Thursday, September 20, 2007

Blazing Dawn

This morning I got up a little earlier than normal. I forced myself to my feet, forced myself out into the backyard, because I wanted to checkout the morning sky. I’ve done all my sky gazing recently in the evening, under what astronomers call the Summer Triangle. But this is the time of year when the Winter Triangle rises just before dawn, bringing the winter stars, the winter constellations.

And the winter stars were blazing this morning.

The evening stars could be characterized as understated beauties—the all-but-invisible blues and greens of Uranus, Neptune and Beta Capricornus-B.

The morning stars are blazing white and orange.

Just before sunrise, low in the south is blazing white Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Slightly up, slightly to the west of Sirius is the almost blazing orange Aldebaran set against the glittering stars of the Hyades open cluster. Back to the east of Sirius, in the eastern sky, is blazing white Venus, far brighter than Sirius, but Venus, of course, is a planet. Amazingly, Venus is so bright when, if you look through a telescope, you see Venus now is only a crescent! Slightly up, slightly to the west of Venus is the almost blazing orange Mars.

The pumpkin colors are in the morning sky now, but they’ll be visible earlier and earlier. The pumpkin colors of Aldebaran and Mars are coming to our evening sky over the next couple of months.

There’s a neat symmetry to the night sky right now.

Just as the sun is going down, night begins with bright, golden Jupiter—the gas giant planet, largest in our solar system—sparkling in the southwest. That begins the whole procession of planets as Jupiter is followed by Neptune, then Uranus, then Mars, then Venus. Finally, just as the sun is coming up, the night ends when bright, golden Saturn—also a gas giant planet, second-largest in our solar system—rises in the east. Gas giant symmetry.

[That above paragraph is a bit of a convenient lie. The night actually begins immediately after the sun goes down with the tiny planet Mercury very low in the west. Mercury—the smallest visible planet—actually begins the ‘procession’ of planets. However, Mercury is only a few degrees above the horizon and you need a very flat horizon—like a harvested corn field or the lake seen from Michigan—to observe Mercury. I can’t see it from anywhere around my house.]

When I was a kid—in third or fourth grade—I first became interested in astronomy and my parents bought my first telescope. The first constellations I learned were Orion and Taurus, ‘winter’ constellations. This time of year always feels great to me. I feel like I’m home.

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