SOUTHERN UTAH — The weekly Sky Report alerts people to what they can see in the night sky by simply stepping outdoors and looking up, perhaps only with a pair of binoculars.
The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Kanab, which provides observational experiences for people to enjoy, appreciate and comprehend what we can see in our starry night skies.
A bright sky
There are four bright planets in the sky tonight, two rising shortly before midnight, one a few hours later, and one rising just before the sun. Jupiter and Saturn come up together and they’re low in the southeast at 11 p.m. Jupiter is the brighter of the two while Saturn is a few degrees to the east, or left. These two distant planets remain near each other all year. Jupiter is in eastern-most Sagittarius while Saturn is on the boundary of Sagittarius and Capricornus.
Mars follows three hours later, and at 2 a.m. it is low in the southeast while Jupiter and Saturn are a third of the way up the southern sky. Mars is brighter than any star and it has a pale orange color, so you can’t miss it. The earth is approaching Mars on an inside orbit and Mars is growing closer and brighter by the week; we’ll catch and pass Mars in October. Mars is presently in Pisces, a large constellation with no bright stars.
Last to rise is Venus, which passed between the earth and sun a month ago, when it moved from the evening to the morning sky. Look for it low in the east beginning at 5 a.m. or perhaps just before, and follow it until the sky becomes too bright with the approaching sunrise. Use binoculars and don’t miss watching Venus pass through the large star cluster called The Hyades this week and next. The bright orange star below the moon on the nights of the July 1-2 is Antares, in the Scorpion. The moon is near Jupiter and Saturn on the night of the July 5.
Our earth’s orbit around the sun is out-of-round by about 3%, so the distance to the sun varies by about three million miles from an average of about 93 million miles. This year the earth is farthest from the sun at 5:35 a.m. MDT on the morning of July 4, which is puzzling to people who think that if we’re farthest from the sun we must be at our coldest. But changing distance to the sun is not the reason for our seasons — that’s the tilt of the earth.
In July our northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, so the days are long and the sun shines down from high in the sky. Being a bit farther doesn’t compensate for the tilt.
Note that the seasons are reversed in the northern and southern hemispheres which would not be the case if seasons were determined by the distance to the sun. For those who keep track of such things, the sun-earth distance at 5:35 a.m. MDT on July 4 at 94,507,635 miles, and when we’re next closest on January 2, 2021 at 6:50 a.m. MST the distance will be 91,399,454 miles for a difference of 3,108,181 miles.
There’s an eclipse of the moon on the night of July 4, but you won’t see it. Only a tiny part of the moon moves into the earth’s shadow, but it’s too little to notice by eye. The middle of the eclipse is at 10:30 p.m. MDT.
About the Sky Report
The weekly Sky Report is written by John Mosley, a retired astronomer who lives in Ivins. Mosley was Program Supervisor at 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 retired to St. George where he continues to stargaze from his backyard while he serves on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.
Send questions and comments to John@StargazingAdventures.org.