Friday, January 27, 2006

October 7, 1999

There are two "secrets" to finding your way about the night sky.

First, orient yourself. The astronomical way to do this is to find Polaris, the North Star, for it alone among the thousands of stars you can see stays in the same place, night after night, all night long.

One way to spot it is to locate the familiar Big Dipper, which at this time of year is large and low in the evening sky, its handle on the left and its cup facing up. If you follow an imaginary line up from the two stars that form the right side of the cup, the first star of comparable brightness your gaze will fall upon is Polaris.

Since New Haven is roughly halfway to the North Pole from the Equator, Polaris is roughly halfway up the sky from the horizon.

Now turn your back to Polaris so that you will be facing south. This is the part of the sky where most of the action happens. Each day the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars of the Zodiac travel from your left, the east, to your right, the west.

The second key to stargazing is: Once you find something, hold onto it!

For example, this month reddish Mars is visible in the evening, low in the west. Later, as it sets, brilliant Jupiter rises in the east, with dimmer Saturn in tow one handspan to its lower left. (A handspan is the spread between the pointer and little fingers of an adult hand at arm's length.)

Jupiter and Saturn will rise earlier each day, but Mars keeps pretty much to its same schedule. Hence the former will overtake the latter, so that by April they will all come together in the west in an amazing conjunction.

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