Categories: Sky Reports
There are two bright “major” planets in the sky tonight, and they’re trivial to see, plus one “minor” planet that you can see with a pair of binoculars (which every stargazer must have!) or any telescope and add it to your list of solar system conquests. Here’s how to find them.
The two major planets are Venus and Mars, goddess of love and god of war. The planet Venus is indeed pretty and the goddess of love is an important goddess, so one can imagine how that association came about, while the red color of Mars reminded people of blood and hence of war.
Venus is brilliant in the west for almost three hours after sunset. How soon can you see it as the sky is growing dark? You can see it in the daytime if you know where to look. Venus is passing through the constellation Aries, but Aries has no bright stars to compete with it. Not until mid-April when it moves through Taurus will there be bright stars – and a bright star cluster – in the background.
Mars is high overhead in Taurus and then Gemini amid the many bright stars of the winter Milky Way. An alert for people with binoculars or telescopes: it passes near the bright star cluster M35 late this week and next.
The brightest “minor planet” in the evening sky tonight is Ceres, and you can easily see it with any pair of binoculars as a moderately bright 7th-magnitude “star” in the constellation Coma Berenices, or Bernice’s Hair. You will need star-charting software (which I strongly recommend that you own) or a good printed star chart. On the 21st Ceres is at opposition, opposite the sun, when it rises at sunset and looks like any other 7th-magnitude star.
Ceres is 149 million miles from earth (14% farther than Mars) and it’s only 580 miles in diameter, so it looks starlike (hence the term “asteroid”). Google “Ceres” for tons of information on this interesting little world that was visited by a NASA spacecraft in 2015; that spacecraft is still in orbit around Ceres although it’s no longer functioning.
If you need a finding chart you can create and print a great one at “in-the-sky.org” (https://in-the-sky.org). Start here if your target is Ceres and your location is Kanab but you can easily change it (for Ceres your location doesn’t matter much): https://in-the-sky.org/findercharts.php?id=11&latitude=37+2+8&longitude=-112+31+52&timezone=-07%3A00. You’ll have to learn to use the website but it’s useful for many things so bookmark it for future reference, and this is really my opportunity to introduce you to it. Note that Ceres passes in front of the bright galaxy M100 for several hours on the evening of March 26th in a highly unusual event that people with a telescope will not want to miss.
There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids in the sky. A few dozen are within the range of a backyard telescope and you could spend many hours hunting them down.
Stellar Vista Observatory provides portable telescopes and tripod mounted binocular kits on loan for free to residents and visitors in Kane County. Enhance your enjoyment of the night sky! To learn more, request a loan, or attend one of SVO’s free public star parties in 2023, visit https://stellarvistaobservatory.org/ or drop in to the Kane County Office of Tourism.