Saturday, December 2, 2023

Planets in transit


Looking down on a meteor from the ISS
Looking down on a meteor from the ISS


Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

November, and the evenings are getting dark now that the clocks have gone back and the Sun sets a little after four in the afternoon. Still, we have Guy Fawkes to look forward to and we can start stargazing before tea!

Unfortunately, it is time to bid farewell to Jupiter for this year as it starts to disappear behind the Sun. Look for it as soon as the sky starts to darken, from about five o’clock, very low in the glow of the sunset and give it a little wave.

On the first day of the month there will be a crescent Moon to the left of it and to the left of that is Saturn. You will have to wait until the sky gets darker though, as Saturn is not as bright as Jupiter. The ringed planet is also very low in the sky as this part of the ecliptic, close to the Sun, is not very high at this time of year.

Saturn is with us all month but getting closer to the sunset every day.  The Moon is close by on the 2nd and again on the 29th. Interestingly, Pluto is quite close to Saturn too although you would need a very powerful telescope to see it. Still, it’s nice to know where it is, isn’t it?

Venus starts to make an appearance towards the end of the month too but it will be very low indeed. Being so bright, you may spot it passing Jupiter during the last few days of November. An ultra thin crescent Moon sits between these two planets on the 28th.

At the other end of the day, Mars is visible at six in the morning. It sits just above the bright star Spica low in the south east, just beating sunrise which occurs a little after seven.

Well, that’s all of the major planets taken care of with one exception: Mercury, and this month Mercury does something curious (Mercurious?). On the 11th it passes between the Earth and the Sun, something it does every couple of months or so, but this time the Sun, Earth and Mercury are in a perfect straight line so Mercury will pass across the face of the Sun.

Now, you won’t see it by looking at the Sun; this will merely damage your eyes. It can only be seen with a telescope by either projecting an image through it or with a good solar filter. So, if you know someone with a telescope, badger them to set it up (with the finder scope capped!) and get projecting (but NEVER look through the eyepiece!). It starts at half past twelve and lasts just under four hours.

A week later, the 18th, sees the peak of the Leonid meteor shower. A bright Moon is around at this time but it is always worth keeping an eye cocked for meteors a few days before and after this date.

Finally, on the evenings of the 28th, 29th and 30th of the month you should definitely visit Alvechurch Village Hall to see the stars shining there!