Skywatch: Planetary action along with the fireworks

For the coming Independence Day weekend, in addition to watching spangled stars, consider wrangling planets and a moon.

As the fireworks burst in the air — likely around 9:30 p.m. on July 4 — gaze into the southwest sky to spy the reddish Mars and the ringed Saturn with a bright, variable double star called Spica between them. A young first-quarter moon skids toward Mars and Spica. On the next night, the moon has joined Mars and Spica, which should be a cool sight in binoculars steadied by a tripod.

On July 5 in other parts of world — chiefly western Mexico, Central America and northern South America — the moon occults (eclipses) the planet Mars. Here, skygazers will see the moon nuzzle Mars. By July 6, the chubby waxing gibbous moon strolls between Mars (defined by its red) and Saturn (with its white appearance.)

Saturn and the moon nuzzle on the evening of July 7. People in the southern part of South America will see the moon occult Saturn. Here, they look like lovers embracing.

Mars is a zero magnitude object (bright) right now and dims slightly as the month progresses. Our reddish neighbor moves closer to Spica in our heavens and they’re separated by about a degree on July 12. Then, Mars pulls away from Spica — and moves toward Saturn. In late August, Mars and Saturn cross paths. Meanwhile, Saturn is a zero magnitude object (bright), and it hangs out in the constellation Libra.

Early in the month, the large gaseous Jupiter slinks into the northwestern sky, following the sun at sunset. The planet will reappear as a morning object in mid-August.

The morning heavens feature Venus in the northeastern sky — ahead of the sun now — rising about 4 a.m. This negative 3.9 magnitude (very bright) object loiters in the eastern morning heavens throughout the month, perfectly placed for early rising East Coast beach-goers. Fleet Mercury joins Venus early in July. After the first week of the month, Mercury may be seen close to the horizon in the morning sky. In early July, the planet is a second magnitude object (dimmer than Saturn) that brightens into a zero magnitude object in the latter part of July.

Unlikely though it may seem, since it is summer, the Earth is 94.5 million miles from the sun July 3 about 8 p.m. It’s an event called aphelion, the farthest our planet is from the sun all year, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Down-to-Earth events

●July 1: “Building New Worlds in Protoplanetary Disks,” a lecture by postdoctoral fellow Andrea Banzatti, 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: The stars, planets and constellations take over where the fireworks leave off, as you can scan the heavens after an astronomy lecture at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

●July 7: “Stars Tonight,” at the David M. Brown Planetarium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. 7:30 p.m. $3.

●July 16: “Exploring Pluto and its Satellites at the Solar System’s Frontier,” with panelists Alan Stern, NASA’s New Horizons mission team leader; William McKinnon, Pluto scientist; and Dava Sobel, author of “Longitude.” Launched in 2006, the New Horizons mission approaches Pluto, as it is the first probe to explore this region since Voyager. Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, National Air and Space Museum, National Mall. 8 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.

●July 19: Capture a glimpse of Mars 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: After an astronomy talk, enjoy the summer’s night heavens through telescopes, weather permitting, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

●July 25: Lunacy abounds! It’s Discover the Moon Day, where you can bring the kids and learn about Earth’s dusty companion through interactive exhibits and experts. National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.

●July 26: Enjoy dark skies in an evening getaway from the light polluted metro area. Sean O’Brien, of the National Air and Space Museum, and volunteers with the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club will guide you through the heavens through the use of telescopes and binoculars. 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.

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