several times with my 8 x 43 binocular and it was and is easy to find. Right now it is just a bit west of the Keystone in Hercules.  Hopefully the finder chart will upload to this blog.

Comet Lovejoy is a long period comet discovered by Terry Lovejoy, an Australian amateur astronomer and is one of several he has discovered.  It passed closest to the earth on November 1 and had an apparent magnitude of 4.5.  For the next several days it will be in the vicinity of the constellation Hercules.

Plenty to see if you're willing to put up with the cold and your skies are clear.  Keep looking up!   -LJC

Here's a chart from Astro Bob to help you locate Comet Lovejoy.