Emily LakdawallaNov 25, 2008

What are those bright things in the sky right now?

Every once in a while I get an email from a reader about something bright in the sky right now. They usually guess it's a planet but aren't sure how to figure out which one. There are lots of sites on the Internet that you can use to figure out what's going on in the night sky -- you can just search around and find your favorite -- but I'll tell you my favorite, and that's John Walker's Your Sky at fourmilab.ch. I'm a big fan of interactive sites that have basic interfaces that just give me what I need without a lot of bells and whistles, and Your Sky does that. To use the site, you can either pick out a nearby big city from a list on the site, or plug in your latitude and longitude; to find that out, I just use Google Maps to zero in on my location, then click the "link" button on the map page, which produces a complicated-looking URL that has your latitude and longitude embedded in it (Pasadena, California is 34, -118, or 34N, 118W). Heavens-above is another good website, and it has the added benefit of providing tables indicating when you can see the Space Station or an Iridium flare overhead at your location.

And indeed, Jupiter and Venus are putting on an absolutely spectacular show in the evening sky right now; they are unmistakable, brighter than anything else in the sky (especially now, when the Moon isn't up at sunset), Venus lower in the sky and Jupiter higher, both in the west. With sunset happening early now (at least in the northern hemisphere) no one should have any trouble spotting them, no matter how polluted their sky is. Even my two-year-old points them out when we go outside in the evening, saying, "Look, it's Jupiter! And Venus!" There's no way to know what she really thinks that means, but it's cool nonetheless.

Since I'm talking about stuff in the sky, I thought I should mention this totally cool video, courtesy of spaceweather.com of an object moving very quickly across the sky through the constellation Pisces. An object moving as fast as this one is can only be in low-Earth orbit. It's actually newly in orbit -- it's the toolbag that Astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper dropped in the confusion of trying to clean up its interior after a grease gun exploded while she was attempting repairs on a stubborn joint that rotates one set of the International Space Station's solar panels. Isn't that amazing -- that keen observers can spot an object as tiny as a toolbag in orbit around Earth?

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