Earth at Aphelion, Stars and Stripes for Independence Day

Aphelion is on Monday, July 3 which might seem strange and why do we have stars and stripes on our flag here in the US?  July 4th seems like a good day to think about it.  Here is your guide to the sky for July 3 to 9, 2017…

Earth, Moon, and Sun – Some observations to make…

Earth is at Aphelion, the farthest from the Sun on Monday.  One might expect this would take place in Winter, but our distance has nothing to do with seasons.  Seasons of course have to do solely with the tilt of our planet’s axis at 23.5 degrees.  At the Summer Solstice we the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun giving us a greater amount of sunlight and longer days – leading to our warm summer temperatures. Full Moon at 12:07 am on Sunday, and sunrise is at 4:56 am and sunset at 8:24 pm this week.

United States Flag

Astronomical imagery and US flags

Displaying the “Stars and Stripes” on July 4th is an honored tradition here in the United States. How is astronomy is represented in flags of both the country and individual states? Read on to find out!   On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress issued a resolution regarding a “new constellation”. This didn’t refer to an astronomical phenomenon but, rather, the legally recognition of a national flag.  This set a trend of incorporating astronomically-themed symbolism in the flags of both the U.S and its states.  Today the U.S. flag contains 50 stars for the 50 states, with the original 13 remembered with 13 stripes. These stars and stripes embrace further astronomical interpretations as indicated in a 1977 book about the flag published by the U.S. House of Representatives. A passage reads, “The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the Sun.” Thirty five states incorporate obvious astronomical components with stars being the most commonly used. The North Star is on Maine’s State Flag. Colorado’s flag uses gold to represent sunshine and blue for the skies. The most prominent astronomically-themed flag belongs to Alaska which features the Big Dipper and North Star.  Illinois has a rising Sun, while Kansas boasts 34 stars (it was the 34th state admitted to the union).  Arizona’s includes a copper star representing the Sun, California has a star on it, and New Mexico has the iconic Zia sun symbol.

As you can see many flags incorporate celestial themes indicating the cultural and symbolic importance of astronomy to our country.  This is just a small smattering of flags from the US!

A smattering of state flags with astronomical components

Wandering Planets – Two at dusk, three at dawn

Mercury and Mars are lost in the glare of the Sun this week. Venus rises around 2:20 am and is a bright beacon in the predawn sky.  Jupiter (the fourth brightest object in our sky) is in the southwest at sunset in Virgo, and it sets just after midnight. Saturn is gaining altitude in the east at sunset and a telescope of 2 inches in diameter will show its spectacular rings.

Sky on July 4 at 9:30 pm – Starchart provided by

Constellations – Crowning the Zenith this week

Between Hercules and Bootes is a small circlet of stars known as Corona Borealis “The Northern Crown”.  This constellation is the golden crown worm by Princess Ariadne of Crete when she married the god Dionysus and was made by Hephaestus (the god of fire).  Ariadne helped Theseus slay the Minotaur by giving him a ball of string so he could find his way out of the labyrinth where the Minotaur was imprisoned.  After Theseus killed the Minotaur with his bare hands, he sailed off with Ariadne.  Upon reaching the island of Naxos he abandoned her.  As she was weeping from this, she was spotted by Dionysus who married her to take away her grief.  Aphrodite presented the crown to Ariadne this crown of jewels as a wedding gift. After their wedding Dionysus tossed the crown into the sky joyfully in celebration where it turned into the stars of Corona Borealis.

As you celebrate the 4th of July by flying the flag or watching fireworks, take a moment to think about the stars, and hopefully get out and see them.  After all we are all made of stardust, so why not observe them?  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.