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Touring the Skies By Jim Bonser (

January 30, 2020
Reinbeck Courier
As some of you who have been reading my articles for years know, my interest in astronomy began when my mom got me a telescope for my birthday when I was around 9 years old. I was hooked when I caught a glimpse of Saturn through that little scope. Unfortunately, besides the Moon, which was amazing by the way, I was never able to locate any other interesting objects with that scope. Nevertheless, that tiny, perfect image of Saturn and those incredible rings had been burned indelibly into my brain. Eventually, my interest in astronomy had to take a backseat to other things when I went off to Bible College to become a minister, got married to the girl of my dreams, and began to raise a family. That memory of Saturn never completely left however, and one day as I was walking with my wife and kids past the bookstore in the Marshalltown Mall, I caught a glimpse of Saturn on the cover of a Sky and Telescope magazine through the store window. I just had to go in and buy the magazine. When I got home, I began reading it and found out that Venus, Mars and Jupiter were going to do something called a ‘conjunction’. This was in June of 1991. My oldest child was 9 and the next oldest was 7 – just about the same ages as when I got my first view of another world through a telescope. I wanted them to share the experience that I had had so I made a few phone calls and found someone with a telescope who would be willing to set it up so my kids could view all three planets through it. They thought they looked cool, but they were way more interested in the farm animals than the planets, lol. On the other hand, my smoldering interest in astronomy came roaring back. I’ve written about most of this before, so you may be wondering why I am bringing it up again. Well, I’m glad you asked! This month there is going to be another grouping of three bright planets; Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. Different from that conjunction almost 30 years ago in a couple of ways but for some reason, thinking about this month’s grouping brought all those memories of that fateful conjunction flooding back and I just had to share them again. In astronomy, a conjunction is a close grouping of two or more objects, usually of planets or of a planet and the Moon and usually they appear to be very close – within a few degrees or so. This month’s grouping doesn’t really qualify as a conjunction because the planets are not that close together, but they will make a striking, slanting line in the southwest near the horizon just before sunrise. Mars leads the way shining at magnitude 1.2. Mars is farthest from the Sun in the constellation Sagittarius. Next in line to towards the Sun at a very bright -2.0 magnitude is Jupiter followed by my favorite planet Saturn at magnitude 0.6. The Moon will crash the party on February 18 by actually passing in front of Mars a few minutes before 6 A.M. This is called an occultation by astronomers. Sunrise does not come until about an hour later, so although the skies will be starting to lighten, Mars will still be visible next to the bright limb of the Moon through a small telescope or a good pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod. Mars will stay hidden behind the Moon for about 90 minutes. Switching to the evening skies this month, Venus shines super bright in the southwest after sunset. I’ve only caught a couple glimpses of Venus so far this January because of the weather, but hopefully the clouds will give us a few opportunities admire this dazzling planet. The Moon will pass by Venus on February 27th. They will make a stunning pair and a beautiful nightscape picture with a suitable foreground object like a tall building or a barn. Finally, let’s not forget little Mercury which makes an evening appearance this month. Look for Mercury a little while after sunset from about the 3rd through the 18th. The best time to view the planet this month would be around the 10th when it will be separated from the Sun by slightly over 18 degrees. In a telescope, on the 10th, Mercury will look like a miniature quarter Moon. Let’s hope for a mild February with lots of clear skies!


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