Health & Science Newsletter

August 17, 2014

Venus and Jupiter look deceptively close in morning sky

The morning sky demands our immediate attention this month.

When August ends, we’ll find Saturn and Mars aligned low in the southwest sky at the onset of night and disappearing into twilight.

But the morning sky demands our immediate attention.

Dawn on Aug. 18 presents Venus and Jupiter a half-degree apart, low in the eastern sky about 45 minutes before sunrise. That’s less than the apparent width of the moon! Of course, Venus travels around the Sun in an orbit only about 70 percent the size of our orbit, so we are looking past it, actually several Earth-orbits away from us to the remotely aligned Jupiter.

A few mornings later, the waning-crescent moon approaches the planets as Venus drops lower in the dawn sky, approaching conjunction with the sun. It’s not to be seen again until it reappears in the southwest, early December dusk sky after sunset. Jupiter, left behind, will march into the night sky, reaching prime-time observing position next winter.

If I want to see these dawn events, I will have to get up early. That may be a surprise if you think astronomers are up all night and I could thus end my observing run with a glimpse of early morning events. In reality, much astronomical observing is done remotely or automatically. Three of our Dark Sky Observatory telescopes are routinely operated by our astronomers from the convenience of their living rooms. My own main targets usually only require that I put the scope on autopilot for the night and go to bed – they put themselves to bed at dawn. (Some of my colleagues still have to stay up, at home, to run through a list of targets.)

Even better, the two other telescopes are usually running automatically on the Skynet system developed by my colleague Dan Reichart, at UNC Chapel Hill. We submit our observing requests online and all the rest is done for us. One of these scopes is sometimes used remotely by its advanced-amateur astronomer donor, Dean Glace, from his home in South Carolina.

This change has come as a disappointment to a few of my aspiring astronomy majors. Some want to go out and observe under the starry skies. We do introduce them to telescope operation at the observatory, but after a few nights their images are obtained remotely and transferred over the Internet to campus.

I have to tell them they were born about 20 years too late.

Some events, however, still need to be observed at the dome, and some old-school collaborators who visit from South Carolina stay up all night on our observing runs. So, the romance of the night sky is not completely gone. Yet.

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

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