What’s up in the night sky for July

NASA space craft New Horizons will reach Pluto this month, sending images back to earth

July 2015 is especially important as it is the month the New Horizons Mission arrives at Pluto. Throughout last month, New Horizons has been scanning the “road ahead” looking for rocks and ice that might damage the spacecraft. The amazing new images of Pluto are sharper than the best that can be made from earth.

The spacecraft will send us images July 12, just two days before the day of closest approach. NASA says: “This is a fail-safe or contingency sample, much like the bag of rocks Neil Armstrong scooped up in his first four minutes on the moon to make sure he wouldn’t come back empty-handed.”

On this same day many from Victoria will have made the easy drive to Bamfield, the location of the Music by the Sea Festival. Bamfield is also the symbolic location of Pluto on our very own Vancouver Island “Orrery” (solar system model) and is a special place to be as NASA reaches Pluto.

The last concert (#10) on the Sunday evening of  July 12 at 8:15 p.m. features a wonderful pre-concert “Fanfare”. We implored maestro Chris Donison to make this a greeting to Pluto by the people of Vancouver Island, and indirectly, by everyone on planet earth. His reasonable response was that he had enough of a challenge ensuring his Music-by-the-Sea audience, at the top of the bluffs at Bamfield, could hear the horns from the boats out in the harbour. He decided he would leave the Pluto symbolism to we astronomers. So if you cannot be in Bamfield, imagine the Bamfield “Music-by-the-Sea” horns sending a greeting to Pluto and smile.

Then on July 14, the day of closest approach, the spacecraft will be incommunicado, busy executing a pre-programmed sequence of observations. At 6 p.m. on July 14 the spacecraft will phone home to let the team know it all worked. It will then begin to return encounter images and other data, starting early in the morning of July 15.

If you haven’t been under a dark sky for a while, July’s a great month to make a dark sky getaway. Cattle Point Star Park at night has the dark conditions necessary to show off the summer skies. This is the purpose of our star park – to help you understand the importance of the international Dark Sky movement to all life on the planet.

In the south across to Port Angeles, you’ll see the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius separated by the core of our Milky Way galaxy.

The brightest stars in Sagittarius look just like a teapot, complete with a nearby group of stars resembling a teaspoon. The centre of our galaxy looks like hot steam spewing from the teapot’s spout. Imagine Pluto just above the teapot.

Even with a pair of binoculars, you’ll find Milky Way star clusters and knots of nebulae. Just aim at the brighter, clumpy areas. You will find Pluto near Sagittarius this month.  Install “Sky Map Pro” on your SmartPhone to see exactly where Pluto and the teapot are. Oak Bay grandparents are encouraged to get their grandkids to help them see the teapot. Even if they live away from Oak Bay, they can guide you over FaceTime or Skype.

You’ll need a medium-sized telescope and some experience, patience and a little weather luck to actually see Pluto.

But using your iPhone or a telescope, or simply your imagination, do look in the direction of the dwarf planet and imagine NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft approaching and flying by it on July 14.

For the more experienced Oak Bay amateur astronomers: Use binoculars to look for the globular cluster M22 just above and to the left of the teapot’s lid. It’s composed of about 83,000 stars and fills as much sky as the moon. M8, the Lagoon Nebula, is a giant star-forming interstellar cloud faintly visible to the naked eye from mid-northern latitudes. Seen with binoculars, it appears as an oval cloudlike patch with a core. A star cluster appears superimposed on it, and with a telescope you’ll see a dark patch bisecting the two lobes. Like many nebulae, it appears pink in time-exposure colour photos but is grey to the eye peering through binoculars or a telescope. You will need a telescope to see B86, a pretty dark nebula just above the teapot’s spout. It’s a shock to see a tiny patch so dark that the Milky Way is obscured.

You can learn more about the New Horizons and Dawn missions and all of NASA’s missions at www.nasa.gov.

Dark Skies to all friends of Cattle Point Star Park.

Summary is from the transcript of “What’s Up In July 2015” by NASA announcer and astronomer Jane Houston Jones with specific permission for localization to Cattle Point Urban Star Park and the Oak Bay News.

Bill Smith and the RASCals of Cattle Point are volunteers at Cattle Point Dark Sky Urban Star Park.