The Sky at Night

The Story So Far  |  Visualizing Our Galaxy

Report on Total Solar Eclipse of 1999.

I'm a naked eye astronomer, as were all astronomers before the invention of the telescope, four centuries ago. I love to watch the sky at night, observing the slow dance of the planets amongst the stars.

Today we get only a dim glimpse of what earlier peoples must have seen in skies unfettered by dust pollution and, in urban areas, the light pollution that bleaches out all but the moon and brightest stars. (See: How Astronomy Begat Astrology)

Here are some things you can see in the night sky as the never-repeating, never-ending, cosmic dance continues.

The Dance So Far A journal of the planets' dance together over the last 25 years.

The Ongoing Dance

Planet Positions

Mercury is usually hard to see because its stays close to the sun. Its orbits the sun once every 88 days, and so alternates between evening sky and morning sky approximately every 6 weeks. It makes an appearance in early October, visible just after sunset.

Venus Venus is now gliding back towards the sun and will disappear in the glare in mid-August.

Mars is in the rising late in the middle of night. Only 4 hours after sunset by October.

Jupiter shines bright in SE the evening sky, at the head of Scorpio.

Saturn is reappearing in the morning sky through the end of the year.

More Info: Sky at a glance for current week and Adams Planetarium day-by-day Sky Watcher's Diary

NASA Solar System Simulator for a view of the planets and their moons at any time, and almost any angle.

Meteor Showers

Quadrantids. Maximum at January 3-4

Lyrids. Maximum at April 21/22

Eta Aquirids. Maximum at May 5/6

Delta Aquarids. Maximums at July 29 (S hemisphere) and August 13 (N hemisphere)

Perseids. One of best meteor showers of the year. Maximums nights of 11-12 August.

Orionids. Maximum 21 October.

Leonids. Maximum 17-18 November.

Geminids. Maximum 13-14 December.

The Ecliptic
For spotting planets, and following their motion, it is helpful to know where the ecliptic is. The ecliptic is the imaginary line stretching across the sky, along which the sun, moon and planets all appear to move. If, for example, the sun has just set, and the moon is up high, then the ecliptic is the line from the sun (somewhere just over the horizon) through the moon and beyond to the opposite horizon. The planets will also be not far from that line. Or, if you can see two planets, but no moon, the line through the two planets defines the ecliptic. It doesn't take long to get to know where the ecliptic lies, and roughly where to look for planets.

The twelve Zodiacal constellations (Taurus, Pisces, Gemini, etc.) also lie on the ecliptic -- they are the constellations the planets pass through.

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