It’s summertime, the perfect time to do some star gazing! With warm nights and (hopefully) plenty of vacation time built up, there are plenty of opportunities to go outside and look up at the night sky. Let’s start by finding some familiar shapes and bright stars.
First, look to the northwest to find the familiar shape of the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper is made up of seven stars, three stars forming the handle and four stars for the cup. Now turn to the left and follow the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper to a bright orange star called Arcturus. Just remember “Arc to Arcturus.” Arcturus is part of the constellation Bootes the Herdsman. Now continue this arc and look just a little further to your left so that you are now facing southwest. Here you will see a bright blue star near a yellow colored object that also looks like a star, not too far above the horizon. This blue star is Spica, so from Arcturus we “Speed on to Spica.” Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden, which extends to the west from Spica. Meanwhile, the yellow “star” seen here is not a star at all, but is in fact Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun.
Now make another slight turn to your left so that you are facing south. About the same distance above the horizon as you found Spica, you’ll see a bright red star called Antares. Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. The scorpion’s claws extend to the west from Antares, while the body of the scorpion extends back toward the south and east. Right behind Scorpius to the east, you’ll see Sagitarius the Archer, which looks like a giant teapot above the horizon.
Finally, we’ll take a look at a group of three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle, which can be found high in the sky this month. Look almost directly overhead, just a little to the east, to find the first of these three stars called Vega, which is found in the constellation Lyra the Harp. From there look to the southeast not quite half way down toward the horizon to find another bright star called Altair. This star is the next star in the Summer Triangle and is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle. Finally, turn around and look to the north to find the dimmest star of the Summer Triangle, Deneb, which marks the tail of the constellation, Cygnus the Swan.
For a more complete tour of the night skyn check out Skylights, the monthly podcast tour of the night sky, downloadable at http://www.antpod.com/.
THE JULY SOLAR SYSTEM
MERCURY will be visible for about the first half of July after sunset above the west-northwest horizon, but will continually dim and fade from a 0.4 magnitude at the beginning of the month, reaching inferior conjunction with the sun on July 28.
MARS and SATURN will put on a spectacular show this month with the bright star Spica, which is found in the constellation Virgo the Maiden in the southwestern skies. Saturn will spend July above Spica from the horizon, just a little to the right. You can clearly see the color differences between these two objects as Saturn will look yellow in color, while Spica will look blue. Approaching these two objects over the course of the month from the west will be the reddish orange colored Mars. Mars moves across the constellation Virgo throughout the month as it closes in on Saturn and Spica. On July 24 look for the moon to join in the fun, making a shape with Saturn, Spica and Mars that resembles the cup of the Big Dipper.
URANUS will rise around midnight and will be found in the constellation Cetus the fish. As always, Uranus will not be visible to the unaided eye.
NEPTUNE also rises late in the evening and can be found in the constellation Aquarius. Neptune will require a telescope for viewing as well.
JUPITER and VENUS can be found close together above the eastern horizon with Jupiter rising about half an hour before Venus between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. These two planets will not be alone in the sky this month, however, as the Pleiades and the bright star Aldebaran can be found here as well. At the beginning of the month all four objects will line up with Aldebaran being closest to the horizon, but as the month moves on, Venus will move further and further past Aldebaran to the east. At mid-month look for the waning crescent moon a.m.ongst this grouping, shortly before sunrise.
THE JULY SUN AND MOON
On July 1, sunrise is at 5:47 a.m. and sunset at 8:43 p.m., for 14 hours and 56 minutes of daylight. By July 31, sunrise isn’t until 6:09 a.m. with the sun setting earlier in the evening at 8:25 p.m. for 14 hours and 16 minutes of daylight, a 40-minute decrease from the beginning of the month.
On July 20 the sun leaves the Gemini twins and enters the constellation Cancer the Crab. The change is caused be Earth’s revolution around the sun. The sun seems to line up with distant background stars from our viewpoint here on Earth, so the sky changes by seasons and months.
Full moon is July 3, last quarter on July 10, new on July 19, and first quarter on July 26.
WILLIAM BRISH PLANETARIUM/TRISTATE ASTRONOMERS
The William. Brish Planetarium will be closed for the summer and will re-open in August. For more information visit www.wbplanetarium.weebly.com.
The next meeting of the TriState Astronomers will be held at the William. Brish Planetarium on Sept.19 at 7:30 p.m. All are welcome! For more information, visit http://www.tristateastronomers.org/.