Dance of the Planets

The Yukon night skies have been alive with planets playing tag with the moon.

The last couple of weeks have presented a planetary show, including Mars, Venus and Jupiter in the evening hours, and Saturn in the early morning hours before sunrise.

So let’s start with the brightest planet, Venus, which is at its greatest angle (also known as elongation) away from the sun on March 27. This means Venus will be at its highest in the evening sky for the year, presenting the best view.

By the end of April, Venus will have moved closer to the sun, growing to maximum brilliance on April 30.

As for what can be seen on Venus with binoculars or a telescope, it can be a little disappointing for some people. At best, you will see the phase the planet is in.

Much as our moon has phases, so does Venus. Other than that, there is no discernible detail to be seen, even in a 14-inch telescope.

Jupiter is the complete opposite of Venus, in that she always offers something to see. There are four brighter moons—Lo, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto—that endlessly orbit the massive gas giant, as well as varying cloud bands.

Jupiter can be found near brilliant Venus in the western evening sky.

As Venus rises higher in the evening sky, Jupiter will be slowly sinking into the horizon. By late April, Jupiter will disappear from our view behind the sun.

In the eastern evening sky, you will find Mars passing through the constellation of Leo. Mars is the only planet that amateur and professional astronomers can see actual planetary detail, like mountain ranges and planet-wide dust storms.

This spring the northern hemisphere of Mars is pointed at us, which will let us see the shrinking northern polar ice cap. The best observing window to view Mars is from now to April 30.

Considering that Mars is at least 100 million kilometres distant, and growing more distant each night, it is recommended that a six-inch or larger telescope be used for observing this planet.

You will also require a 150 to 200-power eyepiece with crystal clear skies to see any detail on the planet surface.

In March, Mars rises at sunset, but is not high in the southern sky until midnight or so. This is the best time for viewing Mars as it climbs high off the horizon into the inky Yukon night skies.

Mars is rising earlier each evening throughout spring, and in April the little red planet will be at its prime viewing location in the night sky, but will also be much smaller and much further away.

So if an opportunity presents itself and you have access to a telescope, head outside and take a look for yourself.

Our last planet, Saturn the ringed gas giant, can be found rising off the eastern horizon an hour or so before sunrise in the constellation of Virgo. You will need a spotting scope or a telescope to see the rings, and shadows of the rings, on the planet.

As with all planets, the larger the telescope the more detail that can be seen.

Crystal clear skies and stable air are imperative for any planetary viewing. By April 15, Saturn will rise at sunset and can be viewed all night long.

From March 24 to March 27, the night skies will offer a splendid show. In the early evening western skies on March 24, Venus, Jupiter and a crescent moon will cluster together making for an excellent photo opportunity.

On March 25, the crescent moon passes within 1.5 degrees of Jupiter, with Venus right above this amazing pair.

On March 26, the crescent moon is only a mere 2.5 degrees away from Venus, with Jupiter resting below. By March 27, the crescent moon will be cruising past the Hyades star cluster, presenting another excellent photo opportunity.

All of these amazing events take place right underneath the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters star cluster.

All these events can be viewed with binoculars, spotting scopes or, as preferred, a telescope. As for photography, you couldn’t ask for a better arrangement in the night sky.

So head outside, take a chair, a current issue of Sky News magazine, coffee and your binoculars or telescope and take a look for yourself—you won’t be disappointed!

Also, don’t forget to keep an eye open for active northern lights.

Clear Skies!

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.

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