GO IN DEPTH

Night Sky Happenings This Summer

Lake McDonald Dock and Aurora at Glacier National Park, via Flickr. Photo Credit: NPS / Jacob W. Frank.

"What's so amazing that keeps us stargazing?" Kermit the Frog ponders in "The Rainbow Connection." If he were looking up at the night sky over the next few months, he would soon learn the answer: close-up views of planets, eclipses, meteor showers, and summer constellations.

If you'll be checking out the night sky, keep in mind several pieces of advice: Arrive early to allow your eyes to acclimate to the darkness. Pick a spot to observe the sky that has good sightlights at the horizon and is free from as much light pollution as possible. If you have a pair of binoculars handy, bring them; they can be a good tool when you don't have a telescope. Finally, see when your local observatory has open telescope nights to make use of high-powered observation tools.

June

June is Great Outdoors Month. Many schools have finished or are wrapping up for the year, which can offer some flexibility for being outside later into the night. There are many free or low-cost apps that will help you identify what you're seeing in the night sky with just the help of a mobile device. Science NetLinks reviews two here: GoSkyWatch Planetarium allows you to identify and locate stars, planets, constellations, and more by touching the screen or by pointing to the sky. The Planets App, by Q Continuum, provides several different ways for you to get information about objects in the sky.

On June 27, Saturn will be in opposition, which means that if you drew a line between the planet and the sun, Earth would be on or near the line between them (the planet and the sun are in opposite directions from the Earth's perspective). It also means the planet is at the closest point in its orbit to the Earth and is well lit by the sun, making it appear bigger and brighter than usual (similar to how a full moon looks more impressive than on other days) all night long. Saturn's north pole is tilted toward the sun, which means that you will have a good view of its rings and some of its larger moons with a medium-sized telescope. It's also an excellent chance to get a shot of Earth's moon and Saturn together, as the moon will sit approximately one degree above Saturn. (This is what's known as conjunction, when two objects in space appear to pass each other from the point of view of the observer on Earth.) June's full moon, the Strawberry Moon, occurs at 12:53 a.m. EDT on June 28.

July

Mid-July offers two astronomical sights of interest: On July 12, Mercury will be at its highest point above the horizon in the evening sky. It will appear low in the western sky shortly after sunset. This is one of the best times to view Mercury this year. On July 15, around sunset, you'll be able to see the moon, which will be in its waxing crescent phase at that point of the month, and Venus low in the southwestern sky together.

There are three astronomical events of note in the final week of the month: On July 27, there will be a total lunar eclipse, but it will not be viewable from North America. If you're somewhere else on the planet (Europe, Africa, western and central Asia, the Indian Ocean, or Western Australia, in particular), this will be a particularly stunning view, as the phase of total darkness will last 103 minutes, just short of the maximum possible time for the phase.

Also on the 27th, Mars will be at opposition. It also will be at perihelion, the point in its orbit when it is closest to the sun, later that week, putting it at its closest point to the Earth since 2003—only 35.8 million miles away (it averages 140 million miles apart). It appears low in the southern horizon (less than three fists' worth of space if you use them to measure up from the horizon) and with a medium-sized telescope, you'll be able to see Mars' polar ice caps and its dark volcanic plains. If your view is obscured this week, Mars will still be nearby for the rest of the summer. Catch it before it's gone: September 2035 will be the next time Mars is this close.

Finally, on the night of July 28 and morning of July 29, the annual Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower will peak. While the nearly full moon will obscure many of the meteors—which radiate from the constellation Aquarius, but can appear anywhere in the sky—those who are patient may be rewarded with seeing several of the brighest.

August

On August 11, a partial solar eclipse will be viewable to those in northeast Canada, Greenland, extreme northern Europe, and northern and eastern Asia.

The night of August 12 and morning of August 13 mark the peak viewing times of the Perseid Meteor Shower. Because this is just after the new moon and because the moon will set shortly after sunset, the sky will be darker than usual. Spectators should be able to catch a particularly active show of bright meteors (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "shooting stars") across the sky.

If the nearness of Venus and the moon in July made you want to see more details from the planet, it will be at its greatest elongation on August 17. This is the time when Venus is most separated from the sun (from our perspective on Earth). Often misidentified during this period as the "Evening Star" because of its brightness, Venus will be found about 45° east of the sun not far above the western horizon. It will be visible for less than two hours.

Mercury will also reach greatest elongation this month on August 27. It is at its western elongation (as opposed to Venus' eastern elongation), however, which means it is most visible in the hour before sunrise along the eastern horizon. It will be visible with the unaided eye, but a telescope will offer additional details.

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