If your skies are clear look toward the west for Venus to be very close, on the east side, of the open star cluster the Pleiades. Both will easily fit within the field of view of binoculars or a telescope with a low-magnification eyepiece.
Inner planets like all the planets as viewed from Earth appear to be moving from one side of the Sun to the other. As a result the visible planets are seen either in the morning skies when located west from the Sun and rising before the Sun rises, or in the evening skies east from the Sun, and setting after the Sun sets. For the two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, these positions on either side of the Sun are known as elongations – western or greatest western elongation and its counterpart, eastern or greatest eastern elongation.
As the graphics below show, both inner planets reach their respective elongations – but on opposite sides of the sun. Monday March 23rd Mercury is at western elongation in the morning skies, and on Tuesday March 24th Venus will be at eastern elongation in the evening skies.
Friday March 20th, this year-2020, is an equinox day. However depending on your local time zone the equinox may occur on the day before as the official time for the equinox is 03:54 UT on the 20th which for my time zone is 10:54 pm March 19th. Regardless, for those in the northern hemisphere winter is ending and spring has ‘sprung’ (starts). From a geographical perspective we would describe the Sun as being over the Earth’s equator, and as this graphic shows there would be an equal amount of daylight and night on our planet as a result.
At mid-day on the equator the sun is directly overhead and from that latitude you have no elongated shadow, just a ‘blob-like’ shadow at your feet as this picture of my feet taken at mid-day in Quito Ecuador shows.
Northern hemisphere spring officially (well at least astronomically) begins at 03:54 UT on the 20th which for my time zone is 10:54 pm March 19th when the Sun reaches the celestial coordinates of 0 hours and 0 degrees as it moves northward along the ecliptic crossing the celestial equator. At this location the Sun is just within the constellation of Pisces the Fishes and not entering Aries the Ram as the pseudoscience of astrology would have you believe.
To learn more about the celestial coordinates click here to read a previous post about seasons and the equinox.
Click here to see the online world sunlight map used to make the day/night graphic at the top of the page.
Celebrate Solar Week March 23rd-27th. Click here to go to the Solar Week web site.
During a trip to Quito Ecuador to visit one of the exchange student we had hosted, and her family, we spent the day at a Museum on the equator, Mitad del Mundo. I brought along my over-sized protractor knowing in advance that we would be at the museum. So at mid-day I had my wife stand on the equator (yellow line) and hold a string to the top of her head while Cathy, a sister of our exchange student, held the protractor. This was done during the summer so the Sun was over the northern horizon at mid-day and the Sun’s angle above the northern horizon was around 75o.
Here is a short series of hourly pictures taken during the day on the September equinox on the equator in Quito Ecuador at Collegio Menor San Francisco de Quito, a private school that I visited and did the SunShIP project with (Sun Shadow Investigation Project).
Wednesday March 11th the Sun in its apparent eastward motion along the ecliptic, moves out of the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer and into the constellation of Pisces the Fishes. This is the true or actual position of the Sun as opposed to the pseudoscience of astrology which usually has the astrological Sun one constellation ahead or east from the Astronomical Sun’s position.
Read a little more about how astrology has the Sun incorrectly placed in a previous blog, and in another blog discussing the effects of precession.
Sunday March 8th the outer ringed planet Neptune will reach a point in its respective orbit where Neptune orbits behind the Sun as viewed from here on Earth. Neptune, or any of the other outer planets (Mars to Neptune), dwarf planets, or small solar system bodies beyond the Earth’s orbit, will all eventually reach this position on the opposite side of the Sun known as solar conjunction.
For the two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, when they are at a similar position on the opposite side of the Sun, they are at superior conjunction.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.
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According to the pseudoscience of astrology the Sun enters the constellation of Pisces the Fishes on Wednesday February 19th. In fact the actual position of the Sun is still within the boundary of the constellation of Aquarius the Water Bearer, as this graphic shows. The Sun had just entered Aquarius 2 days ago.
Watch That WoodChuck!
On February 2, we watch for the groundhog to emerge for reasons that originate from ancient Celtic tradition. Groundhog Day was known as lmbolog, or sheep’s milk, a time for nurturing young sheep and planting spring crops. The belief arose that if lmbolog were to be sunny and clear, then winter’s effects would endure, foreshadowing a long winter. However, if skies were overcast, then the warmer days of spring would arrive early. To farmers then and today, an early spring means early spring planting and a subsequent early harvest. Often fires were lit to commemorate the event as fires were a sign of warmth and light, both of which increased as days lengthened.
German immigrant farmers are credited with bringing Groundhog Day with them to the United States as they settled in Pennsylvania. To them, February 2 was called Candlemas Day, because of the practice of lighting candles on this day in celebration of early planting. The Germans believed that the badger was able to predict the weather on the basis of whether or not its shadow appeared. If the badger, or groundhog, saw its shadow on Candlemas, it would be scared and return to its burrow for another six weeks to sleep through the long winter. However, if the skies were cloudy then no shadows would appear, and an early and warm spring would be expected. The importance of this day to German immigrants, and its impact on their farming gave rise to the couplet:
A farmer would rather see his wife upon a bier,
than that Candlemas Day should be sunny and clear.
Year after year, since 1898, crowds have gathered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on February 2 to wait for a certain groundhog to emerge from its burrow. Today the belief in this as a predictor of weather is not nearly as consequential as it appears despite all the hoopla created by the news media. Yet, there is some scientific rationale to this ritual, albeit not in the accuracy of the forecast. When the skies are clear, temperatures tend to be cold as the ground radiates heat absorbed during the day back into the atmosphere; and when skies are overcast temperatures tend to moderate as clouds trap heat nearer the ground.
To other cultures in the Northern Hemisphere Candlemas Day was celebrated as the midpoint, or cross quarter day, between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Cross-quarter days occur midway between the astronomical events that mark the beginning of each of the four seasons, the solstices and the equinoxes. The second cross-quarter day of the year, as it is calculated mathematically, occurs on May 6, although it is often associated with May Day, on May 1. The third cross quarter day of the year is August 7, the only one of the four without a significant event associated with it. Mid-autumn, the fourth cross-quarter day, occurs on the last day of October, Hallowmas Eve, or as we now know it, Halloween.
Interestingly this system of equinox, solstice, and cross-quarter days has led to some confusion as to when the seasonal midpoints and endpoints occur. For example, June 21-22 is the official date for the start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but it is sometimes referred to as midsummer’s day. This would suggest that summer actually begins on May Day and ends in early August. In a similar manner, December 21, the start of winter for the Northern Hemisphere, is sometimes referred to as midwinter’s day. This would imply winter actually begins at the end of October, and concludes (assuming no shadow is seen) on Groundhog Day.
So will we have a long winter, or will it be short, and our spring be an early spring? No one can predict this, at least not based on seeing one’s shadow. However, come this February 2, rest assured that crowds will once again gather to watch Punxsutawney Phil emerge from his hole.
Adapted from “Watch that Woodchuck” Scope on the Skies. Science Scope Magazine. February 1993.