Pixel Tracker

Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 2:42 am | Fair 50º

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

Dennis Mammana: Look for 6 Planets and the Moon This Week

Trace the ecliptic across the heavens this week. Click to view larger
Trace the ecliptic across the heavens this week. (Creators.com illustration)

One of the coolest sights of the nighttime sky is one that’s completely invisible — unless, of course, you know where to look.

Stargazers who understand the workings of our cosmos can find it on most nights, but this week even the average sky watcher will spot it after dark, even though most will not realize what they’re seeing.

I’m referring, of course, to the geometric plane of our solar system, the arc along which all of our celestial neighbors travel in their orbits.

Our solar system includes planets, the sun, moon, comets, asteroids and tons of other stuff like dust and chunks of ice and rock. Because of the way our planetary family collapsed and flattened — as a result of the sun’s birth some 5 billion years ago — nearly everything orbits our parent star along this geometric plane.

From within, we see this plane as a wide arc extending across our sky. It represents the path along which the planets journey in front of the more distant stars. Astronomers call it the “ecliptic” because it is along this path that the sun and moon also appear to travel and, therefore, the only locations in the sky where eclipses can occur.

The ancients recognized this arc as well, but, of course, didn’t understand its physical significance. They instead devised 12 stellar groupings (the zodiac) to mark its location and assigned mystical properties to each grouping and the celestial bodies that seemed to wander through them.

Normally, the location of the ecliptic isn’t obvious to anyone but the astronomically savvy, but this week anyone stepping outdoors at dusk will be able to trace it across the heavens. In fact, even beginning stargazers will be able to see six planets and the moon!

During dusk — if you have a low horizon to the west — cast your gaze in that direction. There, you’ll find the bright planet Venus, and just above it will appear the fainter worlds Jupiter and Mercury. Follow the approximate arc of these three worlds toward the east, and when you reach the southern sky, you’ll encounter the red planet Mars, along with Saturn.

You may notice that the moon also travels close to this path as it swings through our evening sky this week. This should not surprise you, for it, too, is part of our solar system and travels along roughly the same path. I say roughly because the moon’s orbit is actually tipped by about five degrees to the plane of the ecliptic, so it does appear to stray slightly above or below it. And that’s why we don’t experience eclipses every time there is a new or full moon.

If you’re out on Sunday night, Aug. 14, you’ll notice that the moon lies east of Mars and Saturn, and it will drift increasingly farther to the east as the week goes on. By Wednesday night, Aug. 17, the moon will have reached its full phase and will rise in the east at sunset. The arc of the ecliptic will then stretch completely across the heavens.

So there you have it — five planets and the moon. But wait. Where’s the sixth planet I mentioned earlier?

Think about it!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.

Talk to Us!

Please take Noozhawk's audience survey to help us understand what you expect — and want — from us. It'll take you just a few minutes. Thank you!

Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Meet Your Realtor Sponsored by Village Properties

Photo of Gary Welterlen and Carla Reeves
Gary Welterlen and Carla Reeves
"We both love this business. We strive to make life long relationships from each real estate transaction."

Full Profile >

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >