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Sonoma County Gazette
Guide to the Night Sky

Guide to the Night Sky

Mar 1, 2018
by Tre Gibbs


Spring arrives at 9:15 am on the morning of March 20th.

This is known as the Vernal (or Spring) Equinox. The word Equinox is a Latin term which means “equal night”. On this day, Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres both receive equal amounts of day and night AND as a visual testament to this occurrence, the sun rises due east and sets due west—again on this day only.

The very next day, the sun will rise and set just slightly north of due east and west, respectively, and our days will officially become longer than our nights. For our neighbors south of the equator (in the southern hemisphere), this day marks the beginning of Autumn and the days there begin to get shorter while their nights get longer.

Back in the northern hemisphere, the sun will continue to rise and set further north until June 21st, The Summer Solstice, at which point the sun will stop moving north, turn around and start heading back south, reaching it’s midpoint on September 22nd(The Autumn Equinox), then continuing on to it’s southern most point on December 21st, The Winter Solstice. The cycle continues, back and forth, on and on, and so it goes…

Earth’s natural satellite, The Moon, is approximately 239,000 miles away from Earth and orbits our planet every 28 days or so. Our word “Month” comes from “Moon”, as does “Monday”. The Moon also travels the same, narrow path in the sky as the planets, which makes the moon a useful tool in finding them. Two full moons this month - just like January. One on the 1st and the other on the 31st. I guess “Blue Moons” aren’t that rare after all…

The word “planet” is derived from the Greek word, “planeta” which means “wanderer”. Ancient astronomers noticed that seven lights moved—or wandered—through the sky The Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which is why we have seven days of the week. The other planets, Uranus and Neptune, require a telescope, or at least a good pair binoculars, to see them. Although planets do resemble stars, there are a few differences that help the novice skywatcher identify which is which. First of all, planets tend to be brighter than stars. Because they are brighter, they tend to be the first objects to appear as the sky darkens. This could be part of the reason why a lot of wishes are not coming true for people. Case in point

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.

Turns out most people are wishing on planets rather than stars and thus, said wishes fail to come true. Another difference is that stars twinkle but planets do not. The reason? Planets are a lot closer to us than the stars and therefor appear as disks of light rather than pinpoints of light, which are more susceptible to the bending and distortion from Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. Our eyes detect that bending and distortion of light as “twinkling” or, if you prefer, the more scientific term, scintillation.

Speaking of planets, Jupiter—the mighty King of the Gods, rises around 1230am early in the month and around 1130pm at month’s end, and will be the brightest thing in the eastern sky, after the moon. On March 7th, use the moon to find Jupiter - on this night only, it will be the bright, steady light just to the right of the waning crescent moon. Mars and Saturn follow Jupiter, but not until three and four hours later, respectively. On the morning of March 10th, the moon will have positioned itself practically equidistant between Mars and Saturn. Although, at month’s end, in the wee hours of March 31st, the moon will be gone and Mars will have caught up to Saturn, both rising in the ESE around 3 am as a pair of cosmic “eyes” staring down at us…Mars to the right, Saturn to the left. Set your alarm clock and check it out - weather permitting.

Until April, have a safe and wonderful change of seasons and as always… Keep Looking Up.


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