This summer, you will get to see how dynamic our solar system really is. After dark, up in the western sky, Venus, Mars, Saturn play out an astronomical ‘Dancing With the Stars.’
Venus waits to July to join the dance, but it’s easier to find, so we’ll start there and work our way up to the dancing couple of Mars and the bright star Regulus. Venus is the first star you’ll see after sunset, blazing in the western sky, above where the sun just set.
Look to the upper left of blazing Venus. Can you pick out the slight ruddy dot? – that’s Mars. In June, it moves under the paws of Leo the lion, doing a dance with yellowish Regulus. These two partners get closest around June 5th and 6th. Can you see the color difference? You don’t need a telescope, just your two eyes for this one!
The next bright star up and to the left is Saturn.
Venus gets its turn to dance with the star (Regulus) around July 9th. In the meantime, watch the planets move from week to week among the ‘fixed’ stars. By the end of June, Venus, Regulus, Mars and Saturn will make a straight ‘Chorus Line’ from lower right to upper left in an area you can cover with two outstretched hands. That’s the time to set up your digital camera for a five second or so exposure with a nice foreground scene.
The Moon will move by Regulus, Mars and Saturn on the 16th, 17th and 18th, respectively.
Beg or borrow a telescope to see Saturn and its thin ring, with its moons dancing around the planet.
Early (4:30am or earlier) in the predawn sky, Jupiter is low in the east (on the side of the sky which brightens first in the morning and to the right of where the sun comes up). Any telescope can show its moons and one tan belt (usually there are two belts). Any telescope or binoculars will show an additional dot in the same field of view – that’s the planet Uranus. Take a look, draw the dots and check NASA’s Solar System Simulator to see which are moons, which on is Uranus and which are faint stars in the area.
The Moon comes by on the 5th and 6th.
Summer’s long, bright twilights are good times to look at the Moon. It’s so bright that you can see a lot even if the sky is not very dark. With any optical aid, you can see the difference between the flatter dark parts and the rougher bright parts. Look for shadows of high mountains and mountain peaks sticking up into the sunshine. Look for the faint earthshine when the Moon is a thin crescent and the splashes of long-ago asteroid collisions which sent bright rays across the Moon.
Observers appear to have found the orbit of the Air Force’s space plane, the X-37B, and you can see it without optical aid. The International Space Station is visible in predawn skies from June 6th though the end of the month and after sunset from June 23rd.
Sky and Telescope, of course. Libraries and bookstore stock it. Have an mp3 player? Go to http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/podcasts and download the podcast – take it outside. It’s almost as good as having me stand next to you pointing out objects in the sky. Let me know if you find it helpful.
www.skymaps.com for a map of the evening sky for any level of interest in the sky.
www.heavens-above.com to find out when you can see bright satellites orbiting the earth
www.spaceweather.com has updates on bright objects and interesting photos and articles