Local Weather Ruins Another Astronomy-Viewing Opportunity, But There’s Hope

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016, 3:08 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: The cloud cover in East Lansing this morning.

“Cement sky” is the term used by regular ELi on Earth reporter Aron Sousa for what we’ve got overhead right now. It’s the kind of sky that makes East Lansing’s amateur astronomers like Sousa unhappy. But these night-watchers are holding out hope that the cloud cover may yet clear and they may yet get to see the unusual delight of five planets all lit up together in our early morning sky.

In case you haven’t heard, through late February, if the weather allows, it is possible in the early morning to see five planets all at once: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. (The New York Times provides a nice graphic explaining why all are visible.) Below we explain how to look for them.

If the sky doesn’t clear, or you’d like a visual introduction to how all of this works in East Lansing, Shannon Schmoll, Director of MSU’s Abrams Planetarium, says that the feature shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. will include a short discussion of this phenomenon during the “star talk.”

The following image shows how you can position yourself facing south to see the planets. (Article continues after image.) This is taken from the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar, produced by staff member John French.

The two all-sky maps attached below show what you can see if you look up at the sky; the first shows what you’ll see in the early morning, the second what you’ll see in the evening. These two diagrams were provided by Robert D. Miller, a local amateur astronomer who works for MDOT and is a member of the Capital Area Astronomy Club.

Robert (“Bob”) Victor, retired as Staff Astronomer at Abram’s Planetarium, explains about these illustrations, “Only the naked-eye planets, and stars of first magnitude or brighter, are shown. These maps are very handy for finding stars and planets as they first come out at dusk, and for following stars and planets in the morning, until they fade into the brightening twilight.”

The numbers on the round charts show days of February. During February, Victor explains, “Mercury and Venus get lower [closer to the horizon] as the month progresses, while the three bright outer planets, in order from the western horizon to the southeast, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, drift toward the west as weeks pass, along with the stars. These differences result from the different speeds of the planets' revolutions around the Sun.”

He adds, “When we see the planets in the morning sky, they are all ahead of us. We are overtaking the slower-moving outer planets, and the faster-moving inner planets are moving farther ahead of us, eventually curving around to disappear on the far side of the Sun.”

Victor has recently been enjoying star- and planet-gazing in the more hospitable climate of Palm Springs, California, but he encourages those of us stuck in East Lansing to get out if the weather improves for astronomy. “It will be fun to visualize these planetary motions as you view these planets in the morning sky. The Moon, as it passes Last Quarter phase (half full) on February 1, will cross in front of our speeding Earth that morning.”

In addition to regular shows, the Abrams Planetarium has central heat.

 

 

[Note: This article was changed post-publication to correct an artwork attribution error.]

 

 

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