September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Events for Sky Watchers, Summer 2011

Posted: Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

with a look ahead at sky events in school year 2011-2012 and beyond

by Robert C. Victor

In both June and July, an entire cycle of lunar phases, from the first thin waxing young crescent at dusk to the last thin waning old crescent at dawn, fits neatly into each calendar month, June 2 to 30, and July 2 to 29. The invisible new moons occur on June 1, July 1, and July 30, with partial solar eclipses visible in remote places in the first two cases. Full moons occur near mid-month, on June 15 and overnight on July 14-15. The full moon of June 15 coincides with a total lunar eclipse, but unfortunately it happens around midday for Californians, so the eclipse will be seen on the other side of the world, wherever it’s nighttime and the moon is above the horizon. We’ll miss this one, but will have our next chance to view a total eclipse of the moon on the morning of Saturday, December 10. From California, the introductory partial phase of December’s eclipse will start at 4:45 am PST. The moon will be half immersed into the umbra by 5:21 am, and totality will begin at 6:06 am. From southern California the dim totally eclipsed moon setting in the west-northwest (opposite the sun’s direction) will quickly fade into the brightening sky. After the December 2011 eclipse, the next lunar eclipses good for Californians will be a partial (37 percent) before dawn on June 4, 2012 and then a remarkable run of four total lunar eclipses at six-month intervals in 2014-2015, namely: April 14-15, 2014 in the middle of the night; October 8, 2014, in predawn; April 4, 2015, in predawn; and finally, an eclipse at a convenient time in the early evening, on September 27, 2015.

But let’s get back to the current sky. Take a stroll at dusk each day in the first half of June, and then, after full moon, at dawn each day in the latter half of the (lunar) month, and you won’t fail to notice the day-to-day changes in the appearance and position of the moon. Are there versions of that activity your students can do during some month of the school year when the sun doesn’t rise so early? October might be a good choice, while daylight saving time is still in effect, creating conveniently late sunrises.

The position of the moon against background stars in June 2011 is illustrated on the Sky Calendar at www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/.

For the first half of June’s lunar cycle, after the solar eclipse and new moon at the descending node of its orbit on June 1, the waxing moon in the evening sky tracks south of the ecliptic, the plane of Earth’s orbit, or apparent path of the sun against background stars, where solar and lunar eclipses occur. (The moon must be on or near the ecliptic for an eclipse to happen, which accounts for the name.) During June 1-14, as shown on the Sky Calendar, the moon passes south of the bright zodiacal stars Pollux and Castor of Gemini, the Twins; Regulus, the heart of Leo, the lion; Saturn, and nearby Spica, the spike of wheat or ear of grain in Virgo; but passes a little north of Antares, the heart of the scorpion. Regulus and Spica, as well as Saturn, are close to the ecliptic. The bright twin stars Pollux and Castor are nearly 7° and 10° north of the ecliptic, and so the moon and planets always pass to the south of them. Antares is nearly 5° south of that line, so the moon usually passes north of that star, even this time with the moon a little south of the ecliptic.

After the full moon and lunar eclipse at the ascending node of the moon’s orbit on June 15, the waning moon in the morning sky tracks north of the ecliptic most of the way back toward new moon. Note the moon going north of Jupiter on June 26, and a little north of Mars on the June 28. Look for the Pleiades star cluster above the moon that same morning, and Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, to the right of the crescent moon and below Mars on June 29. Binoculars will be needed to spot the extremely thin old moon some 3° lower left of Venus in bright morning twilight on June 30. Will anyone see this last morning pairing of moon and Venus before the planet passes into the evening sky?

Our June evening sky map shows the Big Dipper’s handle curving toward two bright stars: “Follow the arc to Arcturus, and drive a spike to Spica.” Also, if you imagine poking a hole through the bottom of the Big Dipper, the water would leak through to fall on the back of Leo, the lion, with his bright star Regulus. Reddish Antares, at opposition to the sun at the end of May, is low in the southeast at dusk. Low in the east to northeast, watch for the Summer Triangle, consisting of bright blue-white Vega, fainter Deneb to its lower left, and Altair to their lower right rising into good view. A complete list of all ten objects of first magnitude or brighter in June skies appears in the caption of that map.

The easier evening planet is Saturn, in S to SW at dusk, halfway to overhead in early June. At mag. +0.8 in Virgo, Saturn slightly outshines +1.0-mag. Spica 14° to its southeast. Look for the 3rd-mag. star Gamma Virginis just one-quarter of a degree from Saturn in the second week of June. A telescope shows Saturn and Gamma Vir together in the same low-power field, and the planet’s rings tipped 7.3° from edge-on, with their north face visible. A high-power eyepiece in steady seeing conditions show wonderful details of Saturn’s rings, and reveals Gamma Virginis to be a very close binary star, current separation only 1.7 arcseconds. Watch Saturn slowly pull away from Gamma this summer, to half a degree by the end of June, and 2° by the end of July. (My view of a very close pairing of Saturn and this star in the spring of 1952 – two Saturn-years ago, or 59 Earth-years – when I was not yet 13 years old, helped to inspire an eventual career choice to share the beauty of the sky.) When Saturn comes back around to this part of the sky again in 2039-40, Gamma’s components will an easy five arcseconds apart.

Mercury is also visible at dusk, in late June and for much of July. Tips for locating it appear in those month’s calendar blocks, and in the left margins. For viewing Mercury, binoculars are often helpful.

Mercury has a good morning apparition in August-September, and passes near Regulus on September 9.

This summer, Jupiter dominates the morning sky. Far to its lower left, Mars can be followed moving through the stars of Taurus from late June until late July, as the red planet goes past the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters, Aldebaran, and between the bull’s horns. From early August to mid-September, Mars goes through the stars of Gemini. Binoculars will show Mars against the background of the Beehive cluster in Cancer on October 1.

The school year 2011-2012 will feature the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, simultaneously visible evenings from late October 2011 until late April 2012. Their brilliant pairing high in the western sky at dusk in March will attract much public attention. It will be fun for students to track these two beacons evenings from late October, when they’re on opposite sides of the sky, through their closest pairing just three degrees apart on March 13, until Jupiter’s departure in late April and Venus’ in late May. Each of the three bright outer planets will take a turn reaching peak brightness and all-night visibility (Jupiter in October 2011, Mars in early March 2012, and Saturn in mid-April 2012), and remain visible evenings for several months thereafter. In late winter and early spring, two distinct sets of four naked-eye planets (Mercury-Venus-Jupiter-Mars in February-March, and Jupiter-Venus-Mars-Saturn in March-April.) will be spread west to east across the sky for simultaneous evening viewing. Venus’ crescent phase will be easily detected through binoculars and telescopes afternoons and around sunset in April and May 2012. A major solar eclipse will be visible in western U.S. before sunset on May 20, followed half a lunar month later by a partial lunar eclipse before dawn on June 4, and a transit of Venus across the face of the sun for all of North America and Hawaii on the afternoon of June 5. A most exciting year to get students involved in direct observation of sky phenomena!

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 and around Palm Springs.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

One Response

  1. July-August update:

    In July at dusk, look in the southwest for a prominent triangle marked by bright Arcturus at the apex and Saturn and Spica below. Reddish Antares twinkles in the south, while the Summer Triangle of Vega-Altair-Deneb climbs the eastern sky.

    The July Sky Calendar and evening sky map are now available at http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/

    Now that the Moon has passed Full (on July 15), watch for its rising later each evening, but not much later. From Palm Springs, CA during July 17-21, the Moon rises less than 30 minutes later each consecutive evening, as compared to the long-term average of 50 minutes. From places farther north, this “Harvest Moon effect” is enhanced: From Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington near the Canadian border, the Moon rises no more than 30 minutes later nightly during July 15-23, and no more than 20 minutes later nightly during July 17-20.

    Early risers can catch the waning Moon near bright Jupiter on the mornings of July 23 and 24, and near Mars on the morning of July 27, as illustrated on the Sky Calendar.

    In the first two weeks of August, follow the waxing Moon in the evening sky, passing below Saturn and Spica on August 3 and 4, and Antares on Aug. 7. After the Moon passes Full on August 13 (unfortunately spoiling this year’s peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower), watch the waning Moon in the morning go past Jupiter on Aug. 20 and Mars on Aug. 25.

    Venus is hidden on the far side of the Sun this August, but it will be prominent in the evening sky for much of the school year 2011-2012.

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