Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars Brightest in the Sky During the Month of the Summer Solstice

June Starmap

Jupiter is now high in the southwest at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it. 

Mars and Saturn are now in the southeast at dusk. As you watch them rise, Mars is to the right and is much brighter. 

In fact, this month Mars outshines all of the stars and even rivals Jupiter in brightness! That’s because on May 22, Earth passed between the sun and Mars. That alignment is called ‘opposition’ because it puts Mars opposite the sun in our sky, making Mars visible literally all night long. It also makes Mars much brighter than normal in the sky, since we’re as close to it as we’ll ever get until Earth overtakes Mars again in 2018. Saturn came to opposition on June 3.

Venus is lost in the sun’s glare and out of sight all month. In fact, on June 6, Venus is directly behind the sun from our vantage point.

The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the south at dusk.  Leo, the Lion, is high in the west at dusk. Venus and Jupiter come together right in front of Leo’s face, marked by stars in the shape of a sickle, or a backwards question mark. 

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. Saturn is right above the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in June 2016:

New: June 5, 10 p.m.

First Quarter: June 12, 3:10 a.m.

Full: June 20, 6:02 a.m.

Last Quarter: June 27, 1:19 p.m.

Earth at Aphelion:

At 5:34 pm on Monday, June 20, the sun is directly overhead as seen from the Tropic of Cancer, the farthest point north where the sun ever appears overhead. This means Earth’s North Pole is tilted towards the sun as much as possible towards the sun, and the sun appears higher at midday than on any other day of the year. We also have more daylight on June 20 than on any other day of the year. Therefore, we call June 20, 2016, the summer solstice. Below the equator, the sun is as low at midday as it ever gets, and there is less daylight than on any other day of the year. For them, this is the winter solstice. 

But if you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that the latest sunset occurs at the end of the month, not on June 20. As Earth approaches aphelion (farthest distance from the Sun) on its slightly elliptical orbit, it slows down slightly. This causes both sunrise and sunset to occur a little later each day. This tiny effect actually prevails near the solstices because Earth’s tilt changes very little during that time. (Think of a sine wave; near the highest and lowest points, the curve looks fairly flat). Most of us sleep through sunrise and witness sunset, so we have the (wrong) impression that the days lengthen all the way to the end of June.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. As of now, however, the George is closed while Brazos Bend State park dries out from yet another round of floods on the Brazos River. Stay tuned for updates.

Clear Skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: October’s “intermission” in the sky & Astronomy Day

The night sky in October is full of comings … and goings.


Venus remains in the west at dusk. It outshines everything but the Sun and Moon, so you can begin observing it during deep twilight.

Saturn leaves the evening sky this month. For the first few days of October, you can look for it in evening twilight to the lower right of Venus. After mid-month, though, it’s hard to see. Saturn is behind the Sun (at conjunction) on Nov. 6.

Jupiter is higher in the morning sky this month. Look for it high in the south at dawn.

Mars, much dimmer than Jupiter, now pulls away from it in the morning sky. It remains in the east at dawn. On the morning of Oct. 15, look for it near Regulus in Leo.

In October, the Big Dipper is to the lower left of the North Star at dusk, and soon sets. As a result, it may be hard to see if you have trees or buildings north of you.  As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W shape, which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

Autumn represents sort of an “intermission” in the sky, with bright summer stars setting at dusk, while bright winter stars have not yet risen. The “teapot” of Sagittarius sets in the southwest at dusk. The Summer Triangle is high in the west.  Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is in the east, indicating the start of autumn. The stars rising in the east are much dimmer than those overhead and in the southwest, because when you face east at dusk in October, you face out of the Milky Way plane.

The center of our galaxy lies between Scorpius and Sagittarius, while the Summer Triangle is also in the galactic plane. Pegasus, on the other hand, is outside the plane of our galaxy and is a good place to look for other galaxies.

october13Moon Phases in October 2013:

New                         October 4, 7:33 p.m.

1st Quarter              October 11, 6:03 p.m.

Full                           October 18, 6:36 p.m.

Last Quarter            October 26, 6:41 p.m.

The full moon of Oct. 18 enters the penumbra, a region in which Earth partially blocks the Sun. Unlike the full shadow (umbra), however, the penumbra only imperceptibly darkens the Moon.

Sat., Oct. 12, is our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory, which lasts from 3 to 10 p.m. at our observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. See here for a full list of activities.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Go Stargazing! July edition

Jupiter becomes a late evening object by the end of the month.  It rises in the southeast just after 11 p.m. on July 1, although you may need to wait awhile for it to clear trees or buildings in that direction.  By month’s end, Jupiter rises at 9 p.m. — in late twilight.  Early risers can still see Jupiter in the southwest before dawn.  Next month, Jupiter is in the sky literally all night long.  Remember, Jupiter outshines everything in the sky except the Sun, the Moon, and Venus, so if you’re looking in the right direction, you can’t miss it.

Venus is a dazzling morning star this month.  Look east right as day begins to break for the brightest thing unless the Moon is nearby.  Venus remains the ‘morning star’ for the rest of 2009.  Mars is a little higher in the east at dawn than it has been.  Still, it remains fairly dim.  Look for Mars above Venus and to its right.  This is quite a mismatched pair; Venus is about 100 times brighter than Mars.

Saturn portrait
Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Saturn remains well placed in the evening sky this month.  Look for it in the west at dusk.  If you have seen Saturn through a telescope this year, you may have noticed how much thinner the rings appear now than in years past.  This is because Earth is beginning to align with Saturn’s ring plane, making the rings appear edge-on from our perspective.  On September 4, the Earth is exactly in Saturn’s ring plane, and the rings actually vanish from view!  It turns out, though, that Saturn is too close to the Sun in our sky on that date; the Earth will be about to pass on the far side of the Sun from Saturn.  No one can get a good look at Saturn this September.  However, we can still watch through our telescopes as Saturn’s rings appear thinner and thinner throughout July and August.

Saturn’s moons orbit in the same plane as its rings.  Since we ordinarily have a perspective looking over one of Saturn’s poles, moons such as Titan and Rhea can usually appear above or below Saturn as well as to its right or left in a telescopic image.  These moons are not normally blocked by Saturn.  That changes, however, when Earth aligns with Saturn’s ring plane.  Now that we’re seeing the entire system edgewise, we’re beginning to see Saturn’s moons pass in front of and behind Saturn’s disk.  The passage of a moon in front of a planet’s disk is a transit, while an occultation occurs when a planet’s disk blocks a moon.  When a moon transits, we can often see its shadow on the planet’s disk.  Here are some upcoming events for Saturn and Titan as seen from Houston:

7/9        Titan is partly occulted (blocked) by Saturn until 9:30 pm.

7/17      Titan is already in transit as night falls; it leaves the Sun’s disk between 9:45 and 10:20. (Titan appears as a disk and not a point, so it takes some time to move all of the way off Saturn’s disk.  Saturn sets by 11:15.

7/25      Titan is occulted by Saturn.

8/2        Titan is in transit from dusk until Saturn sets.  Titan’s shadow appears on Saturn’s disk at 9:30.

8/10      Titan occulted by Saturn

8/18      Titan transits Saturn.

By August 18, however, Saturn is so close to the Sun in our sky that it is only about five degrees high during late twilight and sets before night completely falls.

M42 Orion
Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise

Look high in the west at dusk for stars in the shape of a backwards question mark, with a right triangle to the left of that.  These stars are in Leo, the Lion.  Saturn is under the ‘right angle’ in that right triangle.  The Big Dipper is high in the northwest on summer evenings.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus.’  Arcturus, in the west at dusk, is the fourth brightest star we ever see at night and will be the brightest star in our night skies during all of July. Continuing the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle past Arcturus, you can ‘speed on to Spica,’ a star lower in the southwest at dusk.  Spica is a stalk of wheat held by Virgo, the Virgin, who represents the harvest goddess.

In the south as night falls is Antares in Scorpius, the Scorpion.  This is a red super giant star about 700 times as wide across as our Sun.  To the Scorpion’s left, look for eight stars in the shape of a teapot.  These stars are the bow and arrow of Sagittarius, the Archer.  In the east, the Summer Triangle dominates the evening sky.  The Triangle is up all night long until mid-August.  Vega is the brightest of the triangle’s three stars, followed by Altair in Aquila and Deneb in Cygnus.

Moon Phases in July 2009:

Full                                   July 7, 4:21 am
Last Quarter                     July 15, 4:53 am
New                                  July 21, 9:34 pm
1st Quarter                       July 28, 4:59 pm

Eclipsed? Not totally.
Creative Commons License photo credit: James Jordan

The New Moon of July 21 lines up well enough with the Earth and Sun to cast its shadow on the Earth.  This causes a total solar eclipse.  The Moon’s shadow first encounters the Earth just north of Mumbai in India, so that’s where the path of totality begins.  From there, the shadow moves across Bhutan and then southern China, including Shanghai.  The shadow then ends up over the Pacific Ocean and leaves Earth before ever again reaching land.  The only part of the US anywhere close to this path is Hawaii, which experiences a partial eclipse.  This is mostly an event for Asia, where the date will be July 22.

The next total solar eclipse visible in the USA will occur August 21, 2017.

The Full Moon of July 7 almost enters the Earth’s shadow.  It does skirt the edge of the penumbra, in which the Earth partially blocks the Sun.  The resulting penumbral eclipse is scarcely noticeable at all, however.

At 3 a.m. on Friday, July 3, Earth is as far as possible from the Sun (i.e., at aphelion).  Planetary orbits are not perfect circles but ellipses.  Thus, Earth does not remain at the same distance from the Sun throughout its orbit, but gets slightly closer in January and slightly farther in July.  The difference is only about 3.4%, however—not enough to affect our seasons.  The change in seasons is due to the Earth’s tilt on its axis, not the distance from the sun.