North Hawaii News Articles from CFHT
On Stage this March -- The Planetary Ballet
This month, you have the opportunity to watch a particularly nice
example of the slow ballet of the planets. The best time to watch the
show is at the beginning of the night, just about 7pm, when the sky is
getting dark and the planets in question have not yet set. The best
place to watch is the west side of the island, where the setting
planets can be seen the longest. Viewers on the east side of the Big
Island may find the events near the end of the month blocked by the
bulk of Mauna Kea.
At the beginning of the month, the show starts with Saturn, Jupiter
and Mars clearly visible in a line in the western sky after sunset.
As you look West, while the sky fades to a deep blue, you will see
these three players pop on stage one by one. First Jupiter, the
brightest, will become visible about 45 degrees above the horizon. A
little later, Saturn, followed by Mars, will make their appearances.
Saturn will be higher in the sky than Jupiter; their separation will
be about the same as the width of your hand at arm's length. Mars
will be lower in the sky. At 7pm, it will be about half-way between
Jupiter and the horizon - assuming the horizon is not blocked by Mauna
Kea! Most people are aware that Mars is reddish, but if you look
carefully, you may notice that Saturn and Jupiter have colors of their
own as well. Saturn has a yellowish color, while Jupiter is also
slightly reddish, though not nearly as strikingly red as Mars!
Stars have colors as well. When the sky is fully dark, by about 8pm
or 9pm, two of the brightest and reddest stars will be easy to spot
directly overhead. These two are known by their Arabic names,
Betelgeuse and Aldebaran, and they look very similar. Both are red
because they are quite cool, but these two stars are actually very
different in several important ways.
First, Betelgeuse is 10 times further away, which means it is
intrinsically 100 times brighter than Aldebaran, if viewed from the
same distance. The difference in brightness comes from a difference
in size: Betelgeuse is roughly 40 times the diameter of Aldebaran.
Both are large stars compared to the sun. If we replaced the sun with
Aldebaran, it would be about the size of a basketball held at arm's
length. Betelgeuse, however, would not only engulf the Earth, it
would fill all of the space out to Jupiter as well! Another
difference between these stars is in their masses. Betelgeuse is a
rather massive star, several times heavier than our sun, while
Aldebaran is not so heavy, being only about the mass of the sun, or
Both stars are nearing the end of their lives, but the difference in
their masses means they will end their lives very differently.
Aldebaran will die in a somewhat gentle fashion, puffing out a big
cloud of gas and leaving a core that will slowly cool down and vanish.
Betelgeuse, on the other hand, will explode in one of the most
spectacular astronomical events, a supernova. For a couple of weeks,
Betelgeuse will outshine the moon, then fade away. These exiting
events will probably not take place for several thousand years. In
the meantime, we can be entertained by the somewhat more subtle
display of the planets.
As the month goes by, Mars will slowly approach Jupiter and Saturn.
At the same time, Jupiter and Saturn will be moving closer together as
well. On the 9th and 10th, there will be particularly nice views as
the young crescent moon passes by the group. On the 9th, the moon will
be close to Mars and Jupiter, and on the 10th, it will be almost
between Jupiter and Saturn. By the end of the month, Jupiter, Saturn
and Mars will form a short line only 10 degrees long -- that is the
width of your hand at arms length.
The ballet continues into April, as the three planets get even closer
together. Mars catches up to Jupiter on April 7 and passes Saturn on
April 15th. By that time, the group of planets will be getting hard
to see as they start to set only about and hour and a half after
sunset. They may be blocked by clouds or heavy Vog before the sky is
dark enough for them to be visible. Nonetheless, at least until the
first week of April, the planetary ballet should be easy to watch.
The best way to notice the subtle motions of the planets is to look at
them most nights over the course of the next month or so. Compare
their positions relative to each other, to the moon, and to the fixed
stars, and you will start to see the motions of the planets.
It may not be quite as action packed as prime-time TV, but the
planetary show is free of advertising and on every night in your
neighborhood. For thousands of years, this show was the only show in