Science | Skywatch with Bill Irwin

By Bill Irwin –

This edition covers November, December, and January. That is a fair stretch.

After a summer of well-placed, bright planets in the southern skies, this fall will be less spectacular. Mars will still be visible in the southwestern sky well into winter, fading and shrinking as it recedes from its close opposition back in July. Mid-November it’s apparent diameter will fall below 10 arc seconds, which is quite small. At high telescopic powers and on a steady night, it is still possible to make out the dark albedo features and polar caps, but it is now as far from us as we are from the sun. The next opposition in 2020 promises more than the recent one. It will be much higher in the sky and it will hopefully be free of the dust storms that afflicted observations of the surface detail this past time.

Jupiter will be in conjunction with the sun in November, re-emerging in the morning sky as the new year approaches. Saturn will be very low in the southwest as December approaches, heading for its inevitable reunion with the sun and then rebirth in the morning sky. These gas giants are near the low points of their journey through the zodiac, which places them low in the southern sky in the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius.

Unfortunately, the planet positions in the night sky do not exactly correspond to their namesakes in popular astrology. Since astrology derives from antiquity and the positions of the zodiacal constellations have shifted since because of the precession of the Earth’s spin axis, astronomical and astrological positions differ, generally by one constellation. This and other differences make it difficult to merge the two practices, despite their common roots. I am told there are types of astrology, such as Vedic, that correct some of these differences.

Nothing I can think of is going to change the fact that Venus will become the morning star in the coming months. Venus and morning coffee, so long as we can afford it.

If you have binoculars, you might want to try locating Uranus, which is in Pisces. It is right at the limit of naked eye visibility in a dark sky, but you will need binoculars and a chart to find it. Visit www.skyandtelescope.com as a good place to find a chart.

We have a potential naked eye comet passing thru in December. 46P/Wirtanen will be very close to the famous star cluster the Pleiades on December 16. It’s too early to tell how bright it’s going to get, but it will be a good one for binos (Christmas is coming).

The Geminids meteor shower will peak under moonless skies this year. It should be good if the weather co-operates.

I don’t really know what to do about the clouds, except start observing them. Maybe there will be a new column, “Cloud and Smokewatch,” and people will start getting together with their weather stations. I have a big Tesla coil for such occasions.

If I hear that you haven’t seen the Pleiades yet, I will summon the gods to cause all cellphones and iPads to lose their lustre and yardlights will fall to the firmament from their perches. It’s your night sky, too.

The Bells Lake Observatory is out near Horsefly, on Bells lake. For more info contact me at irwin8sound@gmail.com or (250) 620-0596.

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