Tonight’s fireworks will explode against the stage of the sky. Many of us will be out to enjoy the show as we celebrate Independence Day. While you’re waiting for everything to begin, why not take in some celestial sights? If you can think to bring binoculars, do. There’s a beautiful crescent moon low in the west at dusk you won’t want to miss. Binoculars will better show the full outline of the moon, the part that looks all faint and smoky. It’s still night over that part of the moon, but light reflected from the Earth called earthlight faintly illuminates the landscape like a nightlight in a child’s bedroom at night.
From the moon, look way up high to your upper left and you’ll see a single bright, orangish-red star. That’s Arcturus (ark-TURR-us) in Boötes the Herdsman constellation. You won’t see much of Boötes in bright twilight but Arcturus will burn a hole in the sky. It’s the fourth brightest star and rather close to Earth at 37 light years. The light you see from it tonight left 37 years ago in 1982 when the movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial was released.
To the right of Arcturus and high in northwestern sky you can’t miss the Big Dipper, a favorite of kids and parents alike.
The southern sky — the southeast in particular — is where all the bright planets are currently hanging out. Face that way and the first thing you’ll see is Jupiter — a single bright bomb of a thing. Like a firework that could explode the next second. Focus those binoculars on the brightest planet in bright twilight and should be able to make out a disk, a shape a star never shows. You’ll also see three and possibly four moons nestled very close to the planet in a line tonight: Callisto and Europa on the left and Ganymede on the right. Io is very close to the right of planet but may be lost in its glare.
To the right of Jupiter is Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius the Scorpion. But if you look three fists held at arm’s length down to the lower left of the planet, you’ll see another planet — Saturn. These two will dominate the southern sky all summer long.
Now face east, and look about halfway up to see three bright stars that form a huge triangle. The stars are in order of brightness are Vega, Altair and Deneb. Vega is the real standout, a diamond-like spark of light and 5th brightest star of the night. It part of the constellation Lyra the Harp. Meanwhile, Deneb heads up Cygnus the Swan (better known as the Northern Cross) and Altair calls Aquila the Eagle home.
How easy to look up and appreciate a bit of the sky on a July night. But now it’s time for me to get out the way so you can enjoy the real reason you’ll be out tonight — to watch stuff blow up! Happy 4th of July!