A celestial scorpion stares down the moon this week for sky-watchers, and Mars meets the Maiden’s guiding light.
Saturn joins the moon. After nightfall on Monday, July 7, look toward the high southern sky for the waxing gibbous moon enjoying a close encounter with one of the true jewels of the solar system, Saturn.
Shining less than one degree away from the moon on that evening will be the bright-yellow ringed planet. If you have a telescope handy, even a small one, it’s worth training it on Saturn, just to see its majestic rings and some of its brightest moons.
Lucky sky-watchers in Argentina and Chile can actually see the ringed world hide behind the moon in a rare lunar occultation. Here are the maps and timetables.
What does an occultation of Saturn look like? Check out this amazing video footage taken through a telescope in South Africa earlier this year that shows how the ringed planet disappears behind the cratered moon.
Awesome image of last month’s lunar occultation of Saturn. By Brett du Preez: http://t.co/DARowD3Ytx
— Allen Versfeld (@uastronomer) July 5, 2014
Cat’s Eye Cluster. Once the sky darkens totally before midnight on Tuesday, July 8, watch the moon within the northwestern corner of the constellation Scorpius, which resides low in the southern sky. If you superimpose the mythological figure on the stars, as in the illustration, the moon would appear nearly within the claws of the stellar scorpion. The bright-orange star to the moon’s left is Antares, which is located some 600 light-years from Earth.
Use binoculars to scan over to the lead star Antares to start the hunt for the Cat’s Eye “globular cluster” of stars.
The Cat’s Eye, or Messier 4, is seen easily with binoculars but really sparkles through a telescope. It is a true metropolis of stars, easily containing 10,000 residents. Sitting at about 7,000 light-years away, it is one of the closest examples to our solar system of a globular cluster. Because of its proximity, even a small telescope can easily resolve some of the stars swarming near its core. The cluster’s name comes from the barlike structure that appears to cut across its center, which makes it look like a feline eye staring back at you in the eyepiece.
Vega near zenith. On Thursday, July 10, near midnight, look straight up at the brightest star of the season, Vega. While the 26-light-year-distant star marks the tiny constellation Lyra, the Harp, it also represents one of the corners of the Summer Triangle stellar pattern.
Since the stars of the cosmic trio are so bright, finding them is easy, even from light-polluted city suburbs.
Look toward the lower left of Vega, toward the northeast, and you will see the 1,400-light-year-distant bright star, Deneb. To Vega’s lower right, in the southeast, is the 17-light-year-distant yellow star, Altair. The Summer Triangle dominates the overhead evening skies throughout summer and into early autumn as well.
Mars and Spica. On Saturday, July 12, look toward the low southwestern evening sky for our neighbor, Mars, which will be reaching its closest point to the lead star in the constellation Virgo, the Maiden.
The red planet and the blue-white stellar diamond, Spica, will appear to pass each other at a distance of less than 1.4 degrees, less than the width of three full moons side by side.
Their apparent proximity, of course, is due only to their chance alignment when seen from our vantage point here on Earth. While Mars is only 8.6 light-minutes from Earth, Spica sits a whopping 250 light-years away.