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The Sky This Week, 2018 June 26 - July 3

The year's latest sunsets, and Saturn returns.
Jupiter (above tree to right), Scorpius (just left of lens flare from Moon)
and Saturn, (just above peak at left), 2018 June 21

Imaged in Desolation Canyon, Utah with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR.

The Moon brightens the night skies this week, with the Full Moon falling on the 28th at 8:53 am Eastern Daylight Time.  June’s Full Moon goes by a variety of names, known variously as the Mead Moon, Rose Moon, Strawberry Moon, and Honey Moon.  These names not only reflect the bounty of early summer harvests, they also describe the warm tone that Luna assumes as she skirts the southern horizon for viewers in temperate northern climes.  Since her light must penetrate more of Earth’s atmosphere when she’s closer to the horizon, more of the blue light she reflects from the Sun is scattered, causing her to appear somewhat redder that when she’s high overhead.  Look for the Moon just north of yellow-tinted Saturn during the overnight hours of the 27th/28th.  She passes north of ruddy Mars on the night of June 30th/July 1st.

The first full week of astronomical summer finds us experiencing the year’s latest sunsets.  Here in Washington Old Sol sets at 8:38 pm EDT on the evening of the 28th.  We’ve already had the earliest sunrise of the year, which occurred on the 14th, so from now until the winter solstice the length of daylight will begin to diminish.  The time of the summer solstice has been an important astronomical marker for many cultures in the Northern Hemisphere, which have left behind an astonishing array of structures to mark the event.  Perhaps the most famous of these is Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain in southwestern England.  This megalithic site was built over the course of over 1000 years by people whose origins and history are shrouded in mystery.  Leaving no written records, we have to rely on the archaeological record to understand their complex culture.  The main axis of the monument, laid out circa 3100 BCE, is aligned to the midsummer sunrise, and successive additions to the site continued this tradition and added alignments to other important astronomical events.  The surrounding plains are littered with derivative structures, and sites all over Neolithic Europe show many similar alignments.  Here in the Americas we find whole cities in Mesoamerica that are aligned to the solstice, and many of the Native American settlements in the southwestern United States have areas dedicated to catching the rising rays of Old Sol on this important day.  The most notable of these were those left behind by the Ancestral Pueblo peoples in the Four Corners region of the desert southwest.  These people, who seem to have vanished by around 1300 CE, left hundreds of astronomical alignments coded into their settlements, most of them tied to the summer solstice. 

Venus continues to hang above the northwest horizon during the evening twilight hours.  You should have no trouble finding her shortly after sunset, and she’ll draw a bead on the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo, the Lion as she moves steadily eastward during the course of the week.

Jupiter emerges from evening twilight near the meridian, which places him at his highest altitude during the evening hours.  This is the best time to give him a look through the telescope.  His most notable feature, the Great Red Spot, should be visible in a 4-inch or larger telescope on the evenings of the 27th, 29th, and July 2nd.

Saturn reaches opposition on the 27th, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.  You’ll find the ringed planet in the far southern sky just above the stars that form the “Teapot” asterism in the constellation Sagittarius, set against a dense Milky Way star field.  Saturn will receive a visit from the Moon on the night of the 27th/28th, which will wash out the starry background and some of the fainter members of his retinue of icy moons.

Mars now rises shortly before 11:00 pm EDT, but your best views are still going to be in the early morning hours.  The surface features of the red planet can be elusive, but this week they are even harder to see as a planet-wide dust storm has developed over the past several weeks.  One casualty of this may be NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been operating for over 14 years on the planet’s surface.  Atmospheric dust has starved the rover of sunlight to generate power, and dust settling on the solar panels may doom the plucky rover.  Time will tell.

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