by William J. Bechaver
This week, the Moon will make a close pass to our two most prominent outer planets, giving us a couple of nice viewing opportunities, only a few days apart.
First, on the night of Friday 30 June, the Moon will be just above Jupiter in the evening sky. As the night progresses, the space between the two will close, until Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, will lie only a little more than three degrees from the Moon when they set together just after one o’clock Sunday morning.
Then, next Thursday 6 July, the Moon will have a similarly close encounter with Saturn, the magnificent ringed planet. Saturn is just past opposition, so about as close as it can be to Earth, and the two will remain visible throughout the entire night. They will be closest together as the sun sets, and the space between will grow throughout the night.
Being so close this soon after the Summer Solstice, the Moon passes lower in the southern sky than it does during the winter months.
With the Sun at its highest position in the sky during summer, the northern hemisphere tilted toward the Sun, it only results in the night sky being tilted further south, the passage of the moon, and the paths of the planets at night, being lower in the sky.
The Cassini mission surrounding Saturn is entering its final phases. The probe, orbiting the planet for nearly fifteen years now, has actually made ten passes between the planet and the magnificent ring system. With each close orbit, it gathers data, and sends it back to us on Earth at the speed of light.
Yet, it takes that data seventy five minutes to reach Earth at Saturn’s closest distance earlier this month.
The Cassini mission only has less than three more months before it notedly comes to a final conclusion, as the spacecraft will enter Saturn’s atmosphere, and exist no longer.
So we’ll keep an eye on the exploration, and delve further into some of Cassini’s greatest discoveries as this monumental mission comes to a close.
As you locate Saturn on Thursday night, very near the Moon, ponder the great mission of exploration taking place there, and all we’ve learned about our most spectacular neighbor, and all that we still have to discover there.
In the weeks to come, we’ll take an advanced look at the upcoming National Total Solar Eclipse, and anticipate one of the best viewing opportunities of the century.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.