September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse.

May evenings: A huge, bright assemblage consisting of seven stars of first magnitude or brighter in the western sky begins its annual departure in early May. The collection consists of the six stars of the Winter Hexagon, with Betelgeuse inside. The entire Hex is still visible at the start of May, but sky watchers must look sharply for Rigel about to set in bright twilight a little south of due west. On each successive evening, all the stars’ setting times occur nearly 4 minutes earlier than on the night before, ever closer to the time of sunset. During May, in order of disappearance, Rigel, Aldebaran, Sirius, and Betelgeuse sink into the bright western twilight glow, as shown on our evening twilight chart for May. At month’s end, all that remains of the Hexagon is its upper edge, forming an arch: Procyon low in the west, Pollux (and slightly fainter Castor, not plotted, 4.5 degrees to its right) atop the arch, and Capella, low in the northwest.

Venus left our evening sky in late March, leaving Jupiter to reign as the brightest “star” in the evening sky. Our evening twilight chart shows Jupiter ascending from the southeast toward the south during May. On April 7, our planet Earth passed between the Sun and Jupiter, and that planet appeared 180° away from the Sun in our sky, and was at opposition and visible all night, from dusk until dawn. Around May 20, the motion of Earth around Sun is directly away from the star Regulus. Ten days later, on May 30, four bodies lie in a nearly straight line in space, in order Aldebaran-Sun-Earth-Antares. Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, is then invisible on the far side of the Sun, while Antares, heart of the Scorpion, is at opposition to the Sun and visible nearly all night. Verify on our twilight chart, Antares rising into view in the southeast late in May.

Other prominent stars on May evenings include bright golden Arcturus high in east to south; Spica near Jupiter; Regulus just south of a line connecting Jupiter to Pollux; bright blue-white Vega rising in the northeast, with Deneb following to its lower left.

The Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar and evening sky map for May are available online at www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar. The May issue may be reprinted for your classes at no charge. The calendar includes illustrations of the Moon passing by planets and bright stars, and the sky map depicts more stars than our twilight charts show, including the Big and Little Dippers, the North Star, and such constellations as Gemini, Leo, and Virgo.

In our June evening twilight sky, Jupiter stands high in S to SW at dusk, with Spica still nearby, to its lower left. As Jupiter ends its retrograde motion against background stars in early June, it reaches a maximum distance of just over 11° WNW of Spica. Keep watch this summer, until Jupiter passes just 3° north of Spica on Sept. 11. By then, they’ll be low in the WSW at dusk.

Also in June, we find Saturn rising in SE, to lower left of Antares. Saturn is at opposition to the Sun on the night of June 14-15 and is visible all night. In 2017, Saturn’s rings are tipped 27° from edge-on, the greatest angle possible, with their northern face in view.

This year, these inspiring showpiece planets – Jupiter with its cloud belts and four bright satellites discovered by Galileo – and Saturn with its spectacular rings and bright moon Titan in a 16-day orbit – are conveniently visible at dusk from mid-June through mid-September. Do plan for your students to catch telescopic views of both planets in a single session! In coming years, as their opposition dates shift later, the beginning of the window of dates to catch both planets in early evening shifts about 12 days later each year, while the end of the window shifts about one month later annually. By 2020, catch both giant planets in early evening from mid-July through December. The autumn of 2020 will be a fascinating time to watch these planets gradually close the gap between them until they’re just 0.1 degree apart on December 21, their closest pairing since 1623, during Galileo’s time. So, ask your students to mark 12/21/2020 on their calendars! A conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the slowest of the naked-eye planets, occurs only once every 20 years, just a few times in a lifetime! They will meet again in conjunction in 2040 and 2060, but the next one closer than 2020’s will happen 60 years later, in 2080.

In June, you’ll need binoculars for final views of faint Mars sinking into the WNW evening twilight glow. In the eastern sky, watch for Altair rising to lower right of Vega and Deneb, completing the Summer Triangle, while Arcturus climbs to its high point south of overhead.

In July’s evening twilight, bright Jupiter attracts attention in the SW, with Spica nearby and Arcturus high above them. The Summer Triangle, topped by its brightest star Vega, ascends the eastern sky. Mercury has a very low but long-lasting apparition in WNW to W. Watch it fade from mag. –1.0 to +0.4 during July 1-31, and pass close by fainter, departing Regulus (mag. +1.4) on July 25. Graphs of planets’ setting times for southern California and northern California show Saturn rising in evening twilight in late May and early June 2017; Moon, Mercury, and Regulus setting nearly together in evening twilight on July 24; and Moon, Jupiter, and Spica setting nearly together soon after evening twilight on Aug. 24.

In May’s morning twilight, we find brilliant Venus low in east. Telescopes reveal Venus still in crescent phase in May, filling out but shrinking in size as the planet speeds away from Earth. Use binoculars to spot Mercury to lower left of Venus starting in second week. Follow Arcturus sinking in W to WNW, the Summer Triangle passing overhead, and Saturn with twinkling Antares to its lower right sinking in SW. Fomalhaut is rising in SE.

In June’s morning twilight , Venus is still brilliant in east. Telescopes show it half full early in month, when it’s near greatest elongation 46° from Sun. Using binoculars, look to Venus’ lower left, low in ENE, early in month to catch departing Mercury, and later in month to catch emerging Aldebaran. Capella is the bright star ascending in NE. The Summer Triangle of Vega, Altair, and Deneb passes to west of overhead. Fomalhaut is low in SE to S. Two stars depart very quickly: Arcturus in WNW and Antares in SW. Saturn, at opposition in mid-June, sinks to horizon by month’s end, but you can catch it higher earlier, before twilight gets underway.

In July’s morning twilight, Venus continues climbing higher, despite its having reached its greatest angular distance from the Sun, 46°, in early June. It’s because the Sun-to-Venus line inclines at an ever-increasing angle with our morning horizon. Before dawn brightens, watch Venus, shifting over one degree daily against background stars, pass 6° S of the Pleiades star cluster on July 5, and within 3.5° N of Aldebaran on July 14. Note Capella far to the N (left or upper left) of Venus. Before month’s end, Orion’s Betelgeuse and Rigel will appear in the east, and Gemini’s Pollux with Castor 4.5° above it will emerge in ENE. Before mid-August, Procyon and Sirius will follow Orion into the eastern sky, and the entire Winter Hexagon will again be visible. For now, on July mornings, the Summer Triangle is still well up in west, and Fomalhaut crosses S toward SW.

Moon and Planets in May: Check illustrations on the May Sky Calendar to remind yourself and your students to catch the Moon near Jupiter and Spica on the evening of May 7. After the Moon passes Full on May 10, switch your viewing time to before dawn to see the Moon pass widely N of Antares on May 12, and skip from west of Saturn to east of it on the next two mornings. The Moon is near Last Quarter phase (half full) on the mornings of May 18 and 19, and easily seen in the daytime at the start of the school day. In a spectacular conjunction before dawn on Monday, May 22, the waning crescent Moon passes closely S of Venus. Use the occasion to try to spot Venus in the daytime. Before dawn on May 23, the Moon is lower left of Venus and upper right of Mercury. On May 24, use binoculars about 30 minutes before sunrise to watch for the rising of the old Moon, just 3 percent full, some 8° lower left of Mercury, and 31-32 hours before New.

These graphs of planets’ rising times for southern California and northern California show Moon rising about the same time as Venus on May 22, June 20, and July 20, and rising before Venus on August 18, and after Venus on August 19.

New Moon occurs on May 25 at 12:44 p.m. PDT, only 5 hours after perigee, when the Moon is closest to Earth. As a result, the Moon ascends quickly into the evening sky. On May 26, 30 minutes after sunset, the first crescent Moon, marking the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, should be easily seen if skies are clear. It will appear 3 percent full and about 7° up in WNW for sky watchers in southern California, where the Moon’s age will be 31-32 hours after New. As twilight deepens, binoculars may show faint Mars about 6° to Moon’s upper right. In the rest of May, watch the waxing Moon pass widely S of the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor on May 28, and leapfrog past Regulus on May 30 to 31. On the latter night, the Moon is approaching First Quarter phase and is nearly half full.

Moon and Planets in June: On the evening of June 3, the waxing gibbous Moon passes closely N of Jupiter, and on the following evening, more widely N of Spica. The Moon passes the apogee of its orbit on the afternoon of June 8. That evening, it appears widely N of Antares, and on the next morning, the most distant Full Moon of 2017 appears several degrees lower right of Saturn, in SW. On the evening of June 9 through dawn on June 10, the Moon, just past Full, remains in close company with Saturn all night. Saturn is itself at opposition five nights later, on the night of June 14-15. By then the Moon rises just before midnight, so shift your viewing time to predawn to follow the rest of the Moon’s cycle of phases. The Last Quarter (half moon) occurs on June 17. On June 20, the waning crescent Moon is a few degrees upper right of Venus. On the next morning, June 21, the Moon appears several degrees lower left of Venus, and lower right of the Pleiades star cluster. On June 22, the Moon’s final morning, look for the 4-percent crescent rising in ENE just over an hour before sunrise. Can you spot Aldebaran closely lower left of the Moon? Less than 39 hours remain until New Moon, at 7:31 p.m. PDT on June 23.

On June 24, the Moon returns to the evening sky. Using binoculars, try for the 25-hour crescent half an hour after sunset, when it’s 2 percent full and barely above the WNW horizon. Binoculars help! A sighting of this crescent ends the month of Ramadan and begins the next, Shawwal in the Islamic calendar. On the next evening, June 25, spotting the Moon will be much easier, 6 percent full and well to the left of Pollux and Castor. On the evening of June 27, there will be a close pairing of the Moon and Regulus. The Moon occults the star in the early afternoon from Hawaii, and in early evening from Ecuador and Peru. From California, the crescent slips south of the star in late afternoon, and appears to the left of the star at dusk. By sunset on June 30, the Moon has just passed First Quarter phase and appears half full. That evening, bright Jupiter appears a few degrees SE of the Moon, and Spica several degrees SE of Jupiter. An ideal evening for telescopic views of the Moon and Jupiter, and the 3rd-magnitude star very close to the Moon! At 100-power, the star splits into a very tight, matching pair of stars, with a period of revolution of 169 years. The pair will change noticeably during a lifetime, as it slowly widens and revolves away from its present north-south orientation. From most of U.S. on June 30, but not California, the Moon occults this star.

Moon and Planets in July: On the evening of July 1, the gibbous Moon appears several degrees N of Spica; on July 5, even more widely N of Antares. On the evening of July 6, the Moon passes a few degrees N of Saturn. The Moon is Full two nights later, on Saturday evening, July 8. By this date Mercury can be glimpsed very low in WNW evening twilight. Look about 30° lower right of Regulus on July 5, 15° on July 14, 10° on July 17, to 5° on July 21. We’ll return for another look at Mercury in a few days, after the Moon has returned to the western early evening sky.

On July 8, we can catch the Full Moon rising in ESE shortly before sunset; on the next evening, moonrise occurs within half an hour after sunset. Thereafter, the waning gibbous Moon rises a little later and farther north each night. By July 14 the Moon rises just before midnight, nearly due east. Instead of staying up late to wait for moonrise, get up and out before sunrise and follow the waning Moon from July 9 through July 21 or 22. Venus against the pretty background of stars of Taurus in July provides another reason to arise early, before the sky brightens much. Watch Venus go 6° S of the Pleiades star cluster on July 5, 3.5° N of Aldebaran on July 14, 7° S of Elnath (Beta Tauri, tip of Bull’s S horn) on July 25, and very close to 3rd-mag. Zeta Tauri, the southern horn, on July 27. The waning crescent Moon adds special beauty to the scene on three mornings: On July 19, find the Moon upper right of Venus, Aldebaran, and the Hyades star cluster. On July 20, the crescent Moon will be just a few degrees to the south (lower right) of Venus. An hour before sunrise on July 21, the Moon will be low in ENE, well to lower left of Venus, while Orion’s shoulder, Betelgeuse, will be rising widely lower right of the Moon. Binoculars may be required to spot the very old crescent on July 22. Look for the hairline one-percent Moon only 2° up, one-half hour before sunrise, just 21-22 hours before New in California.

New Moon occurs on July 23, at 2:46 a.m. PDT, one lunar month before the solar eclipse! See resources below. The first view of this month’s young crescent Moon should come on the evening of July 24, within half an hour after sunset. The 4-percent illuminated Moon will then be 8° up, 10° north of west, at an age of 41-42 hours after New. As the sky darkens a bit, but before the Moon gets too low, look a few degrees upper left of the Moon for bright (mag. +0.1) Mercury, with the fainter star Regulus (mag. +1.4) just to the planet’s upper left. By the next evening, July 25, the crescent Moon will have leapt to the upper left of the Mercury-Regulus pair, at its closest, within a degree apart. Brighter Mercury will appear to the S (lower left) of Regulus. The evening of July 26 finds the Moon far to upper left of the now widening pair.

On the evening of July 28, bright Jupiter is closely lower right of the fat crescent Moon; note Spica several degrees left of Jupiter. On the next evening, July 29, the fat crescent Moon, half a day short of First Quarter, appears to the upper left of Jupiter and Spica, while Mercury reaches greatest elongation very low, just north of west, and 27° from the Sun (which is below the horizon while you are observing Mercury). On the night of August 1, the waxing gibbous Moon will pass widely N of Antares, and on the next night, closely N of Saturn. Full Moon occurs in the daytime on August 7. By the time the Moon rises shortly after sunset that evening, a minor partial lunar eclipse (one-fourth of the Moon’s width in shadow) will already have ended; no part of that lunar eclipse will be visible in North America, but only two weeks later, on Monday, August 21, there will be a solar eclipse, visible throughout North America, and visible as a total solar eclipse within a narrow track across the U.S., tracking coast to coast from Oregon to South Carolina. Get to the path of totality, if you can! Whether you do so or stay at home to see the partial eclipse, the following web resources should help you prepare yourself and your students for the event, and observe it safely.

Solar Eclipse information and Resources

www.eclipsewise.com/solar/SEnews/TSE2017/TSE2017.html

https://eclipse.aas.org/

https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/total-solar-eclipse-august-2017/

https://www.astrosociety.org/education/2017-solar-eclipse-information-resources/

http://static.nsta.org/extras/solarscience/SolarScienceInsert.pdf 

http://eclipsophile.com/total-solar-eclipses/total-solar-eclipse-2017-august-21/

http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/Eclipse2017.php

http://www.astronomy.com/great-american-eclipse-2017

https://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing sky watching opportunities for school children in East Lansing, MI and in and around Palm Springs. 

Robert D. Miller 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. 

Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt, a retired planetarium director now living in the Chicago area, has taught astronomy and sky watching to all ages.  He studied astronomy education at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. Jeff writes an astronomy blog at jeffreylhunt.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter at @jeff_hunt. 

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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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