Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report: Sept. 14-20

Stock image, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH — The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Kanab, Utah, which provides opportunities for people to observe, appreciate and comprehend our starry night sky. Additional information is available online. Send questions and comments to [email protected].

Often there are no planets in the evening sky, or only one. Now there are three – plus one in the morning sky. All four are about as bright as they ever get, so don’t take this abundance of planets for granted; this is a special time.

The first two planets you’ll see are Jupiter and Saturn, and they’re one-third of the way up the southern sky as the sky grows fully dark. Jupiter is brighter than anything else at that time, except perhaps the moon, so you can’t miss it.

Saturn is immediately to the left of Jupiter, and it’s one-fifth as bright; it’s fainter partly because it’s a bit smaller but mostly because it’s twice as far away. Both planets are in eastern Sagittarius. Tripod-mounted 10-power binoculars will reveal Jupiter’s four large moons but you’ll need at least a 30-power telescope to see Saturn’s rings.

Mars rises in the east at 9 p.m., and it’s as bright as Jupiter. Mars is much smaller than Jupiter (it’s roughly twice the size of Jupiter’s moons) but it’s equally bright because it’s 11 times closer. Mars will be even a little closer next month, and then it will slightly outshine Jupiter. Mars is in Pisces, a constellation with no bright stars.

Last is the “morning star,” to use the poetic name for Venus, which rises at 4 a.m. Venus is significantly brighter than Mars or Jupiter, and you can easily see it during morning twilight and even after sunrise if you know where to look.

The thin crescent moon is close to Venus (they’re 5 degrees apart) on Monday morning and you should make an effort to see them then if you can. It’s a good photo opportunity if you have an interesting horizon and dawn colors. The moon is new on Thursday, and then it’s between the Earth and sun.

Vega is virtually exactly overhead from the latitude of Kanab; it’s the brightest star in the small constellation Lyra, the lyre, a primitive stringed instrument that was the ancestor of harps and guitars. Vega was featured in the book “Contact” by Carl Sagan, later made into a rather good movie.

Vega is 26 light-years distant, which makes it one of the nearer bright stars. The Milky Way passes below Vega, stretching from the south to northeast and passing almost overhead.

Written by JOHN MOSLEY. John Mosley was program supervisor of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for 27 years and is the author of “Stargazing for Beginners” and “Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescopes”. He and his wife live in St. George where he continues to stargaze from his retirement home while serving on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.

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