Mars Returns – Best in 15 Years
By Ian Maclean
As we delight in our increasingly dry season skies in June & July in northern Australia we move toward the winter Solstice on the 21st of June.
This is the day of the year when the daylight hours are the shortest (great for astronomy ) & the sun is at its most northerly position in our morning sky.
The planets continue their procession across the night sky and in June we are treated to the opposition of what is often called the King of the planets, Saturn. Now at it’s largest and brightest, with the stunning rings at their widest and best, peaking at opposition on the 29th. You can expect great viewing of Saturn right through all of June and July as it slowly moves through Sagittarius. With a moderately large telescope (see Below) you will see the dance of the Saturnian moons changing from night to night. Some of these moons are worlds in their own right especially Titan, bigger than our own moon and with a thick Atmosphere, mountains of rock hard ice and lakes of liquid methane. Like something straight out of a science fiction movie! The other moons Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea & iapetus all hold their own secrets with Enceladus being a likely candidate for subsurface life!
The Planet Vesta
The big planets don’t have it all to themselves though, with the largest of the Minor Planets Vesta reaching a sufficient brightness to be seen as a feint Naked eye object moving against the background stars from night to night. Formally classified as an Asteroid, Vesta got a promotion to Minor Planet status at the same time Pluto got demoted to the same club. This is the first bright opposition in over 10 years and the next one won’t be until 2029. It will cross through the constellations of Sagittarius (The Archer) & Ophiuchus (The serpent Bearer) peaking in brightness in the last 2 weeks of June as it passes by the Globular cluster NGC 6440 on the 23rd and 24th of June.
Venus – Goddess of Love
Speaking of the planets though, we cannot forget the goddess of Love, Venus. Always the brightest in all her glory and is the most obvious sight in the western evening sky outshining all but the moon which she has a close apparent encounter with on the 16th, just a finger width away! There is not much to see on the surface of Venus, but her changing phases take many people by surprise.
However as we move into July the red planet Mars takes on a staring Role coming to opposition on the 27th. Now Mars does this every 2 years, however this year is special, being the closest opposition since 2003. Mars has captured the collective imagination for Millenia but especially over the past 200 years with a host of movies and theories about what lay on its surface including ideas of canals and seas. We now know it to be a Barren world dominated by Iron Oxide. But it was not always so, having had oceans and huge Volcanoes dominating its surface in the distant past. When we look at Mars through our telescopes at close Opposition we can see and photograph The Dark uplands & the shifting polar caps of Carbon dioxide ice.
Of course there is more than the planets and if you have a larger telescope and darkish skies the constellations of Virgo & Leo with their treasure trove of galaxies are on show along the ecliptic. While in the Southern Sky, Centaurus, The Southern Cross and Carina are at their best with some of the showpiece deep space delights of Nebula, Globular Clusters & Galaxies visible anywhere, on show.
These are an exciting couple of months in the night sky that I am certainly looking forward too, as I hope are too.
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