Help me name this planet
October 29, 2005 7:10 PM   Subscribe

Mefi astronomers: From San Diego, CA, I can see a very bright object in the lower Southwestern sky. Is this a planet? It is the brightest object in the sky and almost imperceptibly moving west along a plane. Note the time 7:06 pm PDT.

I would like to be able to tell my kids what the bright thing in the sky is. They noted that it is like a small sun.
posted by snsranch to Education (22 answers total)
 
It's probably Venus. If you have binoculars you might be able to see what phase it's in.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 7:12 PM on October 29, 2005


Upon further search it's almost definitely Venus - it's found in the southwest evening sky this month and next.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 7:16 PM on October 29, 2005


South west appears indeed to be Venus (see star chart at Heavens-Above). Also try to see Mars in the east, as Mars is just about as close as it gets. The westward motion you're seeing, by the way, is caused by the rotation of the earth, most likely. It's about to set.
posted by skynxnex at 7:19 PM on October 29, 2005


You guys are good. Thank you so much. BTW, yes I can see Mars too. Beautiful.
posted by snsranch at 7:23 PM on October 29, 2005


I would like to be able to tell my kids what the bright thing in the sky is. They noted that it is like a small sun.

See, I would've just told them it's a meteor coming to wipe out the earth because they've been bad, and tell them that I hope they're happy now, that everyone has to die because they made God angry. Which is probably why I should never have kids.
posted by ori at 8:29 PM on October 29, 2005


Ok, smart-asses, here's a secondary question, what is the name of the device that illustrates how the planets revolve around the sun?

FWIW, intermod and ori, I get your humor. I may not be old enough to have kids, but when I learn something new I like to share it with them. And if you're so smart what is that thing called so I can go buy one for them so that we can continue our learning.

To Dipsomaniac and skynxnex, thanks guys. We were able to see both Venus and Mars and the kids loved it.
posted by snsranch at 9:59 PM on October 29, 2005


I'm twenty-six, and while I can identify a bright shining object in the night sky as being a planet, and my most often used guess is Venus, its not something I was taught or bother to keep informed about. I'm fascinated with space, but astronomy doesn't really fall into the realm of popular knowledge. I doubt many can point out more than two or three constellations.

I don't have a clue who the NY Dolls are, either.

Likewise, most people can't name the majority of presidents in the 19th century, and I feel thats terrible. :)
posted by Atreides at 10:03 PM on October 29, 2005


it's an orrery, of course!
posted by wzcx at 10:03 PM on October 29, 2005


If you turn off the popup blocker in your browser, visit the Interactive Sky Chart Java Applet, select your date, time, and location, you can see your local sky. Venus is, in fact, the bright object you are looking at.

For what it is worth, Mars was also visible in virtually the same altitude and azimuth at 5:44 pm local time, though it was probably still light out. The notion that certain posters find it fascinating you did not know which object you are seeing is preposterous. Furthermore, one of the brightest objects in your local sky tonight, of all nights, is probably Mars. It was in the eastern sky at the time you were looking at Venus and is probably right overhead if your were to look up in the next hour or so.

One more thing, Venus does not appear to be in retrograde. This means it is moving almost due east across the celestial sphere.

Sorry to be slightly off topic, but I believe it's important to respond to this:
I really don't mean this to be demeaning...
In the same vein, it always shocks me that someone as perceptive as you could overlook these funny symbols that appear below this little box we all type in.
Wisecracks don't help people find answers.

posted by sequential at 10:15 PM on October 29, 2005


While I'm at it, the westward motion is not caused by the rotation of the earth. This page has a reasonable word description and an excellent visual depiction of what the cause of retrograde motion is.

The first animated gif shows a common retrograde loop. Retrograde motion can also form a "z" shape.

The second animated gif shows why a planet in retrograde will appear to be moving West in relation to the distant stars, but it, in fact, is not moving West at all.

In retrograde, planets appear to become brighter, until they begin moving east again, when they become fainter.
posted by sequential at 10:23 PM on October 29, 2005


One more thing, Venus does not appear to be in retrograde. This means it is moving almost due east across the celestial sphere.
That should say, "due east in relation to the distant stars". To be clear, celestial objects appear to rise in the east and set in the west, using the celestial sphere as a model, which causes the appearance of westward movement. For some reason I thought your remark about Venus traveling west was in relation to the distant stars.

I'll shut up now.
posted by sequential at 10:31 PM on October 29, 2005


This seems to be a popular bit of confusion at the moment.
posted by Lazlo at 10:34 PM on October 29, 2005


man, that sfgate article is bad.

since venus' orbit is between us and the sun, it never strays very far from the position of the sun as seen from earth. its either visible right after sunset in the west, or right before sunrise in the east. right now its visible right before sunset.

mars is currently rising a bit after sundown, and is therefore first visible in the eastern sky.

mars can definitely be in conjunction with venus, just not right now! i think the astronomers probably told the author of the article "both venus and mars are near the earth right now" and the author took that to mean "they appear near one another in the sky"

sheesh.

p.s. let me take this opportunity to bash Meade Instruments Inc. 2+ months ago i ordered a telescope from them so i'd have it up and running for the mars opposition... they still havent shipped it to me, though it was supposed to ship in 1-2 days. and they have told me it will arrive in 2-4 weeks every time i have called them. i am a shareholder in meade (but probably not for long) and i guess i'll be going back to celestron.
posted by joeblough at 10:59 PM on October 29, 2005


Joe, I made the same mistake in my initial post.
Mars was also visible in virtually the same altitude and azimuth at 5:44 pm local time, though it was probably still light out.
It should say Mercury.
posted by sequential at 11:08 PM on October 29, 2005


It's sad that we have reporters questioning astronomers who say what the lights in the sky are, but other reporters who keep silent when they know that a high White House official has committed a felony. But maybe that's just me.

Honestly, I don't expect everyone today -- when over 50% of Americans live in urban areas -- to be wholly familiar with the sky, but jeez -- a few basics, at least! Venus is always the brightest thing in the sky after the Moon -- it's the "Evening Star" (and "Morning Star", depending on timing), after all.

snsranch, I will say that it was very perceptive of you to note its movement over time, and more important, that it was along a plane -- this is the plane of the ecliptic, where all planets (with the exception of quasi-planet Pluto) orbit. In any case, there are two bits of movement here -- the first being that Earth is rotating, and so any planet will rise and set; and the second being that, yes, Venus is passing Earth in its orbit; since it's closer to the Sun, it revolves faster, and thus approaches us and then moves farther away; at certain points, it is opposite us from the Sun and invisible to the naked eye (which shouldn't be looking directly at the Sun anyway).
posted by dhartung at 11:24 PM on October 29, 2005


ah, okay. i didnt bother to check where mercury was right now, but mercury and venus are definitely candidates for conjunction.
posted by joeblough at 11:34 PM on October 29, 2005


regarding the above... uh... duh, i guess.

p.s. JUPITER IS A PLANET! (Jack Horkheimer)

not a bad place to learn some "backyard" astronomy...
posted by joeblough at 11:39 PM on October 29, 2005


FWIW, intermod and ori, I get your humor. I may not be old enough to have kids, but when I learn something new I like to share it with them. And if you're so smart what is that thing called so I can go buy one for them so that we can continue our learning.

Wasn't being 'so smart'--in fact, you can count me among the galaxial illeterate. I thought intermod was being kind of an ass, though.
posted by ori at 12:30 AM on October 30, 2005


Changing the subject slightly from 'Know Your Planets,' I love NASA's Human Space Flight Real Time Sightings applet and I think the original poster would like it also. This applet shows you all potential sightings of the International Space Station and a few other orbital bodies, including the space shuttle when it's in orbit, from your location anywhere in the world.

During STS-107 (Discovery) this summer, Discovery flew right over my head on its last orbit before landing in California. I had just stumbled upon this applet about two hours prior, while waiting for the Florida landing, and decided to go outside and see if I could find the orbiter as it passed over our city. I've seen space shuttle launches, but I've never seen any object move from one horizon to the other in less than 90 seconds, which is what Discovery did that morning. It was bright and unmistakable, and the ISS moves nearly as fast and is likewise unmistakable when it passes over you at night. If your kids liked Venus, they'll love seeing the ISS.
posted by lambchop1 at 12:59 AM on October 30, 2005


Study a starmap, then rig a red filter for a flashlight. White light hinders your night vision. Take your children away from city lights, trees and buildings ( good luck finding a spot) and start by finding the Big Dipper which is an asterism in Ursa Major.
Follow the clues on your map to locate the Little Dipper and Polaris, the current north star. Once you are oriented, you can find all the other constellations as they appear - um, they are always there, but you cannot see the ones that are overhead in the daytime because of the the "daystar", the sun.
You may find that you have an enjoyable hobby to share with your family. Win/win.
posted by Cranberry at 1:31 AM on October 30, 2005


Thanks to all. I've learned far more than was expected. Fascinating!
posted by snsranch at 3:28 PM on October 30, 2005


Although late, check this comment in the blue which links an exhaustive list of applications for every OS + handheld + web astronomical tools.
posted by gren at 7:27 AM on November 8, 2005


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