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Night Sky News: Holiday Planets on Display

Bet you didn’t see the July 1st partial solar eclipse . Visible only from a remote section of the Antarctic Ocean, its most likely no one observed it -probably not even penguins. But just in case spaceweather.com is holding a photo contest for whoever captures a picture of the moon taking a bite out of the sun.  Should be interesting to see if anyone was up to this extreme challenge.

While most if not all skywatchers missed their chance to catch the moon take a bite out of the sun this time, one noteworthy bit of astronomical trivia with this eclipse of the sun is that it comes hot on the heels of another partial eclipse which occurred on June 1st. Having two back to back eclipses during two consecutive new moons in a months’ time is pretty rare and won’t happen again until 2029.

While some sky events like these sadly end up being near impossible to observe, the month of July kicks off with a great consolation prize that most skywatchers should be able to track down easily from their backyards. In the opening days of the month, planets Saturn and Mercury will briefly have a close encounter in the early evening sky.

About half hour after your local sunset face the western horizon and look for a bright creamy colored star about half way up the sky- that’s Saturn about 1.2 billion km away. Wait a few minutes as your eyes adjust to the darkness and scan to the lower right of Saturn for a bright star Regulus. If you continue to draw an imaginary line from this pair down towards the horizon you will hit a much fainter star – that’s Mercury at 170 million km away.  Because Mercury is so faint and close to the horizon, it’s a challenge to see with the naked eye so you might want to scan this region of sky with binoculars to spot this elusive little planet.  Also make sure you don’t have any buildings or trees blocking your view of the horizon.

Now if you are still having trouble telling these planets apart from the stars – you’re in luck because the Moon will be joining Saturn and  Mercury, helping you find them.  Starting on July 2, a razor thin crescent will hang just below the innermost planet (most difficult date to find-extremely close to horizon) and by July 4 the widening crescent Moon will pair up with the 77 light year distant star Regulus. Continuing  its trek up the south-western sky, the quarter Moon  joins Saturn on July 7 .

Note: For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere these observations are reversed – so look towards the lower left of Saturn in the west to find the other objects mentioned.

As an added bonus for Canada Day and Independence Day in the USA the International Space Station is making a series of bright flybys in the night sky. To know when and where to look for the orbiting laboratory check out Heavens-above.com

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.



  1. Zombieduck
    My Back Yard
    July 3, 2011, 5:21 pm

    Loved the article, but I am waiting for the 5Th Dimension to start singing “The Age of Aquarius ” 🙂