SOUTHERN UTAH — The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Kanab, Utah, which provides opportunities for people to observe, appreciate and comprehend our starry night sky. Additional information is available online. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comet NEOWISE amazed everyone as the brightest comet in two decades and it remains visible, although now you’ll need both binoculars and a dark sky to see it – and a good finding chart. It’s fading as it heads back to the outer solar system whence it came. This week, it’s in the early evening sky below Arcturus, the bright star low in the west after sunset; roughly halfway between Arcturus and the horizon at 10 p.m. Bright moonlight will interfere until about Aug. 6, when the Moon rises late.
If you have a telescope, look for Comet PANSTARRS, which is about one-fifth as bright, a short distance above NEOWISE. Finding charts for both comets are available at Heavens-Above and on the many free or inexpensive planetarium apps for your smartphone; I recommend SkySafari.
Far to the left of the two faint comets is the brightest object in the evening sky, other than the Moon: the giant planet Jupiter, at 10 o’clock low in the southeast. Jupiter rises approximately at sunset and is visible the entire night.
Immediately to the left of Jupiter is Saturn. A bit smaller and twice as distant, Saturn is 10 times fainter. Both are in Sagittarius, to the left of the richest part of the Milky Way.
Mars rises at midnight, and it’s midway between Jupiter and Saturn in brightness. The Earth is catching Mars as we orbit the Sun faster on an inside path, and Mars is growing brighter by the week. When we catch and pass it in early October, Mars will be almost four times brighter than now and will rise at sunset. Then, the “red planet” will be conspicuous the entire night.
Mars is in Pisces, a constellation with no bright stars. On the evening of Aug. 8, the Moon is 1 ½ degrees, or three Moon-diameters, below Mars.
The last planet to rise each night is the “morning star” Venus, which rises by 4 a.m. and is brilliant low in the east as the sky brightens with the approaching dawn. Keep track of it and see how long you can follow it. You can see Venus well after sunrise and even through the day with your eye alone if you know where to look.
Next week, look for the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on the evening of Aug. 11.
Written by JOHN MOSLEY. John Mosley was program supervisor of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for 27 years and is the author of “Stargazing for Beginners” and “Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescopes”. He and his wife live in St. George where he continues to stargaze from his retirement home while serving on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.