Saturday, June 20, 2009

Venus, Mars, Mercury and the Whole Cosmos

I went for a walk this morning about a quarter to five in an attempt to distance myself from ambient light. I wanted to star gaze and finding a place where it is dark enough to see clearly, is clearly a problem. Unfortunately I encountered a bank of thin clouds, which negated the light issue.

Besides looking at stars, I was particularly interested in spotting the orbiting International Space Station (ISS) as it passed over. It was scheduled to appear in the WNW sky 31 degrees above the horizon, arch up to 37 degrees and within 2 minutes, disappear in the NNE sky at 19 degrees. All of this at 17,500 miles per hour. The ISS as its known, orbits the earth every 92 minutes.

I couldn’t see it this morning due to the clouds. Rats. Oh well, I saw it last week with a number of friends in attendance. It looks like a very high-flying bright airplane, or jet, but it is easy to recognize that it is way up there and last week we all noted an anomaly. The ISS was on a straight track, when it appeared to make a turn.

I attributed this to gravity’s effect on how light is reflected to, or viewed by our eyes. Ask Albert Einstein, not me because I can’t really explain it; I just think I understand what we saw. The ISS did not turn, as it was orbiting, but because of the way gravity bends light packets…oh well, anyway. It was neat to see.

I did get a very good view of the planets Venus and Mars. Venus is very bright this morning and to the south of the crescent moon, with Mars between it and the moon. Mars, known as the “red planet” does indeed appear to be red to the naked eye, or as I love to say “the naked observer” and sure enough, it was right where it was supposed to be. I thank Edgar Rice Burroughs for introducing me to Science Fiction and the John Carter of Mars/Barsoom series of books.

I read the planet Mercury will also be visible beside the moon just as the sun rises and its dicey whether it can be seen without binoculars. It’s elusive nonetheless and I can’t say I have ever seen it. I want to though, just like when the last three comets were passing by. I made sure I watched them nightly until they were gone from view.

It always amazes me that folks have no interest in seeing a once in a lifetime event, like a comet. They will not walk to their backyard for one minute, but choose to watch “The Closer”, or something equally transient and which has no redeeming or educational value.

The ISS will be visible again tomorrow morning 05:22 for 2 minutes. 10 degrees NW with a max elevation of only 11 degrees and pass from view 2 minutes later in the NNW sky. That’s pretty close to the horizon. I use this site for Baytown, but you can save it for your area with a little adjustment.


This morning, next to the moon on the north side are the Pleiades. The Pleiades (Messier object 45) are an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. Read about them on the Internet for more information. The soft cloud layer made this impossible to see, but I still looked.

Get a look while you can, as this group of blue stars is expected to fade in about 250 million years, but why wait?

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