Celestial delights abound across the solar system in coming days, both for novice stargazers and for seasoned astronomers.
Venus and Aldebaran. Look toward the eastern sky at dawn on July 1 for a challenging celestial conjunction of two bright objects hidden in the glare of dawn. The stellar rendezvous should be visible to the naked eye, but will be a challenge to see.
Venus will appear perched above Aldebaran, the orange lead star of the winter constellation Taurus, the Bull. Both planet and star will appear about 4 degrees apart, meaning they will both easily be covered by your fist held out at arm’s length.
Your best chance to witness this event will be to use binoculars to sweep the low horizon: Venus will guide you to the red giant star, some 65 light-years away. While Taurus may be difficult to view this time of the year because it sets so soon after the sun does, from December through February the mythical bull rides near the overhead nighttime sky.
Earth at apehelion. Thursday, July 3, at 6:59 EDT (22:59 UT) marks when Earth reaches its farthest point from the sun for the year, called aphelion. Our planet will be exactly 1.01668 astronomical units, or 152,093,163.5 kilometers (94,506,310.3 miles), away from our home star. Because Earth’s orbit is very nearly circular, this month’s far encounter is only 3 percent farther than when we get closest to the sun in January, called perihelion.
Pluto at its best. On Friday, July 4, Pluto reaches opposition, meaning it sits opposite in the sky from the sun and is visible all night long.
For sky-watchers this means that the dwarf planet officially is at its brightest for 2014, but because it shines at a measly 14.1 magnitude, Pluto is really only a target for medium and large backyard telescopes, ones with at least 8- to 12-inch mirrors, from a dark location.
The challenge arises from the indistinguishability of Pluto from the starry background, so your best bet in hunting it down is to consult a detailed star chart, with Pluto’s position clearly marked. What makes the hunt even more difficult is that right now the dwarf world is hiding out in the constellation Sagittarius, among the countless stars of the southern Milky Way.
For those up for the hunt, Pluto will appear less than 0.1 degree east of the much brighter 7th-magnitude star BB Sagittarii.
Here is a detailed finder’s chart from Astronomy.com to help track down this most challenging planet.
Moon and Mars. After nightfall on Saturday, July 5, look for the half-lit moon to have a superclose conjunction with the red planet. From North America they will appear separated by only 0.2 degrees.
Meanwhile, lucky observers in South America will see the moon actually hide the planet, and folks in Hawaii, using binoculars, can watch the occultation of Mars during daytime. Check out the exact timing for various locations here.
Ceres and Vesta conjunction. On Sunday, July 6, while enjoying the moon-Mars matchup, check out another cosmic duel between two of the largest and brightest asteroids in the sky, Ceres and Vesta. The close encounter is their closest conjunction since their discovery over two hundred years ago.
During the encounter, Ceres will appear to glide just ten arc-minutes from 4 Vesta in the constellation Virgo, equal to about a third the width of the moon.
With Vesta shining at magnitude 7.1 and Ceres at 8.5 magnitude, the rocky pair can be picked up with nothing more than binoculars or a small backyard telescope. The conjunction will take place just under (about 1.5 degrees south of) the magnitude-3 star Zeta (ζ) Virginis. This space separating the asteroids from the faint naked-eye star in Virgo is equal to three lunar disks side by side.
Check out this detailed finder chart for both asteroids, which you can use with binoculars and telescopes.