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January 2003: Saturn & the Crab Nebula

At nightfall, the brilliant planet Saturn shines golden in the eastern sky, with a steadier light than the twinkling stars. It reigns supreme as the evening "star," until two brighter lumnaries enter the scene a few hours later. The star Sirius and the planet Jupiter light up the eastern horizon by mid evening; but even so, you can distinquish Saturn by its much loftier position in the heavens.

All month, Saturn resides in the constellation Taurus, between the two modestly bright stars depicting the tips of the bull's horns. At evening look for El Nath - the brighter of these two stars - to the planet's upper left, and for Zeta Tauri to Saturn's immediate lower right.

Not too surprisingly, perhaps, a hot spot looms amidst the horns of Taurus, the bull. In between these horn stars you can locate the famous Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant of a once mighty star that blew itself to smithereens on July 4, 1054. Historic records indicate that this fiery display shone in the broad daylight for over three weeks. The Crab Nebula - now but a shell of the star's former self - lingers as a cloud of stellar debris, too dim to see without a telescope.

Saturn transits - or passes in front of - the Crab Nebula on the evening of January 4. Afterwards, Saturn slowly drifts westward (left to right) through Taurus, staying within vicinity of the Crab Nebula throughout the month. But don't expect any easy telescopic viewing of the Crab Nebula right now, for the ringed planet outshines it by some two thousand times.

Saturn, unlike the Crab, is particularly telescope-friendly in January. Close to Earth, bright, and tilted just right to show off its rings, this bejeweled planet adds spendor to the starry sky.

copyright 2002 by Bruce McClure

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