Spend a night with the planets of the summer night sky

  • By Mike Lynch Herald Columnist
  • Thursday, June 5, 2014 11:56am
  • Life

I highly recommend that at least once a year during the summer you spend an entire night under the stars and take in the great show.

You’ll lose sleep but it’s a wonderful experience. If you have at least a small telescope with you and you can be under the dark skies of the countryside all the better. Don’t forget the bug spray, although most of the time mosquitoes don’t feast on you quite as much after about an hour past sunset.

A goal that’s possible to accomplish for the next week or so is to see four planets that are visible to the naked eye from our planet. Earth is in the perfect spot relative to Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Venus to make this happen. This is a planet lover’s paradise.

The first planet to check out, even before the end of evening twilight, is Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. On these early June evenings it’s shining big and bright in the low Everett western sky. It’s so big that if it were hollow you could fit more than a thousand Earths inside of it. You don’t want to wait too long into the evening to look for Jupiter because it sets below the western horizon shortly after twilight. Even though it’s pulling farther away from Earth right now, at a distance of nearly 565 million miles from us, it’s still the brightest starlike object in the evening sky. Even with a telescope or a good pair of binoculars you can resolve the disk of the great planet and up to four of its larger moons; Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, orbiting Jupiter in periods of two to 17 days. Your telescope view of Jupiter will be a little fuzzy, though, as we have to peer through more of Earth’s atmosphere closer to the western horizon.

Next, you’ll be seeing red in our planet parade. The planet Mars, the second brightest starlike object in the evening and the closest planet to Earth is dominating the low southern sky at a distance of just 78 million miles away. With the naked eye you can easily detect its orange-red hue, the result of oxidation of the surface.

As bright as Mars is it’s tough to see surface features. You may see some dark patches here and there but that’s about it. There are several reasons for this. For one thing Mars is a much smaller planet than the Earth, about 4,200 miles, a little more than half of Earth’s diameter. Secondly, Mars, even at its highest point in the evening sky right now, isn’t all that far above the horizon, so once again Earth’s thicker atmosphere near the horizon gets in the way. Thirdly, Mars rotates on its axis a little slower than the Earth so we don’t always see the same side of the red planet. One side definitely has more visible surface features than the other, so it depends on what side of Mars is facing us on a given night. One thing we can kind of see is the northern polar cap on Mars that appears as a white fringe on the lower side of the disk, assuming your telescope gives you a reverse upside down image.

Next in the planet parade in the prettiest: Saturn, with its gorgeous ring system that’s very visible right now. Saturn reached its closest point from the Earth last month but is still relatively close at 839 million miles. That’s a heck of a long ways away, but Saturn is also a humongous planet with a ring system of highly reflective ice and rock that stretches more than 150,000 miles in diameter. That’s more than halfway between the Earth and our moon. As wide as the ring system is the entire ring system is only 50 miles thick.

Spend time looking through your telescope for as long as you can. The longer the continuous looks you can take through your scope at Saturn the better. Sit on a stool or chair or whatever and make yourself comfortable. The problem with observing Saturn this summer is that the ringed wonder isn’t rising very high in the sky and Earth’s atmosphere and high winds aloft can interfere with a clear view. There are “quiet moments” in the atmosphere, however, where you can really get clearer looks at Saturn. By the way, the full waxing gibbous moon will be hanging around Saturn on Monday and Tuesday night.

Watching Saturn for much of the rest of the night might be a good idea because you’ll be waiting a while for the next planet to rise. You will also want to take time to enjoy the summer constellations, including Scorpius, Sagittarius, Cygnus, Lyra and the wonderful Milky Way band. Venus doesn’t rise above the eastern horizon until after morning twilight begins after 4 a.m. When it is above the horizon you’ll know it because it’s by far the brightest of all the planets and also by far the brightest starlike object of the entire night. The main reason Venus is so brilliant is that it has a poisonous, opaque and very reflective atmosphere that bounces sunlight off of it like a mirror. Don’t bother looking at Venus with your scope because I know you’ll be totally under-whelmed unless you like looking at white blotches.

That’s it. Your all-nighter is complete. Pull down the shades, close the curtains, take the phone off the hook and get your beauty sleep after taking in the tremendous beauty and experience of the summer night sky.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO radio in Minneapolis. Minnesota, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores and www.adventurepublications.net. See more star charts on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mike.lynch.12327.

The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Its website is www.everettastro.org/.

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