Dusk, Predawn Planetary Parade!

Let’s take a brief hiatus from those grey, dim “fuzzies” this time around, to take stock of a few bright objects currently masaquerading as stars: the planets Mars, Saturn, Venus and Jupiter.

Planetary conjunctions are somewhat like family reunions. It’s common to see a couple of them close together, but to get three or more to gatherin one spot at the same time? Rare. It would be very nice if these guys could put aside their petty differences and mingle more than once in a blue moon (forgive the phrase!), but again that just doesn’t happen very often. So we’ll take the hand of celestial cards that have been doled out to us.

Currently Saturn and Mars are highlighting the evening sky, both fairly close to each other, just to the left of the head of Scorpio. Until recently, Mars was easy to discern: when Earth periodically “laps” the red planet, it appears to us as a very bright, ruddy “star” (the real red giants, Antares and Betelgeuse, don’t come close for brightness, when Mars is at opposition, or as close to Earth as it gets each time we pass it). These evenings, Earth is the fleet runner in lane 3 pulling away from sluggish Mars in lane 4; ergo, Mars is fading in both brilliance and color. It’s still distinguishable from Saturn because of the slight difference in colors between the two. Saturn is more of a “sickly” yellow, again currently rubbing elbows with our nearby neighbor.

Once you’ve identified which is which, turn a telescope on one of them. I recommend a scrutiny of Mars first, because it’s no longer at its best, having shrunken in apparent diameter due to our increasing distance from the red planet. It’s still interesting, appearing as a pink-orange little ball. Mars, by the way, will present a spectacular appearance during 2017, as Earth will catch up to it (“lap” it!) coinciding with Mars being almost as close to the sun as it gets during its orbit; hence, it will appear about 20% larger than this time around.

The reason I suggested a perusal of Mars first? Because ANYthing after viewing Saturn is anti-climactic. The ringed planet is just stunning, almost all of the time. It’s so distant from us that it almost makes no difference where it is in relation to us. The rings are a jaw-dropping sight, under medium to high magnification. During optimum seeing conditions (no upper-atmospheric turbulence), you can see the major division in the rings that has adorned so many photographs over the decades. Superlatives fail. Pictures don’t do it justice. You have to see this planet through a telescope to appreciate its majesty.

Now, the fun part: Jupiter and Venus. They’re currently visible just before dawn. Yes, that means rolling out of bed early (most amateur astronomers are masochistic, right?).

Jupiter is another show-stopper: it might be able to follow Saturn, but IMHO not quite. Jupiter’s forte is its size, detailed cloud belts and striking moons. Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede-also known as the Gallilean satellites-are almost always on display. If you onl spy three of them, come back an hour later when the fourth will have emerged from behind the planet! These guys do a constant dance, shifting positions several times a night.

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