On Sept. 20, I went to a local pond before dawn. I saw, both in the sky and reflected in the water, the beautiful, close pairing of Venus and the star Regulus. The current week will bring us what should be an even lovelier arrangement of planets featuring two amazingly close pairings of worlds at dawn.
Two pairings: Luckily, sunrises now occur after 7 a.m. If you can get a clear view low in the east at about 6 a.m., you can enjoy the trio of blazing Venus, bright Mercury and dimmer Saturn. Mars will even form a triangle with the moon and Gemini's bright star Pollux on Sunday morning.
The trio of planets starts rising at about 5:30 p.m., in full darkness. By 6 a.m., they will have risen above the worst horizon haze, and morning twilight will not be too bright.
Mercury-Saturn pairing: On Wednesday morning, look first for brilliant Venus. Your fist at arm's length is about 10 degrees wide. Tomorrow, Mercury and Saturn are only about 7 degrees to the lower left of Venus. Mercury and Saturn themselves are only about 1 degree apart - that is less than the width of your little finger held out at arm's length.
Thursday morning is the time for the closest pairing, or conjunction, of Mercury and Saturn. They will be less than a half-degree from each other - two points of light seemingly almost touching. The two have not been visible closer to each other since 2002 and will not be again until sometime after 2020.
If you have a good telescope, try to use 100 power or more and see Mercury and Saturn in the same field of view. Images are likely to be very unsteady so low in the sky. But you just may be able to see that Mercury's globe is only a little more than half-lit and that Saturn's rings are so nearly sideways to us that they look like needle-like spikes sticking out from either side of its globe.
The Venus-Saturn pairing: In the mornings Friday through Monday, Saturn will cross the 6 degrees or 7 degrees between Mercury and Venus - a wide-angle pair of binoculars can fit all three together. On Monday, Saturn will be 1.2 degrees from Venus. But next Tuesday, the pair will be closest - just a half-degree apart. That will be a stunning sight. And later next week, the crescent moon will join Venus and Saturn.
Moon impact: Although the East Coast of the United States will not be able to see it, large amateur telescopes farther west could show the flame and cloud from the deliberate impact of the LCROSS spacecraft Wednesday morning. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite will attempt to confirm recently discovered signs of water in the permanently dark insides of deep craters at the moon's poles. For updates, visit:
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: