Finding the

Planets

MERCURY will reach the greatest elongation point on January 11. Currently, you’ll find Mercury low in the west-southwest. After sunset Mercury is always elusive and hard to observe. This month’s Mercurian apparition is no different. Mercury will be lost in the evening twilight by the middle of the month.

VENUS is a bright object, but it is not observable this month because it is in superior conjunction with the Sun, which is much brighter. Venus will emerge from the twilight late next month, but will be difficult to see until mid-late March.

MARS will not be a spectacular object for us in 2002, because the red planet will not be in opposition again until 2003. Mars will be in the southwestern evening sky and will set by mid to late evening in January.

JUPITER is brilliant. This giant planet was at opposition on Jan. 1, 2002. Jupiter will be visible throughout the week and for most of January. Jupiter will remain in our evening sky until late spring when it will set with the Sun. Jupiter is at its brightest of the year right now. You can observe Jupiter’s apparent brightness diminish during the next few months as its distance from Earth increases.

SATURN is high in the eastern evening sky and will set in the pre-

dawn western sky. Saturn resides in Taurus the Bull.

SPOTTING THE DIPPERS:

The Big Dipper is one of the night sky’s most easily recognizable patterns. Four stars in the shape of a square mark the Big Dipper’s bowl; three stars represent the handle.

The Big Dipper is a circumpolar constellation, meaning that it will never set at our latitude (at least it won’t in our lifetimes.)

This time of year, the Big Dipper starts the evening low on the northern horizon. You can imagine it as a pot resting on the horizon. If you watch the Big Dipper through the night, you’ll observe it slowly ascend into the northeastern sky. The Big Dipper’s handle will be pointed toward the northeastern horizon in the pre-dawn sky.

No matter how it is aligned, the Big Dipper always serves as a direction marker toward the North Star (Polaris).

Find the outer two stars in the Big Dipper’s bowl (Dubhe and Merak). Draw a line from the bottom of the bowl through these two stars, continue this line until you encounter the closest conspicous star, Polaris.

This evening, the Big Dipper appears to rest on the northern horizon right after sunset. Observe the Big Dipper rising in the eastern sky throughout the night.

Although it is a few hundred light years away, Polaris is aligned almost directly above Earth’s north pole. For this reason, it hardly appears to move at all during the night. This apparent immobility explains why it was so useful to navigators of old and to you tonight: Polaris will always mark the northern sky. Polaris is the end handle star in the Little Dipper. The Little Dipper is not only smaller than the Big Dipper, its stars are also fainter. Like the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper is a circumpolar pattern. Thus, the dippers are the great

constants of the night sky…..

DID YOU KNOW…………

You can use Polaris to determine your latitude, provided, of course, that you’re in the northern hemisphere. Simply, your latitude will be equal to the elevation angle of Polaris above the northern horizon. For instance, at the North Pole, Polaris will be at the zenith (directly overhead), 90 degrees above the northern horizon. Polaris is 43.5 degrees above the northern horizon in Portland, Maine (latitude: 43.5 degrees) At the equator, Polaris will be just on the horizon. (Atmospheric refraction will project the image of Polaris slightly above the horizon).

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