Friday, January 27, 2006

September 2, 1999

As night falls, look up! At the very top of the sky the first star you will see is Vega. This is the source of alien signals in Carl Sagan's science fiction classic, Contact.

One hour after sunset look low in the southwest, to the left of where the sun has set. There stretches the magnificent constellation Scorpio, the Scorpion. Three vertical, slightly bowed stars form its head, from which a long body and tail curve down to the left and then up again.

At the heart of this nocturnal arachnid is the red star Antares. This month you can see unmistakably why it has this name. Ares is the Greek name of the god the Romans called Mars. Hence Antares (anti-Ares) is the "Rival of Mars."

And, sure enough, the red planet Mars begins the month just to the right of Scorpio; at mid-month it is passing directly over Antares; and by next month it is as far to Antares' left as it is to its right tonight.

Later in the evening the brilliant planet Jupiter cannot be missed as it rises in the east. Dimmer Saturn rises after that; you can spot it easily after 10 p.m. on the 28th, clouds permitting, when it will lie midway between Jupiter and the Moon. The dazzling pre-dawn "star" in the east is the planet Venus.

At exactly 10:45 p.m. on the 29th, watch the bright star Aldebaran suddenly appear at the dark edge of the Moon's lower right side.

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