Friday, September 07, 2007

Hudnall Planetarium Newletter

Friends of the Hudnall Planetarium,

To See the Wanderers, Follow the Moon

Have you ever seen the wanderers? The wanderers look just like stars, but they're very different. The wanderers are easy to spot with your unaided eye, and, if you watch them over the course of a few weeks or months, they hold true to their name. They appear to wander around erratically in the sky staggering through the constellations, sometimes backing up as if in a drunken stupor, and then lazily lumbering forward again. They are very odd things, these wanderers. This meandering behavior of the wanderers led ancient skywatchers to ascribe mystical powers to them. The ancient Greeks even named each of the wanderers after their gods: Zeus, Kronos, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Ares. But today we call them by their Roman names: Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, and Mars. That's right; the wanderers are actually the planets. In fact, the word planet is Greek for wanderer.

So, have you ever seen the planets? If you haven't, then it's time to fix that experiential gap. But where do you look? You see, that's the problem. Since the planets look just like stars to the unaided eye, how can you tell if you're looking at a star or a planet? Well, now you have a solution. Over the course of the next month you have the opportunity to easily spot four of the five brightest planets by following the Moon.

Start on September 17 when the Sun is below the horizon and it is just beginning to get dark. You should be able to easily spot the crescent Moon low in the southwest. Now look just above and a bit left of the Moon. That bright star is actually the planet Jupiter. Be careful. Antares is another bright star in the area, but it is dimmer and has a reddish appearance. It is also closer to the Moon than Jupiter. With a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you might be able to see bands across Jupiter's face and possibly spot one or more of Jupiter's bright moons.

Next on the morning of October 2 go outside and look up high in the south. Around 6:00am you should see the Moon at approximately the third quarter phase. This time face south and look to the face of the Moon. That reddish looking star is the planet Mars. With a pair of binoculars, you should be able to see that Mars is not a point of light like a star, but the sight is not very impressive because Mars will appear tiny.

Then on the morning of October 7 you can see two more planets. Go outside around 6:00am, but this time look east. There on either side of the waning crescent Moon are the planets Saturn and Venus. Venus will be the bright one above the Moon. Saturn will be dimmer, but will be the star closest to the Moon between the eastern horizon. With your binoculars, you may be able to see the rings of Saturn. If you turn your binoculars toward Venus, you might be able to see the phase of Venus.

That's it for the wanderers. Now go out and enjoy your universe.

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