This is the Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, July 8th and 9th, written by Joe Slomka.
The Sun sets at 8:35 PM; night falls at 10:47. Dawn begins at 3:13 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 5:25.
The Moon inhabits Virgo on both nights. Monday’s 7-day-old crescent blazes with minus 9th magnitude, appears about 45% percent lit and is about 35º high in the southwest. It is best observed at 6:33 PM and sets at 12:43 AM. Tuesday’s First Quarter Moon is even brighter, and higher. It is best seen at 7:22 PM and sets at 1:11 AM.
Jupiter is the next brightest object, still in the constellation Ophiuchus. It shines with minus 2nd magnitude, is 45 arc-seconds in size, but only 21º high. It is best spotted at about 10:48 PM and sets at 3:22 AM. Tuesday, the Great Red Spot, a giant storm on Jupiter, is telescopically visible at 12:32 AM, as well as the Jovian Moon Io beginning to travel across the planet’s face at 9:02 PM.
Saturn reaches Opposition on Tuesday, which means it is at is best for examination. In fact, July is the best month of the year for studying Saturn and its rings. The planet shines with zero magnitude and is a decent size – 18 arc-seconds. But the planet, which rises at 8:27 PM, is only 23º high in the southeast at 1:02 AM. Saturn sets shortly after sunrise.
Mars and Mercury are quite low in the southwestern constellation of Cancer. The Red Planet shines with 1st magnitude and is almost at its dimmest ever. Mercury beams with second magnitude but only 13% lit. Both are very low and set about 9:30 PM. An unobstructed western horizon is necessary for the observer to have a last chance before Mars goes behind the Sun and Mercury travels in front of the Sun.
Nightfall brings the opportunity to see the Dwarf Planet 1Ceres. This former asteroid lies in Libra, near the star Graffias. Ceres glows with 8th magnitude and is a tiny 0.6 arc-seconds in size. Finder charts are required and are available from various astronomy websites.
By Midnight, Neptune makes its presence in Aquarius. The blue-green planet rises at 11:21 PM and is best at 5:07 AM. Although a giant gas planet, it appears quite tiny. Finder charts are helpful in locating it. Uranus makes its appearance at 1:11 AM in Aries. It is brighter at 5th magnitude and slightly larger than Neptune. By Dawn, it is 21º high in the southeast and should be observed before the sky gets too bright.
Both Vesta and Ceres are Roman versions of Greek goddesses.
Vesta is the goddess of the hearth. Roman homes had hearths for cooking and heat; in fact, the hearth was her shrine. Romans said daily prayers to her in thanksgiving for food and heat. The household fire must never go out. Should the fire be extinguished, a new fire could only be started from another holy hearth or Vesta’s temple fire. At the temple, six Vestal Virgins, unmarried women, tended to the sacred fire day and night. They enjoyed great esteem and were granted important privileges. Vestalia was a religious festival when the Vestal Virgins would clean the temple and relight the flame with a magnifying glass. Special cakes were baked and offered to Vesta.