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Sky Watch: Vivacious Venus returns

The planet Venus makes its transit across a setting sun on the Pacific Ocean in Encinitas, California June 5, 2012. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

After diving into the western horizon in late May and early June, and after transiting the sun on June 5 here, glorious Venus returns to the morning sky. Find the effervescent Venus hanging out in the eastern, morning heavens with Jupiter. You’ll find the planetary pair long before sunrise, at about 4 a.m. now. Of the two planets, Jupiter is less bright, at about negative second magnitude.

Wake up early, walk the dog and grab some iced coffee: Venus displays great brilliance officially on July 12 at -4.7 magnitude. Apart from the moon and the sun, Venus becomes the brightest object in our sky. In the latter part of July, the planet ascends the eastern sky at about 3 a.m., giving summer’s early risers a longer show — until sunrise, when the planets get washed out.

Just above Venus, you’ll find Jupiter. Generally, these planets loiter together before sunrise for the first half of July. Like a third wheel on a bad summer date, the waning, crescent moon joins the pair on the morning of July 15. On July 16, the skinny moon continues a trek toward the horizon, moving away from Jupiter and Venus. From our earthly perspective, Venus and Jupiter appear to grow apart in the latter half of July.

Hopefully, the light pollution won’t prevent you from noticing the star Aldebaran, a red giant, which appears to Venus’s right. And check out the Pleiades — the famed Seven Sisters (Messier 45) — above Jupiter.

Saturn and Mars hang out in the evening, western heavens. Already dim at first magnitude, our neighboring Red Planet becomes dimmer as the month progresses. Mars sets around midnight now in the west.

The ringed-planet Saturn, now at zero magnitude — bright enough to be seen from Washington’s light-polluted urban and suburban areas — sets around 1 a.m. now, and around midnight by the end of July.

The calendar marches on and, with apologies to Bon Jovi, we’re halfway there: We officially reach the middle of 2012 on Monday, July 2, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. And ironically, as we broil in the oppressive Washington summer, Earth reaches its most distant point from the sun all year: This is called aphelion (pronounced APP-hee-leon), and it happens July 4.

Down to Earth Events:

July 2-3 — Student Spaceflight Experiments Program national conference at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. Student scientists explain their own microgravity experiments flown in low Earth orbit. Both days start at 10:15 a.m. The symposium is open to the public. SSEP Web site: Museum web site:

July 5 — “Beneath a Watery Moon,” a lecture by astronomer Tim Livingood, at the open house at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Scan the heavens afterward through a telescope, weather permitting. 9 p.m.

July 8 — Astronomer Gary Hand explains how to choose a telescope and accessories, at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club meeting, Room 80, Enterprise Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m.

July 13 – Mars Day! The National Air and Space Museum, on the Mall, celebrates our red neighbor from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. See a real Martian meteorite, talk to planetary scientists and learn about the rover Curiosity – soon to land on Mars.

July 14 — Star party, hosted by the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt, at the observatory at Northway Fields Park in Greenbelt. 9:30 p.m. (Also a similar event on July 28 at 9 p.m.)

July 20 — “Dust to Dust: The life cycles of stars,” a talk by astronomer Sonali Shukla, at the open house, the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Telescope viewing afterward, weather permitting. 9 p.m.

July 21 – Astronomers from across the region and from the National Air and Space Museum set up telescopes and binoculars to guide you across the cosmos at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va., from 8 to 11 p.m. Parking: $5. Arrive before dark.

July 21 – The Summer Triangle beckons at “Exploring the Sky” at Rock Creek Park, hosted by the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers. Meet near the Nature Center in the field south of Military and Glover roads, NW. 9 p.m.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at


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