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Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

A pair of planetary pairings

The waning moon rises in the late evening at week’s end and is high in the southwest with the approach of the rising sun. Each night it rises a half-hour later, so that by last-quarter on the 15th it crests the northeast horizon at midnight.

Close as Mercury, far as Neptune

The moon waxes through our evening skies from a thin crescent at week’s end to first-quarter Tuesday September 2. Friday Luna shines just two degrees above the first-magnitude star Spica low in the southwest.     Sunday the moon appears farther east at sunset, forming a tight triangle with Saturn to the west and Mars to the south. The two planets appear equally bright, shining at magnitude 0.6, but Saturn’s golden glow and Mars’ red hue make them easy to tell apart.

Escape urban lights to see this sight

     Each August, as the kids head back to school, the galaxy is tilted  in such a way that the Milky Way stretches overhead in full glory. With Monday’s new moon, this may be the best week of summer to gaze on this river of stars. To fully appreciate it you’ll need dark skies away from any urban glow well after sunset. Give your eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the darkness, tilt your head back and get lost in the glow.

July brings the first of three Super Moons

     As twilight settles to darkness, look to the southwest for ruddy Mars beside the ice-blue of Spica until they set around midnight. Mars is the brighter of the two. They will be their closest Sunday, with less than 1.5 degrees separating them. After that, Mars keeps on trucking, setting course for a conjunction with Saturn on August 4.

Will the Boötids show or no?

Friday’s new moon provides a dark backdrop for the annual Boötid meteor shower, which peaks after sunset that night and before dawn Saturday. Most years the Boötids are a modest shower, topping out at a dozen meteors an hour. But every now and then, it storms.

The sun stands still for just a day before again heading south

In the early morning Saturday, at 6:51am EDT, the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky for the year, with its center hovering directly above the Tropic of Cancer somewhere in Africa. On solstice, the sun appears to pause in place, holding steady for several days directly overhead at high noon — solstice in fact means sun standing still. You can see proof of the sun standing still in this week’s times of sunrise and sunset, listed below, which barely change.

It’s a matter of angles

June’s full Honey, Mead or Rose Moon falls around midnight Thursday.
Mars still lights up the night
Thursday’s first-quarter moon appears high in the southwest at sunset and sets in the west around 1am. Each following night, darkness finds the waxing gibbous moon a dozen degrees farther east, providing almost an hour of additional moonlight.   

Let it guide you through the night

Friday evening, look in the wake of the setting sun low in the west-northwest for the nascent crescent moon and Mercury. Mercury is just a few degrees to the upper right, but both are so close to the horizon that you may need binoculars and you won’t have long. Within 90 minutes of sunset Mercury is gone. And that window is shrinking each day. Mercury is surprisingly bright — equal to any star. But don’t confuse its white glow with the much brighter and golden hue of Jupiter, 20 degrees higher.

Hundreds of shooting stars possible this weekend

If you’re not a night owl, you’ll want to set your alarm clock for early Saturday. Before dawn that morning, earth will plow through the trail of a newfound comet, providing what many astronomers are predicting to be the best meteor storm in years.