June 30, 2013

What's Up in July: A month of watching and observing


Summer started in late June, so this will be the first full month in the northern hemisphere. Even though the days will be long and the nights will be short, this will be a great month to get out under the warm skies and continue to learn more about where we really are and to better appreciate the great celestial motions always going on all around us.

click image to enlarge

SKY GUIDE: This chart represents the sky as it appears over Maine during July. The stars are shown as they look at 10:30 p.m. early in the month, at 9:30 p.m. at midmonth and at 8:30 p.m. at month’s end. Saturn and Venus are shown in their midmonth positions. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom.

Sky chart prepared by George Ayers

Hopefully some of you had a chance to discover the meaning of the summer solstice by keeping close track of exactly where the sun sets each evening for a period of time before and after the solstice. If not, you will have another chance in six months.

It's important to spend some more time outside around the seasonal changes to become more aware of what the sun is doing in relation to the earth. I encourage you to do this during any time of the year and you will discover many interesting new things about natural cycles and the relationship of the sun to the earth.

You will find that on one hand we do live in a perfect Newtonian mathematical, clockwork solar system, but on the other hand we also live in a much more open, dynamic and rapidly changing universe.

I experienced the dark skies of northern Maine for one night last month while at Roaring Brook campground at Mount Katahdin. I watched spellbound for hours as several moose, a deer and some mergansers worked their way across Sand Stream Pond toward sunset. With a great view and reflections of Mt. Katahdin and several other mountains around that pond, these creatures exemplified the essence of wilderness in that wonderful natural setting. Everything they could ever need was provided.

The night was crystal clear and the brook really was roaring. The next morning I watched the sun's rays cast across the top of the mountains, as they had for thousands of years since the glaciers retreated and carved out this dramatic landscape at the end or beginning of the Appalachian Trail. When you look for astronomical events, it is important to also tune in to many other things going on all around you in the natural world to greatly enrich your experience and make it more meaningful for you.

This month offers its usual share of nice planetary conjunctions and even a meteor shower. We don't have a super moon this month, but we do have a full moon that will rise far south of east and set far south of west and never get very high in the sky, essentially creating the opposite path the sun creates near its peak high in the sky near the summer solstice. It is also very interesting to watch how high in the sky the full moon gets near the winter solstice as the sun traces a very low arc through our sky at that time.

Saturn now rules the evening sky as Jupiter dropped below the horizon last month. The ringed planet will end its retrograde or westward motion against the fixed background of stars on July 9, so it will appear stationary near the boundary of Libra and Virgo all month. It is easy to recognize Saturn in our sky about 15 degrees to the left of Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo.

Look for the beautiful golden hue of Saturn and compare it to the bluish white color of Spica, the 15th-brightest star in our sky along with Antares in Scorpius. Spica is Latin for ear of wheat, and is named after the Greek goddess of the harvest, which is Ceres, also the name of the first and largest of all of our asteroids.

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