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Planetary Power Breakfast

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Planetary Power Breakfast

With the advent of northern autumn, the dark morning sky is a sparkling showcase of bright planets and stars.

Venus, Regulus, and the cresent moon on
Oct 5, 1999October 1, 1999: Autumn has arrived in the northern hemisphere and the nights are becoming longer. Many school kids and their parents are rising and shining before the Sun. Until our clocks revert to Standard Time on October 31, it's a good opportunity to add stargazing to the morning routine of showers, breakfast, and the dash to the school bus. Thanks to a bunch of brilliant planets, sparkling stars, and a slender crescent moon, the morning sky for the next few weeks will be truly memorable.

Right: Duane Hilton's rendering of Venus, Regulus and the crescent moon on October 5, 1999 as seen near dawn above the White Mountains of eastern California.


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The star of the show is actually a planet -- Venus. Rising above the eastern horizon around 4:30 am local time, the second planet from the sun is simply breathtaking. This week it's at maximum brightness for the whole year, blazing at magnitude -4.6. Venus is so bright that it can easily be seen from urban centers with light pollution. Venus is often mistaken for an airplane or a UFO, but if you look carefully it doesn't move, blink, or twinkle.

Next week Venus will join the bright star Regulus and the Moon to form a sight that no stargazer will want to miss. On October 3rd Venus and Regulus will be just three degrees apart, but the best show will be two days later on Tuesday the 5th when the very thin crescent moon will form a triangle with Venus and Regulus. From 5:30 to 6:00 am local time, the trio will appear almost due east about 30 degrees above the horizon.

Regulus is a blue-white 1st magnitude star and the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Make a mental note while you're checking out Regulus that Leo will be the site of the 1999 Leonid meteor shower on November 17th. You won't see any Leonids in early October, but by mid-November the sky could be filled with shooting stars emanating from Leo the Lion.

Left: This image depicts the constellation Leo on Oct 5, 1999 as viewed looking east near dawn. The red circle denotes the location of the radiant of the Leonids meteor shower, which will peak on November 17, 1999. Don't expect to see any Leonids in October, but it is a good time to familiarize yourself with the constellation Leo in advance of the meteor shower.

The celestial trio of Venus, Regulus, and the Moon clustered so in the evening sky should be a memorable sight. But there's more: Cradled in the arms of the slim crescent Moon will appear the ghostly outline of the full Moon, a dim glow that astronomers call "Earthshine."

Like all the planets we see in the night sky, including brilliant Venus, the Moon does not shine by its own light. It reflects sunlight. The side of the Moon facing the sun shines brightly, and the side facing away is nearly dark. The only significant illumination on the "dark side of the Moon" is due to Earthshine -- sunlight that bounces off the Earth and falls on the lunar surface. A slender crescent Moon with Earthshine is widely regarded as one of the most delicate and beautiful sights in the night sky.

Before you go inside for breakfast there are a few more planets and stars to admire. Turning from the Venus-Regulus-Moon show in the east and looking south you can see Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, sparkling about 30 degrees above the horizon. Sirius appears just to the lower left of the most brilliant winter constellation Orion the Hunter (see the star chart below). But that's not all. Continue turning to the west and look about 40 degrees above the horizon to see the giant planet Jupiter shining at magnitude -2.9. Jupiter is about 4 times dimmer than Venus, but it's still a wonderful sight as the brightest object in the western sky. Two hand widths above Jupiter is another planet -- Saturn. The ringed planet, widely regarded as the most beautiful world in the solar system, is a bright 0th magnitude object this week with a slightly yellowish color.

The first week of October features a dazzling show stretching across the entire sky. If you absolutely have to wake up to dark morning skies this month, you can turn a problem into an opportunity by enjoying a power breakfast under the stars!

Web Links

This week's sky at a glance -- from Sky & Telescope

Jack Star Gazer -- Jack Horkheimer's naked eye astronomy web site

Venus - from the SEDS Nine Planets web site

Jupiter - from the SEDS Nine Planets web site

Saturn - from the SEDS Nine Planets web site

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For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: Frank M. Rose