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.
I volunteer as part of Team 2 (one of several teams staffed by members of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City). I’m looking forward to meeting many new people and introducing them to the many wonders of the night sky.
More Powell Observatory Information:
The observatory is staffed by ASKC volunteers and is open to the public every Saturday night from the beginning of May through the end of October. The Star Bright Saturday Night Programs begin at dusk and include program presentations on astronomy, tours of the observatory, and (if the skies are clear) viewing through the various telescopes of the moon, planets, stars, star clusters and more! A donation of $6 per adult and $4 per child is suggested to help support the observatory and allow it to continue operations open to the public.
Hope to see you tomorrow night and always keep looking up!