Stargazer maps out spectacles in night sky

Monday, February 13, 2012 | 2:08 p.m. CST; updated 3:49 p.m. CST, Monday, February 13, 2012
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The next four months hold opportunities to witness several noteworthy galactic events, including a planetary transit across the sun that will not occur for another 120 years. Val Germann, president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, presented a list of the most visually striking events as the first part of the "Cosmic Conversations" lecture series on Feb. 1. Looking at the month and date you desire, the diagram below shows you what constellations and planets you might see while looking due south around 8 p.m. Mouse over the numbers to learn about some of the top visual astro-events.

COLUMBIA — It's difficult for Val Germann to explain exactly why he's so attracted to the night sky, but he'll never forget the way he was moved when he first peered through a telescope as a boy.

"It has to have some kind of emotional content to it — something that is derived from it that can't be explained," he said.

List of sky spectacles

Val Germann of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association has prepared this list of events into June along with details about their significance:

1. Feb. 25 and Feb. 26: These two evenings both feature an eclipse of the star AlgolCQ, known as the “Demon Star,” in the constellation PerseusCQ. The double star will dim throughout the night as a sister star eclipses the other. These types of eclipses occur when two stars orbit each other. Most of the new “exo-planets” have been found by studying the dimming of a star due to the passage of a planet in front of that star. 

2. March 5: The crescent moon makes the first of three monthly passes near Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets. The dark part of the crescent moon features a "ghostly Earth shine” caused by sunlight reflected from the day side of Earth.

3. March 10: Venus and Jupiter, the king and queen of the planets, make a striking pair in the west after sunset. For a few days before and after March 10, watch the rapid motion as Venus passes Jupiter, which is heading down toward the sun a little bit every day from our point of view. Near the horizon, don’t miss elusive Mercury, which makes a brief appearance as a bright star almost due west.

4. March 25 & 26: The crescent moon again draws near Venus and Jupiter, with the striking TaurusCQ star cluster, The PleiadesCQ or Seven SistersCQ, just above. Venus is now well above Jupiter in the west.

5. April 24: Once again, the moon and Venus put on a show with the brilliant constellations of OrionCQ and TaurusCQ providing the backdrop. The beautiful PleiadesCQ star cluster remains nearby.

6. May 6: In the east, a little after sunset, the largest full moon of the year rises, making the best use of the “horizon effect” that causes the moon to appear "huge."

7. May 20: A partial eclipse of the sun will be visible, beginning at 6 p.m., requiring special filters for safe viewing. The sun will set during the eclipse, "looking like a cookie with a big bite out of it as day’s end approaches." Laws Observatory will be open for this event, if the weather is clear.

8. June 5: Passage of the planet Venus across the sun, in the evening, also requires special filters to see. Laws Observatory plans to be open for this event if skies are clear. A “transit” of Venus, as this is called, "is truly one of the most amazing sights in all of astronomy," Germann said, "and no one now alive will ever see another one.

Source: Val Germann

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A former astronomy instructor and president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, Germann enjoys spreading his enthusiasm to as many people as he can as the current treasurer, secretary and active member of the association. One of his most recent endeavors was a presentation on sky events in the first part of an ongoing lecture series, Cosmic Conversations, hosted by the Central Missouri Astronomical Association and MU's Department of Physics and Astronomy.

As part of his passion to encourage people to see for themselves what the sky has to offer, Germann has prepared a list of interesting things to see during the next four months.

It means a lot to him that people, especially youth, are interested in viewing the night sky. "It's worthwhile people know something about this," he said. "It goes back in culture a long time."

Clouds shrouded the first event last Wednesday, an alignment of Venus and Uranus with the moon. Students involved in the Student Astronomical Society migrated to Laws Observatory atop the MU Physics Building after listening to a talk given by Steven Nagel, a former NASA astronaut who recently moved to Columbia and works at MU.

The observatory is open every Wednesday night from 8 to 10 p.m. for viewing and is hosted by the Central Missouri Astronomical Association and the MU Department of Physics and Astronomy. At 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month, the two groups host Cosmic Conversations followed by viewing at the observatory.

 The age-old tradition of star gazing can be hindered these days by light pollution, even outside urban areas.

"Astronomy itself is an ancient science, with all the lighting around now we're losing touch with that," Germann said. "I want to reestablish that connection."

"Whether you're in the city or the country, light is everywhere," Germann said. "What the naked eye can see is dramatically reduced in the past 100 years." The night sky above Columbia is "dramatically brighter than it was 10 years ago," he said.

Germann cites billboards along Interstate 70 and increased campus outdoor lighting as contributing factors. As a partial solution, the lights at Stankowski Field are turned off for viewing at the observatory on the first Wednesday of each month.

"A substantial amount of light installed is wasteful, just being thrown up in the air," Germann said.

All of the sky events Germann has mapped can be seen from anywhere with a good view of the sky and horizon, although partial solar eclipse and transit of Venus across the sun require special filters.

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