July brings an abundance of planetary activity

June 29, 2013

  Even under July’s star-spangled and muggy conditions, Washington’s heavens give proof through the night that our solar system siblings are still there.

Find the effervescent Venus low in the western sky at dusk. How can you tell it’s Venus? It looks like an airliner — with landing lights — on approach. It’s a negative-3.9-magnitude object, quite bright and easy to spot from urban locations. Slowly, it sinks toward the horizon as night settles. You’ll find the young, skinny moon below Venus on July 10, and the crescent moon scoots south on successive nights.

Meanwhile, check out the ringed Saturn high in the southern sky at dusk. About zero magnitude, bright, the planet resides in the constellation Virgo.

By the middle of July, find Saturn in the south-southwestern heavens when daylight ends; and by late in the month, it’s found in the southwest in the evening. The friendly first-quarter moon advances toward Saturn on July 15, then passes under this large planet the next night.

Welcome back, Jupiter! Our solar system’s gaseous largest planet emerges from the sun’s glare in the pre-dawn morning sky by mid-month. Find it low in the east-northeast. Jupiter is a negative-1.9-magnitude object, bright enough to see from the Washington area. You’ll need a clear view of the horizon.

As Jupiter returns, the hard-to-see red planet Mars (first magnitude, relatively dim for us) loiters near it. This sets up a perfect pre-dawn planetary drama in July’s latter half — and sky-gazers are perfectly placed to watch from any East Coast beach. Before daybreak after mid-month, the planets Mars and Jupiter appear to move closer together, as they dance from July 16 to 21 and then finally conjunct July 22.

Mercury, innermost to the sun, makes a low-key, low-on-the-horizon cameo appearance in the east-northeastern pre-dawn sky in July’s waning days. The fleeting planet is a second-magnitude object, very dim for this area, and may be visible if you can escape the urban light pollution. Binoculars would help.

While Mars and Jupiter frolic above the horizon, see the hot Mercury chill below.

The year 2013 reaches its official halfway point July 2 at 8 a.m., according to astronomer Guy Ottewell’s “Astronomical Calendar 2013.” In the world of astronomy, Greenwich, England, keeps the world’s certified time, and the year’s midpoint there is noon Universal Time. With our daylight saving time nuance, we’re four hours back.

And for the next six months, we lose a little sunlight daily. In Washington, we begin the new month with 14 hours and 51 minutes of daylight Friday, and we end with 14 hours and 12 minutes on July 31, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Down to Earth events:

●July 2 — “Galaxy Collisions,” a lecture by Aaron Evans, University of Virginia astronomy professor, at the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus, 3700 San Martin Dr., Baltimore. STScI Auditorium. 8 p.m. hubblesite.org.

●July 5 — After the Fourth’s fireworks, enjoy heavenly helpings of stars, constellations and planets, weather permitting, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd

●July 6 — Sean O’Brien of the National Air and Space Museum guides a cosmic summer tour with volunteers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. See the night sky through telescopes and binoculars at Sky Meadows State Park near Paris, Va. Program for children precedes sky exploration. Parking $5. Arrive before dark. 8-11 p.m. Park phone: 540-592-3556. airandspace.si.edu/

●July 13 — Catch the young moon, Saturn and the Summer Triangle at “Exploring the Sky,” hosted by the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers. Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 9 p.m. capitalastronomers.org.

●July 20 — “How to Capture an Asteroid,” a talk by Derek Richardson, University of Maryland astronomy professor, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Enjoy the night sky afterward through telescopes, weather permitting. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/

●July 26 — You’ll be seeing red on Mars Day! Bring the kids and learn about Earth’s rusty neighboring planet with interactive exhibits and experts on hand. National Air and Space Museum. 10 a.m.–3 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at PostSkyWatch@gmail.com .

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