Driftless Dark Skies: Planets Arcing across the Sky

August 31st, 2018 by John Heasley

Unless Betelgeuse goes supernova in the next four months, I think I will be remembering 2018 as the year the planets were so amazing in the evening sky. And there will be a dramatic finale in the skies over the Driftless Area this month. All you need is a clear view to the west and south. You can enjoy everything with just your eyes, though binoculars will help to spot things and a small telescope lets you see more details.

The show starts September 11 when you may be able to catch a very thin Crescent Moon low in the west between sunset around 7:20 and moonset around 8:45. To the left of the Moon in the southwest is Venus, brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. By the next night, the Moon has waxed a little fuller and can be seen above Venus. A small telescope shows Venus growing larger as it moves closer to Earth and its crescent phase waning as it moves closer to the Sun this month. On September 13, the Crescent Moon is near Jupiter, the third brightest object in the night sky. That’s Zubenelgenubi below the Moon and Zubeneschamali above the Moon. A small telescope reveals four of Jupiter’s moon and its cloud bands.

The view on 9/16 with the First Quarter Moon

The Moon continues to wax and is above the red supergiant Antares on September 15. The First Quarter Moon is to the right of Saturn on September 16 and to its left on September 17 in the southern sky. Its rings are awesome in a small telescope. On September 19, the Waxing Gibbous Moon is above Mars in the southeast. Mars has dimmed some since its close approach back in July, but is still the fourth brightest object in the night sky. You can see its polar caps and surface feature through a small telescope. And any evening in September, you can be awed by the sight of four worlds gracefully arcing across the sky from southeast to southwest.

We can be wowed by such sights because the Driftless Area enjoys such starry skies. Even though the ridges and valleys can make it challenging to find the horizon, we are away from much of the sky glow of urban areas. And that makes it easier to connect with our homes in the Solar System, Milky Way, and Cosmos! You can learn more about dark skies at a special presentation by John Rummel at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on September 26 at 8 pm. John Rummel is an amateur astronomer and photographer and will be sharing stories of his search for the darkest skies. His talk is part of the Ralph Nuzum Driftless Dialogue Lecture series and is free. If skies are clear, we will be doing some star and planet gazing afterwards. Enjoy all the starry sights of our dark driftless skies as we wend our way from summer to fall with the autumnal equinox on Sept 22.

Iowa County Astronomers have their monthly meeting on September 7 in Dodgeville. Pat Ladwig will be sharing some of her favorite astro photos. Indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7pm, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge (September 15), Wildcat Mountain (September 29), and Yellowstone Lake (September 1). UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public programs (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on September 1. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on September 8 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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