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The Shallow Sky

Holiday Planet Watching

Akkana Peck

The holiday season brings planet watchers some beautifully decorated ornaments hanging in the sky all night - and three gifts: a Saturn occultation, a near-occultation, and a partial solar eclipse.

The solar eclipse occurs on December 14th. It won't be much from here - we'll see less than twenty percent of the sun covered by the moon - but that might be enough to be able to see it with a pinhole viewer (let the sun's image project through a small hole into a light colored surface), and it will certainly be enough to see it using a solar filter over your eye or covering the objective of binoculars or a telescope. It's a good excuse to look at the sun anyway - the sunspots have been spectacular throughout this solar-maximum year, so there will almost certainly be something to see.

The near-occultation occurs on November 30, when observers south and east of us will see the moon pass in front of Saturn. Unfortunately, here in San Jose it just misses, and in LA it's over before moonrise. But if you're contemplating a trip to the midwest or east coast, be sure to take a telescope or binoculars; and if you're staying here, take a look at the moon when it rises - Saturn won't be far away.

The real occultation happens at the end of the month, December 28th, and we're smack in the middle of the path for this one (weather permitting, of course). The moon will be one day short of full, and Saturn will disappear behind the moon's dark limb at 12:11am, reappearing at 1:28. is a good site for getting detailed predictions of occultations - much easier to read than the general charts in Sky&Telescope or the RASC Observer's Handbook.

Of course, you shouldn't neglect Saturn on the nights between November 30 and December 28 - it's perfectly placed for observing all month, high in the sky with its rings wide open. This year is a great time to observe the gaps in Saturn's rings - even the narrow gap in the A ring (named after the various people who observed it at different times - Encke, Keeler, DiVico and others) should be visible in a moderately sized telescope with good optics, if we get any luck at all with the weather this winter.

And Jupiter, trailing about two hours behind Saturn, rounds out the feast. The ALPO Jupiter list has been reporting that there's a new small and pale red spot visible in the NEB; a few people have been watching it and imaging it, and it seems to be growing in both size and intensity. In photos it looks mostly like a white spot, but apparently it looks much more red when viewed visually on the limb. What will it become? I've also heard reports that the Great Red Spot (in the SEB) is less red than it was last year (too bad - last year it was looking like it might bloom and turn really red, so we could stop calling it the "great spot formerly known as red").

The lesser gas giants, Uranus and Neptune, are still visible in the western sky just after dark. Mars, too, is visible this month, a little higher in the western sky. It's fairly far from us now, and therefore small - around 7" - but the reports are that the global dust storm is finally abating, and more detail is visible now than could be seen at opposition when the planet was much closer to us with a much bigger apparent size.

Mercury and Venus are both morning planets now, but they're racing back toward the sun and aren't very well placed for observing past the first few days of December.

Mail to: Akkana Peck
Copyright © 2001 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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