Cumberland Times-News

December 29, 2012

Here’s a preview of 2013’s best sky sights

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Here are the top sky sights for the coming year that you can see with the unaided eye (don’t need binoculars or telescope).

Some sights can only be viewed on one particular evening or morning. Other sights can be seen a few days earlier or up to a few days later if the weather prevents you from seeing the sky on a particular date and time. I will also mention the best time that these sights can be seen.

One of the best sky sights is the International Space Station (ISS) passing over our area. On a close flyover, the International Space Station can be as bright as the brilliant planet Venus.

Its creeping motion is easily noticed, in contrast to the stars and planets. Unfortunately, its schedule of passes varies from day to day due to ISS’s orbital period of about 91 minutes, not a simple fraction of the Earth’s rotation period. Because of its orbital speed (over 17,000 miles an hour), the ISS stays in view for less than 10 minutes.

I learn when the ISS can be seen over the next 10 days by going to (on Internet) http://www.heavens-above.com. You must specify where you are on the Earth. Our latitude and longitude are about 39.7 degrees north and about 78.7 degrees west.

But by entering Cumberland, Bedford, Keyser, etc., you will be given a list of such places and you select the state. Then the master program will inform you of visible ISS passes over the next 10 days (at dawn or dusk), which can be printed out.

You can also print out a sky chart for a particular pass over showing where and when the ISS first appears (at altitude 10 degrees), and its path (generally towards the east) among the brighter stars and star groups.  

The estimated brightness or magnitude of the ISS is stated. A magnitude of -3, -2 corresponds to a close pass; the ISS then appears brighter than any night star and most planets.

Now for the more easily predicted sky sights.

On the evening of Jan. 21, our moon will appear close to the bright planet Jupiter (closest at 9 p.m.). On the previous evening, the moon will be to the right of Jupiter. On Jan. 22, the moon will be to the left of Jupiter.

In early February, the two “M” planets appear close, very low and a little bit to the left of west in the 6 p.m. dusk sky. Mercury appears brighter than Mars.

You need to have a flat western horizon. (I have gone to the Country Club Mall and viewed western planets on the edge of the parking lot on western side (facing away from Sears or Walmart).)

The two planets will be at their smallest angle apart on Feb. 8. On Feb. 11, a slender crescent moon visits the planets.

There will be another Moon-Jupiter lineup on the evening of March 18 (closest at 9 p.m. Daylight Time)

On April 13, the crescent moon will appear near the 7 Sisters star cluster in the early evening western sky.

On the next evening, the crescent moon will be to the left of the bright planet Jupiter.

In the last week of May, three planets can be seen very low in the west-northwest dusk. Best time is 9:15 p.m.

Be sure you have a flat western horizon. The brightest planet is Venus, followed (in brightness) by Jupiter and Mercury.

On June 10, a very slender crescent moon with Venus and Mercury to the right can be seen about 9:30 p.m from a place with a flat western horizon.

On July 22, the planets Mars and Jupiter appear about a degree apart very low in the 5:20 a.m. eastern dawn. Jupiter is the brighter of the two.

There will be line ups of Venus and the crescent moon on the following dates, times to observe and directions.

Aug. 9 at 9:05 p.m. low in west; Sept. 8 at 8:20 p.m. low in west: Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m. low in southwest,

Nov. 6 at 5:50 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) low in southwest and Dec. 5 at 5:35 p.m. low in southwest.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD Around midnight, Sirius the night’s brightest star is highest in the South. Sirius owes its brilliance to its closeness (8.7 light years away) and being about two dozen times as powerful as our sun.

Above and to the right of Sirius is the hour glass-shaped group of Orion, the Hunter. The three stars in Orion’s midsection point down and left to Sirius.  These same three stars point up and right to the star Aldebaran of Taurus and the very bright planet Jupiter.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.