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2011 Skywatching Guide: Planets in the Solar System

2011-skywatching-guide-planets-in-the-solar-system

The planets of our solar system are at tomes some of the most rewarding and simplest skywatching targets to spot, if you know when and where to look. Here's a look at how to observe the planets of the solar system in 2011:

Tip: Astronomers measure distances in the sky in terms of degrees. For reference, your clenched fist held at arm's length covers about 10 degrees of the night sky. The brightness of a planet or other object in the sky is measured as its "magnitude." The lower an object's magnitude, the brighter it appears, so objects with negative signs in front of their magnitude numbers below are exceptionally bright.

MERCURY

Mercury is often a difficult planet to find, but there are certain short periods each year when it can be seen with the naked eye with little effort, either just after sunset or before sunrise.

In 2011, Northern Hemisphere observers will two periods when Mercury can easily be located. During the second half of March, Mercury can be seen low in the west-northwest soon after sunset. During early September, Mercury can be seen low in the east-northeast Just before sunrise.

Southern Hemisphere observers will find Mercury well placed in the morning sky during early May, in the evening sky in late July, and in the evening sky in mid-November.

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and has a thin atmosphere, no air pressure and an extremely high temperature.

Date Event Degrees from Sun Magnitude N. Hemisphere S. Hemisphere Visibility
January 9 Greatest Elongation West 23 –0.3 Poor Good Morning
February 25 Superior Conjunction          
March 23 Greatest Elongation East 19 –0.2 Excellent Poor Evening
April 9 Inferior Conjunction          
May 7 Greatest Elongation West 27 +0.4 Poor Excellent Morning
June 13 Superior Conjunction          
July 20 Greatest Elongation East 27 +0.3 Fair Excellent Evening
August 17 Inferior Conjunction          
September 3 Greatest Elongation West 18 –0.2 Excellent Poor Morning
September 28 Superior Conjunction          
November 14 Greatest Elongation East 23 –0.3 Poor Excellent Evening
December 4 Inferior Conjunction          
December 23 Greatest Elongation West 22 –0.4 Good Good Morning

VENUS

2011 is not a very good year for observing Venus. It spends most of its time in the morning sky or on the far side of the sun.

Date Event Magnitude
January 8 Greatest Elongation West –4.3
August 16 Superior Conjunction –3.8

Venus, second planet from the sun, is one of the brightest natural objects in the sky and has been considered Earth’s sister planet.

MARS

2011 is also a poor year for observing Mars. It spends most of the year on the far side of the sun, and only begins to get large enough to see any detail on it in the last few weeks of the year.

Date Event Magnitude
February 4 Conjunction +1.1

 

The planet Mars, also called the Red Planet, is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere and surface features similar to Earth.

JUPITER

Jupiter spends the first part of the year in the constellation Pisces, except for a brief incursion into the constellation Cetus from February 24 to March 8.

Let the astrologers make of that what they will. It moves into Aries on June 6. It moves back into Pisces on Dec. 3. It is best viewed in the morning sky from July until the Oct. 29 opposition, when it moves into the evening sky for the rest of the year. The angular diameter at opposition will be 49.6 arcseconds. Binoculars will show the four largest satellites. A small telescope will show one or two cloud bands across the visible surface of the planet.

Date Event Magnitude
April 6 Conjunction –2.1
Oct. 29 Opposition –2.9

 

Jupiter is the largest planet in Earth’s solar system and has 63 moons encircling it. The planet is a giant ball of gas and liquid.

SATURN

Saturn will spend all of the year in Virgo. Saturn can be viewed in the morning sky until April 4, when it moves into the evening sky.

From September to November it will be behind the sun, reappearing in December in the morning sky. The rings will gradually be opening over the year, making them easy to see in any telescope magnifying more than about 30x.

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is readily visible in a small telescope, and several more moons may be seen in larger telescopes. At opposition, the planet’s angular diameter will be 19.3 arc seconds.

Date Event Magnitude
April 4 Opposition 0.4
Oct. 13 Conjunction 0.7

 

Saturn, the sixth planet from the Sun, was named after the Roman God Saturn. The planet Saturn is a gas giant and one of the Jovian planets.

URANUS

Uranus spends all of 2011 in the southwestern part of Pisces. It is best viewed in fall. It is in opposition on September 26, when it moves from the morning sky into the evening sky. Although it may be seen with the naked eye in a very dark sky, usually binoculars will be required to make it out. Its angular diameter is less than 4 arcseconds.

Date Event Magnitude
March 21 Conjunction 5.9
Sept. 26 Opposition 5.7

The planet Uranus, seventh planet from the sun, is a giant ball of gas and liquid and was the first planet discovered with a telescope.

NEPTUNE

Neptune starts out 2011 in Capricornus, but on Jan. 23 it moves into Aquarius for the rest of the year. It is best viewed during the late summer and early fall. It is in opposition on Aug. 22, when it moves from the morning sky into the evening sky. Binoculars or a small telescope will be required to see it. The angular diameter is about 2 arcseconds.

Date Event Magnitude
Feb. 17 Conjunction 8.0
Aug. 22 Opposition 7.8

 

The planet Neptune is the eighth planet from the Sun and has a thick atmosphere and the fastest winds in the solar system.
All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

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Source: RASC Observer’s Handbook 2011 and Starry Night Software

This 2011 Planets Skywatching Guide is provided by Starry Night Education

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