Wandering Planets, Exoplanets, and Ophiuchus?

This week we have some fun things to see from the planets in our solar system to a “serpent bearer” constellation, plus some cool exoplanet news from NASA’s Kepler Mission.  Here is your guide to the sky for June 26 to July 2, 2017…

Sun and Moon – Some observations to make…

Early in the week watch the young crescent Moon make its way across the sky.  Starting on Monday, look for the Moon in the west at sunset, by Friday when it reaches First Quarter phase it will be in the east as the Sun sets.  Sunrise this week is 4:52 am and sunset at 8:25 pm – our days now start to shorten as we move from the Summer Solstice back to the Fall Equinox, and finally to the Winter Solstice in December.  While we have a ways to go, one fun thing is to track the sunrise or sunset positions over the year.  Choose a place where you can easily one of these events and note to the position of the Sun on the horizon once per week.  Over the course of several weeks you will see a great change in position due to the tilt of our planet on its axis!

Wandering Planets – Two at dusk, three at dawn

Mercury is still low on the horizon just prior to sunrise this week, but try looking for it on Sunday when it is 5 degrees south of Pollux in the constellation of Gemini.  Brilliantly bright Venus rises around 2:25 am and is in the constellation of Taurus.  Jupiter and Saturn are in the evening sky as bright beacons.  Jupiter is high in the southwest at sunset in Virgo, and it sets just after midnight in the west. On Saturday it will be 3 degrees south of the Moon.  Saturn is in the east at sunset becoming better as the night progresses, reaching the meridian just before midnight as Jupiter is setting. Saturn sets at 4:00 am just as twilight is beginning. Mars is still lost in the glow of sunset this week.

Kepler Exoplanets – Image by NASA/JPL

Astronomy News – Kepler’s final mission catalog

The Kepler Space Telescope finished up its primary mission looking for exoplanets in the constellation of Cygnus.  This eighth and final catalog ads 219 new planet candidates bringing the total to 4,034 candidates of which 2,335 have been confirmed exoplanets.  The latest release contains 10 “Earth-sized” ones as well.  Kepler has discovered about 50 in this size range, which is exciting for scientist looking for planets that might harbor the possibility of life.  Kepler’s work has helped astronomers deepen their understanding of how planets form and shown that planets can exist around a variety of stellar classes.  The data will continue to provide many more discoveries for years to come!  For more on this see this link.

Sky on June 29 at 9:30 pm – Courtesy of Heavens-Above.com

Constellations – Ophiuchus, who?

This week if you find the planet Saturn, you are looking at the constellation of Ophiuchus. Who, you might ask?   Ophiuchus is often called the serpent bearer as he is represented with a snake coiled around his waist and holding the snakes head in his left hand and tail in his right one.  He often is associated with the god of medicine, and it was said he was so skilled he could raise the dead.  Ophiuchus is sometimes called the “thirteenth zodiac sign” as the ecliptic passes through this area, meaning the Sun and planets will cross the constellation over time.  The constellation is made of fainter stars, but is worth looking for on these warm summer evenings.

With warm nights and summer holidays, I hope you get out an enjoy the beauty and wonder of the night sky, from checking out planets at dusk or dawn, to watching the Moon and Sun change position over time, to looking for Ophiuchus or other constellations, there is always something to see.  Happy summer stargazing and keep your eye on the sky!


Shawn Laatsch

About Shawn Laatsch

Shawn Laatsch is the director of the Emera Astronomy Center and Jordan Planetarium at the University of Maine. He started his astronomy education career in 1984 and has directed planetariums in university and science center facilities, taught undergraduate astronomy courses, and given numerous lectures around the globe. He serves as President (2017 & 2018) of the International Planetarium Society, Inc. the world’s largest organization of planetarium professionals. Shawn has a passion for sharing astronomy and stargazing with people of all ages.