Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What's Up?

Well, hello.

It's been an eventful time in the astronomy business, thanks to a chunk of rock that decided to scare the living daylights out of a whole lot of people living in Siberia.  Amazingly, they seem to like air-bursting asteroids...once again, just like in 1908, a chunk of space rock exploded rather than impacting.  Since this one did so over a city, many people were injured when they rushed to look out their windows to see what the bright flash of light was.  Once the shock wave hit, the windows shattered, glass went flying, and many people were hurt.  But fortunately, I do not believe there were any deaths associated with the event.  But my goodness, it must have been quite scary to experience that first hand.  We talked about the 1908 event in our previous chat...when I wrote that I had no idea it would be happening again so soon!

The fireball over Siberia on February 15, 2013.

Anyway, let's turn ourselves to a calmer exploration of the sky.  It's been a while since I wrote a nice, simple post about things appearing in the skies above, so I think it's time to do that again.

The early evening skies are currently dominated by the largest planet in the solar system - Jupiter.  Shining brighter than all the visible stars, Jupiter is easily seen high in the southwest after sunset.  It's currently located in the constellation Taurus the Bull, right behind the bull's V-shaped face.  Taurus, of course, is facing off with Orion the Hunter, brightest constellation of our sky and easily visible high in the south.  So just by looking southward after sunset you should be able to quickly find the seven bright stars of Orion.  Use the belt of Orion (three stars in an almost perfect straight line) to find Taurus by following the line it makes away from Orion towards the right.  The belt will point you to the brightest star of Taurus, reddish Aldebaran.  This is the upper left point of the V of Taurus' face.  Right next to the V will be Jupiter, almost shocking in its brightness.

Following Orion's Belt to Aldebaran, the red right eye of Taurus the Bull.  In February of 2013, Jupiter is located between the V of Taurus' face and the Pleiades.

Jupiter is an incredible world.  Ten times bigger than our own planet Earth, Jupiter is a gas giant and the largest of the solar system's planets.  Even so, it is still much too small to be a star...Jupiter would have to be 10 times again as big as it is to become a star like the Sun.  The gravity of mighty Jupiter holds over 60 moons in orbit around the massive world, and even supports a tiny, thin ring system, completely invisible from Earth.  Only visiting spacecraft have the opportunity to see the rings of Jupiter, and they have fortunately sent lovely pictures back to us here on Earth.  Known from ancient times, Jupiter has long fascinated us, and it has been the target of numerous missions including the Voyager space probes and the Galileo spacecraft.  Another mission, Juno, is on its way, with a planned arrival in July of 2016.

The giant planet Jupiter.

The only other planet currently visible to us is Saturn, which graces the early morning sky before the dawn.  You'll see Saturn as a golden-yellow star-like object shining in the south before the Sun rises.  A pair of binoculars is all that is needed to reveal the lovely Saturnian rings, but you will need to hold them very steady.  A tripod will serve you well.  And be prepared to get up quite early - 5AM is the best time to see Saturn these days.  If you'd rather see it at a more convenient time...wait a few months.  Later in the year, Saturn will become an early evening object rather than an early morning one.

Saturn and its amazing ring system.

So everyone take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the sky.  I promise, despite the events of recent days, the world is not coming to an end.  Hopefully the sky will give us a few days to catch our breath before the next potential big event - Comet PANSTARRS.  If the comet becomes something worth venturing outside to see, I'll put out a Cosmic Strings Alert to let you know.

Barring that, I'll see you in two weeks!
Carpe noctem!

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