When I first started losing sleep to enjoy the evening canvas, there were more than a few occasions where I thought I was witnessing my first UFO. If you consider yourself a novice to sky gazing, meaning you can't remember the last time you spent more than a minute or two wishing on a star, I'll have you know how easy it is to make the same mistake.
In fact, sightings of the planet Jupiter, the International Space Station and travelling satellites make up nearly 75 percent of UFO reports during certain times of the year, and I suspect this week's unique configuration of planets will offer many opportunities for the newbie skywatcher to cry wolf.
So for my first story on the evening sky, I thought I would share my own mistakes with the reader so that you can enjoy the show without worrying about alien abductions or being overpowered by strange craft. Here's what's happening this weekend on the real life planetarium that is worth noting.
The wee hours of Saturday morning offers an eye-popping surprise with a waning full moon to the south and Jupiter hanging loose near the 5 o'clock mark. This configuration is so stunning that the sight of these two orbs so close together might make you squint against the brightness, but once your eyes get adjusted to the stark contrast between the moon and sky, see if you can locate all four of Jupiter's four Galilean moons.
I guarantee that it will be rare treat worth staying up for and here's why: Jupiter's moons are currently going through what's known as a series of occultations and eclipses-- meaning they're moving around like a game of Pong, so it’s neat to get a glimpse of them when they're in close proximity to one another.
If you were able to find those moons and you want to continue with the hunt, Monday you will have a prime opportunity because Titan, Saturn's largest moon can be found counting about four rings to Saturn's east. Of course you'll need to get your hands on a small telescope, and an identification guide wouldn't hurt either. I found one in the July issue of Sky & Telescope on page 47, but you'll need to find your own copy if you aren't able to find one online.
If the sky continues to keep it's clear complexion in the Seattle area, The International Space Station (ISS) can be seen entering the sky at least twice every evening into the week, and if you've never waited for its approach you're missing one of my favorite G-rated cheap thrills.
On Saturday it approaches from the SW at about 9:40 and meanders towards the NE for a total of five or six minutes, depending on where you're standing. Customizable sky charts and satellite itineraries are easily found and downloadable for free on the heavens-above website http://www.heavens-above.com/ so if you haven't found your own favorite astronomy site, check it out. While nothing too fancy, it is user friendly and easy on the virtual memory.
Before the sun comes up, follow the progress of planet Venus as she travels away from a less dazzling Mars, and this week both planets can be found smack dab between two of summer's celebrity star clusters, the Pleiades and their nemesis the Hyades. Look for the brightest star at the head of the constellation Taurus and you'll be looking at one of the brightest stars in the sky. If you can find the bull's eye readily, first try locating Orion, then look at the three stars of the belt from left to right. Do you see the twinkling sun at the top of the line? That's our friend Alde.
Worth noting is that since the Earth is moving at its slowest orbital speed right now, summer is the longest season in the northern hemisphere. So while the nights are short, they are also clear more frequently than in winter and that offers us the best opportunities for sightings. Remember, it's not quantity, but quality that counts, and a cloudless night is what you need for optimal nighttime viewing.
As far as those UFOs go, I will tell you that from first hand experience that the opportunity to witness the unexpected increases dramatically when your peepers are fixed on the evening sky, from my own experience. But that is a subject that will be covered in future articles, so stay turned.
But if you can't make it out this weekend, check back for new stories on upcoming skywatching opportunities this summer and I'll try and find something special enough to stumble out of bed in the middle of the night for. And if you do see something that isn't on your sky chart, don't say I didn't warn you.
Chris Herget is a guest blogger with Phantoms and Monsters and is the premiere paranormal reporter for the examiner.com in Seattle. You can contact Chris directly at firstname.lastname@example.org