Sunday, July 15, 2018

Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and an amazing planet Mars now visible!

I hope that you had the opportunity to go outside to view the very New crescent of the Moon in person this evening. It is always worthwhile to try to go outside to view the thin crescent of the New Moon if it is at all possible to do so.

Presently, all five of our visible planets can be seen in the evening sky, although not all at the same time. Mercury is the most difficult of the visible planets to spot at most times, because it orbits closest to the Sun and thus an observer on our planet must look towards the Sun in order to see Mercury -- just after sunset if Mercury is "trailing" the Sun from our perspective (after the Sun goes down, we can see Mercury before it too sets behind the western horizon) or else shortly before sunrise if Mercury is "leading" the Sun from our perspective (while the Sun is still below the horizon). This week, Mercury is trailing the Sun, so if you can get a good view of the western horizon, you might be able to see Mercury.

However, the other four visible planets are all very easy to locate right now, if you know where to look. 

The dazzling planet Venus dominates the western sky as the twilight deepens. Venus is unmistakeable in the west right now. The planet gives off a warm golden glow and is extremely bright. This evening as the thin crescent of the Moon sank towards the western horizon, Venus could be seen trailing the Moon along the same angle that the Moon is following the Sun (generally along the ecliptic path). Tomorrow night (July 15) the Moon will be almost on top of Venus, and the night after that (July 16) the Moon will be behind Venus along the same line. 

Below is a photograph I took this evening of Venus and the Moon with a simple phone camera, in order to show the relative positioning and the path of the ecliptic -- this photo doesn't do justice at all to the breathtaking sight in "real life" (in which the thin crescent of the New Moon appeared huge as it sank towards the horizon, and picked up its own deep golden color, almost orange-gold, with the rest of the black disc of the Moon also visible within the horns of the crescent):

In person, the thin crescent of the Moon looked much thinner, and much larger (almost as large as a silver dollar held at arm's length, and illuminated just along the edge facing towards the Sun which had already set). A better camera could have done a better job of capturing the view -- but no camera can really equal the experience of seeing the heavenly bodies "in person," so if you can do so it is always worthwhile to go out to a relatively dark location and do some skywatching for yourself.

Below is a star-chart showing the view to the west as it will appear on the evening of July 16, when the Moon will be a little higher in the sky (further east) and the crescent will not be as thin. Each night, the Moon's crescent will grow fuller, and the Moon will be higher, as we move towards Full Moon in a couple weeks -- thus the next few nights will offer the best opportunities to view the stars and planets until after Full Moon again.

In the star-chart above, looking south and west, I've labeled the constellations which you're most likely to be able to observe and identify (depending on your latitude). Note that Venus is passing through the constellation Leo the Lion at present. Behind Leo is the outline of the constellation Virgo, with her brightest star Spica appearing to be located on one hip. You may still be able to find Corvus the Crow, who always appears to be looking eagerly at the jewel-like star Spica in Virgo (see this and this previous post).

Further east from Virgo, you should have no difficulty identifying the planet Jupiter, crossing the middle of the sky as one faces south (for an observer in the northern hemisphere). This recent post discusses Jupiter's present location near one of the "corners" of the triangular upper beam of the Balances of Libra. You can see Jupiter's position indicated in both of the above star-charts (the one immediately above, and the chart at the very top of this post).

If you have not yet done so, it is a very worthwhile exercise to trace out the stars of the constellation Libra, as described in the post linked in the previous paragraph. Libra is not always the easiest zodiac constellation to identify -- but with Jupiter located in its current very helpful location, Libra becomes much easier to trace.

Close behind Libra you will see the brilliant sinuous form of the mighty Scorpion, rising up to dominate the center of the southern sky (for viewers in the northern hemisphere -- viewers in the southern hemisphere must of course look towards the north in order to see the zodiac constellations). See the star-chart at the very top of this post for a wide-angle view showing the entire outline of Scorpio. If you have never previously done so (or even if you have), now is also one of the best times of year to locate the Cat's Eyes, near the very end of the Scorpion's barbed tail (see this previous post for some tips on locating the Cat's Eyes). I've drawn a pointer to the Cat's Eyes in the star-chart below as well.

Following the constellation of Scorpio from east to west across the sky in the zodiac band is the constellation Sagittarius. The thickest and brightest part of the Milky Way galaxy rises up between Sagittarius and Scorpio. You can see the Galaxy in the star-chart at the top of this post. You should also be able to see both of the "great birds" of the Milky Way -- Aquila the Eagle and Cygnus the Swan, as well as the delightful little constellation Delphinus the Dolphin, which is "swimming" just below (east of) the Milky Way column, in between Aquila and Cygnus. 

The planet Saturn is also very easy to locate in the sky right now, if you can locate Sagittarius (which follows Scorpio). The brightest stars of Sagittarius make an outline which is commonly referred to as the "Teapot," because it very much resembles a teapot. See this previous post for some discussion, and see also the star-charts further down in this post from 2015. The planet Saturn is presently located straight above the highest point (or "peak") of the Teapot outline in Sagittarius (from the perspective of an observer in the northern hemisphere):

In the above star-chart, you can see the outline of the Teapot, and above the peak at the top (or "lid") of the Teapot you can see the planet Saturn. Saturn is farther away from us than is Jupiter, and the planet is much smaller to the naked eye than is Jupiter. It is also a duller yellow color than brilliant yellow Jupiter.

Finally, the planet Mars is presently traveling through the constellation Capricorn, which follows Sagittarius (and is visible in the star-chart above). You should have absolutely no trouble at all in locating Mars in the night sky, if you go outside in person: Mars is absolutely brilliant this month, the brightest and largest I have ever seen this planet. 

Mars begins to rise above the horizon by about 8:30 pm (depending upon your latitude and the geography of the terrain to the east of your location). By about 10 pm the planet should be visible in the east, and by midnight it dominates the eastern sky. 

Both Mars and Saturn are currently in retrograde. For discussion of retrograde motion, see two posts published during a period of Mars retrograde in the year 2012, here and here.

Here are a couple previous posts discussing ancient Star Myths which appear to incorporate the motion of the planet Mars through various specific constellations (in this case, Aquarius and possibly Virgo):  "In a brazen cauldron (thirteen months)" and "A connection between the book of Ezekiel and the Iliad, via the planet Mars." 

The constellation Capricorn (through which Mars is presently traveling) is actually a very large constellation, but composed of fairly dim stars. The easiest parts of the constellation to locate are the constellation's "bob-tail" and "goat-horns." The bob-tail of Capricorn is presently fairly easy to see, above and to the right of brilliant Mars. Below is the same chart as that shown just above, but this time with the outline of Capricorn added:

You may notice that in the above star-chart, I have not used the usual outlines from H. A. Rey (whose constellation-outlining system is essential and the system which I use for almost all constellations).  The reason I usually draw Scorpio with "multiple heads" instead of with "pincers" as outlined by Rey is that the ancient myths of the world often envision Scorpio as a being having multiple heads -- sometimes three, sometimes seven, sometimes eight or nine, and sometimes even as many as fifty!

The reason I use a slightly different outline for Capricorn from that suggested by H. A. Rey is that the "two triangles" outline of the Goat as shown in the above star-chart makes it easier to spot Capricorn in the night sky when you are looking for the constellation "in person." Also, there seems to be very good evidence that this "two triangles" outline for Capricorn has been included in esoteric artwork for centuries. See for example the illustrations and discussion surrounding Capricorn in this previous post on the identity of the disciple Thomas, better known as "Doubting Thomas."

I hope you will have the opportunity to go outside at night and observe in person the planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, and to contemplate the significance of these planets (and constellations) in the ancient wisdom entrusted to humanity in the form of the Star Myths preserved in the myths, scriptures and sacred stories of the different cultures on all the different continents and islands of our own planet.