September Skywatching: A Harvest Moon, Venus, Uranus + Neptune
Saturday, August 31, 2013
More times than not my column starts out as a weather report. It makes sense. Unless we have clear skies we can’t observe the heavens with the naked-eye or with our telescopes. This fact is lost on some folks who visit the local observatories during cloudy nights. (More on this scenario later.) The spring weather was often cloudy and rainy, while most of Rhode Island received more than ten inches of rain in June. We experienced more thunderstorms than we have gotten over an entire summer season. Add to that the heat, high humidity and hazy skies when it did clear, and local astronomers have not been happy campers. Mix in an abundance of mosquitoes and we can’t wait for summer to end.
While the first frost is still some weeks away, now that September is here we soon expect cooler temperatures to prevail and the skies to become more transparent. The Harvest Moon (the Full Moon nearest the autumnal equinox, which itself begins on the 22nd at 4:44pm EDT) occurs at 7:12am on September 19.
Stars and Planets
But before we get that far ahead, there are a couple of sky scenes I’d like you to look for at the beginning of the month. On September 1 you can still spot brilliant Venus less than ten degrees (a fist held at arm’s length provides this measurement) above the horizon after sunset. To the left of it you’ll see blue Spica, Virgo’s brightest star. To Spica’s upper left you can pick out the beautiful ringed-world Saturn. While this magnificent planet has been lost to many of the local observatories due to its low position in the sky, if you have a portable telescope you can still find a location with a good unobstructed western view to get some final views for this year during evening hours.
Venus and Spica will move closer to the horizon each night as the month progresses. On the 8th a waxing crescent Moon will pass within one degree down and to the left of Venus. While Spica will disappear from view around mid-month, Venus will remain just barely visible by month’s end. While Saturn will draw closer to Venus, it will get no closer than three and a half degrees on Sept 18. By month’s end Saturn will be too low to be observed.
In contrast, the outer planets Uranus and Neptune will be easily observable during September and October. These gas giants look like little blue-green marbles through the telescopes available for public viewing in Rhode Island. Be sure to ask any of the scope volunteers to acquire them for you to observe. Not many casual stargazers can boast they’ve seen these distant worlds.
Keep your eyes to the skies.
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- Skywatching: Observing Saturn
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- Sky Watching with Dave Huestis: Solar Flares