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Oregon Coast (And Inland) Astronomy: Five Planets Put on Show

Published 03/08/2018 at 12:55 AM PDT
By Jim Todd, OMSI (and OCBC staff)

Oregon Coast (And Inland) Astronomy: Five Planets Put on Show

(Oregon Coast) - For the past few days, the morning skies been mostly clear and cold, viewers quickly noticed the visible planets and moon appearance above the eastern and southern horizon. Before sunrise, from March 7 to 11, the waning moon will pass by the morning planets, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. Meanwhile, the evening planets, Venus and Mercury, are putting on a show after sunset. (Above: the planet Mars over Manzanita).

For those on the Oregon coast and other parts of the state, you’re getting a fascinating display above.

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Starting with Jupiter, the brightest of the morning planets. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in the Solar System. Jupiter is primarily composed of hydrogen with a quarter of its mass being helium.

On March 7th, the waning gibbous moon appeared just above the Jovian planet. Jupiter, rises around midnight in early this month, and it shines at magnitude of -2.21 above the southern horizon at dawn. Jupiter will be visible in the evening sky through November 2018.

To the east of Jupiter are the planets Mars and Saturn. Both Mars and Saturn shine brightly at magnitude of 1. During the month of March, Mars appears between Jupiter and Saturn. Saturn appears pale yellow hue while Mars is red. Located between Jupiter and Mars, is the brightest star of Scorpius, Antares, a red giant star, should not be confused for Mars.

For Mars, the waning gibbous moon will pass nearby on March 9 and 10. Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System after Mercury. It is nearly half the size of Earth. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere with reddish iron oxide surface features impact craters and the valleys, deserts, and polar ice cap.

For Mars, 2018 will be an exciting year. It will be a morning planet through May, then starting June will be an evening planet. Mars will reach opposition on July 26, 2018 and will appear brighter than Jupiter. This optimal positioning occurs when an outer planet is almost directly opposite the Sun in the sky. Since the Sun reaches its greatest distance below the horizon at midnight, the point opposite to it is highest in the sky at the same time.

Finally, Saturn is located east of Mars and Jupiter. The waning gibbous moon will pass by Saturn on March 11, 2018. It is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Saturn is a gas giant, composed of hydrogen and helium. The planet's most famous feature is its prominent ring system that is composed mostly of ice particles, with a smaller amount of rocky debris and dust.

Saturn will be a morning planet through April, then starting May will be an evening planet. The ringed planet will reach opposition on June 27, 2018. Saturn will be angled to show its northern hemisphere at this opposition, and the rings will inclined at an angle of 26° to our line of sight, which is almost the maximum inclination.

The Oregon coastline will be an especially engaging place to watch this, weather permitting. Most beaches are without much light interference blocking the sky, and even those with brighter lighting – like at Seaside or parts of Newport – will still be, well, stellar for viewing.

Meanwhile, low in the western evening sky after sunset, the inferior planets, Venus and Mercury, are putting on an impressive show. Venus will be first to appear after sunset, and is the brightest of the pair. Few minutes later, Mercury will appear and will be to the upper right of Venus.

Credit: Stellarium

Mercury is the smallest and innermost planet in the Solar System. Its orbital period around the Sun of 87.97 days is the shortest of all the planets in the Solar System. Venus is the second planet from the Sun, orbiting it every 224.7 Earth days. It has the longest rotation period (day) of any planet in the Solar System and rotates in the opposite direction to most other planets.

Mercury is considered the most elusive planet to view since it is near the Sun. Venus is about 12 times brighter than Mercury. Mercury will reach its greatest eastern elongation (maximum angular separation from the setting sun) on March 15, 2018. At that juncture, Mercury and Venus will stay out about 80 minutes after the sunset. Watch for the young waxing crescent moon to swing by Mercury and Venus on March 18, 19 and 20.

Some areas of the Oregon coast will have headlands blocking your view to the south, where many of these planets appear. Stay a mile north of spots like Tillamook Head, Cascade Head (if you’re at Neskowin), or Cape Perpetua at Yachats.

If you’re in the Portland area, OMSI has daily showings of Starry Night Live! in the Kendall Planetarium. Visit: - Where to stay for this event - Where to eat - Map and Virtual Tour

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