July Skies

Ok its going to be hard to beat the transit of Venus last month but there are things in the sky to look at in July on those rare nights with no moon or clouds. We have had one night in the past week with nice clear skies but a wasp nest the size of a basketball under the roof tracks kept me from observing. Now the wasps are gone and its raining!

For you early birds, Venus and Jupiter can be seen close together in the east just before sunrise most of the month. Venus is below Jupiter. Just to the right of Venus is the bright star Adebaran adding its glow to the group. Just above Jupiter you will see the Pleiades star cluster as it makes its slow exit from the night sky until the winter. Only July 15th a thin crescent Moon joins the party. Check this link for more details.

In the early evening you may be able to spot Saturn and Mars as they are setting in the southwestern sky. Look almost overhead as the sun sets and you will see three of the brightest stars in the summer sky – Altair, Vega and Deneb. They make up the ‘Summer Triangle’ and mark the prominent constellations of Aquila, Lyra and Cygnus.

On clear dark nights you will see the starry river of the Milky Way spanning the sky from north to the south. You are seeing thousands of starts but just a tiny fraction of the approximately 400 billion stars that make up our galactic home. Speaking of dark skies be sure the check out the PBS special “The City Dark” this month which chronicles the problems of light pollution and its effect on astronomy and our health in general. Click this link for details. While driving back from seeing “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee last night I was struck by the rapid creep of over bright lights between Sylva and BMP especially at the recently rebuilt BP station near exit 85. Also disappointing are the backyard mercury vapor lights so commonly found in our part of rural Western North Carolina. Your local power companies (Duke and Progress) provide these as a ‘service’ to customers who wrongly believe they reduce crime (numerous studies have shown just the opposite). You can see dozens of them dotting the mountainside homes below the Parkway where they burn all night regardless if anyone is home or not. We can all do our part to reduce light pollution and keep Balsam mountain skies dark by turning outdoor lights off at night and using motion sensors if you need to light up your driveway when you leave or return. For those with political connections in Jackson County perhaps we can introduce outdoor lighting guidelines for homes and business as many communities have done. Check out the International Dark Sky Association website for more information.

Until next month

Jim Stratigos – Resident Astronomer

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