Things Get Wild in Western Sky as Mars, Saturn, Regulus Party

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 29, 2008

For true cosmic excitement, start with the wild, wild west.

The wild part starts Tuesday, when Mars, Saturn and the star Regulus-- part of the constellation Leo-- loiter together, with Mars and Regulus tightly grouped. On subsequent nights, sky gazers will observe that Mars moves toward Saturn. A new moon joins the trio on the evenings of July 5 and 6.

The following week, look west. Saturn (zero magnitude, bright enough to see in urban skies) and Mars conjunct July 10 above the western horizon. You can spot them after dusk. The ringed planet is the brighter of the two, and Mars (first magnitude) has the rusty, red tint.

Within a few days, the planets go their separate ways.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the sky, Jupiter rises in the southeast just before 10 p.m. early in the month. It reaches opposition -- meaning it is opposite the sun -- July 9, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Thus, it rises in the east when the sun sets, and it sets in the west when the sun rises. It is visible all night and it is quite brilliant to view, as it is negative second magnitude.

By the middle of July, spy this gaseous giant planet in the late twilight (9 p.m.) in the southeast. On the evening of July 16, it rises concurrently with the nearly full moon. In fact, on July 18, the full moon rises after Jupiter.

Venus has been on vacation, hiding and basking in the sun's glow. It begins to emerge at dusk very late in July. If you observe the western horizon during the last week of the month, Venus joins Mars and Saturn in a short-lived planet parade. For the next few months, it appears to hug our horizon, and in the fall it climbs higher for all of us to observe and enjoy.

The morning sky features a hard-to-find Mercury-- fleet as ever -- skimming the eastern horizon. You'll need a clean view of that horizon to find it, and considering the Washington area's buildings and trees, Mercury will be hard to see. Nevertheless, if you look, find it in the east-northeast just before sunrise during the first half of July. Each morning, the rising sun quickly washes it away.


· Tuesday-- Chris Blades of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore discusses "Servicing Mission 4 and the Final Frontiers of Hubble," an update on the space shuttle Atlantis's mission to tune up the Hubble Space Telescope in October. 8 p.m. at the Space Telescope Science Institute auditorium, Johns Hopkins University campus. 410-338-4700.

· Wednesday-- Jim Zimbelman of the National Air and Space Museum presents "Asteroid Attack! The Tunguska Event 100 Years Later," a short talk about an explosion over the Siberian Tunguska area in Russia on June 30, 1908. Noon. Milestones of Flight Gallery, National Air and Space Museum.

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