A Happy and Star filled New Year (January)

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    A Happy and star filled New Year

    By Paul Downing

    WELCOME
    to 2007 and to a new year of things happening "up there." My subject
    for the start of the new year is planets. Those of you
    who follow these things will know poor Pluto was recently demoted from a planet
    to a minor planet by the International Astronomical Union. This leaves us with
    eight planets, of which six are normally visible to the naked eye – Mercury,
    Venus, Earth (of course), Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

    The
    reason I chose planets this issue is because one of the most interesting and
    visually spectacular has returned to our night skies. If you look in the
    eastern sky at about
    10pm you should see Saturn
    as a bright yellowish star rising. To help you locate it, perhaps wait another
    hour to let the Earth turn a bit and you should see a sickle shaped "question
    mark" of stars rising. This is the head of Leo the Lion, and the bright
    yellow star just to the right of the bright white star at the dot of the
    question mark is Saturn.

    In
    a telescope, Saturn is an amazing sight (see photo) with the beautiful ring
    system, and you can see them in even a small telescope, although binoculars are
    not really powerful enough.

    The
    word planet is derived from the Greek word planasthai
    (meaning to wander) and the ancients knew enough about the sky to notice these objects
    wandering around in the sky as the weeks and months passed. Two of the visible
    planets, Mercury and Venus, orbit the Sun inside our own orbit so we never see
    them very far from it. They appear to us to move up and down either side of the
    Sun as they move along their orbital paths.
    Venus is that very, very bright object which we see in the evening or
    morning sky, depending on which side of its orbit it is located relative to
    Earth. We will be talking more about Venus in the coming months as it starts to
    appear in our evening sky. Mercury is
    much closer in to the Sun and is very difficult to see unless you know exactly
    where and when to look. Some people go through a lifetime and never see it. This
    summer we will have a try and see if we can spot it together one fine evening
    just after sunset. The outer planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are different. Because
    they orbit further out than the Earth, it is possible for them to be on the
    opposite side of our sky from the Sun. We have talked about Saturn but if you
    want to see Jupiter, it has just gone around the back of the Sun and is rising
    in the morning as a brilliant white star about two hours before sunrise. See if
    you can spot it!

    This article was printed in January 2007

    Send your astronomy questions to [email protected]

    Also
    see www.paulandliz.org

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