On Independence Day, the same scene will be repeated around the country. Crowds will gather as twilight deepens, awaiting darkness and the start of the fireworks. It’s the annual occasion when the maximum number of people are gazing idly up at the sky. This year it brings a special opportunity.
In most places, figure enough darkness will have fallen for the fireworks to start at around 9:30, though some communities wait until 10. Either way, you can do some fascinating sky watching beginning at around 9:15, if it’s clear. And if it’s cloudy, use these timings on any clear night in the weeks to come!!
Start by looking in the direction of the sunset, meaning west or a bit north of west.
Venus will instantly grab your attention. It’s the brightest thing in the sky at that time. Point it out to everyone you’re with. You can even tell them that its brightness is due to its solid overcast clouds made of weird shiny drops of sulphuric acid. Discover 10 Cool Things About Venus!
But now let’s get serious.
If you’re at a venue with a clear unblocked view all the way down to the northwestern horizon, look to the lower right of Venus. If you see any star there, much closer to the horizon, you’ve found Mercury. This is cool all by itself, because it’s sometimes called an “elusive planet,” and now here it is, not difficult to spot at all.
Don’t be insecure about your observation. Any reasonably bright “star” to the lower right of Venus is Mercury because there’s nothing else there.
Now face Venus again while raising your left arm so that it points straight out and about a third of the way up the southern sky. Bingo, there’s the second brightest star in the heavens. This is Jupiter. If you’ve brought binoculars with you, hold them steady and look for Jupiter’s four little moons.
Next Step: look at the sky opposite to Venus, meaning the southeast. There’s only one bright star in that direction and it’s about the same height that Venus is. This is Saturn. But you need a telescope and at least 30 x magnification to see its famous rings.
Another way to find Saturn is to look far leftward from Jupiter until you come across a bright orange star, which is the famous Antares, the alpha star of Scorpius. Then keep going further left to the only other star of similar brightness — the white-ish Saturn. It’s roughly the same brightness as Antares, and nothing else is bright in that part of the sky, the low eastern heavens.
In the 9:15 to 9:30 p.m. time frame, you can show your companions Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn. Not a bad haul. If you feel incomplete because you only observed four of the five classic bright planets, simply look in the direction of Saturn after 11 p.m. and now you’ve snagged Mars.
The rest if the night offers that brilliant luminary which, during those long hours, is the new “brightest star in all the sky.” And it’s orange. Now you’ve previewed Mars, which will light up the sky all summer.
So what’s there to do before the fireworks begin? Or any night in July? Plenty!