Status Report

The Sky This Week 1-8 Aug 2003

By SpaceRef Editor
August 2, 2003
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The waxing Moon drifts through the southern skies this week, with First Quarter occurring on the 5th at 3:28 am Eastern daylight Time. Look for Luna’s thickening crescent a few degrees above the blue-tinted star Spica on the evening of the 3rd. On the 6th her gibbous form graces the head of the constellation of Scorpius, four degrees northwest of the ruddy star Antares. On the 8th, look for her among the stars of the ìteapotî of Sagittarius.

August 1st marks the traditional time of mid-summer, when people tend to flee the heat of the cities to enjoy the relative cool of mountains and shore. This day is a long-forgotten astronomical marker as well, one of the traditional days when serfs paid their rent to their gentry landlords. These days, spaced at the mid-point of the astronomical seasons, are known as ìcross quarterî days, and this particular one was known as Lammas. Although we don’t observe Lammas much anymore, we still seem to make a big deal out of Groundhog Day and Halloween, so cross-quarter days still have some influence in our lives.

The red planet Mars is now rising at around 10:00 pm, and each night now brings him up about 5 minutes earlier. He is also steadily brightening as the gap between his rusty shores and ours closes by half a million kilometers a day. By the week’s end he will shine at magnitude
-2.5, which is about as bright as Jupiter ever gets. With Venus passing on the far side of the Sun, Mars becomes the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. If you’re out at around midnight, you will have no trouble finding his rust-hued glow dominating the southeast horizon. For telescopic observers, the apparent size of his disk is now larger than it has been since 1988, and it is still growing. By the month’s end it will be just over 25 arcseconds across. However, this is still a very small size compared to many other celestial sights. It’s about half of Jupiter’s apparent diameter, or about half the size of a typical lunar crater like Copernicus. Trying to glean detail from this tiny orb requires good optics and a very steady atmosphere, but when the air quiets down for a precious few seconds the trained eye can see a wealth of tiny splotches and mottlings overlying the pink-hued plains. Patience is the key, and those who wait for Mars to reveal its secrets will be rewarded for their efforts.

The early morning sky now hosts another planet in the form of cream-colored Saturn. The ringed planet is fresh from last year’s ideal apparition, and he’ll be almost as good this time around. His rings are still close to their widest angle of presentation, and his position in the ìfeetî of Gemini is almost as ideal as his location last winter. He’s now high enough in the east by 5:00 am to have a good look before twilight starts to get too bright.

SpaceRef staff editor.