Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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Conjunction of Venus, Mercury and Mars
September 11, 2008 at 6:30 PM.

Updated Sept. 11, 7:00 AM

Well, we had about 20 people show up. We were dodging clouds all night. But right at 6:30 - 7:30, the clouds parted on the horizon to the West. Venus was poking through. I had carted my telescope, the mount and lots of stuff and so forth all the way through the woods to get to our site. With an hour to set up, I had to re-collimate the telescope as the Sun set. Luckily Tony and Keiri showed up and helped me out. And thanks to J. and the UME crowd for a great showing! Well, just before sunset as the clouds were nearly 80% of the sky, Mars popped right out from under it. Both Venus and Mars were in the same star-field, of about 0.5 degrees, and we got lots of Ooohs and Aaahs, since it was such a gargantuan effort just to get it set up, and with how threatening the clouds were.

Then just as quickly as they appeared, with Venus in full phase and really tiny and Mars in full phase and really red and dim, they were swallowed by clouds and set.

The crowd was elated, and we even had about 5 passersby who took in our little event. Well, little is relative. There was the Obama/McCain visit to NYC yesterday. The winds on Mars buffeting little Phoenix did not care. The searing heat of Venus would still have melted lead. But, we were just the very, very few who saw this event probably in this country. As we gain appreciation for our night skies and our firm connection to them -- they were part of evolutionary history for 76 million years, and all spiritual gestures are always directed upwards -- we will find, and will continue to find, that the effort of going out on a night is always worth the work.

We turned our attention to the Moon and to Jupiter. The four Galilean Satellites were widely spaced and easy to see. But the clouds finally had their night. The evening clouded over, and we packed it up. The box over the streetlight was COMPLETELY necessary, and now I have learned how to dim our hideous lights in our wonderful park. I need to figure out if the evening skies are good at the tip of the park, or if for convenience, where we met would be good enough for all.

Perhaps some day, there will be a "dark park" dedicated to astronomy, whereby observers and nightsky watcher can come by and see the sights every night it is dark. Interestingly enough, our little park at the tip would be the best place to start.

It is a big night! Venus and Mars right next to each other in the sky with Mercury nearby! We will meet just before sundown at the Dyckman Fields and watch the events unfolding in the West. It is a once-every-few-years event, and it is easy to see from Manhattan.

Where We'll Meet

We will meet at 6:30 PM on the Hudson River side of Inwood Hill Park. The observing location is the Dyckman Fields on the west side of Inwood Hill Park on the Hudson River. The best way to get there is to take the "A" subway train to the 200/Dyckman Street stop, and walk West towards the Hudson. When you get to the park entrance under the Henry Hudson Highway bridge, go North into the Park until you get to the hockey rink areas. You'll need to go by all four baseball diamonds.

I will be at the the entrance to Inwood Hill Park on Seaman and Isham Streets at 6:00 PM, and I will walk to our location in the Park. A little nature hike of a mile to get there from that side.

Both paths are given in the map below. The West side location is the only location where we will be able to see the planets low in the sky just after sunset. If you like, please do bring a telescope or binoculars. I went there last night (3rd) and found a good spot. You'll want long pants and a light jacket.

What It'll Look Like

On the evening of September 11, for just one hour after sunset, the brilliant Venus passes by the much dimmer red planet Mars. Mars has been in our evening skies throughout the past year but is now disappearing into the evening sunset as the Earth moves farther away from its neighbor. Venus, meanwhile, has been lost in the glare of the Sun but is now emerging from the evening twilight. On September 11, Venus will pass to the north of Mars by less than a third of a degree.

Observing this interesting phenomenon, however, presents a challenge for us in Inwood. Venus will be visible to the naked eye but Mars is much dimmer and will require a pair of binoculars or a small telescope to be seen just below the brilliant Venus.

While looking for this pair, we'll look below and to the left to see if we can spot the elusive planet Mercury. It will be a bit brighter than Mars but significantly dimmer than Venus. Then, to the south, i.e., left of these three planets, we'll see Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. All four of these - Venus, Mars, Mercury and Spica - will be in a close grouping until the last week of September, but their closest grouping will be on the 11th.

The Sky just after Sunset looking West:

click to see a larger image

Screenshot from Stellarium

About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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