America celebrates its independence today. My independent minded neighbors began their festivities days ago, setting off firecrackers and bottle rockets till past midnight. But the big fireworks happens tonight. Most cities start blasting shells into the air around 10 o’clock, about an hour after sundown.
If you’re one of the millions of people who’ll be there, take a look around the sky before the show begins and after you get back home. With clear skies, you can take the opportunity to show your kids and friends what’s up.
Right now, we can see six planets (Earth included) in the evening sky starting at dusk with Venus and Mercury low in the northwest and Jupiter and Saturn in the south. All are visible during twilight though Mercury departs by 10 and Venus by 11. So if you have an open view to the west, Venus will be obvious to the naked eye and Mercury in a pair of binoculars before the fireworks begin.
Turning your gaze to the south, Jupiter’s will stand out by 9:30-10 p.m. local time gleaming in the southwest. The giant planet forms an appropriately giant triangle, nicknamed the “Jupiter Triangle” with bright Spica to its right and Arcturus above. Once it gets a little darker, say from 10:15 on, look for Saturn low in the southeastern sky.
Other stars shine bright and steady as the fireworks flare and fade. Over in the east about midway up in the sky, look for another triangle led by brilliant Vega, called the Summer Triangle. There’s also the red luminary Antares, which shines between Saturn and Jupiter. Keep an eye on this one. Like its counterpart Betelgeuse in the winter sky, Antares is a red supergiant star near the end of its life. One day in the not too distant future it will explode as a supernova and shine as brightly as a half-moon.
By the time you’ve arrived home, around 11 o’clock, Mars peeps over the southeastern horizon trailing Saturn. It’s identical in brilliance to Jupiter and salmon-colored. Not red? Normally, it is but this isn’t a normal year. A huge, planet-girdling dust storm has turned the planet’s color from rusty or pinkish red to a pale orange!
If you out on the wide-open prairie or big lake it’s possible to see four planets — Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars — simultaneously just before 11 o’clock. You’ll have to look way down to the northwest horizon to spot Venus and just above the southeastern horizon for Mars.
Let’s see. That leaves just two planets, Uranus and Neptune. They don’t come up till late and require binoculars. We’ll touch on how to see them later this summer. Happy 4th!