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July 15, 2024

Backyard Astronomy: Three Planets for September (2004-09-11)

By Cheryl Haimann

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Of course you remember. We all do. Only recently, though, have I recalled what I was doing early in the morning, before daybreak, before the phone calls and the e-mails and the horrific pictures on the television.

I was looking at the sky.

Before dawn that Tuesday, a lovely waning crescent moon hung midway between Jupiter and Saturn in the west. I was away from home and up early, dealing with family issues before I could begin my vacation in earnest. When I went out to get the morning paper, I took a few minutes to enjoy a crisp almost-autumn morning and a clear, beautiful starscape.

Three years later, the morning sky once again rewards the early riser with a nice array of planets, punctuated by a crescent moon.

Look to the east this week just before sunrise, and the stunningly bright "star" you see will be the planet Venus. Saturn is above, and slightly to the right of, Venus. Saturn is bright, but not nearly as brilliant as the Venus. Above Saturn and to the left is another pair of bright stars. They are Pollux (closest to Saturn) and Castor, the stars that mark the heads of the Twins, Gemini.

If it is still fairly dark, point your binoculars toward Venus on the 12th or 13th. The Beehive Cluster (M44, at the center of Cancer) will be just to the left of the planet.

As the sky begins to brighten, look close to the eastern horizon. On the 12th, the twenty-six-day- old moon will be above Regulus, the "heart of the lion." Regulus is the bright star at the base of the sickle-shaped front section of Leo. Below Regulus is tiny, pinkish Mercury. Mercury only appears in the glow of sunrise or sunset, but it is easily recognizable if you take the time to look for it. The next day, it will take a keen eye to pick out the almost-new moon as sunrise begins.

Both Venus and Mercury are descending in the morning sky. Within a few days, Mercury will once again be lost in the sun's glow. By the end of the month, Venus will be nearing Regulus.

It isn't just the morning of September 11, 2001 that I remember. After dark, I was outside again. It was another beautifully clear night. Vega and the Summer Triangle were high overhead, just as they were in New York. I could see Sagittarius and the heart of the Milky Way to the south, just as my husband could hundreds of miles away. In Europe, they would see Jupiter and Saturn and Orion at dawn, just as I had that morning, just as I would again in a few hours.

For a few moments, the day's shocking images ebbed. There was still beauty, there was still constancy, if one knew where to look.

I looked to the sky.
Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-09-11
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