I’ve been enjoying watching the Pleiades star cluster come up in the east these evenings. As far as I’m concerned, it’s first in the roll call of the winter stars. You can see the cluster yourself low above the horizon starting around 10 o’clock. By 11, it’s up high enough for easy viewing.
Earlier tonight, just after sunset, find a location with a clear view toward the southwestern horizon. You’ll find Venus there accompanied by a thin crescent moon. Through a small telescope, Venus now has a distinct crescent shape similar to but thicker than tonight’s moon. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of two very different worlds – one blisteringly hot with a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere and perpetual cloud cover, the other airless and subject to the extremes of both heat and cold. They do share several features in common. Both have craters and volcanic features like lava channels and domes of extruded magma. Volcanism is likely still going on on Venus, but the moon appears to have quieted down volcanically at least 100 million years ago.
In an earlier blog, we visited the U.S. Air Force’s new military surveillance satellite the X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle. The reusable, unmanned craft orbits some 250 miles above the Earth and is visible as a faint star crossing the southern sky. The craft is making evening passes during the next week and a half. Like the space station, it will look like a steady, moving “star” traveling from west to east. Unlike the station, it’s much fainter at only 4th magnitude, similar to the stars in the Little Dipper or those in the Pleiades Cluster. Its nightly path cuts through or just above (north) of the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, better known as the Teapot. You can use yesterday’s map of the Teapot to help you look in the right direction. For Duluth, Minn. and region, X-37B will first appear in the southwest, cross the southern sky near Sagittarius and then move toward the southeast and fade. For times for you city as well as very helpful maps, login to Heavens Above, select your city and then click on the X-37B link.
Heavens Above is a wonderful tool for finding additional bright satellites, including quite a few brighter than X-37B. Once you’re logged in, go under the Satellites heading and click on Daily predictions for all satellites brighter than magnitude: 3.5. This will call up a list that for my town contains almost 40 satellites easily visible from my home during morning and evening hours. Brighter ones include the Titan 4B rocket booster, the Lacrosse 2 surveillance satellite and UARS, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. Clicking on the name of each satellite will take you to an information page where you can click the Passes (visible) link to get a list of times for viewing. Such an embarrassment of riches. Have at it!