County residents will host a spectacular array of cosmic visitors in the skies overhead in the coming weeks. Step outdoors after dark one night this weekend and take a moment to experience the beauty of Clarke County.
With hundreds of cable television channels available for viewing – or so people living in Clarke County have heard since for many residents broadband access is an abstract concept – it can be easy to forget that the night skies provided entertainment for our ancestors for thousands of years. Starting this Sunday evening, the next few weeks will deliver a dazzling array of heavenly hosts to your door step. The entry fee for the show is nothing more than stepping outside and looking “up”.
On Sunday evening, ringed beauty Saturn will reach what astronomers call “opposition”. This means that Saturn will be exactly opposite the Sun from the Earth’s perspective. Think “bright” and “big” here.
Because of Saturn’s famous rings and its gaseous surface, the planet will appear as a brilliant ball floating over Clarke County’s Great Blue Ridge in the eastern sky around dusk just as the sun is setting in the west. But while Saturn won’t be quite as big or bright as a full moon, the planet’s zero magnitude brightness will make it standout in Clarke County’s dark night skies.
As Saturn rises through the constellation Virgo around sundown it will be accompanied by the star Spica at the beginning of the evening. Both Saturn and Spica will remain visible all night long through the end of April.
Even though Saturn will remain visible for several weeks, this weekend offers the best views, providing skies are clear, because of a waxing moon that is only a quarter full. As the moon reaches “full” on April 17, when it too reaches opposition to the Sun, Saturn’s luminescence will appear to dim as the Moon’s brightness increases each night.
But if Saturn is not enough to nudge you into a nocturnal stroll, Mother Nature isn’t finished with Clarke County yet!
Like a string of pearls being pulled aloft the Shenandoah River, the quartet of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter will rise into our eastern skies toward the end of April. First will appear Venus followed by Mercury, Mars and Jupiter starting around 6:00 a.m. on April 22.
But the planetary quartet’s grand finale will be saved for just before dawn on April 30 when the waning crescent moon and Venus stroll overhead together. Venus can’t be missed due to its negative third magnitude brightness that night. After locating Venus look for tiny (and dimmer at zero magnitude) Mercury just below Venus.
And since you have gotten up early to take in the stars, wait a few more minutes after finding Venus and Mercury because Mars and Jupiter will soon take the stage arm-in-arm together in conjunction on May 1st.
Come to think of it, who needs broadband anyway?