Sights and Shadows

The eclipse season is upon us and this time there are three!

Last summer, it was all U.S. They even called that total solar eclipse “The Great American Eclipse.” And it was fantastic. It was magical. It was life changing.

This year, the main event is a lunar eclipse. The Full Moon in Aquarius on July 27th has the sun and moon nearly exactly aligning with the Lunar Nodes. This has the moon moving through the center of the Earth’s shadow and resulting in totality longer than almost ever! That is also why there is room for three eclipses. Two weeks before and after, we have partial solar eclipses, but ones that just skim the far south and far north regions of the globe.

If you were to look at the visibility maps for all three eclipses, you would think that the U.S. was being avoided on purpose. All three stay clear of our shores.

However, before you feel left out, know that right now is some of the best sights in the sky regardless where you live…with the possible exception of the very far north and very far south.

The visible planets are optimally viewed when their apparent position is furtherest from the sun. This is actually happening with ALL FIVE VISIBLE PLANETS over a short time!

With the inner planets, we have what is called maximum elongation. Both Mercury and Venus are closer to the sun than us. That means they always appear somewhat near the sun. And since the sun’s light drowns out all others, we can only seem Mercury and Venus shortly after sunset or before sunrise depending on which side of the sun they are on.

Maximum elongation has Mercury or Venus appearing furthest from the sun and thus highest in the dusk or dawn sky. Well, over the next 4 weeks, both Mercury and Venus will hit their maximum eastern elongation, which makes them easiest to see in the early evening sky. In fact, I have been enjoying the sight of them for a while now. Each night, either just before or shortly after sunset, I’ve been going up to the roof for some viewing. One night, I saw Mercury before I even realized he was visible. Last night, Mercury was quite high in the darkening sky…visible between the clouds rolling through.

Mercury reaches greatest elongation on July 11th. Venus reaches greatest elongation on August 17th. You don’t have to wait until then. Get out once it just starts getting dark and look WNW and you’ll surely see Venus. If it’s getting dark, but not yet dark enough to see many stars, move your eyes from Venus toward the spot where the sun set, and you just might catch Mercury. It’s about timing as much as anything else.

With the outer planets, we don’t speak of elongation, we speak of opposition. Since their orbits are larger than ours, we, once each year, pass directly in between an outer planet and the sun. Jupiter opposition happened in early May (the 8th); Saturn opposition happened on June 27th; and Mars opposition happens on July 26th. Each is closest and brightest at that time.

Jupiter and Saturn are now above the horizon at dusk. When you find Venus to the west, turn toward the south and then to the east. You’ll see Jupiter in the SSE sky not too high (depending on where you are on earth). Moving further east with your eyes, you’ll eventually see Saturn (ESE), which is not much brighter than the brighter stars.

If you are out a few hours later, you’ll catch Mars. He currently rises around 10 pm here in Austin, but will rise earlier and earlier each day. At opposition in less than 3 weeks, he’ll rise at sunset, and after that, he’ll rise before sunset.

Mars, let me tell you, is brighter than I ever remember seeing. They say this opposition puts Earth and Mars closer than they’ve been in 15 years. I haven’t seen Mars in the evening, but I have seen Mars in the early dawn…and even though the sky was already getting light, it shined brightly in the southern sky.

The same day as Mercury’s greatest elongation is Pluto opposition. This cannot be seen with the unaided eye, but what is interesting about this event is that from Pluto, Earth will transit the face of the sun. Given the distances involved, this has to be an extremely rare event requiring perfect alignment!

Summer, with its mild nighttime temperatures, is a good time to enjoy the night sky. This summer is the best I’ve ever seen, so do look up if you find yourself out there.

One Astrological note I will share here: I have been enjoying seeing how the Trine between Jupiter and Neptune is affecting people. Just about every person I’ve read for of late is feeling it. It is not a bad thing…at all…but it does get the juices flowing in a way that one cannot miss.

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