A local Summit County student smiles after looking through a telescope at the stars in our Silverthorne Overnight Outdoor Education program.

Astro Mark’s Astro Alert: What’s Up Above? July Stargazing


By “Astro” Mark Laurin

July’s arrival tells us to fully step firmly into summer. Not tentatively or with hesitation, the month of July demands our participation. Get outside, inhale a deep breath of fullness. This sensation of “full” abounds all around us. A month full of growth, full of thickness, and full of rich sensations for all of our senses. Does this call to mind a summer day? On the contrary, this describes a July summer night.

Starlight sky over an alpine lake

This fullness awaits you every night in July. The biggest fullness is the Milky Way. Last month, the Milky Way began its flanking march low on the eastern horizon, sweeping across from the north, to the east and then turning and fading in the south. Now it flows majestically as the centerpiece of our experience when we look up on a clear July night. It’s an arc of light, a river of life and passage, the core of our galaxy the Milky Way, a bejeweled background of light and dark, depth and detail. Don’t miss a moment to look up; and with curiosity, wonder, and amazement experience the universe on a comfortable summer night sky. I guarantee that you will wake up happier the next morning.

The Full Buck Supermoon, July 3rd

What makes this full Moon worthy of note and excitement, is the first of the four supermoons coming to you this summer. Time to get out and check out the lunar disk.

But, what is a Buck Moon? The name Buck Moon refers to the time of year when the antlers of male deer are in full-growth mode according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. For the Ojibwe nation it is the Blueberry Moon, for the Oneida nation it is the String Bean Moon, and for the Catawba it is the Thunderstorm Moon.

The simplest way to explain a supermoon is to say it occurs when the moon is both in the full moon phase, and at its closest point to Earth in its elliptical orbit. Here are the numbers: on the 3rd, the Moon’s distance from the Earth is 224,895 miles. For comparison, the average Moon to Earth distance is 238,000 miles. It is estimated this supermoon will be approximately 30% brighter and we’ll see the lunar disk at about 14% larger. On the evening of the 3rd, the Moon will rise above the eastern horizon in full radiance well before the Sun sets over the western horizon. It’s an unusual sensation, one not to be missed.

The Rise of Scorpius, The entire month of July

Scorpius, The slayer of Orion, emerges in fullness this month to dominate the southern end of the Milky Way. Few constellations represent their name better than Scorpius. This is what is called an asterism. Oh, it’s okay if you call it Scorpio. The Earth’s orbit and tilt is what allows us to partake in this constellation that calls the Southern celestial hemisphere home.

As an ancient constellation, Scorpius is noted in script, which predates Ptolemy’s identifying it in the 2nd century as one of the 48 “original ” constellations (today, there are 88 constellations). For the Polynesian cultures of the southern hemisphere Scorpius is “the brooded swan” (Javanese), and the “Big Fish Hook of Maui” (Hawaiian). The Greeks mythologies involving Scorpius are many and varied. The short story is Artemis (or the Earth) sent the scorpion to slay Orion. This was because Orion, the Hunter, boasted to her and her mother that he would kill any wild beast on Earth. Angered by this, Artemis and Leto sent a scorpion to kill Orion. A battle ensued and the melee caught the attention of Zeus who ended it by placing each of them on opposite sides of the heavens. To this day the scorpion still chases Orion, but never catches him since it is only after Orion sets in the west that Scorpius rises in the east.

Scorpius is easy to find. Look due south any time of the night, or you can just follow the Milky Way across the sky from the north to the southern horizon. Look just above the horizon to find the constellation. As night progresses Scorpius will “tip” to the west (left) revealing the entire asterism; head, body, stinger, and barb.

Venus Takes Her Final and Brightest Bow, July 9th

Venus, we’ve been observing her over the last few months impressed by the planet’s dazzling brilliance in the western sky. It was in May that Venus reached its highest point in the night sky, for us residing in the northern hemisphere it was a whopping peak altitude of 38 degrees; an unheard of rise in the night sky for an inferior planet.

If Venus wasn’t already extremely bright enough. On the 9th, Venus will reach a magnitude of -4.5 (compared to, a full Moon is magnitude -12.7, the magnitude of the Sun is -26.74). Looking west after sunset, see for yourself and with your own eyes.

Viewed through stable binoculars or a telescope, Venus is a bright brilliant white color orb. With further inspection, you’ll notice that Venus is currently in a crescent phase, similar to a crescent Moon. The light portion is referred to as the crescent Venus. In fact, both Venus and Mercury exhibit the full range of Moon-like phases when seen through a telescope. This is because both of them are inferior planets, meaning their orbits are between the Earth and the Sun.

Venus reaches its brightest when it is still a crescent – with less than half of its disk illuminated. This is because during its crescent phases it is much closer to Earth.

Sadly, as with youth and beauty, Venus will continue to fade in both altitude and magnitude on her path to greatest elongation west. So join me in a standing ovation of appreciation and to bid a fond farewell to our goddess of love, prosperity, and victory. It’s been our pleasure.

Group Hug: Venus, Mars, Mercury, Regulus, and a Crescent Moon, July 20th

All together now, bring it in tight. Who doesn’t love a big ‘ol hug? The 20th is your date with your planetary pals for some group bonding after sunset. Meaning, enjoy the sunset and then observe Venus come into view while shafts of sunlight rise up from below the horizon. The brightest object on the western horizon is the planet Venus. It’s easy to spot. Next to come into view is the crescent Moon. Look up and a bit east (right) of Venus to find it. Use Venus and the Moon as guide posts. Mars is located the width of your pinky finger from the left edge (limb) of the Moon, slightly brightened by Earth Glow. It’s an eye test to see. Concentration on the small patch of sky to the left of the crescent Moon. Look for a dot with a red / orange hue. It will stand out from most of the background stars that appear white. To view Mercury, you gotta be fast. Start with Venus and look northwest (right), the width of three fingers and bend your wrist up, fully extend your arm pointing upward, and pointing fingers next to Venus. Mercury will stand out against the pin pricks of faint white stars. It is a distinct slate gray, grayish-brown color. Be on your toes and look for Mercury right after sunset in the same location of the sunset.

Dueling Meteor Showers, July 30th

Do you remember the movie Deliverance? Dueling banjos and dueling meteor showers? Maybe it’s not as far-fetched as you think. Want to increase your chances of catching a meteor streaking across our night sky? Then, circle July 30th on your calendar now because both the Southern Delta Aquariid meteor shower and the Alpha Capricornid meteor shower reach their peaks that night. Oh, did I mention that the showers start when the Sun goes down? Anticipate never a dull moment.

The lesser known Delta Aquarids is the first of the summer’s annual meteor showers. It starts on July 18, and will reach its peak on the 30th. On that night, it’s estimated you’ll see 25 – 30 meteors an hour. Around 10 pm, the shower’s radiant point will rise above the east-southeast horizon with the constellation Aquarius.

Next, from our location 40 degrees north, the Alpha Capricornid meteor shower is visible all night. Look to the southeastern horizon after sunset, when the skies have darkened. The radiant point for this shower will be just to the left (southwest) of the radiant point of the Delta Aquarids. Ah, now you get it; just like our dueling banjos, our duel meteor showers are sitting side-by-side, mimicking one another. Sad to say, there is “twang” in our duet. A waxing gibbous Moon will rise at sunset in the southeast and cross right in front of both each shower’s radiant points. This will wash out the faint meteors. Don’t despair, keep your head up, you’ll see plenty of flares and streaks to fill your soul.

Truly, the word “full” is an apt one to describe stargazing in July. The full glory of the Milky Way is on full display; the full clarity and prominence of the Scorpius constellation dominating the southern horizon’s night skyline; and the full-on dueling meteor showers; full speed and double-barreling towards you. So, get heavy into stargazing this July. Gather your posse, find a dark location, give your eyes at least 20-minutes to adjust to the darkness, bring binoculars, and settle in for the “full” pleasure and joy of looking up at our wonderful night sky.

Clear skies to you!