Sky Viewing Tips

Observing the Planets

A few tips about observing the planets.

1.  We all know that just like the Earth, the Planets also circle the Sun.  However, what you may not be aware of is that all the planets circle the Sun in the same plane, more or less.  That is, all the planets are pretty much “in the same dish” (in the same plane) as they go around the Sun.  This could be important when you’re camping out in the desert and someone casually suggests “…let’s look for the planets”.  Your odds of spotting a planet could be significantly improved by knowing the above fact……if you’re looking for planets in the night sky, you’ll find them around the same track that the Sun took during the day.   If the Sun crossed the sky slightly south of directly overhead, then you can be sure that the planets also will cross the sky slightly south of directly overhead.  Pretty simple, ya?  This apparent path of the sun across the sky is called the Ecliptic….you’ll see this term used often in astronomy.

2.  The Planets are always in the sky….sometimes at night, sometimes in the day.

3.  The orbit of each Planet is independent of the orbits of the other Planets, i.e., they all circle the sun  in their own time.  At some given time the Planets may be in alignment with one or more other planets, at other times they can be on opposite sides of the sun from each other.

4.  If we can see the Outer Planets at night then they are closer to us, being on the same side of the Sun as we are.  If they are overhead about midnight then they are closest to us, this is known as being in conjunction with Earth.

5.  If we cannot see the Outer Planets at night, then that would mean that they are in the sky during the day, indicating that they are further away from us, getting to be on the other side of the Sun from us..  Of course we cannot see them at this time because the Sun is too bright.

6.  On any given night, generally speaking, only a few of the planets can be seen.  Of course, there are times when several of the Outer Planets will be visible and this makes for a good time to view planets.

7.  The Inner Planets, Mercury and Venus, are closer to the sun than we are… they are kind of “hanging around” the sun, from our vantage point.  You’ll see them either just after the sun sets or just before the sun rises….unless of course they are on the other side of the sun or in front of the sun, in which case you may not see them at all for a week or two.

8.  Two of the Planets are not visible to the naked eye….Uranus and Neptune.  The others can be seen with the naked eye under the right circumstances.

Observing the Stars

When looking for a particular star it is important to remember that all the stars we see at night are outside our orbit of the sun.  I know this may be obvious but it is important to remember because it will take 365 nights (1 year of our orbit) for us to view all of the night sky around our sun.  This becomes a bit more restrictive when you consider that the Northern Hemisphere tends to see only the “upper” part of the night sky, while the Southern Hemisphere sees only the “lower” portion.  Therefore, on any given night only a small portion of the night sky is visible…. maybe just 25% or so.  So to see a particular star in your part of the sky, you must wait for the appropriate time of year.

1.  Stars always remain aligned with their respective Constellation.  Ok, they will change a bit over thousands of years but certainly in our lifetimes they are always aligned with their associated Constellation.  So learn the Constellations….they are your guide posts for locating stars.

2.  People in the Southern Hemisphere see somewhat different Constellations than those in the Northern Hemisphere, simply because they are looking a bit more “down”.  Southerners are able to see some stars which are outside the view of Northerners, and vice versa.  For example, Northerners cannot see the Southern Cross, while Southerners cannot see Polaris“.

2.   On any given night, the stars in the night sky are the same no matter where in the Hemisphere you are located.  That is to say, the stars you see tonight will be the same stars that people in Mongolia see in 12 hours.  For the Southern Hemisphere, the people in New Zealand will see the same stars that the people in South Africa see 12 hours later.

Observing the Nebula

1.  The beauty of Nebula are in the photos…..only through time exposed photography, together with filters, can we see the beautiful structure of these objects.  Nevertheless, there is a certain magic in looking at the object through a telescope and realizing that the object in the photograph is “….right there!”.