From Jupiter to Saturn

Hey, everyone. Scott here. I was pretty surprised last night when the skies opened up. Around where I live, lately, we’ve had a bunch of storms moving through. That, plus some thick, summery haze has made the sky watchin’ a little tougher than usual. I had a few minutes, though, to catch my breath, and was met with this terrific view to the south and west. That’s the first quarter moon, there. It’s about two weeks from full, but it’s still bright enough to overwhelm and trick the sensor in my camera into making it look full. This is two photos I grabbed last night, which I stitched together using Hugin for Ubuntu Linux.

text july 12
The southern and western skies, July 11, 2016, 10:30pm EDT

If you’re like me at all, you’ve been doing all you can to keep your coworkers on their toes by sneaking quotes from “Airplane!” into your weekly staff meetings (“Monthly report? What is it?”). You’ve also been keeping an eye on the comings and goings of the planets. We got three around in the evenings. One of them, ol’ Joops down the far right corner,  in the news a bunch lately, has been making its way closer and closer to the horizon. Each day, it’s been sinking faster, setting a bit earlier. For months, it’s been in the constellation Leo, mostly near the bright star Regulus. Regulus, too, is on its way out. With the western skies still bright well into the evening, the soul-warming view of the two of them every night is all but over for now.

 

Have a closer look at the photo, though. The first thing you might notice is that the moon is so bright, even at this young phase, to swallow the M in “Moon.” After that, you’ll see there’s a nice diagonal line stretching from Jupiter, low in the west, clear across, through Mars, into Scorpius, and, at last, over to Saturn. We’ve mentioned this before. That line there is called the ecliptic. Simply, it’s the apparent path the Sun and planets take across the Earth’s skies. All of the planets, including the Earth, orbit the Sun in more or less the same plane, like marbles on a dish, so they seem to be in the same line as we see them. The moon is near, but not on that line.

If you keep an eye on the planets over the next few weeks, you’ll see them make their way back and forth a bit from one night to the next. It’ll help give you a terrific view of the solar system; how it works and moves. It’s always amazing to me that the Sun’s light is bright enoughand bright enough all the time… for billions of yearsto travel nearly a billion miles, hit Saturn, and bounce almost another billion miles back to get to our eyes, all without even binoculars. Take that, Neptune. It’d be a shame to let all that photonic effort go to waste.

Don’t get me wrong, seeing far-off stars is always incredible, but these are things that are right here, right down the block, astronomically speaking. Also, they all have robotic things studying them. That adds something to the thrill, and brings things closer. You can point and say, for better or worse (I’ll go with better), “Cassini’s checking out Saturn. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is at Mars, and now Juno is at Jupiter.”

If you can, keep watching this part of the skies for the next couple of days. You’ll see the Moon leave the beautifully subdued Spica behind, and wax its way across the skies for a meeting with Saturn and Antares later this week that you’ll need to see to believe. I’ll have more for you about it later.

Also, in this shot, you can see a quick and easy asterism, the arc of stars at the front of Scoripus. At the moment it’s cordoning Mars off from Saturn, like argumentative guinea pigs in a cage. Those three stars are a definite warm-month, mid-year sight for me. The whole constellation is pretty great; it’s one of the few that really kinda-sorta looks like the thing it’s supposed to be. A scorpion? Sure, I’ll buy it. These things remind me that astronomy doesn’t need to be hard or expensive; you can just go have a look.

Until we meet again, clear skies, everyone!

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