Jimmy Westlake: Plenty to see in July’s skies
July 7, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Warm summer nights are the perfect time to wander out under the starry sky and enjoy the other half of nature up over our heads.
That ol' summer sun sets very late in the evening this time of year, so the sky doesn't really get dark enough to see many stars and planets until after 9:30 p.m. So go outside at about that time and watch the last rays of the summer sun vanish from the sky. Listen to the crickets chirping and the gentle breeze rustling the aspen leaves as the stars come out.
Two planets are visible in our evening sky this month: Mars and Saturn. They are the two bright, non-twinkling "stars" that you see high in the southwestern sky. Mars, on the right, looks distinctly reddish-orange, and Saturn, on the left, has a yellowish tinge.
Watch night by night this week as the planet Mars closes the gap between it and the equally bright blue star Spica. The two make a striking "double star" of beautiful color contrast. The pair will appear closest together Sunday night, shining a little more than 1 degree apart. Binoculars will enhance the view.
Saturn is pairing up with a star of its own this month. The star is Zubenelgenubi, not quite as bright as Spica but easy to spot just 2 degrees to the lower right of Saturn.
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Aim a telescope at Saturn and … wow! You really can see those icy rings. While you're in the area, aim that scope at Zubenelgenubi, too. It's a magnificent binary star.
The fat gibbous moon brightens our sky this week as it waxes toward full. The full thunder moon happens late Friday night, so watch for it rising in the southeast, taking over after the sun goes down this weekend. This year's thunder moon happens just one day before the moon reaches perigee, its closest point to Earth for the month, so it will be a big full moon.
By mid-month, the moon will have moved on, leaving the early evening sky nice and dark for observing the misty star clouds of the Milky Way, arching overhead like a colorless rainbow. Use your binoculars to slowly scan the Milky Way from the "W" of Cassiopeia in the north to the "teapot" of Sagittarius in the south. You'll be rewarded with swarms of star clusters and glowing nebulae.
Finally, the Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the morning of July 28, so don't be surprised if you see several "shooting stars" streak across the sky while you are outside stargazing.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.