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Science - Space.com
Saturn Joins Full Moon in Tonight's Sky
Thu Dec 19, 9:35 AM ET
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By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer, SPACE.com

 

A Full Moon and the mighty ringed planet Saturn will converge for a delightful skywatching opportunity Thursday night and into Friday morning.

Both objects can be seen with the unaided eye, and both become even more glorious when viewed through binoculars or a small telescope. Saturn's proximity to the Moon makes it easier than ever to find.

The pair will rise together around sunset, with Saturn just above and to the right of the Moon. They will travel together into the night and high into the sky.

A small telescope will reveal Saturn's rings. The planet is currently as bright as it can get and also has its rings tilted favorably for viewing from Earth.

The Moon, meanwhile, provides an inviting target, as always. Binoculars or a small telescope will show details of craters and other terrain on the surface, providing endless opportunities to gaze and learn. The Moon is also interesting to explore without any optical aids (news - web sites).

The two objects are close in part because they travel the same imaginary path across the sky. This so-called ecliptic represents the plane in space through which Earth and the planets orbit the Sun. The Moon moves roughly in this same plane, too. During the day, the Sun also follows the ecliptic in our sky.

Now and then, any objects along the ecliptic can happen to be near one another as seen from our vantagepoint. While the Moon's average distance from Earth is about 238,900 miles (384,402 kilometers), Saturn is presently about 748.6 million miles away (1.2 billion kilometers), however.

There are other easy-to-spot objects the night sky now. At around 9 p.m. Thursday, look for Jupiter to rise, also in the east. Jupiter is very bright and hard to miss right now. To be sure, draw your own ecliptic, a line starting at Saturn and running through the Moon; it will take you almost directly to Jupiter. In reality, you'll see that the ecliptic is not a perfectly straight line; that's because most objects are a wee bit above or below the main orbital plane.

Early risers Friday morning will find Saturn and the Moon in reverse order, with the Moon above and to the left of the planet in the western sky, preparing to set. Jupiter trails them, higher in the western sky and to the left. By then, the amazingly bright Venus will be up in the eastern sky. Venus is so bright it can be observed well into morning twilight.

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