Saturn, the true “Lord of the Rings,” dominates the evening sky this week, while the summer’s first meteor shower gets under way.
Saturn at full stop. On Monday, July 21, the ringed world will appear at a standstill in the sky, relative to the background stars in the zodiacal constellation Libra, the Scales. Astronomers call this momentary suspension of movement in the sky being “stationary,” a pause in the east-west zigzag journey of planets across the heavens.
Over the past few months, Saturn has traveled westward. In about a week’s time, sky-watchers may notice that Saturn will again be on the move, but this time in the opposite direction against the backdrop of stars.
The best time to spot Saturn is after nightfall in the low southwestern sky. While it may look like a bright star to the naked eye, a backyard scope will reveal its famous rings. They appear tilted just over 20 degrees toward Earth—making for an unforgettable sight.
Moon and Aldebaran. Before local dawn on Tuesday, July 22, look for the waning crescent moon to park itself close to the red eye of mythical Taurus, the Bull. The brilliant star called Aldebaran is actually a binary made up of a red giant star and a faint red dwarf companion star.
Aldebaran lies some 66 light-years from Earth. That is so far away that it will take NASA’s robotic spacecraft Pioneer 10, which was launched in 1972, some two million years just to reach its vicinity.
As an added challenge, see if you can spot the face of the bull, which is made of a V-shaped pattern of stars called the Hyades cluster. Try using binoculars as dawn approaches to help cut through the brightening glare.
Meteor shower rising. On Wednesday, July 23, and for the rest of the week, watch for the southern Delta Aquarids meteor shower to slowly ramp up. While it will reach its peak activity only at the end of the month, sky-watchers out at the country cottage may notice a few shooting stars per hour any clear night this week.
The meteors will appear to be streaking out from the shower’s namesake constellation, Aquarius, the Water Bearer, which rises in the northeast during the overnight hours this time of the year. Stay tuned next week for more details on catching those shooting stars.
Moon visits Venus. On Thursday, July 24, Venus will appear to pay a visit to the razor-thin, waning crescent moon.
Look for the the bright, beaconlike planet to be about 6 degrees north of the moon, a bit more than the width of your fist held at arm’s length.
As an added observation challenge, see how long into the daylight hours you can follow the cosmic pair. Binoculars will help, but remember to never to look at the sun through them (or with a telescope), as it can cause permanent damage to your vision.