Courtesy of EarthSky
A Clear Voice for Science
Our chart shows the southern sky in the wee hours before dawn on Wednesday, February 3. Blue-white Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden, sparkles to the left of the waning gibbous moon. The golden planet Saturn lies to the moon’s upper right.
The best time of year to see the planet Saturn is approaching.
Saturn is the faintest of the bright planets, so it’s not the easiest planet to spot. But there’s always a time each year when the distance between Earth and Saturn is least – that starts each year when our two worlds are on the same side of the sun with Earth about to pass between the sun and Saturn. And that’s what’s happening now. Earth will pass between the sun and Saturn next month. So this planet is now nearly at its best in our sky for this year.
To see the planet Saturn, you have to stay up till mid to late evening, or to wake up in the wee hours before sunrise. Fortunately, the waning gibbous moon shines fairly close to Saturn tonight, so you can use the moon to locate this planet. Golden Saturn – the most distant world that you can easily see with unaided eye – shines about as brightly as a bright star – but not as brightly as the brightest star Sirius, or the planets Jupiter and Venus.
After rising this evening, the moon and Saturn will continue to climb upward throughout the night. They will soar to their highest spots in the sky around 3:30 tomorrow morning. Directly south of Saturn at this early hour, you will see a small four-sided figure made of four modestly bright stars. This is the constellation Corvus the Crow, whose two upper stars always point to Spica. To many, this constellation looks more like a sail than a bird.
As seen from North America, the moon and Corvus will be at their highest for the night around 3:30 in the morning. When highest in the sky, Corvus the Crow always shines due south an about-face of Polaris, the North Star. This is good to remember if you are ever at southerly latitude, and want to see the Southern Cross.
In other words, whenever Corvus the Crow soars highest in the sky, so does the Southern Cross. At tropical and subtropical latitudes in the northern hemisphere, the Southern Cross stands upright on the horizon below Corvus whenever these two constellations appear due south. How far south do you have to be to see the Cross? You can see this famous star pattern – briefly – from the Florida Keys or the Caribbean. As you go even farther southward on the globe of Earth, the Southern Cross comes into easier viewing and is seen for a longer time each night.
As Earth moves around the sun, all the stars rise earlier … and earlier. When spring break finally arrives in late March and April, look for Saturn, Corvus the Crow and the Southern Cross to be highest up around midnight, instead of 3:30 in the morning.
Written by Bruce McClure, Deborah Byrd