By David Ward
Welcome to the summer of the planets! Have you ever thought about buying a small telescope to show your kids the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter? Now might be a good time because all the naked-eye planets are on display this summer.
Let’s start with what is easy to see. Can you spot that bright object over in the west during the evening twilight? Maybe you have noticed that it has been there for awhile. Look closely and you can see that it is not twinkling, which means it is not a star but a planet. That is Venus, and it is the brightest object in the sky besides the sun and the moon.
Venus is completely enshrouded in clouds so we cannot see any surface detail on it at all, but we can watch it go through phases just like the moon. The reason this happens is because Venus orbits the sun between us and the sun. Mercury also goes through phases, but all the other planets appear full (round) to us all the time. If you do get that telescope, watch Venus get larger in size, we are getting closer to it, but more crescent-shaped as the seasons change to autumn.
Now turn around and look towards the southeast or south. Jupiter is shining almost as bright as Venus in that direction. The big attraction of Jupiter is its four moons, which revolve around it in a perpetual dance. With a small telescope, you can watch them change positions from night to night.
Galileo noticed their movements which led him to believe that the earth moves around the sun rather than the other way around. You might spot some parallel lines on Jupiter itself. These are its clouds bands and they are blowing around at one thousand miles an hour.
Below and to the left of Jupiter, look for somewhat dimmer Saturn. Its famous rings show up quite well in a small telescope. They are made up almost entirely of chunks of water ice and would fit with just a little wiggle room between the earth and our moon. The rings are very thin, barely even a half mile thick. Reduce them down to the size of a city block and they would be the thickness of a sheet of paper. If you see what appears to be a dim star next to Saturn that is probably Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, a strange world with rivers and lakes of liquid methane.
Mars is the superstar
The biggest star of the planet show this summer will be Mars. It is closer to us and brighter than it has been in 15 years. The best time to see it will be at the end of July to early August when it will be coming up in the east just as it is getting dark. Shining almost twice as bright as Jupiter and glowing a brilliant orange color, it will be hard to miss.
As of mid-June, a giant storm has been covering a large portion of the red planet. Almost a quarter of Mars is being effected, an area the size of North America and Russia combined. The 14-year-old Opportunity rover has been shut down by the storm which is cutting out sunlight to its solar panels. The newer and larger Curiosity rover has also been compromised by the storm, but not so severely. Even if you do not have a telescope, be sure to check out Mars this summer. It will not be this bright again until the year 2035.
The elusive planet Mercury is the most difficult of the naked-eye planets to see. Being the innermost planet, it does not get very far from the sun from our perspective. Try looking for it during the second week of July, low in the west not long after sunset. Do not wait for it to get completely dark, and binoculars will help tease it out of the twilight glow.
The moon will dance with each of the planets as it moves eastward across the sky. On July 14, look for a very thin crescent moon low in the west near Mercury. The next night, July 15, the moon will be higher in the twilight with Venus next to it. On July 20, Jupiter and the moon will be paired up. Later in the month the moon will visit Saturn and then Mars.
Come up to Sun Mountain on the evening of July 15 to look at all the planets with me!