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Zixar

Astronomy as a Hobby--anyone can do it!

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As most of you know, astronomy has been a beloved pastime of mine since I was a small boy glued to the TV for every rocket launch and landing. I love sharing it with others since it's one of the few hobbies you can indulge in with no equipment and in any location on the planet. Even if you never look through a telescope, there's enough the naked eye can tell you to make it worth your while to learn some.

For example, everyone ought to know how to find the North Star, but there's so much misconception about it it's ridiculous.

If you'd like, I'll be happy to share some of the basics here. Even if you're never lost in the woods at night, you'll at least know some science you could actually apply, in theory.

Here's a starter. It's rare that five planets can be seen at the same time with the naked eye, but this week it's possible right after sunset. Wouldn't it be neat to know how to find them and tell them apart?

Okay, here's how. Start right after sunset while the sky is still reddish-orange. Face the sunset with your eyes on the horizon, then lean your head back until you're looking straight up (that's called the zenith), then drop it back halfway between the horizon and the zenith.

You'll see this brilliant white star, brighter than anything else in the sky. (Make sure it isn't moving or blinking--airplanes don't count as planets!) That is our first planet, Venus. Venus is currently in the constellation of Aries.

Four to go. Now, with your eyes fixed on Venus, do a military about-face (everyone else just turn around while keeping your head raised at the same angle) and you'll see another brilliant white star, though less bright than Venus. That's our second planet, Jupiter, currently in the constellation of Leo. Jupiter is a grand sight in a telescope, but it's also cool in binoculars because four of Jupiter's moons are easily detectable through a pair of 10x50 binoculars. Sometimes you'll see less than 4 because they'll be behind the planet, but the view changes every night--keep looking!

Now, turn 90 degrees to your right. Point your left index finger at Jupiter and your right index finger at Venus. The arc connecting the two planets is the line that all the others will be on since what you're actually looking at is the orbital plane of the whole Solar System! That imaginary line in the sky is called the ecliptic, and the planets will always be found on that line, year round.

Go to the point on the ecliptic that's nearest the zenith by bringing both index fingers together over your head along that arc. Let that be the 12 o'clock position. Move your right finger to about the 1 o'clock position and you'll see a yellowish star that's not nearly as bright as Jupiter, but it will still be pretty obvious. (If it looks blue, orange or red, you're pointing at the wrong one.) That is our third planet, Saturn, and the one must-see sight in any telescope. The rings will not be visible through binoculars since it takes about 30x magnification to see them and most binos top out at 10x. You may see Saturn's moon Titan in binos, though. Saturn is currently in the constellation of Gemini.

Okay, quickly trace the ecliptic backdown from Saturn through Venus towards the rapidly darkening western horizon. There will be a bright white star a few degrees above the horizon, about as bright as Saturn and probably twinkling slightly in the turbulent atmosphere of dusk. (Normally planets don't twinkle, but you're looking through so much extra air at the horizon that it's possible there.) It won't be higher than the roof of a two-story house, so if you're looking higher than that, forget it. This is swift, elusive Mercury, planet #4 and the hardest of the lot. It is currently in the constellation of Pisces. It is so close to the Sun that it never gets very far from it. You can only see Mercury at dawn and dusk, except for those times when it's at the farthest points on it's orbit.

Once you've spotted Mercury (and it may be difficult to pick it out if it's still fairly light out) go back to Venus (can't miss it by now--too bright!) and look on the same line between Venus and Saturn for a red star, about as bright as Saturn. (If it's orange, or too far off the ecliptic, you're looking at either the star Aldebaran in Taurus or Betelgeuse in Orion.) The bright red star on the ecliptic is our last planet for tonight, Mars. Those of you who saw it last fall at closest approach may be surprised at how dim it has gotten in a few months. That's because it's so small and it has swung out away from us a good deal.

And there you have it--five planets at one shot!

It may surprise some folks that most all of astronomy is just that easy. There are loads of terms and equipment, but when it all boils down, it's just hopping from landmark to landmark, or skymark to skymark, in this case!

If you found this helpful, let me know, and I'll post some more stuff.

Clear skies!

Zix

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Zix,

Last year you were planning on bringing your telescope to the weenie roast, remember? When you backed out I was disappointed because I was looking forward to your teaching us a few things and getting to look through the thing.

You gonna' make this year's roast and bring the 'scope???

sudo

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Yep. Depending on if I can drag Zixette to it, I may have to bring the small scope because of luggage space, but perhaps I can figure a way to bring the big one anyway.

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Zixar, yes I find your directions very helpful. I usually print them off (hope you don't mind) and am using them to teach the kidlet. Your directions are much clearer than mine. icon_smile.gif:)-->

This time of year is very frustrating because it clouds up every evening and stays that way until noonish. So we may not get to see the five planets. sigh.

And in May don't forget, there is supposed to be two comets visible at the same time. And May is usually a clearer month here. icon_smile.gif:)-->

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My brother, who is VP of the Champaign Amateur Astronomy Club (or maybe he's sec/treas) will probably be bringing his scope to the wedding.

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tcat: Happy to help! Usually the clouds are only that mean when someone around you has bought a new telescope...the bigger the scope, the longer it will be overcast! icon_biggrin.gif:D-->

Steve!: Cool! Won't be able to see much from the city, but everybody should still get to see Saturn and Jupiter, if nothing else.

Everybody: There's a new book out that tells you how to find over 100 objects in the sky, and the good part is that the author tells you exactly what they'll look like through the naked eye, binos and scopes, so you'll know when you've found them. It's called Star Watch by Phil Harrington. Normal price is $16.95, but you can get it online at Books-A-Million.com for about $12. Here's a link: Star Watch book If you've found other beginner books too vague, this one might be right up your alley. Harrington also has a book called Star Ware that talks about various scopes, eyepieces, and general stargazing equipment. If you're thinking about buying a scope, it's well worth reading FIRST.

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Wow zix, I really appreciate this. My kids know more about this than I do and have not been able to understand.

I will try what you say. I am really looking forward to understanding.

I thought about getting my kids a telescope because they are so into this, but was afraid they wouldn't take care of it and it appeared to be so expensive.

Again, thanks, this is very exciting to me!!!!!

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I forgot to mention that there's another noticeable object that always travels along the ecliptic--the Moon! icon_smile.gif:)--> (The Sun, too...) That really helps in defining that arc in the sky.

Draw that imaginary line from where the Sun went down, through Venus, through the Moon, over to Jupiter. All the planets will lie close to that arc.

Mercury may be too close to the horizon to see, but it will pop back out in late May.

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I got to see four planets (I think) on March 28. The Moon was in quarter phase and directly overhead (at about 7pm) To the right and a good distance from the horizon was a very bright light - I'm fairly sure that was Venus. Way to the left of the Moon was Jupiter - another bright light. Slightly to the right of the Moon was a dim light - it did look yellowish and I believe it was Saturn. Another dim light was just to the left of Venus - Mars perhaps. It was cool seeing all of them. Unfortunately it was the only night I saw them (Mar 28) as it is very cloudy in my area of USA. Glad I saw it anyway.

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