Four of the five visible planets can be seen in the sky during the next few weeks.
Here’s a useful way to see them if you look outside. The first thing you should do is figure out which way south is from your location. This is a simple thing to do if you go out at 1:15 p.m. or so in the afternoon. This time of day is referred to as “Solar Noon,” because it is during this time that the round Earth has spun half way through one day, placing the sun roughly due south. Look below the sun and find a landmark that is on the horizon, and reasonably permanent. A house, tree, street sign, etc. all work well for this. Remember the place you are standing, and your landmark.
Return to the spot you went to when you saw the sun at 1:15 p.m. at about 8:30 p.m., and face south. Before 8:30 p.m. the sky is still too bright. After 8:45 p.m., Venus gets too low as our globe spins toward the east. Look for the glow of twilight in the western sky, to your right, and you’ll spot the brightest of the four planets, Venus. The only thing brighter than Venus in the night sky is the moon.
Looking to the left of Venus, the next brightest thing in the sky is Jupiter. While Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet, it is dimmer than Venus because it is much farther away, and the sunlight that reflects off of its surface is much weaker in intensity. If you have a compass, Jupiter is basically due southwest from you.
If you turn 90 degrees to the left, you’ll see a bright orange-pink dot, which is Mars. Mars recently was almost as bright as it was since 2003, and is still beautiful to behold.
The hardest of the planets to see against the backdrop of stars is Saturn, which is about two-thirds of the way between Jupiter and Mars. Saturn is above the constellation Scorpio, which looks like an anchor being dragged towards Jupiter.
If you have one of the free night sky-viewing apps on your smartphone, you’ll be able to find the planets using that as well. You can also use the phone as a compass.
Students are returning to most of the public schools on Monday. Please be extra mindful of this as you’re driving Monday morning.
Whether you are waiting for a bus — or driving safely behind one — you might spy the waning gibbous moon low in the southwestern sky. As the week progresses, the moon will appear higher in the sky at the same time in the morning as it proceeds in its orbit of Earth. It also will show less and less of its surface, as the angle between the sun, Earth, and moon decreases. This gives rise to the phases of the moon we see most days. Many fourth-graders will be tracking the moon at some point this school year, and you may see some of them “moon-gazing.”
Students in grades third, fourth, sixth and ninth should be talking about planetarium visits, too. Third-graders will become explorers of Mars, as well as the wonderful world of shadows. Fourth-graders will learn about our efforts to explore the moon, and will receive a set of minerals that can be found in North Carolina. Sixth-graders will learn how special Earth is by comparing it with other worlds, both inside and outside of our solar system. They will also learn about the five starships that the United States has launched since the mid-1970s. Earth science students should be talking about eye-opening discoveries made with the telescope in the past 400 years or so.
In every case, students should leave with an out-of-this-world change in perspective.
All of our programs show the globular Earth in space — a reminder that we are all part of a greater whole, and should act like it.
It’s been 22 months since the flooding rains of Hurricane Matthew inundated our planetarium and science center. In that time, I have endeavored to bring the planetarium experience to students, teachers, and the public here in Robeson County. Thanks to enthusiastic support from my administration, key partnerships in the community, and grit, the planetarium is an experience for all can enjoy, and I am grateful for these things.
Ken Brandt is the director of the Robeson Inflatable Planetarium. The planetarium remains at the Robeson County Partnership for Children in downtown Lumberton, while awaiting a rebuild after the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew. If you are interested in helping in this effort, email Ken at [email protected] For more information about the Robeson Planetarium and Science Center visit www.robeson.k12.nc.us/domain/47.