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Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

Dog days in the sky

Posted on February 23 2011 at 2:53:33 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peersinto the Village night sky.

Mercury will be appearing during March, although it is a tricky little planet to spot. I’m sure everyone knows that it is the closest planet to the Sun and the smallest true planet, now that Pluto has been downgraded to a dwarf planet. It is only a little larger than our own Moon and smaller than the large moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

It will start to become visible on about the 14th of March but it will be very low in the west and only appear in the twilight around 6.30pm, setting about 45 minutes later. On this date it will be very close to Jupiter but not as bright, so if you can see Jupiter, Mercury will be just to the right.

Because it is so close the Sun, it moves across the sky very quickly; this is why it is named after the fleet-footed Roman god. As a result, it moves away from Jupiter on a daily basis so look out for it in the glow of the sunset for the rest of the month. It is easier to spot with binoculars but please ensure the Sun has disappeared below the horizon before using them.

It’s the Vernal (or Spring) equinox this month and this year it is on the 20th at 11.20pm to be precise, so the days will be getting longer by the maximum amount; nearly four minutes each day.

As the sky darkens, Orion is still very much in evidence, high in the south, easily identified by the three stars of his belt and three more of his sword hanging down. Snapping at his heels, just to the left, is Canis Major, his hunting dog with the unmistakable bright star, Sirius, at the top of his chest.

This is a most beautiful star, distinctly blue and very bright, it is the nearest and brightest star in our sky. It actually has a white dwarf companion (with apologies to all dimensionally challenged stars everywhere but I didn’t devise the nomenclature!) and they orbit each other every 50 years or so.

Above and to the left of Sirius, almost level with the bright orange Betelgeuse in Orion, is another bright star, Procyon. This is also relatively close at just 11 light years and it seems to be running out of fuel so may balloon up into a red giant at any moment. Keep watching!

Close by, to the right and above Procyon, is the fainter star, Gomeisa. These two stars make up the constellation of Canis Minor, Orion’s other hunting dog, although, to me, two stars just make a straight line. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Gomeisa is from the Arabic for ‘The bleary eyed one’!

Returning to Sirius, to the left of Canis Major, is a faint star called Turais. It is tricky to see because it is so close to the horizon but I thought I would include it because it is the only star we can see in the constellation of Puppis.

For the sake of balance, next month we’ll look for a giant cat in the sky.


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