SOUTHERN UTAH — The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Kanab, Utah, which provides opportunities for people to observe, appreciate and comprehend our starry night sky. Additional information is available online. Send questions and comments to [email protected].
The seasons officially change at 7:31 a.m. MDT on Tuesday, the autumnal equinox, when summer ends and autumn begins. There’s nothing to see directly, but you do experience it in a sense: On the equinox, the sun rises due east and sets due west, and the days and nights are each 12 hours long. “Equinox” comes from “equal night”, “aequinoctium” in Latin.
All summer, the sun has risen and set north of east and west and the days were longer than the nights, but for the next six months this situation is reversed; the nights are longer than the days and the sun takes a more southernly path across the sky. It’s also the day when the sun crosses the Earth’s equator; on this day, at the equator, the sun stands directly overhead at local noon.
From the North Pole, this is when the sun rises and from the South Pole, it’s when the sun sets, and there will be six months of continuous day and night, respectively. In the southern hemisphere, the situation is reversed and it is their vernal equinox and the beginning of their spring.
Turning to planets, the first “star” to appear at night is the planet Jupiter, which is one-third of the way up the southern sky as the sky grows dark, and which is brighter than any real star. Saturn is a short distance (8 degrees) to the left. These two planets remain paired the rest of the year, and they’ll be amazingly close late in December – coincidentally, at the winter solstice. They’re at their highest and best at 9 p.m. and they set in the southwest after midnight. The moon is to the lower right of Jupiter in the evening on Thursday and to the lower left of Saturn the following evening.
Mars rises in the southeast at 9 p.m. and it’s precisely as bright as Jupiter. You can’t miss its red color, which comes from rusted iron minerals in its surface rocks and soil. The Earth is catching Mars as we orbit the sun faster, and soon Mars will be slightly brighter than Jupiter. Mars will be in the news when it’s at its closest and is visible all night in just a few weeks.
Venus rises at 4 a.m. and is brilliant low in the southeast during morning twilight. Telescopically, Venus looks like a tiny two-thirds full moon.
Written by JOHN MOSLEY. John Mosley was program supervisor of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for 27 years and is the author of “Stargazing for Beginners” and “Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescopes”. He and his wife live in St. George where he continues to stargaze from his retirement home while serving on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.