This time last week I was looking forward to getting out of this house – the one we’ve been sheltering in place in since mid-March for a week-long trip to a BnB in the Flint Hills.
My original plan included dusting off my telescope in the hope of some dark sky observing, only I forgot to check the moon phase calendar before booking the cabin. Full moon occurs this week (tomorrow if I remember correctly).
But despite all the stress of participating (as a team lead) in a hackathon (and placing second), escaping our home however briefly just wasn’t in the stars.
Terry’s health has been a problem for several months now, including a trip to the hospital last month for a few days (that turned out to be a bad drug reaction and interaction). The hospital food also did a number on his digestive system and he’s still suffering weeks later. So at the last possible moment, I cancelled the trip (rescheduled it for the new moon in mid-April 2021) and resigned myself to a week of home improvement and maintenance projects.
I can take good advantage of this occultation since I live in the middle of the country just shy of 40 degrees north latitude. If I were visiting my daughter in the Pacific Northwest, I’d have a bit more dark time but might not see it as well being at a more northern latitude at 47 degrees.
Actually, not just Mars will be in the spotlight in mid-February. Three planets are center stage in the predawn skies starting February 18th (see first graphic above). Listen to Sky Tour courtesy Sky & Telescope for some viewing tips and other astronomical tidbits for February observing.
My only concern will be the weather, which in February in Kansas, is dodgy at best.
Keeping my fingers crossed and as always keep looking up!
Long answer: Still Jupiter, but let’s dive in and take a more detailed look.
Birth of a Gas Giant
A long time ago in a solar system very near you, just 1 or 2 AU past the snow line, enough surrounding planetesimals were accreted to become an Earth-like body containing about ten (10) Earth masses of metal and rock. This, in turn, gave this massive body enough gravitational attraction to pull vast amounts of hydrogen, helium and ices near its orbit, creating the first planet in our solar system: Jupiter. Impacts from the infalling gases and ices heated Jupiter up, so much so that for a short time, it outshown the protosun, if viewed from equal distances. Jupiter lacked the total mass to become a star, needing to be seventy-five (75) times more massive to achieve the necessary compression and heat in its core to sustain fusion.
Autumn arrived mid-week here in the Heart of America, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at the weather forecast: Mid 90s and moderately high humidity. Also with the change of the seasons, I retired my FitBit Charge (or rather it retired itself by falling apart) and upgraded to a Samsung Gear Fit2. The new fitness tracker is spurring me on to be more active, although my sleep pattern hasn’t improved much. I can safely blame work (10 pm to 4 am conference call on a Saturday night/Sunday morning) and astronomy, which requires, well, dark skies, for my reduced snooze time.
Despite what my husband thinks, I have not over-dosed on science fiction since last Wednesday when the 74th World Science Fiction Convention (commonly referred to as WorldCon) arrived for the second time in Kansas City, Missouri. MidAmeriCon II ended yesterday and of course the highlight of those five days was the Hugo Awards Ceremony held Saturday evening.
In fact, I sincerely hoped when I woke up this morning it wouldn’t be to the harsh reality of a Monday morning workday. Ah, but life is cruel and the alternate dimension I’d enjoyed for five days evaporated into the dreary doldrums of gainful employment. Well, not completely dreary. Perhaps dreaded would be more like it, since I knew I’d be walking into some ‘hot potatoes’ once I strapped myself to my desk.
Tonight is my first night this year as a volunteer of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City in our public outreach efforts to introduce astronomical observing to the public. Every Saturday night in May and through the end of October, we open up Powell Observatory to the public and provide education programs, solar observing, binocular observing and of course telescopic observing (weather and cloud cover permitting). The weather forecast for this evening couldn’t be better. See for yourself as we have our own weather station and sky cam broadcasting 24-hours a day.
• The Moon moves approximately 13° eastward relative to the starry background every 24 hours, and its motion carries it near Jupiter this evening. From North America, the two appear within 5° of each other all night. They will be in conjunction at 6 a.m. EDT tomorrow morning, when our satellite passes 2° due south of the planet. Although the best views of the pair come with the naked eye or binoculars, don’t pass up the opportunity to observe Jupiter through a telescope. The giant planet’s disk currently spans 39″ and displays a wealth of atmospheric detail. All this week, Jupiter appears high in the south as darkness falls and doesn’t set until nearly 3 a.m. local daylight time. It shines at magnitude –2.2 — brighter than any other point of light in the night sky — against the backdrop of southern Leo.
While Sky and Telescope Sky at a Glance expands on: The two brightest things in the evening sky, the Moon and Jupiter, shine high just a few degrees apart this evening, as shown here. Third brightest is Mars, low in the southeast after dark.
So for a great time this evening, head south of Kansas City down US-69 to Louisburg and join me and several hundred other people as we take in the wonders of the night sky.
I probably won’t get to see this. Snow is forecast for this afternoon in the KC metro area and continuing cloud cover for the next couple of days. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and my eyes on the western horizon as I drive home tomorrow night.
For those of you with clear skies, enjoy a triple conjunction of the bright planet Venus, the red planet Mars and the two-old new Moon.
Whatever you do, just start watching the western twilight sky. Set a reminder on your phone if need be. The planets and moon won’t be up for long after sunset. And the views will be spectacular from now through Saturday night!
But back to my telescope. I know I don’t need it to see the above two events, anyone with eyeballs can observe them. I wanted to get out my telescope and shake off the cobwebs. It’s been a cloudy spring this year, at least on the weekends. I observed Mars first, trying to see the polar ice caps, then I switched to Saturn, where I clearly saw the separation between the rings and the different cloud layers. The angle of the rings with respect to Saturn is spectacular right now.