Spring is here and it is time to go out and see the wonders of the night sky.
Even if you are surrounded by city lights and do not have a telescope, you will still be able to see four bright planets at once, two brilliant spacecraft, and a pairing of a slender moon and radiant planet.
This week, you can join me and see those sights - and many others - at a free public skywatch at Belleplain State Forest in northern Cape May County.
First skywatch of 2010: The skywatch is held by the South Jersey Astronomy Club, or SJAC, and begins at about 7:30 p.m. Friday, weather permitting. The rain date is Saturday. For more information, call the Forest Office at 609-861-2404 or visit:
Those who attend will be shown sights through some of the biggest and finest telescopes in New Jersey. Among the sights are four planets, the brightest asteroid, the Orion Nebula, colorful double stars, star clusters and galaxies.
Four planets at once: If you cannot make it to the skywatch and do not have a telescope, you can still enjoy the appearance of four planets at nightfall this month with the naked eye. At about 8 p.m., look low in the west and you will spot blazing Venus and, to the lower right, the dimmer planet Mercury. Later, when the sky is darker, look high in the west where there are two prominent stars of similar brightness - the Gemini twin stars - and you will see, at a moderate distance to their left, an orange-gold point of light that is brighter than them and shines steadily. That is Mars. Go much farther left from Mars, past a prominent star about as bright as the Gemini pair, and you will see a steady point of light almost as bright as Mars: golden Saturn.
Rendezvous times two: The international space station, or ISS, makes spectacular passes over New Jersey before sunrise Thursday and Saturday. The ISS glides virtually overhead at about 5:47 a.m. Thursday when it passes very near the bright star Vega. On Saturday, the ISS comes out of Earth's shadow suddenly, flashing into view nearly overhead at 5 a.m. This will surely be a spectacular sight.
For more details about the ISS passes, visit:
The site will also tell you where space shuttle Discovery, launched Monday, is located. The shuttle, once docked on the ISS, should be a brighter point of light.
At about 6 a.m. Sunday, there will be a rendezvous between the moon and Jupiter. Low in the east, a slim crescent moon will be located straight above the planet.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: