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Close Encounters

It’s a crowded solar system

If you’ve been out before dawn you’ve likely seen Jupiter blazing in the east. Early Friday morning, the gaseous giant shines left of the waning crescent moon. The following morning you’ll find it above the moon and forming a loose triangle with the star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion.
    The only other naked-eye planets visible are Mars and Saturn, low in the western sky in the darkening twilight. Saturn is fast on the heels of the setting sun, while Mars is farther to the east. Don’t confuse Mars for Antares, the red heart of Scorpius and roughly midway between the two planets.
    Mars has a close encounter Sunday, when Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) passes within 82,000 miles of the red planet. For comparison, the moon orbits the earth by almost 240,000 miles, and the closest recorded comet to pass us was in 1770 at 1.4 million miles! While a collision isn’t predicted, the comet’s tail will likely engulf the red planet. Even with binoculars you’ll be hard-pressed to see Comet Siding Spring, but a telescope will reveal it above the red planet.
    We have our own close encounter with a comet — Halley’s Comet, no less — in the form of the annual Orionid meteor shower, which peaks late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The comet hasn’t visited the inner solar system since 1986, but each year at this time earth passes through the trail of debris left behind from its countless orbits around the sun. With the waning crescent moon rising shortly before dawn, you might see from 20 to 25 meteors an hour. They can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace back their path they radiate from the constellation Orion.
    The sun and moon have a close encounter of sorts Thursday the 23rd, resulting in a partial solar eclipse in the early evening. Be warned: Gazing upon a solar eclipse can cause blindness, and a partial eclipse is all the more dangerous, so look only with a solar filter.
    Just as it takes a full moon for a lunar eclipse like the one two weeks ago, a solar eclipse coincides with new moon, when it passes between sun and earth, blotting out the sun’s disc — or part of it in the case of this partial eclipse.
    Hereabouts the show begins at 5:52pm, with the greatest point of eclipse coming at 6:08, when one-third of the sun is blocked from view. Alas, the sun sets at 6:17 before the eclipse is over.
    Again, do not attempt to watch the eclipse without protective eyewear; use the coming week to find solar glasses or another proper filter.