This is the Griffith Observatory Sky Report for the week ending Wednesday, February 5, 2014. Here is what’s happening in the skies of Southern California:
Thirty minutes after sunset, look for the innermost planet, Mercury. Appearing like a bright star in the west-southwest, Mercury is 12 degrees high when it becomes visible, and sets at about 6:45 p.m.
The moon is new on Thursday, the 30th. Look for the moon to the right of Mercury on the 31st. By February 4, the moon is 62 degrees high at sunset, and sets at 11:07 p.m.
The largest planet, Jupiter is bright and high in the east after sunset and passes nearly overhead at 10:00 p.m. Jupiter sets in the west-northwest just before the start of dawn. The four largest moons of Jupiter can be spotted in steadily held binoculars. Jupiter’s famous storm, the great red spot, will be visible through telescopes at 9 p.m. in Los Angeles on January 30th, February 1st, and 3rd. Jupiter is now the featured planet though Griffith Observatory’s public telescopes.
Orange planet Mars gleams from Virgo the Maiden, where it outshines Virgo’s brightest star, Spica. Mars rises in the east-southeast at about 11:00 p.m., and is best seen when it crosses the meridian 49 degrees high in the south at 4:40 a.m. The planet is a tiny 9 arcseconds wide, but large enough–with the aid of high magnification and a six-inch or larger telescope–to make out the white northern polar cap and the dark markings scattered across the planet’s ochre desert.
Golden planet Saturn gleams from Libra the Scales, and is best seen at dawn when it is 29 degrees (three times the width of your clenched fist viewed from arm’s length) to the lower left of slightly brighter Mars. Most telescopes will readily show Saturn’s spectacular ring system and the largest of its many moons.
The brightest planet, Venus can’t be missed after it rises in the east-southeast at 4:43 a.m. At sunrise, the planet will be 22 degrees high in the southeast. A telescope can be used to see the crescent phase of Venus.
A stellar explosion, called a supernova, is now visible though backyard telescopes in the bright galaxy M82 in Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The supernova is expected to reach its peak brightness this week at magnitude 10.5. This should be within range of telescopes having greater than 3-inch diameter. Information explaining how to observe this supernova and another, brightening in galaxy M99, can be found at the Sky and Telescope web page:
The International Space Station’s best passage over Los Angeles happens this week on Thursday the 30th. The ISS should outshine Jupiter as it crosses the sky from south-southwest at 7:12 p.m. to northeast, where it vanishes into earth’s shadow while 32 degrees high at 7:17 p.m. It is highest, 69 degrees above the southeast horizon, at 7:16 p.m. It is worth trying to follow the ISS through a telescope–the space station’s perpendicular arrangement of laboratory and crew quarters with the giant solar panel arrays make the satellite appear through the eyepiece as a flying letter H.
Free views of the sun during the day and of the moon, planets, and other celestial objects at night, are available to the public in clear weather through Griffith Observatory’s telescopes Tuesday-Sunday before 9:30 p.m. Check our website for our schedule. The next public star party on the grounds of Griffith Observatory, hosted by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, the Sidewalk Astronomers, and the Planetary Society, will take place on Saturday, February 8.
From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.