See Uranus Tonight!

Hey, everyone! I hope you’re having a great weekend. Today has been an exciting day in the sky. Earlier, there was an annular solar eclipse visible in the southern hemisphere. I’m sure it was a gorgeous and wonderful sight. For Johnny Cash’s birthday, a Ring of Fire eclipse!

Since this is the first chance I’ve had in a few days to write, and the eclipse has already happened. I’ll save what I had in mind to say for another day. If you were there as the eclipse happened, do you have any photos? If you do, pass them along. It’d be great to see.

Let’s move on to the planets. With the eclipse having been today, the moon is new. Happy new month! This means starting tomorrow (Monday, US time), the young phases, the thin and earth-lit waxing crescents, are back. The Waxing Crescents would be a good band name, wouldn’t it? The moon will move through the western side of the sky around dusk, which is where Venus and Mars have been for the last few months. They’re dimming now, but still bright enough to stand out against the late winter’s dusky oranges. By the end of March, Venus will slide into the morning skies, so get a look now while you can.

This time around, though, there’s a bonus. Hiding in the dark, and tip-toeing up on Mars from two billion miles away is the icy giant planet Uranus, the knocked-over-on-its-side one. With everything running around in their orbits and our line of sight on Mars and Uranus changing the way it’s been, the two are very close together in the skies over the next couple of nights. We’re burning daylight; let’s get to it.

So, tonight, if you have a pair of binoculars, head out and look off toward the dusk after the sun’s had it for the day. Without the ‘nocs, you’ll see bright Venus riding high with dimmer, orange Mars up and to its left, toward the south.

Point your binoculars at Mars and look for Uranus nearby. It’s a blue-grey object, sort of the color of an old, faded and well-loved pair of jeans, the kind with the torn knees and the grass and chili stains (keep in mind when you take this advice that I’m color blind). Tonight, the 26th, it’ll be to the left of Mars. Tomorrow, the 27th, my friend Mike’s birthday (happy birthday, Mike), it’ll be lower, sort of at seven o’clock relative to Mars. On Wednesday, March 1, Mars, Uranus, and the thin crescent moon will be in a spectacular triangle. After that they’ll go their separate ways and it’ll be hard to find Uranus without Mars or the moon as a guide. Once you’ve seen it, though, you’ve seen it, and you’ll recognize it right away.

Uranus and Mars in the west, approx 8:00 PM Feb. 26, Feb. 27, and March 1, 2017 (from Stellarium)
Uranus and Mars in the west, approx 8:00 PM Feb. 26, Feb. 27, and March 1, 2017 (from Stellarium)

We usually think of there being six naked-eye planets, including the one where Naked Eyes are. Now’s a chance to add Uranus to the list of planets you’ve seen, something most casual astronomy fans haven’t done. We’ve finally had a couple of clear nights around here over the last week, so I’ve been keeping an eye on it, watching it move closer to Mars. One of the things I love most about the skies is how reliable they are. I love that things change so slowly on a human scale that it’s hard to see anything change from one night to the next. On the other hand it’s been really great  watching them move closer together, slowly, sort of the way William Herschel must have done a couple of weeks short of 236 years ago. To have a chance to see a  neighbor, another planet in our family, something so close but so rarely seen, just makes things that much better. It’s hidden in plain sight, a small secret between us astronomy lovers, but a secret I’m thrilled spill. It’s really a special thing and I hope you can see it, too.

Clear skies, everyone!

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