Getting up Early?

Check Out Some Planet Action!

Every day is Astronomy Day, although we officially celebrated it  last weekend. But, any day you can check out the Sun (or the Moon, if it’s up), or any night that you can step out and observe something cool in the sky makes it Astronomy Day.

These four bright planets cluster closely together in predawn skies during May 2011. Courtesy Sky &

We’ve been plagued with snow the past two days (although, as we say here in the West: “We need the moisture”), so haven’t been able to do much observing.  Today, there’s a big bright thing in the sky and it’s making water out of snow as I write this.  So, tonight should be a fairly clear night for some good viewing.

If you have occasion to get up early in the morning and you have a good view to the eastern horizon, you WILL be treated to a nice view of four planets, especially if you bring along your binoculars or happen to have a small backyard-type telescope handy. Hey — there’s got to be some reward for getting up before the crack of dawn, right?

Here’s what’s up:  Venus and Jupiter are visible in the pre-dawn sky, together with — if you can spot it (and here’s where the binos or scope come in handy) — Mercury. Together they make a little triangle in the eastern sky.  Venus and Mercury stay within 1.5 degrees of each other for another week, while Jupiter climbs higher into the predawn sky. By mid-May, you’ll be able to spot Jupiter before Venus despite the fact that it’sless than one-quarter as bright.

A week later, Venus and Mercury create a second planetary triangle with Mars, which is quite faint (just 1/100 as bright as Venus). The triad is tightest, just over 2 degrees wide, on May 21st. Venus and Mars close to within 1 degree of each another on the 23rd, by which time Mercury has begun a slide toward lower left.

To top off the solar system action, look for a thin crescent Moon nearby on May 29-31.

The friendly folks at Sky & have a cool animation of these sky events, so check it out!

While you’re out that early (around 4:30 a.m.), also take some time to check out some gorgeous stellar sights.  First off, the summer triangle is visible — look for bright Vega high in the sky. That also means the Milky Way is arcing across the field of view Arcturus is setting the west, and the Big Dipper is low in the northeast — for all you Northern Hemisphere viewers. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, the constellation Sagittarius should be high overhead and the Milky Way should look gorgeous!  If you need a star chart, go here or here to download Stellarium, a free star chart program.

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