January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Celestial Highlights for June 2015

Posted: Thursday, June 4th, 2015

by Robert Victor with twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller

Venus and Jupiter in the west are closing toward their spectacular pairing on June 30, while Saturn climbs in the southeast in the early evening. These three naked-eye planets, all showpieces for telescopic observation, should make a star party in June an exciting learning opportunity for students, so we hope you will make it happen! 

From late June until the new school year begins in September, there are many strikingly beautiful events involving the Moon, planets, and stars, some at dusk and some at dawn, plenty to keep students well engaged during summer vacation. We describe some events of summer and early fall, so you can keep your current students involved in sky watching, and can make plans for your new students to catch the spectacular events of early fall, in the first couple of months of the 2015-2016 school year.

Evenings: Venus and Jupiter are easy to spot during evenings in late spring and early summer 2015, because they far outshine all nighttime stars.

Venus in May attained its peak altitude of its 2014-2015 evening apparition in the western sky at dusk and set longest after the Sun. In June-July, Venus sinks lower in the evening sky while increasing in brightness and getting ever more interesting for telescopic observation: On June 6 Venus reaches greatest elongation 45° to upper left of setting Sun; as seen through a telescope around that date, the planet appears as a tiny “half moon”. In the next ten weeks, as Venus draws closer to Earth, it displays an ever thinner, more backlit crescent. Venus attains greatest brilliancy in the second week of July, and sinks down to the horizon in ever-brighter twilight in the course of that month. Just ten weeks after passing greatest elongation and five weeks after reaching peak brilliance, Venus passes inferior conjunction, nearly between Earth and Sun, on August 15.

Jupiter appears close to Venus in June-July, during the final weeks of their joint appearance in evening sky. First, Jupiter appears to upper left of Venus, by 20° on June 1, narrowing to 10° on June 14. From June 22 through July 13, Venus and Jupiter will appear no more than 5° apart, both easily fitting together within the field of view of binoculars magnifying no more than about 10-power.

Venus and Jupiter will form a spectacular close pair on June 30, just 0.3° apart. A telescopic view of the planet pair that evening will be a memorable sight, not to be missed: Venus as a brilliant crescent, one-third full, matching the dim, fully lit disk of Jupiter in apparent size! This coincidence occurs because Jupiter, with a diameter 12 times that of Venus, will then be 12 times as far away! And, on five consecutive evenings, June 28-July 2, the planet duo will be no more than 1.2° apart, easily fitting within a telescope’s low-power field.

During July, Venus and Jupiter move apart very gradually, as they sink lower into twilight nightly and set earlier. Even at the end of July, Venus-Jupiter are still within 6.5° apart, but Venus will then set in bright twilight, very soon after sunset. Challenge for students: What is the last date you can observe Venus after sunset? What is the first date you can spot it before sunrise?

The crescent phase of Venus can be resolved with just a pair of binoculars, by avoiding the planet’s glare against a darkened sky: The best occasions in 2015 are in the late afternoon or around sunset from mid-June until late July/early August, and around sunrise or soon afterward from late August until mid-October. The late afternoon and early evening of July 18 and the morning of September 10, with Venus near greatest brilliancy and close to a crescent Moon, provide excellent opportunities to easily locate and observe Venus in the daytime.

Saturn appeared at opposition to the Sun on May 22, as Earth passed between that planet and the Sun. As a consequence, Saturn was up all that night, appearing low in the southeast at dusk, crossing through the southern sky in the middle of the night, and ending low in the southwest at dawn. Another result: In the months following opposition, Saturn will remain in the evening sky, reaching its high point in the south about half an hour earlier each week until crossing due south at dusk in July.  Saturn will remain in view until setting in the southwest at dusk in early November. This observing season, steady Saturn appears not far from the reddish twinkling first-magnitude star Antares, heart of the Scorpion, and outshines that star by as much as a magnitude. Through a telescope, we get fine views of Saturn’s rings, tipped at least 24° from edge-on. On evenings in August, Earth carries us into position to give us our best view of the shadow of the planet cast on the rings, giving the scene a beautiful 3-D appearance.

The Moon can be followed one hour after sunset daily on the following dates from late spring through summer 2015, as it waxes from a thin crescent, through First Quarter phase (half full and 90° east of Sun), to Full, and about one additional day past Full: May 19-June 3; June 18-July 2; July 18-August 1; August 17-30; and September 15-28. Students can be encouraged to keep diaries or logbooks of their observations of the sky, recording date, time, observer’s location, directions of objects viewed, and comments. Drawings of the arrangement of Moon and surrounding objects, such as planets and bright stars, and of gatherings of planets and stars, can be a most important element of the students’ sky diaries.

Here are examples for June-July, including angular distances for your reference: Note the final gatherings of the Moon with Venus and Jupiter in the evening sky will occur at dusk on June 19-20, and again on July 18, when the Moon will appear very close to Venus!  On June 17, 30 min. after sunset from southern California, a thin Moon is about 4° up in WNW, 27° lower right of Venus. On June 18, one hour after sunset, get first easy view of young crescent Moon, 16° lower right of Venus and 13° lower left of Pollux. Jupiter is just over 7° upper left of Venus. On June 19, Moon is 7° below and a little left of Venus; Jupiter is 6.5° upper left of Venus. On June 20, Moon within 6° lower left of Jupiter. Venus is within 6° lower right of Jupiter. On June 21, Regulus is 6° right of Moon. On June 23, Moon approaching First Quarter phase is just over halfway from Regulus toward Spica. On June 25, Spica is 3° lower left of waxing gibbous Moon. On June 28, Saturn is just 2° right of Moon; Antares is 13° lower left of Saturn. On June 29, Antares is 9° lower right of Moon. On June 30, don’t miss the spectacular conjunction of Venus-Jupiter, just 0.3° apart.

In morning sky, 1½ hours before sunrise on July 12, Moon, Aldebaran, and Hyades star cluster all fit within field of view of binoculars, a spectacular sight!

In evening sky, on July 14, Venus approaches to within 2.4° below Regulus, without passing it, a quasi-conjunction, with Jupiter 5.2° from Venus, almost a trio. Do all three fit within field of view of your binoculars? On July 17, 30 minutes after sunset, young Moon is very low, N of W, 11° lower right of Venus and 8° lower right of Jupiter. Venus-Jupiter are 5.8° apart. On July 18, 45 min. before sunset from southern California, Venus is ¾° from the Moon’s northern cusp (upper right point of the crescent), and at sunset is within 0.9° of Moon’s N cusp. Can you see Venus in the daytime? Moon is 9 percent full and 30 arcminutes (0.5°) in diameter, compared to Venus 19 percent full and 0.7 arcminute in diameter. (Binoculars resolve Venus as a crescent.) By 45 minutes after sunset, Venus is about 1.1° from the Moon’s N cusp as the Moon has drifted slightly eastward. On July 19, note the triangle Venus-Jupiter-Regulus 13°-18° lower right of Moon. On July 22 and 23, look for Spica near the Moon. The Moon reaches First Quarter phase on July 23. On July 25, the Moon is 3° upper right of Saturn, while Antares is 13° to Saturn’s lower left. On July 26, Saturn is 10° to Moon’s right, and Antares is 9° below the Moon.

Events of this kind are illustrated on the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar. A sample issue for May, along with a detailed evening sky map, are available online, at www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/. Excerpts from the June and October 2015 Sky Calendars, highlighting this year’s spectacular pairings of Venus-Jupiter at dusk in June and at dawn in October, are available here:

[Subscriptions are appreciated!]

Another activity for students is to watch the western sky within an hour after sunset to try to follow the planets and bright stars until their latest possible dates. By the end of May, Rigel, Aldebaran, Sirius, and Betelgeuse have already disappeared into the western evening twilight glow. In early June, Procyon sinks from view, and later that month or in earliest July (dates dependent on the observer’s latitude), Capella, Pollux and Castor depart. In late July 2015, Venus, Jupiter, and Regulus bid farewell, although binoculars can extend these bright planets’ visibilities into early August. Spica will depart in early September.

All these disappearances of stars occur annually, at the same times of the year, as a result of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. Students can list their sightings of the planets, too! An observer’s log is provided here.

Behind the Abrams Planetarium, we are fortunate to have a 4-story parking ramp serving as our ziggurat to track the comings and goings of celestial objects. Over the decades, we have held public sessions and witnessed many rare events from the top level of the ramp, including the Moon rising or setting during a lunar eclipse (Nov. 1975, Aug. 2007), sightings of many young Moons (including a case just 13.5 hours after New, setting a new record at the time, in May 1989), two transits of Venus, one at sunrise in June 2004 and the next at sunset in June 2012, and beautiful planetary gatherings, some very low in twilight such as the compact trio of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter in May 2013. Do you have a place near your school that could serve as a ziggurat for astronomical observations?

Mornings during the summer and fall of 2015 will also be very interesting for sky watchers. Those who check the eastern sky regularly about an hour before sunrise can watch for the first appearances of planets and first-magnitude stars. Aldebaran, follower of the Pleiades and rising 14° below that pretty star cluster, will return by the end of June; Betelgeuse, Rigel, Pollux, Castor, and Mars do so before the end of July; Procyon and Sirius appear by mid-August; Venus before the end of August; Regulus and Jupiter before mid-September; and Spica by the end of October.

While Venus next rules as “morning star” from late August 2015 into March 2016, the Moon passes near the planet seven times. The first of these monthly events will be on Sept. 10, when, three-quarters of an hour before sunrise, Venus will gleam in the eastern sky just 4° upper right of a 7-percent sunlit crescent Moon graced by earthshine illuminating its upper non-sunlit side. About 6° to Moon’s lower left is dim red Mars, and 9° farther to lower left is Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion. Another 6°-7° lower left of Regulus is Jupiter, just rising. The entire span of objects from Venus to Jupiter takes up just 23°.

Venus on the morning of Sept. 10 appears ¾ of an arcminute in diameter, compared to the Moon’s 30 arcminutes, or half a degree. Viewed through a telescope at 40-power, Venus will appear as large as the Moon does to unaided eye! The crescent Venus, then 18 percent sunlit and nearing greatest brilliancy, will be very striking! As morning twilight brightens, or in the daytime at your schoolyard near the start of your school day, the crescent Venus will be resolvable even with 7-power binoculars, and easy to find to the Moon’s upper right. Predawn or daytime, this will be an impressive morning for outdoor astronomy!

At its next time around, on the mornings of Oct. 8-11, the Moon, in the foreground, descends through a lineup of four planets, starting with Venus on Oct. 8. On mornings of October 25 and 26, Venus and Jupiter will form a spectacular close pair fitting within a telescope field, similar to the evening event on June 30. And for eight consecutive mornings, Oct. 22-29, Venus, Jupiter, and Mars, in a rare trio high in the eastern sky, will fit into a 5° field of view of binoculars. For much of the month, Mercury appears lower left of the trio, bringing the total to four naked-eye planets visible simultaneously. With daylight saving time in effect, it’s possible to hold predawn planet-watching sessions, from 1½ hours to ¾ hours before sunrise, a reasonable time not excessively early by the clock.  We encourage you to make plans to get out with your students on at least one clear morning in October 2015, to observe the spectacular display of solar system bodies!

Resources:

Sky Calendar: Get a sample issue and subscribe online, at ww.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

Two sets of all-sky charts (for lat. 40° N, best for northern California, but useful throughout the state), tracking positions of the naked-eye planets and stars of first magnitude or brighter in evening twilight through July 2015, and in morning twilight during August 2015-March 2016, with brief descriptions for each chart, are available at www.abramsplanetarium.org/msta/.

Also available at the same site are details about our next total lunar eclipse, on Sunday, September 27, 2015, with partial eclipse already in progress by moonrise (around sunset), and totality during 7:11 p.m.-8:23 p.m. PDT. That will be the last deep lunar eclipse for California sky watchers until a pair of winter events nearly a year apart: A predawn total lunar eclipse on January 31, 2018, and a late evening total eclipse on January 20, 2019. So be sure to encourage your students to catch the one this September!

You’ll even find three pages about the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 2061, with viewing tips. Students can begin waiting for it in eager anticipation now!

Activity: Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their observations with the aid of these four items:  two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn, a table of data for plotting planets on orbit diagrams, and an activity sheet with a set of 15 questions on star and planet visibility in 2014-2016 and beyond.

For more information on sky events in 2015, see this article: http://www.classroomscience.org/celestial-highlights-for-2015. (Includes a selection of twilight sky charts, best for use in southern California, during months of the best planet gatherings.)

 Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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