SkyCaramba weekly astronomy blog for the week ending February 11, 2012
Venus is on a course toward a meeting with Jupiter in a month. Before those two planets meet though, Venus will have a brief and much closer encounter with Uranus. That meeting is happening on February 9 and 10.
You’ll find Venus somewhat low in the west right after sunset this week. If you know the constellation Pisces, you’ll recognize those stars in the same direction when the twilight dims. Venus is next to the lower fish of Pisces this week and moving alongside it higher into the western sky each night.
Jupiter is above the higher fish. It’s also moving higher each night climbing away from Pisces, but it’s not moving as fast as Venus. Next month, the two planets will meet up between Cetus the whale and Aries the ram.
As this week starts, between Venus and Jupiter, barely moving and barely visible is Uranus. Venus is about to sweep by.
Uranus is one of those objects you won’t find without knowing where to look. It’s barely bright enough to see with the naked eye and isn’t mentioned in old astronomy books or legends going back before the invention of the telescope. And it wasn’t recognized as a planet in our solar system until more than 100 years after the telescope’s invention.
One way to find Uranus is to get a smart telescope that finds objects for you. Another is to use a planetarium program that shows you the sky as it is right now so you know where to look. Another way is to look for the planet when an object that’s easier to recognize is nearby. Your opportunity with Uranus is this week.
While you’re looking at these three planets, think about how different they are from each other. Venus is a solid planet with an acidic atmosphere, brightly reflective clouds, and a lot of heat. Jupiter is a giant ball of gas with clouds bands and storms that last for centuries. Uranus is also a ball of gas but what we can see of it is much tamer than Jupiter and the planet is tilted so much, it’s on its side.
If you live in a place where the skies are dark enough, you can try to see Uranus with just your eyes. Everyone should be able to see it with binoculars or a telescope. Remember, some telescopes flip the view. Uranus will be to the left (south) of Venus but the telescope may put it on the right.
In a telescope, Venus will seem to have the shape of the moon just before or just after it’s full. If you keep looking at it at the same magnification, you’ll see it get bigger and slightly less full in the coming weeks. Uranus looks like a blue dot and its appearance won’t change much as it moves through a field of very dim stars and finally becomes impossible to see because it’s in the sun’s glare.
Wish for clear skies. ¡Sky Caramba!
Graphics on this page were made with Stellarium. http://www.stellarium.org