Although Mars reached opposition and peak visibility early this morning (officially at 1 a.m. EDT), it appears equally as good tonight. The Red Planet appears low in the southeast as darkness falls and grows more prominent as the evening wears on and it climbs higher. By 1 a.m. local daylight time, it stands about 25° high in the south against the backdrop of stars in southwestern Capricornus. The world shines at magnitude –2.8, brighter than it has been in 15 years. When viewed through a telescope, the planet’s ocher-colored disk spans 24.28″, though you likely won’t see much surface detail because a global dust storm continues to choke the martian atmosphere.
Full Moon arrives at 4:20 p.m. EDT, and it dominates the sky all night. Our satellite appears Full when it lies opposite the Sun in our sky, just as Mars does, so you might expect the two to appear close to each other. You’d be right: The Full Moon lies 7° north of the Red Planet. Skywatchers in the Eastern Hemisphere get a bonus tonight as the Moon plunges through Earth’s shadow. Observers across most of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia will see a total lunar eclipse. Totality runs from 19h30m to 21h13m UT (that’s before dawn on the 28th for people in eastern Asia and Australia). The 103 minutes of totality make this the longest lunar eclipse since 2000 — and the longest of the 21st century.
Saturday, July 28
Asteroid 4 Vesta should be an easy target through binoculars or a telescope this weekend as the bright Moon moves away from the minor planet’s home in southern Ophiuchus. With binoculars, start at magnitude 2.4 Eta (η) Ophiuchi and then drop south one field to magnitude 4.4 Xi (ξ) Oph. This evening, magnitude 6.3 Vesta lies 1.7° southeast of Xi.
Sunday, July 29
The Big Dipper’s familiar shape appears halfway up the northwestern sky as darkness falls. One of the summer sky’s finest binocular double stars marks the bend of the Dipper’s handle. Mizar shines at 2nd magnitude, some six times brighter than its 4th-magnitude companion, Alcor. Even though these two are not physically related, they make a fine sight through binoculars. (People with good eyesight often can split the pair without optical aid.) A small telescope reveals Mizar itself as double — and these components do orbit each other.
Monday, July 30
The Southern Delta Aquariid meteor shower peaks this morning. The nearly Full Moon remains in the sky all night, however, cutting the number of meteors visible significantly. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the brightest “shooting stars.” All of the shower meteors appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Aquarius the Water-bearer.