On August 21, a total solar eclipse will cut across the United States along a path from the Pacific Northwest to Charleston, South Carolina. The Shenandoah Valley is not within the path of totality, but about 85% of the Sun’s face will be blocked locally. That will dim the daylight very noticeably – it will be like gradually dimming the lights over a table from 600 watts to 100 watts. I will give an illustrated presentation “What is a Solar Eclipse?” in the Bethesda Theatre on Wednesday, August 16 at 1:45 PM. Then on Monday, August 21, starting at 2:00 PM in the Bethesda Theatre, there will be an opportunity to view the eclipse by three different means: eclipse glasses, a Sunspotter projection telescope, and pinhole reflection. We’ll also project NASA’s streaming coverage of the eclipse from sites along the path of totality, so that if it’s cloudy in Harrisonburg, there will still be something to see.

Our featured constellations for this post are Scorpius (the Scorpion) and Sagittarius (the Archer). You can find them above the south horizon not long after dark. Scorpius and Sagittarius are two of the twelve constellations of the zodiac, that belt around the sky through which the Sun appears to move each year and within which the planets wander. The planet Saturn is passing through Scorpius and Sagittarius this summer and is very prominent (more below). july_sky_map

The dozen or so naked-eye stars that constitute the star-pattern for Scorpius really do resemble a scorpion when you mentally “connect the dots.” The scorpion’s stinger is marked by the bluish-white star Shaula, but the brightest star in Scorpius is the red star Antares, which marks the scorpion’s heart. The name Antares has an interesting origin. The Greek name for Mars is Ares, and the word Antares is a combination of anti- and Ares. So literally Antares means “anti-Mars.” [singlepic id="1743" float="none"]

Every couple of years, the red planet Mars passes through Scorpio and quite near Antares (on the sky, not in space!). On those occasions, these two very different objects – the small neighboring planet Mars that “shines” by reflecting sunlight from its iron-rich soil and the red supergiant star Antares – occasionally look like a pair of beady red eyes in the summer sky. But not this summer: Mars and Earth are nearly on opposite sides of the Sun this month, so Mars is lost in the glare of the rising Sun. In September, Mars will emerge from the Sun’s glare and be visible in the predawn sky.

But you can find a bright planet to see this summer between Scorpius and Sagittarius: it’s the pale yellow ringed planet Saturn. You can find it to the east (left) of Antares and above the spout of the “Teapot” star pattern in Sagittarius the Archer. The Teapot is marked by eight of the brighter stars in the Archer. The drawings and photographs below show the Scorpion and the Archer, and where you can find Saturn (and Jupiter) above the southern horizon in the evening sky this month.


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--Bill Ingham