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Planet Watch 2008

by Perry Pezzolanella, MVAS

A fantastic year of planetary observing lies ahead from start to finish with at least one bright planet in the evening sky every day during the year and many beautiful pairings with the Moon. Countless asteroids, meteor showers, and comets along with unexpected auroras, and a total lunar eclipse will assure a smorgasbord of observing delights and endless opportunities for sketching and photography.

On February 20 at 10:00 P.M. a total eclipse of the Moon begins and will last 51 minutes, ending at 10:51 P.M. If this one is clouded out, the next one will not be until December 21, 2010, which is the only one until a trio of total lunar eclipses occurs during 2014-15. There are no solar eclipses this year and the next one will not occur until shortly before sunset on May 20, 2012 when the Sun will hardly be 5% eclipsed at best.

Mars initially dominates the evening sky at the beginning of 2008, but Saturn soon joins it and dominates until Jupiter takes over by June. Mercury will also appear briefly in the evening sky during May. Saturn will leave Mars and Jupiter behind in July and then Mars will depart by October. Jupiter will be joined by Venus in the southwest by then until Jupiter departs in November leaving Venus as the sole bright planet of the approaching holiday season. Uranus and Neptune are never brilliant, but both will be visible in the evening from August through next January. Here is the breakdown for each planet in the evening sky during 2008:

Mercury: A challenging planet to find, but it has a good showing in the evening from April 30 to May 24 with Mercury at its highest on May 14. It will be especially easy to find shortly after sunset on May 6 as it will be just below a thin crescent Moon. Mercury grows steadily larger through this period from 6 to 10 arcseconds across as it approaches Earth; its magnitude will hover around 0. It will go through phases like a tiny, coppery version of the Moon from nearly full to a thin crescent.

Venus: Primarily a morning planet until October when Venus returns to the evening sky. It will be a beautiful Christmas Star low in the southwest shining brilliantly at magnitude -4.0. It will be nearly full and at about 11 arcseconds across during the final months of the year. Venus will make beautiful pairings with the crescent Moon shortly after sunset on October 31, December 1, and December 31. The evening of December 1 will be especially dramatic with Jupiter close to Venus at the same time.

Mars: A great start for the year with Mars just past its Christmas Eve 2007 opposition and still shining high and bright in Gemini. It will start the year at 15.4 arcseconds across and magnitude -1.5 before shrinking and fading steadily the rest of the year. It will become lost in the twilight by October when it will be hardly more than 4 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +1.7.

Jupiter: A beautiful summer planet that will be a real crowd pleaser at public star parties this summer with Jupiter reaching opposition on July 9 in Sagittarius. It will be low, but bright and large at 47.3 arcseconds across and will shine at magnitude -2.7 promising a wealth of detail. Any summer haziness may aid in seeing finer detail such as the Great Red Spot and Red Spot Junior along with changing details within the belts. It may even be possible to observe the tiny discs of the larger moons, Callisto and Ganymede, or at least be able to compare their sizes with smaller Io and Europa. Jupiter will become lost in the evening twilight by December as it fades to magnitude -2.0 and shrinks to 33 arcseconds across.

Saturn: The perfect planet to herald the arrival of spring as Saturn is at opposition on February 24 in Leo when it will be 20.0 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +0.2. It will be the showstopper at public star parties throughout spring as clearer and warmer evenings return. Saturn’s rings are nearly edge-on, which will make it difficult to see the Cassini Gap, but more of the globe will be visible making it possible to observe the various cloud belts and any spots. Saturn will be close to the totally eclipsed Moon on the evening of February 20. It will slowly fade to magnitude +0.8 and shrink to less than 17 arcseconds across by July when it becomes lost in the evening twilight. Saturn will rise in the northeast before midnight during the close of the year to signal another great viewing season for 2009, which will see the rings exactly edge-on for the first time in nearly 14 years.

Uranus: As an Autumn planet this year, Uranus will be at opposition on September 13 in Aquarius. It will be 3.7 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +5.7 not far to the left of the bright star Phi Aquarii; it was to the near right of it last year. It has been displaying an equatorial view these past several years after being nearly pole-on for the past several decades, which may allow opportunities to observe belts or spots through larger telescopes on perfectly steady nights.

Neptune: A better than average year to find Neptune as it lies close to the right, or west, of a string of three nearly-vertical and equally bright stars above the brighter star Delta Capricorni. It is at opposition on August 15 in Capricornus as it will be 2.4 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +7.8. A finder chart for Uranus and Neptune will appear in the July issue of Telescopic Topics. Both planets will rise before midnight by August and gradually fade into the evening twilight during January 2009.

Pluto: A dim world and more difficult to find than ever as Pluto traverses the thick of the Milky Way. It is at opposition on June 21 among the steam clouds of the Sagittarius Teapot and will shine feebly at magnitude +13.9 being nothing more than star-like at 0.1 arcseconds across. Pluto will be truly lost next year as it will hide within the heart of the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud, M24. It will emerge from the Milky Way in 2015 when it will be in the Teaspoon asterism in Sagittarius and be joined by the New Horizons spacecraft almost coincidentally near opposition.