Looking Up: Moon joins the planet parade
Enjoy the planet parade the next clear night!
An amazing lineup of the five bright planets of the solar system as seen from Earth can keep you occupied and I dare say it beats anything on TV, your computer or phone.
Add to this, the crescent Moon passes by the brilliant planet Venus Sunday evening, July 15. The pairing will be a spectacular sight, if skies are clear, and no telescope will be required.
Begin your solar system tour about 45 minutes after sunset, looking low in the west for the planet Mercury. The film crescent Moon will be just above it, Saturday night the 14th.
Venus is higher up and to the left. At about 10 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, the Moon will be only around two degrees to the lower right. Two degrees is approximately twice the width of your finger held at arm’s length; the Moon is only about one half degree wide!
The further west in the United States you are, the closer the Moon will appear to Venus.
Binoculars will add to the beauty of the scene; you will more readily see the faint earth-shine filling in the rest of the Moon (reflected light off the Earth). The effect gives a three-dimensional impression of the spherical Moon, placed near Venus and any background stars.
To the lower left of Venus, find the bright star Regulus (Venus is a lot brighter).
Over in the south as evening progresses, catch the wonderfully bright white planet Jupiter. As the sky darkens you will see the bright red star Antares to the lower left. Jupiter is an amazing sight in even a small telescope, with its squat disc and its four larger moons.
During evening twilight planet Saturn is rising low in the southeast, but is better seen as the night progresses. A small telescope will easily show its broad ring system, tilted like an ellipse with the ball of the planet tucked inside. See a faint "star" nearby, with a telescope? That is likely Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan.
Next is the wonderful red planet Mars, rising in late twilight. Mars stands highest in the south in mid-July about two hours before dawn.
On July 31, Mars will be at its closest approach to Earth since 2004. A small telescope can let you glimpse dark areas on the red-ochre surface, but currently there is a planet-wide dust storm making observations a challenge!
A lot fainter but within reach of binoculars are the planets Uranus and Neptune, and the asteroid Vesta. In fact, a dark, rural sky will allow you to catch Uranus and Vesta with eyes alone, if you know just where to find them.
More information is available in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines, and other sources.
The Moon reaches first quarter on July 19.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.