For Southern California skygazers, 2012 is shaping up to be quite a remarkable year. The cool nights of winter are slowly giving way to more moderate evenings. So dust off those binoculars and telescopes, go outside and look up!
The red planet Mars, in the constellation Leo, is progressing high from the east and slightly toward the south an hour after sunset. Not far behind in the constellation Virgo is jealous Saturn with its colorful rings tipped at 15 degrees. Its’ closest approach to the Earth is April 15.
The winter constellations are gradually giving way to the misty star fields of the Milky Way as summer approaches. A recent survey said that 1 in 5 city dwellers has never seen the Milky Way from a dark site. Give yourself the gift of a lifetime and take a short drive to the local mountains or clear desert skies on a clear moonless night. Spend an evening wondering over the myriad of distant stars too numerous to count!
Astronomers live for rare events, but brilliant Venus is about to give us an extra special treat on the afternoon of June 5. It is about to cross in front of or “transit” our nearest star, the Sun! This happens only four times every 243 years. The next time isn’t until December 2117.
The dark silhouette of Venus will first contact the sun’s outline at 3:06 p.m. By 3:24 p.m. the disk of Venus will appear as a small black dot against the brilliant sun. It will continue to move across the solar outline until the sun sets.
Venus and the Earth are very close to the same size so compare the difference against the massive size of our Sun, a smaller than average star!
Important: Never look directly at the sun or try to observe it directly with binoculars or a telescope. Permanent eye damage will occur in a fraction of a second. There are a few ways to watch this event safely, however.
Wear welder’s goggles with a No. 13 or No. 14 filter. Or fit your binoculars or telescope with special sun filters available from telescope manufacturers.
Here is a good link for information on safe solar observing: www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/sun/3309106.html
Or go to your local observatory or planetarium. They are sure to set up for public viewing of this rare event!
Now, let’s keep our fingers crossed for a cloudless day.