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What's Up...Gas giant visible in night sky PDF Print E-mail

By Vernon Whetstone

Amateur Astronomer


At last! What we of the astronomical persuasion have been waiting for. The ringed planet Saturn is at last in the evening sky.
When last we saw our giant friend he was leaving the evening sky heading for a trip around the far side of the sun. He was also displaying a rather flat ring plane which means we were viewing them almost edge-on and couldn’t see them.
Now, he is back!
On the evening of April 3-4 Saturn was at opposition. That means it was opposite the sun in our sky and therefore would rise at sunset and set at sunrise. In other words, Saturn will be visible all night.
What’s more, Saturn, being at opposition, is at its closest distance for the entire year. Pardon my enthusiasm, but “WOO HOO!!”
With the advent of spring in the northern hemisphere and the warming temperatures, our evenings will be most commodious for being outside and some nice, long, viewing sessions.
Now is the time to break out that telescope you got for Christmas but have had few opportunities to use it.
Saturn rises at sunset, about 7:21 p.m. MDT today. and is located in the middle of the constellation Virgo, the Maiden. It won’t be easily viewed until at least 9 p.m. MDT with the optimum time for viewing after midnight when the golden planet is high in the southern sky.
The bright star below Saturn is Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. Astronomical lore says Spica marks the clump of wheat Virgo is holding.
A couple of interesting factoids about Saturn. It is one of the four outer gas-giant planets. The others being Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. The planet’s density is such that if we could find a body of water large enough, it would float.
Saturn has developed a large, white, storm system somewhat akin to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Saturn’s storm was first noticed in December of last year and is thought to be a recurrence of storms observed since 1878. Jupiter’s storm has raged continuously for hundreds of years.
In other parts of the evening sky our old friend Orion is about to take a plunge below the western horizon for his summer sleep. Look west about an hour after sunset for the familiar hour-glass shape with the three familiar belt stars across his middle. Don’t wait too long, he will be pretty much gone by the end of the month.
Just to Orion’s right is Taurus, the Bull, with bright Aldebaran marking his eye. Put your binoculars on Aldebaran and observe the very nice Hyades star cluster behind him, then swing right to find the equally nice Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, star cluster.
SKY WATCH: Full moon on Sunday, April 17. This may be a little early, but I want you to mark your calender for Wednesday, May 11, at about 5:00 in the morning. Looking east will be a super-conjunction of four planets, five if you can find it. More details as the date draws closer, but right now circle that date.
We are all enjoying the spring constellations but be aware that the summer stars are rising in the east in the early morning hours. The Summer Triangle of Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila are above the horizon at about 2 a.m. these days. If you have the opportunity to be out doing the chores take a look just above the eastern horizon.
NEXT WEEK: More astronomical blathering.