Friday, January 27, 2006

July 6, 2000

This is a month for stretching your eyesight and your imagination.

The giant planet Uranus is now approaching opposition, which is when a solar system object is due south in the sky at (true) midnight. Thus, it is "opposite" or face-on to the Sun from Earth's position and also closest to us, hence at its brightest.

At this time Uranus is actually visible without optical aid, provided the seeing conditions are ideal. Most likely you will require binoculars, and you will definitely need a detailed star map. The folks at the Astronomical Society of New Haven will be happy to show you the planet at one of their public observing sessions this summer. While you're at it, check out Neptune and Pluto through a telescope!

Meantime, in the same part of the sky you can also spy Vesta, the third-largest asteroid at a whopping 510 km diameter. Although very faint, it is now brighter than Uranus because it is much closer. But don't worry; it keeps its distance, orbiting the Sun beyond Mars like the little planet it is.

All of these planets are clustered near the glorious summer constellations of Scorpius, the scorpion, and Sagittarius, the archer (who also bears a remarkable resemblance to a teapot!). Let the Moon guide your fancy as it courses leftward over these denizens of the Zodiac from the 11th to the 15th.

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