Looking Up column: Worlds to see on a summer night
Look to the southeast this weekend, as soon as it gets dark, for a look at other worlds.
The huge ball of light shining in your face first commands your attention. This is hopefully not a streetlight, or someone shining a flash light at you. Ruling either of these out, what you are seeing is the moon.
The moon, almost full (it reaches full phase on Monday, Aug. 3) will be situated by two more bright lights, star-like but much closer than the stars. The most brilliant point of light is at right, the planet Jupiter. At left is the planet Saturn, eight degrees away.
On Saturday night, Aug. 1, the moon will make a nice triangle with them, a little lower than an imagined line connecting these planets. The moon will be less than three degrees below Jupiter.
To picture the span of three degrees, stretch your arm towards the sky and point two fingers, held tightly together; the fingers span about three degrees. A clenched fist held this way covers about 10 degrees on the sky. The moon is about one-half degree.
Sunday night, the moon is over to the left, making another triangle with Saturn and Jupiter. Monday night, the full moon makes almost a straight line with Saturn and Jupiter.
Imagine the distances. The moon on Aug. 1 will be close to 242,177 miles away.
Jupiter is currently about 388,555,273 miles away.
Saturn is about 837,717,732 miles from Earth.
Though so far away by our odometer experience, they shine so bright thanks to being so large.
Even a small telescope will reveal the rings around Saturn and the four bright moons of Jupiter.
These planets are highest in the south at around midnight.
You are staring right at yet another famous world when you face Saturn and Jupiter at this time. Pluto.
Pluto is very far: about 3.07 billion miles. Only two-thirds the size of the moon, the “dwarf planet” is very faint but yet within reach of telescopes of about 10” or larger aperture.
Don’t even think of looking for this dim speck with the moon in the sky.
Pluto is positioned close to half way between Saturn and Jupiter, slightly below the imagined straight line between them. On Aug. 1, the moon is about three degrees from Pluto as well.
These planets are currently passing through the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, and are left of the familiar star pattern of the “Teapot” (part of Sagittarius).
Immediately west of the Teapot is the exact center of the Milky Way Galaxy. A few nights after the full moon, from a rural area, look this way for the glorious, hazy, billowing Milky Way Band. You are literally looking towards billions of stars and probably trillions of planets unseen, probably most with their own moons, worlds without number we can easily grasp.
The center of our grand spiral galaxy we call home is about 25,000 light-years from Earth. Each light-year, the distance light travels in a year, is approximately 5.88 trillion miles. The galaxy center is about 147 trillion miles away.
Our minds have a hard time visualizing what that means. Think of it this way: If you started counting one second at a time, it would take 4,661,339 years to finish.
Of course we know this is just the beginning in a very, very vast Universe.
For our eyes alone on a clear, warm summer night perhaps accompanied by the dance of lightning bugs and symphony of crickets and peep toads sharing our world, take a look southeast for a trio of marvelous shiny worlds, gateway to an infinite parade of worlds beyond.
Keep looking up at the sky!
Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.