Celestial fireworks: See Jupiter and Saturn with a ‘Buck Moon’ lunar eclipse this Fourth of July weekend
Nature has its own fireworks in store this Independence Day weekend with a stunning full moon ornamented by two shining planets.
This upcoming holiday weekend, eyes all over the United States will be turned to the skies for various firework shows and displays. The scene will be enhanced by a stunning full moon on Friday (July 3) and Saturday (July 4) if you’re outside and looking toward the south-southeast at around 9 or 10 p.m. local time. The “Buck Moon” as July’s full moon is called will star in minor penumbral lunar eclipse overnight on Saturday and Sunday, as well.
But come Sunday night (July 5), the moon will not be alone. Rather, it will have company as two bright “stars” rendezvous with it at the weekend’s close.
Two for the show!
See the lunar eclipse?
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On Sunday evening, the moon will appear to be “topped” by the two largest planets in our solar system. The very bright Jupiter will hover to the moon’s upper right, while Saturn, about one-third as bright, will appear to stand off to the moon’s upper left.
Taken together, this trio will form a triangle in the sky. To gauge how large this triangle will appear, consider that your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures roughly 10 degrees in width. The Jupiter-moon/Saturn-moon sides will measure about 4 degrees, while Saturn and Jupiter will be separated by 6 degrees.
Binoculars and telescopes improve the view
Through a small telescope or even steadily held binoculars, the view of Jupiter should reveal all four of the famous Galilean satellites that Galileo discovered using his first crude telescope 410 years ago. Io and Ganymede will be on one side of Jupiter, while Europa and Callisto (more widely separated) will be on the other.
If you are checking out Saturn, any telescope magnifying more than 25-power should provide you with a view of its famous ring system, now tilted nearly 22 degrees toward Earth. In moderate-to-large instruments, the view is nothing short of breathtaking.
A busy weekend for the moon
The moon, on the other hand, is always an interesting object to look at. And late on Saturday evening and into the early hours of Sunday, it will undergo a faint penumbral eclipse, falling into the lighter outer shadow that Earth casts. The phenomenon will occur over the Americas, southwest Europe and Africa, according to NASA, beginning at 11:07 p.m. EDT on Saturday (0307 GMT Sunday) and ending at 1:52 a.m. EDT (0552 GMT) on Sunday.
Although the full moon is beautiful, it’s difficult to truly study when the object is so bright. The full moon often appears flat and one-dimensional, and its dazzling brightness may force you to squint through the eyepiece.
The best time to see the moon’s details in a telescope comes during the few days after first quarter or the few days before last quarter. Around those times, especially along the line separating light and dark (called the “terminator“), shadows created by craters, mountains and valleys tend to make these features stand out in bold relief against the lunar disk.
A momentous or calamitous sign?
A final note: Some may look skyward to this gathering of a full moon and these two largest planets and wonder if such a celestial sight might have any influence on our lives in any way. The short answer is: “Forget it.” No astrologer can predict from planetary or lunar alignments — or any other celestial configuration — when a specific event, good or bad, will occur on Earth.
Over the years, countless similar line-ups of the moon and planets have taken place, as these bodies are always shifting in and out of celestial liaisons. Astronomical amnesia allows us to forget the last time we saw them assembling for such a performance. We also usually fail to recall that none of the influential events attributed to the previous events ever materialized.
So, if you are blessed with a clear evening sky on Sunday, step outside any time after 10 p.m., gaze upward and enjoy the sight of a bright summer moon and its two planetary companions.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.