Tag Archives: Jupiter

NASA Night Sky Notes for March 2019: Springtime Planet Party

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in March, 2019.

By David Prosper

March brings longer days for Northern Hemisphere observers, especially by the time of the equinox. Early risers are treated to the majority of the bright planets dancing in the morning skies, with the Moon passing between them at the beginning and end of the month.

The vernal equinox occurs on March 20, marking the official beginning of spring for the Northern Hemisphere. Our Sun shines equally on the Northern and Southern Hemispheres during the moment of equinox, which is why the March and September equinoxes are the only times of the year when the Earth’s north and south poles are simultaneously lit by sunlight. Exacting astronomers will note that the length of day and night on the equinox are not precisely equal; the date when they are closest to equal depends on your latitude, and may occur a few days earlier or later than the equinox itself. One complicating factor is that the Sun isn’t a point light source, but a disc. Its edge is refracted by our atmosphere as it rises and sets, which adds several minutes of light to every day. The Sun doesn’t neatly wink on and off at sunrise and sunset like a light bulb, and so there isn’t a perfect split of day and night on the equinox – but it’s very close!

Ruddy Mars still shines in the west after sunset. Mars scoots across the early evening skies from Aries towards Taurus and meets the sparkling Pleiades star cluster by month’s end.

March opens with the morning planets of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus spread out over the southeastern horizon before sunrise. A crescent Moon comes very close to Saturn on the 1st and occults the ringed planet during the daytime. Lucky observers may be able to spot Mercury by the end of the month. March 31 opens with a beautiful set of planets and a crescent Moon strung diagonally across the early morning sky. Start with bright Jupiter, almost due south shortly before dawn. Then slide down and east towards Saturn, prominent but not nearly as bright as Jupiter. Continue east to the Moon, and then towards the beacon that is Venus, its gleam piercing through the early morning light. End with a challenge: can you find elusive Mercury above the eastern horizon? Binoculars may be needed to spot the closest planet to the Sun as it will be low and obscured by dawn’s encroaching glow. What a way to close out March!

Discover all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov


Earth from orbit on the March equinox, as viewed by EUMETSAT. Notice how the terminator – the line between day and night – touches both the north and south poles. Additional information can be found at http://bit.ly/earthequinox Image credit: NASA/Robert Simmo  

The morning planets on March 31. Image created with assistance from Stellarium

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Night Sky Notes for February 2019: Hexagon At Night, Quartet In The Morning

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in February, 2019.

By David Prosper

The stars that make up the Winter Hexagon asterism are some of the brightest in the night sky and February evenings are a great time to enjoy their sparkly splendor. The Winter Hexagon is so large in size that the six stars that make up its points are also the brightest members of six different constellations, making the Hexagon a great starting point for learning the winter sky. Find the Hexagon by looking southeast after sunset and finding the bright red star that forms the “left shoulder” of the constellation Orion: Betelgeuse. You can think of Betelgeuse as the center of a large irregular clock, with the Winter Hexagon stars as the clock’s hour numbers. Move diagonally across Orion to spot its “right foot,” the bright star Rigel. Now move clockwise from Rigel to the brightest star in the night sky: Sirius in Canis Major. Continue ticking along clockwise to Procyon in Canis Minor and then towards Pollux, the brighter of the Gemini twins. Keep moving around the circuit to find Capella in Auriga, and finish at orange Aldebaran, the “eye” of the V-shaped face of Taurus the Bull.

Two naked-eye planets are visible in the evening sky this month. As red Mars moves across Pisces, NASA’s InSight Mission is readying its suite of geological instruments designed to study the Martian interior. InSight and the rest of humanity’s robotic Martian emissaries will soon be joined by the Mars 2020 rover. The SUV-sized robot is slated to launch next year on a mission to study the possibility of past life on the red planet. A conjunction between Mars and Uranus on February 13 will be a treat for telescopic observers. Mars will pass a little over a degree away from Uranus and larger magnifications will allow comparisons between the small red disc of dusty Mars with the smaller and much more distant blue-green disc of ice giant Uranus.

Speedy Mercury has a good showing this month and makes its highest appearance in the evening on February 27; spot it above the western horizon at sunset. An unobstructed western view and binoculars will greatly help in catching Mercury against the glow of evening twilight.

The morning planets put on quite a show in February. Look for the bright planets Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn above the eastern horizon all month, at times forming a neat lineup. A crescent Moon makes a stunning addition on the mornings of February 1-2, and again on the 28th. Watch over the course of the month as Venus travels from its position above Jupiter to below dimmer Saturn. Venus and Saturn will be in close conjunction on the 18th; see if you can fit both planets into the same telescopic field of view.  A telescope reveals the brilliant thin crescent phase of Venus waxing into a wide gibbous phase as the planet passes around the other side of our Sun. The Night Sky Network has a simple activity that helps explain the nature of both Venus and Mercury’s phases at bit.ly/venusphases

You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov

The stars of the Winter Hexagon
Image created with help from Stellarium

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Night Sky Notes for January 2019: January’s Evening Eclipse And Morning Conjunctions

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in January, 2019.

By David Prosper

Observers in the Americas are treated to an evening total lunar eclipse this month. Early risers can spot some striking morning conjunctions between Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon late in January.

A total lunar eclipse will occur on January 20th and be visible from start to finish for observers located in North and South America. This eclipse might be a treat for folks with early bedtimes; western observers can even watch the whole event before midnight. Lunar eclipses takes several hours to complete and are at their most impressive during total eclipse, or totality, when the Moon is completely enveloped by the umbra, the darkest part of Earth’s shadow. During totality the color of the Moon can change to a bright orange or red thanks to the sunlight bending through the Earth’s atmosphere – the same reason we see pink sunsets. The eclipse begins at 10:34 pm Eastern Standard Time, with totality beginning at 11:41 pm. The total eclipse lasts for slightly over an hour, ending at 12:43 am. The eclipse finishes when the Moon fully emerges from Earth’s shadow by 1:51 am. Convert these times to your own time zone to plan your own eclipse watching; for example, observers under Pacific Standard Time will see the eclipse start at 7:34 pm and end by 10:51 pm.

Lunar eclipses offer observers a unique opportunity to judge how much the Moon’s glare can interfere with stargazing. On eclipse night the Moon will be in Cancer, a constellation made up of dim stars. How many stars you can see near the full Moon before or after the eclipse? How many stars can you see during the total eclipse? The difference may surprise you. During these observations, you may spot a fuzzy cloud of stars relatively close to the Moon; this is known as the “Beehive Cluster,” M44, or Praesepe. It’s an open cluster of stars thought to be about 600 million year old and a little under 600 light years distant. Praesepe looks fantastic through binoculars.

Mars is visible in the evening and sets before midnight. It is still bright but has faded considerably since its closest approach to Earth last summer. Watch the red planet travel through the constellation Pisces throughout January.

Venus makes notable early morning appearances beside both Jupiter and the Moon later this month; make sure to get up about an hour before sunrise for the best views of these events. First, Venus and Jupiter approach each other during the third full week of January. Watch their conjunction on the 22nd, when the planets appear to pass just under 2 ½ degrees of each other. The next week, observe Venus in a close conjunction with a crescent Moon the morning of the 31st. For many observers their closest pass – just over half a degree apart, or less than a thumb’s width held at arm’s length – will occur after sunrise. Since Venus and the Moon are so bright you may st1ill be able to spot them, even after sunrise. Have you ever seen Venus in the daytime?

If you have missed Saturn this winter, watch for the ringed planet’s return by the end of the month, when it rises right before sunrise in Sagittarius. See if you can spot it after observing Venus’ conjunctions!

You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov

Have you ever wondered how eclipses occur? You can model the Earth-Moon system using just a couple of small balls and a measuring stick to find out! The “yardstick eclipse” model shown here is set up to demonstrate a lunar eclipse. The “Earth” ball (front, right) casts its shadow on the smaller “Moon” ball (rear, left). You can also simulate a solar eclipse just by flipping this model around. You can even use the Sun as your light source! Find more details on this simple eclipse model at bit.ly/yardstickeclipse

About The NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!