Changing Planet

5 Sky Events This Week: Moon Meets Mars While Puny Pluto Pleases

Artist’s rendering of Pluto and some of its moons, as viewed from the surface of one of the moons. Pluto is the large disk at center. Charon is the smaller disk to the right. Courtesy of NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

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.

Skychart showing the northeast sky at dawn on July 1, 2014 with Venus near Aldbebaran, the lead star in the constellation Taurus.
Sky chart showing the northeastern sky at dawn on July 1, 2014, with Venus near Aldebaran, the lead star in the constellation Taurus. Courtesy of SkySafari

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.

Thia general skychart shows Pluto's postion in the Sagittarius constellation, just above the handle of the teapot asterism. Credit: SkySafari
This general sky chart shows Pluto’s position in the Sagittarius constellation, just above the handle of the teapot asterism in the southern sky. Credit: SkySafari

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.

Skychart showing the Moon and Mars on the evening of July 5, 2014. The lead star Spica, of the constellation Virgo joins the cosmic pair. Credit: SkySafari
Skychart showing the Moon and Mars on the evening of July 5, 2014. The lead star Spica, of the constellation Virgo joins the cosmic pair. Credit: SkySafari

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.

This wide-scale skychart shows the the position of asteroids Vesta and Ceres in the constellation Virgo on July 6, 2014. Credit: SkySafari
This wide-scale sky chart shows the position of asteroids Vesta and Ceres in the constellation Virgo on July 6, 2014. Credit: SkySafari

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.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on TwitterFacebook, and his website.

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.

  • waleed

    Can I see mars

  • Patricia L. Gilliam

    If its a clear night I am always looking up at the stars.
    I do believed I seen the Sagittarius constellation last night.

  • Patricia L. Gilliam

    If its a clear night I am always looking up at the stars.
    I do believed I seen the Sagittarius constellation last night.

  • zeineb messaoudi

    malheureusement, là où je suis je ne risque point de voir toutes ces manifestations , car je suis sur le “mauvais” continent et le sud ouest ne m’est pas accessible, trop de constructions autour de moi 🙁

  • zeineb messaoudi

    malheureusement, là où je suis je ne risque point de voir toutes ces manifestations , car je suis sur le “mauvais” continent et le sud ouest ne m’est pas accessible, trop de constructions autour de moi 🙁

  • brijesh

    how can earth be at its farthest distance from sun in summers?
    it should be in winters as its orbit is eliptical…..
    ans sun is its one focii…

  • brijesh

    how can earth be at its farthest distance from sun in summers?
    it should be in winters as its orbit is eliptical…..
    ans sun is its one focii…

  • Thomas Paine

    The seasons are a result of the tilt of the Earth’s axis, not Earth’s distance from the sun

  • Thomas Paine

    The seasons are a result of the tilt of the Earth’s axis, not Earth’s distance from the sun

  • JC

    One’s summer is another’s winter ‘brijesh’. And this is about Earth’s orbit, not the tilt.

  • JC

    One’s summer is another’s winter ‘brijesh’. And this is about Earth’s orbit, not the tilt.

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