Back­yard As­tron­omy

Modern Pioneer - - Pioneer Post -

With sim­ply a small tele­scope, and some­times just a good pair of binoc­u­lars or even the naked eye, it’s pos­si­ble to view some of the plan­ets that shine in the night sky.

Mer­cury and Venus, known as in­fe­rior plan­ets, or­bit closer to the sun than Earth. Al­though Mer­cury shines brighter than most other ce­les­tial bod­ies, be­cause it never man­i­fests far­ther than 28 de­grees from the sun, it’s very dif­fi­cult to lo­cate. Venus, on the other hand, has a much larger or­bit than lit­tle Mer­cury, and is vis­i­ble with the naked eye most of the year.

The re­main­ing plan­ets: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Nep­tune, known as su­pe­rior plan­ets, are vis­i­ble us­ing a tele­scope. The time when these plan­ets lie on the far side of the sun as seen from Earth is called con­junc­tion. The plan­ets will move into the morn­ing sky, climb­ing in­creas­ingly higher. Ul­ti­mately, the planet ar­rives at the point in its or­bit where it lies op­po­site the sun in Earth’s sky; this con­fig­u­ra­tion is known as op­po­si­tion. The su­pe­rior plan­ets are most vis­i­ble to us at op­po­si­tion, and they will re­main vis­i­ble all night long.

Sim­ply lo­cat­ing the plan­ets can be ex­cit­ing enough for novice as­tronomers, but with a mod­est tele­scope, spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics can be iden­ti­fied on the plan­ets that lie closer to Earth. Mars, the near­est su­pe­rior planet, of­fers the most de­tail. Larger Jupiter dis­plays a se­ries of bright zones and dark belts. Swirling ed­dies and Jupiter’s fa­mous Great Red Spot are also vis­i­ble at op­po­si­tion.

Saturn’s unique and in­trigu­ing rings can be seen us­ing a small scope. It will take a larger scope to view the de­tails of Saturn’s rings, but back­yard ob­servers will be able to lo­cate the planet’s moons with a small tele­scope.

Uranus and Nep­tune can be lo­cated with a small scope, and Uranus can even be seen with the naked eye if viewed from a very dark lo­ca­tion away from city lights. De­tails of both will be very lim­ited.

Em­bat­tled Pluto will of­fer no de­tail with a small scope. In fact, you’ll re­quire an 8-inch scope and a de­tailed star chart sim­ply to lo­cate it, but it’s an ex­cit­ing find for bud­ding back­yard as­tronomers.

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